Eliminate food waste with the CFO’s guide to fridge management

how to reduce food waste

Who hid the booze?

The Escape Artist is an environmentalist. I want us all to live in harmony with the birds, the flowers and the little kittens.

At the same time, The Escape Artist believes in capitalism and getting rich. And I don’t see these 2 values as being in conflict.

If the human race can reduce waste and its environmental footprint then maybe, just maybe, we are not all doomed. With smart design cities, we could all live much cheaper and be rich. I don’t think it would be that difficult…we just have to stop screwing everything up.

As MMM says, the Western middle class lifestyle is an exploding volcano of wastefulness.   And waste consumes resources needlessly. That route ends badly…like in the film Wall E.

But this is not the fault of capitalism.  In capitalism, the price mechanism provides incentives to allocate and use scarce resources as efficiently as possible. Good companies recognise that just making a profit is not good enough. The best companies maximise profit by continually looking for ways to reduce waste and costs whilst finding ways to grow revenue.

We would do better to think of our finances as if we were Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of our own companies. Let’s take food as an example. The less food we waste, the less we need to buy and the more we can save. That’s good for us as individuals as well as the environment.

The less food we waste in aggregate, the less land need be intensively farmed and the more space there can be for wilderness, nature reserves and other good things. It may not be obvious but there’s a link between throwing food (and other stuff) away and screwing up the environment.

According to WRAP:

  • The average UK household is throwing away the equivalent of six meals every week; and
  • An area almost the size of Wales would be needed to grow all of the food we throw away from our homes each year.

Eliminating the cost of food waste is one of those areas that is too small on its own to get anyone to financial independence.  This is not like firing your financial adviser and managing your own portfolio which could save many people hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But here’s the point. If you have a mindset that minimises food waste, you’ll probably minimise other wasteful spending.  So eliminating food waste is not a bad place to start. Unfortunately most people don’t fully understand the power of the aggregation of marginal gains.  So The Escape Artist is here to help join up the dots.

We all have different sides to our personality. To maximise earnings, we may need to sell, charm and influence other people. But to eliminate food waste, I embrace my inner beancounter.

Imagine you are Chief Financial Officer of FU Money plc, a company whose mission is to maximise profit and pay you dividends for the rest of your life so you never have to work again. Here is the CFO’s guide to fridge management:

Reduce stock levels (have less stuff in your fridge, part 1)

Think of your fridge as a warehouse full of valuable inventory sat there tying up shareholder capital.

I think of surplus food as taunting me when I open the fridge door and look in.

Hey sucker, you paid good money for me and in a few days time, if you don’t eat me, I’ll be gone along with your money. Ha-ha-ha-ha!

When deciding what to eat, I make it a priority to use the fresh foods that are already sat in the fridge in abundance before buying or defrosting other stuff.

Reduce complexity (have less stuff in your fridge, part 2)

Effective inventory management is easier when you have less complexity, less clutter and fewer SKU’s to manage.

When house hunting, I was struck by how people’s garages were usually stuffed full of unused treasure (or junk, depending on your point of view). Most people’s fridges are stocked the same way.

A fridge stuffed full is a sign of unnecessary complexity. It creates mental as well as physical clutter. In the modern world, we face information overload and too many choices. So reduce complexity…by having less stuff in the fridge.

Analyse and optimise (you are not going to starve)

A CFO balances the cost and benefits of carrying stock to find an optimal solution.

On one hand, the higher the level of stock carried, the less likely a business is to experience stock outs where the customer can’t get the item they want. On the other hand, stock is costly to produce and store and it ties up capital all the time whilst its sat in the warehouse.

Our monkey brain does not do cost : benefit analysis or optimisation. Our monkey brain shouts things like:

I’M HUNGRY NOW! I DON’T WANT TO STARVE TO DEATH! WHO CARES WHAT IT COSTS?!

My wife hates the thought of a near empty fridge. Evolutionary biology may help explain this. One of women’s greatest nightmares throughout history would have been losing a child to starvation.

But the CFO realises that starving to death is a remote scenario in the West these days.   We are omnivores, so don’t worry about occasionally running out of any one item. You won’t starve and skipping the odd meal makes you stronger.

Use technology effectively (e.g. air-tight containers, freezing)

The CFO recognises that technology can improve efficiency and uses it wherever it makes financial sense.

We used to have a Chinese takeaway habit which left us with loads of those air tight plastic containers that the egg fried rice came in. Put through the dishwasher, they come up as ideal food containers that then extend the fridge life of anything.

