Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve never cooked at home much before this coronavirus stay-at-home order, and I keep finding groceries I bought three weeks ago and forgot about now rotting in the back of my fridge. Help! I need a system.

— Not Even Worrying ’Bout Impending Expiration


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Did you say … system? Yes!!!! Maybe it’s because the days are all melting into one another during the pandemic, but I think structure could benefit many right now. When there is nothing left to burn, as they say, you have to set your fridge on fire. In the metaphorical sense! On fire with ambition!

Food waste is not just a personal pet peeve of mine; it also represents a huge opportunity for carbon savings, according to the climate solutions rankings of the research organization Project Drawdown. While a lot of that potential savings would come from large-scale reforms like better agricultural storage, more effective large-scale waste prevention tactics pushed by corporations, or more expansive municipal composting infrastructure, consumer-level carelessness still represents an estimated 35 percent of food waste in wealthy economies (like the United States). In other words: Eat your food, save the climate. Sort of.

There are plenty of reasons that food gets wasted at home; the demands of modern culture (Work! Family! Demise of society!) can take up significant brain space to the detriment of, say, home organization. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! But modern culture has changed a lot, very suddenly, in the past several weeks as we attempt to quell the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly many of us are allotting a lot more mental real estate to the contents of our crisper drawers in an attempt to avoid unnecessary trips to the grocery store — we’re buying somewhere around 30 to 60 percent more groceries than usual, after all. But that ambition doesn’t necessarily mean all of us have the habits in place to keep that real estate in order, so to speak.

Keeping your fridge stocked without much of its contents ending up in your compost bin (note: this is also a great time to get a compost bin if you don’t already have one) isn’t hard, but it does take a modicum of effort. To that end, I made up a very basic, fly-by-night system to organize yourself, your groceries, and your cooking. You can basically modify it however works for you! The idea is just to keep track of what you buy and when it will go bad using lists, and keeping that information in plain sight on your refrigerator.

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The system is extremely low-tech, and it’s based on a series of lists: picking out a few exciting things you want to try cooking before you go to the grocery store, putting ingredients for those meals on your grocery list, writing down when all the food items you’ve purchased will start to go bad, and then making a cooking schedule to accommodate all those (approximate — we’re all guessing) expiration dates. I suggest putting these lists in plain sight, like on your fridge, to keep your meal plan front-of-mind.

Watch the video below to get started.

The more you cook at home and develop your own habits and systems, the more conscious you’ll be of food waste in general. The biggest part of successful home cooking — and especially successful coronavirus cooking, when you may find yourself one or two ingredients short of a traditional recipe — is really just creativity: figuring out how to incorporate and substitute random ingredients that you have to use before they go bad, inventively repurposing leftovers, learning how to freeze properly, that sort of thing.

My hope is that this gives you a little inspiration to develop your own organizational systems to keep your kitchen relatively sane, because we could all use a little sanity when and where we can get it right now.