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Ten Signs You’re Wasting Money on Food

by Nick

There’s a huge amount of Internet material about how to save money on food costs. So I thought I’d take a bit different approach in this post and list some signs of wasted money on food.

After all, if you know where you’re wasting money, it becomes a whole lot easier to save money!

1) Your Freezer is Empty. Freezers are kitchen savings accounts. Food equals money right? Freezers let you put food (and therefore money) in a place to use it later. So, if you aren’t using your freezer to store soups, meats, and even some baked goods, then you’re probably throwing money away.

The freezer is like an emergency fund. For your stomach.

2) You Never Make Soups or Stocks. Using leftover veggies or even scraps to make a simple stock is one of the best ways to extract more use out of your food (why do you think restaurants do it?).

You can also use spare onions or spices to mix up a nice winter soup for very little cash. I made a double batch of this kidney bean soup last year. It cost me under $10 (I did have most of the spices I needed). The soup fed me and Betsy for 3 dinners and we froze half of it for later.

3) You Buy Things in Boxes. If everything you buy is square then you probably aren’t buying enough bulk ingredients and whole foods. That means that you’re paying other people to process the food for you. Even the box of pre-washed spinach has extra costs over the stuff you have to wash yourself.

There are probably exceptions to this one and some things only come in boxes, but it’s not a good sign if your grocery cart is like a game of Tetris.

4) You Cook Things Quickly. Think about things that cook quickly: Pre-made meals, seafoods, and expensive cuts of meat. Think about things that cook slowly: dried beans, cheaper cuts of meat like roasts, and even cheaper veggies like potatoes. Generally, things that take longer to cook cost less.

Of course, there’s a time and place for a quick meal. Just know that in a lot of cases you are trading time for money (which is maybe what you want to do). Also, turns out that those slow cooked dishes tend to be really delicious.

5) Your Credit Card Statement Looks Like a Yelp Search. There’s been some debate about the fact that eating out is more expensive than cooking, but I think it’s definitely true. Even if you’re eating crazy-cheap fast food, I believe there are hidden health costs which will surface later.

Meanwhile, if you stock your kitchen with reasonably inexpensive bulk ingredients, you can make a number of meals with a fairly low $/meal cost.

6) You Never Eat Beans. For their versatility and nutrition, beans are about as good as it gets. And they cost, well, beans. Even the canned varieties are very reasonable. If you get used to making a batch of beans once a week, it’s a great way to trim inches off your waist and put dollars in your pocket.

Some good bean recipes to get you started:
Tostado Stacks
Three Chile Quesadillas
Spicy Black Bean Patties

7) Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts are Your Standard. Honestly, I don’t get the appeal of this cut of meat. I find it completely flavorless. But I know it’s very popular. Because it takes a lot of time to process (and wastes a lot during processing), it’s one of the most expensive cuts you can buy.

Just buy the breasts with the bone in and skin on and you can cut down your weekly grocery budget.

8) You’re a Picky Eater. If you’re picky, it’s harder to buy seasonal food. It’s harder to buy the stuff on sale. Basically, it makes everything harder. This might be a difficult thing to change, but if you can learn to try new things you might be surprised with what you like. And you might be able to save some money in the process.

9) You Only Shop at One Store. Some stores mark up certain items and discount other items (loss leaders). But there’s not always rhyme or reason to what items stores discount. An example: Spices are one of the most expensive things you can buy in a normal supermarket, but if you go to a bulk store or some ethnic stores, you can get them for a fraction of the cost.

The point is, if you have the time, try to figure out what stores discount what items.

10) List? What List? I have a hard time with this one sometimes. As a food lover, I find myself wandering through aisles like a kid in a candy store. If I don’t start with a list, I spend $10-$15 extra dollars in the store without fail. I can’t be the only one.

Spend ten minutes before you hit the stores planning your menu for the week. I use a Google Calendar for this that way I can go back and look at previous menus.

I’m sure this list is just a start. What do you all think? What are some signs of wasting money on food?

