To cut down on food waste, this dietitian and mother takes a kitchen inventory, creates meal plans and places items in a "need-to-use bin" to help remind her and her family what to use ASAP. Why didn't we think of this?!
Young smiling caucasian woman hold eco shopping bag with fresh vegetables and baguette in modern kitchen.
Credit: Getty Images / nikkimeel

I swear by freezing brown bananas for smoothies or "nice" cream and keeping a stock of frozen spinach for soups, dips and pastas. But, I'll admit it: I struggle with working my way through all of my fresh produce before it goes bad. Little is more deflating than reaching into the crisper drawer as I prepare to whip up a healthy dinner recipe, only to discover the entire stack of kale I snagged at the farmers' market has turned brown and slimy. It's a triple whammy: money lost, food wasted and my OG dinner plans derailed.

The Discovery: Need-To-Use Bins

Tired of this happening all too often, I immediately stopped scrolling on Instagram when I came upon this brilliant trick from Alyssa Miller, a registered dietitian, mom of two and owner of Nutrition for Littles in Denver:

"This is my 'need-to-use bin' that lives right here all the time," she explains. "I put food in it, not necessarily leftovers, but food that I need to eat before it goes bad."

Immediately intrigued, I reached out to Miller for the skinny about this strategy.

"About two years ago, I realized I was throwing away a lot of food," she tells EatingWell exclusively. "I had started to clean out my fridge every week before I unloaded my new groceries, and it was painfully obvious that we were wasting quite a bit of money on food that was going directly into the trash."

Overripe avocados, half-eaten jars of salsa, bagged salad (that had gone slimy—been there, dealt with that!) and partially done yet now-moldy containers of yogurt and cottage cheese were all frequent offenders. In addition to being a hassle to clean up after, this was an expensive habit, Miller admits. 

"I was trying to get our grocery spending under control and realized that not only did I need to buy more intentionally, but I also had to use the food I bought more intentionally too," she explains. "I was spending about $800 to $1,000 a month on groceries. Yikes!"

The Food- and Money-Saving Strategy behind the Bins

  1. Meal planning
  2. No more buying in bulk
  3. Take only one trip to each store every week
  4. Take an inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer every week and update it
  5. Utilize that need-to-use bin and keep a close eye on "on-the-clock" items

As part of the inventory process, Miller does what she calls a "fridge clean-sweep," which she does once per week. Then before she crafts her new grocery shopping list, she places any straggler items into the need-to-use bin. 

"This keeps me honest about what I'm buying and if I'm using it, what we're actually eating, what to buy regularly, what to buy in bulk or skip altogether," Miller says. "I find the foods that come in larger containers tend to lose their appeal to me and the family after a few days of eating them. The fruit and vegetables seem to ripen faster than I expected, or we ate something else and didn't realize it was going to go bad. It's really just about keeping a close eye on foods that are on the clock, and the need-to-use bin really helps us do just that."

Tips for Properly Executing Your Strategy

For easy viewing, Miller uses a clear plastic bin, which can be an old art box, a storage container from another room or a new one like this from the organizational pros at The Home Edit. (An empty, clean shoebox could also do the trick.)

Once something lands in the bin, it "more often than not directs what I am going to make for dinner or grab for a snack, since it's available and needs to be used up," Miller adds. "If there's a half jar of salsa in there, then it's obvious to me to make shredded chicken in the slow cooker for chicken tacos. If there's bagged salad, then that's my lunch. Yogurt becomes part of breakfasts or snacks. It helps alleviate decision fatigue because it just kind of makes sense to use what's right there about to go bad."

She's also learned that this is another time in which less can be more: "I try not to overstuff my fridge or buy too much. This really causes things to get lost and forgotten about, which wastes money and time," Miller says. "Now my budget is $600 per month for a family of four. I more often than not stick to it, although it's been getting harder with inflation."

The Proof Is in the Savings

Miller is saving a whopping $400 per month. That's $4,800 per year in savings.

For more food-waste-reducing strategies that are a boon for your bank account and the environment, check out the best way to organize your pantry, freezer and fridge, plus 10 easy ways to reduce your food waste.