Cooking Down: Minimize Waste and Make Easy Real Food

Are you trying to eat real food and cut out processed foods? Do you hate to waste food (and money)? Are you a cooking enthusiast with a fairly extensive pantry and/or freezer stock?  Are you also a military spouse and getting ready to move?

Well, as you may know, I’m all of the above. The move isn’t any time soon, but when you’re a milspouse and more than halfway through your tour, you’re always getting ready to move! But you don’t have to be preparing for a move to want to use up what you have on hand, minimize waste and make easy, real food for your family.

Okay, so I’m not exactly a hoarder, but I do stockpile a bit and organization sometimes takes a backseat when you have three kids–yes, that’s a picture of my pantry! It was a struggle to share that with you, but I think it’s important evidence that I’m not claiming to be perfect! Annnnd, it’s easier than sharing evidence of my “freezing problem.” But hey, it’s mostly a good problem to have, as the freezer has come to my rescue for dinner when I least expected it. (That is, I stumbled on a leftover homemade meal that I forgot about in the depths of the freezer…just when I was wondering what I’d cook for dinner. At least it was labeled…)

The thing is, I hate to waste (food, money, and other resources) and I believe planning ahead is the KEY to eating easy, real food consistently. I really can’t help storing it up so it’s as easy as possible. Buying on sale adds to my “inventory.” And then I tend to choose what I cook/reheat intuitively based on how I feel; I have to be “in the mood,” so that kinda contributes to the stockpiling. After nearly two years in one place, the freezer and pantry are both fairly full. Not a year’s worth of food by any means, but I think maybe it’s a good time to revisit the idea of cooking down…

You won’t find the term “cooking down” on Google (I tried). I don’t know who coined the term–I may have heard it somewhere–please comment if you want to give or take credit! My definition of cooking down is simply the art and science of using up pantry, fridge, and freezer items to minimize waste–and this is my addition–while making easy, real food.

If you enjoy cooking, you will inevitably find yourself with a pantry full of partially opened items, and even a few unopened (or, even duplicate!) ones, that need to be used up in time to avoid waste. Then there are the freezer meals, partial meals, or ingredients that need to be consumed before freezer burn sets in. And don’t forget all those condiments in the fridge. All when you’d rather just find something easier in the interest of time (and energy)!

Okay, maybe it’s not so simple after all! But the end goals are these:

  1. Use up whatever food you have to create some semblance of a healthy meal your family will eat before it goes to waste.
  2. If you’re moving, gift only a few leftover condiments and bottles of alcohol to your neighbors when you’re driving away to your new destination.

If you’re moving, whether it’s with the military or for any other reason–you know how it feels to be under the gun with a countdown of days to get this done! Cooking down can be stressful: you’re busy, cooking with restricted ingredients requires time and energy, and no one likes to waste. But it can also be immensely satisfying when you simultaneously solve the problems of 1) what’s for dinner and 2) how to use up food items. Everyone wants to creatively solve two problems at once and pat themselves on the back! And write things on your “to do” list just to check them off! No? Just me?

For me, when we are moving, cooking down has the added bonus of providing the satisfaction of doing two puzzles at once. One puzzle is hard enough: creatively feeding your family on the foods you have in your pantry and freezer. The other puzzle makes it extra challenging: making your pantry items last, forecasting how much you should use, without having to buy a whole new container, until the last day in your house. Ahh, no wonder it’s so rewarding when you can pull it off, it’s like having a freaking superpower! Just me again?? Hmmm…

But frankly, I’m not the best at it–cooking down and stockpiling healthy options are mutually exclusive, my friends. So, it’s not my superpower and I continually aspire to achieve this level of organization and efficiency on a regular basis. That’s why I enlisted the help of some fellow dietitians and some fellow military spouses, both of whom I consider to be experts on the subject, and they have contributed their great ideas below. 

So, what about you? Are you ready to join me and play the “cooking down game”? Don’t worry, there are no rules, and there are only winners; either you win, or your neighbors win when you share your food (as ingredients or prepared meals) with them!

