Want not, waste a lot

Reaching way back in a kitchen cabinet, I grab a jar of what's billed as orange marmalade. It's really not marmalade, just sugar glop without any orange in it at all, masquerading as the real thing. It was a "bonus" in a crate of Florida citrus we got a while back. We ate the grapefruit and oranges ages ago, but at this point it's clear no one in our family is ever going to touch that alleged marmalade.

I toss it.

I've been reading recently about how much food is wasted by the average American family. In August, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that the average American family of four tosses about $2,275 worth of food each year.

I certainly never want to waste food, and I try to buy only what I think we'll use, but I'm probably not alone in that I never seem to get it exactly right.

With two teenagers and a lunch-packing husband in the house, I buy a lot of groceries. I go through everyday basics like milk, eggs, oatmeal and pasta fairly quickly, so there's little waste there. I generally resist bulk shopping, sparing myself ugly face-downs with pounds of rotting tomatoes or juice flavors my kids swore they loved.

Even with my best planning, however, I just can't seem to strike that elusive balance between having a well-stocked pantry and shelves overflowing with excess.

I'm not talking about products I could donate to the food bank. This stuff is expired, or spoiled, or will just never be used.

Moving deeper into my kitchen cabinets, I uncover a jar of thyme that expired in 2011, a bottle of almond extract with a use-by date of 2010, and a plastic tub of Orville Redenbacher, also dated 2010.

I dump the extract down the sink, which smells nice and almond-y for a while. I sprinkle the final sad and dry thyme flakes in the trash, leaving the trash just smelling trashy, as the thyme has long since lost its punch.

I did, however, go ahead and pop that popcorn. No one died.

It's not just the cabinets that harbor all sorts of weird, out-of-date items. A few weeks ago, I bought cottage cheese, which my older son usually blasts right through. This time, no matter how often I prominently repositioned it front and center in the fridge, he didn't bite.

Good-bye cottage cheese.

Good-bye, also, to the last bits of roast beef that I bought for school lunches. Nine dollars a pound, but those final slices were just a little too funky.

My freezer is loaded with bread, which is generally fine, but also means that items can and do get lost behind all those plastic bags. At one point, there was a single slice of dried-out cake from our 1994 wedding buried in the back. I finally tossed it a couple of years ago. (Nevertheless, our marriage has survived nicely without it, thanks for asking.)

For about two years, I kept the wrapped remains of my older son's bar mitzvah cake. I did better with my second kid; I only had his cake for a year, though there's still a bit of the decorative fondant triple-wrapped in plastic and shoved under some frozen pizzas.

Sometimes, when you hang on to something so long, it magically turns from old junk to, if not quite treasure, at least something more interesting than junk. I have an unopened box of confectioner's sugar that languished for many years on a top shelf in my mother-in-law's kitchen. There's no expiration date or bar code, and a "75-cents" sticker clings tenaciously to the top. I'm guessing it's from the 1970s. These days, a box of confectioner's sugar costs about $1.80.

This summer, I was strolling through the antiques mall in Shrewsbury, Pa., when I saw a booth filled with old spice tins, most selling for a buck or so each.

Bingo! When I got home, I pulled out a metal tin of McCormick turmeric, which I know I've had at least 25 years. I washed and dried it and tucked it next to that confectioner's sugar, just in case they're both worth something someday.

On second thought, maybe I should have saved that marmalade.

Amy Landsman Linker is a freelance writer in Lutherville. Her email is landlink1@verizon.net.

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