For example, most meat from the supermarket comes in plastic packaging that is airtight. As soon as you open this, air gets in and allows bacteria access. By putting the meat in an airtight Tupperware container you automatically extend its life by several days.

One thing I now do is store more fresh veg in the freezer. My “goto” breakfast is scambled eggs and spinach doused in butter. Spinach is a superfood and the nutritional content is not lost by being frozen.

Use the best information available (Your nose is the best judge)

A good CFO uses the best available data for financial decision-making.

What if you had the most sophisticated and sensitive food contamination detection system in the world?  One that had been developed over the last billion years or so, tested on all different foodstuffs by an incredibly wide range of people?  You wouldn’t ignore this system and instead rely solely on some dumb paper label made up by health & safety bureaucrats who can’t see / touch / smell the food.

You already have this system. It’s called a nose.

Smell is the best measuring instrument for food freshness. I will happily eat food after its recommended date if it looks and smells fresh.  I use these dates as information but don’t follow them slavishly.  “Best before”, “Display until” and “Use by” dates are different things.  I place more weight on “Use by” dates as these are more relevant to food safety.

What gets measured gets managed (out of sight is out of mind)

A good CFO knows that what gets measured gets managed.  People can make better decisions when they have the right information to hand.

Many fridges have drawers at the bottom which are out of your line of sight.  We used to keep fresh vegetables in these. The result was that we ended up throwing away lots of vegetables.

Out of sight is out of mind. So put the items with the shortest shelf life (e.g. fresh salad leaves) at eye level so they don’t get ignored.

I place labelled food so that the Use by / Best before date is visible. So don’t stack lots of food on top of other food items. Make sure you can see the label which reminds you when something is getting towards the end of its fridge-life.

The stuff to put in the bottom tray should be the stuff with the longest life that you actually want out of sight. So that’s where I put beer and wine. If I open my fridge and see a load of booze sat there, the unconscious message is DRINK ME!

Everytime you see a treat that you have to refuse, you use up some of your limited stock of willpower. So keep the booze and choccies out of sight.

Utilise your existing assets (check freezer before buying more)

This sounds so ridiculously obvious that I almost hesitate to write it down. But before you buy more food…check the freezer. I’m embarrassed to say that we have 2 freezers. And they are often nearly full.  And yet we sometimes buy more food to put in the fridge when we already have the same stuff in the freezer. So now before I fire up the laptop to get a new Tesco delivery order in, I try to go to the freezer and take stuff out to de-frost in the fridge to keep the inventory turning over.

Communicate goals clearly (stick this on your fridge door)

Image credit: Bulletproof.com

Image credit: Bulletproof.com

There are 2 components to doing the right thing. Firstly we have to know what the right thing is. Second we have to action that on a daily basis.  By setting goals at the outset and regularly reminding ourselves of these, we can help keep on track.

Often the best hacks are the simplest. The easiest way I improved what I ate was pinning The Bulletproof Diet Roadmap to the front of my fridge. You can’t miss it and get a reminder every time you go the fridge. I don’t always eat in 100% compliance with this. But as a visual guide to reducing carbs, cutting out junk and sugar and generally eating a more natural diet, its great.

You can get a copy from the Bulletproof website here.

Conduct  “whole life” investment appraisal (buy the right fridge)

When buying a fridge (or any other capital equipment), you should ideally try to consider the costs on a through life basis. In other words, don’t just focus on the sticker price (important though that is) consider expected lifespan, servicing costs and electricity costs as well. All electrical appliances are rated for energy efficiency these days and you want something rated A or B.

You may decide life is too short to do your own analysis of fridge running costs and I wouldn’t blame you for that. But in that case, apply The Principles of Lifehacking. Find a recommendation from an unbiased source.

We often overlook the importance of everyday overhead costs.  A fridge is running all day every day, so differences in energy efficiency really matter.  A good CFO reduces operational leverage by reducing fixed overhead cost.

If all of this seems like effort, I get that. But its funny how much lifeforce we put into working for The Man. One of the tricks of getting to financial independence is applying the same effort and creativity to your own life.

Want more like this? Check out this interesting UK food sharing venture that aims to eliminate food waste.

29 comments

  1. Hmm… as impressive a skill as fridge management is, I’m not sure it would make it onto an aspiring CFO’s resume. I do however agree that it’s an important skill nonetheless.

    Everything you said makes perfect sense, but I’m left thinking “If only my wife would listen to all of this”.

    Despite her lack of receptiveness to input about management of our fridge, we have really cut down on food waste in the last 12 months. As the father of two small daughters, I am the only male in a family of four, and therefore find that my own commitment to eating leftovers has the biggest impact on our food waste. I will eat just about anything, whereas the ladies of the house will not.

