Responsible and Generous Living in Early Adulthood

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. – Mark 12:42

Why We Love Our ‘Empty’ Fridge

DSC_0184Does this picture stress you out?

Most people who open our refrigerator comment “Someone needs to go the grocery store.” Then we glance in and think – What are you talking about? That’s another weeks worth of food at least!

I took this photo on May 18 and we have no plans to head to the grocery store again until June. And no, we don’t pencil in starving ourselves as part of our budgeting strategy.

I have to give a couple qualifiers for this picture.

First, after a cinco de mayo party at our place we were left with quite a bit of beer which we don’t drink regularly and this is the last of it. It isn’t normal for us to have so much. Second, you can’t see a package of chicken and package of prosciutto on the top shelf, there is some substantial stuff in there. We also needed to freeze a couple salmon fillets and some beef this week because we just couldn’t get to them in time. 

How we addressed the fear of not having enough food

Like I mentioned in the Get Rid of the Excess post, the main reason we all want fridges stuffed to the max is not because we actually need to consume all the food inside. It’s in large part because looking at a full fridge gives us a sense of security.

The first key to our grocery success story was learning we are never in a situation where food is inaccessible to us. We don’t need to fear that our fridge will be empty. Eating every single thing is rewarding, it means you’ve spent your money well, you’ve maximized your shopping trips and you really do need to make another grocery run. We truly finish every bag of pasta and every can of soup before we make trip number 2 for the month.

Americans are notorious for wasting food, in fact the most recent research says Americans waste 40% of the food they purchase. ALMOST HALF. Just typing that actually makes me a little angry. Ridding ourselves of the fear of an empty fridge and making every effort to be good stewards of the food we consume were the main factors that helped us keep our food cost at or below $100 per person (note that this doesn’t include toiletries, if we can get it on Amazon, we do).

We also had to acknowledge that sometimes we would open the door to a full fridge and think ‘Nothing looks good right now.’ (I was the queen of this thought process when I was just out of college). This is NOT a reason to eat out, sometimes we just need to eat what we have instead of buying more out of a desire for variety.

Where to shop

The first place we started was establishing that both organic and local were important to us, as well as minimal processing. We don’t buy 100% organic or local, but that’s our default. Our desire to do this and keep costs low lead us to Trader Joe’s. This store puts effort into providing minimally processed items, particularly meat, and shopping there takes out some of the guesswork that can be time consuming, especially when we just made the 30 minute drive to the nearest store.

*An added benefit to shopping at a store 20 miles away is that we don’t feel like we can just head to the store for a quick trip. Each grocery adventure is well-planned and a built in incentive to only go twice a month.

How much are you actually eating?

We don’t really eat out often, however, we live in a phenomenal community and we have chosen to be very involved in it. It took us a while to realize that we would buy food to cover every meal for a couple weeks, then in the course of those two weeks we’d be invited over to friends homes, we’d eat with others at a community or church meal and often our friends and neighbors with gardens would drop off some of the latest batch of vegetables. We really didn’t need 14 days worth of meals for 14 days, we could cut the amount in half.

Make sure you’re aware of how many meals you’re eating at home, be honest with yourself. If you eat out a lot plan for that. Don’t buy a weeks worth of groceries knowing you’ll end up going to restaurants every night and throw out whatever’s left. If it helps, keep a journal.

Record how many times you eat out – whether at a restaurant, friend’s house or because someone gave you food. Record the amount of food you’re throwing away as a result of eating out. Adjust the next grocery trip to reflect those observations.

Be aware of what you have

If you think back, have you every bought a second amount of something like sour cream, yogurt, or parsley only to find out you actually had all that you needed but it was hidden in your fridge? It happens to all of us, but it needs to stop.

We have a fridge with 10-15 things in it, we know what we have, and even still every couple days we look through our fridge and check use-by dates to make sure we’re not going to run past one without noticing. We are proactive. We prioritize what we eat when we approach use-by dates.

It is imperative that you know what’s in your fridge. Be aware of use-by dates. If something only has a day or two left, give it precedence over something that you’ll have for another week. When you just can’t get to something in time, look up the best way to store it and stick it in the freezer to have later. Just don’t consider tossing it out an option.

Get to know your food

Fun fact about an empty fridge: produce will actually last longer when it has more ‘breathing room.’ It allows cool air to circulate better and the temperature stays more consistent. We thought we were imagining it, but after switching to a barely-filled-fridge system, our salad was lasting way past the sell by dates. Then I read this article and found out we weren’t crazy! It really helps. It’s also fascinating to read about the psychology of your fridge. Studies have shown a well organized fridge makes the food in it look more appetizing, making it more likely you will eat what you have.

Read up on the products you buy. This article has some really great tips on how to freeze specific food items, as well as great tips on organizing your fridge for maximum benefit. Learn what produce should sit out on your counter, what should be kept in the bottom corner of your pantry, and what should make its way to the fridge, give yourself the advantage to help your fight against waste.

Hate leftovers? Get over it.

Some of us ‘just hate left overs.’ I know, I’m this way about certain types of food. However, being a good steward of your resources means biting the bullet sometimes. If I make waaaaay too much chicken tortilla soup, guess what Jon and I have for lunch the next three days? You guessed it.

Jon is a champion left-over-eater. Seriously. He never even heats anything up. It’s a constant topic of conversation when our friends gather “Would you eat mashed potatoes cold? Soup? Pasta?” (I don’t care what you come up with, his answer is always yes).

