You Need a System: Managing Everything

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Ok, you’ve canned your heart out.  You’ve dried everything that can be dried.  You got the oatmeal, the spelt, the anasazi beans, the nutritional yeast, and put it in buckets.  You vacuum packed.  You built shelves.  You made sauerkraut, kimchi, chutney, you name it.  You built a root cellar.  You did it all.  Now you are all done, right?  Nothing left to do but sit around and wait for dinner to get made (assuming, of course that magic fairies, a housemate or loving partner will take care of this, since you’ve been working hard.)

 Sorry, there’s one more thing  – I’ve mentioned a bunch of times that food storage is pretty interactive.  You see most of these foods aren’t very far from being alive – they respirate a bit, take in the sun, leak a few vitamins into the air here and there.  So you have to check on them regularly. 

I can just see the eye rolls – she SAID that already.  Yes, I know, I have to go in there and look at it once in a while. FINE.  But I’m done, right?

I know, I know, I’m annoying.  But it isn’t just looking.  You see, you need a system to allocate everything.  Think about it – if you eat strawberry jam every day (my kids’ preference) for six months, you will have six months with no strawberry jam.  If you froze 16 servings of broccoli, you don’t want them gone by October.

And for the things you don’t make yourself, well, there’s shopping to do.  If you want to keep a six month supply of canned pineapple around, you have to go shopping when the stash drops down.  How do you know what you need, when?  Or how often you actually have to go into the pantry and count the boxes of pasta?

Now there are probably readers out there who have nifty spreadsheets and designed programs.  I am not one of them, but I welcome suggestions for software from anyone who does.   Me, I’ve got a notebook.

In my notebook, I have my actual reserves – X jars of canned vegetables, X jars of dehydrated vegetables, X lbs of whole wheat, etc…  and my desired reserves – desired is what I’m shooting for.  I keep a list there of ‘things to add next’ – although it is flexible – if Agway is having a sale on our brand of dog food, I’ll buy a couple of extra bags if I happen to be there, even if it isn’t on the list yet. 

Every fall, I go through and count everything, which is a PITA, and I hate it, but it is useful.  I make a little list to hang up in the storage closet of how many of each item (pickled beets, dried apples, etc…) by the jar, bucket, etc…., and I try really hard (and fail miserably every once in a while) to take .002 seconds and put a check mark next to each item.  Then, once in a while, I count the checks.  Ok, we’ve used four jars of dried greens and have 13 left.  Got it. 

For stuff we have a limited amount of, I make a chart listing the months across the top divided by the number of items I have – so if I have 20 quarts of honey-lemon carrots, and I want to eat them from December to June, when the new carrot thinnings show up that means 3 quarts each month, plus a couple with four.  When the carrots are done for the month, we don’t have them again until next time.

For things I have to buy, when only X amount is left (by counting the checks, or when I take the last one off for things we store only small amounts of), it goes on the shopping list. 

There are a few items that are a bit hard to allocate wisely – things, for example we all like a little too much.  These I sometimes hide – it is such a treat to pull out one last jar of blueberry pancake sauce or salsa after everyone thought it was gone for good.  Of course, this only works if the Chatelaine can be trusted – I can’t always be. ;-) .  But, of course, being chatelaine means that if something disappears it can be attributed to “spoilage.”

I do inventory in the spring again – I see what we ate, what we used, what we wish we’d had more of and when we ran out.  Ok…double the apricot sauce, but we had more green beans than we needed and we need 10 more quarts of pickles….  I’ve also learned to add 5-10% for the growth of four boys – that is, every year they are going to eat more, so why not plan for it.  This also gives me something important – a real sense of what a winter’s worth of food looks like for us. I try to keep track of what we buy that doesn’t count as storage as well, because it gives me a sense of what our totals are.

 Does this sound too overwhelming?  Well, when you are first starting food storage, it is easy to simply focus on a few foods – a dozen or so things that provide the basis for a monotonous but tolerable diet – beans, rice, vitamins, dried greens, canned pumpkin, rose hip tea, rolled oats, salt, spices, honey and tuna, for example, would cover most of the bases.  So you can concentrate on those, if you like.

I know, I know, you thought you were done, and here I’ve got another project.  But once you’ve done this, you really do get to take a nap, put your feet up and wait for the fairies to make dinner.


