Skeletons in the Closet

My wife and I are moving in a few weeks. This weekend, that meant tackling our pantry.

photo by Roadsidepictures (via Flickr)We’ve lived in our current house for four years, and some lurking “cabinet castaways” have been there almost as long.

To be fair, our tenure predates my obsession with food waste. And overall, we’ve done pretty well. Yet there’s still plenty of room for improvement in our next home and pantry.

Here’s what I found:

Lack of visibility was a major problem. Who the heck would have guessed that this ugly bag contained perishable tortilla chips brought home from a restaurant? The same goes for this bulk aisle bag, which I learned contained cous cous. I transferred the cous to a glass canister we now use for all of our grains.

banana sauce!Specialty purchases often lead to waste. For instance, this cereal made great Rice Krispie Treats, but nobody wanted it for breakfast. And while I couldn’t resist buying banana sauce, I can’t find an occasion to use it. Not much Filipino fried chicken in my house, unfortunately, and I rarely use ketchup.

Crackers, I’ve learned, are not something we seem to eat. When we do get a box, we don’t seem to use the entire thing. I found an entire sleeve of Saltines buried behind some cans. Had I seen them a year ago, I could have used them as bread crumbs.

That raises a final point: take inventory every so often. Had I done that, I might have enjoyed some toffees instead of cleaning up the their sticky remains.

Besides, it’s good to know what you have, even if it’s not all that useful. Anyone have any suggestions for banana sauce?! (I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out.)

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  1. Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    In your new home, I bet you’ll never get yourself in that situation again! I don’t have the obsession with food waste that you do (though I deem it a worthwhile obsession) but I never keep anything old in my kitchen. I even date my spices and condiments (that don’t come with dates) so I don’t keep them around forever. (Though I do wonder how long spices last. They never seem to go bad, but they definitely lose flavor.)

    Of course, eating and cooking for only myself, it’s easier to stay on top of this stuff. There’s never any question about whether the other person intends to save that jar of whatever, etc.

  2. Jonathan
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jen. I don’t know how long the lifespan of spices is, does anyone out there? I do know that when you open up the jar of dill and can’t tell it’s dill, it’s probably time to replace it.

  3. Schlake
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Such a timely post. I was thinking of writing you about the pantry waste topic already.

    This is the point where I stand up in front of the podium, and say, “Hi, my name is Schlake, and I have a wasteful pantry.”

    I have many problems. I’ve always bought too much food to begin with. I hoard food “just in case”. I don’t plan my meals around what I have, but around what I could go buy. It all boils down to a ton of food sitting around with no where to go. This is primarily a non-perishable food problem for me (I have a perishable food problem too, but it is different). I go to the store, and I see a 5kg package of rice I’ve never tried, so I buy it. I think that was five years ago and I still haven’t tried it. I have at least four cans of garbanzo beans “just in case”, and a bag of dried garbanzo beans because they taste better than the canned beans. The last time I needed garbanzo beans I went out and bought new garbanzo beans because I didn’t want to use any I had stockpiled just in case I needed them for something. I was stunned at how many lentils I was able to locate when I started to organize things. I found a huge supply of beans I can’t identify that I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten at all. I have cracker crumbs that probably remember the Clinton Administration. None of this food is technically wasted, since I could still eat it. But history tells me I’m not eating it, and that I probably won’t eat it.

    I’m not moving anytime soon like you are, but I am still trying to “fix” my pantry and my food buying habits. Part of this effort stems from having read your website for the past two months, and the other part stems from having joined a CSA. I get these boxes of food. Fresh, perishable food, that I have to eat or toss. Since I’m paying a premium for it, I would much rather eat it than toss it. So far, I’ve been doing poorly at it, and a lot of good food has gone bad before I could eat it. I am seeing positive movement each box though, and I expect that very soon I’ll be able to eat my whole box every time.

