my "empty fridge" philosophy

Most people associate an empty fridge with sadness, loneliness, or poverty. Recently, I was watching "Love" on Netflix and during the finale, Gus comes home from a bad day, opens the fridge and Instagrams a picture of how empty it is. We're supposed to feel bad for him since he can't seem to muster up the money and/or energy to keep his fridge stocked, but mainly I just wanted to smack him for sending such a self-deprecating and pity-soliciting post into the social media ether. 

A lot of people who grow up poor and move into higher income brackets have painful memories of not having enough food in the house and overstuff their fridges to compensate. A full fridge makes it seem like we have our lives together, and plenty of money to keep our shelves well stocked. But what if an overly full fridge is actually costing you money and contributing to food waste? What if it's actually making it HARDER for you to plan meals and cook at home?

I committed to my "empty fridge" method after seeing a John Oliver segment on food waste. I was appalled at how much food Americans throw away (40% of food grown is thrown away without ever being bought! WTF?!).

Before I committed to reducing my food waste, I was terrible about my grocery shopping habits. I lived near a small, busy store that was surrounded by traffic, so I tried to only shop on the weekends, usually only once or twice a month. I would buy tons of produce without meal planning and end up throwing half of it out. Looking back, I cringe thinking about how many hundreds of dollars I wasted, and how much food was left to rot in my produce drawer before ending up in a landfill.

A couple disclaimers: this method is much easier to adhere to if you live alone (or are the sole grocery shopper in your household), have basic cooking skills, and live within easy distance of a grocery store. I recognize that I am honestly quite privileged to have the time, flexibility, and proximity to a store necessary to make this lifestyle work. I live alone and cook only for myself and my boyfriend (usually), and I chose an apartment that is literally next door to a 24-hour low cost grocery store. I've also been cooking at least occasionally since I was 16 or so, and I don't normally need a recipe for the things I make on a regular basis. So, take this all with a grain of salt.

The idea behind my "empty fridge" method is that I can see everything in my fridge at a quick glance. Everything is easily accessible so that I can check the expiration date, and I have planned the exact ways that I will use each item in my fridge.

Currently, these are the items in my fridge:

  • Jalapeno cheddar sausage (to be used in a rice and beans crockpot meal)
  • Yogurt (for breakfast and snacks)
  • Spinach (for breakfast smoothies and lunch)
  • Dog food (because my dog is a princess and requires different food for breakfast and dinner)
  • Almond milk (for cereal and breakfast smoothies)
  • Rice
  • Flour
  • Leftovers (to be eaten immediately)
  • Sriracha, sweet and sour sauce, sesame ginger dressing, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, butter, mustard, mayo, etc (these things last forever and are used regularly...I recently culled my condiments so I only had what I actually used)
  • Half an onion (to be used in the rice and beans)
  • Garlic
  • Carrots 
  • Bananas and avocados (on my shelf fruit bowl)

Objectively, my fridge looks EMPTY and super sad. However, between these things, the perishables that are in long term storage in my freezer, and the nonperishables in my pantry, I have enough food to make two dinners (which will serve as four meals), five breakfasts, and three lunches. The key for me is to reduce the number of perishable items I keep on hand so that I know exactly when things will go bad, and I can adjust my cooking schedule to use food that will perish soon. As a result, I can't even remember the last time I threw away food that went bad (update: I threw away some moldy cherry tomatoes this morning. :( but there were only a few left!).

In the morning, while I am grabbing the ingredients for my morning smoothie, I take inventory of my food and decide what I want to make for dinner. For example, tonight I plan on making spaghetti and meatless meatballs for dinner. I already have the pasta in my (neatly organized!) pantry, the frozen meatballs in the freezer, and the sauce in my pantry. I'll make some roasted potatoes from the pantry for the side, so I don't need any perishable items tonight. However, I noticed that the leftovers in my fridge have been in there for awhile, so those will be eaten for lunch over the next day or two, and I can leave the Amy's frozen meals that I buy in bulk for lunch (when I don't have leftovers) at home for the rest of the week.

In order to make this work for me, I've had to stop thinking of grocery shopping as something I only do once or twice a month, and switch to the European style of shopping. In Europe, most people don't keep a ton of food at home, and instead stop by neighborhood markets on their way home to grab the ingredients they need for dinner. They might shop two or three times a month to do larger restocks of staple items, but food planning is something that occurs on a day-to-day basis.

I know other people who have reduced food waste and still grocery shop only once or twice a month—these folks make huge batches of freezable food and divide it into meal sized portions. I think this is a great idea for people who don't enjoy cooking and shopping, but I love to cook when I come home from work. It helps me relax and feel more connected to my home. However, the freezer batch-cooking method is an awesome solution for people who can't get to a grocery store regularly. Just google "freezer meals" and let your mind be blown. 

Switching my fridge mindset from "stockpile" to "mindfully sparse" has affected more things than just my food. I chose my current apartment based on its proximity to work and two grocery stores. I think twice about ordering food when I'm feeling lazy, because I don't want produce to turn overnight and become unusable. I wipe up spills and messes in my fridge more often because I can actually see more waiting until move-out day to clean the disgusting crusty fridge! It also helps me in other ways: my past history of eating disorders has left me with lots of food-induced stress that is triggered by having large amounts of food available, so having fewer ingredients and a plan for how to cook them helps me manage my food mental health much better.

An "empty fridge" challenges a lot of our socialized expectations and perceptions of what a kitchen should look like, and how we should treat food and the money we spend on it. Most people who look at my fridge would assume I never cook, and they'd be surprised to know I now cook almost every day (way more than I used to)! It has helped me enjoy food and cooking so much more than when I had to rummage through moldy and leaking containers to see if I could use anything!

Do you think an empty fridge could work for you? It's not for everyone, but I encourage you to try it or come up with a way to reduce your food waste, whether by freezer cooking or another method!