How to avoid grocery shopping by stretching the food you have at home


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If you're in lockdown and trying to avoid trips to the shops, or your household income has taken a hit due to COVID-19, it's more important than ever to make the most of the food you have at home.

You probably don't think of the value of the food piled up in your fridge and pantry, but if you added up the cost of everything, you might be surprised.

That extra jar of curry paste, hidden tin of baked beans, gifted gourmet jar of chutney, and baking supplies - they all cost money. Now they are sitting in your kitchen taking up space.

how to make the most of the food you have at home

In The Joyful Frugalista, I shared how I did an inventory of just one shelf in my cupboard; it added up to $93.99 and included everything from cous cous to jam and Jatz biscuits.

Here are some of my tips for staying in and using what you have creatively.

1. Understand the difference between 'best before' and 'use by' dates

Items sold in Australia and New Zealand usually have a date on them.

According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, most food items are marked 'best before'. This means that it is recommended to be eaten by that date, but often they are still perfectly safe.

For instance, I find that fresh milk is generally fine for consumption several days after the expiry of 'best before'.

Contrast this with the (less common) 'use by'. Items marked with a best before date cannot be legally sold after that date as they must be eaten or consumed by a certain time for health or safety reasons.

2. Don't throw out something just because it has mould on it

Some people routinely throw out food that has a bit of bacterial growth. While I don't advocate eating all mouldy food (if you did, you could get sick - or worse), with many food items it is safe to cut off the mouldy bits and consume the rest. Hard cheeses such as cheddar and parmesan, for instance, often develop a green tinge on the edge.

As the mould does not penetrate the cheese, you can cut off the mouldy bits and eat the rest.

The same goes for bread with small mould spots, pumpkin with a few bits, and Italian tomato sauce with one small bit of mould on the rim.

But when in doubt, through it out.

3. Take stock of what you have

As outlined above, doing an inventory of your kitchen cupboard, fridge or freezer can be enlightening. While food insecurity is a problem for many, you might have more food than you think you do.

Before you end up in a supermarket brawl over a packet of spaghetti (as has happened during lockdowns) it's worth checking to see if you already have a packet - or five.

It can be daunting to have to detail absolutely everything, so I like to clear out one shelf at a time.

You can make up an excel spreadsheet with food items, or you could go old school and list items on a simple A4 piece of paper. Stick up your list on the back of the cupboard and cross out items as you use them up. You may be surprised at how effective this is at helping you focus.

4. Feast on canned food

Ever since the days of tinned Campbell soup we've become accustomed to buying more tins of food than we probably need.  And then, many of us other eschew tinned foods in favour of freshly made - for good reason, as fresh often tastes better.

But now is the time to discover these treasures and use them up. That tin of pineapples could become a Hawaiian pizza or upside-down cake, baked beans can be turned into a filling for nachos or hot jaffles, and that tinned mushroom soup could be perfect for a beef stroganoff or chicken slow cooker meal.

5. Get spicy

It's not just what's in your fridge and pantry - how long has it been since you raided your spice rack or drawer?

Spices are best when fresh and lose their potency with time.

Avoid this by baking a big batch of root vegetables such as potatoes, onions and carrots and liberally sprinkling random and interesting spices.

You can even blitz up these vegetables to make the basis of a delicious soup.

6. Keep winter vegetables on hand

While I am on the topic of root vegetables, many vegetables that are harvested in autumn and winter such as potatoes, onions and garlic keep for much longer than you might think.  Some people throw out these vegetables if they start to shoot, but it's easy just to pick out the eyes of a potato and use it anyway.

Following these tips saves me hundreds of dollars a year - and ensures I remain cosily at home on a cold winter's day.  And according to Ronni Kahn, founder of OzHarvest, the average family could save $3,500 a year just by reducing food waste at home.

What's your tip for extending the life of food? Let us know in the comments!

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed more than a million dollars through frugal living. She is the author of several books including The Joyful Frugalista and The Joyful Startup Guide. Serina blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She is also the founder of The Joyful Business Club. Her new book, How To Pay Your Mortgage Off in 10 Years is out now!
lindsey evans-hunter
July 17, 2021 9.23am

When using only a small amount of food such as tomato paste , basil pesto and cooking cream , I put the rest in the freezer in the original container and defrost when needed for another meal .

Jay Jay
July 17, 2021 2.39pm

Great idea. I put the remaining tomato paste into an ice cube tray, freeze, then straight into a zip lock bag for convenient use on the go. Each cube is large, about the size of a teaspoon.

Garry Steedman
July 17, 2021 12.51pm

Broccoli is a good one to not throw out. Just blanche & freeze.

Sarah H
July 20, 2021 4.05pm

You're better than me, Garry, I have to say I've basically given up on fresh broccoli.

As much as I hate the plastic that comes with frozen, it has helped reduce my fresh produce waste...

I'm working on it!

Cathy Stuart
July 17, 2021 3.55pm

I always have eggs and make the most creative omlette/frittatas with various cheeses/spices and all sorts of leftovers.

Susanne Williams
July 19, 2021 8.27am

Store tomato paste upside down in the refrigerator and it won't develop mould. It's good to go whenever you need it.

Sarah H
July 20, 2021 4.01pm

I always freeze bread that is going stale - it can be used for toast, croutons, garlic bread.

Pesto, passata, salsa all keep well in the freezer (why are jars of salsa all built to feed 15 people?)

If I buy carrot and celery etc as a soup base, I peel, dice and freeze the excess for future recipes.

Leftover spring onions can either be frozen or used to sprout fresh produce.

Andrew B
July 24, 2021 4.28pm

I put my potatoes that have started to sprout into the garden beds to grow more potatoes for the next season.