I need some help with home economics
August 9, 2015 3:36 AM   Subscribe

I need help managing the food in my pantry, fridge, and freezer.

Basically, no one ever taught me how to cook or make meal plans or manage a refrigerator/pantry. My boyfriend likes to cook, and I've learned a lot from him, but he is now working a high stress job with a 1.5 hour commute each way. So now I'm taking over the majority of the cooking and grocery shopping, because we live together and I work from home, but I feel like I don't know what I'm doing.

Here are my main problems and related questions:

1. Sometimes I buy meat for dinner and then change my mind and don't feel like eating it right away. Then I forget about it for a day or two, so it spoils before I get to it (that's happened twice this last month). I've thought about putting all meat directly in the freezer when I get back from the store. Is that what most people do? How long does meat stay okay in the deep freeze? How long does it take for a set of two porkchops, or a 1/4 lb. ground meat for spaghetti, to unfreeze? Are there other ways to manage meat/keep track of it?

2. We keep a list of stuff we need on the fridge, and I bring that list to the store, but somehow the second I come back, I realize that we're out of something else that wasn't on the list. Or, I realize that we're out of something that I thought we had in stock 10 minutes before I need it for dinner. Before I go shopping, should I be checking the cupboards, the fridge, and the freezer every time?

3. I feel bad about throwing out food, but I also have no sense of how long things like leftovers or opened milk stay good. For leftovers, is a smell-test adequate to figure out if something has gone bad or not? Should I be checking leftovers and opened things every day? Labelling everything with a marker and masking tape? Something else?

I'm sort of embarrassed to have such basic questions about this stuff, but no one in my family ever taught me about it. So I really appreciate any help you can give me. Also, if you have any other tips for managing a pantry/fridge feel free to add those too, especially if they seem so glaringly obvious to you that it's almost incomprehensible that someone else might not know them.
posted by colfax to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
1) When you notice yourself changing your mind, that's when you move the meat from the fridge to the freezer. Sorry, I can't help with thawing times.

2) Seems like your list is incomplete. I would check your stocks once a week for things that aren't on the list yet, but should be. Also, as you keep doing this, you'll start having a better overview of what is running out and this should help too.

3) In general, if it looks good, smells good, and tastes good, I would consider it fine to eat. I don't think you need to check things every day; check your food once you know that today's dinner will depend on it, in the morning or before you go shopping.

All of this will certainly get easier over time. No worries. No one was born knowing all of this!
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:54 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

i'm the main cook in our house and to be honest those all seem like quite normal problems - you just get better with practice. i know this isn't a very exciting answer, but with time you get to the point where you have a picture in your head of everything you have (and the only real problem is if your partner eats something and doesn't tell you or add it to the list).

for what it's worth, we don't each much meat, so i can't help there. but leftovers i pretty much always use next day (in a sense it helps, because it decides for you what you are going to eat next day - deciding that can be a bit of a chore once the novelty of cooking wears off). you know when milk goes off because it smells bad (similarly, eggs float). most other things get "slimy" when bad.

it also sounds a bit like you're making fixed recipes. we eat a lot of food (eg salads, soups, pasta with sauces) where you can use pretty much anything, depending on what you have available. that helps you because you can adapt to whatever you find / have available.

general / basic stuff: we go to the market once a week and buy fresh veg and fruit to last the week. judging that gets easier with practice (and we do a quick stock-take before going out the door). much fruit and veg is kept in bowls in the kitchen, but some things in the fridge (carrots need to be wrapped in a plastic bag in the fridge; broccoli keeps better there), and potatoes and onions live in a cupboard in the dark. abut once a week we have something bought like take-away sushi, so i don't need to cook. soups are great in winter because you can make them at lunch time and heat them up later, so timing is easy, and, as i said, you can stick pretty much anything in there. if i do have something that is limited life-span then that determines what we eat next (so it's not "what i feel like eating", but "what do we need to eat").
posted by andrewcooke at 4:00 AM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, it's a practice thing. But when you buy meat, it helps if you mentally commit to cooking it the same day or the next day. Once it's cooked, if you don't feel like eating it that day, you can just stick it in the freezer.

