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How to stop wasting food—and save $2,000 a year

Forty percent of Americans' food is wasted each year. That could feed millions.

Did you know the average American family of four throws away about $2,200 worth of food every year?

Make the most of your money.

According to a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, approximately two-thirds of Americans' food waste occurs mainly because food isn't used before it spoils. In other words, too many of us are overloading our grocery store shopping carts, and then use only portions for recipes, without properly saving the rest.

The final third of our food waste comes from a couple key things. First, we're cooking and serving too much food, then scrapping what's left on our plates into the garbage. And we often don't understand what the "sell by" and "use by" dates on containers of milk, butter or mayonnaise really mean. The NRDC and Harvard University found that 90 percent of Americans throw out food because we believe those labels indicate that the food expires, or is unsafe to eat afterwards—which isn't necessarily true.

The economic costs of food waste

Broken down, $2,200 worth of food waste per year is around $180 wasted every month. That's money that isn't being put toward other priorities—like paying down debt, saving for retirement, or investing for your children's college education. Add that up over 10 years, and that's $22,000 you have—literally—thrown away.

Maya Henry, a health coach and meal planner in Pittsburgh, has saved money since she started deliberately reducing the amount of food her family of our wastes. "I have been saving $20-$50 per week," she says.

Infographic: Food waste by the numbers

Here are some simple things families can do to stop wasting food:

1. Create meal plans

If you don't know what you're cooking, how will you know what to buy? Save yourself money and extra trips to the grocery store by making a weekly meal plan to ensure you're buying only what you'll need and use.

Don't forget leftovers; factor those in to make sure they don't end up rotting in the back of your fridge. Take them to work for lunch, use them to make a different recipe, or freeze them for future meals.

2. Freeze it

If you can't eat food that will spoil soon, consider freezing it. Fruits and vegetables can be easily chopped and frozen.

Alon Popilskis, a business owner in Congers, New York, has some tips on what to do with frozen fruits or vegetables. "I use frozen fruits in smoothies, shakes or when making sorbet," he says. "Frozen herbs in oil just get thrown right into the pan or pot for cooking. Frozen vegetables can also be used in smoothies or juices."

3. Conduct fridge check-ins

Every day or two, check to see whether anything is starting to go bad or get overripe.

"Utilize one bin in your fridge for new produce, and in the other keep older produce that you know you need to be using up," Henry suggests.

Keep track of the things that routinely end up going bad as you might be buying too much of them.

4. Understand expiration and sell-by dates

Yogurt doesn't immediately go bad at midnight on the date printed on the cover. Nor does bread go moldy on its "sell-by" date. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), companies use these dates to guess at the freshness of the food, and they are not related to safety.

Companies generally tend to be conservative in their estimates, and the USDA suggests you check the food to see if it looks or smells "off" or sour.

5. Store food properly

Did you know that onions shouldn't be stored in the fridge, or that tomatoes last longer and are less likely to be mealy if you leave them on the counter?

When storing produce in the fridge, consider Popilskis' approach: He stores things that will wilt—like spinach or kale in a drawer with high humidity. "Things that rot quickly go into a drawer with low humidity settings," he says.

6. Use everything

Do you throw away beet greens? Don't! You can add them to salads, soups and veggie burgers. You can also use the stalks of kale in green smoothies or the bones from roasted chicken to make chicken stock.

"Broccoli stalks are great peeled and served right along with steamed broccoli florets," Henry says. "I also like to blend or finely chop them into sauces to add extra nutrients and fiber."

7. Don't over-serve

You might be tempted to give your family, friends and guests big portions of food, but those generous servings will likely just end up in the trash. Allow people to serve themselves or give everyone smaller, more manageable portions.

Watch your grocery bills go down

As you make these changes and become better at using the food you buy, you'll find that your grocery bills will decrease significantly—just like Henry's and Popilskis' have. Henry has been using her savings to go on date nights with her husband; Popilskis has been putting his savings into his retirement fund.

Also, be proud that you're doing your part to reduce food waste. It's estimated that reducing food waste by 15 percent could help feed 25 million more Americans—and divert millions of tons of food from the landfill.

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