Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Food Waste: Plan Ahead, Buy What You Need

Food waste is a big topic of late.  39% of Americans felt the most green-guilt about wasting food, versus 27% for wasting water or 21% for not recycling*.  Perhaps it is because of the media coverage and awareness of the 1.1 billion starving people in the world.  Perhaps it is because they get mad at the food and so themselves.  Whatever the reason, fighting food waste as a cause is gaining support, its banner being picked up by companies, coalitions, communities, and consumers.  There are many places between farm and table where food becomes wasted, but I want to talk about how someone can prevent food waste from the consumer point-of-view.  
*Per Shelton Group survey; I want to know why 21% of people weren't recycling!

I plan to share tips, ideas, and methods of how consumers can prevent food waste in their daily lives.  I will also be discussing technology, innovations, markets, and community actions that can help you prevent throwing away food-shaped money.  To start, I want to go over this Consumer's Guide to Preventing Food Waste.

Preventing Food Waste:  The Consumer's Guide
Now, I'm going to go over all the steps in this nifty chart for what you, as a consumer, need to be considering.  Mostly, I want to give a layout on how I operate (though I still have food fall through the cracks!), and offer ideas to help you modify your routine into a workable, sustainable fight against food waste.

Today, I will go over "Planning Ahead" and "Buying What You Need."  Bear with me any of you warehouse or couponing people, because this is the account of one person in a small townhome, so I physically can't stock 4 boxes of Wheat Thins.

Plan Ahead:
"What's for dinner?"
Unless you have a hotdish called "Ummm", chances are you aren't planning meals.  This is a serious mistake if you want to save money, prevent food waste, or have time to relax.  Meal planning is never a 'one style fits all' activity, and you will need to find the methods that work for you.  Squawk Fox has some nice images and comments on meal planning here.

Some tips based on how I've developed meal planning:
  • Consider planning your meals on the same day of each week.  Schedule it like a doctor's appointment, so it gets done.  Mine is Tuesday (the same night Supernatural is on TV.)
  • Consider making your 'meal plan' day the same as when you receive stores' sales flyers (I get mine, surprise, on Tuesdays).  This lets you cash in on the stores' loss leaders for the week, without feeling obliged to stock excessive amounts of sale foods when you are in the store. (because you know you'll be planning meals off next week's sales, anyway.) 
  • Consider making a 'rotation' chart to help plan 'what' meals.  See an example of this method here.
  • Have a recipe box, binder, or document that contains your family's favorites that you can make easy-peasy.  Standby recipes are less stressful, and having them all in one place helps write grocery lists.  Do try new dishes, but don't make the entire week a culinary adventure or you will get tired.
  • If you want to really get the freshest foods and best values, plan your meals according to what foods are in season.  Check out Kitchn's list of resources on this.
  • With the meals chosen, make a list of the ingredients from the recipes.
  • Go through ALL of your food storage areas to see what you already have, so you only shop for what you need.
  • Write your meal plans down and put them somewhere VISIBLE for the entire household to see.  Then everyone knows what to expect, and if someone is old enough to complain, they are old enough to plan their own meal for that day (even 5 year olds can make a sandwich.)
  • Prepare what you can ahead of time, secure that it will be used on Day X.  Make sure to follow the same rules as with other foods, properly storing what you make and making sure it gets used in time.
Buy What You Need:
When a is a deal not a deal?  Saving money on groceries isn't always just how cheap you can buy ingredients.  I would say Americans lose money by buying foods 'on sale' and then having them languish, stored improperly or so well hidden they are forgotten- until the smell reminds you, or you see the Wheaties box with the winning Minnesota Twins on it.  So, to reiterate from the Planning Ahead:
  • With the meals chosen, make a list off of the ingredients from the recipes.  Go through ALL of your food storage areas to see what you already have, so you only shop for what you need.
So, now you have to go out and get the food:
  • Taking my grocery list of things I need, I pencil in the approx regular price of each item, or the sale price and what store has it.  (If you have a price book, take it out now to keep it updated with sale price info.) Total this up.
  • I then take out cash for this amount plus $10-15 for 'stock-up' sale purchases to be used in later weeks (I will take out more if a basic meat or expensive item is on super sale.)  Cash keeps you faithful to your list and prevents overspending.
  • I keep my grocery list in my wallet (though will be trying some phone apps soon.)  As the list is written per recipe, I won't run to a store for their sales if I know I don't need to until Friday. Some people do better getting groceries all at once (especially if they get one day without kids,) but with my schedule, I'm usually on the road each day, anyway, so I stop in when its convenient for me and on the way home.
  • Eat before you shop.  Bring a water bottle from home.  If you are notorious for your sweet tooth (guilty!) then keep homemade cookies or snacks on you and have one before going into the store.  You want to feel already satisfied and happy while you are shopping, so the displays and sweets won't tempt you. 
What stores to go to:
  • Avoid stores that put number requirements on their super sales - I like the store Albertson's, but when they require me to buy 4 lbs of butter or strawberries to get the sale price, I can't justify it unless I have the time and space to dehydrate/freeze that week. 
  • Avoid BOGO (Buy One Get One) sales unless it is something you can use in 1 week or is very easily stored.  It seems like you are missing out on the great price, but if everyone stops being lured by BOGO (or number requirements), the stores will have to go back to just putting the single items on sale, again.
  • Avoid warehouse stores, as they often rely on selling large bulk amounts.  If you know you can eat the affordable 3 pack of something before it goes bad, then do it, but don't buy 4 lbs of cheap pretzels and 'hope' to get through them.
  • If you shop liquidation / discount stores for food, pay attention to expiration dates and have a very clear idea of what items you can stock up on and what you already have in stock, as super cheap items tend to lull us into a, "Oh, I"ll just get it" mentality, where 'it' usually ends up stale/expired/thrown away in a month. 
  • If you shop farmer's markets, or try get everything organic, know that many of these foods won't keep like their waxed/treated/preservative ladden counter-parts.  Buy your amounts accordingly.  You can barter for a smaller pack for less     
Regarding coupons: 
  • I personal only browse coupons after my list is written.    
  • If you coupon, don't open that coupon book until AFTER you have a list.  Coupons are used to get you to buy more of things you didn't need.  
  • If you are a regular super-coupon user, do what you do, as you should be able to avoid the 'but I have a coupon' unnecessary purchasing and you (hopefully) have a system for storage.  I am infrequent in my coupon use because I usually buy my foods cheaper in bulk/off brand, anyway.
Update 1/20/2014 --I just attended an Extreme Couponing demonstration, and these guys are getting organized!  I can see how the 'extreme' couponers pull it off now, though I can't make it work in my lifestyle right now.  If you can physically store up to 3 months of an items' use and can keep track of rotating inventory/watching expiration dates, then you might want to check them out.  Read more here... 

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