Creating a time-saving grocery list

I love food and cooking but I’m not a big fan of grocery shopping. I would be, if I were the only one in the store and I had an unlimited amount of time and money, but that is never the case. Consequently, I am always searching for new ways to minimize my time in the grocery store.

Over the years, I’ve tried various grocery list apps. Many of them were simply lists. I had to manually type all items, one by one into a list on my phone. Once they were purchased and checked off, I had to either uncheck them manually if I wanted to keep them on the list to buy again next week (milk) or delete them if they were just “once in a while” purchases (ketchup).

Some apps let me choose food items from a database but the database could not be modified. I could not add, delete, or edit to specify a certain brand. Some databases were so large it was time consuming to find items. Some databases were too small or too different from our family’s eating habits to be useful.

For almost a year now, I’ve been using the Grocery Gadget app on my iPhone. It’s also available for Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Nokia, and Amazon Nook. See the promo/demo video here.

If you sign up for a free account with Grocery Gadget you have access their robust and customisable database and can sync it to your phone. For me, this was a real time saver as I could see and edit the entire list on my large computer screen instead of only on my small phone screen.

I spent a few hours updating the database by deleting the foods we never eat, adding items we do eat, and updating the existing items by specifying brands and package sizes we prefer. It allows for both U.S. and metric sizes and will allow you to specify if the item is in a jar, box, bottle, etc.

You can also add the price of each item as well as any applicable taxes. You can edit the tax rates to whatever percentage applies in your area. This allows you to see your total grocery bill before you even head out to the store.

Another great feature of Grocery Gadget is the ability to add photos and UPC bar codes to each item. This is very handy when you are staring at a shelf of razor blades and cannot remember which brand your husband uses and which brand your teenager son uses. I just look at the photo and scan the bar code with my phone!

I do about 95% of my grocery shopping at one specific store, so I went a step further. I renamed the categories based on the aisles in my grocery store. Since the categories are always listed in alphabetical order, I added numbers to the beginning. Produce is the first section in the store when I walk in the door so the category was named 00 Produce. The deli section is at the end of aisles 2 and 3 so it is called 025 Deli.

It took me a few weeks of slightly extended grocery shopping sessions accessing the database on my phone to ensure each food item was in its correct category but the time invested at the beginning has more than paid itself back. Now, I don’t even have to walk down aisle 7 if I don’t have anything to buy in category 07 Sides Asian Canned Veg. This is a big time-saver especially when the store is busy — and a money saver too because I’m not tempted to buy items that are not on my list.

Because my grocery list syncs through the free web portal, everyone in the family uses the app and can add items to the grocery list at any time. Sometimes I will be at the grocery store and all of a sudden “cheese slices” will appear on my list. I know immediately that I need to buy more which saves me a trip to the store later in the week. If my husband and I shop together, we can go to different sections, check off items as we pick them up, and get everything in half the time without duplicating items in our trolleys.

The Grocery Gadget app works very well for our family and the way we shop. But I’d like to hear from our readers to know what they prefer. Please share your grocery list techniques in the comments section below.

What’s for dinner?

I think the question that every parent dreads is, “What’s for dinner?” But beyond creating a plan for the evening meal, you can save time and money by planning your entire menu. Menu planning will also help you achieve other goals such as eating healthier. Here are some tips to get you started.

Determine health requirements

Health requirements vary by individual. Size, age, and physical activity all factor into determining calorie requirements. Some people may prefer to consume all of their calories in three large meals per day. Others, especially children, may prefer to get up half of their daily calories in snacks between smaller-sized meals so it is important that these be healthy snacks.

Take a look at a healthy eating chart. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has links to food guides in many countries around the world. Many guides will provide nutritional information for infants, children, youths, pregnant and nursing women, etc.

Estimate how much everyone in your family needs to eat based on the food guide recommendations. For example, you may need to prepare five servings of fruits and vegetables per child but up to 10 servings per active teenager.

Note any dietary restrictions such as religious observances, allergies, or intolerances. (Download this interesting pdf explaining allergies, intolerances, and food labelling!) Many grocery stores are expanding their selections of allergen-free foods as well as Halal and Kosher foods.

If you have certain preferences make sure they are noted. Some children can be picky eaters and what they like or do not like can change on an almost daily basis but if there is anything that is a definite no-go, (I hate beets!) cross those recipes off your list.