    That doesn’t worry me though, and I’m sure I’m not the only Dad that plays this role!

  2. TheLuckyOne · · Reply

    My wife already thinks I’m a fruitcake and losing the plot (me walking into a closed patio door yesterday did nothing to enhance my standing either).
    I think I’ll go down to the fridge now and implement these recommendations including a post it note about waste/money.
    I’ll report back on the result tomorrow!

    1. Yes, let us have the update tomorrow pls!

  3. Emma Playing with Fire · · Reply

    Love this. I’m definitely moving the beer to the vegetable drawers – that is genius on every level. I agree with the issue of being the only one in the house eating the leftovers, but it’s not a strictly gender thing (dude SO will bring back McDs having claimed there was nothing in the fridge and then complain two days later about throwing out the leftovers). I’ve found that writing on the outside of the fridge (whiteboard pen) what needs to be eaten in the next couple of days can be pretty helpful. On a similar note, writing what has run out on a list on the fridge helps with the supermarket order.

    I notice that this CFO hasn’t listed the importance of sourcing food at an acceptable quality and lowest price.

    1. Thanks EPWF…you’re right, this article doesn’t cover procurement….I may have to add another section…or write a separate post on that.

      ps tell dude not to bring McDs home

  4. Why do all statistics seem to involve an area the size of Wales?! 🙂

    Great tips and I also find it annoying that my freezer is seemingly always packed full (although it is a lot smaller than your two freezers are by the sounds of it!).

    When we moved house we had to buy a new fridge/freezer and it was so very tempting to go for one of those massive fancy American style ones, but I am so glad we didn’t in the end! Such a waste of space especially for just two people. Considering I used to get by in a shared house with one fridge shelf and about half a freezer shelf an average sized fridge freezer is more than adequate for a family of four and absolutely massive for 2 people.

    One thing to note however is that an empty fridge or freezer is actually easier for the unit to keep cool and so will use less electricity. So maybe a full freezer is not such bad thing after all.

    Also if you find your fridge looking rather sparse fill it with booze or if not then fill up water bottles and put those in for an ongoing supply of nice cold water, again it is easier to keep water cool than it is air.

    Cheers!

    1. You can always fill spare space in your freezer with water…. I always have a few bottles frozen which also cunningly double up as cooling devices when i am chilling my home-brew “wort” post-boil before adding the yeast & getting it fermenting. I mention this detail as if i recall correctly you were chewing over getting into homebrewing too 😉 .

      1. Cheers for the tip LCIL and great memory. I’ve already done one batch and got a new kit to make up soon. I’m not doing it properly with boiling up the hops as it sounds you are but still handy to cool down the kit malt + boiling water mix.

  5. There is so much further you can go…

    http://robrhinehart.com/?p=1331

    (I think this may have been linked previously in a monevator weekend read)

    I took a contrarian strategy on the booze front, hanging bottles of beer from the ceiling in my hallway so I hit my head on them when I step through the front door

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed you tend to take the contrarian stance on most fronts Ben 😉

  6. I love this way of thinking about it: using food waste avoidance as a model for all waste avoidance. And such an important issue — food waste is an appalling problem, with global implications. We all have a responsibility not just to our own finances, but to the world, to reduce our waste.

  7. TheLuckyOne · · Reply

    Update from yesterday…. so first thing I realised was that the fridge was not quite pristine so I hauled everything out and gave it a good clean. Then put things back in the correct place (the correct place is where I think it should be, Mrs L adopts a contrarian strategy here).
    Everything was still in date ish but ready for eating soon. So I decided that last nights tea (sometimes known as dinner) would be vegetable surprise ie (leftovers).
    The surprise being the bacon I added. I put my post it note prominently in the fridge and proudly displayed my organised and sanitised work. I was suitably rewarded with “well done” and after reading the note my little princess said
    “got it” and promptly put the post it note in the bin.
    What did I learn?
    Our fridge food rotation policy & management is pretty good, just as I thought it would be.
    Our cleaning policy needs updating and outsourcing to…..err… me as I am supposedly time rich now.
    And…. I love my wife even though I don’t understand her sometimes.
    “Everydays a school day!”

    1. Thanks for the update TLO. Over the last year I found some great resources that helped me understand my own wife better…its a bit off-topic for this site but any guys that want to understand better the perspective of the opposite sex should email me if they’d would like me to point them in that direction

      1. Underscored · ·

        Yes please!

  8. Been a lurker here for a while now…

    I like the analogy here.

