I’ve found my newest addiction: the A&E show Hoarders. You may already know that my dad is a hoarder, and that growing up around his piles of outdated magazines and electronic gadgets has given me a profoundly ambivalent relationship with stuff. Even though I’m neither extremely neat nor extremely messy, I’m terrified of becoming a hoarder. I hold Cold War type purges every so often just to ensure I’m not getting too attached to my stuff. For better or for worse, this show has been bumping up the frequency of these purges.
Some of the episodes hit pretty close to home. There was the cat hoarder, who started off feeding strays and ended up with 70 odd cats, some of them dead (and eaten by other cats). There was the magazine and equipment hoarder, whose defensive attitude and tense relationship with his daughter reminded me very much of my dad. And then there was the food hoarder, a woman who couldn’t even get rid of a rotting pumpkin in her living room without first saving some seeds. A little later on, she was struggling to get rid of several containers of free range, organic chicken stock that had expired years ago. In her words, it was good stuff, she had paid a lot for it, and it wasn’t bulging or obviously bad.
Oh boy. That sounds uncomfortably familiar.
I hate throwing food out. Not just for environmental reasons, although it’s true that food waste accounts for a major loss of energy and resources. (Americans are estimated to waste 25% of all food prepared or about 96 billion pounds of food a year, and that’s not just a matter of food — it’s also water, gas for transport, and chemical pollution.) My mother, a superb planner, is incredibly good at not wasting food, and I feel a lot of pressure to do the same. But in my usual passive-aggressive way, I don’t avoid throwing out food by managing it better, sticking it in the freezer, and eating the old stuff first. I just let it sit until it’s so bad, stale, or old that I have no choice but to throw it out.
Wow. Even though I only do this to a small percentage of my food, it sounds really bad when I write it out. My, er, strategy also explains why I have a few things that expired in 2009 in my cupboard. They don’t smell, they aren’t obviously stale, and are quite possibly still edible, though I am extremely unlikely to eat them.
It was time to take a stand. I approached my cupboard with new determination and got rid of:
- An unopened package of Wasa rye crackers that I brought over when I moved to this place in 2009.
- A mostly empty jar of Nutella that had separated.
- The rest of a box of organic, sustainably grown pasta that turned out to be kind of gross (sorry, Earth’s Best).
- A mostly empty jumbo box of Kix cereal (box recycled, inner bag reused).
- An opened but almost full roll of ginger nut biscuits, purchased on a 2010 trip to the UK.
- A package of gourmet wild walnuts that were stale.
- A can of pinto/green beans that expired in 2009 (can recycled, contents dumped).
- The rest of a box of ginger snaps that sat on my counter for 6 months without being eaten.
- Half a box of chocolate covered blueberries that I didn’t enjoy and went kind of weird.
- Buy ingredients I use sparingly in small quantities or not at all. I like Nutella, but I really shouldn’t buy anything larger than the cup-sized container.
- Buy unfamiliar ingredients sparingly. I have a big unopened jar of tahini in my cupboard which narrowly squeaked by this time (but it won’t if I do this again in a few months). I don’t have any familiar recipes that use tahini (help?), so I need to either find one I’m excited about, or give it away before it expires.
- Bigger isn’t always better, even if it does reduce packaging. Who knew how hard it would be to eat my way through a huge box of Kix?
- Put older supplies in front where I can see them. There was stuff I had completely forgotten I had in my cupboard. Wow, wild mushroom couscous mix? Who knew?
- Buy less processed food in general. When’s the last time you had a storebought cookie craving?
- Make faster decisions about nice things I will probably not eat so I can give them away before they expire.
- Keep less stuff in my cupboards so I can see everything I have. If I’ve forgotten about its existence, it sure isn’t going to be eaten.
Do you tend to hoard food? What are your best ways to reduce food waste and cupboard clutter?