Tips for Cooking Down:

  1. Don’t delay, “cook down” regularly! Whether you’re moving or not, make it a regular habit to use up what you have. Use a particular item as inspiration for a meal each week. Some people do Taco Tuesday; how about Wasteless Wednesday?! Savannah Thaler, a military spouse and RDN at Savvy Wellness and Health says, “Every week before I meal plan I check out my refrigerator, freezer and pantry to see what items I should really try to use up. Often, this includes frozen meats, pasta, canned vegetables/beans and uncooked grains. Then, I plan at least one meal that week that uses one of those ingredients.”
  2. Use online resources to spark creativity and try new things.  Tracey Linneweber, a military spouse and RD of www.traceylinneweber.com says, “I’m doing this right now! I always like the new recipes I come up with or try. Some become keepers.”  But don’t stress or feel the need to innovate. Pinterest is my best friend when I want new ideas. Arielle “Dani” Lebovitz, a military spouse and RDN at www.experiencedeliciousnow.com, recommends www.supercook.com. She says, “You enter the ingredients you have on hand and it provides recipes based on those items. I may not use the recipes, but it always provides great ideas.”
  3. Stay (or regularly get) organized. A well-organized pantry and freezer doesn’t let you forget what you have on hand. Further, it saves time when you can look at a glance and see what you have. And it puts the “easy” in easy, real food. I use a grease pencil to mark my fridge and freezer leftovers. Frozen items look way different than they did when fresh–an observation I’ve learned the hard way, when I’ve forgotten to mark something and let it defrost for dinner. Talk about mystery meat. Clear containers, like mason jars, work well for storing things in the freezer, fridge or pantry so you can keep it in the forefront.
  4. Take inventory before you shop for more. About once a month I do a survey of what I have in my freezer and make a list that I keep on the fridge to refer to when I’m looking for ideas for meal planning. I can look at the list to find an easy leftover meal in the freezer, or a main dish ingredient I can use when shopping time is limited, or a quick side or two that may go with a rotisserie chicken. I try to remember to look in the pantry before shopping for staples, too. But again, I’m not always the best at this.
  5. Keep a shopping list for essential grocery items as you run out of things. It helps to make a weekly shopping list while you’re meal planning. To make this easier, Maria Adams, RDN at Halsa Nutrition, created a free, downloadable Complete Meal Plan and Shopping List TemplateI’m a little old fashioned, I use a dry erase board on the fridge, but you could even use a note in your phone or even an app. (I do keep my recipes in Evernote, so I have access while in the store.)  I like the dry erase method because even my kids write down what we need as they use the last of it. Sometimes if I’m in a hurry, I’ll snap a picture of it and take it to the store. (Although usually I like to write it down in order of the store aisles! Aiming for efficiency again…and why I am loyal to only a few stores!) If you only need a small amount of an ingredient (grains, nuts, seeds, etc.) to make a recipe work, try a grocery that offers bulk items. These stores (like Whole Foods) may be more expensive at times for most items, but when you only need a small amount of something, it may be worth it not to have leftovers.
  6. Invite friends for a “Clean Out the Fridge” Potluck Meal. Doesn’t sound too appetizing, unless you have foodie friends like I do! Then it becomes a creative, inspiring theme to work around. And it doesn’t have to be potluck and can even be fancy! Alison Moxon, a milspouse and dietitian in training says, “One of my friends hosts a cocktail party just before they move each time and serves creative canapes made from all the leftover food and uses up her drinks cabinet at the same time!”
  7. Get your kids to help. Either have them search Pinterest for recipes and/or actually do the hands-on food prep. Getting them involved may add creativity, free up some of your precious time, and make them more likely to eat what they’ve cooked themselves. Of course, left to their own devices (pun intended), my kids usually want to bake treats, so the trick is balancing those treats with healthy meals.
  8. Donate to a food bank. It’s never wasted food or money when you donate unopened nonperishable foods to a local food bank and help your community.

Now here’s to putting my money where your mouth is…if you want help cooking down, feel free to list a real-food ingredient (or two or three) you have on hand in the comments and in my reply I will give you a recipe idea to use it up!