    We too have been trying to cut down on food waste. The most important change we have made is we have learnt to always check the fridge for what we have whenever we leave the house and there is a chance we will end up going shopping. If nothing else, it saves on arguments at the supermarket about whether we still have carrots,butter, eggs etc.

    1. Thanks…The Escape Artist welcomes lurkers. Come out of the shadows and join us in the sunlit uplands of abundance 😉

  9. Instead of being a consumer of food why not be a partial producer? We have 4 chickens and they typically provide an egg a day each – have you seen the price of good eggs these days, they eat all vegetable scraps for example the green part of cauliflowers etc., chicken shit is brilliant for the garden.

    Also having fruit trees and berry bushes. Having lots of raspberries all at once means we freeze them in handful portions and they can be added to breakfast serial which makes things like bran almost palatable.

    One goal when I get out of the rat race is apart from meat & fish is to try and be 25% self sufficient for food.

  10. This is our first time on your site–referred here by Monevator’s weekend readings–and we were interested and surprised to see those statistics about UK food waste. As you probably know (since you seem to be a reader of MMM, like we are), those of us in the US see overwhelming amount of food waste. We somehow figured that residents of the UK were not quite so terrible.

    Do you believe it is really accurate–in your personal experience and that of others you know, not just from statistics–that the average UK household throws away the equivalent of 6 meals per week?

    1. Welcome to the site J&W. Having been to the USA, my impression is that the UK is not quite as bad as the USA for food waste…but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem here.

      Those stats are from WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) which was set up by the UK Government to reduce waste. It is of course possible that such a body might exaggerate to gain attention but I believe those estimates are in the right ball park (I wouldn’t have quoted them if I thought they were obviously wrong).

      Its also consistent with my business experience. I had clients in the food industry and I remember a food company CEO telling me that about a third of his product was “buy to bin”. So ~33% of the product never got eaten and went straight to the trash.

      Verdict: could do better.

  11. fluffydoc · · Reply

    We have a 4 weekly rolling evening meal planner stuck to our fridge that tells us what to buy for the coming week, and what we’ll eat any given evening. It’s stopped us buying and not using, and it also means I don’t have to decide what to make. I’m sure some people enjoy this choice, but by evening, I don’t want to make any more decisions. And because I can’t be bothered, I used to cop out and buy takeaway, so it saves money too 🙂

  12. We have recently done a large refurb of our house.

    In doing so, we increased the size of our mortgage. (Booo me.)

    Shortly after I came across MMM etc. I am now a practising mustachian and escape artist!

    Anyway, we have a large full length fridge and a separate, and equally large freezer.

    We are quite good on the food wastage front generally speaking but I think if we were to move (downsize!!!!) I would like to do the following…

    1. Half the size of the fridge. Maybe even go smaller than that.

    2. Consider getting rid of the freezer altogether.

    3. Walk to the local supermarket (badass) and get fresh food daily. Use your supermarket as your fridge. We already pay for their fridges and freezers.

    Benefits:

    1. No wastage (save money)

    2. Less electricity used (save money)

    3. More time (don’t have to clean or manage a big fridge and freezer)

    4. More exercise and better health

    I call this approach JIT FOOD. Just in time food.

    What do you think? 🙂

    1. I think that’s a great start..Re the house refurb, that’s a form of stored wealth….it may not provide an income currently (and a bigger mortgage you costs more) but you have the option to downsize and release equity to reinvest into financial assets and provide an income….OR, even better, you could rent out a room now to provide extra income and get to FI quicker

  13. […] Eliminate waste with the CFO’s guide to fridge management [The Escape Artist]: you know we hate waste, right? Here is something practical about how not to forget things in your fridge. […]

  14. Great post. We’ve simplified our meal choices (we don’t eat very much meat anymore) and that has greatly reduced food that gets thrown away.

  15. We don’t waste any food. We regularly check it to make sure there’s no ‘hidden 6 week old leftovers’ lurking somewhere at the back.

    But the most helpful thing for us has been meal planning. Like one of the commenters above, we have a meal plan that we print off every week. We buy all the ingredients for the week ahead and then just cook what it says. It saves so much time, hassle, and fridge space too. We’re not stocking up on those packs of sausages any more, just because they were 2 for £5.

    Overall, the meal plans have helped us slash our grocery costs by a whopping 50% This is how we did it: http://theresvalue.co.uk/how-to-cut-your-grocery-bill-in-half-week-four-report-2/

    Kudos to ThriftyLesley.com – Lesley is the queen of frugalness in the grocery basket!

  16. Home/local fridge management is just the first step to a proper global waste management! Each of us is responsible for their own waste and the better we reduce it, the happier we will live on this planet!

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