It all came to a head for me a few weeks ago. I wanted to make a cup of tea, opened the cabinet and what seemed like dozens of boxes and baggies of tea came cascading down. It was like that in almost all of my cupboards and pantry. A partially used bag of unsweetened coconut and a handful of dried cherries in a plastic container, both bought for a granola-making project months ago. Two opened bags of flour — nearly identical except for the level of fullness and a best-by date. A bag of Rancho Gordo dried beans that a friend gave me and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. A small jar of mango chipotle sauce that I bought to make a dip and then never followed through.
It just so happened that at the time I was realizing how stuffed my kitchen was, I had been thinking hard about how to cut costs. I canceled Netflix, called my Internet company and begged for a discount (I got one!) and talked to my insurance company about ramping down coverage on my 8-year-old car. But my grocery bill, regularly $100-plus a week for me and a 35-pound dog, was continuing to plague me.
As an aside, I’ll admit that for years now, I’ve been one of those horrible people who buy food and end up pitching it several weeks later when it’s really no longer edible. I hit the grocery store and the farmers’ market with the best intentions, but life gets busy, and I never get around to making those portobello fajitas. I’ll find those once-pristine mushrooms in the bottom drawer of the fridge and feel a twinge of regret as I strap on the biohazard suit and remove the bag to the trash can. Food waste is a huge problem here in the U.S. According to Feeding America, about 70 billion pounds of food go to waste in America. At the same time, 49 million million people in the country struggle with food insecurity.
I’ve adjusted my thinking in recent weeks, in part because I now get a weekly box of produce from a local farmer. The veggies keep coming, whether or not I finish them. And I feel even worse throwing away something that Farmer Tom slaved and sweated over since spring.
While all this was occupying my thoughts, a friend was posting daily on Facebook the meals she was making that utilized ingredients already in her pantry. It’s called the #pantrychallenge. I’m not usually a trend follower, but it seemed like just what I needed to clear the cabinets, cut my grocery bill and try to minimize my contribution to our collective food waste problem.
The first thing I did was take stock. I pulled stuff out of cabinets and began making piles. Stuff that was clearly expired was immediately tossed. But I didn’t just rely on dates stamped on the cans of soup and bags of flour. According to this WebMD article, “sell by” and “best if used by” dates don’t mean the item is expired afterward. I used common sense, but if something was questionable, I tossed it. For instance, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had loose tea stored in a plastic bag with a “best by” date in 2013. While tea doesn’t go bad, it does get stale. I brewed a test cup, felt like it tasted like paper and decided to toss it.
Read more: Nature’s Bounty: From CSA Box to Plate
The second pile was stuff that was still within its sell by/best buy date and unopened, but I knew I wasn’t going to use it. For instance, a specific flavor of canned soup that I had bought on sale, tried and disliked. I had several other cans of the same flavor. Items that found their way into this pile were packed in a box and brought to a local food pantry (along with a small donation) for others to use.
And the third pile? That was what made up an ingredient list for future meals. I was ready for the #pantrychallenge.
Plan your week
The premise is simple. Plan meals using what you’ve already have. I had a steady stream of fruit and veggies. I had plenty of pantry items. So now what? I appropriated an old white board calendar and decided to use it as a weekly planner. On Friday morning before work, I sit down and start researching potential recipes that I can make with few or no purchases from the grocery store. There are several sites, including Epicurious, that allow you to plug in ingredients to find recipes. Just type in the ingredients you’re hoping to use into the search bar. The site will return a number of options. As an example, I typed in dried beans (to use up those beautiful Rancho Gordo beans), carrots, potatoes and got 20 recipe options. I went with a Bon Appetit recipe for vegetable soup with pistou, one that only required me to pick up some basil and green beans from the farmers’ market. Everything else I had in the pantry — from diced tomatoes and olive oil to bow tie pasta and fresh thyme. Not bad for a quick, free search on the Internet.
The key to minimizing your food waste is not only coming up with meals but also figuring out what to do with leftovers. I usually am just cooking for me, while recipes often feed four or more. Setting aside time on Sundays to cook, then packing what I made into single portions and freezing some for later in the week helps me both immediately use ingredients I purchased and avoid throwing out leftovers that are past their prime. That whiteboard planner turned weekly menu also helps me visualize how I’ll use leftovers. Yesterday’s side of roasted veggies can be used in today’s omelette. Tomorrow’s roast in the slow cooker is the weekend’s shepherd’s pie filling.
Bring in support
Another idea I’ve used to minimize food waste: Organize what I call a reverse potluck. I’ve invited a few friends who also enjoy cooking over on a Sunday afternoon and asked each to bring a favorite dish that feeds a crowd and freezes well. They also bring some storage containers. The first time, I made this zucchini lasagna. One friend made vegetarian chili and another made moussaka. We split everything three ways, portioned into individual servings and then stocked our freezers. In addition to being a fun time — with wine, records and cooking tips — it also meant I didn’t have to eat eight servings of lasagna to avoid wasting my time and money. I had a manageable three servings, plus plenty of chili and moussaka in the freezer for later.
Three weeks into my #pantrychallenge, my cupboards are looking pretty bare. I have about a week’s worth of tea left, and I’ve consolidated those two open bags of flour into one storage container. I’m making more food from scratch, including some really awesome carrot-zucchini cake that used up a handful of raisins, a half-used package walnuts and a jar of honey that had been hanging out in my cabinet since January. I skipped the cream cheese frosting and ate it for breakfast all week. And my grocery bill? Less than $20 a week. I deem the whole experiment a success.
Erin L. Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.