When we were kids, we had dinner every Monday night with the Smiths. My mother was single and her friend Mrs. Smith’s husband was out of town on Mondays, and so we’d switch off — one week at our house, one week at theirs. It was always Garbage Dinner, meaning that Mom or Mrs. Smith used up whatever was left in the fridge. Garbage dinners were always an adventure — both my Mom and Mrs. Smith were both creative and also a little wacky — I mean, Mrs. Smith was the kind of person who went to Brazil on her honeymoon and stayed 12 years. She had a great dress-up box from when she’d been a model, and there was a period of two or three years where every time we went to the Smith’s the first thing I did was put on the strapless dress with the big blue cabbage roses and the matching sleeveless cape. It was a fabulous outfit. I remember riding the pony in that dress.
Anyhow, Garbage Dinner was an institution. At our house it usually meant Garbage Soup made from whatever chicken or turkey carcass was lurking in the back of the fridge, plus all the veggies that were getting wilty. At the Smiths we seemed to mostly get toast, custard (their ancient housekeeper Consuela only ate egg whites for breakfast, so there were always a lot of yolks by Monday night) and very strong milky tea. An Anglophile dinner. But you never knew what you might get, and that was half the fun.
Apparently the Waste Reduction Agency in Great Britain has determined that:
…one third of all food bought in Britain is thrown away – of which half is edible. Wrap will claim that this discarded food is a bigger problem than packaging, as the food supply chain accounts for a fifth of UK carbon emissions and decomposing food releases methane, the most potent of the greenhouse gases. Wasted food is estimated to cost each British household from £250 to £400 a year.
The government has started a new campaign to fight waste by reminding people that many of the lovely things about English food involve using up leftovers: bubble and squeak (cabbage and potatoes fried up with an onion), or bread and butter pudding. They’re also reminding people that meal and menu planning, plus simply cooking at home will not only reduce waste and greenhouse gasses, but will fight obesity and contribute to family relations.
I seem to be constitutionally unable to throw food away unless it’s really really gone bad, and I try my best not to let that happen. Getting rid of my plastic containers and using old pyrex refrigerator containers I bought on eBay seems to be helping — it’s easier when you can see everything. This blog post at the Guardian also has some good tips to avoid over-buying at the store (remember, all those 2-for-1 deals might not be your friend). And there’s this groovy Leftover Wizard that I’ve seen mentioned on a few websites. A few good cookbooks can also help — the Joy of Cooking has a lot of tips for leftovers, and a good primer about cooking technique (like this new one from Michael Ruhlman) can give you the skills you need when staring into the depths of your fridge wondering what you’re going to do with that bit of stew, the leftover squash, and half an onion.
And maybe get together with a friend. I know that both my mother and Mrs. Smith liked garbage dinners as much for the adult company and the fact that we’d all play with one another as they did for the chance to clean out the fridge once a week. We kids liked it because it was an adventure — sometimes dinner was weird, but more often than not it was weird in that fun, slightly subversive way that kids love.