A Zero Grocery Week Challenge

Our freezer has spoken. It said, “You put too much stuff in me, and now I’m going to spontaneously un-seal and ruin your fancy schmancy local ice cream, organic frozen broccoli, and yearly Energy Star savings!”

We caught it before it could make good on its threat, but it’s true: we have too much stuff in our freezer, and if that weren’t enough, we have plenty of food in the cupboard and fridge, too. Everything we really like gets eaten and replaced. Everything else, which includes:

  • Food that we bought because we know we should eat more of it but don’t really like very much
  • Convenience foods like cooking sauces that I always think I will be happy to fall back on in a pinch (and never do)
  • Food that was given to us
  • Food that looked good at the store but wasn’t that enjoyable
  • Food that I bought for a particular recipe that I never ended up making
…tends to sit. Eventually some of it gets eaten, but some of it also ends up getting tossed. You’d think that since I know about the environmental impact of wasting food, I would be better about it. I’m not. I am an impulsive cook: if I find out about an exciting new recipe, I want to make it. Now. Even if I had something else planned that I bought all the ingredients for. I’ve been slightly obsessive my whole life; that’s probably not going to change.

But maybe I can fix the problem in another way. This week I’ve declared a zero grocery week — my first, or at least my first deliberate one. We’re going to use stuff up in the freezer and cupboards, get creative, and spend no money on food this week.
So far, things are going well. I’ve had:
  • Leftover Ethiopian stew (shiro wat) (3 days) over whole wheat couscous (1+ years in cupboard)
  • Popovers with homemade strawberry jam (thanks, Emily!) using the last of the milk and pantry staples
  • Mock tuna with canned garbanzo beans (2 months), homemade mayo (2 days), and other things in my fridge, on top of
  • Whole wheat pitas (freezer history: 3 months)
  • Miso soup with slightly wilted green onions (2 weeks), dried shiitake mushrooms and kelp (3 months), and freezer vegetables (1-4 months?)

Coming up later this week (possibly):

  • Matzo ball soup with onions, celery, carrots, lentils, and freezer vegetables
  • Pesto with whole wheat pasta, canned artichokes in the fridge,white beans, and whatever other vegetables I can dig up
  • Home made pizza using frozen tomato sauce and porcini and shiitake mushrooms
  • Potstickers with the wonton skins and seitan I stuck in the freezer months ago, plus shiitake mushrooms
A little lower on fresh vegetables than I’d usually like, but it’s not like we’re eating PB&J sandwiches day in, day out. By the end of the week, I hope to have made enough progress in the freezer to see what we actually have back there. I’m also hoping I’ll start to make better decisions about what to skip at the store.

Have you ever done a zero grocery week? Did it cut down on your food waste or make you more creative in the kitchen? How do you buy smarter at the grocery store?


16 responses to this post.

  1. When I was moving a couple years ago I stopped buying food and had plenty of ‘Let’s cook all this up so we don’t have to pack it or throw it away’ meals.

    I’m also known for being a Macgyver in the kitchen. I love the challenge of looking at what I have and coming up with great meals with random ingredients. Usually the meal will be a mix of foods that usually wouldn’t get served together (nacho’s & pasta) or some kind of soup/casserole. I’m told I should have a tv show doing this 🙂


    • Hi Michelle,

      Moving is definitely one good way to practice the use-it-up mentality. I feel like I wasted a lot less food in college when I tried to finish all my food before major holidays and had to clean it all out at the end of the year. Of course, I also didn’t cook very much, which helped.

      We sometimes try peculiar international combinations of stuff in the kitchen (gnocchi with Mexican seasonings and beans = Mexitalian, peanut sauce stirfry wrapped in Ethiopian flatbread = Thaithopian). Sometimes it’s more successful than others; it’s never been so bad that we stopped trying, but it sounds like you’re much better at it!


  2. Some of your meals sound delicious; you’re feasting like Kings over there! I totally relate to your post; I’m spontaneous too. I LOVE the idea of menu planning but it never works for me. I don’t want to be tied down and dictated to – even by myself! I’m checking out that Ethiopian stew today and like you I’m trying not to buy for a month, but I AM buying fresh veg, I feel decidedly ill without it. In all honesty I don’t seem to have made a dent in any of our stores; there is still a LOT of food here… It’s like feeding the 5000, it just keeps on coming from somewhere!


    • Hi Mrs. Green!

      Yep, I can’t plan a whole week’s worth of meals to save my life. Inevitably, I get bored with what I had planned, don’t feel like cooking on the day that I had planned to make it, or find something that looks, much more interesting. The Ethiopian stew is delicious, but I’ve never made it. A lot of Ethiopian food seems to call for special spice blends. We have two excellent Ethiopian restaurants around here and get it to go every now and then.

      The fresh vegetables are the hardest part about this week. I try to make sure vegetables make up 50% of most of my meals, and am mostly relying on frozen and dried supplies this week. They’re not what really needs cleaning out, since I go through them fairly quickly anyway, but it’s definitely forcing me to make creative substitutions instead of running out to the store for something.


