Although the school year has started, like many families, I have also faced the trial of both my elder children leaving home to begin university last week. It didn’t exactly go off without a hitch and included some stressful last-minute shopping trips and meltdowns in IKEA, whist debating both the necessity and merits of various cooking utensils. But at least they both did all the packing, in that they crammed the entire contents of their messy rooms into every available suitcase and carry-on bag they could find.
Now that they are safely settling in their new homes, it has been a bit of an adjustment to get used to living with less people around. Of course, like all milestones in our children’s lives, there is always lots of advice out there about how to cope through it all. From self-help books to blogs, websites and even 8-step programs, ‘empty nest syndrome’ makes for some serious marketing opportunities. That is not to say there isn’t a need for such advice because some families go through a very difficult period of loss when their children begin to leave home. However, even if you are happily sailing by this milestone in calm waters, there may still be some unexpected trouble ahead. Because what nobody ever warns you about when your children move out is the effect it has on your kitchen. We have not only lost two children but two really massive eaters. As a result, our ever-empty fridge is now perpetually filled and the cupboards are full to bursting. As I struggle to adapt to shopping and cooking for less people in my house, my kitchen has become a battleground to fight food waste.
But it didn’t happen all at once. It started with the milk. Now I have to admit that as a family, we go through an awful lot of milk. In fact, we go through so much that we cannot fit it all in our fridge and we have a milk cupboard full of long-life cartons. It is the only way that we can deal with supply and demand without moving to a farm. Therefore, an ongoing bone of contention among my children is the identity of the family member who leaves an almost empty carton of milk in the fridge or doesn’t replace a carton when they finish it. This is against our established milk rule of always having two cartons of cold milk in the fridge, as backup.
Long-life milk may not suit everyone’s tastes and it is fair to say that there are milk snobs out there who refuse to drink anything other than fresh milk. Some will even turn up their noses to the suggestion of having long-life milk in their tea. But I am not one of them and I am never more happy than when my milk cupboard is full of long-life. However, the absence of two of my major milk guzzlers at home means that now when I try to put away the weekly shop, the milk cupboard goes into surplus. You will be rightly thinking, just buy less milk. As it’s long-life, you will eventually drink it so it’s not going to go to waste. But that’s easier said than done because the combination of a force of habit and my slight preoccupation with always having enough milk means that I still catch myself mindlessly filling up the shopping trolley. I may need to get a bigger cupboard…
The milk, however, is the least of my food waste problems. The real challenge is trying to use up all the excess fresh fruit and veg that sits waiting to be eaten, like a spoilage ticking timebomb. I did not realise quite how much fruit and veg the two big eaters were hoovering up at home, but I can safely say that their 5 a day would hit a healthy 2 digits. And despite the efforts of the three of us, we cannot make up all the excess fruit and veg. Which means that I have had to try to store the fruit in an already full fridge, in every last nook and cranny. This works perfectly well as long as you are good at playing food Jenga every time you want an apple. Freezing some of it at least buys me a bit more time but I am also more likely to forget about it until it has gone beyond freezer burn.
This has forced me to think outside the box of how I cook because it has not just been a matter of adding some extra fruit and veg to every dish. I now have to add whatever fruit and veg is ‘winning’ at spoiling. Depending on the daily spoilage ranking, this can cause a bit of a flavour mashup because you never know what is going to be on top and be added to the meal. The mushy plums or the bendy celery? Sometimes there is even a tie!
However, testing the limits of ingredient compatibility can work really well for discovering new recipes. Of course, not everyone appreciates the new flavour combinations. It turns out that bananas do not go with everything…But mostly, I have found that you can get away with chucking in just about any old extra fruit or veg to a dish. A sad looking courgette, a limp carrot or a soft sweet potato can be grated and added to any muffin, bread or cake. Wrinkled apples and mushy pears can be diced and added to soups and stews or roasted with root vegetables. And even when your fruit or veg is edging closer to its final days before it moves on to the big compost, you can probably still cook it into a sauce.
With two weeks down already without the big eaters, I am slowly getting through the excess fruit and veg while trying to plan ahead more and shop a lot less. I am still on a bit of a learning curve and at times the milk cupboard reaches a bit too near the tipping point. But I will get there. Hopefully it will be soon because the next challenge is approaching: How to plan for my elder children visiting again with their ravenous appetites without inadvertently creating more food waste? It may take a bit of trial and error to get the balance of supply and demand right, but one thing is for certain. We will always have enough milk.
This week the fruit and veg that came top of the spoiling chart in my kitchen were mushy kiwis, spotty sweet potato and a couple of leaky plums…Perfect for a Roasted veg salad with kiwi satay dressing.