October to January is easily my favorite time of year. It’s fall, it’s gorgeous, and it’s when all the best holidays happen. Nestled in the middle is Thanksgiving, which I consider a uniquely frugal occasion.
Thanksgiving doesn’t encourage excessive spending, it traditionally has no gifts, there’s little commercialism associated with it (aside from the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which I got so fired up about last year that I wrote this), and it enjoys a cult of personality around leftovers. What it does promote is essentially the time honored frugal agenda: cooking a meal at home and spending time with family and friends.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I are hosting my mother-in-law, father-in-law, and sister-in-law this year–as we’ve done a number of times before–and we are thrilled. I love to host, Mr. FW loves to cook, and I’m delighted they’re here for our first Thanksgiving on the homestead! Not to mention Babywoods’ very first turkey day!
Imagine All The Thanksgivings
Imagine if we lived every day like Thanksgiving. Ok maybe not with quite so much eating, but definitely with all the other stuff (+ the stuffing, I love that stuff. Especially Mr. FW’s homemade version, which has sausage in it).
Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. It’s an opportunity to literally list our blessings. Unlike New Year’s, which makes us resolve to do better and more, Thanksgiving allows us the space to reflect on what’s already wonderful in our lives. It’s a day when we can feel that we have enough. Enough material possessions. Enough food. Enough money. Recognizing that we have enough is the first step on the road to an earnestly frugal life. Once we acknowledge that we don’t need more, we’re freed from overspending and we’re liberated from the tyranny of being owned by our possessions.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s ideally shared with people we care about. Whether we celebrate with family or friends, it’s a time of coming together. Thanksgiving values relationships. Other than cook and eat, there’s no central activity of Thanksgiving beyond simply spending time with other people. My in-laws and I will certainly throw down a few Canasta games in between hassling Mr. FW while he cooks up the feast, but I like the absence of pressure that Thanksgiving facilitates.
Of course the meal itself is amazing–what’s not to love about turkey and cranberry sauce and rolls????!!! Not to mention pumpkin pie… but the food I really want to talk about today are the leftovers. Eating Thanksgiving leftovers is practically a national pastime. The turkey trots out for sandwiches and stews. Mashed potatoes are reconfigured in every possible way. There are entire recipe sets devoted to the repurposing of Thanksgiving leftovers. It would be weird not to eat them.
So why don’t we apply this leftover-loving mentality to our food the rest of the year? Sadly we don’t as a nation and, as a result, a massive amount of food goes to waste every single year. I’m always astonished when I hear statistics surrounding this waste, because it’s positively epic. According to The Atlantic (which is my favorite magazine, by the way, and the only one I read cover-to-cover), “Wasted food is… the single biggest occupant in American landfills.” That’s disturbing and deeply depressing. The grand total of food wasted each year in the US alone, according to Bloomberg.com, is 130 billion pounds.
Beyond being a personal inconvenience, food waste on this scale is detrimental to our planet. Bloomberg again: “… food that ends up in landfills contributes to the release of methane, a major contributor to global warming.” And unlike many other factors of global warming, food waste is something that we as individuals have the ability to decrease.
Food waste is also an expensive proposition. The Atlantic notes that, “For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 annually.” That’s not an insignificant amount of money, folks.
Over the years, I’ve railed against food waste and outlined all the reasons why it’s abominable. This year, in a continuation of my food waste fight, I want to share the ways in which I avoid wasting food and then open it up to you all to share your methods.
How I Avoid Food Waste
1) Don’t overbuy.
This is the deceptively easy, but in practice quite difficult, process of not purchasing too much food at the grocery store. Food waste starts with what we bring into our homes.
Since Mr. FW and I live in the woods a good 45 minutes from the grocery store and since it’s not unheard of to be snowed in for some period of time, we strike an interesting balance with food purchasing.
We do have a robust pantry to ensure we won’t be found without food in the event of a major snowstorm. But the key with these pantry items is that they’re non-perishable. Beans, rice, oats, pasta, olive oil, nuts–these are the types of things we buy in bulk. We also make sure to cycle through them over the years since they do have expiration dates. My method for ensuring we eat the oldest stuff first is pretty simple: I stack it on top.
Additionally, we keep a fairly deep bench of items in our chest freezer: everything from berries and rhubarb from our garden to chilis and stews Mr. FW has cooked up. I date everything that goes into the freezer and we grab the oldest items first for consumption. So far–knock on wood–we’ve never had any of our longterm food go bad.
For perishable foods, however, I try not to buy more than we can eat in a week’s time (based on the fact that I go to the grocery store once a week). When making our grocery list, we have an “eyes on” rule, which means you have to physically put eyes on the refrigerator/freezer/pantry to confirm that we are really and truly in need of more. Plus, I’d rather run out of bananas or avocados than buy too many and waste them. Being honest about how much we eat in a week was a learning curve, but once we figured it out, we were able to start saving serious money.
