Sunday, January 16, 2011
How to Buy Groceries: Part II Inventory of Foods On Hand
The first steps I take prior to writing out a shopping list is to inventory the foods I have on hand. I typically will start with the refrigerator because those foods are usually the most perishable. This is a good time to clean the fridge by the way. It's also a good time to plan to use up items that are about to expire.
I must share here that I personally found the greatest problem with my refrigerator was overcrowding. I simply did not have enough room in my refrigerator to allow for the proper circulation of air. Unlike the freezer, which thrives on being packed full, the refrigerator requires room for air to circulate around and over foods in order to keep them fresh. Temperatures inside a refrigerator should be between 38F and 41F. Any colder and foods will freeze. Any warmer and it's likely that mold and bacteria will begin to grow.
Neither eggs nor milk should be on the door of the refrigerator. Lettuce, cabbage, carrots, apples should ideally be stored in the vegetable crisper. If humidity inside the refrigerator is too high, the food will spoil more easily. If too dry, you'll find that the vegetables shrivel and look dehydrated.
It would do the homemaker well to learn which vegetables require refrigeration and which should be kept elsewhere. Citrus fruits are best if left at room temperature, and onions and potatoes like dry dark places rather than cold slightly moist air. It is also well to learn what the expected life of perishable foods might be. Cheeses generally will keep for months but milk is usually good for just 7 days past the sell by date.
As you are cleaning the refrigerator note the expiration dates on the items as you remove them. Toss any foods that are beyond the expiration date or which have visible mold upon them.
Do you know what I think the two greatest mistakes made by most homemakers? Most do not remember what foods (usually leftovers or portions of canned foods) are stored in the refrigerator. The second is that the grocery shopper buys too much produce at once.
I've learned to get around both these areas of waste in these ways: leftovers are stored in see-through containers. If food is in a container where you can see what it, you are 90% more likely to remove it and use it. I use glass jars with lids and clear hard plastic containers for this purpose. A second method that worked well for me at one point was to keep a small plastic basket on one shelf of the refrigerator and drop into it the stored foods I knew must be used up that week.
I find it worthwhile also to establish zones in my refrigerator. So all dairy products might be in one area, and the cheeses all corralled into a basket, and all the vegetables in one section and all drinks in another.
The problem of buying too much produce is easily overcome by buying loose vegetables rather than those packed by the produce clerk. Choosing to buy one big bunch of grapes rather than a bag with two huge bunches, counting out five Brussels Sprouts per person rather than buying the pound packet is truly a tremendous help. And of course, it is difficult to resist the idea of all those healthy good foods when you're walking through the produce section...but they are neither good nor healthy if left to spoil. Be reasonable in what you buy and in what quantity! If past experience has always found you with one head of broccoli spoiled beyond recognition, buying just enough to serve the family is preferrable. You'll save the most money by buying only what your family will eat.
Typically I inventory what is in my refrigerator twice a week. This allows me to stay on top of what needs to be used and which leftovers might better be removed and stored in the freezer for a future meal if we cannot use them right away.
The freezer, as said, is best kept well packed with a temperature of 0F. If you have only the refrigerator freezer you must leave the area near the fan clear. A chest type freezer does not have that requirement. I find baskets work well for frozen food storage in my chest freezer. I can easily lift out the baskets and return them to their place without shifting mountains of frozen foods. The freezer too benefits from organization, hence the baskets. I have six baskets: one for poultry, one for beef, two for vegetables, one for fruits and one for sundry items such as cookie dough, pastry, etc. My little freezer is just 5 cubic feet.
In the days when it was necessary to keep foods in a refrigerator freezer, I discovered that flat packs of meats and vegetables allowed more to be placed in the freezer. And to this day, I still try to make flat packs because a pound of meat in a flat packet thaws far more quickly than that frozen in a lump.
I inventory the freezer about every two weeks.
My pantry isn't a pantry per se. It is simply the lower half of a wall of cupboards that are deeper and wider than the other cabinets in my kitchen. It is across the room from a window which allows light to pour into the cabinet when I am trying to see what I have. This is very important. If your storage area is too dark consider installing those tap on lights that affix with adhesive and run on batteries. This cabinet stores pretty much all of our canned goods, cereals, bottled juices and crackers. I keep an upper shelf in another area as pasta and rice storage and so I can easily get to my foodstuffs. Because I stockpile foods here, I usually do a quarterly inventory of the cupboard. I keep a sheet of paper in my homekeeping notebook with the inventory list and I recently decided a copy attached to the cupboard door was also a necessity. I keep a pen near by so I can write in the additions I make and mark off the items I take out.
These methods of storage and organization work very well for me. Keeping the inventory is the first step in planning to shop for groceries. I like to make up a mock menu to give me ideas of meals I might make from what is on hand (using the contents of the refrigerator and the inventory of meats from the freezer as the starting basis). Typically I can usually plan 10 days of meals from what is on hand, and rarely do I find I have less than five meals on my mock menu.
I check my calendar to see what is coming up in the time frame my grocery shopping must cover. Are we expecting company or dining out? Is there a late evening meeting that requires an early and quickly prepared supper? Is there a holiday or birthday in the time period ahead. These dates are noted and planned for. I try to plan a special meal from what we have on hand. Often this is possible with only one or two additional items required to fill out the meal.
When my children were at home, I also had to check the snack foods and plan for after school snacks. If I had time to bake and the ingredients required that was well and good, but if my schedule was busy and there was no time to bake I needed to have easy to prepare snacks on hand, such as popcorn, or peanut butter and crackers. So that too is a consideration when you are taking inventory.
So here is the first step in preparation for shopping: determining what foods you already have on hand and how many meals you can easily prepare with those foods. Part III will be a detailed account of how I build my menus.
Posted by Terri Cheney at 3:36 PM