Best eaten by…

Those who know me well will tell you that I generally pride myself upon my timing, but there’s one highly time-sensitive area of my life that I still haven’t quite worked out to my satisfaction: eating food.

I’m not talking about pacing myself at a nice long meal. In fact, you might say that dinner table stamina is one of my strong suits. No, I’m talking about purchasing and storing food, knowing when to eat it, and being sure of how long it will last.

You might think that this is something so simple that I must be joking, but I assure you I’m serious. There’s a delicate balance to the timing of the whole thing that continues to escape me. A quick tour of my refrigerator last night definitely confirmed this for me, resulting in the temporary abandonment of what may be one of my most revered maxims, “Waste not, want not.”

I came home hungry after a day that consisted of several classes and an interview. I was tired and just wanted something I could throw together quickly—you know, a little leftover pizza, a ham sandwich, something like that. Upon opening my refrigerator, however, it quickly became clear to me that there were a few things that needed… attending to.

The truth is that because of one thing or another, I haven’t prepared a meal at home for about a week, and haven’t gone grocery shopping in even longer. (Don’t judge me; it’s just been a happy, busy time!) This meant that most of the contents of my refrigerator should have been cooked, prepared, and/or eaten quite some time ago, and it seemed like nobody was happy to have been left in the cold for that long.

I couldn’t make a ham sandwich because all the bread had gone bad. (Yes, I keep bread in the refrigerator; it lasts longer that way.) It turns out that I had already eaten the leftover pizza a night or two ago (drat that short-term memory), but the leftover waffles I found in a drawer were better left undisturbed. I couldn’t even make celery with peanut butter because the celery had gone soft and (just to make things interesting) had also turned a sort of sickly whitish color.

At this point, I did the only thing left for a reasonable person to do.

I got out a trash bag and went to town.

By the end of my discarding spree, I had tossed two loaves of bread, one head of celery, some dubious-looking waffles, one sirloin steak, some herbs I had definitely forgotten about, half a tray of pâté, the greater part of some deli ham, and (perhaps most tragic) two overripe mangos that had been beautiful just a day or two before.

Somewhere, someone who lived through the Great Depression is cringing—and rightly so.

Now, my roommate always makes fun of me for hesitating to throw food away, and it’s an understandable jibe. I don’t actually want to eat bad food or even keep food until it goes bad. I just think I might eat it tomorrow. We differ reasonably in our determination of a given food’s edibility (hers seems to center around age—i.e., anything more than a week old should be tossed regardless—whereas mine seems to focus on visible mold spots), but I would ultimately prefer to adjust my shopping habits so that I can reasonably expect to eat whatever I buy before its edibility even becomes a question.

Really, the reason that this is a problem is probably because this is the first time in my life that 1) I’ve been responsible for purchasing all my own food and 2) there aren’t several other people living in the house to eat it almost as soon as it hits the refrigerator shelves. (Still, I think that even growing up with four siblings, it must have required some ingenuity for my parents to rotate meals such that the oldest food was eaten first.)

In any case, I need to find a way to diagnose the issue in terms of habits, so that I can correct the problem and stop the cycle of good food ending up in the trash.

It could be that I just buy too much food, but this seems unlikely in its own right. I don’t typically like to spend money unnecessarily (alright, I hear you laughing over there), and I usually shop once a week for what I think I’ll eat in a week. Of course, there are some food items that I go through much more slowly (i.e., condiments, dry goods like crackers and cookies, frozen items, alcohol) but these are also the things that tend not to go bad.

It could be that I don’t eat at home as much as I should. This was definitely a major culprit over the past week, with nearly every evening spent in a meeting (read: bad pizza) or out with friends. Perhaps I ought to make some sort of rule whereby I only let myself eat out if I know I’ll be able to eat my way through my food stock by the end of the week.

Most likely, though, I think the real problem is with excessive saving. It might sound counterintuitive to say that the best way for me to avoid wasting food would be to save less of it, but I think what really gets me into trouble is this idea that “I might need it tomorrow.” I don’t know where this comes from, and it’s probably much more deeply psychological than I’m qualified to analyze, but it seems to me that I’ll often find a way to grab lunch or dinner somewhere (or somehow) else because that way the food I have at home will stretch a little longer.

In other words, I tell myself that the food I already purchased will be worth more if I can get by for another day without having to buy more. When what I budgeted as six or seven days’ worth of food can be stretched to cover ten or eleven (or more) days instead, I feel like I’m stretching my money.

In reality, though, I end up wasting a great deal more money this way because half the food I bought two weeks ago ends up in the trash without ever being eaten. And there’s definitely no savings in that. Perhaps if I can get back to the true meaning of “Give us each day our daily bread” and not worry quite so much about what will be there tomorrow (or next week), I can finally make some much-needed adjustments to my grocery plan.

“Can’t hurt; might help,” as they say!

By the way, just in case anyone is wondering what I did end up eating after most of my refrigerator’s contents wound up in a big black Hefty bag, it was cheese and crackers. And also beer. Because some things never go bad.

Which in my case is probably a good thing…

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Best eaten by…

  1. Medievalist

    Solution: Keep your bread in the freezer. It only takes a few minutes to thaw, and it stays as fresh as when you bought it. Freeze leftovers, unless you know for certain you will eat them in a day or two. And when you cook, make extra and freeze some. If you don’t have a microwave, well…you just have to plan ahead and move something to the refrigerator section the night before.
    Not a very medieval solution, but one that works for me (especially the bread).

  2. Andrea

    You can also make waffles and keep them in the freezer and just use a toaster to warm them. Think Eggo but deliciously non-processed. We make a large batch every other weekend so we have them on hand for the next two weeks. Also, some good staples that can stay in the freezer are things like frozen Chicken Kiev (Barber Foods? I can’t remember the brand for sure)… but they take 30 mins, and go well with something like Minute Rice (a side that ‘never’ goes bad). I am by no means skilled in the kitchen, but I can manage these things. My partner does most of the cooking but it’s nice to have something fast that I can make… that also should theoretically help with the issue of “no food.” Sometimes, we get stuck out of boredom for more of the same and end up back at the grocery store looking for new ideas mid-week. That certainly doesn’t help our own timing issues, but I too hate throwing food away and feel like we (us personally, and society maybe?) do it way too often…

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