A Minimalist Pantry

The other day, I was rifling through jar after jar of miscellaneous dried contents in my under-lit pantry, looking for pumpkin seeds. “Is it this jar? Nope, that’s flax seed. This jar? Nope, freekah. Well it has to be this jar. Dang, still nope. That’s wakame.” Then it hit me. My Pinterest worthy, satisfying rows of healthy dry goods in Mason jars aren’t minimalist. At all.

The philosophy behind minimalism is that we want to simplify our lives to clear out the literal and mental clutter that detracts from our time doing what we love, with those we love. It’s a concept I have readily adopted throughout my home, in my calendar, and even in my kitchen. I’ve donated endless numbers of travel mugs, single purpose appliances, a giant tiered cupcake stand, redundant baking pans, and much more.

Somehow, I had missed the actual food. My refrigerator was in no better shape than my pantry. The door shelves were a mess of carefully balanced condiment bottles that had been used once for a recipe and then never again. The freezer was a labyrinth of half used, poorly closed bags of veggies, wheat alternative breads, and unidentifiable freezer burned items threatening to leap off the shelf and crash into the dog’s water bowl, beneath.

Adventurous eating, especially of healthy, organic foods, is nothing to feel bad about. The trouble comes when novel ingredients have to be imported only to largely waste away in my refrigerator. Food waste is bad. The waste of expensive foods that were imported from around the world is even worse.

I looked through my list of recipes of meals we have tried over the last 6 months or so. It’s an extremely long list. Every week, I scroll through websites, Pinterest, newsletters, and more, looking for the most exciting recipes and new ingredients touting some health benefit or another. It usually takes me an hour to an hour and a half, just to plan the weekly menu. I won’t say how long my poor husband spends at two, three, or more stores every week hunting down the ingredients. Then, we furiously wash, mince, sauté, roast, plate and garnish before sitting down, exhausted, for dinner.

No part of this is minimalist. Minutes spent digging through cluttered shelves, wasted imported ingredients, or masses of time invested in planning, shopping for, cooking, and storing these meals — all for what? A meal I chew, swallow and then think to myself, “That was good. What’s for dinner tomorrow night?”

I did some digging around the web and plenty of other people have run into this issue as well and have done some writing about it. I went through a number of blogs to get ideas and came across all sorts of plans to minimize the complexity of food as well as it’s transportation, storage, purchase and preparation.

Few of them met our dietary needs. So I came up with a new checklist for my family to ensure the meals I plan and ingredients I buy meet our requirements for simplicity, time saved, and avoidance of waste.

  1. Is this meal comprised of staple ingredients that I have room to store and will be sure to use entirely before they waste? If not, could I substitute a staple ingredient with success? (For example, will white rice work instead of basmati rice? Could I use walnuts or almonds instead of pistachios?)
  2. Is this meal largely comprised of local, organic ingredients?
  3. Does this meal require foods that are packaged in plastic/items I can’t recycle, or do they have preservatives in their packaging? (BPA, BHT, BHA, etc.)
  4. Is the meal easy to make, without stressing us out on a work night?
  5. Is this meal something we would enjoy eating as leftovers? We always double meals to eat them for dinner again the next day, saving us cooking as often.
  6. Is this meal something that could go into a regular rotation?

If these answers are satisfactory, then it’s a meal I’ll be making in the near future. Everyone is different, so this may not work exactly as is for you. I encourage you to make your own checklist of what’s important and then simplify your kitchen as well.

Another way to go about this would be to greatly reduce the number of similar ingredients you buy. Examples:

Pasta: do you really need macaroni, spaghetti, fettuccini, couscous, rotini and orzo? We’ll be cutting back to gluten free macaroni and spaghetti.

Nuts: my shelf had walnuts, coconut flakes, pecans, raw almonds, slivered almonds, pistachios, and there were pine nuts in the refrigerator. I will cut back to walnuts, raw almonds, and coconut flakes.

Cheese: cottage cheese, ricotta, imported feta, smoked provolone, light string cheese, cheddar, parmesan and Monterrey jack are all fighting for space in the cheese drawer. We will eat these up and from now only keep only cheddar, parmesan and provolone since those are what we eat most.

Sauces and condiments: well I won’t waste your time with the number of these. Suffice to say, we will be pairing back to the likes of ketchup, mayonnaise, hot sauce, Bragg’s aminos, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, yellow mustard, sweet chili sauce, and spaghetti sauce.

This should be enough to get you going. Remember to eat through what you have as long as it’s still good, instead of throwing food away. Be sure and share what you did and how it worked below.

Repurposing Containers

I admit it. I have a bit of an addiction to single use zip baggies. I am naturally someone that loves to keep things contained and organized. If you were to take a look at my board games, you’d find the pieces of each game carefully stored in baggies within a bigger bag, within the large storage container. When I travel, each travel bottle of shampoo or conditioner gets its own little baggie to prevent spills. My refrigerator and pantry have been the biggest areas that this addiction has been evident. Every partially used fruit or veggie would be bagged. Stray baked goods, partial boxes of crackers, all bagged for organization and freshness. That is, until I became what my son likes to call, “a granola.” (It doesn’t hurt my feelings. Granola is delicious.)

