Most of us are familiar with the situation. You reach into your refrigerator’s vegetable bin and pull out a bag of…something. What the heck is it? It might have begun its over-long stay in the fridge as lettuce or green onions, but now it resembles nothing so much as what might live at the bottom of a pond. Or maybe you find a storage container you had forgotten about. Do you dare lift the lid? Maybe it would be less disturbing to just toss it, and all those other mystery containers, into the trash and resolve to not let the situation reoccur. Except it does. Over and over.
What would you find if you cleaned out your fridge right now? Are there three opened, and expired, pints of heavy cream? I’ve been a member of that club. Have you unearthed hopelessly freezer-burned meat or fish? I feel your pain because they sure didn’t give that stuff away. I have come to believe that the two keys to successful refrigerator management are first–being able to see what you have, and second–having a plan for what to do with it. While there are apps available to help you track what’s in your refrigerator, you can probably manage this on your own. Maybe you make a spreadsheet after every shopping trip of what has been purchased and when it will expire. Maybe you make a habit of checking through the refrigerator and freezer every few days to see what you have, when you need to use it, and what you need to replace.
In my house, what seems to work best is keeping the refrigerator contents as streamlined as possible. When I’m staying on top of things, I only have as many perishable items on hand as I will use up within a week. This state of affairs has been by no means easy for me to reach. I grew up with a mother who kept the refrigerator and cabinets filled with food of all kinds. Sure, my brother and I would sometimes complain that “there’s nothing here to eat” (we usually assembled our own breakfasts, snacks, and lunches eaten at home), but that just meant we were out of a particular, highly desired food such as Trix cereal or bologna. It has taken me awhile to be able to see a well-stocked refrigerator as anything other than one that is about to burst open, but I’ve learned that a more sparely-stocked fridge is not only easier to manage but also cools and freezes more efficiently.
Of course, one has to make a habit of these things and I realized this past Sunday that things, refrigerator-wise, had once more spiraled out of control. It was time to clean and reorganize. Here are just some of the things that I pulled out and had to pitch: a quart of barbeque sauce that I made at the beginning of the summer, two jars of refrigerator pickles that I made around the same time, a jar of turnip pickles that I made even earlier, an almost full jar of beets that I bought to make the turnip pickles (I only needed two of them. I always think that I like beets…until I taste one and remember that I don’t.), and a jar of some mysterious brown liquid that turned out to be more barbeque sauce. The situation was certainly not the worst it’s ever been and I harbor rosy hopes of being able to maintain my now clean and well-organized fridge.
This brings me to the second part of my refrigerator management strategy–having a plan. For me, this means planning meals and shopping weekly only for what I need to make the meals, plus staples like milk and coffee. This works well for my small household. You may need a slightly different approach for your family. Still, I am convinced that making a weekly meal plan, and sticking to it, saves me money and the aggravation that comes from realizing that, once again, I have let perfectly good food go to waste.
We here in America waste in excess of 40 percent of our food every year. Of course not all of this comes from our home kitchens, but much of it does. If you’d like to explore this crucial issue in detail, check out American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom. Bloom presents an intelligent overview of the problem and provides practical tips and advice to help all of us waste less food. He’s a lively writer and his spirited prose makes this book not just a thought-provoking read but also a fun experience. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart is another valuable study of the topic. Interestingly, Stuart is a freegan, a term used to describe someone who is dedicated to living off discarded or self-produced food.
If you want to try meal planning as a way to reduce waste in your kitchen, be sure to look at Family Feasts for $75 a Week: A Penny-Wise Mom Shares her Recipe for Cutting Hundreds from Your Monthly Food Bill by Mary Ostyn. This is mainly a cookbook (and a good one, too) but Ostyn devotes a substantial section of the book to meal planning tailored to personality. You might be someone who likes to plan everything ahead (that’s me) or someone who likes to be much more spontaneous. Ostyn’s tips must work–she feeds a family of twelve! Another useful book, if a bit dated now, is Still Life With Menu: Fifty New Meatless Menus with Original Art by Mollie Katzen. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate Katzen’s vibrant recipes and well-balanced menus, and you can use her tips on planning meals and cooking ahead for any type of cooking you do.
Are you interested in rearranging your refrigerator for maximum efficiency and minimum waste? If so, Lillian Hayes Martin’s Room by Room: Kitchens: Your Home Made Simple and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Organizing Your Life by Georgene Muller Lockwood can help. Both books have well-written and complete instructions on optimal kitchen organization as well as tips for effective grocery shopping. Also, I must put in a word here for the book that I consider an invaluable reference for all topics related to the proper care and running of one’s home. This book is Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. Mendelson’s book is as interesting to read as any novel, and her knowledge is solid. She devotes a number of pages to meal planning as well as entire chapters on grocery shopping and food storage. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. My copy lives on a shelf in my kitchen and I use it all the time.
How do you cut down on food waste in your kitchen? Are you a meal planner or do you prefer a more casual approach?