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Menu planning when it’s time to empty the freezer

Turning a kitchen’s forgotten food into meals takes improvising
This combination of photos shows shows soup made with chicken-cilantro dumplings from the freezer and leftover vegetables, left, and stir-fried mushrooms with the cabbage. (Beth J. Harpaz via AP)

I usually cook a nice meal from scratch every night, even when it’s only my husband and me for dinner.

Our weekly menu might include fish, chicken, pasta, and a couple of time-intensive dishes like eggplant moussaka, jap chae or chili.

Leftovers, and there are a lot, go into the freezer — where they’re often forgotten, tucked behind ice-cube trays, half-eaten cartons of ice cream, and bags of soup dumplings and frozen peas.

So when my husband went away for a week, I decided to clear out that freezer — along with the fridge and pantry — and save myself from real cooking for a few days. I wouldn’t even go grocery shopping; I’d save on the food bill and improvise on recipes.

I liked the idea of decluttering without tossing mysterious containers of wasted food into the trash. I’d consume whatever I reasonably could. There were some odds and ends in the vegetable drawer — cherry tomatoes, carrots and celery on their last legs, some fruit and a cabbage (more on that later) — so I wouldn’t be completely deprived of produce.

The results were sometimes good, occasionally great, often meh. I posted pictures of my experiment on social media, and the reactions from friends ranged from enthusiasm to downright hostility.

Some offered recipes for the cabbage, which I couldn’t seem to use up. Several messaged to say how much they loved my nightly installments. “These posts are bringing me a lot of joy,” said one friend. “Food content I didn’t know I needed,” said another.

On the other hand, when one of my meals didn’t look so great, people threatened to have pizza delivered to my house to save me from myself.

On the bright side, after I ran out of milk, I started putting vanilla ice cream in my coffee, and I may never go back.

Here’s a day-by-day account of my week of scrounging:


Things started off brilliantly. Leftover chicken-feta-pasta salad defrosted from the freezer; a corn tortilla with Muenster cheese and smashed avocado; and a salad with carrots, celery, parsley, red pepper, pomegranate seeds, olives. Lots of cheers on social media.


This was the only day I consumed outside food: Friends took me out for brunch and I was still stuffed by suppertime. So I made an easy bowl of soup for dinner using chicken-cilantro dumplings from the freezer with various veggies thrown in, including (note for future reference) cabbage.


I dug some months-old pierogies out of the freezer, fried them with mushrooms and onions, and made a side dish of cabbage (what else!) sauteed with a random half-apple, a little onion and red wine vinegar. I like sour cream on pierogies but I didn’t have any, so I used Greek yogurt, but it wasn’t as good.

Lunches, by the way, were leftovers from the dinner leftovers.


This was where things went south. I dumped a little too much red sauce from an open jar on a half-cup of leftover macaroni; adding a defrosted sliced chicken sausage did not help. Putting mozzarella and fresh basil leaves from my windowbox on a mushy sliced tomato also did not magically make a lovely caprese salad. “That doesn’t look very good,” commented one friend.

This was the night people started threatening to send takeout delivery to my house. Two cousins said our mothers would have been proud of me; their moms and mine grew up poor and hungry in rural Maine during the Depression and they never let food go to waste. Another friend put it this way: “You’ve got grit.”


The easiest night: ready-made microwaveable Asian-style noodles with veggies, from Costco, to which I added a bit of chicken. (I keep small containers of cooked chicken meat in the freezer, leftover from rotisserie chickens that we can’t finish.)


Another sad-sack day: Boca burger, kosher hotdog and buns from the freezer; microwaved potato (last potato in the house) with butter; and an emptied-out bag of frozen peas. I meant to have carrots with the peas, but I forgot that I put the carrots on the stove and the water boiled away. They were mostly burned black.


Used up the last tortilla, melted the last two pieces of Muenster on it, and topped it off with a warmed-up mix of frozen corn (used up the bag), the last bit of chicken in the house, a half-can of black beans, more cherry tomatoes from a seemingly bottomless container, cumin, salt, lime and, of course, chopped cabbage. It was … OK.

I had hoped to add the other half of the avocado from earlier in the week, but it was beyond redemption, even by my low standards.

By now, both my audience and I were sick of the darn cabbage. Several people suggested making a salad or stir-fry out of it using Asian seasoning; one person urged me to just toss it.


For breakfasts, I’d been finishing up yogurt, cereal, fruit and bread, and on this, my final full day, I ate the last frozen half-bagel from my freezer. There was only a dot of cream cheese left, so I had to supplement it with butter — sacrilege to New Yorkers. There were renewed calls from my critics to give up, go shopping. But I couldn’t quit yet: I had plans for that other half-can of black beans.

The recipe I had in mind for dinner called for cucumber and corn, but I didn’t have those. So I substituted the last stick of celery in the house and — you guessed it — more cabbage. Then I added scallions, cilantro (I had some growing in a windowbox), feta cheese, cherry tomatoes from the still-bottomless box, lime juice, olive oil, vinegar and salt.

I also stir-fried the cabbage, as friends had recommended, with ginger, garlic and the last mushroom in my now nearly empty vegetable bin, adding Asian flavors — sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin, sesame seeds and a drop of chili garlic sauce. Both the black bean and cabbage dishes were good.

I still had one breakfast to go before my husband returned and grocery shopping would resume. No problem: I had eggs, scallions and feta cheese on hand for an omelet. (Sure, I could have been eating eggs every night, but where was the challenge in that?)


A few takeaways from my week of scrounging:

I generated very little garbage because I hardly opened any packaging and I had no food waste. (All my freezer leftovers were in recycled plastic containers.)

I still have a hunk of cabbage in the fridge.

And I lost 5 pounds.

“It was all that cabbage you ate,” a friend said. “It just melts the pounds away!”

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