Consider seeing a professional to help you get started. Your family health care plan may include a consultation with a nutritionist or dietitian. If so, take advantage of this to help plan your menu.

Go through your cookbooks

Browse through your cookbooks and pull out any recipes that your family loves. You may have meals that you prepare on a regular basis without recipes. If so, list out all the ingredients for those meals. Note any ingredients in any of the recipes you wish change. For example, you could add chopped carrots or celery to a spaghetti sauce or substitute milk for cream in a cheese sauce.

Do you want to try some new recipes? Go right ahead but ensure you give yourself lots of time to prepare that meal. I would also recommend that you only try one new recipe per week — just in case it turns out to be too much work to prepare or your family doesn’t like it. If the new recipe is a big success, feel free to incorporate it into your menu plan in the upcoming weeks.

Create a master grocery list

Make a master grocery list of all of the ingredients to all of the meals you have chosen including meals other than dinner. Remember to include snacks such as fresh fruit, granola bars, etc., and other foods not found within recipes (e.g., breakfast cereal).

I have found preparing a list in a spreadsheet helpful. Create one column for the food item, another for its category. You can then sort foods by their category. It will make it easier to do the grocery shopping.

Planning the plan

Check the calendar. Families have busy schedules so look at your calendar and decide which nights of the week you have time to cook. A 30-minute meal may be perfect for Wednesdays when you’ve got some time between getting home from work and taking the kids to music lessons. A crock-pot meal might be just the thing when you have a bit of extra time in the morning to throw ingredients into the slow cooker.

Choose recipes with common ingredients. Preparing several meals during the week that use the same ingredients will avoid wasted food. For example, you might want to prepare spaghetti sauce, stir-fry, and soup in the same week to use up the entire bunch of celery. An occasional Caesar cocktail/mocktail will help finish up those celery stalks too.

Prepare more than you need when you can. When you’re chopping fruit and vegetables for a meal, chop extra for lunches and snacks the next day. Cook twice as much and use it the next day. For example, bake extra chicken breasts to use in sandwiches or casseroles the next day. Cooking more than you need for dinner will allow you to use leftovers in lunches on the following day.

Time savers: Pre-cut fresh and frozen vegetables and packages of grated cheese might be a bit more expensive but they will save you meal preparation time. Use free time on the weekend to make soups, casseroles, or other freezer meals, slice and dice garlic and onions, and wash and chop lettuce and other salad ingredients.

ALWAYS have a back-up meal planned

Ensure you always have the ingredients for a 30-minute meal ready. This could be something as easy as mac and cheese or a store-bought frozen casserole. Because no matter how much you prepare, at some point, something will go wrong. You will come home from work to find the electricity was off and your crock-pot full of raw meat and vegetables has been sitting at room temperature all day or your casserole dish will explode sending shards of glass all over the oven. (Both have happened to me.)

If you have any meal planning tips, feel free to share them with readers in the comments section.

Storing coffee

If you’re a coffee aficionado, take a few minutes today to evaluate your home coffee situation. Do you have an unnecessary number of mugs? Is counter space for food preparation being unreasonably sacrificed for your coffee supplies? Can you rearrange your current setup to be less cluttered and better contained? A few minutes is all this simple check should take.

While you’re giving your coffee situation some attention, don’t forget to evaluate how you’re storing your coffee beans. Are you using airtight canisters? Are you keeping them at room temperature? Coffee beans you aren’t going to grind and brew within two weeks can be kept in the freezer, but they should not be stored in the refrigerator. Moisture isn’t good for coffee, well, unless you’re actually in the process of brewing. Don’t believe me? Here are a few insights from people much more informed than I am on this issue:

  • From the Joy of Cooking: “The best way to store coffee beans, ground or whole, is in an opaque airtight canister at room temperature.”
  • From Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: “Once roasted, whole coffee beans keep reasonably well for a couple of weeks at room temperature, or a couple of months in the freezer, before becoming noticeably stale. One reason that whole beans keep as long as they do is that they’re filled with carbon dioxide, which helps exclude oxygen from the porous interior. Once the beans have been ground, room temperature shelf life is only a few days.”
  • From Coffee AM: “When to Refrigerate Coffee? Never, unless you are conducting a science experiment on how long it takes to ruin perfectly good coffee. The fridge is one of the absolute worst places to put coffee.”