To be honest, buying one meal's worth of mince is a waste of time. If you're going to make a spaghetti sauce with mince, buy as much as you can comfortably cook in your regular pan, cook it up, take out what you need for that day's dinner, then separate the rest into meal units and freeze. Saves loads of time.

Defrosting times: again you develop a sense of this with practice. Meanwhile, one good trick is to take a meal-unit of frozen stuff out of the freezer just before you go to bed, and put it in the fridge to defrost for tomorrow's dinner.
posted by Grunyon at 4:19 AM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All of that is very normal to learn, no need to be embarassed! I get bulk packs of meat and seperate them, roll them first in plastic wrap then aluminum foil, then put them in a ziploc bag with a label and date. I learned this about two weeks ago when googling "how to freeze bulk pack meat." I then just put the bag in cold water in the sink so it can dethaw for a few hours before cooking.

Leftovers require regularly checking, or you can just make a mental note of when you bought it the last week, and check every week on that particular day. And knowing your pantry takes practice, and a feel for what you generally enjoy cooking regularly.

You also start making mental roadmaps for your recipes - I know that I always need to buy 2 cans of coconut milk, if I find myself wanting to use a tin of thai curry paste. Then I think about the qualities of the components I need for the recipe (type of vegetables, meat, seasonings, etc). Pretty soon it gets to be a rather simple framework where it is difficult to forget things, or you get annoyed enough by having to run back to the store that you won't forget. Cheers!
posted by yueliang at 4:25 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make a master list of things you want to always have on hand. Things like ketchup, dish soap, coffee, paper towels, olive oil, what have you. Only you two know what's on that list. Type it up in Word. It should look like this:

___ ketchup
___ dish soap
___ coffee
___ paper towels
___ olive oil

Keep this template on the fridge. As you notice you're out of something, put a mark by the thing you need. Each week, add the ingredients/items you need for recipes that don't include things from this "always need" list. Like cilantro, dried cranberries, etc. Going shopping? This is your shopping list.

Keep the list on your phone if it works better for you. You won't always be near the fridge when you remember you need something.

For extra credit, organize your list according to item location in your usual store. If you happen to live near a Wegmans, their site has a feature that keeps your "always need" list and organizes it by aisle location in the specific store where you shop.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:29 AM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

We keep a list of stuff we need on the fridge, and I bring that list to the store, but somehow the second I come back, I realize that we're out of something else that wasn't on the list. Or, I realize that we're out of something that I thought we had in stock 10 minutes before I need it for dinner. Before I go shopping, should I be checking the cupboards, the fridge, and the freezer every time?

If the list is right there on your fridge, make sure there's a pen right there on your fridge as well; then, every time you use up your last remaining piece of something, stick it on the list right then and there. That way you never have to remember stuff because the list does it for you.

On preview: jinx!
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on August 9, 2015

FWIW I always put meat straight in the freezer. Frozen, it will keep for months. I generally use the microwave to thaw it out immediately before cooking (takes a little practice to prevent over-thawing turning into a bit of a pre-cook, which can mess with the texture).
posted by flabdablet at 4:33 AM on August 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that helps me is that I date things once I open them. I'll use the leftover tomato sauce from the jar I opened two weeks ago, but I often forget when I opened something. I have a Sharpie I keep in the drawer next to the fridge and I date milks, jars of jam/jelly, salad dressings, sauces, leftover boxed stock,....

That way when I look in the fridge before I head to the store I can see that I opened the milk a week ago and will need more soon.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:41 AM on August 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a good article about how long things last in the fridge.

--Here's what should be refrigerated after opening. Keep these condiments in the refrigerator door so you can see them easily. When you open a glass bottle or jar of something, see if the label says "refrigerate after opening." Things with vinegar in them last a long time in the fridge. Things like leftover roasted peppers in oil get moldy fast.

--Do a quick once-a-week clean out of the fridge to throw out expired food and beverages. This will help you see what's still on hand in there.

--It's a drag, but plan a week of menus and read every single line of the recipes before you head to the store. To get in the groove consider the Fresh20.com meal planning system.

--Follow the "always-have-some-left" system for non-perishables. An item goes on the shopping list when there's only one left of an item or you're about to use up the rest of the cereal/flour/sugar/mustard/pasta/peanut butter, etc. Don't head to the supermarket without assessing milk, juice, coffee, half and half etc.