    What I find to be especially shocking is how little food I have stockpiled in my pantry compared to most people I know. My refrigerator is all but empty. I put mason jars full of water into it to give it thermal mass. Most people seem to use their refrigerator to play 3-D tetris with, and there is no possible way that they can eating all that food they store before it goes bad.

    I’ve been trying to find a new home for my extra food; or to eat it. But I’ve stockpiled things I can honestly say I have no intention of eating. Why I bought them I’ll never understand.

    I think my trash can will get huge load of food soon. If I can keep myself from re-overstocking my pantry with unwanted food again, then I’ll still call myself a success.

    I have a little roll around wire frame cart in my kitchen. I bought it with the intention of using it as a pantry (excepting spices). It has two baskets and a wire top, and measures less than 2′ by 3′. There should be more than enough room to make that into a functional pantry.

  4. Schlake
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    My spice collection is one place my pantry isn’t a wastage failure!

    In regards to spices, they don’t really go bad, but as they age you have to use more and more of them to get the same amount of flavor. I suggest that you toss spices more than a year old, and don’t replace them.

    I learned years ago not to buy little jars of spices at the supermarket. They are probably already stale, and hideously expensive. Online spice merchants, and bulk spice bins at places like Whole Foods are the way to go. I can buy what I need in small amounts and at good prices.

    If you are forced into buying a large quantity of something then having a spice-circle will be your saving grace. If the minimum order for bay leaves is 18 grams and you have friends who need some bay leaves too, then go in for them together.

  5. Posted June 2, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    You’ll know exactly what NOT to do when you move to your new place. I am similar to you all in that, I really try not to waste, but have found things in my cabinets that I don’t even remember buying.

    I wish I had some ideas for what to do with banana sauce, but to be honest, I have no idea what it is!

  6. Posted June 2, 2008 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Of course, with a new house and new pantry, you get to start with a clean slate. But be sure to leave some room in there for the banana sauces of the world — because some day your taste buds will change, and you’ll be glad you have those things which today seem a bit out of place in there! It’s never wasteful to try new things.

  7. Posted June 2, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Schlake–kudos for the honesty and for tackling the problem without a prompt like moving. It sounds to me like some of your stockpile could be donated to a food drive.

    I hear you on the CSA front. It’s great stuff, but I’d have a hard time using it all every week. Maybe you can find someone to split your share? If not, it’s a nice opportunity to give food to friends or invite people over for a meal.

    Jennifer–I have a pet theory that there are little cabinet leprechauns that sneak odd food into our pantries. Given what I found in there, it just might be plausible.

    Lydia–I’m looking forward to the blank slate and will be sure to report on how I fare at The Perfect Pantry. And rest assured–if anything, I’m the kind of person who tries too many food oddities.

  8. Posted June 2, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I have found a great way to not throw food – I just bring it to work. no matter what it is, there is always someone who likes it. I just put it in the kitchen, and it is usually gone before the day is over.

  9. Jonathan
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant idea. And I’m not just saying that because I’m usually the guy at work who eats everything.

  10. Karen
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    If you like pineapple I found a recipe for grilled pineapple that only requires a pineapple, banana sauce, and optionally a fresh banana.

    Basically peel & core a pineapple, then slice into 0.5″ rounds. Brush the rounds with banana sauce. Grill the rounds on medium-high heat for ~ 1 minute per side. Chop the grilled pineapple rounds into cubes, warm up some more banana sauce, and stir it all together.

    Optionally, gently stir in some fresh sliced banana.

  11. Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I found detailed information on the shelf life of spices and herbs on O chef and wise geek websites. basically, dried herbs will last for up to a year, preground spices also last up to a year. Whole spices will last much longer, up to four years while the strongest spices: peppercorns, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cumin and cardamom when they are in their whole form will last much longer still.I was glad to read this as I have some cardamom that’s about 2 years old and it faded in color so I was thinking of tossing it into the compost. i also read futher that spices must be stored in a cool, dry place, not over the stove or in the freezer.

