Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Project Nowaste - meal planning to reduce waste

Project NOWASTEIn this week's Project Nowaste post, I want to briefly discuss how to prevent having too much perishable food around. It's easy to lose track of what food you have in the fridge if you don't plan for meals when you go food shopping.

A lot of people don't plan for meals anymore and I think that's where a lot of the food waste comes from. So, to start, sit down every week (or two or whatever works best for you) and make a meal plan. Look through your fridge, freezer and cabinets and see what you have on hand that will be expiring soon. This will also help prevent you from buying more of something you already have enough of or won't be using that week. Now that you have an idea of what you have in stock, start planning your meals.

Organize your meals based on what will expire first. So if you have some chicken that's about to expire and some plain yogurt a day or so pass it's pull date, then make something with those items earlier in the week. Also, just to minimize your costs each week, you'll want to plan meals with products you have on hand, even if they are in no danger of expiring. This ensures that you keep a good rotation of non-perishables and you won't be stuck with 3 pounds of buckwheat that you have to use up all of a sudden further down the road when you finally realize it's really old.

Now, make a list of items that you don't have on hand and need for the meals you planned and try to limit yourself to purchasing just those items. If you do end up buying more than you think you'll eat because it's on sale or because it's in bulk and you want to stock up, then when you return from the store make sure that you freeze, preserve or otherwise store the additions to last longer.

If you are already doing this, then give yourself a pat on the back. If not, this will give you something to work on!


Arif Mamdani said...

we've been doing this for years - not just because of the waste reduction/cost savings, but also because planning ahead means not having to think about what to make on any given day. The best however is that by planning ahead, I can think about/try out new dishes so that we're not falling into the rut of making the same things over and over again. In doing so, our family meals (and we eat dinner as a family every night) are that much more enjoyable.

One thing I'd add to your suggestions is to use what you've made earlier in the week as the basis for meals later in the week. Pretty much any leftover food can be turned into empanada filling, but many items make great additions to soups, stews, or various forms of pasta.

Anna Banana said...

This is great advice for experienced cooks. For those who are just getting started, try shopping for just the food you need for 2 or 3 dinners at a time. One of the things that goes bad the fastest is bagged salad. Lettuce from the farmer's market or even the grocery store lasts longer (and tastes better) if it's not packaged in a bag. I throw almost nothing out, but I've been cooking for a really long time. And I have a dog.

Miss Music said...

This has been my habit for years as well. I keep a stenographer's notebook in my kitchen, and on one page, write down items we need that we are close to running out of. On a second page, I write down the recipes I plan on using that week, and where to find them. The recipes are planned based on what we already have in the house. Before I go shopping, I quickly take inventory in the pantry and medicine cabinet, and write down anything else we are low on. I only shop from my list, unless I come across a truly unbelievable bargain. This method is simple and takes very little time, which is great because if it did, I probably wouldn't bother.

Village Green said...

Would be interested to hear from other single people -- how do you plan your meals? Shopping for one should be easier and less wasteful, but I don't find it that easy. I find myself making something that I eat for several days until I am bored to death with it, such as a crock pot full of veg stew. So I'll freeze the remainder and then never thaw it out. It's a stupid and wasteful way of food consumption. Yet it seems to me that our animal natures require variety. Tips on dealing with this would be most appreciated.

Anonymous said...

For singles (or couples), I recommend "clean out the fridge" cuisine. First night you cook your meat, steam or blanch your vegetables, cook a nice pot of rice or other grain.
Then for the rest of the week, you have the options of:

quickly saute a bit of chopped meat, veggies and rice, and roll it up in a burrito;

chop up some leftover meat and veggies and toss it in a pie shell with some eggs and cheese and bake. What, you thought quiche had to be complicated?;

chop up some leftover meat and veggies (include some sauteed onions and bell peppers for best flavor) and fold into a batch of Swedish pancake batter. Cook like any other pancake, and you have something that faintly resembles okonomi yaki... and is VERY tasty;

chop up a bit of meat and veggies, saute it quickly, throw in some rice and cook until the rice is heated through, remove from the pan and wipe the pan clean, add oil or butter and scramble an egg or two, then toss the rice mixture back into the pan and stir well. Add soy sauce and enjoy.

