speed eating for dummies
March 10, 2011 12:00 PM   Subscribe

How do you shop so that food doesn't go bad before you can eat it?

I'm a lady in my late 20s; I live alone but cook 2 or 3 times a week with my (light eater) boyfriend. I find that I waste an incredible amount of food that I just cannot consume before it spoils in the fridge, and I'm sick of it!

For example, a small package of turkey lunch meat was purchased more than two weeks ago. I got several sandwiches out of it, but I also have to eat dinner leftovers to keep those from going bad, too. Yogurt goes off because a smoothie every day is too much. Even a small container of cream cheese molded before I finished it, using about 1 tbsp. at a time.

I'm trying to loose weight, so eating more certainly isn't an option. I've started to volunteer for a food bank, and I just cringe to think of the amount of food I waste for not consuming before it spoils. Tell me...how do you food shop and meal plan effectively?
posted by motsque to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
- Buy your lunch meat at the deli counter and ask for a smaller amount
- Freeze dinner leftovers
posted by turaho at 12:07 PM on March 10, 2011

Plan your meals a week or two in advance. But only the (perishable) ingredients needed for that upcoming stretch. Non-perishable you can just stock up and replenish when you get low (pastas, coffee, tea, spices, etc). If you get bread, get a good breadbox or freeze it.

Don't keep fruits in bags, as they ripen faster that way.

Freeze meats you don't plan on using within the next 2 days and defrost the morning of.

Buy only what's on your 2 week plan, and avoid getting that extra yogurt because you want more variety in flavors to choose from.. because you won't get to it, anyway.
posted by rich at 12:10 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

What I've found best for myself is to stop at the supermarket on the way home from work on the days I'm planning to make supper and just buy what I'll need for that one meal.
posted by Paquda at 12:10 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ditto on turaho. Also, learn to cook with stuff in your fridge. Leftover lunchmeat and green beans? Make a frittata. Yogurt lasts a long time anyway, but make a cucumber sauce with it for some Middle Eastern dinner. Still have leftover cucumbers? Gin and tonic time!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:11 PM on March 10, 2011

If you want to have cream cheese on bagels, plan to have bagels as your main breakfast food for a couple of weeks - which means buying enough bagels, freezing the bagels you won't eat the first few days, thawing out bagels when you need them, and making sure you have already finished the cereal, eggs, milk, and pancake mix that you'd otherwise be eating.

This much planning.

Alternatively, you could find a recipe for carrot cake, figure out how much cream cheese you'd need for the frosting, figure out how much would be left from a standard container, figure out what you'll do with any leftover carrots from the 2-pound bag you'll buy, make sure you have a container to put the flour in (and room in the freezer for that container - flour starts losing its character and making less-good pastries after a while), make sure you know the destiny of any extra butter. Anyway, the leftover cream cheese -> N bagels; solve for N and buy that many.

Or you could have contingency plans:

Leftover vegetables go into vegetable soup every two weeks. After you slice a tomato, put the leftover slices directly into a freezer container which becomes pasta sauce after it's full. Leftover yogurt can go into some muffin recipes. Try throwing some cream cheese in there too, or put it on toast, or put it into 1/2 recipe chocolate cupcakes (you can then freeze or share the cupcakes).

And the lunch meat? Eat sandwiches several days in a row, then freeze the leftover lunch meat or add it to your weekly soup.
posted by amtho at 12:11 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Buy less; shop more often!
posted by iguanapolitico at 12:11 PM on March 10, 2011

Make a real meal plan every week. I don't eat meat, which cuts out a lot of things that spoil quickly, but I have almost no loss to spoilage. Every week when I make my meal plan, I look in the fridge for things that didn't get used up and try to include them. I find that this kind of constraint is also fun for creative new recipes. For example, I added mint and honey to yogurt for a sauce which goes well on lots of spicy food and now I love.

