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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cleaning out the fridge 101

Ok, so I know what you're thinking? "I clean out my fridge - why do I need a lesson on that?" Open up the trash and dump, wash out the containers, clean it, put back any food we'll still use. "that's not hard... " But... Part of my strategy for using food and not wasting food involves rotating food and using it, reusing it, and remaking it. So I thought I would show you all what I do regularly (on a good week at least twice). Since most leftover food is only good for about 3-5 days, 7 days max I regularly go through and use up stuff in order to minimize what I throw away.

I do throw things away. My goal is to throw away very little, if any. You see -- I once read that people throw away over 25% of all the food they buy. Meaning if you spend around $400 a month on food you will most likely throw away $100 in food a month. That's $1,200 a year -- well in my world that's almost a vacation. And that's not even considering all the labor, transportation, water, etc.. that were used to get that food to you. Wasteful in my opinion and when I think of my Grandmother who lived during the depression and how careful they were with their food and money I'm certain she'd be rolling over in her grave and shaking' her head in disapproval. I resolved a long time ago to change my ways and cut our food budget and not wasting food is just one of the many things I've done.

Here is the basic process-

**To start with, when I clean I have a menu plan for the week previous and the coming week, a pen, and paper handy. I can check and see when we had the meatloaf so I know how old it is, or see do I need fresh celery for next week, also I can add anything to my shopping list or menu for next week easily.

1. Pull it all out and check it for condition. (notice I didn't say dates) condition is everything. Slimy, stinky and moldy all go away! I'm not wanting to make anyone sick. I do this shelf by shelf so I don't have everything out at once.
(Know what the dates mean and if you can stretch them)
For example: Cheese is an exception here. I will carefully cut away any mold and repackage chunks of cheese that has mold and mark it or remember it to use it quickly. I still have a block of asiago cheese with a sell by date of November 2010. We are still eating it and it's fine. Hard cheeses, and cultured milk products that are unopened last well past the sell by dates and we eat them regularly. Notice I said cultured milk products -- not plain milk. Cultured milk has good bacteria in it that protect it for longer - so things like sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, even cottage cheese are usually good past the dates. The date on milk and most things in fact- is a sell by date. It is the date that the store must sell the product by. Food doesn't magically turn to poison once it reaches the sell by date. Milk should be good if stored properly for a week past the sell by date-but of course our senses are more accurate than any date stamped on a product. I tell you all this because I think it's important that people know. And let's please acknowledge that common sense is important here too..slimy, discolored, stinky and moldy are all bad. And obviously if someone in your house has a weakened immune system err on the side of caution and toss it.

On produce sometimes you can simply cut away a bad spot or two, or peel off a few layers of slimy lettuce then rinse the head well to make it edible. When using produce with a moldy spot on it - I carefully cut away the mold or the soggy or soft part back to the good part, then I rinse off my knife with hot water, and cut a small piece of it to taste- if it tastes fine it goes into whatever recipe or dish I'm using it in. I've saved a ton of produce this way and since we rarely buy processed food-- that is where most of the waste is- in fresh produce.

2. After assessing the condition of the food- decide: throw it out, compost it, preserve it in some other way, use it quickly, or save it for later.

Throw it out:
I throw away anything that is too old. Moldy food, something I cooked or prepared that is over 5 days old or questionable in any way. Anything that is a meat product or has oil or grease in it. Those things can't be composted. Things that no one liked and I can't think of any other way to use them up also get tossed.

Compost it:
All my veggie waste that can't be used or frozen in some way gets composted. This is the slimy, moldy or nasty looking veggie waste -- not the good stuff.

Preserve it in some way:

These things all can go straight into the freezer!  
  • Onions
  • Bell Peppers
  • Hot Chili Peppers-if I have lots sometimes I pull out the food processor and blend em all up into a minced pulp that I then lay out flat in baggies and freeze. When I want some kick to add to something I just pull it out of the freezer and break off a little chunk.
  • Peeled Garlic
  • Berries of all kinds
  • Fresh pineapple
  • Fresh melons
  • Rhubarb
  • Bananas in the peel or peeled
  • Tomatoes-when these thaw you can simply pull off the skins as they thaw under running water.No blanching off the peels. I freeze mine from my garden all summer long and then make tomato sauce in the slow winter months. Once frozen you can use them in soup or other things.  
  • Celery
  • Stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums
  • Ginger - I store mine in the freezer whole and simply grate what I need as I use it.
All of these things when frozen can be used later in recipes where you will be cooking the items. Or in the case of berries and stone fruit you can make sauces, smoothies, whatever with them.

