When I first began studying the art and science of frugality I looked at many lists that claimed to be the top five or ten money wasters. I found that most of the items on the list were mere opinions. But one category stood out as being accurate and useful—the dead waste. These are not spending decisions, but rather mistakes. The parking ticket, the bank fee, and yes-the food we let rot. Almost everyone in the United States does this to one extent or another. Nobody likes it, and everyone finds themselves annoyed and a little guilty and embarrassed when it happens. So why do we do it?
There are several reasons. The first is lack of self-knowledge. A successful food shopping expedition starts at the kitchen table with a pen and paper. If you cook at home, and I know you do because you are a frugalista, you already have some idea how long it takes for you and those who share your food to go through a particular item. If the item is perishable, you can’t buy more than you know you will use before it spoils. If you buy the two gallon milk special when you know that you only use a quart a week, the predictable result will be food waste. If you just can’t pass up the bargain, plan on freezing half immediately if the item freezes well. Also plan on building menus around the food in question, just as you would if you were handling the zucchini glut at summer’s end.
A second form of self-deception is the buying of things you know you hate because you believe them to be healthy. Maybe you “should” eat seaweed, or flax seed, but if you and your companions truly dislike these things they will go bad and end up in the compost. Keep experimenting, and you will find things that are just as healthy as the craze of the week that you DO love.
Another cause of food waste is cooking too much at one time. If you feed four people then two gallons of chili, even
your special recipe, is probably too much. You can freeze it, but just make sure that you label it and rotate it back in the very next week. A bucket full of freezer burned mystery goo is sure to end up in the waste bin.
Finally, we waste food because we get lazy and don’t cook it in time, or our plans change and we end up going out when we meant to stay in. Sometimes we say we are lazy when really we are tired. It is good to have a little play in the system. When we are exhausted it is the perfect time to pop out the dish we cooked too much of last week, solving two problems at once. As for the spontaneous change of plans, that is just life. If you leave a couple of blank spots when you plan the menu for the week it will all even out. The food use equation may never be perfect. But if you follow these steps the waste bin will be a lot emptier.
Here are some links that will help you plan. Remember, the use by date reflects optimum quality, not safety. Use your nose and these guides to determine how long you can keep food safely:
http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/348/348-960/348-960.html A thorough review, including spoilage guidelines
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp Safety guidelines for freezer use