Food inventories to the rescue

Freezer door with papers and photos magnetized to the facade.
Papers on my freezer door (left to right): printout of recipe, freezer inventory,  produce inventory.

One year ago when the pandemic uprooted our rhythms of daily life, procuring groceries quickly became the most stressful, time-consuming, and cumbersome activity. As shoppers and grocery store personnel learned the ropes of how to best navigate this necessity during a major health crisis, many of us found ourselves buying excess as a remedy for avoiding long queues and minimizing trips to the store.

While all that shopping and stocking has been mostly helpful, it has led to extra overwhelm that may have exacerbated already bulging pantries, chaotic freezers, and best intentions for fresh produce. The big question is do you know what you have? If your answer is “no,” or you think “yes” but are unsure, I have one word for you to ponder: inventories.

Generally speaking, inventories are crucial for anticipating increases and decreases of demand, managing the flow of goods, keeping on top of what’s available, and staying aligned with budgets, including the budget of available physical space. For restaurants and a vast array of  businesses, they are essential, but homes, which are containers for the business of running day to day life, are operated without them.

Before you suck in your breath and think this concept is too unrealistic or just too much to consider, let me share how easy and clarifying it can be.

produce listA simple entry level step is to make a list of fresh produce before you put it away, and post the list where you will see it. Yep. Just like that! Knowing what you have without the extra added step of rummaging around the refrigerator means you can more easily build meal options around what is most perishable. As veggies are used, cross them out. With each market visit,  produce a new inventory.

jars of food in a freezer

When I return from the farmers market each week, I write my list on a piece of scrap paper (above) and pop it on the freezer door with a magnet. I’ve taken to using a wide Sharpie so I can read it from distance. When it looks like something leafy may not be cooked or eaten “in time,” it gets cleaned, chopped, and popped in a jar then labeled and dated before being placed in the freezer (right) for use at a later date. I add that item to the neighboring freezer inventory list. (I know what you’re thinking, but keep reading.) The payoff has been tremendous. Food waste has been reduced to near zero.

My foray into the inventory thing started early in the pandemic when I realized too many unknowns were hidden in the freezer. I wanted to stock up and stow away some food but had no idea what was available to begin with. What kind of broth did we have? How many bagels were on hand? Was there room for a spontaneous pint of ice cream? What’s been lost and long forgotten?* There was one way to find out: make an inventory, another useful list.

If this sounds like an overwhelming project, let me break it down into the logical steps that may make it feel more doable:

  • Empty the contents of the freezer onto the kitchen table and/or counter.
  • Group like items together, such as food group-wise, or section-wise (i.e. shelves versus door versus drawers). This makes inventory tallies and freezer organization so much easier.
  • Record each item as you return it to the freezer. Use pen and paper or make an electronic document. Print the latter if a paper version is more useful to you.
  • Store the list in your meal planning zone and refer to it as you plan meals. I post mine on the freezer door next to the produce list because one often supplements the other.

An average household freezer may take 30-45 minutes at the maximum. You can do this while listening to a podcast or music.

And how to use the inventory:

  • Cross out items as you remove them, and add items as you add them.
  • Repeat the process every few months – like at the turn of the seasons – or once the list gets too messy or you’ve gotten off track. I’m the first to admit to being fabulously imperfect, so some things don’t make it on or off the list as I go. Oops! So much for the tamales that could have been dinner tonight.

A next step could be an inventory the dry and canned goods and other food stuffs in the pantry and cupboards. Does that feel like too big a job? Ask a friend, family member, or your friendly professional organizer (ahem) to help you!

And one more tip to close the loop on this food inventory ecosystem: as you use up a staple food item or see that you’re running low, add it to the grocery list!

*In case you’re wondering, the answers to the questions were: mushroom and bone broths, zero bagels, not if we wanted to stock up on other things, and four strips of bacon.


4 thoughts on “Food inventories to the rescue

  1. Really fun to read, Deb! Hope you’re doing well as things start to open up. We’re both just past our “safe” dates.

  2. Great advice as always. I too, of course, have changed my shopping and cooking radically during this time. Almost all of my excess goes to the worms in my garden though. My big plan is to get into more fermented storage like red cabbage that I made since it seems to last forever.

    Another thing I do now is have a running grocery list that I take every time I go to the store. The list has everything I buy and I just look over it while I’m at the store to remind me if I need it. Kinda weird right? ….but it works for me.

    1. Worms!!!! I bet you keep those wigglers quite happy.
      Big thumbs up for fermentation. I’m a fan!
      And about the running grocery list: each of us finds what works. You’re just keeping it real and unique!

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