Eating Down the Fridge

eGullet co-founder and executive eater Steven Shaw is in the midst of a kitchen challenge worth chewing on; for an entire week, he’s taking a break from food shopping, using what he’s got stored in the freezer, fridge and pantry. A few months ago, I talked about this very idea with my editor, Nancy, who describes it as “eating down the fridge.” Her father -- raised during the Great Depression -- refused to toss any somewhat edible food item and would regularly go through their freezer and eat all "mystery" leftovers.

Shaw, who lives in a New York apartment with his wife and son, is chronicling the ups and down of his experiment every day and is encouraging readers to join him for the frugal ride.

Inspired by Shaw’s gumption, I took a cursory spin of the Casa Appetite larder, and here’s just a sampler from the ice box: a locally raised heritage turkey; a bag of peas, a frozen flatbread, chicken thighs and a variety of nuts. In just one cupboard are several cans of beans, tomato puree, raspberry jam, local albacore tuna and rolled oats. There’s another cabinet filled to the gills with pasta, quinoa, couscous and Asian noodles. Aside from fresh greens, which were polished off last night, we could easily join Shaw and his merry band of frugal eaters.

A closer look reveals I’ve got more than I realize -- plenty of onions and carrots, a few loose potatoes, fresh thyme, garlic, shallots and some kohlrabi -- hardly an empty produce bin. And maybe that’s just the point behind Shaw’s challenge -- to think more closely about what we really need during these financially difficult times rather than feeding a whim. Let’s be honest: how often do you throw away perishables that get stuffed into the fridge only to be forgotten? Just last night, I bid farewell to half a bunch of escarole that shoulda coulda woulda. Lazy and taking food for granted, you ask? Guilty as charged.

I’m game if you are. Shall we set a date? Share your thoughts on “eating down the fridge” in the comments area or today at 1ET for this week’s What’s Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Cooking on a Budget , Eating Down the Fridge
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That is a GREAT idea!

Posted by: choirgirl04 | February 24, 2009 9:25 AM

I love this idea and could definately use some help/coaching because I'm awful at improvising like this.

Posted by: Lizka | February 24, 2009 9:28 AM

Vacations are great for this. Or at least cutting down on the perishables. My greatest weakness is interesting sauces. I've had a jar of molé sauce around for I don't know how long. That wings sauce (from the Anchor Bar, the source!) goes slowly. My wife picked up a jar of mango coconut sauce that stayed in the fridge for ages (eventually got used with shrimp and magno over rice).

I'll have to take a look at the contents tonight and do some menu planning. It'd be nice to have some space for staples such as green peppercorns.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | February 24, 2009 9:28 AM

great idea, i do this on a regular basis.

by the way please toss the anchor bar sauce! you can do better :)

Posted by: nall92 | February 24, 2009 10:09 AM

Kim, you could do a chat ala The Splendid Table's "Stump the Cook" for the eat down the fridge day. Folks submit what five items from the fridge and you come up with the meal

Posted by: danylo79 | February 24, 2009 10:18 AM

We've just done this, too. I skipped grocery shopping for a week (I think I did buy some milk and coffee, though) and we ate what we had on hand.

The final meal was dubbed "leftover leftovers" because at the end of the week we finished off the bits from the previous meal. I cooked the rest of two open boxes of penne pasta. I had two tiny butternut squash left from last year's garden that I cubed and carmelized in an iron skillet. I then sauteed some onion, limp celery and pine nuts, added the hearts from two leftover steamed artichokes, and one leftover grilled garlic lamb sausage. I finished off by adding the remainders of open cottage cheese and sour cream. I combined all this with the pasta and baked for about 20 minutes in the same iron skillet. It was highly adequate as a meal.

Posted by: esleigh | February 24, 2009 10:28 AM

It's not my fridge as much as my freezer that needs the "eating down"! I have a side-by-side, which means I have a narrow freezer space. Everything is packed in tight. I need to label things better and perhaps, keep a list of contents on the door.

Posted by: mdreader01 | February 24, 2009 10:46 AM

Hi Kim,
I regularly make a stir-fry with rice or a veggie/bean pasta to clean out the veggies in my fridge. It's all improvisation, and a little different each time because it's based on what's there. I keep staples in my kitchen so I can regularly do this.

I'd love to have an "eating down the fridge" challenge!