--Keep things like flour, sugar, rice, grains, in small clear containers inside your cabinets where you can see what's running low.

--Group like with like--cooking oils, cans of beans, and cans of tomatoes--crushed, paste, diced-- where you can easily see if you have any cans left. Keep a tube of tomato paste in the fridge door along with those little lemon and lime-shaped plastic bottles so you always have tomato paste, lime, or lemon juice on hand to cook with. Get one clear plastic container that fits on a cabinet shelf for bottled ingredients that don't need to be refrigerated.
posted by Elsie at 4:52 AM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have a set category of meals for every day of week (Friday is pizza night, Wednesday is stirfry etc). This allows for variation week to week but makes planning easier. Before I go grocery shopping I sit down and figure out what we need for the week. Shopping with a list and a plan really helps eliminate waste.

If I've planned something ambitious and it's just not happening that night, I freeze meat if I know I won't get to it within a day or two. But I really try to avoid freezing raw meat because the likelihood is that I'll just never actually defrost and cook it. Instead, I'll cook a bunch of meatballs and freeze those and then use as needed.

For defrosting, usually overnight in the fridge is enough.

For leftovers, I keep a roll of masking tape and a sharpie in the kitchen and label and date everything that's getting put in the fridge. I generally try to use up leftovers within a week.
posted by betsybetsy at 5:00 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To echo others, this does get better with practice.

What has worked for me: having a small rotating cast of recipes I love to cook.

If you almost always eat the same ten recipes, you almost always know what you need. Or, your needs become simpler. For example, we eat a lot of homemade hummus, as well as oven-roasted chickpeas. Thus, we always know to pick up more cans of chickpeas. I also know when I'm about to run out of olive oil, tahini, fresh lemons, garlic heads, etc because I'm looking for those ingredients in the kitchen every other day when I make fresh batches of hummus.

As for meat, I almost always put mine straight in the freezer. Because I suck at remembering to cook meat before it spoils. If we know for certain that we want to make Chicken Paprikash the following night, we'll put a few chicken breasts in the fridge (even if they're sealed in plastic wrap, put them in a leftover plastic grocery bag to prevent any leaks/cross-contamination in the fridge) so that they can gradually thaw in time for cooking. Of course, sometimes we want chicken right now, which means letting it thaw on the countertop in a bowl of cold-to-room-temp water. I don't recommend thawing your chicken in the microwave or in hot water. You're basically starting the cooking process right there, and it makes for less than great chicken. In other words, if you're in a pinch and need a quick meal, don't rely on your stock of frozen meat that night. If I cook never-frozen meat it's usually because I picked it up on the way home from work.

Sometimes you're just not going to have every ingredient you need. This is another reason why it helps to have a reliable but small list of go-to recipes. Otherwise you're always chasing your tail in the search for more ingredients that you may end up using only once, because whatever random recipe you found online says that it requires fenugreek or tapioca pearls or something. Of course, that's fine if fenugreek or tapioca pearls are ingredients in one of your favorite go-to recipes that you're making four or five times a month. But if you're going after a new/different recipe almost every night, there's always going to be some ingredient that you're missing.

Label what you put in the freezer. "Chicken. Purchased/Frozen: 8/9/15. Sell-by: 8/14/10." Noting the sell-by date is usually a reassurance to future-me that I was timely when I froze the item. One time we thawed chicken that I had stuck in the freezer on the day before the sell-by date, but it was definitely spoiled chicken. We knew this because of the smell. Ugh. When it comes to freezing your meat, don't wait until the last minute.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:00 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

once I've made a grocery list, I find it helpful to do a mental walk-through of the grocery store (I go to the same grocery store each week) and that usually jogs my memory of things I may need but forgot to jot down during the week.
posted by gursky at 5:36 AM on August 9, 2015

Best answer: Grocery List: we keep a pad and pen in the kitchen; he who uses the last of something writes it on the list (in approximate order of where it is found in the grocery store). This includes when something used often is getting low, from juice to potatoes to sugar to light bulbs to… well, everything. The day before shopping day, I plan dinners and lunches for the week and add ingredients to the list if we don’t have them on hand.