In my kitchen, I have (mostly) switched from baggies to other containers — usually empty food jars that have been washed and repurposed. Not only does this greatly reduce my usage of single use plastics, it has increased overall visibility and I’m able to spot items in the fridge before they spoil so I waste less.

When we talk about the life cycle of objects in our possession, we granolas like to use the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle. I’m planning a series of blog posts about the 5 Rs, but for this post, we’re talking about repurposing items.

Single use prescription bottle repurposed into a portable doggie bag container

The other day, I was walking a friend’s dog, and I noticed they had cleverly repurposed an empty prescription bottle into the perfect container for keeping a roll of biodegradable doggie bags on the leash. It was a great reminder that when we have a need, we can survey the items already in our possession, and ask ourselves, “Could this item meet this need?” Contrary to what our consumer society says, we don’t have to have an individually tailored item that can only be used for one purpose. My friend realized that they didn’t need to go out and buy a poorly made plastic bone-shaped doggie bag dispenser when they possessed innovation, and an empty prescription bottle that isn’t recyclable in our area.

Please reply to this post with photos and/or examples of things you’ve repurposed. We all would love some additional inspiration!

Mountain or Molehill?

Mole hills illustrate that living a sustainable lifestyle includes some pros and cons.

It’s easy to idealize the green life as a series of romantic images such as clean and lavender-scented linens floating on a clothesline as one sits sipping freshly squeezed organic lemonade, or maybe a pantry of perfectly organized mason jars filled with locally sourced dry goods. Maybe your green dream involves cycling to work on a gorgeous summer morning. It can be these things and much more. However, sometimes it involves identifying our trigger points and carefully weighing them against our sustainability goals. It can mean more work and it absolutely involves some sacrifice.

We have a family of very persistent moles in our yard. They get under my skin because when I look across my yard towards my garden or pond, they stick up out of the ground like a middle finger. They leave pock marks and interfere with mowing, as well as encouraging the dogs to dig. We’ve tried various natural methods, such as sticking Juicy Fruit Gum in their holes (the dogs dug it up and pooped it out), flooding them out with water (just caused them to refresh their tunnel network and pop up more holes), and The Trap. The Trap is really just a larger type of mouse trap, and over three years, we’ve managed to trap and kill just 2-3 moles per summer — enough to make it feel like a maddening game of Whack-A-Mole in which the moles always win and we get no tickets for our spent tokens.

The presence of moles is actually a good thing. It means that we haven’t spread pesticides and herbicides on our yard and killed all of the insects they like to eat. They help control grubs that turn into damaging beetles, and till and aerate our yard. Even with this knowledge, these mole hills stand up like defiant mountains when I survey my yard. Each time, I remind myself of their value, and eventually I may even make peace with them.

Rhubarb Schnapps

The organic rhubarb I planted two years ago is still getting established. My plants aren’t making enough at once to harvest for a cobbler, but I haven’t wanted to waste the few stalks here and there that were ready to be enjoyed. Plus, picking regularly encourages new growth.

Last Christmas, I successfully made some limoncello from lemon peel, vodka, sugar and time, and it occurred to me I may be able to do something similar with rhubarb. A quick web search for “rhubarb vodka” led me to a recipe for rhubarb schnapps. That was six weeks ago, and after near daily shaking of the jar, today I received the calendar reminder that my schnapps were done. I strained out the pieces of rhubarb and behold: rhubarb schnapps. I haven’t found a cocktail recipe for the schnapps yet, but if all else fails, I’m quite happy to shake some over ice and pour into a shot glass.

Since I’m living the green life, I’m always on the lookout for ways to reduce food waste and when you have a backyard garden, you sometimes have to get creative. Nature gives at her own pace, and the organic gardener frequently has batches of vegetables or fruits that don’t fit nicely into any given recipe. Sometimes, the creative attempts don’t turn out as delicious as hoped, but I am always happy to be eating something I grew and prepared myself over frankenfood on the grocery store shelves.

Gardening – The Honeybees Are Here

My much-awaited flying visitors have returned to their annual oregano bloom feast.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been anxiously checking the progress of the oregano in my organic garden. I watched the leaves rapidly multiply, and flower stalks begin to build. When I saw the buds start to grow, I hoped we’d soon be seeing honeybees. The flowers opened, and for days, nothing.

With so much press about dwindling bee populations, I was worried that our local hives had also been affected. Last year by this time, I had dozens of honeybees feeding on the oregano every time I went out, and I dawdled to admire the happy buzzing of my namesakes. This year, however, the blooms remained quiet and solitary.

I’ve been careful to follow organic gardening principles. As much as I love knowing the herbs, fruits and vegetables I’m growing for my family are healthy for our bodies, I find the food sources and habitat for local wildlife the garden creates to be just as worthwhile. I mentally reviewed what we’d put on the garden to double check there hadn’t been any blunders that would make it an unwelcome place for our legged and winged critters.

Finally, today, my husband sent me a video he shot while watering. The honeybees are here, happily swarming the tiny white blooms! In lieu of a hug (too forceful for them, too stinging for me), I sent them happy hive vibes and watched them for awhile before heading to the trampoline for a lazy Saturday nap. I’d love to know what oregano honey tastes like.