Posted by: earlysun | February 24, 2009 10:51 AM

Danylo79, I'm all over this idea. Brilliant!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 24, 2009 11:15 AM

I try to do this every couple of months--its amazing what you can accumulate. I usually make some sort of soup or chili with leftover tomato sauce, jalepenos, carrots, and whatever half empty jars are left in the fridge.

Posted by: shhhhhh | February 24, 2009 11:35 AM

welcome to life a car-less college student! this "eating down the fridge" happens unintentionally every 2ish weeks when the fresh foods have run out, the bread is going stale, the eggs are going to go bad, and we begin to break into the canned veggies and frozen fish.

luckily, this blog trend has come at just about this time. i'll be posting about my dishes (that aren't so out of the ordinary for me!) all week on my blog (

i'm excited to see what new recipes people come up with. i've about had it with omelets and soup!

Posted by: pbjenny | February 24, 2009 12:57 PM

Love this idea! One of my new year's resolutions is to not spend any money for a week every month. I've found those weeks are great for cleaning out the pantry/fridge/freezer and definitely makes me more creative in the kitchen.

Posted by: ArlingtonAllison | February 24, 2009 1:10 PM

Two questions regarding this topic:

#1 - Do you really keep potatoes in the fridge?

#2 - How long until canned tuna goes bad? My cans don't have expiration dates on them and I think I have had them in the cupboard for a long time.


Posted by: Jeanne923 | February 24, 2009 2:18 PM

Excellent idea - I try to do this with my freezers (3!) and pantries (2, plus cabinets) from time to time. I am constantly surprised with what I find in there (when did I buy that and what ridiculously optimistic plan did I have for it?). I was excited to see what I could do with the rice noodles left over from a tragically failed Vietnamese garden roll experiment. And, I happen to have all of the ingredients on hand!

Posted by: ldf1 | February 24, 2009 2:27 PM

This is a great idea and one I try to do a few times per year. I've begun keeping a list of what's in my freezer and have slowly been using these items up. It has actually saved me quite a bit of money - no need to go meat shopping when I have frozen steaks at home. Count me in, Kim!

Posted by: jraines | February 24, 2009 4:04 PM

I call this "grocery challenge"! We do it to push back when we need to shop by a couple of days, either to save money or wait for a sale or coordinate better with our schedules. Breakfast for dinner is always a favorite!

This time of year, it would be nice to do a deep spring cleaning after a grocery challenge. Get the fridge, freezer, pantry, etc. cleaned up and organized.

Posted by: formerArlington | February 24, 2009 4:19 PM

Absolutely, count me in. I will, however, reserve the right to get fresh milk for the kids. As Fridays are my usual grocery shopping day, I'll start the Challenge this week (that is: not shop this Friday) so I'm not tempted to shop for two-week's worth of food. Woo-hoo!

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | February 24, 2009 4:47 PM

This also aligns with the idea behind Shrove Tuesday / Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras. Make pancakes to use up all the eggs, sugar, flour, etc., since you aren't supposed to be eating treats during Lent.

When I'm really organized, I cook a couple of big meals on the weekends and we eat that the first part of the week. Then Thursdays are "clean out the fridge night", when we eat the bits and pieces and odds and ends that end up in refrigerator dishes. Then we eat out or order pizza on Friday. On Saturday, I go shopping and start the whole cycle over again. I actually haven't done that in a while and I need to start again. But first, this challenge sounds like a great idea.

Posted by: margaret6 | February 25, 2009 12:26 PM

Margaret6 et al, I'm in the process of putting together some guidelines and announcing the date of the challenge, and some other tidbits. Stay tuned for details in tomorrow's blog space. I'm excited!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 25, 2009 12:31 PM

I would be interested in this challenge as well.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | February 25, 2009 6:26 PM

This is something I've wanted to do and would love to join in!

Posted by: chrishpl | February 27, 2009 10:25 PM

My problem isn't the fridge, which I control well, or the standing freezer, which I have to defrost a couple times a year and for which I keep a list. My problem is the cabinets: canned, jarred, dry, emergency rations, sauces. When you keep on hand 6 kinds of rice, 4 kinds of grain flour, 4 kinds of canned tomatoes, and so on and so forth, it's hard to let it go to bare cupboards.

How do you handle this?

Posted by: fitday19550 | March 4, 2009 9:47 AM

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