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Thursday, December 02, 2021
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Dear iDeclutter,

I find I waste so much food during the course of a week. I buy so many groceries when I go shopping on Sunday with such good intentions of cooking full meals from scratch, but by Wednesday my husband and I say, “Let’s get takeout.” The fruits and veggies in my fridge go bad and the bread gets moldy. How can I plan better so I stop wasting food? How can I plan my Shabbat menu and not be left with leftovers that my family doesn’t even have interest in eating during the week? Are there any family-friendly recipes I could prepare from our leftovers that are just as tasty as a meal cooked from scratch?

Signed,

Food for Thought

Dear F. for T.,

I love your questions! There’s no getting around it. Even with the best, most careful planning, there is no way NOT to have leftover food. The key is the amount that is left over. We need to learn how to plan ahead by observing our family’s and our own eating habits. By looking back on how much we ate over the past weeks and months, we can set a goal to acquire the skill of buying less at the grocery store. Warning: Be practical while you are shopping and do not get carried away by sales and an over-abundance of tempting recipes to prepare in a given week.

Many families leave a loaf of bread out for several days and of course it grows mold. Here’s a tip. If you store the bread on the counter, after a few days it will get moldy; if you store the bread in the refrigerator, it will take on a stale taste, but if you store it in the freezer (wrap the loaf tightly in plastic wrap, then wrap it again in foil or freezer paper), slices can be taken out as needed and will taste fresh for up to six months.

One of my favorite magazines, Real Simple, featured an article about food waste in May of 2016. The article was written by Yolanda Wikiel. She interviewed Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council and the author of the “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook.” Gunders said there are four categories of food that Americans waste most: Coming in fourth place is meat; tied for second are dairy products and bread; and in first place is produce (fruits and veggies). A great deal of produce, Gunders noted, is not considered “pretty enough” to be shipped to stores despite how good it may taste; its ultimate fate may be the garbage heap or compost.

In our western culture, throwing out food is acceptable. An example most of us can relate to is cholent after Shabbat lunch. Cholent aficionados have said it just doesn’t taste as good when eaten midweek. There is a famous story of a nobleman who loved the cholent he ate at the home of his close friend, a highly respected rabbi, and requested the recipe. The nobleman had his servants prepare it, and returned to the rabbi disappointed, commenting that it did not taste as delicious as when he had eaten it at the rabbi’s house on a Saturday. The rabbi told him it was missing a very important ingredient. Before the nobleman could get angry at the rabbi for leaving out an ingredient, the rabbi quickly told him the missing ingredient was Shabbat.

That’s a nice story but it promotes the message that we may as well toss the cholent after Shabbat lunch. To put it in the vernacular, “Reheated cholent tastes nasty.” My takeaway from this is, if we prepare LESS cholent, we would throw less—if any—away. Yet making a big pot of cholent is ingrained in many of us. In high school, I knew a kiruv rabbi whose wife served a large pot of cholent every Shabbat. The rebbetzin said she prepared the same large quantity every week as she never knew how many guests her husband would invite. When there were many guests, the cholent would be finished, and when there were only a few around the table, the cholent would still be finished. The rebbetzin said this was because the conversation sometimes lags when there are fewer people. During the quiet times, people take seconds and thirds.

However, for the rest of us, fewer guests mean a smaller cholent. So, be mindful when adding ingredients. Each week you prepare cholent, think of how many people will be around your table. Jot down how many potatoes, how many pounds of meat, how many ounces of barley, etc. you add. After the meal, notice how much is left. The next time you prepare cholent do the same thing. After three to four weeks, you should have a fair sense of how much you make versus how much you need. You will see a big improvement in your planning skills!

That said, there will always be variables that throw us off. Don’t be hard on yourself if, on occasion, you come a little over or under. This may sound heretical, but you can freeze your cholent from one week and place it—undefrosted—in your crock pot on a Friday, adding an another onion and about a cup of water, and it will yield a delicious dish.

There are times when we just know reheating a leftover meal will result in bone-dry food washed down by a few glasses of water. These are the times we need some meal-plan coaching. Who better to turn to for tempting recipes made from leftovers, than my fitness coach, Marla Rottenstreich of the Mindbody20 virtual fitness program? Marla loves to repurpose dinner contents and shared some practical suggestions:

Leftover grilled chicken can be shredded and placed into tacos with all the fixings (guacamole, salsa, shredded lettuce and Pico de Gallo).

Leftover grilled veggies easily convert to a perfect panini base that can either be topped with cheese or avocado slices.

Leftover potato kugel can be cut into thin slices and toasted, then shredded beef or deli can be layered on top to create a fun open-faced sandwich.

Leftover fruit salad from the Shabbat table is great for next-day smoothies with yogurt or nut butter and milk base.

“I could go on and on, but these are some good options,” said Marla.

Dear iDeclutter,

Please help me settle an ongoing discussion I have with my sister. If a label says “use by” or “best by,” is that date an absolute or a guide? We are especially curious about our herbs and spices.

P.S. I say it’s a guide.

Thyme in a Bottle

Dear Thyme,

Tell your sister not to become a slave to the date on the bottle. The “use by” and “best by” dates are guides.That is when the product will be at its best. After that there could be a change in color, taste or texture, but that does not mean the food is spoiled.

When I help my beloved clients clear their pantries and spice cabinets, we go through everything one by one, looking for expiration dates and smelling the contents. Typically, people find their herbs and spices become dark and discolored or lose their scent.

I have good news. More and more companies are stamping the expiration dates somewhere on the bottles of the herbs and spices. As you break the seal and begin to use a fresh bottle, I encourage everyone to grab a Sharpie and write down the date you opened your herbs and spices. Going forward, give a glance each time you reach for a bottle and assess the freshness yourself. A good rule of thumb is that salt and pepper keep indefinitely; and dried herbs and ground spices, when kept in air-tight containers in a dark, cool environment, last for about a year; and whole herbs for three years. Armed with this knowledge, you may prevent your paprika from turning black and your oregano from losing its aroma.

If you have organizing questions, please write to me at [email protected] Maybe you will get your letter published in a future column.


Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s kosher organizer and tzniut wardrobe stylist. For over 14 years, Ellen has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. Ellen believes “Clutter Clogs, but Harmony Heals.” Contact Ellen for a complimentary phone consultation at [email protected]

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