“Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.” –G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thrift”
First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with just having a meal plan rotation. I have recipes I use over and over and even a homemade cookbook of favorites. But I often find I have things to use up, and wanted to share my strategies for avoiding waste in the kitchen.
The first method is to embrace the Internet as your friend in finding a way to combine what’s on hand. I’ll offer two recent examples:
The other day, having spent its daylight hours outdoors in unseasonably warm weather, I settled for a taco kit kicking around the pantry since early postpartum days. In rooting around the fridge I found only some drying-out baby carrots. From there, I could have gone in two directions off the top of my head — some sort of lime carrot slaw for on top of the carrots or roasted carrots seasoned for Mexican food, since we love roasted vegetables so unreasonably. Going with the latter, I found this recipe and was able to use up things I already had. If you’re an intuitive cook, of course, you can cobble something together without a recipe.
Another time, I returned home from a potluck with all my bread eaten up but two partial jars of my parents’ excellent satsuma marmalade left. Since J has an abiding love of pot roast and we have a freezer full of a quarter cow, I browsed “slow cooker marmalade pot roast” recipes until I found one I could manage. This time I had to buy Chinese five spice powder, but at this point in my cooking skills and budget, I’m comfortable buying one exotic ingredient for a recipe, tolerably confident that if we don’t like this dish, we will find another use for it.
The second approach, though, is to have several template dishes for using things up. My favorite is frittata, but my parents favor fried rice, and you might like a fridge-clearing soup, chili, or pasta casserole best. (A friend who can’t eat dairy pointed out that frittatas are pathetic without cheese, so you may have to experiment.) The important thing is a flexible dish whose variations on a theme are usually home runs for your family. So, for example, I’ve been fiddling with breakfast casseroles recently, using maple sausage or breakfast sausage, goat cheese or cheddar, hash browns or the end of a bag of French fries, maybe a bit of vegetables — whatever’s kicking around that day.
These sorts of meals are the glue between more carefully scripted dinners in our house. Most of our leftovers from previous dinners are demolished as grownup lunches, but inevitably, leftover ingredients remain languishing in the kitchen. I find these sorts of meals to also be an opportunity for creativity and a source of direction in an all-year-round grocery store world when one can make anything anytime. It can be fun, like a challenge, like hopping from rock to rock across a stream:
But many a good housekeeper plays the same game every day with ends of cheese and scraps of silk, not because she is mean, but on the contrary, because she is magnanimous; because she wishes her creative mercy to be over all her works, that not one sardine should be destroyed, or cast as rubbish to the void, when she has made the pile complete.
What strategies do you have for keeping momentum rolling in your meal planning?