Reducing food waste – my pantry challenge

After pic - too embarrassed to show you the before pic

My pantry is a mess.

A fact that I know at the back of my mind. 

And so annoying every time I want to cook something. But decluttering it takes so much effort and time. And quite frankly, it takes mental energy that I did not have. So the longer I put it off, the more daunting it feels to tackle it. And then it just creates a low level stress in the background of my life.

I have been meaning to clear the pantry since January after big Christmas feasts and entertaining visiting family from overseas. But alas! Excuses, excuses … and I never got around to doing it.

It all came to a head (nearly literally!) when I had friends over for dinner a few weekends ago. One of them opened the pantry door – an aluminium foil roll fell out and nearly hit her in the head. How embarrassing!

OK, the universe is telling me something. 

So when was the last time I cleared the pantry?

The last time I did it properly was probably two to three years ago when I embarked on my first bout of minimalism.

I was so clueless as to where to start and what to do that I engaged a professional to help me. We had six one on one sessions, focusing on different areas of my house – how to deal with clothes, the bathroom drawers, kitchen, paper and so on.

While that was a good start and I did get rid of a lot of stuff, I failed at maintaining the hardline. And I never finished decluttering the whole house, only the priority areas. The only lesson I adhered to was to stop buying stuff ie stop introducing things into my house.

Not buying stuff was also good for my bank balance. Except I think I then transferred buying stuff to buying experiences. Hmmm … need to think on this some more.

Back to my present day pantry

My friends and colleagues like giving me food presents for Christmas and birthdays – which is fine as they all know I like eating and cooking. And I LOVE receiving them – it’s better than some little kitchen appliance or gadget that add to my stuff. 

I also like buying food as souvenirs on my overseas holidays – Vanilla paste from Mauritius, saffron from Spain, laksa paste from Malaysia, bak kut teh spices from Singapore, jam and tea from London …

Then there are food gifts from friends returning from their overseas trips  – paprika from Hungary, bagels from Montreal, ‘wife’ biscuits from China, KitKat from Japan, meat rubs from Chicago, more jams, honey…

The problem is I eat all the ‘easy’ things quickly – the chocolate, nougat, honey, cookies, crisps. And the flavoured olive oils, jams, marmalades, preserves just accumulate, hidden in the back corners as newer gifts are put in front. 

Soon I forget what is in there. 

It is much easier to buy a spice or dry ingredient instead of looking for it in the messy pantry. I would have had to take everything out to look for something obscure. For the time poor me, that took too much effort.

All this ‘lazy’ buying adds up – I need to rein in my food costs. Working less hours now means a reduced pay packet so every bit of saving helps.

Plus I feel so guilty wasting food while there are millions on this planet going without or are hungry. Even writing this now shows what a privileged position I am in – the hungry and poor don’t get to rearrange their pantry.

I am part of the bigger picture of food waste in Australia.  According to Australian government research

“In 2016-17 (the base year), Australia produced 7.3 million tonnes of food waste across the supply and consumption chain. Of this, 2.5 million (34 per cent) was created in our homes, 2.3 million tonnes (31 per cent) in primary production and 1.8 million tonnes (25 per cent) in the manufacturing sector.”

I must do better – decluttering my pantry is a start.

The boring process

The task is overwhelming.  I could not face it in one go. So I bite off small chunks and just start with 2.5 minutes while heating up my dinner. Yes, that is how bad it is. I literally start with two and a half minutes.

And build it up from there. It takes me several weeknights with the finale on the weekend. 

One shelf at a time. I have 5 shelves … but really only use the lower three as I am short and too lazy to take out the step ladder all the time.

I take everything on one shelf out on to the kitchen bench. 

And check expiry dates – anything expired is thrown out immediately. This is the part I dread the most, knowing there will be many items past their used by dates.

I say a prayer for the hungry and malnourished – I feel so bad right now. It is such a sin to throw out so much food. And I think about the person who gifted me the item and mentally apologise to them too.

Then it’s time to categorise what’s left. I group everything in a similar ‘theme’ eg pasta, noodles and rice together; spices together; canned food together; baking ingredients eg flour, sugar, essences together and so on.

If like me, you don’t know the real contents of your pantry, it is a time of discovery!  Who knew I had so much pepper – black, white, pink, green, Sichuan  – whole peppercorns and ground … And paprika – from Spain, Hungary and good old Coles – sweet, smoked, hot … luckily I did not buy any more paprika while in Budapest a few months ago. I bring excess tea to work so others can enjoy them too.

And based on what you currently have and what you would normally have especially in terms of your staples, decide which containers or trays to put them in. For example, I put opened packs of the same spice in a zip lock bag then put spices in alphabetical order in a container.

Final step – decide where everything should go. For me, the items I use the most, live on the lowest shelf so I can reach for them easily. Everything is in containers or trays so I can pull out whole container or tray to look for something; and also ensures nothing is tucked away at the back of the cupboard where it will be forgotten. 

Each shelf has a ‘theme’. For example, all my baking ingredients live on the third shelf – plain flour, self raising flour, various sugars, flavourings and essences, cocoa, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate and so on.


Spices in alphabetical order ...

Game changer

I compiled a list of EVERYTHING in my pantry, printed the lists and laminated the sheets. Then I stick these on the inside of my pantry. Now I know what I have in there at all times. And it is easier to consult the lists especially in terms of spices when I am browsing a recipe.

The challenge is to remember to cross things off and add things to the lists. So far so good – I have crossed things off but have not added anything. Yay! But Christmas is coming …


Ongoing pantry challenge

I am challenging myself to NOT add anything to the pantry until the existing pack is eaten. So I will shop only AFTER checking what I have in the pantry. EVERY TIME.

And every week from now on, I must cook utilising something in my pantry, be it something simple like one of the many spices or more complicated like a paella using up different opened packs of Spanish rice.

Plus I will reassess pantry contents once a month and just be reminded of what is expiring soon. A quick tidy up once a month will save a whole week of anguish years later.

I am not limiting this challenge to one month only. No, it is an ongoing practice. I am cultivating new habits. 

Reducing food waste is a priority. Ultimately, it will reduce my food costs but importantly, I do not contribute to the tonnes of food wasted daily.

What are your strategies to reduce food waste?

6 Replies to “Reducing food waste – my pantry challenge”

  1. My pantry is always extremely organised, as is the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard in the laundry. I learned this when the boys and I were much younger and we had NO money to waste – I absolutely couldn’t let any food go off and have to be thrown out.
    I think what sparked it was seeing an Oprah show where she was helping a woman declutter her kitchen and someone said, “If you throw food out, it’s exactly like throwing $50 notes straight into the bin.”
    That really hit home.

  2. I love, love you have a Zombie Apocalypse cupboard! I can’t cope with one pantry at the moment, let alone one for Armageddon. I do feel guilty about throwing out food. I’m pretty good with fresh produce, not so good with the pantry stuff – especially what others have gifted me.

  3. I’m a new reader and I love your blog! This is my favorite post so far bc I can really relate. Do show us the “before” picture sometime, I’m sure we’ve all seen / done worse!

  4. My brother devised a plan where he takes pictures of the fridge, freezer, and pantry before grocery shopping, so he knows what he has and doesn’t buy things he doesn’t need. Weeding out helps reduce your waste, but maybe this tactic will help you too! I know I need to start photographing because I’m guilty of seeing things on sale and stocking up and allowing it to sit there indefinitely. Then I wind up donating a portion of it. That’s not bad though, but it doesn’t help lower grocery bills!

    1. That is a brilliant idea, thank you! Especially these days when I try to limit grocery shopping to once a fortnight due to the COVID 19 crisis.

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