By Maggie Murphy

Whether we are making healthier food choices, exercising more, or reviewing the monthly budget, a new year brings motivation. The latter, in particular, helps examine spending patterns and prevent wasteful purchases. My husband and I noticed two areas of our growing food budget that needed improvement: Dining out too often and food waste. According to a survey by Cherry Digital, the average American family throws out almost $1,000 worth of food each year! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans also spend over $3,500 per year on restaurants and takeout. We save money, create healthier meals, and reduce food waste by committing to a few simple changes: 

Planning a dozen or more meals in advance and purchasing grocery staples from a list can help prevent those purchases from being wasted and later thrown out. When you sit down to plan this list of meals, do you often develop a case of writer’s block? Try keeping a list of regular meals in your favorite cookbook. Then, you can simply browse that list and select which meals fit best or compare to what’s currently on sale. This list should also include several simple meals. 

With our busy, modern lifestyle, takeout food or dining out too often can negatively impact our budgets. To help reduce the need for takeout, we created a handful of simple recipes. For example, I spend an afternoon every fall and put up 10 lbs. of Italian meatballs. These make easy, flexible meals, ready from freezer to table in less than an hour. We pair them with vegetables, rice, and, of course, spaghetti night. What about a healthier and budget-friendly spin on pizza night? We often purchase less pizza and pair it with a vegetable and fruit. Naan bread pizzas also make a fun family meal. 

You can enjoy a lovely, simple, low-carb meal with 15 minutes of slicing some meat, cheese, and vegetables. My family enjoys carrots, celery, and radishes paired with slices of prosciutto, a can of black or green olives, a baguette, and a small chunk of goat cheese. This also makes an inexpensive option for date night! 

Take a night each week and consume some of those extra items in the refrigerator. To combat our lettuce waste, we keep tortillas, diced tomatoes, refried beans, and canned chicken in the pantry. We use up the lettuce, along with any extra cheese, hot sauce, or sour cream, and make tacos. 

What about the other “leftovers” in the pantry and freezer? A couple of times per year, we like to inventory those items approaching their “best by” date and see how they might create a meal. An added bonus: often, there’s enough food that we can skip a regularly scheduled grocery trip and add a bit of extra money to our vacation budget! Organizing these older products on a dedicated shelf in the pantry and a freezer basket also allows for quick access. A bit of “leftover fusion” cooking makes a fun, creative activity for the foodies in the house. 

By reducing food waste, organizing your grocery list, and decluttering the refrigerator and pantry, you can reduce stress, create healthier meals, and end up with a few extra dollars in your pocket.