Or, cook some noodles, make a white sauce, and toss both into a casserole with the leftover meat and veggies. Sprinkle with some bread crumbs and a little cheese, then bake until bubbly.

Or, you can just scrape all your leftovers into one big plastic container or ziploc bag and stuff it into the freezer. When the container is full, thaw it out, dump it into the crockpot with some water and seasonings and make "dump" soup, which is always decent eating and is occasionally sublime.

Anonymous said...


Good advice. It certainly reduces waste to know what you have and know what you need.
I find it's easier not to waste if I plan on using leftovers for the next meal. If I've got some leftover pot roast from last night, I make soup for the next lunch with it.
We're at a little advantage in one way out here in the woods. We HAVE to plan our meals since we get into town only once or twice a week. If we forget something like butter, etc. we can't just pop into the store. It's a ten mile drive!
I've found that knowing I'm not going to get to a store anytime soon helps me plan ahead and waste less.

ruchi said...

Village Green-

I live alone, and when I meal plan, what I try to do is to pick a few meals that overlap in ingredients as well as meals that freeze well (ie ones that taste good after being frozen as opposed to ones that are passable.)

For instance, I'll buy ingredients to make lasagna and turkey sloppy joes knowing that I can use extra marinara for spaghetti, and extra turkey meat for turkey burgers and extra hamburger buns for bite size pizzas. The lasagna I'll take to work with me. Now I love lasagna so I can eat it for a week at a time without getting sick of it, but if you can't, lasagna tastes just as good or better after being frozen for a week, so you can alternate. It does require that foods are in sort of a similar palate, but it's still varied enough that I don't get tired.

The other thing as a single, is cut recipes. I often will cut a recipe in half so I find I don't actually need to buy 5 tomatoes, I can get away with just a few. I love crock pots, but they are generally intended to feed a family, so I've stopped using mine unless I can commit to eating something for a couple weeks (or commit to freezing it and eating it over the course of a month.)

Now and then I slip up, but by and large I have far less waste than I used to before I meal planned.

Jennifer said...

We, too, have been doing this for years. We sit down on Sunday and plan out the whole week. We also plan a lunch meal, which is a big pot of something like chili or enchiladas which we reheat all week for lunch. It's so nice!

What I can improve on is taking advantage of on-sale items... I'm so afraid of buying too much that i don't take advantage of stocking up on things I use every day.

As a couple who often eat seperately, what we have found helps is cooking all the time. That way, we can tell by looking at a recipe how it works for one or two. We know exactly how much red pepper it takes to make something, how much tortilla, etc. We usually try to use a whole veggie up, even if it only calls for half, as veggies are way healthier and spoil faster when cut. We just lessen things that aren't fresh veggies to make the difference.

We haven't found it hard to cook for one or two... once you've done it enough!

Anonymous said...

Another suggestion of those who can do livestock.
i.e. those who live in the country or have forward thinking city planners.
Pigs, chickens and goats will eat anything. WHen you do have food waste you can feed it to the animals. GreenPa and I are talking about getting two or three pigs. I'll let you know how or if it works out.
Otherwise food waste makes excellent garden compost. There are Green catalogs that sell household compost bins complete with worms. Otherwise a black barrel with a door cut in the side mounted on a stand that lets it rotate and a handful of night crawlers from your local fishing shop with a little potting soil will do the same job for about half the cost.

Take Care.

Jennifer said...

Two more thoughts after thinking more...

An easy way to start meal planning is to get a bunch of index cards or other small papers. On one side wrtie the recipe in the exact amount you want to make. On the other side, write the ingredients you need to buy. Write down ever meal you can think of- even a grilled cheese sandwich! Then, on shopping day, take stock of what you have already and pull cards out that match those foods. Shuffle through and draw randomly or just pick what you want for the rest. Post on the fridge... I made magnets that say Monday, Tuesday, etc. That way you won't forget!