As you've noted, some things are very difficult to consume as a single before they expire. It just takes a little experience to know how much of something like yogurt you will reliably eat on time.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Plan ahead and shop accordingly. That's what my wife and I do. If you buy stuff to have smoothies that week, then don't buy stuff for bagels too. Buy that the next week.

That's not to say that you have to eat only one thing that week every day all day. But just think about it. When my wife and I grocery shop, we buy for specific meals and if we know that's going to generate a lot of leftovers then we don't buy deli meets for lunch. But if we buy deli meets, then we don't make a giant pot of soup or spaghetti that we could eat all week.

Go to the store with a list and a plan. Don't just go and buy everything you like. We save a lot of food, time and money that way.
posted by phelixshu at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2011

Buy smaller containers, or buy things that aren't pre-packaged if the packages tend to be too large. (I second the suggestion of buying deli meat in smaller quantities at the counter.) Plan what you want to eat/cook BEFORE you go grocery shopping and only buy those things. Cook the food quickly, and freeze the leftovers that you aren't going to eat within a week.

You should be grocery shopping a minimum of once every two weeks. Once a week would be better. Only buy the food you're going to need for that time period.

You might also want to check to see if you fridge is too warm. Cream cheese takes should take a pretty long time to get moldy.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2011

2nding that you should learn to work your freezer. Bread, meats, bones (for stock), butter all freeze really well. Also consider that you can freeze leftovers, then just nuke them when you're ready to get back to them.
posted by Gilbert at 12:17 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Make friends with your freezer.
a. Assume you won't eat all of something, and freeze half the package as soon as you open it. When you're done with the first half, take the second packet out of the freezer. My granny always had less than half a loaf of bread, half a brick of cheddar, and a stick of butter in the fridge, the rest was frozen.
b. When you cook dinner and have leftovers, package some up and freeze it, and have a plan in mind for eating it later and how you're going to thaw and reheat it.

2. Menu-planning.
a. pick an ingredient, and think of all the things you like ot eat involving that ingredient; arrange to eat those all this week. Ex: yogurt in smoothies, in a tupperware with your turkey sandwich for lunch, in chicken salad (using up leftovers!), substituted for sour cream as chili topping, as a lhassi along with Indian take-out,...
b. Have a plan, and stick with it! Even if you'r ein the mood for a bagel with cream cheese, don't buy cream cheese if your menu plan says breakfast this week is frittatas using up the leftover turkey.
c. Menu non-planning: plan your menu, and leave an open day in which you go home and eat everything in the fridge that needs using.

3. Proper storage:
Look up how to keep produce fresh (counter/fridge, humid/dry, covered/open), make sure you're using damaged fruit first, check the temperature of your fridge, etc.
posted by aimedwander at 12:18 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine who's a bachelor and a chef buys a LOT of his veggies off the salad bar at the supermarket. He just won't go through a whole head of cauliflower on his own before it spoils. He points out that while it's slightly more expensive per ounce or whatever, he's not spending money on food he then has to throw out, which is very wasteful.

Salad bar is typically cheaper than "prepared cut veggies" in the veggie section.

(And yeah, smaller quantities of sandwich stuff at the deli counter.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:19 PM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Buy things with indefinite shelf life (pasta, frozen veg, canned tomato sauce, etc.) as staples, always keeping a bunch in stock so you KNOW you have food at home in case you don't have time to shop. You can freeze milk with minimal quality loss, in addition to the other things mentioned.

Buy fresh veggies / fruits / dairy in quantities you know you'll use in a week. If they start looking bad, blanch and freeze them in usable-sized chunks. I use an ice cube tray for greens.