For example: once you've frozen celery you can't use it in your tuna salad -it won't be crunchy but it's fine for soup or stock, or other dishes.

I just make a pile of what needs to be cut up and dealt with as I sort. Then I chop and package everything at once. Mushrooms can be frozen if partially cooked (sauteed) and most other veggies only need a slight dip in boiling water so that you can freeze them. Google blanching vegetables and you can see how to do it.

Many leftovers freeze really well. I keep a shelf dedicated to leftovers in my freezer. I have a bin for little tidbits. Leftover scraps of meat-- even half a chicken breast gets saved in a baggy labeled chicken, once I get enough cooked meat (2 c.) I cut it up and use it to make chicken salad, or add onion, garlic and barbQ sauce and make barbQ sandwiches, or use it on a lunch salad for myself. You'd be surprised how quickly it gets full. Leftover sausage, bell peppers, herbs, tomatoes, etc... all make great additions to a morning omelet or a quick catchall egg dinner casserole or frittata.

Many casseroles and soups freeze well. I put them in individual serving sizes and put them in a bin. Hubby or my girls or even I can pick through and find quick lunches or dinners.

Leftover veggies and spaghetti sauce can go into a soup making bag in the freezer. No tidbit is too small to use. Corn, mixed vegetables, stir fry veg's, beans, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, or others are all good choices.
* A trick I learned from my Aunts - take the leftover pickle juice and toss in some firm fresh veggies, baby carrots, cut up carrots, cucumber, cauliflower. Then leave them to soak and not only does the pickle juice preserve them but it transforms them into something really tasty.

** Keep a bag of trimmings in the freezer for when you make broth. Say I have a bag of carrots and two of them have those hairy roots growing on them-- well those go into my bag in the freezer of ends and tidbits for making broth or stock. Veggies and trimmings don't have to be pretty for stock just free of mold. My broth making bag has onion peels (they give a nice brown color to the stock), garlic peels, ends of celery, carrots, old soft green onions, old herbs and herb stems, ends of squashes, potato peels, carrot peels, parsnip ends, all sorts of things. I collect them all month while I'm cooking. I save carcasses and soup bones this way too. The only things veggie wise that I don't add are anything moldy or slimy, and strong tasting vegetables-(broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes) because of their strong flavor. Asparagus and lettuce I also don't put in.. but most other things go in the bag.

Many things can also be dehydrated if you use the oven or a dehydrator. It doesn't take long to prep a few things and pull out the cookie trays or dehydrator. Even spinach and Kale dehydrate and freeze well and if you dehydrate it -it works great in eggs or you can sneak it into smoothies or sauces, spaghetti sauce whatever.

Use it quickly:
Some things just last longer than others and you can usually tell if something is on it's way to being nasty or useless. Soft veggies that were once hard and crisp, wrinkled things, squashes or peppers with soft spots, that lettuce that sat too long and has a couple of pieces in it that are looking kind of brown. These all still have some life left in them. I have learned a couple of ways of using those things up.

If you have alot -- make a veggie soup for lunches or dinner, you don't need a recipe, just toss an onion, some garlic, and some oil in a pan- brown it up and add broth, leftover tomato or spaghetti sauce or just water. Then add the veggies and some salt and pepper and other spices to suit you-- maybe a can of cooked dried beans or even some meat and you 'll have made something out of nothing!

Make a fruit crisp- Just about any fruit works, chop it all up and add a crumbly topping - any recipe works or fix smoothies for snack, breakfast whatever..

Cut up raw veggies and make some dip, hummus, or dressing and serve it up on a big tray with any other remnants from your fridge-the last two pickles or olives in the jars, whatever and serve it up after dinner or before dinner as a snack.. You'd be amazed at what a bit of presentation and good dressing will do to make kids or adults slurp up veggies and clean out your veggie drawers in a flash.

Plan something using whatever is getting old for dinner that night and make it happen. Coleslaw or green salads are another great way to use up a smorgasbord of veggies that might not match otherwise.

Declare a leftover smorgasbord night! Open up the fridge and pull out everything that might be use able. Everyone can fill their plates with whatever they want from the fridge or make themselves something from the freezer bin of leftovers. Or if lots of what is leftover would be good on top of potatoes --cook a bunch and have everybody make their own topped potato. A Potato bar is a great way to use up a whole bunch of cheese and veggies and taco meat or chili quickly.

