A long, long time ago, I used to make a list on New Year's as a way of determining whether the previous year had been a good year or a bad year. I would make a list of all the major events that had happened in my life, and then I would rate them with a smiley face, a frowny face, or a tilda, which meant that the event had been neutral. Then at the end, I would tally it all up, and if I had more smileys than frownies, it had been a good year.
There are all sorts of problems with this system, of course, the main one being the assumption that each thing has the same weight. But to be honest, I had a pretty good childhood, so the bad events weren't ever all that bad. Let's just bag up the years from 1982 to 2001 and stamp a smiley on them. 2002? Big ole frowny.
For whatever reason, I stopped making that list sometime in my teens. Maybe I realized that it wasn't a particularly accurate or useful way to take stock of a year. Or maybe I had a bad year and I didn't want to think about it. I wouldn't even know how to make a list like that anymore. I'd feel obligated to try and weigh everything, like this thing was two frownies and this other thing, which was great, was seventeen smileys. It's possible that twenty-eight is too old to be thinking about a whole year's worth of living in terms of smileys and frownies.
I did take inventory on New Year's, though. Of my freezer.
My CraigsList freezer was starting to show signs of its age. Now that I've had a freezer for two years, there is no going back. So I bought a brand new one. Maybe this is surprising to you, because you think I never pay more than a buck-fifty for anything. I decided to buy new for a couple of reasons. Freezers last a long, long time, so the cost spread out over the years is not that much. There is something to be said for reliability. Also, new freezers are much more energy efficient than the old ones, so I'm saving money that way, too. I don't have to justify my appliance purchases to you anyway.
When moving stuff from the old freezer to the new, I found a lot of food that I did not realize that I had. Some of it was thrown right out. I generally consider expiration dates to be recommendations rather than hard and fast rules, but there was stuff in there that was capital-E Expired. I was still holding on to a free pork tenderloin I'd been given when the restaurant where I worked closed down. You know, when I was in college. Five years ago. And there were lots of other things like that. While it does not bother me to take something to Goodwill, I hate throwing away food. I know people who are wasteful with food, and I want to give them a good shaking whilst lecturing about all those starving children. It was a hard hit to my ego to see my trash brimming full of food that was perfectly good a couple of years ago.
See, I think of myself as a smart shopper. I was trained from a very young age to stock up on a product when it's on sale. That's why I have a freezer in the first place. Seeing those trash bags full of food showed me that I'm not quite as smart as I'd like to think. Maybe I spent only one dollar instead of two for something, but if I never use it, then it's still a dollar wasted. It's not just about finding the best price and stocking up. It's knowing how much you can actually use and then making sure that you use it. Otherwise, in your effort to save money, you've thrown it away.
It was hard for me to clean out my freezer so ruthlessly, but I had some inspiration. About a month ago, Josh and I watched an episode of Hoarders on Netflix instant viewing. I'd been wanting to see this show for a couple reasons. One, because I've definitely been to yard sales of people who were hoarders. Two, I have some of my own magpie tendencies. Three, I just like looking at other people's stuff, okay? I really had no idea what we were in for. The episode we watched dealt with two cases - a small family with a stuff problem and an old lady with a food problem. The stuff problem was that the wife was a compulsive shopper and the husband couldn't bear to part with anything, even if it was broken or otherwise no longer useful to them. The food problem was that the old woman bought things when they were on sale and then could not eat all of it. That lady had rotten pumpkins in her living room.
We watched the show because we were interested, but it changed our whole outlook with one episode. When we were going through the house to purge before Christmas, it lit a fire under me. And then when I was going through the old freezer (and the fridge and the pantry), I was pretty unforgiving when it came to expiration dates, because all I could think about was the lady with the rotten pumpkin in her living room. Some of that stuff was probably still good, even though the dates indicated they were best by sometime in 2009. But you have to draw the line somewhere, so I did. I felt terrible doing it. But the solution is not to push the boundaries of expiration dates. The solution is to manage my stock better so that it gets used before I have to worry about the date at all.
What was not thrown out (and there was plenty that was still perfectly fine, too) went into the new freezer. I also made a long list of every single thing I had. Then I reorganized this list into subcategories and made a little spreadsheet for myself. I printed out several blank spreadsheets and wrote down everything I had. Those sheets now stick to the new freezer, where I can see at a glance what I have and how old it is. It has been enormously helpful already. Two weeks ago, there was Italian sausage at a good price. I cook with sausage frequently, so I wrote it down on my shopping list for the week. But then I looked at my inventory and realized that I had four and a half pounds of the stuff already. What I needed to be doing was using it up, not buying more. So I made a lasagna, being sure to mark off the sausage that went into it.
Every day since then, I've been using the inventory to guide my decision as to what to make for dinner. Previously, I would decide what I wanted first and then just get what I needed. Most of the things that I cook rely on pantry staples anyway, so it's not as if I was going to the grocery store every evening to pick up exotic ingredients like kumquats. It's darned convenient living a half mile from the store, but that doesn't mean I should be relying on that.
You could call this a New Year's Resolution, I guess. I am attempting to make a change in the way I live my daily life, and this change did start at the beginning of 2011. I see it more as a part of a constant growth in myself as, for lack of a better word, a homemaker. A household manager. Whatever. When I was bagging up all the food I'd wasted, I was reassessing my own skills. It occurred to me how much harder it would be for me to figure all this out as I go if I had youngins at my feet. I have some time to get really good at this stuff before I have to start feeding more people.
In any case, I have high hopes for my new system. On January 1, 2012, I would like to be able to write down "New Inventory System" and put a couple of smileys next to it.