Get flexible with cooking. If you realize you have cream cheese kicking around the fridge, figure out what else you can do with it (add to sandwiches? make a dip?).
posted by momus_window at 12:23 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to what everyone else said (not the salad bar, which I think is too expensive), buying things at the farmers' market and storing items properly (out of plastic for some, in tubs for others, in the crisper, not in the crisper, etc.). Keeping things around that are shelf-stable or very long-lasting and go with everything (polenta in a tube, jarred pasta sauce, pasta, goat cheese in a tub, sealed tofu, brown rice, boxed broth or a glass jar of Better than Bouillon, etc.). And also, Bittman's How to Cook Everything book or app, which has ridiculous lists of swap-outse for everything, so that you're not constantly buying one more thing and can use up something you have instead.
posted by wintersweet at 12:26 PM on March 10, 2011

swap-outse? Sounds like something you shouldn't google. Well, you get the idea.
posted by wintersweet at 12:26 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a once a week shopper myself so I believe in planning ahead for all perishables. . . . and to double check the pantry/freezer for things I'll need and am not positive I have.

I'd add that it helps to use green vegetable bags like these for salad items that go in the freezer -- each gets its own bag, which I wash and re-use, and things do stay fresh considerably longer.

I also use these great storage containers for leftovers (as I usually do a slow cooker or stir fry item on Sundays and eat from it for about four of my dinners a week) and the berries I put on my daily cereal.
posted by bearwife at 12:34 PM on March 10, 2011

Uh -- that was supposed to read, "salad items that go in the refrigerator crisper."
posted by bearwife at 12:35 PM on March 10, 2011

Dinner leftovers are always portioned out into smaller Tupperware containers and frozen immediately (unless I'm taking it for lunch the next day, in which case it goes in the fridge). Then there's no hurry to get back to them just in case I find something in the fridge that needs my attention sooner.

For the other stuff, that means occasionally sacrificing some variety and dealing with repeats. If I buy a package of deli turkey, then I'm eating turkey sandwiches for lunch until it's gone. Same with yogurt; it's smoothies all week until it's gone. Since I'm probably sick of smoothies and sandwiches by that point, the following week I get to have something else (like bagels). But I can't buy them all at the same time and still hope to use them all up.

Finally, consider alternative shelf-stable or freezable foods that you like instead and that are more versatile or store more easily. Like, I cannot get through all the bananas I buy before they go too ripe for my liking, so I eat what I can and freeze the rest for smoothies or banana bread at a later date. I can't ever get through cream cheese fast enough, so I stopped buying it and found that peanut butter on my bagels worked just as well.
posted by anderjen at 12:35 PM on March 10, 2011

I can only go grocery shopping once a week (due to the skeeviness of the neighborhood grocery store), so I plan my meals like this:

First day after shopping -- salad. Leftover salad for breakfast, lunch or dinner next day.
2-3 days after shopping -- a meal that will use up the herbs and fast-perishing veg.
Following days: leftovers, food from cans, pasta w/sauce, root vegetables, tofu, etc.

It helps to learn to live with repeats and leftovers.
posted by Jeanne at 12:39 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Buy small quantities of perishables and use those items as the primary ingredients in a few dishes. Also I only buy one sort of meat a week (sometimes less) as I've found I can't realistically eat more than a hunk of lunchmeat OR a package of chicken breasts OR a pound of ground beef. Generally I'm defrosting these things (lunchmeat excluded) and then when I'm expecting company I'll plan to pull a bit more out of the fridge.

Also the amount of food waste I generated went down significantly when I stopped eating out. Eating in, planning ahead, and taking leftovers for lunch/dinner is really an obvious way to use food.

If I've made too much or am tiring or a particular dish, I'll usually bring the leftovers into the office and post a memo for lunch.
posted by countrymod at 12:42 PM on March 10, 2011

I've noticed that there's lots of mention on storing food, so I thought of a great tool that could help with that.

Still Tasty is a website (and an app) to quickly look up shelf-life of various processed and raw foods stored at room temperature, in the fridge, and in the freezer. They also offer advice on how to store foods.

In general, have plastic bags on hand. If you're going all out, get a vacuum sealer, but as a poor man's solution you can use ziploc bags and suck the air with a drinking straw.

Have marker's at the ready too. Always write the expiration date on containers, on packaging, and on the lids of jars.
posted by FJT at 12:59 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Embrace frozen vegetables.

Embrace frozen fruit for your smoothies.