When I looked in on my coffee supplies last week, I found that I had more than 20 mugs in my cupboard. I donated 12 of those to a local homeless shelter and now have enough space in my cupboard to store all of my coffee supplies. I hope your efforts produce similar positive results.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Storing leftovers

As the holidays approach many of us will be cooking more than we typically do. Some will serve elaborate meals to their families and guests. Much food will be consumed, but not all — and that means leftovers.

We’ve written about leftover storage before, as well as tips for eliminating food waste but today I want to share a product I’ve been using for about a year with great success: the “Brilliance” containers by Rubbermaid.

When my wife first brought these home, I became nostalgic for the great glass containers from Pyrex that my mother used. The Brilliance containers are about the same size in shape, but made of plastic with a tightly-sealing lid. They stack nicely and offer a few great advantages while in the refrigerator.

First, they are completely transparent, so you needn’t play that fun guessing game, “What’s In This One?” A quick glance answers that question. Because they are made of BPA-free plastic, it makes them lighter than glass containers and less likely to break when dropped.

What really sets these apart from their vintage counterparts is the tight locking lid. There is a strip of sealant that runs along the inside of the lid, which has two strong clips, one on each side. To secure the lid, simply push it into place and click down the two clips. Voilà, it’s closed. In the year that we’ve been using these, we’ve never had a leak, even when I used one to bring soup to work in a lunch box that got jostled around. When not in use the nest for easy storage.

However, I have observed that after a year of use the formerly crystal-clear plastic has gotten a bit cloudy. I’m sure the many passes through the dishwasher had something to do with that. Not overly cloudy — you can still see the contents easily — but they’re not as brilliant as they once were. Of course, that does not affect functionality in the slightest. I really love these containers and I expect to use them for many years.

Now my question to you: how do you store leftovers? Have a favorite container or routine for avoiding the “science experiments” that happen when leftovers sit around to long? Please share in the comments below.

Two unusual types of uncluttering

When you think about uncluttering, you probably think about the stuff or the papers in your home or office. You may also think about uncluttering your calendar or your relationships.

But here are two different types of uncluttering I’ve read and thought about recently.

Uncluttering your hotel room

Designer Karim Rashid was recently quoted as follows in an article that Mark Ellwood wrote for Bloomberg:

The hotel industry loves to fill rooms up with things, which comes from the idea that a hotel room is an extension of your home. But for me, it’s too much stuff, too much clutter. If I’m going to spend three days in there, I need to be really free and able to think. I take every piece of paper, every note or book, and put it in drawers to hide them. I don’t like visual clutter. And in the bathroom, too — there’s a crazy amount of stuff they shove in there.

I read this and thought about how I do almost the same thing when I’m in a hotel room with such amenities. Everything I won’t need — the TV remote, the magazines, and most other hotel literature — gets put away somewhere so I won’t see it in the coming days. I stash away the excess pillows, too.

Uncluttering the meals you’re cooking


Ailbhe Malone wrote on the BuzzFeed website, “The secret to making a good pasta dish is to respect your ingredients. I know this sounds a bit cheffy, but that basically means: Don’t throw the kitchen sink in.”

You’ll find countless lists of 5-ingredient recipes, which can certainly make preparation easier. Also, limiting the ingredients may mean that you buy fewer ingredients that get used in one recipe and never again, so they sit around just taking up space.

But Malone seems to be thinking more along the lines of food writer Christopher Hirst, who stated in the Independent, “My favourite food involves the least possible culinary intervention — dishes where the quality of the ingredients is allowed to speak for itself.” Uncluttered dishes have benefits beyond saving time, money, and storage space — they often taste wonderful.

As noted chef José Andrés says, “Simple ingredients, treated with respect … put them together and you will always have a great dish.” I took a brief look at his tapas cookbook, and I saw many recipes that adhered to this principle.

The writers advocating for these uncluttered recipes aren’t saying that more complicated recipes don’t have their place, but rather than simple ones can be outstanding, too. When I think back to some of my most memorable meals, it’s often the ones with a few high-quality ingredients, well prepared, that come to mind.

Do you unclutter your hotel rooms? Do you like uncluttered recipes? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Getting organized for barbecue season

For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, the warmer weather is upon us and that means it’s time to enjoy a few barbecued meals. Whether you’re going to grill vegetable brochettes or beef steaks, here are some tips to help you prepare your favourite meals in an organized way.

Prepare your barbecue

Before you get your first meal ready, it is important to check your barbecue and give it a good cleaning.

