Food storage solutions

It pains me to admit this, but today I threw out a relatively large amount of food.  I originally set out to start cleaning, rearranging, and decluttering the kitchen.  I soon realised that in addition to a nice assortment of veggies decomposing in the fridge, I also had a selection of nuts and whole grain rice that were well past their expiration dates, in some cases by years.  Being uninterested in the stomach issues that typically arise from eating mouldy or rancid food, I disposed of the lot.  Some went to my worms and some to the garbage.  As I got rid of it, I realised that I need to make some changes.  I’m good at the accumulating, but not so good at the management.  I tend to bring home a good range of tasty and nutritious food, but I don’t always get the best use of it.

We have a few things working against us.  We have limited space, so things get stuffed onto shelves and wedged into corners in various locations.  It becomes really easy to forget what’s stored where and how much of something we have on hand.  I also have a tendency to get excited about food and buy a lot of new things to try which has resulted in the acquisition of such things as 15 kinds of beans, eight kinds of rice, and dozens of different nuts, seeds, mushrooms, sauces, and seaweeds.  At the same time, we typically cook a lot of different kinds of food which usually leaves us with a lot of different kinds of ingredients and leftover bits and pieces from trying out new recipes or tweaking old ones.

I loathe tossing food, a problem that Wasted Food has a lot of good information on.  Throwing away stuff that once was perfectly good was hard to do.  Shameful is a good word to describe the feeling.  But as awful as actually throwing it was, I’m grateful that it forced me to think through how we store and use food around and to reconsider our current system (okay, okay…our lack thereof).  And so, when I needed a break this afternoon I sat down and drafted a loose five-part plan.

Part one is to use up what we already have. I’d like to not waste any more food if I can avoid it, so I’m going to figure out some recipes to make with the odds and ends and bits and pieces.  Tonight, that meant a dinner of spiced split mung beans and spinach.  The mung beans were the last of the bag and the spinach needed to be eaten before the holidays.

Part two is to figure out what we eat regularly.  The things we stock up on and keep on hand should be the things that we use a lot.  We seem to be doing well with things like rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, flour, lentils, pasta, tomatoes, broth, and sugar, but we still have a bunch of other things that don’t get used all that often.  Focusing on the things that we use a lot of makes the most sense, particularly given out limited storage space.

Part three is to try some new meals.  I need recipes for about ten of those different kinds of beans that I have kicking around, plus a whole bunch of other things (seaweed, I’m looking at you since I’m pretty regularly at a loss on this one).  While I’d like to stick with what we eat regularly, I’d also like to expand our repertoire of recipes that are really healthy and made from ingredients that I know store well.

Part four is to plan for new purchases.  Buying a bunch of food because it’s new and interesting isn’t all that useful if its just going to sit in the closet.  This doesn’t mean we won’t try new things or put them into the regular rotation.  It just means that I have to know exactly what we’ll be using something for before I put it in my grocery cart.

Part five is somewhat longer-term and involves setting up a database of foods that we have on hand.  It’s hard to know how much of everything we have stored, so a system where we can note what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what’s located where would be helpful.  I’m also hoping this will help me rotate food more effectively so we don’t keep opening new bags of beans or rice when there are older ones sitting in the closet – sadly, it seems that good rice doesn’t age quite the same way that good wine does.

This is pretty preliminary and I’ll probably need to tweak it as I go.  However, I’m hopeful that we can establish a system to reduce food waste.  Given the many different social justice issues throughout the world, I find it unconscionable to waste food.  It’s well past time that I find ways to better manage our food resources.

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Outfitting a village

I’m generally against rampant consumerism, but these days I find myself thinking about buying things a good deal more than I usually do.  Apart from periods where I put myself on no spend challenges, I do tend to accumulate stuff.  I bring in books, canning jars, kitchen gadgets, yarn, clothing, tools, bedding, and quite a few other things that have proven to be useful as I try to live a bit more sustainably.  However, I also have a wish list as long as my arm that includes a variety of far more expensive items that are not so easily found secondhand: garden tools, clothes drying rack, pressure canner, grain mill, dehydrator, water filter, camp stove, and sun oven.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I should use the resources that I have to go ahead and make these kind of purchases. The biggest one on my list is still some land – this is feeling like an increasingly pressing concern, but I’m not yet sure where or how given that my job status is somewhat up in the air and we’re not exactly settled.  But for now, I also feel as though I should purchase some of the tools that will hopefully help to make life a bit more sustainable and a bit more secure both here in our little apartment and hopefully in the future when we have our own place.