Decide on a few dishes that freeze well, buy enough ingredients to cook a large pot of them. Freeze in individual portions - if it's all cooked and frozen it won't spoil in your firdge. Alternatively, if you're like me and happy to eat the same meal all week just store in fridge and use over course of the week.

Sandwich ham/turkey/cold meats can go int all of the following:
- scrambled egg
- omelette
- pasta sauces (tomato based, creamy etc)
- soups
- risotto

Left over vegetables can go into the same things.

Left over cream cheese makes excellent pasta sauce base
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:00 PM on March 10, 2011

Same situation, same problem. Stuff that's helped me:

--Joining a food coop that offers lots of things in bulk bins. Being able to measure out, say, a cup of rice instead of buying a 1-pound bag has helped me a lot. A lot of "natural food" stores have bulk aisles.

--The Pleasures of Cooking for One has a lot of clever advice on how to re-use ingredients so you don't end up throwing out half a package of meat or whatever.

--Spending some time calculating what's cheaper to cook at home and what's cheaper to eat as takeout (when you factor in the cost of wasted ingredients). A steak? Worth buying at the grocery store. A turkey sandwich? I quit promising myself that I'd use the whole loaf of bread, the whole head of lettuce, etc. and accepted that it's cheaper and less wasteful for me to just get takeout.

--Only buying things that freeze and reheat well. I love kale but I can't eat a whole head of it by myself so I buy broccoli instead, cook it all at once, and freeze half.
posted by Sifleandollie at 1:00 PM on March 10, 2011

Some airtight containers will be a godsend when it comes to veggies. I immediately pop lettuce & tomatoes into Lock & Lock tubs and they're good for a week, as opposed to going the way of all fruit & veggies in a couple of days.

I make a pot of the TJW family recipe spaghetti sauce, separate it into individual portions, then freeze. As everyone else has said, form a good relationship with your freezer.

Also, if you don't gag at the thought of lactose-free milk, it lasts for weeks without spoiling.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:19 PM on March 10, 2011

I have a suggestion if you don't want to try meal-planning try: just buying way less than you think you need. Like, if something has an expiration date in two weeks, only buy as much as you think you'll need this week. If the expiration date is in a week, only buy what you think you'll eat in the next three days. If it's in three days, only buy enough for tonight. You probably won't run out of food, and if you do, you can just go back to the store and buy more. If it only comes in a package that is too big to do these things with, either freeze the extra or substitute something else.

If you're going to go the meal-planning route (and it works for a lot of people), it doesn't always work the first week. Or two. I flirt with meal-planning on occasion, and I have a tendency to 1) vastly overestimate how much I am going to want to cook (because I think of myself as someone who loves to cook) and 2) vastly underestimate the number of times a week my plan will get interrupted (by other plans, or random pizza a work, or whatever). Personally I am not a big meal-planner but I basically eat the same things all the time, which simplifies things, and I eat a lot of things that freeze well or are shelf-stable (canned beans, frozen vegetables, rice, pasta), so I only have to worry about veggies and dairy.
posted by mskyle at 2:05 PM on March 10, 2011

Although in the examples you gave the food obviously went bad, don't throw out food just because the date on the package has come and gone; it turns out those dates don't really mean much.
posted by TedW at 2:31 PM on March 10, 2011

For the second part of mskyle's advice on meal planning, I find I waste a lot less if I build in one or two nights a week of eating long-life stuff, which could vary on the effort spectrum from pasta with jarred sauce to pasta with sauce made from canned tomatoes (though obviously, insert stir fry/noodle dish/frittata/omelette/stew here). Lots of nutritious things from canned and frozen food can cover this, and eggs are clearly the miracle miscellany-using food, if you eat them.

