Getting Food in Proportion

I am still throwing food away.

This is not what I was expecting to see. When the global pandemic started almost a year ago, I had visions of running out of food in my house. Then, when I saw that my food purchases would be limited to 1–2 grocery visits per month, I imagined I would see major compromises in the way I ate. If something went wrong, I thought, I might find myself rationing food.

On my first grocery visit during lockdown, I bought all the food a shopping cart would hold. I did not come close to eating all of it in a few weeks, so I bought less the next time. I continued to scale back my purchases all year.

It took an episode of 37 straight days in quarantine before I started to get my food purchases in the right proportions. Even after 37 days, there was still food to throw away as I cleared the refrigerator in preparation for my next grocery visit. It was hardly anything when compared to a refrigerator cleanout of years past, but it was enough to show that I had not come close to running out of food. On that next grocery visit, I did not fill the shopping cart. I spent less than $100 on food to replenish what I had eaten in five weeks.

Part of my confusion on the proportions of food was around the balance between restaurants and groceries. With extremely limited access to restaurant food during the pandemic, I thought I would need to buy more groceries. I did not realize how little food I was getting from restaurants in a nutritional sense.

This is an understandable mistake. Restaurant food is all about presentation, and chefs know every trick to make food look larger than it is. This includes the addition of water and fat to make food physically larger, and plate arrangements that spread food across a large plate. Restaurant food is also expensive, ten times the price of the same thing purchased as grocery items and cooked at home. I knew all this, but it was still surprising to find that I was spending less on groceries at the same time I was zeroing out my restaurant spending.

I am not the only one making this adjustment. When the pandemic hit, every grocery store was running out of frozen meat. There was a run on the most expensive and least nutritious grocery items. Now that pattern is shifting as households buy meat in smaller quantities and look for ways to upgrade to more interesting more more nutritious food. In the end the whole grocery sector might shrink as household adjust their habits.

Grocery stores have already adjusted by cutting back the amount of milk they display. A household that goes to the grocery only once every three weeks still cannot buy more milk than they can drink in one week. Some stores have closed their fish, meat, and deli counters. In many cases this was supposed to be a temporary move but will end up being permanent as there are no longer enough shoppers to support these departments.

In a sense, we are waking up from a scam. Grocers a century ago promoted the lifestyle of meat, fish, and dairy products to push shoppers into a weekly grocery habit. Replace milk with oat milk and learn what real food tastes like, and suddenly there is no longer a need to visit the grocery store so often.

Fewer visits means fewer chances to buy excess food that will be thrown away uneaten in a few weeks. The proportions involved are not easy to learn, but now that we have had a full year to practice, shoppers will not be going back to the more wasteful habits of the past.

Fish Nation Information Station | Rick Aster’s World | Rick Aster