On Spice's comment... dogs, too, will and can eat almost anything. (Except grapes, onions, high fat foods, etc). We tend to feed our dogs ALL of the excess veggie trimmings and leftover scraps.... even the "turned" ones, as long as there is no mold. Their digestive tracts are MUCH shorter and able to process "turned" food. We are trying to start a compost pile for the newspapers, and so are holding back some of the food waste for that instead... my dogs aren't so happy! This is vet approved, by the way.

Anonymous said...

We used to do okay when there were more people living with us and we had more collective free time.

We have *just* started meal planning, two weeks at a time - helped by the pressure cooker & Lorna Sass cookbook I got for Christmas & Yul - and it's going great. One weekend we go to the coop, the next we go to the Midtown Market just for milk and fruit. We haven't thrown away anything purchased in the last 4 weeks except some scratch & dent apples that turned out to be bad on the inside. (Did toss some stuff *discovered* this month but bought before we started planning.)

During the summer our CSA pickup is at the coop, so we go every week anyway.

In the winter it seems like we compost about 5# of food waste among the three of us, and I'm guessing about half would have been edible if we'd been more on the ball. The rest is coffee grounds & banana peels.

I can't say enough good things about the Lorna Sass book. We're eating healthier, spending less money, and she includes suggestions for ways to transform leftovers of many of the dishes.

Erika said...

I love the internet for this reason! There are a couple different big recipe sites that have search options where you can type in what you have on hand, and they'll come up with recipes for it! Unfortunately, my household can't quite master eating what we've planned a week ago, but do try to use up older food first.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Erika, we plan about 9 meals for two weeks. That means I plan on eating out about once a week, and having surprise/whim food once or twice, and having at least one meal that turns out to last 2 or 3 days.

Cave-Woman said...

Have you seen the book "America's Cheapest Family"? There is an interesting chapter on groceries that covers their once a month grocery planning/shopping practice.

Interesting stuff. I've been adopting some of these practices, and it has been helpful.

I go to the grocery store twice a month, but I'm working my way towards once.

Anonymous said...

cave-woman, i was raised in a once-a-month family, and I wouldn't do it now - I like the fresh veggies and fruits.

But we are working towards buying staples (flour, beans, rice, oats, tamari, dried mushrooms & sea vegetables) once per quarter, because we get a quarterly discount at our new coop, but I wouldn't push it with the veggies. I don't believe we bought any fresh vegetables other than potatos and squash when I was a kid.

Chile said...

I loved hearing how one CSA member explained her process for dealing with her share. When she got home, she did "triage", organizing her refrigerator by what vegetables needed to be dealt with first and which would keep. Beet greens are separated from the beets so they could be used up within a day or two of the weekly pick-up. The beets will last through the week for later use. Same with the other root veggies and their greens. When I remember to do this, I have far less to throw in compost than when I forget!

Anonymous said...

For singles or anyone who freezes leftovers and then forgets them, keeping a list of what you HAVE in the freezer can help.

Also, when you plan meals, don't overestimate -- it's easy to get all enthusiastic and plan 7 dinners for the week using fresh food ... and forget you are going out or to a friend's one night, everyone's busy and foraging for themselves one night ... and pretty soon you have moldy veggies. Either buy less, or be sure a couple of meals' ingredients can "hold" for a while.

I think it's easier to eat healthier when you plan ahead, because of the don't-have-to-think-about-it factor.

Anonymous said...

OK - I am so not good at planning more than one meal at a time. Reading this made me think I have no such plan and just buy random stuff. My new approach is to look in the fridge and just start throwing all the leftovers in a pan. I have to say that my kids are very excited about the new creations. Tonight we had fake chicken (new package) and leftover spaghetti sauce, corn, broccoli, and noodles all mixed together.
These are my new goals. No thrown out food and try to grow as much of my own as possible. I do have 3 dogs that help in the leftovers from the plates which is very helpful. With 4 kids there is always some food left on the plates no matter how hard I try. I so love your blog.

Anonymous said...

My fiance and I just saw this challenge and decided to join. We have been meal planning since November but haven't been really good about going through the fridge and seeing what is about to expire and planning around that. So every Saturday when we menu plan now we are going to start by taking stock of the fridge and freezer.