20 Kitchen Mistakes That Are Costing You Money
Don't let these common cooking habits drain your savings.
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Dining in, saving up
More than half of Americans say they’re cooking at home more than they did prior to COVID-19, according to Nielsen survey data. And while that can be a great thing for your health, how it hits your budget all depends on whether or not you’re taking advantage of money-saving opportunities in the kitchen. Nationwide, grocery bills have been on the rise and sales have been scarcer.
But there are plenty of ways you might be wasting money on food that have nothing to do with your Instacart order. The USDA reports that even before shelter-in-place orders, Americans wasted an estimated $161 billion worth of food in a single year. “Without a set budget, it can be easy to look at your bank account at the end of the week and wonder how you spent hundreds on one-off trips to the grocery store,” says Justin Bailey, co-founder of Vimvest, a financial planning app. Read on to discover the kitchen habits that are unknowingly draining your bank account—and learn how staunch the flow. Then find out a few other ways to save money you probably haven’t tried yet.
Indulging in your GrubHub/Seamless addiction
Yes, we like to support local restaurants, too, but ordering out adds up. This news may help you get in the cooking spirit: According to an analysis done by Forbes in 2018, ordering out could be costing you five times as much as cooking the same meal at home (not including tip). Even delivery kits that supply ingredients for you to assemble into a meal are around three times as expensive as shopping and cooking yourself. Learning simple ways to meal prep for the week can save you time and money. Not sure where to start? Get some tips from The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, which has garnered more than 1,000 positive reviews on Amazon, and follow these rules for healthy, make-ahead meals.
Buying convenience food
“I’ve learned that saving money in the kitchen is not about what you buy, but more how you buy it,” says Bailey. “Instead of buying something that is already chopped and in sealed-off containers, buy the whole vegetable. These purchases tend to be cheaper and provide you with more of the item to work with.” Chop and slice enough for the week on a Sunday night and store everything in clear containers in the fridge so they’re ready to go when you need them. Don’t miss these other tricks frugal shoppers use to save big on groceries.
Storing produce improperly
“Most people don’t know how to store their food properly, and it goes bad really quickly,” says Alma Schneider, founder of the blog and consulting company Take Back the Kitchen. “Moisture is your enemy.” She recommends wrapping fragile veggies like lettuce and herbs in a paper towel inside a resealable bag to extend their freshness. You can also use products designed to make fresh produce last longer in your crisper drawer, like these Oxo Good Grips GreenSaver Produce Keepers, and dry fresh herbs so they last longer. Of course, every item is different—here’s how long various types of fresh produce will last.
Opting for single-use supplies
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, don’t toss those plastic bags after one use, Schneider adds. You can rinse and reuse them; she even repurposes the liners from cereal boxes for kitchen storage. Ditto paper towels—use (and reuse) fabric or microfiber cloths instead. It’s better for the environment and your wallet. Plus, you shouldn’t be cleaning these 12 things with paper towels anyway.
Not using your freezer
A well-stocked freezer is a frugal chef’s BFF. Not only is freezing ideal for storing bulk buys, but it’s also a great way to preserve produce or other foods that are about to go bad. “Most things can be frozen if you store them properly, then thawed and used as needed,” Schneider says. Bread, leftover pasta sauce, soup, and fruit for smoothies are just a few of the foods you didn’t know you could freeze. This Zwilling Fresh & Save seven-piece set from Williams-Sonoma will get you started. In addition to double-sealed glass containers, it comes with a vacuum pump and reusable plastic bags, providing vacuum-sealed storage that keeps food fresh longer and protected from freezer burn.
Buying ingredients for one meal at a time
“One of the first rules of saving money at the grocery store is to buy in bulk,” says Bailey. “Larger quantities equal less packaging and less waste, which means spending less money.” Non-perishables or things that can be frozen, like meat, are good to stock up on. CSAs and cow shares can be good options for buying in bulk as well, says Schneider. Just label it, toss it in the freezer, and use as needed. You can save even more by following this advice for bulk buying.