Menu Planning: might sound hard, but it doesn’t take long at our house, because I save each week’s menu in Word for quick reference/ideas. And the thing is, it’s great to have a choice of many/several meals and know that you have everything you need to make it (e.g. sometime in the coming week, we’ll be having crab-stuffed filet mignon with whiskey peppercorn sauce; all the ingredients are there in fridge). Also, “refrigerator rummage” is a perfectly acceptable menu item. Ditto “sandwiches”. Which is just to say, there’s still a free-form element in case that all sounds overly programmed, plus, it’s a good way to address leftovers before they spoil.

Pantry: because of the way we plan/shop, we don't keep much there. Several cans of tomatoes bought on sale, "emergency" spaghetti sauce, a few pounds of assorted dried beans, the next jar of mayo, etc. This makes it easy to remember what's on hand without taking a weekly inventory (plus, see above for the "running low" rule for what goes on the grocery list).

Freezing: we keep quart- and gallon-sized Ziploc bags on hand. Very handy for quickly taking care of leftovers, unpacking and storing a tray of six chicken leg quarters, etc., and there’s a label area for noting the date and contents if the visuals don’t make it obvious. (They’re also great for quickly storing half an onion or a block of cheese or whatever without smelling up the fridge.) We don’t generally freeze meat that we plan to use in the next few days, but routinely do after a trip to the butcher. I’d say you should use frozen meat within three months, but in truth we’ve cooked meat that was nine months old (a pheasant that got lost in the back of the freezer) and it roasted up deliciously.

Just guessing here, but I’d say a set of two porkchops or a 1/4 lb. ground meat would take an hour to an hour and a half to thaw at room temperature. We try to avoid leaving meat out on the counter, though, just as a general practice.

Thawing: if you can decide what you’re going to make the next day, just pull what you need out of the freezer and throw it in the fridge. It will be thawed when you need it (unless it’s something large like a whole chicken, but we try to use things like that while fresh, without freezing). If you forget, and have an hour or two before you need to start cooking, just throw the (aforementioned Ziploc-bagged) meat into a big bowl of cold water. Otherwise, as noted above, we use the defrost setting on the microwave.

Leftovers: it depends on the food items as to how long they’ll store. I have kept opened refried beans and chipotle sauce cans (for occasional breakfast burritos), covered with foil, for two weeks, and they were just fine. That’s probably the outer limit, though. Otherwise, leftovers go into the fridge, and if not used in a day or two they go into the freezer, dated and labeled. We use the large Ziplocs for chicken carcasses and when we have three or four, we make stock. (We also keep parmesan rinds and throw those in with the bones.) Before unused bread goes stale, we throw it into a blender, make bread crumbs and freeze.

One final tip: keep a box of Kabnet Wax in your kitchen. They have a million uses, last forever and save a lot of washing up.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:43 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

For some things I find it helps to keep a spare unopened one in the pantry as well as the one that's in progress. When you finish the open one, that's when it goes on the shopping list. If you are honestly in such a tearing hurry that you can't get to the shopping list, just don't throw away the empty packet / jar / whatever. Leave it somewhere obvious. You're not allowed to throw it out until it's on the shopping list.

In the meantime you're merrily using the spare one so there's no dreadful toilet paper emergency.
posted by emilyw at 6:33 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Something I've found helpful for getting into a rhythm is to have an outside force causing me to do some of this kitchen planning. For me, it's a CSA delivery -- veggies show up on Tuesday, I look in the basket, and plan the meals from there, knowing that I need to use the lettuce/more fragile veggies first. Monday night is often soup or casserole or "leftover" burritos -- just cleaning out the fridge in preparation for Tuesday's veggie delivery. It's helped me get into a rhythm with this stuff. I wonder if generating something like that for yourself would be helpful.

If you and your partner are likely to eat leftovers for lunches, packing them into portion-sized containers, rather than one big tub, can help -- need to eat/pack lunch? Just grab and go. When our rhythm is going well, for us, if there are still leftovers packages after a couple of days, they transfer right to the freezer. Then we have a varied freezer stash of leftovers to pull lunches from.
posted by linettasky at 6:51 AM on August 9, 2015

Best answer: FIFO: first in, first out. That is, rotate your food so oldest foods are easiest to access.