17 Responses to “You Need a System: Managing Everything”

  1. Verde says:

    Nap? Did I understand her right that I get to take a nap?

  2. Matriarchy says:

    Yes. One nap per month, from December to June, unless you use them up faster by sneaking extra naps. Check your nap supply quarterly, to make sure the mice aren’t snoozing them out from under you.

  3. MEA says:

    For the longest time, I organized food by type. That is, all the protien together, all the veg here, with very little bean sitting next to antoher bean. And this meant when I wanted something that was kept on the back of the shelf (I have very deep shelves) I’d have to unload a lot of stuff.

    A little while ago, I started arrange things more by meals, or a least a weeks worth of food.

    Save a lot of time and frustration.


  4. Paula Hewitt says:

    This is very useful – now I actually have some food stored, i am starting to see the benefit of having an inventory.
    The tinned food I have bought from the store came in cardboard boxes of 12. i bought two cartons of each type of food and stack them – the plan is to eat through the top 12 and then buy another 12 to stack at the bottom and rotate through the tins that way.

    I mentioned that i had made a start on food storage a week or so ago – i can’t begin to tell you what a sense of relief i felt during the last fortnight knowing we had a supply of food. we always have plenty of food between shops, but knowing there is extra has set my mind at rest. And even though I spent a LOT of money on the shop (we get pain fortnightly and shop weekly – the first week i spend a lot, the second not so much) – so much so that I couldnt really afford to shop this last week, it didnt matter becuase we hardly made a dent in the stored food anyway. it always amazes me how far a kilo of dried legumes goes, compared with a kilo of meat (and when i served up dhal and rice for the second night in a row I got a ‘yum my favourite from all 3 kids. go figure). I am going shopping again tomorrow to continue my stockpiling.

    ps We have been having truckie strikes and threats of industrial action…and thus food shortages here (Brisbane/Australia), due to rising fuel costs, pay issues etc. it hasnt amounted to much yet ….but it feels like the writing is on the wall.

  5. Nita says:

    This is so timely, as I’m just starting to put away the first seasons canning, I’m realizing that others in my family aren’t remembering to mark down what they remove from storage, when they eat it.

    I used to organize all my home canned goods by fruit, or vegetable etc. But, now I have made a small area on one shelf that has all the fruits my DH will eat. It’s straight in the fruit room door and he can just grab something without putting too much thought into it. He won’t hunt for anything and ends up eating too much of one thing. This way I can just look on the shelf and keep that inventory stocked.

    Our store bought items, like pineapple and condiments, and toiletries are in this area also. That way I don’t have be in charge of stocking everything, and my family can find what they need easily. I hate questions like: “Are we out of toothpaste?” This has ended all that.

  6. You are definitely a task master! Thanks for all the tips!

  7. Greenpa says:

    I really do recommend a database; a relational one. I know; sounds intimidating, if you’re not already proficient; but it’s not that bad. And you can learn as you go- you’ve got plenty of time.

    The big advantages; a) if you die, some one else can still find the information. (there, got that one out of the way.) b) if you want to reorganize your information, it’s pretty easy; you can tweak how you look at it; look at it in different ways; search it- you just can’t do those things on paper. c) you can make one of your kids take over the job of data keeping very early on.

    A few years ago, I’d have recommended “FileMakerPro” a cross platform relational database widely used. It was EASY easy to use and program; I could make it do anything. Then they improved it, of course- made it “more powerful” – and now I hate it. My son Beelar says I’m just cranky. Pah.

    Even so. I remember fondly the good old days of FileMaker 4. So, so easy. There have to be others out there.

  8. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, reading about your inventory, I wonder..

    It seems there are several columns that would be needed. For each day that you can, you want to note the date that those jars, etc. were put up.

    For each type of product, lima beans, stewed tomatoes, corn, etc. there is an expected shelf life. For canned foods it is on the label. You want to keep track of what is coming up on expiry dates – in case you have a choice, you can choose to use the stuff coming to the end of shelf life/freezer life. I would think that would be handier to manage with a list, than checking during each inventory.

    It is interesting to know how many you put up. That can be useful in planning next season’s garden, in planning containers, days for processing, etc.

    It would likewise be useful to mark, for each inventory, the number left, so you can see the usage pattern. Would it be useful to also note the jars or packages that were discarded for spoiling, or that broke? Again, as fodder for planning.

