by Susan McCarthy
My parents were hoarders. Talking about their collection of broken toasters, magazines, old sheets and towels, and used dryer sheets – only some of the things they couldn’t let go of – has an element of dark humor to it.
Less amusing was the way they hoarded food. In one way, I get it. They were born in the 1930s and they lived through difficult times. My mother would talk about the rich relatives bringing baskets of food when her father was out of work, and how embarrassed the relatives made her family feel. But, while the excess food my parents stockpiled may have created a feeling of safety, unfortunately, much of it went to waste over the years.
I was so overwhelmed by their hoarding, that I made a habit of keeping modest quantities of food in my home. When my husband and I moved into a house and he suggested getting a small dedicated freezer, I turned down the idea as unnecessary.
We’d shop the wholesale store and pack our refrigerator’s freezer – but then we’d use all the food before shopping again so nothing would get lost and go to waste.
However, after the COVID-19-based rush on grocery stores that nearly overnight depleted them of fresh meat, dairy, eggs, pasta, rice, and paper goods, my husband and I discussed keeping more food on hand. (Currently, there’s us and two additional adult relatives in the house.)
I realized that a lot of people may be caught up in the panicked idea of long-term quarantine and are having similar thoughts. In these uncertain times, knowing what’s for dinner can offer a small, safe feeling.
I don’t condone hoarding food, particularly when that means depriving others and allowing food to go to waste. Each person or family’s needs are different and the line between enough and excess isn’t a clear mark. Using what you have is the important part, and that takes attention and effort.
The ideas below are based on my experiences with my parents’ hoarding of food.
Define Your Safety Zone
How much food do you want in your home? A week’s supply? Two weeks? A month? Six months? What feels necessary and appropriate based on your family’s needs? And, do you know what a month’s worth of food looks like for you? How many eggs? Boxes of cereal, rice, or pasta? Cans of beans? Chicken breasts?
If you don’t know what a month of three meals a week (plus snacks and beverages) looks like, then how do you know what to keep in your house?
Become Aware of How Long Your Supplies Last
For packaged items that don’t get opened and used in their entirety, say a box of cereal, do you know how long it takes you (on average) to use it? Even though I use the same amount of coffee every morning, scooping it from the same sized can, I couldn’t tell you how long it lasts me. So, when it’s half empty, I add another one to my shopping list.
This works, until the store doesn’t have the half-caff that I drink, and I get annoyed and a little uptight (but only a little, since I drink half-caff) that I’ll run out because I don’t know how long the can of coffee lasts me. Lacking this knowledge isn’t a problem until I can’t immediately get more.
How long does food last you? How many meals you get out of a package also helps you understand what’s enough and when it becomes excessive. This awareness can also help you feel safer about what you keep on hand. Do you need ten boxes of pasta if you use two boxes a month? That bit of math may ease your mind that you have enough. However, if you feel you need a six-month supply to feel safe, then you’re short.
This also applies to food in your refrigerator and freezer.
Define a Space for Pantry Items
When my parents moved into their 800-square-foot home in the 1970s, the kitchen had all of eight built-in cabinets and so they bought a small freestanding cabinet. Over the years, they changed out that small cabinet for a much larger one. And then, despite limited floor space, added a second large freestanding cabinet to the kitchen to hold even more boxed and canned goods.
Oh, and they also kept extra canned goods in the cupboard under the basement stairs.
Unfortunately, similar products (canned peas, Chef Boyardee Beefaroni) ended up in multiple locations so it was never clear just what they had in stock.
Whether you have a walk-in pantry or a reach-in cabinet, define how much space you’ll devote to dry goods and canned items. If you have a small kitchen, then you may need to use a hall closet or space in your basement to store extra items.
Decide that you can fill these spaces but that you won’t start stashing excess items in other places throughout your kitchen or home. If boxes of pasta end up in the laundry room or you start stacking cases of canned goods in the garage, it becomes too easy to lose track of what you have.
You’ll see one box of pasta in your pantry cabinet and think, “I need to get pasta,” particularly if you’re not used to ‘shopping’ your own home and looking at multiple stash spots for the products you already have on hand.
Define the area(s) where you’ll store food and avoid stashing it elsewhere.
Group Similar Items Together
Another way to keep track of what you have is to group similar items together on a shelf.
If you have the same product stored in multiple locations around your house, it’s too easy to lose track of what you really have on hand.
I remember offering to organize the two large freestanding cabinets in my parents’ kitchen. I noticed that things like canned soup and tuna and boxed rice and cake mixes were disorganized. I lined up similar items, so it was clear what they had, and they would know not to shop for things they already had on hand.
I was shocked (even amid the excess of items) to count over forty (yes, 40+) cans of tuna fish. Excessive since they probably didn’t even eat a can a week.
I told my mother that I’d grouped all the tuna together and she yelled at me to break up the stacks and store them on different shelves! I pointed out that they should see what they had. She countered with the fact that she never wrote ‘tuna’ on her shopping lists but when my father went to the store, he had the habit of buying things that were on sale, even if they weren’t on the list.
Since her health was poor and she could no longer go to the grocery store with him, she was afraid that if he saw how much food they had that he wouldn’t go grocery shopping. (Are you with me in noticing the irony of this statement? He probably didn’t have to shop for much more than milk, juice, eggs, and bread. But, instead, she kept sending him out to the store to buy food that wasn’t getting eaten.)
Rotate Your Stock
The more food you have, the more conscious you need to be of using up older items first. You come home from the grocery store and want to put things away quickly, which probably means you aren’t always moving the oldest jar of tomato sauce or container of yogurt to the front.
Twice a year, at the least, organize your pantry to check those expiration dates. Once a month, sort through the contents of your freezer and once or twice a month, go through your refrigerator (don’t forget those condiments) and check expiration dates. Check the quality of fresh produce and leftovers weekly.
Yep, here’s another reason to keep similar items together. You can rotate your products and make certain you are using older items. Also, reminding yourself of what you own is the answer to the question, “What’s for dinner (breakfast, lunch)?”
(And, although I think this should go without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway – if you wouldn’t normally eat it, don’t buy it for an emergency.)
Along with the two large freestanding pantry cabinets and refrigerator/freezer in my parents’ kitchen there was the cupboard under the basement stairs stocked with canned goods.
In the basement, there was also a full dedicated freezer and even another refrigerator/freezer (acquired, I think, when someone upgraded their appliance).
So, not only were packaged items stored in multiple locations, but things like ground beef, chicken, and steak ended up in one of a few locations. Even when it became too dangerous for my mother to go down the stairs and into the basement, they didn’t work at emptying the contents of the freezer and limiting frozen products to the refrigerator-freezer in the kitchen.
When I emptied their house, I filled bag after bag with frozen food that had expired two or three years earlier (even with me trying to cook some meals for them).
While I tried to donate canned and boxed items to the local food pantry, so much food had expired it had to be tossed.
Once a week, glance at your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Note soon-to-expire items that have been moved up front as a reminder to eat them. Plan your meals based on what you have.
Continue to evaluate what you want to keep on hand and in what quantity. This will guide future shopping trips.
I hope that you can find a balanced way to keep ‘enough’ food on hand for your needs without stockpiling things that will go to waste. Only you can decide on your comfort zone while making the ethical choice to allow others to have enough as well.
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Hi, I’m Susan.
And I’m here to help you clear the things cluttering your life so you can do and have more of what’s important to you.