Use flattened ziplocs to store meat and consider putting individually packaged items in a bin rather than bulky boxes. (Photo by Leslie Milby)

Do you feel that constant nag on your to-do list that you need to go grocery shopping, yet when you get home from a grocery trip, it never seems like there is any space to stick what you just bought?
Aside from your pantry and your refrigerator, you might even have a chest freezer that’s filled to the brim as well.
While it’s great to stock up, has the same sad can of chickpeas peeking at you in the back of your pantry since your child’s birthday … before last?
Or by the time you pulled the steaks you got for such a great deal out of the bottom of your freezer, they were too freezer burnt for anyone except for your dog to enjoy?
As the real, actual Maryland spring is finally approaching, so is cleaning season and the transition from crockpot meals to meals being prepared on the grill with fresh vegetables, making this a perfect time for a pantry and freezer cleanout.
Pantry Purge
Focus on your pantry first, emptying it all out on your table or countertops.
Start with a clean sweep of anything that is expired or stale to the point you can’t eat it and try to compile items into groups such as breakfast items, baking items, things for lunches, things for kids, etc.
As you put items back in, place your groups into a logical system for usage. For a pantry area, bulky paper items that don’t need to be replaced daily could go on top, while heavy pet items could go on a bottom shelf.
Little packets of seasoning mixes could be clipped to a hook so they don’t incessantly fall through the cracks of your shelves or you could use a few bins to easily group them as well as smaller snack or individual serving sized items.
If you are dealing with cabinets instead, out-of-normal-reach items should be “replacements” such as condiments you will reach for after you’ve used up what’s in the refrigerator, while lunch items and snacks go on lower shelves.
Do a lot of baking? Consider moving all of your baking items to their own cabinet all together, where you could keep baking tools, measuring cups and mixing utensils all handy together. Have spices and ingredients you only use for making your famous canned pickles? Stick them in your canning kettle. Cabinets can be difficult as they are often deep, making them ideal for things to get hidden away, so aim to have a system where you know where to find an item especially if you can’t directly see it.
Decoration and home magazines often show fancy canisters or holders for everything these days, but don’t feel like you have to invest in them to keep your cabinets tidy. If you don’t buy in bulk and typically use up an entire box of noodles or rice for one dinner, there’s no need to take an extra step and dump them in a canister to feel organized.
However, if your family is one that constantly leaves a half a bowl of each kind of cereal in an unclipped bag shoved in a huge box, canisters or large mason jars might be for you to see what’s left of “daily items” and keep them from getting stale. During your cleanout phase, use containers to simplify and consolidate, dumping in odds and ends of noodles to use up together or mixing cereals and crackers in together to create a trail mix.
Freezer Focus
Chest freezers are great tools for helping a food budget but can quickly become a cold bottomless pit. Whether yours is filled with deer and geese from hunting, bulk amounts of meat from a butcher, veggies and berries from your garden or even Manager Markdown’s in the meat department — there is no doubt it earns its keep!
Most run more efficiently when close to capacity, but that doesn’t mean items aren’t going to waste.
While you don’t have to ask yourself if a pack of icey looking vegetables will “spark joy,” you should follow the popular minimalist step of asking yourself if you are going to use the items, then follow the same process as you did with your pantry by grouping items.
For frozen vegetables and berries you’ve stored from your garden, it’s likely been close to a year since you plucked and froze them so you may have to consider the fact they might just be tossers or chicken treats.
Had a bounty of green peppers cut up and frozen when the truth was, your family just didn’t like them fresh, frozen, or at all? Did your squash turn too soggy?
Don’t waste food in the name of simplifying, but be realistic that some food items that won’t be used are in the way of keeping your freezer useable.
As you sift through garden goodies, keep in mind what wasn’t used for the upcoming gardening season when you consider what you’ll grow or how you will store it.
Even with the year 2020 around the corner and “Alexa” being able to assist you with most of your heart’s desires, there is still not a foolproof way to organize a chest freezer but rather some best of intentions.
If your freezer sees lots of mass quantities or repeats, a good rule of thumb is “FIFO,” or “First In, First Out.” Before even sticking in this year’s homemade sausage for example, gather every package from the prior year. Older meat may have lost a bit of flavor so use it in non-main dishes like adding into your spaghetti or into a quiche.
Save the newer, fresher for sausage patties on their own or other times when the meat will be the star of the show. For other meats, toss them in a stew or a salad.
Going forward, try to store the bulk of high quantity items at the bottom of your freezer in a crate, produce box or even in a cloth reusable grocery bag, and keep a handful of the item accessible towards the top. Use freezer storage quality bags to store meat, sauces and other items flattened out, which will make them easier to store, reduce freezer burn, and reduce thaw out time.
Frozen, pre-packaged items from the store are the worst offenders for wasting precious space, especially when it comes to the small freezer portion of your refrigerator.
Get into the habit of emptying boxes as you unload from the store, especially if heating instructions are self-explanatory. Grab a few cheap bins or organizers and divide into categories such as husband snacks for frozen burritos and breakfast sandwiches or quick kid dinners —whatever categories your household would find useful.
A No Shop Challenge
Now that you’ve cleaned up and organized the low lying fruit so to speak, time to strategically use up some of your excess. Scan your pantry and freezer to see what you have left and depending on how stocked up you are, you can either challenge yourself to a “no spend” or “no shop” week or two. If necessary, you can give yourself a small budget if you can’t do without perishables such as fresh fruit and milk.
Look through Pinterest or flip through some recipe books for ideas to jot down dinner ideas.
Have lots of chicken in your stash? Look for chicken recipes that team up with other ingredients on hand, like a chicken artichoke casserole that uses up a can of them from your pantry.
Have a wild array of canned veggies left from who knows when? Try a chicken pot pie or create a stir fry. If you have an “orphan” ingredient that you truly can’t figure out how to use up, you could buy an ingredient or two or even consider it a wash and donate it.
As you go through your challenge, keep a list of what you “need” to buy and be strong to resist the urge. Feel a strong need to stop and get yogurt because your kids are on a yogurt kick?
Remind them that they were on a string cheese kick two weeks ago and have them snack on your stockpile of those.
Does the husband need breakfast sandwiches? Take the time to dig sausage out of the freezer and cook it up with eggs and your stash of buy one, get one free English Muffins for the week. Chances are, if you fight the urge to shop your family will still be just fine with full bellies.
The point of the challenge isn’t to eat every single item like its a zombie apocalypse, but rather to regroup and make sure food isn’t going to waste so you will “know” when you are ready to head back to the grocery store, and feel more organized when you do.
Celebrate the end of your challenge with a good cleanout of your freezer itself with a defrost and wipe down, which should be done every six months.
If you haven’t done it that frequently (or ever), you’ve probably got quite a bit of ice buildup, which can also affect your useable space and how well your freezer seals at the top.
Like so many spring cleaning projects, your food storage is going to take some hard work but make life much easier in the future.
But unlike other cleaning projects, part of this project will include finishing up cartons of ice cream!