Clean out the cupboards occasionally and use up anything that needs to get used up by flipping to the indexes of your cookbooks and searching for that ingredient.

Store all open pantry food in waterproof containers. It seems to help prevent pantry moths, which I don't understand because I thought they got into food by laying eggs at the factory? Maybe it isn't enough air for them....

You can freeze a lot of food if you don't go through it fast enough. Even milk! Soak a million dried beans. Cook. Store a thousand servings of beans in separate containers in the freezer.

Buy extra of food you use during sales, but only if it's something you buy anyway. And check to make sure they aren't on sale because they're about to expire! I buy expiring food, but I make specific plans for how to put it to use before it expires (can/dry/eat/freeze).

Check prices in both the bulk and packaged sections of the store, it's not always consistent which is cheaper. Some places you can even get peanut butter, vanilla, oils, and spices in bulk. Soy milk is a good backup for milk because it keeps and you don't have to get the kind that goes in the fridge.

Beans, nuts and seeds are proteins that keep longer than meat. Generally, if it didn't come from an animal it will keep longer and you can worry a little less about bacteria/spoilage.

CSA boxes are genius and you'd get really good at vegetable dishes.

Remember to be kind to yourself. If you read Ask Metafilter much (or look in the fridges of other people), you'll see that you share this struggle with many people. I forget beans on the stove, then remember the precise smell of a house after burnt beans (even ten years later). It's ok to make mistakes, you can learn from them.
posted by aniola at 8:08 AM on August 9, 2015

Best answer: And dedicate a shelf (or corner of a shelf if you have roommates) in the fridge to foods that need to get used first. This is in addition to FIFO. This is the first shelf you consider when you look through the fridge for something to eat or cook.
posted by aniola at 8:16 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unless you've been taught, or until you've done it for a while, these are all basic things that no one knows! No need to feel embarrassed.

Are you doing meal planning before you go grocery shopping? That will help with all of your questions: if you have a meal plan, your meat will get used when it's supposed to, you'll know what to check your pantry/fridge/freezer for before you go shopping, and you'll have a plan for leftovers so they'll get eaten in the appropriate amount of time.

My routine is to look at our calendar and make a meal plan for the week. This takes into account evenings when we won't need to make dinner, or days when I'll be gone all day and will need to do a crockpot meal, or days when it would be particularly handy to have leftovers available. Then I go through my recipe box/Pinterest and pick which recipes I want to make. Then I check my fridge/freezer/pantry to see what needs to be used up, what I have enough of, and what I need, and add it to the ongoing grocery list that we maintain in Google Keep. My husband and I both add things as we use them up or think of them and I'm unlikely to go shopping without my phone, so I rarely forget to bring my list.

I take some extra steps that you didn't ask about - I check my grocery store's website to see if there are electronic coupons for things already on my list that I can add to my store loyalty card. I sometimes divide my shopping list into two, if I have enough items that I know I can get at Aldi more cheaply than my regular store (but I don't go to both stores every week - Aldi is in the other direction, so I only go there once or twice a month).

When I get home, I unpack all the groceries and freeze the meat. If I get more than I need for a single recipe, I divide it then and freeze it in meal-size quantities (for example, we get the 20 count packs of brats, but freeze them in twos, so we can easily defrost what we need for one dinner). I do this with other things that we buy in bulk too - bananas for smoothies, breads, and the bits of things you don't completely use up in a recipe, like half-n-half or tomato sauce. (This is also a great way to save fresh herbs - freeze in oil or water in ice cube trays, until the next time you need them.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:30 AM on August 9, 2015

Re question 1, you've already got a lot of good answers here. Personally, I freeze everything and if if I take something out to defrost that means I'm committed to making that thing that night. If you're on the ball you can defrost overnight in the fridge, but for small quantities such as you're using (a) make sure you freeze them in small portions so you're only defrosting one meal's worth at a time and (b) I have found putting small portions of frozen meat, well-wrapped, into a ziplock with tepid water will usually defrost it in 20-30 minutes. So I take out my chicken breast or whatever, set in in the zip lock to defrost, and then do the rest of my meal prep --- chopping veg, making a salad, what have you. By the time that's done the meat's generally ready to be used.