The real driving thought, though, is that I don’t just want this for me.  I see what I’m doing as acquiring resources at least for my family, if not for a village (as it were).  My parents don’t really share many of my fears about where the world is headed, and my mother actively seeks to get rid of as much as possible.  My husband is more understanding of my concerns, although doesn’t necessarily share them to the same degree.  Many of my friends share similar concerns, but very few are actively making changes in their own lives.  So when I buy reference books, canning jars, garden tools, or a pressure canner, I feel like I’m doing it not just for me, but for them as well.  Knowing that they aren’t taking any steps on their own makes me feel that one of the most important things I can do is plan to help take care of them as best I can.

To be clear, I don’t think stuff is going to save us, and its certainly not going to do so on its own.  I think we need community and knowledge far more than we need more things, but tools can help a lot, and good quality tools can be shared and used to do a lot of good for quite a few people.  While there are certainly times when I just want to save every bit of money I possibly can, it seems to me that if I have the resources to buy tools that may prove to be helpful to a range of people it might just be worth spending a bit of money after all and taking up some of the space in my apartment to store them.

I also see these purchases as a way to hopefully become more self-reliant and to save a bit of money.  A well-made clothes drying rack may be $100, but will save me $2.50 a load, plus the environmental costs.  A pressure canner may approach $400, but if I can buy and can food when it’s inexpensive and have easy meals ready to go, that saves a lot of money on food and possibly even some time at dinner time.  Good gardening tools aren’t that cheap, but they open up more opportunities for feeding ourselves and cutting down on grocery bills.  And, the more money I save, the more there will be left to purchase more tools, or just to help others.  While I want to do as much as possible for myself, I also want to be sure that I can take care of those I care about the most and help to foster the community and resilience that I suspect will become even more important in the future.

No spend November wrap-up

With November over, I’ve had a chance to have a look at the results of my no-spend month. I’ve spent about $150 less than I have for the past few months.  I think this is pretty good, particularly since that also includes the fact that I overspent a bit stocking up on food and toiletries, had two planned meals out with friends, and that we fostered a stray cat for a few weeks and had to buy a few supplies for her.  If I could do this most months, it would certainly add up over the course of the year.

Although the money is a nice reward and marker of success (such as it is is) the focus of the no spending challenge was to really consider my consumption habits a bit more broadly.  Although I don’t generally consume a lot, I’m continually trying to be aware of my shopping and cut back wherever possible.  I’ve dealt with a lot of the low hanging fruit already, so any other places where I can cut back a bit more are welcome.  Doing a no spend challenge every so often is a good way to consider what exactly I’m spending money on and to highlight where I can cut back even further.

With this in mind, one thing I was very aware of was the importance of not just putting off spending until a new month just so it wouldn’t count for November. I wanted to be aware of my spending and cut back more generally.  Putting it off to the future – and possibly spending more or even going over budget another month – just to preserve the illusion of being successful at the challenge wasn’t something I was interested in. It would be a false representation of my spending and would have defeated the purpose of the challenge.  If I needed something – actually needed something, and not just wanted it – I went ahead and bought it.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t really need that much.

My real weakness for the month was secondhand sales, which also wasn’t much of a surprise.  There were two in November – one that I forgot was happening and one that I didn’t know about until a week in advance – and they account for the remainder of my unanticipated spending that wasn’t toilet paper or vast quantities of rice and tinned tomatoes.  I spent $22 at a bazaar at the start of the month to buy some kitchen items, candle holders, books, and refillable pens.  There was also a thrift store sale at the end of the month. I spent another $19 on half-price books, most of them reference books for things like home repair, quilting, and sewing.  Did I need any of it?  No, not really, and I’m a little embarrassed by these transgressions.  I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of leeway on secondhand sales, though, and I got some great useful things for very little money.

I plan to keep this up as much as possible.  Expenses will always come up, of course, and I can’t say I won’t buy anything unnecessary ever again.  It’s pretty remarkable how effective this kind of awareness is, though.  Knowing that I was doing the challenge did have a positive effect on my spending for the month.  Even with a few secondhand sales, meals out, and extra food and household items, I still managed to spend a good bit less than usual.  Could I be better?  Of course, and that’s something I’m working towards.  For now, I’m pleased with the results of the challenge and looking forward to seeing if I can keep to my new and improved awareness going forward.