How to save money on groceries: Store them properly so they don't die in the fridge

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
  • Nearly half of the food in the U.S. is wasted, even as families struggle with food costs.
  • Curbing food waste helps save money, and has positive environmental impacts, too.
  • Here are helpful tips to buy and waste less, while keeping your food fresh longer.

This spring, the price of the food Americans buy at the store jumped 11%, the largest year-over-year increase since November 1980.

As gas remains pricey and the cost of essentials continues to creep, most U.S. consumers have a vested interest in saving money wherever possible. A good place to look is in the garbage.

According to the environmental advocacy group National Resources Defense Council, 40% of all U.S. food ends up in the trash. That means the water and other resources needed to produce all of that food go to waste, too. From field to consumer, that's just bad economics, among other things. 

NRDC senior resource specialist Darby Hoover says curbing food waste is easier when consumers go to the grocery store prepared. It may seem like a no-brainer, but take time to know what’s in your pantry before you go shopping. Meal plan carefully so you don't overdo it.

Up to 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten. That means more greenhouse gasses from the landfill and fewer people getting fed.

"Avoiding overshopping will help you reduce the amount of food you waste, but also saves you some dollars," he said.

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You could further save money by developing your cooking skills rather than leaning too heavily on recipes, which often call for ingredients you might not otherwise use. Sometimes, however, having a little extra is unavoidable. 

"For example, coconut milk typically comes in a can and, often, a can is too much for an everyday recipe," Darby said.

His advice: Pour the remaining coconut milk in an airtight container and keep it in the fridge or, for longer storage, pour it into ice cube containers and freeze for later use in a smoothie or curry, he said. 

It's important to think carefully about portion sizes, particularly when purchasing perishable proteins. It's a good idea to have plans for potential leftovers. For example, should you purchase too much steak for dinner, make sure you have the ingredients to make a steak salad for lunch the next day.

This is what's hidden in food waste. About 21% of agricultural water use goes to food that ends up in the landfill. nearly 20% of cropland is wasted growing food that's never eaten.

Prepared food is a huge culprit in food waste. In a recent study, the NRDC found nearly 20% of food thrown away at home was leftovers. That's why the group created the Guestimator, a calculator that helps you with per-person portion control.

"Just input who's coming to dinner and find out exactly how many entrees and appetizers to make, and shop for the perfect amount of food," Darby said. Find the food calculator at savethefood.com/guestimator.

Once you've bought your food, you'll need to store it so it stays fresh. The NRDC has an interactive guide, savethefood.com/storage, that helps you make sure your groceries stick around long enough for you to eat them. These fridge-stocking tips will also help your food stay fresh longer.

The refrigerator, demystified

Temperature: 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler to help food last longer.

The upper shelves: These are warmer. Store leftovers and drinks here.

The doors: These are the warmest and prone to temperature fluctuations. Don't store milk or eggs here. Do store sturdy condiments here.

Humidity drawers: The levers on crisper drawers change the humidity. Leafy greens fare well in high-humidity environments, as do most vegetables prone to wilt. Fruits, along with vegetables that may break down and rot, prefer low humidity. 

Lower shelves: Meats and fish are better off at the bottom. It's usually the coldest and reduces risk of contamination.

Not in the fridge at all: Potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, garlic and onions are among the ingredients best kept in a cool, dark place, but not the fridge.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com