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Exactly What To Buy At The Store So You Never Waste Food Again

Kelly Brown
March 26, 2017
Kelly Brown
Written by
Photo by Stocksy
March 26, 2017

One time I flew to Chicago with a cooler full of food to avoid throwing it away before a trip. We were supposed to have a party, plans changed, we had to leave town and yet still had the makings for a fantastic appetizer platter in the fridge. No wasted-food-guilt for me, off I went with an extra carry-on in tow.

Since then, I've realized avoiding food waste starts in the grocery store. The smarter you are about a few important rules while shopping, the less food you'll waste. And less wasted food is good for the planet, your wallet, and your peace of mind.

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Here are some shopping tips to avoid food waste:

1. Opt for vegetables that can be eaten raw or cooked.

You're less likely to throw away foods that can be eaten in multiple ways because you'll have more options when it's time to cook. For example, it's easier to find a way to use spinach than lettuce. Spinach can be used in a salad, a smoothie, scrambled in eggs, tossed in a pasta sauce, or sautéed with garlic. Lettuce is less versatile and often goes to waste if you don't eat enough salads that week.

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2. Add flavor with items that last a long time.

How many times have you thrown away a $5 container of fresh basil? Unless you have a plan for fresh herbs, choose mostly items that add flavor but last a long time like onions, garlic, ginger, shallots, lemons, limes, or dried herbs.

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3. Choose items that are easy to prep.

Our lives are already busy, which means we're more likely to use foods that are simple to prepare. During the week, choose vegetables that are quick and easy like broccoli, peppers, or zucchini instead of something that requires trimming like whole green beans or artichokes. When choosing proteins, opt for smaller cuts of meat like ground turkey, fish fillets, or boneless chicken.

4. Take inventory of items before you throw them away.

If any food goes to waste, make note of what you threw away, how much, and why. Once you start paying attention, you'll notice patterns and you can make changes. For example, do you always throw away lettuce in the winter? Maybe salads aren't your thing when it's cold outside. Do you throw away lunch ingredients? Maybe you prefer to go out to lunch with co-workers. The more in touch you are with your habits the less likely you are to waste food.

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5. Only buy items you like to eat.

Sounds obvious but sometimes we buy items because we're inspired by someone else's Instagram feed. Sure their Detox Omega-3 Salmon bowl looks inspiring but when it comes down to it, you don't really like salmon. You'll waste less food if you're honest with yourself about your likes and dislikes.

6. Limit yourself to one or two trendy foods at a time.

No one loves the superfood aisle more than I do. Matcha powder? Cacao? Goji Berries? I'll take one of each. The problem is these items clutter up the kitchen and are difficult to track and use if we have too many of them. Stick to one or two trendy foods at a time and explore them to their fullest before moving on to the next.

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7. Plan your meals with an open refrigerator, not a recipe book.

When we follow recipes we buy specific ingredients, ignoring what we have on hand and throwing away items we don't use. Instead, try looking in your fridge for something that may expire soon and using that ingredient to inspire a meal. If you need more guidance, you can always Google around for some recipes using your chosen ingredient.

8. Buy mostly neutral foods that pair with a variety of cuisines, then add a few pops of flavor.

We're more likely to waste foods that serve only one purpose. For example, blue cheese tastes great in martinis but once the party's over and you're sick of Cobb salads you're likely to throw it away. Stocking your kitchen is like building a wardrobe; buy mostly neutral items like whole grains, long-life vegetables, and high-quality proteins. Then choose just a few bold flavors at a time like fresh herbs or gourmet cheeses to make your meals taste amazing.

9. Keep your pantry stocked.

Having a pantry stocked with items that have a long shelf-life like grains, beans, oils, and vinegars means you'll only need to add a few fresh items to the mix on a weekly basis. Having a full pantry and fewer fresh items means less food will go to waste yet you'll always have something for dinner.

10. Use an updated and reusable shopping list to avoid buying items you won't use.

By creating a list of all of your favorite items, you're less likely to go astray. Here's my ultimate shopping list to help you follow the rules and avoid wasting food.

Ultimate Shopping List to Avoid Wasting Food

Buy mostly the items on this list then add just a few seasonal ingredients or bold flavors at a time.

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Fresh Items

  • Vegetables that can be eaten raw or cooked: kale, spinach, chard, arugula, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, mushrooms, asparagus, zucchini, bell peppers
  • Fruits that last a long time: apples, oranges, grapefruit, melons
  • Long-life flavor enhancers: garlic, ginger, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, lemon, lime, chili peppers
  • High-quality proteins that are easy to cook and prep: Ground beef/turkey/chicken, boneless cuts of beef/pork/chicken/turkey, chicken/turkey sausage, fillets of fish (any kind, ideally with bones removed), shrimp, tofu

Kitchen Staples

  • Oils: olive, sesame, coconut, avocado
  • Vinegars: white/red wine, sherry, champagne, rice wine
  • Seasonings: Kosher salt, sea salt, black pepper
  • Broth/Stock: chicken and/or vegetable, coconut milk
  • Grains: rice, quinoa, pasta, barley, oats, millet, amaranth
  • Beans/Legumes: lentils, canned beans with no salt added, other dried beans if you have time to soak and cook them
  • Canned tomatoes: diced, crushed, sauce with no salt added
  • Dried herbs/spices: You only need your favorites. My most-used are oregano, thyme, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, crushed red pepper.
  • Sauces/dips: tamari gluten-free soy sauce, miso, mirin, salsa, hummus, Dijon mustard, ketchup
  • Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkins seeds + peanut butter/almond butter
  • Beverages: coffee, tea, wine, sparkling water
  • Long-life fridge items: butter, eggs, milk, nut milk
  • Frozen vegetables/fruits: at least two vegetables and fruit for smoothies

By following these steps you'll avoid wasting time and money buying food you don't use, and as a bonus, cooking will be so much easier because you'll always have the right foods on hand!

Kelly Brown
Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is the founder of Real Food House, where she shares ways to simplify cooking and stop wasting food in her Improv Cooking web course. A few years ago, Kelly took a leap of faith and quit her job at Google to follow her passion for food and become a certified integrative health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Kelly founded Real Food House to help busy people cook more real food without spending all their time in the kitchen and launched her Improv Cooking course to prove that it’s possible to cook and still have a life.