Not only is it a buffer for using up other stuff, but it also means that if something unexpected means I'm not eating at home one night - and it does, weekly - that doesn't translate into throwing out a meal's worth of food.
posted by carbide at 2:33 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have this problem rather a lot less when I turn my fridge temperature down. It's embarrassing that it took me years to figure that out.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2011

In addition to making friends with your own freezer, if you have the option, make friends with the freezer at work. I make up a batch of lasagna / chili / soup, portion it into lunch-sized containers, then bring several in and freeze them at work. I have three different types of meals in there now, which cuts down my "but what if I'm not in the mood for soup?" anxiety about work lunches and has the added benefit of freeing up space in the freezer at home.

The green vegetable bags also work — we ran an unscientific study with the Debbie Green ones, and stuff lasted longer in them than it did in its original packaging.
posted by mgar at 3:33 PM on March 10, 2011

The whiteboard idea is a great one! We're currently using up an old magnetic notepad for the same purpose, because we have a small, easily-crowded freezer and fridge, and "out of site, out of mind" seems to apply all too well.
posted by wintersweet at 6:10 PM on March 10, 2011

I have never had yogurt go bad on me, so I'm not sure how long you are leaving it. Are you buying large containers or the smaller 6-oz size? Lunch meat has a short shelf life, so don't buy any more than you know you can polish off in a week.you didn't mention vegetables, but I did want to add a plug for a salad spinner, which is a miracle for keeping salad greens for several days. As for the cream cheese, cut a block into quarters and freeze them individually. That's also what I do for butter.

Are you sure the problem might not be your fridge?
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:45 PM on March 10, 2011

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure it's not my fridge -- this has been recurrent at all the places I've lived alone over the years.

As for lactose-free milk, I still drink so little of it (in my coffee) that it STILL goes off -- swollen carton and everything! I switched to powdered milk because it's cheaper than creamer and I use about a teaspoon a day.

I buy yogurt and cottage cheese in the sizes that are larger than individual cups -- I should probably take the hit and buy a few individual cups if it means they don't get tossed.

Other great ideas I will adopt -- a white board, markers, green bags, and way more freezer tupperware! Mostly what I'm getting is that I need to be more mindful of shopping, planning and eating. I have been inspired!
posted by motsque at 7:55 AM on March 11, 2011

I imagine you can freeze milk, too. You certainly can do it with breast milk so buy a few suitable containers for that as well while you stock up on containers.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:16 PM on March 11, 2011

I want to repeat something that was already suggested: check the temperature of your refrigerator. It should be no warmer than 40 degrees Farenheit, and a few degrees makes a big difference.
posted by wryly at 12:07 AM on March 12, 2011

"As for lactose-free milk, I still drink so little of it (in my coffee) that it STILL goes off -- swollen carton and everything! I switched to powdered milk because it's cheaper than creamer and I use about a teaspoon a day."

I have no beef with powdered milk -- sounds like a fine solution -- but most supermarkets carry milk in containers as small as 8 oz. (sometimes even smaller, usually with a branded children's character on it) if that's more realistic. As I drank less milk I switched from gallons to half-gallons to pints ... and sometimes to 8 oz. containers if I knew I wouldn't be around much. So if you happen to need or want "real" milk (perhaps for cooking or something), seek out the small containers.

(Also, organic milk keeps longer than conventional milk, which is NOT typically the case with organic foods, stupid organic carrots that constantly spoil!)

Also, minimus.biz carries travel and trial sizes of lots of things, including food and condiments. If you know you SOMETIMES want X but won't ever make it through a whole jar of X before it spoils, see if they carry it. You could get little fast-food-style ketchup packets that are shelf stable and you only need to use as you need. Or tiny jam jars with about five servings (and crazy gourmet flavors, if you like!). Or, my personal holy grail, little lemon juice packets like you can get at super-cheap restaurants that serve sweet tea but like nowhere else. (I put lemon juice in my water to help with pregnancy nausea and I wanted some to stick in my purse ... $4 got me enough single-serve to last the entire pregnancy.) They do have individual cream cheeses, but they're 67 cents which seems a bit steep to me per serving. Still, if it saves you from throwing out a whole container, it might be worth it to you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on March 12, 2011

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