  3. I have a medium size freezer, luckily, so I cannot store too much stuff. I used to have heaps of food in storage, but I’m getting better at it – especially when I realised that a lot of my supermarket bargains (ha!) stayed in the cupboard until they sadly expired and had to be thrown away…
    At the moment, I have most of my fruit & vegetables delivered by an organic farm, and I finish almost all of it – especially since we bought a juicer!
    I buy staples at the Coop, and only allow myself to buy max 2 of each item (like, 2 cartons of soy milk, not 5…). I have learnt to restrain myself and only buy things when I’ve almost run out (flours, canned chickpeas, canned tomato puree…).
    When I go shopping I still look for bargains (like organic meat on sale because it’s the last day it can be on display, although it’s still good) for the freezer, but when it’s almost full I stop and use up what I have – food doesn’t keep indefinitely, even if frozen!
    It seems that you’re doing well, good work 🙂


    • Hi Cristina,

      I think you’ve hit on one of the reasons I end up with so much food I don’t really eat — the discount grocery store around the corner. This is where I end up buying most of my experimental foods, some of which are wonderful, some of which are…not. It’s fun to look, so even though I should really limit myself to going once a month and just go to my local greengrocer for food, I end up there more often than that!

      The two item max seems like a good rule of thumb. I’ll try that next time. Thanks!


  4. Hmmm… well, I fear I may be on the other end of the spectrum here, as I consider a full freezer to be a sign of success. At the moment I’ve got both the regular freezer and the chest freezer in the basement packed to the gills, plus a nicely stocked pantry.

    Perhaps it’s paranoia or some sort of hoarding tendency, but I like to have enough food on hand to last for several months… just in case. There are plenty of times in the winter when we get snowed in, and it’s really nice to be able to hibernate for weeks at a time. Plus, I like being able to just run downstairs when we’re out of olives or pasta, or whatever, instead of having to remember to buy them every few weeks.

    But maybe it’s what’s in the freezer that’s the trick. I do have a few experimental things lurking back there that probably just need to be tossed, but the vast majority of it is garden produce (or stuff made from garden produce), things that get used regularly and were bought in bulk at an incredible discount, stuff that CatMan asks for on occasion – but not regularly enough to be practical to keep fresh varieties on hand, or stuff that requires a trip across town – so I buy a bunch and freeze it to avoid having to travel so frequently.

    Although one can go overboard with this approach, and I certainly have been trying to pare down the pantry lately and use up stuff that’s been hanging around a bit too long. I think you have to be really practical when you stock up, and only buy things that you use regularly…. yes, I’m talking to you three year old cans of spinach that for some god forsaken reason seemed like a good idea at the time!

    And if you’re gonna experiment, it’s best to shop and cook the same day… because once the bloom is off that proverbial rose, the chances of it turning into pantry or freezer clutter explode in a rather non-linear fashion.

    Have fun with your “use it up” project. Maybe you’ll discover a few recipes that will score high enough to make it into the regular rotations. :~)


    • Hi Cat!

      I don’t think a full freezer is a problem if you know what’s in it and use it, but the bottom of my freezer (which has no shelves…should probably do something about that) is where things go to die. I don’t know everything that’s in there, and if I don’t know, I won’t use it. Also, there’s stuff in there that I’m not that eager to eat, which is partially what this week is for. I’m pretty sure it would take a famine before I would eat canned spinach, though. 😉

      For people who are reasonably organized and methodical, stocking up makes sense for a lot of reasons. I’m just not sure that I’m one of them. The less food I have on hand, the better I am about making sure it gets used. The year I wasted almost no food was when I had a single shelf in a fridge, half a shelf in the freezer, and a cupboard the size of a locker. Oh, and I was in England, and food was expensive. All of those things helped!


  5. What great timing!! I undertook the same goal two days ago when I didn’t have time to go to the grocery store and realized I really really didn’t need to.


    • Hi Green Bean,

      I’m realizing that I really don’t need to shop for groceries every week, other than a stop at the greengrocer’s for fresh fruit and veg. It’s a good realization. I don’t really enjoy grocery shopping to begin with, and probably spend too much on food that doesn’t get eaten. Maybe I’ll see if I can get it down to one real grocery trip every other week. Love to hear how your zero grocery week goes!


  6. Posted by Kathy on 01/11/2012 at 22:39

    I love supercooks.com for this: add the food items you want to use up in your list and it tells you what you can make from recipe sites around the web!


    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for the tip! I didn’t know about that website, but it sounds like a great resource that will minimize unsuccessful substitutions. 🙂


  7. This is EXACTLY my problem, Jennifer! New recipes sound so exciting, meanwhile the random ingredients in my pantry fail to inspire me every time I look at them. I don’t know if I’ll take on the zero grocery week challenge, but this weekend one of my goals is to conduct an inventory of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. Maybe I have what I need for some great meals, I just don’t know it!


    • Hi Andrea,

      Sounds like we’d cook well together. 🙂 This week has been really good for forcing me to be creative with what’s already in my kitchen. This kind of experimentation is less exciting than a recipe that calls for Interesting Ingredients, but the results have all been perfectly edible. Last night was cupboard chili — kidney beans, canned diced tomatoes (I know, BPA), vegetables from the fridge and freezer…and a whole lot of salsa, since I didn’t have any hot or bell peppers on hand. I finally caved today and got groceries because we have guests, and it seemed impolite not to.


  8. Posted by Heidi on 01/18/2012 at 12:58

    I love it! I started the same “use-It-UP” plan this month as well. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one gamely trying to use it or lose it. Good luck!


  9. Was sent by Reduce Footprints meet and greet. Hi! I am doing the same thing this week! I have done this in the past. It reduces the waste AND makes me more creative. I have found quite a few favorite recipes doing this. I’ll have to try that supercooks.com website – sounds very helpful.


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