    I must admit that I do store spices that I use frequently over the stove for convenience. Another good reminder to extend the shelf life of spices is never shake them directly over cooking food, as moisture condenses in the container and causes them to spoil more quickly.

    Stressing taking an inventory of your food in the pantry, fridge and freezer is a great strategy could not be stressed enough. I am taking a challenge to do that this week, focusing on finding solutions for 2 items I froze, strawberries and 3 conatiners of soup. So far I have solved the stored soup, eaing half and composting half. I will be making starwberry jam later tonight.

    As I read your post and all the comments I kept thinking of what the root cause is as to why I overpurchase food and I think there are 2 major reasons. One is that I wishfully think I can make all kinds of interesting recipes than I actually have time for and the other reason is that I over purchase items out of fear of not having time to purchase them in the near future. I have also felt a preoccuption with being fed at all times. I overthink where my meals will come from, partially because I simply love food, but also from irrational fears that at some future time I may be subjected to being hungry. Other thoughts I have observed while shopping for healthy produce at the greenmarket center on what I should ideally be eating, not what I actually do eat in the present. I have noticed that when I impose the ideals of others on myself, I am living dishonestly and in this situation it translates into buying too much food that will no doubt spoil.

    It’s interesting to observe these thoughts because as I do I can go grocery shopping with greater awareness. I now ask myself important questions to stop the tendency of overbuying and wasting time, food and money. I now only buy for for specific meals and recipes that I have scheduled for. While I’ve not been perfect, it has made a noticeable difference in the amount of food I am storing at any one time.

    About CSA subscriptions: here in NYC, I just read in Edible Brooklyn about this great lady who started a fully prepared food delivery program, called She is a private chef who picks up your CSA share and turns it into prepared meals. It’s a great idea for families and although it adds to the CSA share cost, it’s a good solution for people who want to support local farms, eat well but who are short on time.

  12. Robert
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    You should install a lazy susan in your new place. It will make it easy to see what is behind all of the cans. Also there are pull out drawers that are for closet shelves that are perfect for a pantry. There are wooden ones and there are large metal cage-like ones for a closet. With these you will probably be able to take inventory of what you have easier. probably has many banana sauce recipes.

  13. Jonathan
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Karen, thanks for the idea.

    Victoria, bless your heart. It seems like you’ve done some deep thinking and have identified the root causes for your wasting. Now comes the hard part: changing your behavior. I’m with you on ‘simply loving food.’ Good luck, keep us posted and don’t be too hard on yourself.

    Robert, I’ll look into the lazy susan idea, but I’m leaning towards not stockpiling so much food. Or at least being better about taking inventory. I don’t think increasing my storage space will help me here. I do like lazy susans, though.

  14. Jonathan
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    The ‘how long do I keep herbs and spices’ question seems to be a philosophical one. As Schlake and Victoria mentioned, herbs tend to lose their flavor gradually. Whether you throw them out and replace them, buy them as you need them or continue to use them would seem to depend on your means and preferences.

    I know that I’m too frugal and waste-averse to throw away herbs or spices. Possibly ever (or for a lonnnng time). Definitely not if they are a year old. But that’s just me….

    I can certainly see the logic in having the freshest flavors possible. And I like Schlake’s bulk bin idea where you can buy custom amounts. But I continue to use some elderly spices. I like to think of them as “distinguished.”

  15. CT
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I used to live in apartments in which people would move in and out without ever fully emptying the apartment or cupboards. The pantries ended up full of bizarre selections, like five jars of honey. That’s when I got started on my own project to avoid food waste. My advice? Search online for recipes using that ingredient. I discovered that I could bake with honey. Some of my experiments were great, others definitely didn’t need to be repeated. But I became a better cook because I started learning how to substitute ingredients and improvise. Let your pantry be a challenge!