Re question 2 --- the main thing is to keep the list someplace where, when you run out of a thing, you will be able to instantly add it to the list, and get in the habit of doing that. If fridge door works for you for this, great. Personally I keep mine on my phone, because i always have that with me and if I'm out and about and remember something it's easy to add.

Re question 3, I freeze stuff if I'm not sure I'm going to eat it within a week. If it's the kind of thing that doesn't freeze well, I eat it within a week.
posted by Diablevert at 8:37 AM on August 9, 2015

Keep 2 (or more) of any dry grocery ingredient that would be a pain to run out of, when you open the second (or last) one it gets added to that weeks shopping list. I find having say a working packet off often used items & a spare, saves a lot of oh no I was going to make x but now I dont' have y problems. I do this with cleaning products as well.
posted by wwax at 8:42 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't really love using the freezer for meat, because I also can't rely on my future self to want the thing morning self thought might be a good idea (or needed to be used). Way too much pressure.

I just shop frequently for meat, vegetables, and fruit - every 2-3 days - with particular meals in mind (and based on what looks good in the store). (This still gives me enough flexibility to change my mind.) I tend to organize everything around the protein. Everything goes into the fridge.

My lunches and dinners are usually: 7-8 oz protein, 1/2 cup of some kind of starch (could be legumes, sometimes), and 1-2 cups veg. Breakfast is always eggs and toast, sometimes with a veg or piece of ham or proscuitto, or yogurt. For snacks, it's likely to be cottage cheese and nuts or fruit.

In terms of how much veg - for each day, I get one green veg to steam or boil (e.g. asparagus, green beans), one leafy green for a salad (spinach, kale), and one red/yellow/orange thing for antioxidants (usually tomatoes to have raw, and/or a red or yellow pepper to sautee or throw in a salad). One avocado, maybe a couple of times a week (one = 2 portions for me) - good source of good fats and fiber, tastes great in or on most things. For something different now and then, I might get mushrooms, zucchini, or eggplant. I don't eat a lot of fruit, so I might get a punnet of raspberries (fiber), grapes, or a banana. (All that's for one person, obviously.)

Weekly buys: yogurt, cream or milk, cheese, cottage cheese, bread, eggs, sometimes deli meats, canned legumes & beans, canned tuna, nuts.

Biweekly or monthly buys: coffee, oil, flour, sugar, rice, pasta, frozen shrimp, clams, or trout (the only frozen protein thing I get), other staples.

I cook for one, so sometimes I make a double portion of a dinner thing and have it as a leftover for lunch (or the next day's dinner). Things like meatloaf (or meatballs or burgers), roast beef, or roast chicken easily find second lives in salads. I might also make 2-3 portions of starchy foods at once, so that cuts down on time for dinner the next day. (E.g. I might boil a bunch of baby potatoes, and then sautee them the next day in oil with garlic, or use them in a frittata or cold salad.) I never wind up eating leftover non-starchy veggies, so I just make those fresh for each meal.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

One tip for list-making/inventory of stock items is to remove memory from the equation. For each thing (dish soap, cat litter, spices) figure out what the minimum amount you'd want to have before you have to buy more. Then write that on a 3x5 card with the item name and keep it near the item somewhere, like a pocket on inside of the cabinet door. When you see that you're below the limit, pull the card and stash it somewhere you won't forget it. I put it in my back pocket. At your next convenience, throw the card in a basket for that purpose. When you go to the store, all the cards in the basket make your starting list.

When you plan to make a particular recipe, print a hard copy, line out all the things you already have in the ingredients list, and throw the copy in the basket.

It seems like overkill, but for me it's necessary. I tell myself I will write an item on the shopping list, but I don't like to be sidetracked from what I'm doing, so I will remember to do it later. Later never comes.
posted by ctmf at 9:59 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

http://savingdinner.com/ is a subscription service that sends you a weekly meal plan with shopping list and recipes. Following it for a couple of months should help you develop a better sense for how to do it on your own.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:57 AM on August 9, 2015

Yes, make a master list for the grocery. Save your receipts for a while, that will help you figure out what goes on your list. Things that are critical, for me that would be coffee, oatmeal, brown sugar, toilet paper, can be in bold.