If you have a propane barbecue, check all connections and hoses for leaks using soapy water. Replace any hoses that are cracked and/or leaking. Clean ports with a brush to remove debris. Remember, blocked portholes can cause fires. For charcoal barbecues, remove any charcoal, clean out all of the ashes and ensure the vents are clear.

Grease is flammable so make sure you clean grease buildup from the cook box and grease tray regardless of the type of barbecue you have. Also, look for thin or rusted through spots in the cook box. That could be a sign that it is time to replace the barbecue.

It is important to clean your grill at the start of the season and between uses. Choose a bristle-free brush for cleaning your grill. Experts recommend that people throw out their wire bristle brushes because of the danger of  bristles coming loose, sticking to the grill, transferring to food and accidentally being eaten.

Here are a couple of videos with detailed cleaning and maintenance tips for gas barbecues and charcoal barbecues.

Collect your barbecue tools

Many barbecues have a series of hooks attached to the frame where you can hang your grilling tools such as meat fork, basting brush and tongs. If you don’t have pre-installed hooks, you could add some magnetic ones to your barbecue or install a pegboard system on a wall that is close by.

We live in an apartment block and we’re not permitted to have barbecues on our balconies. We have common barbecue area near the swimming pool. A utensil caddy with a handle is ideal for carrying cooking utensils back and forth to this barbecue area. Marinades and sauces are transported in a condiment basket.

Healthy cooking

Thermometers are essential for ensuring food is thoroughly cooked (to kill any nasty bacteria) but not overcooked – no one likes to eat burnt foods.

The ThermoPro TP03A Digital Food Cooking Thermometer is inexpensive and very easy to use. It provides a fast and accurate readout of the food’s temperature. My favourite thermometer is the iGrill Mini. It is magnetic so it easily sticks to the barbecue frame (or my stove). It connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone so that I can see the temperature of the food even if I’m not standing right next to the barbecue.

Using the same plates and utensils for raw and cooked meats may transfer harmful bacteria to your cooked foods. Always wash your dishes in hot, soapy water after they have been in contact with raw foods. Check out these food safety tips for barbecuing.

Are there things you do to make your grilling experience more organized and productive? Please feel free to share your tips with other readers.

Organizing the recipes: choosing categories

Thanks to Neven Mrgan, I recently discovered the cookbook Made in India: Recipes From an Indian Family Kitchen and its three ways of organizing recipes.

  • Standard table of contents, with entries such as starters and snacks, vegetables, meat, fish, sides, breads, desserts, etc.
  • Standard index, with entries such as cauliflower and cinnamon, followed by the recipes using those ingredients
  • Alternative contents, with categories such as midweek meals (30 minutes or so), cooking in advance, party food, and low-fat.

This got me thinking about all the many ways you might want to categorize recipes, including:

  • By meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
  • By meal course or type of dish: appetizer, main course, soup, salad, dessert, etc.
  • By main ingredient: chicken, fish, eggs, etc.
  • By dietary restrictions: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, etc.
  • By holiday: Christmas, Lunar New Year, Passover, Thanksgiving, etc.
  • By preparation time: quick recipes vs. time-consuming ones
  • By status: untested vs. old favorites
  • By cooking method: outdoor grill, slow cooker, etc.
  • By source, such as your grandmother or Bon Appétit magazine
  • By part of the world outside of your own: Indian, Italian, Korean, Thai, etc.

And of course, you might want to subdivide these. Desserts might be subdivided into cakes, pies, etc. Indian recipes might be split by region within India. And you might want to know which recipes use a specific ingredient even if it isn’t the major one.

So how do you ensure you can find the recipes you want when they could be filed so many different ways? This is fairly easy if your recipes are stored on your computer, tablet, or smartphone — perhaps in an app such as Paprika or Evernote. Depending on the software you’re using, you can either add multiple tags or place the recipe into multiple categories. If you’re setting up your own categories or tags, it helps to consciously create a master list so you don’t wind up with unintended duplicates. Also, a master list can help ensure you don’t overlook a categorization you’re going to wish you had later.

Alternatively, your digital solution may just involve using the search function to find the recipes you want, such as the ones that use a specific ingredient that you happen to have on hand or all the gluten-free appetizers. Just be sure that each individual recipe includes the key words you’ll be using when you do your searches.

If you’re organizing in binders or recipe file boxes, though, you’ll need to choose a primary organizational scheme that serves you best, day to day. You can certainly combine two or more — for example, you may have one binder for untested recipes and one for those you know you like, with each binder having the same categories inside.

