Sarah Li Cain
On the whole, Americans spend a lot on—and waste a lot of—food. In 2017, on average, American families spent $4,363 a year on food at home and another $3,365 on food out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And we don’t actually eat everything we buy. Between 2007 and 2014, Americans wasted an average of one pound of food per person per day, USDA researchers revealed in 2018—and that’s just our purchased groceries. Restaurants and grocery stores send food to dumpsters every day too.
Though we all know we should do better for our budget and the planet, for most of us, falling short isn’t from a lack of trying—grocery shopping can be tricky. You’re either undershooting and running out of stuff to eat midweek, sending you straight to the drive-through, or, you overbuy in an attempt to “stock up,” cramming enough dry pasta and frozen vegetables into your home to survive the end times.
Predicting exactly what I, my husband, and our picky toddler would eat in a given week and what ingredients would be useful in the future was a delicate balance I rarely got right. If I bought too much of one thing, my son would simply refuse to eat it—at best. At worst, I’d forget it was in the pantry until well after the use by date. Either way, food ended up wasted. If I culled my shopping list too much, either my husband, preferring cold lunches or I, preferring hot, would be disappointed until the next trip.
In an attempt to do better (and maybe with a hint of desperation to trim our rising grocery bills), I decided to try something called the “no grocery challenge,” which entails people cooking only from ingredients they already have at home for at least two weeks. The premise is simple: No eating out allowed, and everything I prepared had to come from what I already had on hand.
Going in, I knew staying out of the grocery store would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how much an online financial “challenge” would change the way I look at cooking and at food waste.
Groceries, pre-no spend challenge
Before the challenge, we typically shopped once a week as a family, averaging about $150 per week. We also ate out about once a week, adding another $50.
In our house, meal planning isn’t totally straightforward. Although we eat family-style for dinner, I typically shop for three different meals for lunch: one for me, one for my husband to cook for himself, and one for my son. And as any mother knows, it is always a good idea to keep chicken nuggets and other easy-make options on hand in case of a toddler hunger strike.
Before the challenge, when I’d go grocery shopping, I’d try my best to see what we had on hand and create some semblance of a list to meet our needs for the coming week. If something was on sale, I’d stock up. I’d also look through our fridge and pantry haphazardly to see if there was anything to replace.
To add to it all, we didn’t exactly organize our pantry as well as we should have. So, although we were well aware that we shopped more than necessary, we had no idea how much excess food we had—something I knew I’d have to sort out before I started this challenge.
The task before us
The first few days of the challenge were easy and gratifying to see food once languishing in the freezer get used. At first, I worked through one or two cabinets at a time to see what was in our pantry, but I didn’t yet have to base meals around dry goods. We had accumulated a lot of foodstuffs in our freezer, so meat and vegetables were pretty much taken care of at dinner. Getting through the initial two-week challenge was pretty easy, so I decided to extend it for a month—and that’s where dinner got complicated.
When you aren’t regularly shopping, the staples you rely on every week go quickly. After we’d worked through the bulk of our freezer, meal planning every night got harder. At one point, I discovered about 10 bags of rice noodles in the back of my pantry, so for days on end we had a variation of a noodle dish. After a week of very similar meals, we were all pretty sick of it, but I was determined. To finish off the other bags, I mixed it up by cooking dishes inspired from other countries—Korean japchae, Chinese five spice pork noodle soup, and beef stroganoff.
The biggest challenge for me was learning to cook differently and not rely on the same dishes my family eats all the time. When we would run out of what I’m used to using, the temptation to go to the store was real. Take meat, for example. Both my son and husband are die-hard carnivores, but we’d gone through most of our freezer stash of protein in the first two weeks. Instead of running out for more, I took another look and found five bags of dried beans tucked away. In they went into soups, stews, and tacos and my family didn’t miss the meat. When I couldn’t hide the beans well, I “disguised” them by adding extra spices I purchased during a whirlwind excursion to an Indian grocery store a few months back and had not yet used.
In the end, I did end up going to the supermarket twice to get some fresh produce since I didn’t have enough frozen to last a month, and skipping out on veggies isn’t a good idea.
At the end of the month, our cabinets were mostly empty (except for a few bags of canned beans and spices), and we saved more than half what we’d normally spend on food per month. But I’m most proud of the fact that we were much less wasteful of our food purchases than usual. We did end up throwing away some produce here and there, but overall we used up all our dry and most of our canned goods in one month.
A change in thinking
Before starting the challenge, I wasn’t really aware (or willing to admit) how much food I had in my house that we’d never eat. Sure, we had a ton of dry goods in our pantry, but we also had so much food crammed in our fridge that anything in the back that was out of sight would spoil. This experience has made me hyper aware of how I used to shop for food, and it’s changed how I shop now—I go food shopping only if I really have to, and if I do, I make sure to carry (and stick to) a list of items I truly need to replace. While we’re still splurging on food out occasionally, our grocery bills are lower, and we’re wasting far less food at home now that I’ve learned to shop carefully.
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to just run out and replace anything that went bad also helped me get creative with using and storing fresh foods. For example, I learned that sticking cilantro upright in a glass of water helped delay wilting. I also learned how to use more of what I have, turning what used to be scraps and waste into something useful. The stems of that cilantro I’m now carefully storing go into Thai dishes instead of the garbage.
Moving forward, I want to able to use my resources wisely and be a lot more mindful of what I consume. These changes might feel like small steps, but they’ve sparked a greater desire to be more aware and careful of what we’re using at home. That’s a start, for our wallet and our planet.