Lessons from a Week of Independent Eating

These next three months are going to be my first experience living on my own and having complete autonomy over my food choices. There is no guardian cooking for me, no one else with food preferences to accommodate, no groceries bought by someone else, and no college dining plan encouraging me to buy my meals rather than cook them. I am abroad for the semester with my own apartment, which means my own kitchen, my own cooking, and my own grocery shopping.

smoked salmon hashWhile some people would find this kind of autonomy daunting, I was excited the moment I realized that I would be in full control of deciding what I ate. Finally, I could really dive into the 300+ recipes that I have bookmarked on my computer! Of course I’m going to go out to sample the local cuisine, but I also envisioned cooking glorious dishes for myself and learning to make things that I’ve been itching to try.

As you might have guessed from my use of the past tense, I have been slightly disillusioned. Having been in Berlin for just over a week, I have already come to realize how non-conducive to cooking my new schedule is. After all, my weekdays involve working until 5:30pm and then going to either the gym or to lessons. For gym nights, I cook in advance so I have leftovers ready immediately after my workout – but my lack of microwave makes reheating less convenient than I would like. Also, I am lacking a great many cooking supplies but am too stingy to buy new ones, since my time here is so brief.

Constrained culinary creativity aside, my new food autonomy presents me with an overwhelming amount of choice: where to buy groceries, what groceries to buy, when to bring food vs. eat out, how to plan my meals to use my groceries, etc. While planning is good for the sake of preventing waste and making healthy choices, I have been stressing myself out a little by neurotically planning how I eat. So, I’m sharing some advice for fellow self-determination newbies (and building on my previous post about my food-buying habits):berlin grocery

  • Don’t over-plan! Yes, use a grocery list when you shop to avoid impulse purchases and have an idea of how you’re going to use what you buy – but don’t let food become a source of stress. Leave one or two ‘uncertain’ days in your week’s schedule. After all, life happens, plans change, and you might be invited out to dinner on the night that you were planning to make lasagna. Allow yourself room for flexibility.
  • Assemble a pantry early on. Buy things like cereal, pasta, canned soup, and yogurt that are generally useful to have on-hand (and aren’t in your week’s plan).
  • Don’t let fresh produce become a burden. You don’t want to have to worry about using the fruits or vegetables before they go bad. If your schedule is still up in the air when you grocery shop, choose produce that keeps well or can be refrigerated, or just buy frozen or preserved goods. The same goes for other perishables like meat and dairy products.

I’m sure that I’ll learn many more lessons during my Berlin time, and I’ll be happy to share them. Having already seen a package of chicken livers in my grocery store, I might even finally try my hand at semi-nose-to-tail cooking. Being independent is all about adventure and self-discovery, right?


Grocery Stores and Expiration Dates, Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, as the two of us were grocery shopping, my mother came across several packages of smoked salmon stamped with ‘Use By’ dates from the day before. She eagerly snatched up three packages and, when we were checking out, tried to negotiate with the cashier to sell them to her at a 50% discount. She knew that the fish were still safe but would probably be thrown out at the end of the day, so she argued that the store would be better off making a reduced sale than getting nothing at all and tossing perfectly good fish. appetizer salmon canapesThe flustered cashier quickly called over her supervisor, who told us that they could make no deals. When my mother asked, “But what are you going to do with it? Isn’t it sad to have to throw it away?” the supervisor assured us that it wouldn’t be thrown out, just “sent back.” My mother accepted her defeat and didn’t buy the salmon, unwilling to pay full price. However, we were both very skeptical about the ‘sent back’ idea.

First off, I don’t even know whether the supervisor was telling the truth. She might have been frazzled and blurted out a lie, unwilling to admit either ignorance or the shameful reality that the fish would go to waste. More importantly, if unsold fish does get sent back to the manufacturer, I doubted that would be is a better fate. Ideally, the ‘old’ fish would be put to some other use, such as making salmon cream cheese or at least cat food – but my knowledge of the wastefulness of the food industry leaves me pessimistic. The return would probably just delay the inevitable disposal of the fish. In fact, the extra step just seemed like a waste of energy via transportation.

Curious as to what happens when supermarkets return food to manufacturers, I decided to investigate the practice as well as my specific grocery store’s policy. Unfortunately, I mainly found articles about customers returning groceries and what generally happens to expired food in stores. For instance, retailers can get rid of their unwanted food products by selling them to salvage grocery stores, which resell safe-but-(officially)-outdated items at reduced prices, or by donating them to food banks. Nowhere could I find detailed information about stores returning outdated products to their sources. The most relevant result came from Inbound Logistics Magazine, which says that “many food manufacturers and retailers set up local donation programs to deal with saleable returns and procedures for destroying expired product.” Destroying expired product – exactly as I’d suspected.

store1On the other hand, my grocery chain’s website vaguely describes its commitment to sustainability and claims that at least 90% of its ‘unsellable’ items are donated, reused, or recycled. Recycling, I assume, means composting; so, while it still saddens me when edible food goes uneaten, I’m glad that the company focuses on avoiding landfills. The stores have also been phasing out unrecyclable packaging materials.

A week after the salmon experience, my dad told me that he had pointed out some outdated products to an employee at the same store and was told that it would be donated to a local soup kitchen. As with most food retailers, the donating vs. reusing vs. disposing decision seems to depend on the type of food at stake. People tend to be more cautious about reselling seafood, meat, or dairy products because they are at high risk for contamination, whereas something like stale bread is pretty safe and easy to repurpose. Still, I am disappointed in the store’s obstinacy about the smoked salmon. If only there were customer waivers reading, I will sue neither this store nor the manufacturer for selling me this fish. I suppose that is the unspoken agreement made when shopping at salvage stores.

The more consumer concern voiced about food waste, the more pressure is put on grocery stores to adopt sustainable practices. Make a point of buying outdated items, check out salvage stores, and look into your local retailers’ donation policies.


PS: See Hokuma’s article for more info.