I’m a bit pickier. I’m not a fan of bread items that sit in the fridge over night. Therefore I’ve adjusted, if I’m eating a burger I know I won’t finish, I’ll finish the bun and the fries and plan on using the rest in a burger the next day. We sometimes divide up things we know will overwhelm us with leftovers using the freezer or cooking them into different forms and setting them aside (i.e. soup and casserole).

Adjust your habits when necessary, but if you bought it and cooked it, you need to eat it. Throwing out everything in those tupperware containers is just as wasteful as throwing out produce that’s gone bad.

*Most articles I’ve read say to give your leftovers four days max in your fridge.

The nitty gritty of our shopping trips

Now if you’re curious how we spend so little on groceries here’s the types of things we buy at Trader Joe’s every couple weeks that really does last us.

  • Three types of meat, always salmon (we love salmon and it’s one of the healthier meat options). Then we rotate in two others between chicken, beef, pork and occasionally a different type of fish. 
  • We think of two general things we want for lunch. Bagels and cream cheese, sandwich supplies etc. We don’t focus on lunch because dinner produces leftovers and they often make great lunches. Many times leftovers can be transformed with a couple pieces of bread. 
  • We stock up on basmati rice (we obsess over chicken tikka masala, but even in an ordinary recipe, basmati’s the best).
  • Cereal (Jon’s breakfast of choice)
  • Granola and yogurt (my breakfast of choice)
  • Chips and salsa, our most beloved snack. We often buy 2-3 bags of chips and 2 tubs of salsa. We breeze through it.
  • A couple bags of pasta (garlic basil linguini and lemon pepper pappardelle are our two current favorites).
  • 2-4 cans of soup. Their chicken noodle soup is the best canned chicken noodle I’ve ever had.
  • A rotating experimental option (gnocchi this week)
  • A couple frozen meal options. Pot stickers, orange chicken etc. Great frozen section at Trader Joe’s. 
  • A couple bags of salad. We then purchase almond slices and goat cheese as toppings. We make eating salad a priority. We add whatever fruit or veggie we pick up as well.
  • Milk, coffee creamer and any other core item we’re running low on, olive oil, flour, vinegar, tomato paste etc.

This usually shocks us (the cart is rather full) and it’s always about $85-$90. Then we swing by Ray’s produce stand (a local place) on our way home and grab 2-3 types of vegetables, and one or two types of fruit max. We get sucked in to the wonderful fruit options, but we know we never get through more than  two varieties so we stick with a limited amount. We are also surprised when we hit the register and find out we only spent $8-10.

We do this at the beginning of the month and just see how far we get. Sometimes we only make it the two weeks. Sometimes it stretches three. We’re practicing the art of being flexible without being wasteful, and with food that’s a delicate dance.

And that does it. I apologize for the length, we just kept brainstorming what goes into maintaining our low food budget and the reasons kept flowing. Bravo if you stuck with us the whole way.

How do you keep food costs down? What can you offer as advice/encouragement for others seeking to do the same? 


6 comments on “Why We Love Our ‘Empty’ Fridge

  1. Lish
    May 23, 2013

    Great ideas…we have had to adjust our food purchases significantly from having two teenagers, to there being only the two of us. When I cooked for a full house, I found it economical and a real timesaver to purchase a protein in bulk, cook two or three different dishes with it at once, and then freeze in family portions. It was nice to know dinner was “in the bag” when I got home from work. Now that it’s just two of us, we have developed a European model of only buying what we need for a day or two at a time. We text to coordinate who stops on their way home. This cuts way back on waste, and allows for flexibility…. But requires discipline to only purchase essentials and not chocolate cookies!

    • jkmaroni
      May 23, 2013

      Thanks Lish – you bring up a good point about food transitions. Just like when we were single and tried to figure out how to eat as a single person (which involved a lot of trial and error) and then getting married and readjusting to what it means to prepare for two after it seemed like we JUST figured out how to balance our grocery habits individually. Taking time in the beginning to figure it out probably saves a lot of stress.

  2. Ryan MacKenzie
    May 23, 2013

    Great advice! This is a big area that people can save money. Lene and I do a lot of our shopping at Ray’s Produce and make a lot of our food from scratch and it saves us a lot of money each month.

    • jkmaroni
      May 23, 2013

      That is excellent advice Ryan, we also shop at Rays for our produce. Making food from scratch is much cheaper and healthier, usually people will ask us if our diet consists of mostly hamburger helper. Its always fun to say that it actually comes from our tendency to buy fresh, local and eat everything we have on hand.

  3. Anonymous
    May 24, 2013

    Great post! Craig and I have become HUGE fans of crock pot and freezer meals. We get our shopping list together (usually the recipes come Pinterest of course) and head out to Winco. Winco is pretty dang cheap. Although I’m thinking of trying Trader Joes now :).

    Note – do not go on Sundays (everyone and their Mother goes on Sundays).

    It takes us a couple of hrs to do all the chopping and preparing but then we don’t have to cook dinners for about a month and a half. We average about $200 a trip and make a a couple of smalls trips for milk, cereal, fresh fruit and veggies. So maybe $250ish every month and a half.

    It’s awesome because you don’t have to cook much and if you have something in the crock pot cooking at home you will be less likely to go out. The left overs are good too.

  4. Sherri
    May 24, 2013

    Amazing tips, you two! It has inspired me to be better organized in some areas of our meal planning. Planting a garden has been a great way for us to save on our summer/fall food budget … and it is so fun to share with family and friends. Love that you support fresh, local and organic.

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This entry was posted on May 23, 2013 by in Uncategorized.


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