I concur with the contributor on the Chowhound website who wrote, in reply to a question about organizing recipes:

It really depends on how you think. I arranged my binder according to how I categorized each individual recipe in my head. For instance, my Chinese food section has all sorts of stuff that would otherwise cross several different categories (vegetable, main dish, pork, chicken, et al), but since I think of all those recipes as “Chinese”, then that’s where they go.

And for the secondary categories, you could decide to emulate the Made in India cookbook and create lists of recipes that fit into the secondary categories that are important to you. You could also make copies of a recipe page or card and file it in multiple places, but that can get cumbersome. For example, if you wanted to note something you changed when making a recipe, you’d need to note it in multiple places.

Finally, no matter how you categorize your recipes, you can always re-organize them if the categories you create don’t quite work for you. As with most organizing solutions, we often don’t get it exactly right on the first pass.

A simple way to reduce decision fatigue in the kitchen

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd, a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive, successful and not ruin cast iron pans. He’s written a little guide based on this article if you’d like learn more.

I get overwhelmed easily by choices. I can’t head into a clothing store and look at seven walls of jeans. I can’t choose between 20 flavors of ice cream. My brain just seems to wear down, overloaded by the decision fatigue.

Even cooking meals, I look at with dread. Chop this, pre-heat that, sauté this thing over here. Ugh. Can’t do it. Recently I’ve fallen in love with something that helps me greatly reduce the choices.

Cast iron pans.

When I got my first cast iron pan, I made the biggest rookie mistake and put it in the dishwasher. It came out all rusted and gross. Alas, I had ruined it. (I would have recovered it had I known how, but I was not educated enough in the world of cast iron pans.) When I want to figure something out, I go all in. I got to work researching how to use these things and I found this video.

I’ve watched this video at least ten times. It explains how to use cast iron pans, season them, and take care of them. Now for the past two weeks I’ve reduced what I’m cooking down to two rules:

  1. Cook in one of the two cast iron pans that are on the stove (one for eggs and one for bacon, for example.)
  2. Roast it. I’m a fan of roasting right now: chicken, vegetables, and more vegetables. I simply look up how to roast something and throw it in. Now everything I cook has to wind up on either a cookie sheet or a cast iron pan.

Chop it? In the pan or on the sheet. Unwrap it? In the pan or on the sheet. Cook it? In the pan or on the sheet. There are several benefits to this method.

I’ve been eating much healthier now and bringing my lunches (and dinners with my schedule) to work. Also, the clean-up has been super easy. I simply wipe out the pans when they cool down or give them a quick scrape (if they get bad, I season them.) I use parchment paper on the cookie sheets so it takes no time to clean them.

I found that I looked forward to dinners and the preparation. It also made my shopping list much shorter. I highly recommend picking up a cast iron pan and getting started. You’ll enjoy it and find you have a more relaxed experience when it comes to preparing and cooking food.

Choosing food storage containers

Re-organizing your kitchen and putting all of your baking supplies such as flour, sugar, cocoa, etc., into canisters will make it much easier to find what you need when you need it.

Here are a few recommendations on selecting the right type of canister:

  • Square shaped canisters take up less room in your cupboards because they use all of the available space.
  • Transparent canisters let you easily see when you’re running low on supplies.
  • Over time, canisters made from certain plastics can absorb food odours so those made from stainless steel or glass may be preferred.
  • Containers should have an airtight seal.
  • The opening of the canister should be large enough allow you to easily scoop or pour the contents.

Choosing the right size

Canisters are sized in volume units such as ounces or millilitres, and baking supplies are measured in weight units like pounds or kilograms. Here are some tips to help you choose the right size of containers.

  1. Determine how much of each item you will be storing. Do you buy flour in 10-pound bags because you bake lots of bread, or do you only buy a one pound bag, just enough to make the occasional Béchamel sauce?
  2. Convert the weight amount of the item into a volume amount. The OnlineConversion website can convert weight to volume for many types of foods in US, UK, and metric units.
  3. Ask yourself how much of an item you have left before you buy more. Do you wait until you have absolutely none left, or is there some remaining? Whatever amount remains, add it to the quantity that you regularly buy. For example, if you usually have a cup (0.25L) of flour left over and you normally buy a 2.5kg (4.74L) bag, you will need to purchase a canister that will hold about 5L in order to accommodate all of the flour you have on hand.

