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  • Writer's pictureJessica McQuistin

Sustaina-Mini: Food Waste Edition (Part 1: Taking Inventory)

Is there anything worse than throwing out food that you left your house for, specifically selected, spent money on, (possibly even washed! chopped! cooked!) and then somehow failed to eat? It makes me just want to bang my head against the wall. Repeatedly.

And yet, food waste happens.

Of all my sustainability efforts, one that I find very rewarding is reducing household food waste. I'm not perfect at this and I certainly fall off the food-waste-prevention wagon occasionally, but I have found some strategies that work for our family. Today I'd like to share just one of them: taking inventory. (Really Jess? A whole blog post about making lists? Yes really. Because it's made a big difference.)

From time to time, I go through my fridge and make a list of what's actually in there. I don't write down everything, just the items that will go bad within a week or so if not eaten. I also leave out items I know we'll eat (i.e., fruit, dairy products). Sometimes, just this written list prevents us from neglecting our food supply. When we see the list, we're also less likely to open the fridge and stare blankly at the random assortment of food, wondering "What should I eat?"

When I have more time, I take this process a little further, roughly in this order:

  1. Make a list of foods that could go bad if forgotten. (Only include foods you might not automatically eat.)

  2. Looking at your food inventory list, make a second list of possible meals/sides you can make with those foods. Try to find dishes that incorporate several items at a time.

  3. Decide if you need to freeze anything that you might not realistically get around to eating before it spoils (i.e., kale, bananas) and take care of that right away.

  4. Make a grocery list, starting with the other items you need for the meals you came up with in Step 2. (Consult the pantry first!)

  5. Shop, cook, eat. (Or skip the shopping if you already have everything you need.)

Here's a real-life example of lists I made just last week, following this method.

Food Inventory:

- cabbage

- cooked beets

- celery

- fresh basil

- lettuce mix

- rainbow chard

- bok choy

- leftover rice

Meal Ideas:

- borscht soup: cabbage, beets, celery & basil

- salad: lettuce mix and beets

- stirfry: rainbow chard and bok choy over rice

Grocery List:

- baguette (to go with soup)

- goat cheese (for beet salad)

This strategy really helped me to clean out the fridge before our Thanksgiving trip and to make good use of our CSA veggies. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we all enjoyed borscht soup, something we'd never tried before. I Googled recipes that used beets and cabbage, and a ton of borscht recipes popped up. I chose a simple one and put my own spin on it, using onion bouillon cubes I had in the cupboard, and adding celery, fresh basil, and lentils from the freezer. Though it was delicious, I can't say that I'll ever make it exactly the same way again - it just depends on what's in the fridge! - but I will definitely keep this in mind next time I have lots of beets to use up.

You might have noticed that I didn't come up with a whole week's worth of meals. I prefer having just a few meal ideas at a time and plenty of wiggle room. I also don't assign the meals to specific days, so that I can choose from my list based on what I'm craving that day (perks of being the family cook, amiright?). Obviously, the strategy of taking inventory is most useful when you have food on hand. When the fridge is nearly empty (like it is now, post Thanksgiving trip) a different starting point would make more sense, like "What's on sale right now?" "What's in season?" or "What recipes have I been wanting to try?"

I hope this post inspires you to find ways to minimize food waste in your kitchen by taking stock of what you already have and building meals from there. Stay tuned for a future Sustaina-Mini with more ways to reduce food waste! This topic is too big (and satisfying) for just one post!


I must give credit to Allie Peach. Her podcast, The Seamless Kitchen Show and her Facebook course on meal planning back in 2020 inspired some of the ideas I've shared here! I'd include a link but the content is no longer available, as she's taken a different career direction. Thank you Allie! Your ideas really stuck and have made an impact!

P.S. Turkey leftovers make amazing soup and/or freeze well, and if you have leftover mashed potatoes, might I suggest my lentil shepherd's pie?

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