Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cook with What You've Got Challenge

This poster's message is as relevant now as when it was first published as a World War II propaganda poster.  How many of us really follow this way of eating today?

The modern supermarkets are filled with thousands of products masquerading as food.  If you're a Baby Boomer, or older, think back to the grocery stores of the past.  You didn't have to 'shop the perimeter' for fresh foods - that was most of the store.  I feel kind of bad for the twenty and thirty year olds who don't know anything other than what's there today. 

I used to love to go to the Sparkle Market with my mom, where Goober, the peanut butter with grape jelly, was considered a revolutionary evolution in food products in the '70's, right after Tang.   It wasn't my favorite; I preferred Smuckers strawberry. (I see now that Smuckers owns Goober, and has strawberry.  Progress?)

Salad didn't come in a bag.  It came in the form of iceberg lettuce.  Chicken didn't come packaged sans it's bones and skin, after spending a miserable life being pumped full of hormones, packed in with the other chickens.

Rice-a-Roni might have been the San Franciso treat, but there wasn't an astonishing amount of shelf space devoted to powdered chemicals, packaged in boxes and cans, claiming to save hours of painful meal prep, so the harried housewife could get dinner on the table in thirty minutes.

Michael Ruhlman's blog recently featured an interesting post claiming that people don't cook because they've been tricked into thinking they aren't smart enough to.  The post then proceeded to describe how simple it is to roast your own chicken.  And he's completely right. 

I'll admit it  - I was sucked in to the pre-fab food for awhile.  As a young bride with little cooking experience, I fell for some of the so called convenience foods. They didn't taste that great, but you had a hot meal in a half an hour.  Mostly they motivated me to learn to cook.

Cookbooks and magazines promised tempting meals, ones I didn't always have time to craft after dragging myself to an office 30 miles from home, boiling my brains out on pointless conference calls and stupid, Groundhog Day like meetings, then returning.  So on the weekends I stocked up and cranked out the meals.  I was my own personal chef before I had even heard of one.  I squirreled away some of my stash in the freezer for later, when cooking was the last thing I wanted to do.

Gardening also totally changed the way I eat, and how I feel about my food.  When you watch your tomato grow from a tiny seed to something amazing on your plate, it makes it pretty hard to pay any amount of money for an out of season, mealy, tomato imposter.

On the upside, fresh herbs, especially cilantro were nowhere to be found in the grocery stores of the past, nor was balsamic vinegar, and pork tenderloin.  There are plenty of ingredients I am happy to see.  But there are thousands that simply baffle (and disgust) me.

So back to the challenge.  My mother is food pack-rat.  I am a food pack-rat.  So is my sister.  Clearly, I'm the worst, but I have company.  When I see an exotic new spice or a pretty new vinegar, I am hard pressed to resist.

I do the same thing thousands of other cooks do on a daily basis: I see a recipe I want to try, go to the store and buy the ingredients, then I'm left with the remains of said ingredients.  A cornucopia of tidbits that may or may not see the light of day. 

Maybe you fall for the BOGO (or buy one, throw one out as my husband used to refer to them), or the more ridiculous buy $10 for $10 schemes.  Most stores still only charge $1 on the ten-fers; you don't have to buy ten.  How many kinds of pasta do you have hiding in that pantry?

Then there's the freezer.  Which for most people it is like the food morgue.  Used properly, it's a great way to put a delicious, healthy meal on the table, and store ingredients.

I really hate wasting food.  If you think about it, it's really like throwing money into the garbage.  So on that note, as much as I have a New Year's resolution, it's to really try and concentrate on not wasting food.  Push comes to shove, I could eat nicely until spring without leaving the house.  I'd miss fresh vegetables and dairy, but I could do it.

So I issued a challenge to my Facebook friends that I plan to take myself.  You get one trip to get fresh vegetables and dairy. Then for at least a week, cook with what it's in your pantry and freezer for a week.  No other trips to the store permitted.  Farmer's markets and CSA Shares(if you are fortunate enough this time of year), are fully, 100% encouraged. 

So, can you cook meals for at least seven days on what you have on hand?  For most of us that should be a complete piece of cake (pardon the pun). If you really want to test your mettle, shoot for two weeks to a month, with only weekly produce, and dairy supplements.

Personally, I think it's going to be easier to see what's on hand, then create something with your finds.  For most people, that's not how meals are planned.

The challenge starts Monday, January 18th.  Let's see what you've got.  I hope you'll leave some comments next week on what you're cooking and your progress, or link to your own blog.  Post photos of your pantry, fridge and freezer if you dare. 

I'll update progress on the Dine-In Diva fan page on Facebook too, so if you aren't already a fan, sign up today.

The prize?  Well you already spent the money, so you might as well use what you bought.  You ought to save enough during the week to treat yourself to a much needed massage.

But to sweeten the pot just a little bit, I will send the most creative cook a copy of MinuteMeals, a cookbook of 20 minute gourmet meals, with full menus, including shopping and pantry lists for each meal.

I'd also like to suggest that you donate some of the money you'll save by not grocery shopping to aid the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.  Here's a link to The American Red Cross.


  1. Great idea! I'm doing this as we speak. All I bought at the store was milk, eggs, and produce. I was just trying to stretch my grocery budget until payday on the 15th. I got through a good chunk of the meat in my freezer.
    *Now I just need to make some soup to use up the rest of the stock I made after Thanksgiving. About 6 quarts worth...

    I don't think I can make this work next week, though. The Happy Days Lodge farmer's market is this weekend, and I just can't help myself when I'm at a farmer's market...

    Mike V

  2. Diva, you are on! I will gladly go through my pantry, freezer and fridge and we will join you on the no shopping challenge. I do have to add one extra trip for fruit, salad and milk as I only have one fridge and 5 people here...
    Can't wait to see the creative meals that come out of this experiment!

  3. Mike - you get a 'free card' for the farmer's mkt - especially since we only have one a month during the winter. Glad you got a head start, though.

  4. I made a note on my calendar. I'm in. Would love to deplete the pantry and freezer a bit, and with 3 cookdates next week, I'm bound to be bringing home a handful of extras like 1/2 a bunch of scallions or a bit of leftover cheese to supplement the menu planning. It will be a fun challenge.

  5. Great idea, Tami. Count me in. I think you were reading my mind when I looked in my pantry and realized how much I have in there, but I can't find a thing, it's too crowded! So I thought I would try to cook with some of the things in there, and then you laid down the gauntlet! I will try my best.

  6. I am in. Pictures are up here...


  7. I am in as well. Only bought milk spinach, and carrots at the store yesterday and have a menu plan for the next two weeks. We are sending our Haiti donation through World Vision- thanks for getting this going Tami.


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