Save it for later:
Add whatever didn't get used up to the menu plan for the next few days if it will last long enough. My leftovers that I save get put in the front of the shelves and I remind my girls or hubby to eat them up. They get taken to lunch, eaten as snacks, or turned into other things. For example:
Leftover meats make a great meat salad- add some mayo or mustard, chop the meat really fine, add grapes, red onion, celery, boiled egg, chopped cucumber, some dill or capers, or pickle. Whatever combination you like and you have a cheap nitrate free lunch spread made of wholesome food and have used up something you might have thrown away. Know how to make your fresh produce last longer. I've never invested in these bags but I've heard great things about them. Or Tupperware and other companies have some containers that are supposed to help preserve your fresh produce. If you use limited amounts --those might be a good investment for you. Some things I've learned about produce are: Many things store better outside of the plastic bags they come home in, the moisture from the bags makes them spoil faster:
  • cucumbers
  • squash of all kinds
  • tomatoes
  • bell peppers
  • hot chili peppers
  • whole cabbage heads
  • kiwi fruit
  • stone fruit
  • apples
  • oranges and other citrus
  • onions
  • garlic
  • mushrooms
*I store my herbs and green onions and salad in zip lock style bags with a dry paper towel added to the bag and find they last much longer this way. The paper towels can be composted or reused. Romaine lettuce lasts much longer than any other kind of lettuce. I buy heads, wash them and keep them in plastic bags with paper towels and they last a really long time in the fridge. I rarely buy any other type of lettuce. And .. as a bonus, romaine is also more nutritious than say- iceberg lettuce! *celery stores for a long time when wrapped in aluminum foil! *mushrooms stored in a paper bag will last much longer-- get them home and take them out of their box and plastic wrap and put them in a paper bag in your produce door. (I just learned this trick and man does it work-thanks to a good friend) *fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro I store like I would flowers in a vase-- with the stems in clean water in a cup or other container upright in the fridge. Clean out the water every couple of days and replace with new and they will last a really long time. Also asparagus stems store really well this way too. Or consider only buying the produce you know you will use and stopping more often at the store. A menu plan can really help here. I used to think I always had to have on hand fresh celery, carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic. Then I realized there were entire weeks when I never used those things and I was throwing away lots of them. So I started only buying celery when I had planned to use it fresh in something like a chicken salad. Most grocers will let you buy half a head of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, or single celery sticks. If all you need for a recipe is a small amount don't buy the whole thing. Less money spent and less food wasted. Since onions and celery and garlic all freeze so well for cooked applications consider buying some when they are on sale, chopping and freezing them. Then you always have them on hand (and chopped!) don't have to buy them unless you want a fresh crunchy one for some reason. I find peeled cloves of garlic freeze great- Put them in the door of your fridge with the onions and bell peppers or store with your meat and/or veggies so they won't flavor anything else -- you can store them in a glass container, or double bag them if the smell and lingering flavor in the freezer bothers you or you have problems with them. I once laid bags of catfish into the freezer next to some pineapple I'd frozen. Um.. that was not a good idea... the pineapple had a weird fishy aftertaste..icky!

  3. Wipe Everything down if needed. This one is pretty self explanatory. I use my pampered chef stoneware scraping tool on any stubborn sticky blobs, and hot soapy water, and dry it with a clean towel.

4. Put all the food away. Put the food that needs to be used most recently in the front of your refrigerator as a mental note to you to use it quickly. New food goes to the back of the refrigerator. I hope you've all found some useful tip here that helps you and if you have other ideas I'd love to hear them! I am of course a work in progress! Add anything that needs to be creatively used to list - for meal planning for the next few days.

*about the picture- this is my cheese/ meat drawer after I've cleaned it out. The asiago cheese is on top so I will use it faster. The hard boiled egg has been labeled in pencil with the date it was boiled on it so we know how old it is, and it's on top too. (I boil a dozen as needed and label them and put them in the meat drawer for snacks, etc..) Any tidbits of meat in baggies get placed into the drawer, also any bites of chopped up veggies get put in there and any fresh chopped red or green onion,especially when I've cut and not used the entire onion. Mostly I use this stuff in omelets in the morning. When they are in the meat/cheese drawer I use them up first and they don't get lost in the big produce drawer.


sallycan said...

Came upon this via Charcutepalooza. Good post, plenty of good ideas. I've got a similar approach to pantry management, and like how you've written it all out. Do you keep your fresh (unwashed)strawberries in a glass jar? They'll keep much longer that way ;)

Laura McElfresh said...

Sally I had no idea you could keep them in glass jars.. I will certainly try that as we go through alot of strawberries and they are something that I unfortunately throw out sometimes.