Meal planning for two: three tips to reduce food waste

Recently I had a conversation with a newly married friend of mine.  She and her husband had budgeted $60 a week for groceries for the two of them, but they were finding it hard to stay on track. Things just weren’t packaged for two people, she lamented, so they were overspending AND throwing out a lot of food waste – a double whammy.

To some extent, that’s just the “DINK tax”.  One of the prices you pay for living gloriously unencumbered by a bunch of kids is that you will never, no matter how hard you try, get through a full loaf of bread in a normal week between just the two of you.  But there are ways to reduce food waste when just cooking for two people instead of a whole brood – and it starts with plenty of advance planning.

This week’s “Highlight” Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara from DamnDelicious.net

1.  Pick one “highlight” meal for the week, then go from there.

It’s easy, especially if you frequent the time suck that is Pinterest, to find hordes of so-called “easy weeknight recipes” that also somehow contain upwards of 15, even 20 ingredients. If you try and make 4-5 of these complicated and ingredient-heavy recipes each week, you’re undoubtedly going to be spending a lot of money at the store, and having a lot food waste leftover.

Instead, pick ONE new “highlight” recipe for the week, and then build the rest of your weekly meal plan off the ingredients you won’t completely use in that main recipe.  (Select “continue reading” to see more!)

For example, this week, I’m going to try this spaghetti carbonara recipe I found beautifully photographed on the web, which calls for 4 slices of bacon. However, bacon tends to come 15-20 slices per pack.  So that means I need another recipe or two  in which to use the rest of the bacon.

I like to put bacon on baked potatoes, so, easy, we’ll do a baked potato bar another night that week.  I also like bacon on top of a cobb salad, so chicken cobb salads go on the calendar as well.  That’s three nights of the week taken care of.

But we’re not done yet – for the baked potato bar, I’ll end up making queso (velveeta + rotel = yum) and even in the smallest packages, that’s too much for one meal.  And if I’m getting chicken breasts (which come 3-4 to a package) and a head of romaine for the cobb salads, I’ll have leftover chicken and lettuce.

So, to round out the week, I’ll put together one more recipe based on what will be leftover from the highlight recipe, the two supporting recipes, and any shelf-stable (and low-cost) additions I may need.  If I have chicken, queso, and lettuce, I can add rice and beans and voila – burrito bowls. That’s four nights of dinners with almost zero food waste.

2.  Stop buying traditional “lunch” supplies; cook for four and take leftovers instead, supplement with shelf-stable.

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Lunch is served…when there are no leftovers.

Another place I discovered we were generating a lot of food waste in our first year of marriage was in lunch supplies.  Bread, lunch meat, sliced cheese, etc. I would buy them every week so that we could make and take our lunch to work, and while we may have actually done that a couple of times a week, we also would forget or be in a rush in the morning often enough that at the end of the week, we were throwing out half a loaf of bread and the cheese was sprouting mold.

So I stopped buying lunch supplies that would expire.  Full stop. Instead, I started making dinner recipes for four (as they are usually listed online, anyways) and at the exact same time I’m plating our dinner, I package up some leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

“But wait!  If we follow the advice you gave in step 1, then we won’t have sufficient leftovers for lunch every day!”  Yeah.  That’s true.  For example, in my above recipe, we would be unlikely to have any leftovers after the cobb salad night.  Which is why we started supplementing with shelf-stable foods for lunch that don’t expire.

Every couple months, I’ll send the hubby to work with a big bag of protein-heavy, shelf-stable supplies – Campbell’s “Chunky” soups, a jumbo pack of beek jerky, a couple canisters of nuts, etc. On days when we don’t have leftovers, he raids his supplies and makes himself a filling lunch that results in zero food waste.

And even better, the shelf stable items are also often the ones that you can get on extreme discount if you’re a couponer.  For the past three weeks, my HEB has been running a sale for “buy two, get one free” on Progresso Soups.  There’s also a printable internet coupon for $1 off four Progresso Soups.  They usually retail for about $1.50 a piece, but with the coupons it’ll come out to $0.83 a can – can’t beat that deal for lunch.

Also a quick note on health – I know some people may say, fairly, that it’s healthier to eat fresh, unprocessed foods.  And that’s true – which is why leftovers are better than eating nitrate-laden lunch meat on bleached white flour lunch bread. Throwing in a can of soup once a week or so, at least in my opinion, doesn’t tip the scales towards unhealthiness, but even so – I would recommend avoiding soups that list MSG in the ingredients, and going with brands (like Campbells) that have removed BPA from their can linings.

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3. Be realistic about how often you’re really going to cook.

I pride myself on cooking often for the hubby.  But often doesn’t mean every single night. Usually, at least once a week, I just don’t flippin’ feel like it. And I’ve come to know and accept that about myself.

So even if our social calendar looks wide open, and it appears that we could probably eat at home every night of a given week – I’m only going to buy stuff for five meals at most, and more likely just for four. One night, we’ll likely end up doing something social with friends instead of eating in, another night we’ll do take out or delivery when I don’t want to cook, another night, we’ll do a date night.

Meal planning also means planning for when you’re not going to cook, and being realistic about exactly how much that’s going to be will help you really cut down on food waste.  There’s nothing worse than paying the upcharge to eat out while also throwing away food in your fridge that you paid for already.

How do you reduce food waste when cooking for a smaller number of people?  Tell me in the comments.

Whitney