Passing on leftovers
One national survey found that two out of five people hate leftovers. We’re not sure how they got such a bad rap, but it is entirely undeserved. In addition to enjoying last night’s meatloaf and potatoes for lunch the next day, you can use ingredients that weren’t quite used up, like half a jar of salsa or cooked quinoa, to make a delicious new meal (think a salad or grain bowl) instead of throwing them out. “Creative uses of portions of leftover food can make for fun, money-conscious meals,” says Bailey. Lekue’s silicone food covers stretch to fit any container, keeping the contents fresh until you need them, and you can run them through the dishwasher and reuse them, unlike plastic wrap. Here are another 25 kitchen gadgets you’ll wish you had years ago.
It’s a common misconception to think hand-washing your dishes is the more economical choice, but Energy Star–rated appliances are so efficient, they can slash your utility bills by around $111 per year. So, if you have them, use them. Increase your savings by making sure to run a full load—and there is a right way to do that—and shutting off the heat-drying part of the cycle to let dishes air dry instead. With a good detergent, you can skip the pre-wash, too.
Eating too much meat
Plant-based diets not only tend to be healthier and better for the planet—they’re generally less expensive, too. In one analysis, researchers compared the costs of a meat-centric menu based on USDA MyPlate recommendations with a plant-centric one. They found that eating a vegetarian diet could save you more than $745 per year. You don’t have to give meat up if you love it, but cutting back or using recipes where you can stretch a little will help your bottom line. Veggie recipes from acclaimed chef José Andrés will make you seriously wonder why you never explored this before.
Tossing stuff because of the “best by” date
No one wants to risk food poisoning, but the dates on food labels don’t mean what’s inside is no longer safe to consume. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety.” If the food looks and smells OK and has been handled and stored properly, it’s generally fine to consume. If you have specific food safety questions, contact the USDA directly, via phone, email, or live chat. And if you know that you’re just not going to eat something before its expiration date, freeze it and clearly date it with a storage-date sticker.
Buying out-of-season produce
Blueberries in January might sound refreshing, but you’ll pay a premium for them. Shopping with the seasons will not only save you cash—your food will also likely taste better, since what you’re eating has been grown fresh naturally, not in a greenhouse somewhere and shipped miles. You can also try preserving summer produce yourself by pickling or canning to last through the off-season.
Not planning ahead
“The overarching theme for people who waste money in the kitchen is they don’t plan ahead,” says Schneider. Having a basic meal plan for the week can help you use up fresh ingredients before they go bad and reuse leftovers from one meal in the next one. It also helps prevent impulse buys at the supermarket. “If you aren’t sure what you are going to eat for dinner and don’t have appropriate ingredients at home,” says Bailey, “you’re more likely to overspend by making last-minute decisions that aren’t strategic money-wise.”
Going out for coffee
Your average coffeehouse chain sells a cuppa for anywhere between $3 to $5. Compare that to the 50 cups you can brew from a 22-ounce can of Melitta, which costs under $8, and you can see how fast the savings adds up. Even pricier beans (such as Partners Coffee Roasters’ Bedford Blend at $17.75 per 12-ounce bag) work out to just $1.10 per 12-ounce cup when brewed. Some brands even offer coffee subscriptions, which often come with perks like free shipping on every order and reward points that can be redeemed for discounts on future orders. Find out which three things one woman stopped buying to save $5,000.
Letting your knives get dull
Knives are a home chef’s most vital tool, but all too often, people don’t maintain them properly and, as a result, buy new ones a lot sooner than necessary. “Think of it as preventative maintenance, like changing the oil in your car,” says Matt Matsushima, director of operations for Shun Cutlery. Regularly tuning up your knives using a honing steel every five to six times you use them can keep them sharp longer. “The longer between honing, the harder it can be to bring the edge back, and it might need to be sharpened [professionally],” Matsushima says. That can be a costly and difficult process, so people often end up replacing their blades instead.
Hand washing and drying (not air drying) will also prolong an edge, as will proper storage. “Storing knives loose without a sheath in a drawer is not only dangerous—it can also damage the knife edges,” says Matsushima. In fact, another cutlery manufacturer, Schmidt Brothers, has found through internal testing that magnetic knife blocks and wall bars nearly double the life of a blade, compared to traditional knife blocks. Knife edges dull slowly as they are inserted and removed from a traditional block, due to the friction between the blade and the wood.
