Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.