Dear Penny: How Can I Stop Throwing Away $400 Worth of Food Each Month?

A mother and daughter do dishes together.
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Dear Penny,

I’m a single, middle-aged mom of one at-home university student. I have a mortgage, a car payment and typical household bills. None of these are the problem. 

I work about 50-60 hours a week. I order groceries online (I pick them up at store) to save myself time and from impulse buys. However, I’m NOT a good cook, and I’m not good at meal planning. 

Both myself and my daughter are healthy eaters and are physically fit. However, we throw away an awful lot of food from our fridge as it goes uncooked or bad, and I buy restaurant food too often due to poor planning and kitchen skills. 

I would like to shave (and realistically could) about $400 of wasted money per month by getting a handle on this. I need an easy and efficient meal planning method and healthy, tasty and easy recipes to follow.

-S.

Dear S.,

You attribute all that wasted food to poor planning and kitchen skills. But I suspect that ambition — as in, having too much of it — is the bigger culprit.

And I share your pain: I’m a single woman who works long hours and doesn’t like to cook. In my 36 years, I’ve thrown out more groceries than I care to think about. Please don’t ask me about how much I used to spend on UberEats.

I can’t say I’ve completely reformed these bad habits, but I’ve made pretty good progress over the past year or so. 

But I haven’t gotten more disciplined. I’ve just gotten more realistic. I know that I’m way too ambitious when I peruse Pinterest for recipes and meal-planning systems when I wake up refreshed on Saturday morning.

I know that when the weekend is ticking away on Sunday afternoon, I’ll be willing to commit an hour or two at most to meal prepping. Some weekends I’ll fail altogether at planning.

What keeps me realistic is that I’m a bicycle commuter. I do most of my weekday grocery runs on my ride home. That means I’m limited to what I can fit into my bike’s basket, which is a medium bag of groceries. 

I have to be selective. I’m forced to think about how much effort I’m willing to put into that night’s dinner. Occasionally, the answer is “none,” so I’ll pick up takeout instead. Is that the most frugal solution? No. But at least I’m not shelling out for a restaurant meal and ingredients for a meal I’ll never cook. 

The key is to decide how much time you’re willing to commit to meal prepping each week and hold yourself to it. You want to spend less on food, but you also need to account for the value of your limited time off.

If you can set aside even an hour or two of prep time each week, I think you’ll make significant headway. Try chopping up some vegetables and cooking a couple of protein staples using olive oil and a few spices. (Just invest in some good storage containers.) 

Then, you’ll have some basic ingredients you can throw over rice or a bed of greens. Or you can use them as taco fillings or toppings for a healthy pizza. Start with meals that are so basic, you don’t even need a recipe. As your culinary skills improve, you can aim a little higher.

Just be honest with yourself: When you’re working 50 to 60 hours a week, you’re probably not going to cook 21 meals a week from scratch. That’s OK. 

Breakfast and lunch don’t require much prep work — you can easily toss together the ingredients for a smoothie, omelette, sandwich or salad in a few minutes. Dinner tends to be a little more of a production, or at least we treat it that way. 

So maybe start with the goal of making all seven breakfasts and lunches, plus four dinners. Enlist your daughter to be responsible for dinner at least one night a week. Then give yourself permission to get takeout for the remaining three dinners.

Just keep your priorities in mind here: You want to save money. You want to eat healthy. Neither of these goals requires you to be the next Wolfgang Puck. You don’t even have to be Pinterest-worthy. 

Focus on making small strides in the kitchen, give yourself a little room to fail, and I’m confident you can whittle away at the amount of food you waste.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about saving money to [email protected]