  16. Rosa
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    We have a CSA-season rule; never go grocery shopping until after the CSA box comes, and then only buy things that are required to make the CSA ingredients into meals. So if i get a box of cucumbers, I buy yogurt. If we get a lot of broccoli rabe, I buy linguine. Otherwise, no buying things (except toddler essentials). I suppose if we run out of CSA box based meals, we’d buy extra groceries, but that’s never happened.

    There’s an extra special May & June rule; everyone who enters our house must eat a bowl of salad before they’re allowed to leave. That takes care of the season when it’s all greens, and discourages the neighbor kids from popping in to ask for a popsicle every day.

  17. Posted June 3, 2008 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s not quite the same, but at least in the same neck of the woods: our Food Not Bombs got a bonanza last month when Guilford College students went home for the summer. The college has a “sustainability coordinator” on staff and he put collection boxes out on every floor of every dorm. The boxes yielded a truckload of student food (ramen noodles, peanut butter, microwave popcorn, trail mix and more) plus toiletries and laundry supplies. We’ve started a seat-of-the-pants food pantry (no hoops to jump through like most food pantries) at the HIVE and it’s become a huge success. The student leftovers were scooped up and taken away with many many thanks from folks in the neighborhood.

  18. Jonathan
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Rosa, love that CSA-season rule. And I never would have come over to your house when I was a kid.

    Liz, that’s inspiring. You guys have turned the annual waste-a-thon that is college move out into a blessing.

  19. Rosa
    Posted June 5, 2008 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    yeah, well, the salad runs out by the beginning of july and then it’s popsicles every day around here, except when we make ice cream.

    Popsicles are actually a great way to get rid of cut up fruit that’s a few days old when the next load is about to come in. It’s hard to believe it now but there is a time in August when every day is “how much cantaloupe can we eat and freeze before it goes bad” day.

    Liz, that’s fabulous. I used to love it when we could get “pre-dumpstered” food for FNB, it makes people so much more willing to take it.

  20. Sara
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    What does CSA stand for? I’m from Canada and I searched a boatload of acronyms but none of them were food-related.

  21. Jonathan
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  22. Jan Garvin
    Posted June 12, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Two quick answers to the question of how to keep from wasting all those odds n ends that you buy in order to taste them, but never seem to get around to using.

    l The first takes its cue from commercial establishments. Rotate your stock. Keep your food (and everything else) sorted by type (you choose how to define the categories, but I do canned vegetables, canned fruits (I don’t use them often, mostly just in emergencies or in recipes that call for something that is going to be cooked a long time, so it makes no sense to put in a fresh vegetable when it’s going to come out tasting like the one from the cans anyway), Dry goods, including pastas and rice, dry snack foods and sometimes beans; bottled and packaged sauces and flavoring mixes. In my kitchen, each category has a shelf of its own. Anytime I bring something that belongs in a category into the house, it goes onto the back of the shelf of its category. That means, anything else that belongs in that category gets pushed forward, and probably seen. When something works it’s way to the front, I plan a meal around it. If I find that I simply can’t figure out a way to plan around it, then it’s time for my second technique.

    2. Freecycle it. Freecycle is an international web based organization created for the purpose of keeping usable stuff out of landfills. You can get food, furniture, pets, automobiles, building materials, and anything else people might have laying around that they don’t need. If there is something you need, you can posted a wanted ad, so that people who might have what you need, but have not thought of posting, can respond to your need.

    Google for Freecycle, then look down the list for your country, state and specific town. There will be one close to you.
    It’s not at all uncommon to see someone post food, and you can usually tell that it’s stuff someone has had sitting around for months without using, and has realized they are not going to eat, so might as well pass along to someone who will eat it. In the Tulsa, Oklahoma area, I have seen a garbage bag of Panara Bread Company day old breads being posted, and many times have seen people post boxed cereals, crackers, beans, & canned foods that most people don’t eat much of, like pumpkin and cranberry sauce.

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