Not storing grains correctly
Many people don’t realize that you can lengthen the life of whole grains by storing them properly—and sometimes that means refrigerating or freezing them, according to Bob’s Red Mill. Flaxseed, for example, contains oils that can go rancid, so it’s best kept refrigerated. Bread, meanwhile, doesn’t do well in the relatively high humidity of a refrigerator, so you should keep it on your kitchen counter. (Here are another 20 foods you shouldn’t put in the fridge.) And unless otherwise specified, it’s also a good idea to store products in airtight containers and not the original packaging to keep them fresher longer. One notable exception: fancy cheese, which should be kept in the paper you bought it in.
Shelling out for spices
Spices are a wonderful way to add flavor (and usually health benefits) to your meals, but some can be pricey. To save, buy the ones you use most often in bulk and freeze them. Finely chop them, then spoon into an ice cube tray, top with a little olive oil, and freeze before transferring to a resealable bag; then, use as needed for soups and sauces. Ethnic grocery stores frequently offer the spices used most often in their cuisine at cheaper prices than big-name supermarkets, so it’s a good idea to shop there. Or you can grow and dry your own herbs for similar savings. Véritable’s indoor herb garden is ideal for people who don’t have a green thumb or for those whose apartments don’t have great lighting, since it’s outfitted with a special light, as well as an automatic irrigation system.
Neglecting your cookware
Nonstick is a great invention, but you can wear it out fast by using the wrong utensils on it (steel can scratch it), spraying it with aerosol sprays (which will build up over time and be next to impossible to remove), or dunking it in water before it cools down. Cast iron is your most durable option because it is virtually indestructible and will last a lifetime—or several—even with hard use. As long as you season it properly, it will be nonstick, and you can bake in it, too. FYI, you should always cook these 10 foods on a cast-iron skillet.
Buying bottled drinks
A 2016 report by the USDA found that Americans spend more on soft drinks than any other item in their grocery carts. Since then, sales of other beverages, especially seltzer, have been on the rise. But you don’t have to pay a small fortune for carbonated beverages—you can make your own for a fraction of the cost. Home carbonation machines have become reasonably affordable and, after the up-front cost, will produce the bubbly stuff for under $1 per liter. SodaStream has a great reputation for making the fizzy stuff in your own kitchen, in a wide variety of flavors, and its starter kit works with pretty much any bottle.
Skipping regular appliance maintenance
People tend to forget that the hardworking machines we rely on in the kitchen need to be maintained, like a car. Treating them right can add years to their life span and save you costly repair bills and, ultimately, a replacement. So make sure you’re keeping up with the instructions listed in the user’s manual and doing things like cleaning your refrigerator coils and your dishwasher. Lemi Shine Dishwasher Cleaner removes buildup caused by limescale, rust, grease, and hard water. Here are more ways you’re shortening the life of your dishwasher.
Letting food go stale
Bags of chips, boxes of cereal, and other pantry snacks and staples will go stale quickly if you (or another member of the household) leaves them open to the air. There is, however, a very simple solution, even if you don’t transfer them to airtight containers. A simple bag clip can keep the contents of opened bags and boxes fresh—and prevent you from having to toss perfectly good food in the trash. Next, learn exactly how to stock your fridge if you want your food to last.
- Nielsen: “Pantries Padded with Produce As North Americans Prepare for the COVID-19 Long Haul”
- C+R: “COVID-19: The Impact on Consumers’ Wallets”
- USDA: “Food Waste FAQs”
- Justin Bailey, cofounder of Vimvest
- Forbes: “Here’s How Much Money You Save by Cooking at Home”
- Alma Schneider, founder of the blog and consulting company Take Back the Kitchen
- Kitchen Cabinet Kings: “Do Americans Eat Leftovers?”
- Energy Star: “Dishwashers”
- Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition: “Economical Healthy Diets (2012): Including Lean Animal Protein Costs More Than Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil”
- Matt Matsushima, director of operations for Shun Cutlery
- MarketWatch: “More Americans Are Guzzling Fizzy Water”