We all like to moan and complain about how there is not enough money in our budgets at the end of the month.
Well, here is a simple step that could save a family of four $1,500 a year: Stop wasting food.
It sounds flippant, but it is not. About 40% of the food America produces goes to waste.
Separate out households from commercial entities like restaurants, and around 20 percent of what we purchase at the supermarket eventually finds its way into the trash bin, estimates Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council and author of the new book "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook."
It is not a minor expense: The USDA estimates that food waste amounts to around 2 million calories a year for a family of four, costing roughly $1,500, which is over $100 a month for the family, or $375 per person annually.
"Nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to waste food, but it happens in little bits and pieces," says Gunders. "We are so price-sensitive in the store, but when we get home and eventually throw out a quarter of the cheese we just bought, we don't realize that's another $1.50."
Reducing food waste takes planning and discipline.
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The book by Gunders gives 85 tips for reducing waste in various food items. Some of these are:
-- Shop deliberately, from a list, for just a couple of meals ahead of time. Otherwise your eyes will be bigger than your stomach, and much of what you buy will end up in the trash.
-- Use up leftovers by making catch-all dishes like soups, stir-frys, fried rice, frittatas and risottos.
-- Stale bread? Make menus involving croutons, French toast, or bread pudding.
-- Learn to store food properly. For instance, lettuce usually lasts longer in the crisper, while apples, mushrooms and peppers need more aeration and do better outside those drawers.
-- Do not get freaked out by expiration dates, Gunders advises. These are just a manufacturer's best guess about peak freshness. Use your judgment; do not throw away food just because of a number on a carton.
For more pointers on maximizing food budgets, we talked to a few high-end chefs. In the restaurant world with its razor-thin margins, if you do not utilize every possible scrap of food in your kitchen, you are out of business.
Most consumers toss them, but Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of Washington, D.C.'s Ripple, and a contestant on "Top Chef," likes to debone the head and make lettuce wraps with the meat.
Along with the leafy tops of other root vegetables, says Meek-Bradley, they make the foundation of an excellent pesto sauce.
Don't get rid of them, say Bruce and Eric Bromberg of Blue Ribbon Restaurants. They are ideal for making potato pancakes.
The natural instinct is to toss them, but they make crispy, healthy, kale fries, say the Brombergs.
If you have some left over, it makes an ideal kitchen cleaner, says John Johnson of Four Seasons New York. It is biodegradable, non-toxic, and degreases like nothing else.
"I always use leftover chicken or turkey bones to make soup," says Troy Guard, chef of Denver-based TAG Restaurant Group.
Tomato insides, carrot peels, day-old brown rice, mushroom stems? You have got yourself a tasty veggie burger, says Guard.
Or, if you have some wildflowers or leftover herb cuttings from your garden, they can provide delicious flavoring for jars of honey, says David Wardynski of Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort.
Obviously not every scrap of meat will make it onto a nicely plated steak, chicken breast or pork chop. But Guard says those extra trimmings can easily go into enchiladas, tacos, or on top of homemade pizzas.