2) If I buy it, I gotta eat it.
This is admittedly a close relative to #1, but it’s more of a personal discipline exercise. I used to be guilty of buying things because they seemed nice in theory–produce was especially a victim. As in, “oh eggplants! They look so lovely! So purple!” And then, two days later, “why did I buy four freaking eggplants!!! We don’t even like eggplant!” And then two weeks later, “What is this horrendous mess in the produce drawer?! Eggplant remains. Blerg.” I had to get my idealistic grocery shopping self in alignment with my reality-of-what-we-eat self.
3) Conduct periodic fridge search and rescue missions.
To stave off the danger of forgotten food, I conduct frequent scavenges through both the fridge and the pantry to see if any food is on life support. Anytime I spy a dying foodstuff, we incorporate it into a meal that day. This prevents against our previous bad behavior of tossing food into our snazzy glass tupperware and then shoving it to the back of the fridge. By continually pawing through everything in there, we’re on top of the leftover situation.
4) Learn to love the leftover.
There’s no excuse for not eating leftovers–I’m not a hardliner on many things, but this is one of them. It’s food you’ve already made and your diligent culinary efforts shouldn’t go down the drain! I am a leftovers devotee–it’s frugal take-out! There’s no work involved, no mess to clean-up, and dinner is served in minutes flat. Perfection in my book. If you’re not keen on eating the same meal countless nights in a row, fear not, for the solution is to…
5) Freeze it, don’t trash it.
Freezing food works remarkably well. Mr. FW and I were not practitioners of the freezing method until Babywoods was born. Prior to her birth, in anticipation of the harried frenzy that is early parenthood, Mr. FW cooked up batch after batch of freezable meals: stews, chilis, chicken tikka masala, and more. We then portioned these feasts into quart-size ziplock bags and labeled them with the contents and date.
I find that a food funnel is a worthy tool in the effort to avoid spilling. It also works best to freeze the bags flat. We’ve continued the practice of cooking huge batches and freezing largely because it’s so darn efficient. If Mr. FW is going to make soup, he might as well make a gigantic pot of it–that way, we can use bulk ingredients and enjoy his labors over the course of many a meal. Plus, it is soooooo handy to simply pull food out of the freezer on busy nights–it’s the perfect antidote to ordering take-out (not that anywhere would deliver to us out here… ).
6) Expiration dates are mostly a myth.
Food expiration dates are notoriously conservative. According to The Washington Post, “… date labels rarely indicate the actual safety of a food product — rather, they tend to reflect estimates of when it will be at its peak quality or taste its best. This means that large volumes of safe food are being needlessly thrown away each year.”
If that weren’t enough, the Post goes on to explain, “Currently, with the exception of baby formula, the date labels on food products are not federally regulated.” Hence, food expiration dates are determined and applied by the manufacturers of the foods themselves.
The simple way to combat these dates is to ignore them and instead perform the sight and smell taste. If food looks and smells fine, then it probably is fine. Don’t toss food based solely on its arbitrary expiration date!
7) Re-feed kids.
Although barely a year old, Babywoods is not exempt from our food waste avoidance strategies. She feeds herself these days (being such a big baby and all), which entails her flinging food haphazardly from her high chair tray in the vague direction of her very small mouth. Some of the food even goes in. A lot of the food goes into her lap and her bib (we have this silicon version with a little pouch, which I highly recommend). In light of this eating “style,” when she’s finished, I scoop up all the food remaining on her tray, in her bib pouch, and on her seat. I then dump it into a tupperware and serve it to her for her next meal. Very little food goes to waste despite her thoroughly messy method of consumption.
And finally, I’ve discovered the miracle that is composting. Rather than throw out banana peels? Into the compost pile! Instead of tossing carrot shavings? To the compost, my friends! Since we have the space out here in the country, we compost in an actual factual pile. But, for folks with less space, there are supremely handy dandy compost bins available. I was always daunted by composting–I don’t know why, but it sounded difficult. It is decidedly not. We have this compost bucket on the counter in our kitchen and we toss in all of our produce refuse (plus coffee grounds!). Then, each week (or sometimes twice a week), we walk the bucket out to the pile and dump it on. Sidenote: there are a few other steps to composting, so make sure to do your research before starting your own compost pile.
Waste Less, Want Less
Although some food waste is bound to happen, we all have the power to exert greater control over the food we bring into our homes and the food we toss into the trash. Since most of us will judiciously savor our Thanksgiving leftovers, let’s consider this holiday the starting point for embracing a leftover-loving, food waste-hating life. At this time when our abundance is greatest, let’s commit ourselves to permanently decreasing the amount of food we throw away, both for our own financial wellbeing, but more importantly, for the benefit of our environment.