The Frugal Olympics 2nd Event: Refrigerator Organization with a Leftover List - Live Like a Mensch
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The Frugal Olympics 2nd Event: Refrigerator Organization with a Leftover List

Before we begin today's event, I must apologize for the week's worth of radio silence from a certain Mensch. Unlike Sochi, Lafayette, Indiana has been receiving record snowfall, freezing temperatures, and general discontented misery recently. Unfortunately, windy misery fronts cause school cancellations, which means LO has been spending a great deal of time bored at home while I attempt to work with the laptop resting on BB. (Note: that doesn't work).

In any case, the weather has become springlike of late (i.e., degrees in the positive double digits), so I have hope that I will have no few further interruptions of my writing schedule.


Today's Frugal Olympic event is refrigerator organization. Like luge relay, organization is a relative newcomer to the Olympics, although tidy frugalistas have been petitioning for its inclusion for quite some time. But considering the fact that Americans throw away 40% of the food that they purchase, this is clearly a place where frugality can shine.

J and I are definitely guilty of throwing away food. Some of this has to do with genetics. I come from a long line of women who hate to see good food go to waste--but who are also not great at figuring out what to do with odds and ends of food. This is why when I was growing up, we would keep Tupperware around for the sole purpose of "aging" leftovers in the refrigerator until they were no longer good food and could be thrown out in good conscience.

(I am also genetically related to my father, the man who would clean out his refrigerator once a year, whether it needed it or not. He would excitedly bring containers into the other room to show off the incredible colors that bacteria and mold were capable of creating in his refrigerator. And indeed, that bright blue growing on something that used to be food was quite beautiful).

But though genetics plays a role in my refrigerator chaos, most of J's and my food waste problem stems from the fact that we are both organizationally challenged. J has an engineer's mindset that seems to think "if it fits, then that's where it goes!" (Which is why you will often find a carton of eggs precariousy perched on top of a head of lettuce in our refrigerator.)

My organizational issues stem from the fact that I'm a perfectionist. If the fridge is overflowing and gross, I'd rather just throw things in there and close the door because I don't have the time take everything out, clean everything, disinfect everything, and replace it all where it belongs. So rather than make a minor improvement by removing the soon to be Humpty-Dumptied eggs from the top of the lettuce, I prefer to make it worse by shoving in whatever else I can fit.

I wish I had a picture of this chaos. (Actually, that's a lie. I'm very very glad I did not think to take a picture of that because there are some things that the wider Internet really doesn't need to see).

However I recently re-organized our refrigerator, for what I hope to be for good and for all:

(And believe me, this is a model of organization compared to our usual food maelstrom.)

However, as much as I badly want to maintain this level of organization in order to keep from wasting food, I know it's only a matter of time before J starts playing edible Tetris with our munchies and I start treating the refrigerator as if it's inhabitated by Zuul.

So, in order to help keep track of the food in there, whether or not it's easily seen/accessible or perched on something ridiculous, I will also be keeping a leftover list and an ingredient list on my refrigerator door.

And since I'm more likely to do something if I make it pretty, I've made my lists rainbow colored:

My intention is to laminate these bad boys and write on them with wet erase markers, so I don't have to go from wasting food to wasting printer ink. You are welcome to use these lists for your own refrigerator organization events at your local Frugal Olympics.


Has anyone found a wonderful refrigerator organization solution that they would like to share? It's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about your kitchen organization successes (or epic failures, because of those are fun, too). One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)



haverwench said:

Well, to be honest, the main way that we keep our food organized in the fridge is not to have that much of it. That is, if we find that we have several meals' worth of leftovers piling up, we just have leftovers for dinner one night to whittle the stockpile down. Thus, our problem is more likely to be not *enough* leftovers, because if we run out we can't figure out what to eat for lunch.

However, it also helps that my husband trained as a chemist rather than an engineer, so he likes to follow protocols in the kitchen just as he would in the lab. One of which is, "first in, first out"—if we've got multiple kinds of leftovers in the fridge, his default choice for lunch is whatever's been in there the longest.

February 19, 2014 8:36 PM

frenchgirl said:

Reading this paper, it occurred to me that to avoid throwing out leftovers, the problem is not so much how to use them, but how to stock efficiently your fridge. At home, the rule has always been that the family had to eat at least some bites of everything. As a result, there are not many dishes that someone dislikes, and by avoiding only a small number of foodstuffs I can cook a pleasing meal for everybody that we can enjoy together. This helps not to throw food away and permits equilibrated meals.

In France cooking is a national sport and I have learned to cook almost everything from scratch: It has many advantages: first it is easier to reuse some raw vegetable than preprocessed food. Moreover, it is easier to propose a diversity of food. Finally you can more easily buy the exact amount of food you need, rather than a prepackaged quantity.  As a result,  lower quantities of food are bought and spoiled, since you can always complete a meal by adding a salad or cheese, therefore increasing also the diversity of what you eat.

