Easy Zero Waste Menu Planning Saves Time and Money

Many of us find ourselves opening our refrigerator door and shouting, “There’s nothing in here to eat”. We promptly head to the grocery store (or the closest fast food restaurant) to get dinner.

Days later, we discover now soggy lettuce, slimy celery, moldy broccoli, and rancid leftovers.

As it turns out, we had a bounty of food that we did not perceive and it cost us dearly as we pitched the whole lot into the garbage can – again.

There’s nothing more frustrating than spending your hard-earned money on healthy food and then throwing it out ten days later, because it has rotted.

According to research conducted in 2018, about 20% of the food in the the average American household is thrown out. That equates to about a pound of food per day – per person.

In simple terms, that means if you are spending $800 a month to feed your family, $160 of that money is being thrown into the trashcan. If you do the simple math, this equates to nearly $2000 a year.

We Can Do Better

For years now, I’ve been feeding my family for well under the USDA’s recommended food budget. I have a family of four, including two hungry teenage boys. According to the USDA, I should be spending just over $710 each month (on the thrifty plan) to feed my crew. Yet, I’m spending less than half that amount.

In order to do this, I seek and find the best bargains at the farmers market and buy markdowns at the grocery store, store the food properly, keep an up-to-date food inventory, and menu plan each week.

Zero Waste Planning

One of our primary keys to eating better and saving money is once a week zero waste menu planning. Our family has a written, three percent food waste goal. That means that we throw out very little of all the food that comes into our home.

In order to reach this goal, we must be very intentional in planning how we store, cook, and preserve our food.

Zero Waste Menu Planning Example

It’s so much easier to illustrate this process if I show you what it looks like in real life. On a recent Friday morning I opened my fridge to find just a handful of items on the shelf. I really didn’t want to go to the store, knowing that heading there with the “I don’t have a thing to cook” mindset would lead to massive overspending.

Instead, I decided to take an inventory of my perishable food items, pair them with ingredients from my freezer and pantry and feed my family for seven meals.

It took me less than 60 minutes!

Create a Perishable Food List

Any time we talk about zero food waste, the conversation must begin with advice on using perishable items before they rot.

Not surprisingly, Americans throw out more produce than any other category of food. Not only do most fruits and vegetables have a relatively short shelf life, we are also prone to buying large quantities of them when we decide that we are going to “eat healthy”.

Fill in a perishable food inventory weekly. It takes just five minutes to open the fridge, list what you see, and then add items that are sitting on your counters.

I like to prioritize my list by writing items with the shortest shelf life or those which have been in the fridge for a while and are looking wilted or dry at the top of the perishable food inventory sheet.

This way, my eye will be drawn to them first and I know that I need to use them up first.

When you know what is in your fridge and on your counter, you can strategically plan to use items with a shorter shelf-life first, leaving heartier items for later in the week.

This one strategy, when regularly employed, will save you, literally, hundreds of dollars a year on your food expenses.

Create a Plan to Your Use All of Your Fresh Ingredients

After you have created a complete list of perishable items in your home, then it’s time to plan some recipes, which will use up these items before they are not longer edible.

The example below is from a recent zero food waste planning session in my home. You’ll notice that some recipes occur more than once on the right hand side. That’s because those recipes used more than one of my perishable ingredients.

For instance, the asparagus salad used some of my radishes, green onions, and tomatoes. The goal of this sheet is to be sure that you have enough recipes to use up all of your fresh ingredients. In this case, cleaning out the fridge is good.

I list all my perishable items on the left side of my planner, leaving space for possible recipes, and then add the quantity that I have on hand of each ingredient in the appropriate column.

This process makes it really easy to brainstorm recipe ideas and enter them on the far right side of the ingredient planning form.

As you are looking for recipes, pick ones that primarily use ingredients that you already have on hand in your pantry and freezer. This will ensure that you are buying only what you truly need at the grocery store.

List Additional Ingredients Needed for Each Recipe

After you have finalized your recipe selections, make a list of any additional ingredients that I need to either get out of the pantry or freezer or buy from the store.

I highlight grocery store items with yellow highlighter. This makes them really easy to see when creating my weekly shopping plan.

You’ll notice in the example that I only needed to buy three items from the grocery store in order to complete my weekly menu plan.

The Weekly Recipe Plan

So, what does my actual menu plan look like after I have listed my available fresh ingredients, brainstormed recipes, and listed additional ingredients I need for those recipes?

I like to use a topical, rather than a daily, menu planner. You’ll see that I was able to plan for three main dishes, one soup, two salads, and two sides.

The entire process took me less than an hour!

That’s right. I avoided hitting up the local pizza joint or buying unneeded items at the store just by creating a Zero Waste Menu Plan.

