Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What's for Supper? By MCR Sarah D.

I despise wasting food. I also dread this question every day: “What should we make for supper?” My husband and I are pretty passionate about all aspects of food, from farm to table. Every day, on the way home from work, that question plays through my mind and I dread it.

You know the drill. You walk into your home and open the fridge. You open the crisper only to find that the carrots have gone soft, or the 'wild greens' lettuce has turned brown (or worse, to liquid), and there are 17 bottles of opened salad dressing and various sauces. In general, nothing jumps out and says “Make THIS for dinner”. Every two weeks you’re pulling something icky and forgotten out of the back of the fridge. You’re always missing one or two ingredients so you either grab something quick or frozen because you’re in a hurry, or you’re hungry, or both. Sound familiar?

Let me tell you how I changed this maddening process and significantly reduced how much food gets thrown out (and saved money too!).

This year, I decided I was going to apply the first “R” principle I learned from the City of Edmonton’s Master Composter Recycler Program -- Reduce. I decided I was going to reduce how much food waste my family produces while also eliminating my most dreaded task of the day.

Schedule easy dinners on busy nights and leave more complicated meals for the weekends.
My husband, the kids and I sat down at our kitchen table. We talked about all the things we like to eat and then I did a little browsing through the recipe box, cook books and the internet to give us some meal ideas. When we were done, I had about 25-30 choices. I sorted them into piles according to cooking time. The longer prep and cooking time recipes became “weekend” meals, for when we had the time needed to put a bit more effort to make dinner. I also sorted out the most expensive meals from the rest – I will tell you why in a moment (see "Wild Card Night" below). Then I took the meals that are quick, inexpensive and easy to make and laid them out over weekdays on the calendar for the month.  We made sure that we didn't have the same meal too often, and saved the easiest meals for the nights we had extra-curricular activities.  Or, we planned sufficiently large meals a night or two before busy evenings, so we could have leftovers nights.

I also arranged weekend meals, so that, for example, we had roasted chicken and potatoes on Sunday, and used the leftovers (meaning we boiled down the remaining carcass after dinner with celery and carrots) to make a chicken-broth for a delicious home-made soup/stew later that week.
Boil your remaining chicken carcass to make delicious and healthy broth before you throw it away!
Throw in those soft veggies at the back of your fridge for extra flavour and nutrients.
Then, I saved one weekend night each month for a sort-of lottery called “Wild Card Night”. On these nights, we chose from one of the more expensive meals like beef bourginon, brinner (breakfast for dinner), or make your own pizza night (cheese and meats are so expensive!) These meals required a special family trip to the grocery store where we all helped pick ingredients.

Make shopping for "treat" dinner nights a family activity.
I made grocery lists each week for the things I knew we’d need to make the meals we’d planned. This is probably the most important step in reducing waste. Making a list of ingredients that you need for the week ensures that you won't pick up things that you don’t really need when you go to the grocery store. Impulse purchases are probably one of the biggest contributors to food waste. I always choose to forego items that are heavily packaged, and load produce directly into my bags/cart so I am not using any produce bags. I also keep a few reusable grocery bags in my car to eliminate the need for any single-use bags.  This way, I don’t arrive at the store only to realize that I've forgotten my bags at home.

Grocery trips have now become less expensive, less wasteful and less stressful. When we get home at the end of a long day, we already know what we’re making for dinner. The food we need is neither frozen nor rotten, and whoever gets home first starts cooking, which means dinner is ready earlier. We no longer have to take the time to figure out what to cook, or run to the grocery store to pick up the one item that’s missing.

Going through this process has drastically reduced how much food goes to waste in our household. Having a dedicated “leftovers” night means that food doesn't rot in the crisper or in containers forgotten at the back of the fridge. Our planned meals not only tell us what food to buy, they also include a plan for using up leftover rice or meat, which means that less food is thrown into the garbage (or compost bin). A happy side effect of all this planning is that we’re also eating healthier, spending less money on food, and the kids love coming home to check the calendar to find out “What’s for supper!”

Sarah became a Master Composter Recycler in May, 2014. She is passionate about reducing waste, both in her own life and the lives of others. She enjoys being a volunteer and helping to build a sense of community in Edmonton - making connections with like-minded people and learning from the wisdom and experiences of others.
"I especially like volunteering for events as sharing information I believe in, and am passionate about, gets me fired up!"


  1. That was a great article!!! I try to get a meal plan done but my challenge is to actually sit down and get it done!

  2. Excellent article! My husband and I have been menu planning for years, but we never thought of it as part of controlling food waste. In fact, we have a ways to go in that department, but you inspire me to make more effort!

    What menu planning did for us was save our sanity when he kids were in extra-curricular sports and Scouting. Being able to come home, KNOW what was for dinner and KNOW that the ingredients were on hand meant whichever parent walked in the door first could get dinner on the table and us out the door again on activity evenings with minimal stress. We were one of the few families who had family dinners every night without resorting to takeout fast food.

    Bulk cooking is a big time-saver, too. I make vats of chili, soup, etc. and freeze the leftovers in meal-sized portions for future fast meals. Also, (and this helps with the food waste) some of the frozen portion sizes are for one person, some for two, because although technically 4 people live in my house, not everyone has dinner at home every night.

  3. Wonderful article, Sarah, thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow, what a great and well written informative article.The ideas and steps you have shared to reach this goal of not wasting food and saving your sanity at meal time are very easy to do and it is a win win situation! I look forward to your next article.