Yes. This is my fridge on a bad week. There is plenty to eat inside the refrigerator (or ingredients to use to whip things up), but it’s a chore to root out what’s really there. For you, my friends, I pass on the lessons and tips I have developed for being smart about using what you have on hand. Following these tidbits of advice will save you time, money, and aggravation.
I remember watching CNN shortly after a hurricane had hit the east coast a couple of days. I listened as a woman called in to the network and described her dire situation. Her extended family had rented a vacation home. Power was off, they were marooned because the road was washed out, and she reported they were running low on food and water. It had just been two days, people! Really? Seriously? If we were to suffer a similar natural disaster, I think it might be six months before we would begin to go hungry. I believe in a well-stocked pantry.
When it comes to refrigerated items, however, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” By their very nature, refrigerated foods have a limited shelf life. As they sit in the dark (if the light really does go off when the door is shut, and they tell us it does), they are ticking down the time to their expiration.
Food is expensive. Shopping takes time. Waste is intolerable. You need a strategy to use every last bit of food in your fridge. We have some suggestions! (BTW, I think they ought to offer a mandatory high school course on refrigerator management, don’t you? This is important stuff, folks!)
Here are our suggestions:
Schedule a Free the Food night once a week.
- On that night, conduct a treasure hunt to see what needs to be freed from the bonds of the refrigerator. Discard anything that looks like it belongs on the menu for gross-out night on Survivor. Develop a plan for what remains. If you have your Free the Food night the night before your trash gets picked up, the stinky stuff will have only a short time to sit in the garbage bin.
Be disciplined about your use of leftovers.
- Eat them within a day or two of the original meal.
- If there’s one (or two) of you, buying fresh food at your local wholesale club probably isn’t a good idea unless you have a workable plan to share it with friends or family.
When you buy something in a large quantity, freeze part of it immediately, if feasible.
- If something is on sale in a big package, get it, divide it, freeze all but what you really need right now.
- What do you have? Knowing what is on hand is the first step before you can formulate a plan for using it.
Use your shortest shelf-life items first.
- I’ve determined that most times of the year, strawberries don’t last more than a day or two. Now I only buy them if I am planning to use them within the next 24 hours. Blueberries, on the other hand, are the Dick Clark of the fruit world. They seem to go forever before they show their age.
- Plan to grocery shop more frequently for fresh items and go to the store with the mindset that you are just buying for two or three days (unless you have a natural disaster coming up and truly do need to stock up). That was one of the key things we learned through visits to France and Italy. Small, more frequent, trips to the market will help ensure you’re buying what you are in the mood to cook and eat.
- Use a list. Instead of going to the grocery store and just buying whatever looks good, try to have plan. Know what you’re going to fix and what you need to fix it. It’s okay to deviate a bit if you run into something you didn’t anticipate at the store, like great-looking jicamas or killer raspberries, but the majority of the purchases should conform to your list. If you’re going back to the store in two or three days, you can plan ahead to get other things in the meal plan you work out for the next trip.
- Got lots of fresh fruit? Make a meal around a fruit salad or freeze a bunch of berries to make a sauce or smoothie at a later point in time.
- Got lots of fresh vegetables? Have a salad bar meal, or grill a bunch of vegetables. There are lots of recipes on Pretty Food, such as Zucchini Vegetable Bliss (which can be made without the zucchini, BTW, to help you use up vegetables.
- Still have lots of vegetables? Make a vegetable soup.
- Tons of meat on hand? Fire up the grill/oven/air fryer, cook the meat, and freeze it for future days when you’re too tired or busy to cook.
- Up to your ears in cheese? Make a cheese ball. Fry some cheese. Make mac and cheese. Create a fondue. Make some tortilla pizzas. Bake up a cheesecake with the cream cheese.
- Swimming in eggs? Make deviled eggs, hardboiled eggs, egg salad.
- Got lots of cream? Make some ice cream or pudding.
- Bunches of tortillas on hand? Make tortilla bowls for taco salad. Make tortilla crackers, cucumber tortilla bites, crunchy vegetable spirals, quesadillas, tortilla pizzas, sausage breakfast rollups, ham and cheese rollios, quickie chocolate craving stopper. Just use our search box on PrettyFood and search for the word “tortilla” for tons of ideas.
- Think about how the items on hand could be used in a casserole.
- Type in an ingredient and use our search, checking the box that says “Search Pretty Food” and see what recipes we have for that ingredient.
- Use one of the iPad/iPhone cookbook apps that allows you to search by ingredient, or search for recipes that way using Google.
- Think outside the box. Don’t think “Well, I always use cucumbers with Thai Sweet Chili Sauce and I don’t have any right now, so I need to go to the store.” Explore new recipes. Make cucumbers with sour cream and dill for a change. Get out of your rut.
- Group like items together to make it easier to see what you have. There’s nothing worse than forgetting about something you would have really enjoyed, had you only remembered it was there.
- Vow not to go to the store or out to eat until the backlog is whittled down.
- Be realistic about how many meals you will be eating at home. How many weeks have you ended up eating out more than you’ve eaten in? Is going out to eat part of your weekly routine? What’s the frequency of doing so? When you buy groceries, you are better off under estimating the number of meals at home than over estimating. For every meal you over estimate, you end up with a meal’s worth of ingredients languishing in your refrigerator. Keep your schedule in mind. If you have a number of social obligations or you’re anxious to try a new restaurant you heard about, fabulous. Just don’t buy groceries for those meals — and know what your restaurant leftover track record is. Portions are so big at restaurants these days that we almost always have an extra meal to take home for each one we consume out. That means instead of crossing one at-home meal off your to-do list when you plan to dine out, you should cross off two.
- Add up the dollar value of the items you are purging and imagine how you could have better spent that money. Follow the steps above to reduce waste — either at the front end when you are buying food, or on the back end once it hits the fridge.