The Final Result

Here’s what the refrigerator looked like after I was finished cooking.

There was a little plant-based milk on the top shelf and I had one, yellow onion left over.

That was it!

But, look at all the food on my table! In four hours, I bulk cooked everything on the topical menu plan.

*Note: The homemade bread dough was still rising. So, the buns, bread, and calzones do not appear in the photo.

I anticipate that my family will eat both lunch and dinner for five days, almost exclusively from this bulk cooking session.

All this bounty came from a seemingly empty refrigerator.

What did I make?

I must add a couple of notes before I show you the final result. As I cooked, I did find that I made a couple of changes to my initial plan.

I had overestimated the amount of leftover homemade marinara sauce. So, I made a new batch in about twenty minutes.

When I decided to make homemade bread and buns this week, I also opted for putting my pizza fillings into calzones. I used the bread dough, rolling it out into six inch circles, placing marinara sauce and pizza topping on one half, and then folding it over and crimping the edges to create a calzone.

This method actually turned out much better than I expected, allowing me to make eight calzones and feed my family for two meals, instead of just one.

Here are photos of each recipe I made, along with links.

Main Dishes


Side Dishes

Need more help with menu planning?

All the forms shown in this post are available in Menu Planning Made Easy. Click here or on the image below.

7 thoughts on “Easy Zero Waste Menu Planning Saves Time and Money”

  1. The reason honey gets sugary is because you have it in the refrigerator you need to leave it out of the refrigerator

    • Thanks for the tip, Sandi. I don’t put my honey in the fridge and it still eventually gets sugary, but your tip will keep others from making that mistake.

    • Not always true. I store mine in my pantry, and it still gets a little crystalized. This is normal for fresh, raw honey. It’s totally safe to eat. 🙂

  2. Hope, I’m 80 years young and most of what you posted I’ve done or am doing. That being said, I did get a lot out of steps 2, 3, 5, and 9. If nothing else, it reminded me to start doing those steps again even though my family is all grown with families of their own. I might save even more money…😆. Thanks for your sage advise and give Larry a hug from me. Be blessed.

  3. Hi, just purchased your ebook on meal planning! Can you share the homemade bread recipe? Your calzones look like they are whole wheat, can you share what dough recipe you made for them, I’d love to try them!

    • Hi, Alyona, 

      I use my bread dough for the calzones. Roll out a ball of dough to an 8 inch circle. fill half the dough with filling. Fold over. Seal and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown. 

      I make a huge batch of dough and knead it in my Bosch mixer. I use 3/4 parts fresh ground hard red or white wheat flour and 1/4 part white flour. I have made it with straight whole wheat, but the white wheat flour does let it rise higher and faster. So, that was my compromise. 

      Remember, this is a huge batch. It’s a recipe that I got from a friend and I’ve memorized it over the years. I’ll give it to you as I make it with my big Bosch mixer. You may need to play with it a bit. 

      5 cups warm water 
      8 tsp.Instant rise yeast 
      1/2 – 3/4 cup sugar (or other sweetener like brown sugar or real maple syrup)
      1 Tbsp salt 
      3/4 cup neutral-flavored oil
      13-14 cups of flour (3 cups white and the rest is whole wheat) – The amount will vary a bit due to humidity and the moisture content of the flour. 

      Add yeast to warm water and sugar. Let sit for 5 minutes to proof. Add salt, oil, and 3 cups flour. Mix for one minute. Let sit for 25 minutes. This is called “sponging” the bread and will improve the finished texture. After 25 minutes, the mixture will be foamy. Put kneading attachment on mixer. Add in the rest of the flour one cup at a time until the dough cleans the side of the mixer. Once the dough cleans the side of the mixing bowl, add flour 1/2 cup at a time until the dough is a smooth consistency and isn’t sticking at all to the sides or middle of the mixer. Knead for 7-9 minutes on speed 2. Dough should be elastic and only slightly sticky. Remove to a large bowl with a bit of oil in the bottom. Roll the dough in the oil until the top is coated with oil. Cover with clean dishcloth and let sit until doubled. Punch down and shape into loaves and place into greased bread tins (You can also use the dough for dinner rolls, calzones, or even pizza dough.) Let bread rise covered for another 20 minutes. (The calzones or pizza don’t need to rise as much).Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes for medium-sized loaves. (I put them into a cool oven and let the oven preheat with the bread in the oven.) The bread will be golden brown on the top and sound hollow when “thumped” with your finger. Remove and let cool completely on cooling rack so that the crumb is “set” and it will slice better. 

      • Thank you for sharing! I will have to try these. I have been watching quite a few of your videos you seem like a wise woman, thanks for sharing your tips on frugality! You should post more videos on what you cook from a frugal haul…


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