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26 comments on “Ten Signs You’re Wasting Money on Food

  1. Great list! I do all the cooking and shopping in our home and have honed the low food costs skills quite a bit over the years. I can feed my wife, myself and our two cats for approximately $100 a week. That includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Granted, since there are just two of us we do do eat out more than we should but even if we had those meals at home, the cost might go up $30 dollars a week (it's cheaper to cook at home). That comes to about $3 per person per meal. I have found that planning and prep are the keys to successful home cooking.

  2. Nick you got me thinking about beans – I'll have to try some of those recipes! We always buy the chicken breasts with skin and bone and make stock of the skin and bones. I think people buy bags of fresh herbs too easily, herbs are so easy to grow, even if you do not have a garden – in a small pot!

  3. Great article, Nick, thank you!
    The biggest waste in my opinion is people who won't eat leftovers.
    We LOVE leftovers, but a certain extended-family member tried to throw out a whole bowl of mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving — yes, just the other day! I literally stopped her with a scream as the bowl was tipping into the bin. With that bowl, I gave two large portions to my nephew to take home (he was ecstatic), made a great shepherd's pie with (leftover) turkey (hash), and am now in the process of making biscuits with mashed potatoes as an ingredient. YUM.

  4. I live alone and I in the interests of saving time I would only shop once a week. After years of this, I realized that I was throwing away nearly half the fresh fruits and vegetables that I purchased. Either I couldn't eat all that food before it rotted, or I thought I would want it and changed my mind before I got around to it. Now I shop twice to three times a week, buy much less on each trip and buy only one or two meals in advance. I throw less away, nothing gets lost or forgotten in an overstuffed fridge, and I eat the food before I lose my taste for it.

    I find that I can get the best deals on washed, prepared greens that are on their last "sell by" dates in my store. I can usually get these for about 60-75% of their full price.

  5. Great points. and re: your continued debate on cooking vs takeout prices, I always think to myself that I am wasting money cooking expensive meals when my roommate and I could get awesome takeout at half the price, but I always forget that I pack at least 4 lunches with the leftovers. I think that tips the scales in favor of cooking being cheaper.

  6. One thing to consider here: If an item is cheap, it usually ends up as waste. Let me explain: Unless something is in it's peak season, where there are so many of them that they are crowding the shelves, a lot of items that you buy that are marked down for price are due to either inventory overload, or door crashing devices.
    That banana that is .29 a pound may really only last a day or two before turning. Since you bought the whole bunch for that "deal", you might actually end up throwing 1/2 of the bunch in the freezer, to be forgotten for another millenia, wherre it might either get used up for a banana loaf, or it might just get buried in the antartic glacier that is your back freezer.
    Now, if you shop every day, and can afford to do so, that banana is a good deal. You eat it that day, life is grand. Perhaps use it in a smoothie tomorrow.
    Perhaps buying the banana *(to continue my previous example) at a higher price, but better quality will extend the life of that banana, and end up costing you less in the end.
    We are so attached to final numbers, that we forget to look at the main cost.
    For me Nick, I would replace "Beans" up there with "YOU EAT WAY TOO MUCH DAMN MEAT!"
    I don't eat beans because they play havoc with my system. I cooki things in a lot of natural animal fats (GASP!!!!!) and I eat as organic as they come….
    One would thing that it would be expensive… not so.
    I eat about 3 to 4 ouces of meat at a sitting. That is about the size of your palm of you hand. The key is to pack that meat with flavor, as much as you can. (Naturally of course.!!!)
    You do that with healthy fats.
    The rest is made up of greens, salads, cheese, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
    I eat 3 times daily with a snack or two here and there, and I am always full. You want to save money, spend it on QUALITY items, and eat less protein for heck sakes.

    Most my cost comes from organic veggies and fruit, belive it or not. Oh yah, free range organically pastured chicken eggs at 5.50$ per dozen. I only need 2 for breakfast. That is only like, 1.00 per breakfast in eggs. Most people put way more than that in their bacon, and other crap.

