Saturday, October 08, 2011

On not throwing out food, or, let's rustle up some grub

Sometimes saving money on groceries is as easy as not buying what you know you won't eat. This assumes, however, that you know not only what you are going to eat but also what you, if you're the cook, are going to cook, and how you're going to cook it. It also assumes that you're going to need the whole piece or package or pound of whatever it is, or that you have a plan for the rest that won't involve even more leftovers.

Since this is not a perfect world and we are not clairvoyant at the supermarket, this does not always happen, at least in our treehouse. Factor in time pressures, unexpected events (people not home, flu bugs, fridge dying) and a certain amount of sheer laziness, and it's even more likely that at least some of what we buy is going to end up not getting consumed before it's green/blue/brown, stale, or freezer-burnt.

The way around this is not just more meal-planning, although that helps, but combining the planning with flexible recipes AND a personal repertoire of easy things you know how to do with whatever-it-is. One year during university I shared an apartment with roommates, and one of the visiting parents left a six-quart basket of tomatoes. That basket sat in the corner of the kitchen until...well, let's just say it wasn't too attractive by the end.

I'm not saying that we should all have gone out that weekend, bought cilantro, and canned the tomatoes into salsa. But we could probably at least have made a decent pot of chili out of them. Still, they weren't my tomatoes, so I stayed out of it (and away from it).

Over the years I've had my share of similar use-it-up challenges. Did you ever notice that certain things are hard to use up just because they're either not attractive or accessible in their usual state? Humorist and homemaking writer Peg Bracken pointed out that leftover cake is not a problem, because what you do with leftover cake is eat it. Same with leftover cheese, leftover chocolate, and so on.

But what about the dried beans, the too-large bag of carrots, the cantaloupe you bought on sale, the jar of sauerkraut, the half-head of cauliflower, and all those frozen blueberries? Our hungry ancestors would have been delighted to have had this problem, and you know how they would have solved it? Cooking it up, and eating till it was all. (All gone.) It didn't matter if it wasn't on the menu--whatever it was would have been sliced and put on the table, or put into the soup or the pie, and it would have gotten eaten.

So if you want to use stuff up, that's your first strategy: put it out with whatever else is for supper, or what's in the lunch bag. This is especially important if your family's at all polite or shy about eating what's in the fridge. Put it out there and let people enjoy it.

Strategy two, especially useful if you have young children, is to put it in a form that's easy to eat. That means melon balls, chunks, or slices, instead of a whole cantaloupe staring sadly from the fridge shelf. At that point you might also notice that you have two bananas and an orange, and there you go, fruit salad. Fruit kebabs. Or just eat the cantaloupe; the point is to eat it. I have found a peculiar thing about those big round rice cakes: they often get left in the cupboard UNLESS I quarter them (sharp knife, be careful) and put them out on a plate or in a bowl with other snacks. Somebody must have had the same idea, years ago, when they invented the idea of eating raw turnip sticks.

In the same way, make half the bag of carrots into carrot sticks. Cook up the beans and freeze them.  Get things ready to eat, or to add to future meals.

Strategy three is the what's-in-your-hand principle, the same one that the great-greats used. I recently followed a recipe for sweet-potato salad, and thought I would try it again if I had extra sweet potatoes. This week I had a large head of cauliflower in the fridge, so I used half of that, along with just one sweet potato, to make the same salad recipe; and it also turned out fine.

Sauerkraut is an easy one for us--we use it as a base for cooking chicken breasts or any kind of pork, in the slow cooker or in the oven. If you're a vegetarian, you can try it with potato chunks.  Omnivores can combine all three.

Frozen fruit is likely to go into a crisp-type dessert, or the sort of thing I made earlier in the week (graham crackers, vanilla yogurt, and blueberries), or as fruit sauce on top of pancakes.

A final tip: know your particular food foe, and figure out a way to defeat its demise. Bags of potatoes that rot before you remember to eat them? The other half of the cauliflower? Leftover meat? A half-gone package of cream cheese? Don't look for complicated recipes to use them up; find simple things that you will actually do and that your eaters might actually eat. If you don't like sour things, or don't have a friend who does, or aren't going to a potluck anytime soon, then making bean salad with leftover beans is not a solution. But bean soup might be.  Making a potato casserole uses up as many potatoes as you have...and "potato casserole" could be as simple as cooking cut-up (sliced or chunked) potatoes in some broth or milk, and adding a little seasoning...and that could be in a pot, in the oven, or in the slow cooker.  Add some of the carrots and an onion, and you're on your way to stew.

To misquote Bloom County's Milo, "it's food and we're going to eat it."  There's not much simpler than that.  And happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

This post is linked to Festival of Frugality #301 and The Common Room: Four Moms Discuss Keeping the Food Budget in Control as Prices Rise


Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

Cauliflower is my number one biggest food that will go bad. I think because it can last a little while in the frig, I let it go until it gets those dark edges.

Since there are only two of us at home, I've learned that we do much better getting frozen veggies and fruit than fresh.

I still make whole batches of soups, stews, etc., since we don't mind having the same thing for a couple dinners (or dinner and lunch, etc.) and I can freeze half of a casserole for later use.

But it still takes getting used to two people instead of three (especially when the third is a 21 year old big eater!).

When I make cookies, I bake some of them and then "flash freeze" the cookie dough on sheets before freezing them unbaked. That is only because I like frozen baked cookies but not frozen cookie dough...

Mama Squirrel said...

We have had to adjust our meal strategies this fall too. Our oldest is commuting to university out of town, and that means that some nights she's home early enough to want some dinner; other times she eats at the university and drives home later. So that means fewer people actually at the dinner table, but more need for things that can be easily reheated, or saved for another meal if they're not eaten that night.

We're also down to three or even just two people home for lunch, and more of us going out the door early in the morning who want something quick and simple (like muffins). I've been freezing baked treats in individual servings, so they can go in lunches or be taken along as breakfast.

Jeanne said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Squirrels. May you all eat yourselves full, and have lots and lots of leftovers.

Fatcat said...

Someone gave us a bag of apples. They've been sitting in the kitchen for 3 days so today I decided to make an apple crisp. As soon as I started peeling them and cutting them up, my kids started eating them. It took a long time to get enough for the crisp, but the point was that the apples would get eaten and not wasted, so I didn't mind.

Katie said...

Thanks for your point about actually putting the food out on the table so it will get eaten. I get caught up in foods that "go together" and then don't want to set out leftovers that don't "match" what else is out. But that's silly.