So, every Saturday, when I go to the hypermarket, I head for the short date section to buy the meat and the fish I’m going to cook for the week-end. This sets the frame for the other products I’m going to buy: I’ll take some vegetables to be served with this meat, and also have a look at the loss leaders aisle. In turn this gives me ideas to plan for the other meals in the week. I buy fresh products for ten meals, and also keep in my fridge butter, yoghurts, a crust pastry, a dozen eggs, grated cheese and some bacon. My fridge is not overcrowded and I can easily have a precise idea of what I still can use.

In my pantry I have canned tuna, all types of canned vegetables, pasta, rice, tomato sauce, milk, pasteurized cream, olives, soybean sauce and apple sauce and of course sugar, flour and oil and a diversity of spices. I keep the fresh vegetables in the basement to increase their lifetime, since they dry very quickly in the refrigerator. These staple help me to improvise the four remaining meals of the week with the leftovers.

I also have some tricks: when I have a small meat leftover, or when a friend drops by unexpectedly, I imitate Chinese restaurants: I cut the meat in small strips, I increase the amount of vegetables and season them with soybeans sauce and ginger and I serve rice. This allows me to feed one more person and is also healthier.  When I need to prepare food in advance, I have quite a few recipes of dishes that need only to be warmed up : for example, I make bologna sauce with beef leftovers and tomato sauce, to be served over pasta cooked with small squash and carrots dices. This nice plate setup whets our appetites.  I also use the vegetable leftovers in pies adding sometimes a can of tuna: that’s where the crust pastry, the milk and the eggs become handy. When I have only small vegetable leftover or none at all, I also cook an omelet or a “soufflé”: I need the eggs, butter, grated cheese and I can also add some tuna. When there are no leftover at all, I cook eggs (there are many ways to prepare them but my favorite is poached eggs in an aurora sauce -a white sauce with some tomato concentrate) or a “gratin dauphinois”, which consists mainly of sliced potatoes and bacon cooked in the oven in cream (or milk) and covered with cheese. One last favorite : A quickly prepared meal consists simply in a can of tuna with water boiled potatoes and a thick “vinaigrette”: a nice olive oil, homemade vinegar, salt, pepper, a mashed hardboiled egg, herbs from the garden, some tomato concentrate. At the end of the week my refrigerator is empty.

To eat also dairy products, our desserts are mainly yoghurts. I also serve some homemade desserts: a cake or some brownies don’t take ages to prepare, and can be done in advance. To eat fruits, I make sherbet thanks to my food processor, bananas with rum (when there are only grownups), or fruit pies. I have an excellent recipe for “linzer tart”, an Austrian pie with jam that allows me to use the homemade jams from all our fruit trees.

I also want to emphasize how important it is to have varied and nicely presented food. For example, this week I made a stew and the meat was completely eaten. I mashed the carrots and turnip leftovers with potatoes and served it with pork loin cooked with the remaining onions: change the way you present food, don’t forget to add a dab of tomato concentrate, a sprig of parsley or a pinch of spices and nobody will even notice that you are serving leftovers!

February 24, 2014 11:14 AM

Maggie Trudeau said:

I'm doing this as sort of a mix with my meal planning.  I take a good look at the fridge and pantry on saturday.  I do my main grocery shop on Sunday when I'm in a 'real' town.  Once I see what I have to work with in backstock and left overs, I try to fill in with groceries so I have the ingredients for actual meals.  This still leaves me flexibility to get what's on sale or in the "almost dead" fruit and veg bin and damaged cans area.   Sunday night I take another good look at the fridge and pantry with the new stock and write a basic list of meals and things to remember to eat.  It's helping.  I don't have nearly the waste that I did before starting this.

February 25, 2014 11:57 AM

Gracie said:

Like Haverwench above, I very seldom have a lot of leftovers in my fridge.  I'm very frugal so when I purchase items such as fresh veggies, I only get a few to lessen the chance of them spoiling.  Last night, I took a small chunk of leftover beef roast, shredded it & added beef broth (not canned - saved from the crock-pot), about 1/4 box of leftover elbow macaroni, and an assortment of veggies (slightly wilted celery, slightly old tomato, 1 diced potato, etc.)  I added spices & a chopped green chili & we had a wonderful hot beef & green chili stew. On Sat I made roasted red potatoes to go with our meal & on Mon I took what was left of those potatoes & semi-mashed them, added a little shredded cheese & re-roasted them.  Absolutely delicious!  I have learned to cut many ingredients in recipes in half or even more - I put the extra in small plastic containers & add them to stews, casseroles, etc for another meal.  For example, if a recipe calls for a can of corn, I only use half of the can and freeze the other half for a different meal.  This has really stretched our groc budget & does not impact the taste or quality of the dish. I "spice" up a lot of our foods with green or red chili, jalapenos, salsas, etc.  Absolutely NO leftover meat is ever thrown away in my house - we simply re-use it for future meals.  The key is to make sure & freeze it right away to preserve it.

February 26, 2014 10:41 AM

frugal_fun said:

We've gotten better at not throwing things away. The kids tend to use leftovers as snacks (especially the teenage son) so there's no plan per say. We still do occasionally have things that mold but it's rare.

Produce is much more hit and miss, but these days I buy very little fresh and stick mostly with frozen. Just as nutritious, but never rots.

February 27, 2014 8:36 PM

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