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.


  • peas
  • chopped spinach


  • bananas
  • peaches
  • canteloupe
  • cranberries
  • 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

Prepared Foods

  • Chinese hot and sour soup
  • Chicken leek soup
  • Vegetable wheat-berry soup
  • Whole wheat pizza
  • Tomato/sausage/pasta stew


  • ginger root
  • clam juice
  • sake
  • tomato paste
  • various tomato sauces and salsas

5 Responses to “Waste Not, Want Not”

  1. the Dad Says:

    SO true! I have anonymous bags in my freezer right now.

    Another thing we started doing was roasting a whole chicken, pulling off the remaining meat and putting it in tupperware in the fridge and throwing the carcass in a stock pot with a couple carrots, celery stalks and an onion… cover with water and simmer forfreakinever.

    The resulting stock goes into the freezer in quart-sized containers. No more buying chicken stock!

    the Dad

  2. Susanne Says:

    Ahhhhh, yes, the ubiquitous Unlabeled Mystery Meal Ingredient mined from the freezer. Me, yesterday AM: stagger to freezer not entirely awake yet to grab a bag of my fabulous pasta sauce with chorizo. Me, all day: mouth watering for penne with spicy sauce and fresh grated Parmesan. Me, last night: opening Ziplock containing sauce to discover not sauce, but creamed curried carrot soup. Delicious in its own right, but NOT what I’d been waiting for, anticipating, all day . Reminder: wear glasses next time! A possibility for other singletons: a friend & I sometimes trade goodies. I love cooked ham but it doesn’t freeze well;I bake wonderful bread, she can’t bake to save her life. So whenever she cooks a big ham for some family thing (maybe 3Xyear) she sets aside 2 helpings for me (ham only, I do my own veggies) & I give her a couple of loaves of homemade bread or buns. At Christmas, I also trade a loaf of my dark fruitcake for a big tin of her homemade cookies & fudge, neither of which I have much success with.
    Great blog — thanks for sharing your adventure!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    I did the same thing once with what I thought was leftover milk gravy from fried chicken. I was really, really excited to make mashed potatoes to eat with the gravy without having to go through the greasy mess of making fried chicken.

    So I take the “gravy” out of the freezer and put it over low heat to thaw and I’m stirring it and suddenly I realize that this is not gravy, it is cheese sauce. So I cooked some pasta and had mac and cheese instead, and it was fine but not what I wanted.

    Bartering is definitely the best! I actually make my own all-purpose spray cleaner (which I will probably post the recipe for even though it’s not food-related because it’s great stuff … and super cheap) and gave some to my neighbors at one point and they loved it. At the time they had three big dogs and they said it was the only thing that cleaned the walls where their dogs would shake off and sneeze and stuff. They called it the “dog snot wall cleaner.” They’re bread bakers, so we started trading bread for cleaning products (one of my friends said that sounded like a U.N. program, which I thought was really funny). I think it felt like a good deal for both of us.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Re: chicken stock … I almost always have chicken stock in the freezer. I was actually surprised to discover that I didn’t have any right now. Usually I put some in quart-sized containers (I use yogurt containers) and some I freeze in muffin tins. I can be hard to get out of the muffin tins, but it’s nice being able to use a little bit at a time.

    I’m definitely going to be buying chickens over the course of the project and talking about the different options (roasting, poaching, etc.) as well as making stock, which is effectively free once you’ve bought the chicken..

  5. Valerie Says:

    RE: Chicken stock–we rarely buy whole chicken any more, since it is more often the parts that are on sale. But I collect the bones, skin, etc. for a bit, keeping them in the freezer until I have a good amount, thaw and roast the parts until they caramelize a bit, then throw them in the pot with carrots, onions, celery, etc., to make the stock.

    And on a ‘waste not’ note, I just wanted to mention that we had an excellent lunch just now that used up a lot of refrigerator bits and pieces–a cup of leftover Bolognese sauce from last night, with a couple cups of broth, some water, leftover mixed veggies, leftover steamed jasmine rice and a bit more herbs and spices. Absolutely wonderful, served with leftover homemade rolls from last night, reheated apple pie drizzled with homemade cashew butter. It’s hard to feel deprived when leftovers can be so good. :-)

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