I’ve seen many different methods for keeping track of stored foods such as stickers (color-coded, printed out, or masking tape) and complex spreadsheets. While I applaud these ambitious ideas, I’m more realistic about my patience to endlessly catalog the contents of my cupboards and freezers.
My solution? A couple of lists and a Sharpie. Decidedly low tech, but it works.
Canned goods are easiest. When I buy a can of something, I grab the Sharpie that I have hanging in my cupboard and scrawl on the date and year. That’s it. The pen stays in the cupboard all the time so it’s handy and I can see quickly which can of what came in first (and should therefore be used first).
This works with boxes of crackers, cereal and what have you too. The Sharpie will write on nearly any surface. No stickers to buy and track or labels to print out. I also use this on freezer items since, unlike stickers, labels and tape, it won’t fall off when the glue freezes.
Since no one wants to dig around in a deep chest freezer searching for that last packet of sausages that you actually ate last week or find expensive salmon steaks that have been stored too long and are now dog food, the freezer requires a bit more organization.
First, I keep the list that comes with my beef order. When I use a steak or a roast, I mark it off the list. Done.
Second, I’ve made a master list of categories (Beef, Pork, Sausage, Vegetables, Fruit, etc.) where I note everything as it goes in the freezer (roughly: Item, Size, Quantity, Date In, Date Out) and indicate by when I think it needs to be used (date out). Naturally things get missed on their way in or out occasionally, but I don’t worry too much. Once a year when I defrost and reorganize, I update the list. When I do this (in the spring when the freezer is at its emptiest), I place the things that I need to use up first on top.
The third list is for home-canned goods. I made this one up on graph paper and simply write in the Item, Size and Date. Then I place an “X” in each square for each jar. If I use a jar, I mark it out. If I add a jar, I can add another “X” to an empty square. I also added some root cellar notes at the bottom of this one. Since I only tend to stock canned tomatoes, beans and tuna, I don’t bother listing them. I just keep them on one shelf and make sure I mark them and put the newest cans behind the older ones.
It’s not perfect, but it takes a minor amount of time and organization. I can scan the freezer list for foods that need to be used up easily. I can quickly see how many jars of strawberry jam I have without taking apart my stacks to count them. I’ve found this little bit of organization is all it usually takes to ensure there is no waste.
For help in determining how long frozen foods last, see this handy Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart. Toward the bottom there are also listed some common pantry items.