    Now, one way to approach all this might be to be sure that each label includes the date put up, each shelf labels the shelf life, and each inventory you check each label date and move stuff getting close to expiring to a ‘red’ shelf of stuff that needs to be used soonest.

    Or maybe a three ring notebook, one page per product per canning, organized by type and product and date. Of course, now I am thinking something like that would be good for the garden – what was planted, what challenges happened (neighbor kid rode through with the lawn mower, geese got in too soon, etc.), gather dates and quantities. Comparing between years, for garden or for the pantry, might give some interesting insights.

    And, of course there is the ‘notes’ phenomenon. Just writing information down makes it more available, even if you never look at the notes again.

    Just thinking. Oh, and when I go shopping for pancake mix, I stick the mix in the freezer for a couple of weeks. It kills any bug eggs in the flour. Would that be something good to do with oatmeal and other grains, to rotate them through the freezer?

  9. Sharon says:

    Greenpa, honestly, my notebook really is perfectly legible. It was possible to do things before computers, I’ve been told ;-) .

    Brad, I actually seperate out canning from storage – you could do it another way, but I keep the records of what I’ve done somewhat seperately. As for expiration, we just write it on the top of the jars in permanent marker.

    I don’t pay tons and tons of attention to canned good shelf life – there’s a lot of research on eating older canned goods, and while they do lose some nutritional value, I would have no hesitation in eating 3 year old home canned pickled beets, or 5 year old purchased canned pumpkin – and in fact have. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be better to eat everything sooner – in both cases, those weren’t things that got lost in my storage, but on my kitchen shelves, somehow ;-) . It happens once in a while and is not a worry as long as the can is sealed and there is no signs of spoilage.

    You can freeze grains before bringing them in – I try simply to buy most of my grains in the winter so I can leave them in the trunk of the car for a couple of days, because there’s no room for a 50lb sack of oatmeal in my freezer. But yes, it will kill eggs.


  10. Emily says:

    Matriarchy – Thank you so much for the useful information on nap rationing! I hadn’t considered that mice might snooze my nap ration in half. Would you recommend oxygen absorbers, or a bay leaf, to prevent that?

    Greenpa- I’m still using FMP 4 or 5…do you have a template you’d be willing to share?

  11. Greenpa says:

    Sharon- ah, YOU can read it- but could I?
    :-) . Probably; I grant you. I’ve just spent days, weeks, going through old scientists’ notebooks- ultimately failing to find their keys, or comprehend their abbreviations- so I’ve been traumatized.

    And- “It was possible to do things before computers, I’ve been told ;-) .” Yeah, sure! And people lived without indoor plumbing, and heated with wood, too! Savages! What nonsense!

    Emily – shoot, I don’t; or I would cheerfully share it. My database creation was for plant performance, genetics tracking. At the point where we started using FMP, we weren’t doing enough stockpiling to warrant a database.

  12. Sharon says:

    Yeah, you could read my handwriting. My husband’s…

    I definitely think mice have been getting into my naps, since I haven’t had one in…yikes. More cats will certainly help (or maybe it is the 4 cats who are stealing my naps…)


  13. GPurdum says:

    We don’t do a lot of storage other than frozen foods, and for that I use an Excel spreadsheet. As each plastic tub is filled and added to the freezer, it gets a masking tape label with the contents and date. Same info goes into Excel. Then as each tub is used, the piece of tape is stuck to the refrigerator. Every few days I collect them and update the spreadsheet. Much better than trying to remember to write things down. Now if I could just figure out how to keep the oldest tubs at the top of the stacks in the freezer…

  14. NM says:

    Not only do the dogs and cats steal my naps, they try to make me to blame, by doing their best to get me to nap with them.

  15. NM says:

    Is there a mail-order source for those dinner-cooking fairies?

  16. Chile says:

    With the small quantities on hand now, I’m sufficing with an Excel spreadsheet. Different sheets for types of food (legumes, grains, pasta, sweets, spices, canned vegs, dried vegs, etc.) I printed these out and put them in a notebook that is kept in the pantry. When something is pulled out, the number is changed in the notebook. (oops, forgot to mark off yesterday’s soy sauce.) If it at that time, the stock needs to be replenished, I go write it on the shopping list. So far this has been working, but when we are farther from shopping and have to produce more ourselves, I suspect I’ll have to be more diligent.

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