This process may be a bit tedious for some. For those who would like a short-cut, Tupperware has created weight-to-volume charts for its Modular Mate container sets in both US measurements and metric units. The USA Emergency Supply website has a weight-to-volume chart for larger quantities of food items.

Agrihoods: rich whim or affordable future?

In a recent post, I talked about chef-sharing services where instead of having to cook, someone can order home-cooked meals. While it could reduce the need for and cost of a kitchen, it doesn’t quite go with my earlier premise of a new minimalism where the cost of ownership increase so much that only the top 1% of the population will be able to indulge in non-shared ownership.

In Detroit, Michigan, a new initiative has begun – the first fully urban agrihood creating produce and fresh air for a whole neighbourhood. Before going into details, let’s review exactly what an agrihood is. The website This Slow Life quotes NPR which describes an agrihood as:

…development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture – a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production – a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park – that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

Up until recently, agrihoods have mostly had the look and feel of a hipster’s alternative to a golf course. All around the U.S., communities are cropping up where developers sell the concept of getting back to nature to families who want to participate in the alimentation cycle of the family. As the NPR quote suggests, these predominantly rural communities are developed with an eye of drawing in new buyers. It’s consumerism masking itself as environmentalism. And while there is nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t address the issues of increased food costs and decreased corporate food quality.

This is where the Detroit project is different. Developed by the Michigan University Farming Initiative, this urban agrihood isn’t a new development – it’s a redevelopment of one part of a highly urbanized area. There’s no interest in drawing in new buyers – the MUFI agrihood will feed 2,000 households for free.

And not only that, it will use an abandoned building (which Detroit has a surplus of) to create a Community Resource Center that will teach nutritional literacy and address worries of food security.

By being run by volunteers, the program greatly reduces the cost of food for those who live around the farm.

I sincerely hope that this project has phenomenal success and begins to become not a one-off curiosity, but a model for sustainable urban redevelopment not just in American cities, but urban centers around the world.

Perhaps they will even become popular in my own city in the north of Spain, where any piece of open land gets claimed by some gardening-loving local who grows his or her own vegetables, raises chickens, and maybe makes their own cheese from a few goats. In fact, there is one right below my bedroom window with sheep whose baa-ing gently wakes me up in the morning.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see neighborhoods of apartment dwellers starting to come together to fill up the roundabouts with vegetable plots and mini volunteer-run orchards?

How about where you live? Can you picture an agrihood redevelopment happening in your neighborhood? Maybe even in place of what’s currently a big-box supermarket?

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet Quartz.com, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Do you need to toss those old items in your pantry?

In the U.S., there’s no federal law regarding food product dating, except for infant formula where an expiration date is required because the nutrients decline over time. Some states have additional requirements for products such as milk and eggs.

But most commercially produced food items, including shelf-stable items such canned corn, jars of mustard, and packages of pasta, also have date labels: sell by, consume by, use by, best by, best if used before, enjoy by, etc. And sometimes there’s just a date, with no label at all to indicate what the date means.

All of this can be confusing and can lead to food waste. As NPR explained:

Companies use the labels to protect the reputation of their products — they want consumers to see and consume their food in as fresh a state as possible. But those dates often have the perverse effect of convincing over-cautious consumers to throw perfectly good food into the trash.

Now two major trade associations, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have suggested that manufacturers and retailers use just two labels (unless laws require otherwise):

  • Best If Used By: Describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
  • Use By: Applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

The FMI and GMA press releases on Feb. 15 summed up the situation nicely:

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, Vice President of Quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen — and out of landfills.”

These are voluntary standards, and you won’t see the new labels immediately, but it’s a move that should (over time) help everyone make more informed keep-or-toss decisions. In the meantime, you can still recognize that a best-by type of date on a non-perishable food item is a flavor indicator, not a food safety indicator. The cans to toss for safety’s sake are those that are bulging or leaking, those that have deep dents, especially if the dents affect the seams, or those with rust along the seams.

If you want to consider donating the items, check with your local food bank or other food donation center as to its rules. My local social services agency accepts non-perishable food up to one year past the “best by” date.

Another note: According to the FDA, that bottled water you’ve stocked up on as a critical part of your emergency supplies will still be safe past any labeled expiration date, as long as it’s in an unopened, properly sealed container. It might have an off-odor or taste, though.