Waste Not, Want Not
Friday, January 15, 2010
When I was little, I was baffled by the phrase waste not, want not. I understood “want” to mean “desire,” not “lack.” I didn’t understand what not wasting things had at all to do with not desiring things. But eventually I figured it out. Duh.
One of the key strategies for spending less on groceries is to not throw anything away. This is something that can be a problem for people in small households. You often have to buy things in sizes larger than you need, and most recipes are for 4-6 servings at least (many are for 6-8 servings, which is totally ridiculous if you’re cooking for one person).
I can eat something three times before I get sick of it. And if I don’t want to eat something, I won’t eat it–even if it’s the only thing in the house. When I’m done, I’m done.
I’ve ended up with a couple of strategies for dealing with this.
One is to eyeball recipes and adjust so I’m making only 3-4 servings. If the recipe says it makes 6-8 servings, you definitely want to cut that in half.
You can get a sense of how many servings a recipe is going to make by how much of a particular ingredient you’re using. For instance I know how much a half cup of rice makes and how much a cup of rice makes, and how many servings I usually get out of those. Also pasta–2 ounces is a fairly small serving, 4 ounces is a large serving. If a recipe calls for a pound of pasta, plus vegetables and other ingredients, I know that’s a big recipe. I would never cook a pound of pasta for a recipe I’m making for myself. Usually the most I would cook would be 6-8 ounces.
Sometimes it’s good to follow the recipe exactly the first time you make it, and then it’s easier to know what kind of adjustments will work. (Also you’ll know whether it’s a good recipe or not–if you adjust the first time you make something and it’s not good, you don’t know if that’s because it’s not a good recipe or because you did something weird to it.)
I’ll probably talk more about adjusting recipes as the project goes on, since that’s a pretty key strategy for spending less.
One of the main things I do in terms of food selection is try to buy and prepare things that will freeze well. So I’ll eat what I want the first night, put about two servings of leftovers in the fridge, and put whatever’s left in single-serving containers in the freezer. This has the great benefit of giving you a nicely stocked freezer for those days when you can’t make it to the store or you get home late or you run out of money or whatever.
I will also process and freeze fresh ingredients that I’m not going to get to before they go bad.
For instance I recently bought a package of mushrooms to use in a pasta dish, and I used about a third of the container and then after a week or two decided I wasn’t particularly inspired to make something that would use up the rest of the mushrooms, and I needed to take care of them.
So I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in olive oil with garlic, and mixed some in with some scrambled eggs for my breakfast and wrapped the rest (a little over 1/4 cup) in plastic wrap and dropped that into a freezer bag and put it in the freezer. And there’s one other thing I did, which I cannot overstate the importance of.
I put a small note in the bag that says MUSHROOMS 1/2010.
Do not skip this step, or you will end up with a freezer full of things wrapped in plastic in small plastic bags, and you will not be able to tell what any of it is. Once things are wrapped in plastic and placed in small plastic bags, it all looks the same. You cannot tell what something is by looking at it, you have to pull it out of the bag and partially unwrap it and smell it, and eventually you say, “Oh, right. Mushrooms.” And you put it back in the freezer and continue looking for the tomato paste.
Do not kid yourself. Do not think, after you have wrapped up the mushrooms and are about to stick them in the freezer without the label, and you remember that you forgot the label, do no think, “Oh that’s okay, I’ll be able to tell what this is.”
You will not.
Do not do that.
But the bottom line is that your freezer is your friend. Keep it full and happy.
Here’s what was in my freezer at the start of the project.
- chopped spinach
- watermelon juice (for sorbet)
- lemon juice
- jam (special delivery from my mom)
- shrimp (plus shrimp shells to be used for stock)
- hot italian pork sausage
- small amounts of smoked turkey and cubed ham (just enough for an omelette)
- odds and ends waiting to become crumbs
- English muffins
- pita bread
- tortillas (corn and flour)
- hot dog buns
- whole wheat flour
- sunflower seeds
- sesame seeds
- pine nuts
- Chinese hot and sour soup
- Chicken leek soup
- Vegetable wheat-berry soup
- Whole wheat pizza
- Tomato/sausage/pasta stew
- ginger root
- clam juice
- tomato paste
- various tomato sauces and salsas