    Sorry for the rant, Nick, just don't know what got over me there. LOL

  7. I know this sounds crazy, but I'm apprehensive about freezing food I make. I don't know why, but I think it might have to do with fear of freezer burn. I also wonder if it will taste the same. Are there certain items that don't freeze well? I know nothing about properly storing food in the freezer and I would gladly appreciate some pointers.

  8. You can visit food.com (used to be recipezaar) and they have a whole section dedicated to once-a-month-cooking with tips on storing foods in the freezer. Even if you can't find a recipe you like, it'll give you ideas of what types of foods freeze the best. :-) HTH!

  9. That darn being picky kicks my family's food budget right in the butt. However, since I've a little one, I've gotten better about being picky–especially in front of him, but there's still a LOT of food I refuse to eat (onions, peppers, & celery, for example).

  10. Great post. I wish I could make the freezer work for me, though- all too often it's more a scenario of throwing things in there and forgetting about it until they're too old and freezer-burned to use, thus generating more waste than savings. I need to work on that! Maybe tape a "contents" sheet on the exterior so I'm reminded to use things that would otherwise get buried and forgotten.

    1. Yea… a list is always good. If you have a lot of stuff in there, try to make it a point to eat something frozen once or twice a week until it dwindles down to a manageable level.

      1. I've been feeling especially guilty about it lately because I'm moving soon so I've been noticing just how much is in there. Plus I just got several pounds of venison from my dad (hunting, now there's a money saver) and the freezer door would barely shut!

        You're totally right about making a point to do it 1-2x per week. That brings up a larger issue with me which is failure to plan menus ahead of time. Right now I live alone so dinner is often just a big salad or some type of egg dish, stuff I can put together quickly after work. But I should at least try to do that on weekends.

  11. I like your approach here. I completely agree about boneless chicken breasts. They are the wonder bread of the bird. I disagree, though, about food that can be cooked fast. I do lots and lots of roasted veggies and stir fries with quickly grilled or sauteed fish, chops or seafood. I find the quickly cooked food to be the healthiest and often the least expensive because with lots of veggies, my husband and i share a steak. Pasta and egg dishes are also fast and not costly.

  12. great summary, love it and definitely is true! I am an avid farmer's market shopper and find most things are cheaper and healthier than the grocery stores.

  13. Are you a homecanner? I've found that alone has led to insane savings of food for me. I live in a 1br apartment so things like freezer space are nonexistent. I got to do things like spend $12 on what came to 10 quarts of pickles, $12 on a bushel of seconds apples, which made an excessive amount of applesauce and apple butter, get a bushel of tomatoes for cheap this summer to make homemade tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, peeled tomatoes, bruschetta, etc. All that stuff is far tastier and better for you than what you'd get in the canned goods at the store.

    1. Also, the other thing I learned to do was walk to the grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joes are both about 15 minute walks). Definitely cuts down on the impulse purchases when you remember you need to carry it back home.

  14. Starchy carbs don't freeze well (cooked potatoes, pasta, rice, beans etc.) It's safe to do, but the "mouth feel" is off. When I make soup and plan on freezing some, I freeze the base b-4 adding starch. Then, when I want soup, I thaw a batch and complete the soup. Assembled pasta dishes like lasagna are frequently frozen, it won't hurt you, but I hate what freezing does to <soft> cheese too. Plus I can make fresh lasagna quicker than I can thaw/cook frozen lasagna. Super quick, super healthy use for left over SEASONAL roasted veggies…make lasagna w/ fresh sheets of pasta. (Pasta for me is the original convenience food…5 minutes, a little olive oil, a sprinkle of cheese and maybe a sprinkle of toasted, seasoned panko, are you kidding?????) How lovely would a roasted butternut squash lasagna be w/ a sharp, peppery pecorino? Fresh tomato sauce and pesto also freeze beautifully.

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