Most meat these days has a sell-by date, and should be just fine several days after that. I like to use chicken promptly, and put it in the freezer if I won't use it in 24 hours. The bottom of the fridge is colder, keep meat on the bottom shelf. Eggs are forgiving and go on the top shelf. I am pretty easygoing about leftovers - if it smells fine and is under 5 days old, I'll probably eat it.

I have family living with me and meal planning gets more complicated. I try to keep a list of meal stuff on hand, esp. stuff in the freezer.

I buy some meat - hamburger and chicken thighs, esp. - in family sizes, and immediately re-package it when I get home into more manageable sizes. i try to keep it flat for easier defrosting.
posted by theora55 at 12:01 PM on August 9, 2015

Re: Freezing, people usually mark the date they froze an item, but I find it more helpful to label the food with an "Eat by" date. That means I don't have to do calculations about whether something is still OK x months from now and it encourages me to eat something that's approaching the end of its window. It also make it easier to clean out the freezer. Future you will thank you.
posted by carmicha at 4:15 PM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. I only buy meat to cook that night. I keep some frozen sausages in the fridge as backup in case I really want meat for dinner and don't have any. I also keep frozen pre-made potstickers, falafel, and some frozen veggies always on hand. Lots of advice in this thread about other ways to handle this. You can defrost in the microwave or by moving it to the fridge in the morning or the night before.

2. I just work around it and cook the recipe slightly differently, and make sure to pick it up next time.

3. Milk is bad when it smells/tastes bad. Other leftovers, eat within 3 days of cooking.

I keep eggs, a couple of different cheese, and frozen veggies on hand, along with pantry staples like oils, vinegars, spices, grains, canned beans, olives, pickles, etc. Then I shop for meat, fresh fruit/veggies, and eggs every few days.
posted by amaire at 6:38 PM on August 9, 2015

1. Yep, all meat goes in the freezer right away. There's just nothing to lose by doing this. Do you have a microwave? If so, defrost meat in the micro, a little bit at a time so you don't accidentally overcook. if not, Google for, and use, one of the cold-water methods.

2. Yep. Keep the list on your fridge as a running list and add things whenever you think of them or notice they're out. Don't delay, add it as soon as you notice, or you'll forget. Then, before you go shopping, sit down. Think about what you want to eat next week, what time you have available for cooking, etc. Jot down the ingredients you might potentially need for anything you will want to make, and check your pantry to see if you have the stuff you'll need.

3.Marker/tape always seemed super anal to me. Smell test is mostly fine, but err on the side of caution. Mainly, you should plan to buy what you can use in a week. Cheese lasts a very long time, especially if well wrapped - you almost never need to throw cheese out. Sliced deli meat is shorter-lasting, as is unfrozen meat in cuts. Seafood has a very short lifespan. Produce varies depending on type and storage. Some can be revived: kale, celery, chard and sometimes other things just get wilted from dehydration and work fine in recipes after swishing with water.
posted by Miko at 8:19 PM on August 9, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your help!
posted by colfax at 3:56 AM on August 10, 2015

One tip for list-making/inventory of stock items is to remove memory from the equation. For each thing (dish soap, cat litter, spices) figure out what the minimum amount you'd want to have before you have to buy more.

This. It helps to sort of stock your fridge and cabinets as if it were a grocery store, so you can see what you're low on. If you stock your pantry for variety, it becomes difficult to recall what you have, and how old it is. You want to keep the oldest stuff up front so you eat it first.

Then write that on a 3x5 card with the item name and keep it near the item somewhere, like a pocket on inside of the cabinet door.

Aaaand you lost me. On my phone I have a master checklist of minimums, and before I made a biweekly grocery store run I make a copy and check off everything that meets my minimum stocking needs. It's sorted in such a way to make running through it quick, like five minutes. In an ideal world, it'd also quickly sort by grocery store location, but that's a minor nit.

I use Google Keep to store the checklist, because it synchronizes across devices, including a desktop. For well coordinated couples, Keep items can be shared with other people.
posted by pwnguin at 12:41 AM on August 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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