Shining a Light into a Food Storage Black Hole

Freezers can be a blessing and a curse. They’re definitely a blessing when I’ve made more food than we can eat, and then I can save a little of that hard work of cooking to reheat some night when I’m not up for a full-on meal prep. The curse lies in forgetting what is in your freezer.

That’s not so much of an issue when the freezer is in your kitchen (typically; there are exceptions, of course. Especially if you’ve ever seen an episode of Hoarders on cable).  But if you’re one of those households where there’s a freezer a little more removed from your daily traffic pattern in your house – such as in a basement – remembering the entire contents gets tricky.

We have a similar “black hole” as I used to call it in our house. When we remodeled the kitchen we bought a new refrigerator. We replaced all the appliances, actually, but the old fridge was still fairly new. Definitely newer than the stove and dishwasher! So we thought it would make sense to keep it for extra food storage; on the refrigerator side is pop and various beverages that keep chilled for whenever we need it. On the freezer side is a lot of wild game that my husband brings home every autumn.

And that was the problem. He’s a good hunter. And we would try to remember to use the goodies in the freezer, but encountered a big problem: it was all in the basement, and remembering what we had in the basement was hard. It became more work to prepare a wild game dish because we’d find a recipe we liked, then spent a few minutes digging through all the frozen items to see if we had enough quantity of the meat we wanted, or the right cut. And if we didn’t, it was back to square one with the cookbooks.

“Enough!” screamed the Type-A voice in my head. “There has to be a better way.”

At the same time, we were also struggling with how to keep certain important information in one easy place that all of us could access and just know would be there. That gave birth to our household binder, which sits on the counter in our kitchen next to a mason jar filled with pens and odds and ends, and by the telephone. One very important chapter in that binder is our basement freezer inventory.

I took a moment to consider what was important to know: what did we have in the basement freezer; how long it’s been there; how much of it is there; how to find it. And that’s how I created the following fields for a spreadsheet:

  • Number – This was both a row number and a number that would be assigned to each item
  • Item – What the heck is hiding under that white butcher paper (or blobbed in the FoodSaver bag)
  • Weight – Independently verified with our digital scale
  • Date – When it was added to the freezer
  • In/Out – If it’s still in the freezer

Then, during a naptime, I sat in the basement with my laptop computer and a permanent marker documenting each and every item that sat in our freezer. As I went along, I wrote a number on each frozen package and circled it. I then printed out the inventory, and made a diagonal line from one corner of the in/out box to the opposite. Then the marked-up sheets were placed into some plastic sleeves and added to the menus/planning tab of our household binder.

Here's a quick peek at how my inventory started.

Today, whenever we feel like cooking up some wild game, it’s an easy practice of pulling out a cookbook and the binder, and cross-referencing our printed-out inventory with the recipes to find a good fit. Once we find the cut we want, it’s as simple as noting the line number, going to the basement, and pulling out the butcher-papered package with the corresponding number circled on it. As it thaws, we make a diagonal line in the in/out box opposite the one we made when printing out the chart so that item is essentially “X”’d out of the inventory. I use this for reference when I go to update the inventory (like the other night, when I had placed a bunch of pumpkin chunks into some FoodSaver bags and decided to store them in the basement freezer; or when duck season wrapped up). Then I just delete that row in my spreadsheet.

Pumpkin from the garden - roasted, cubed, ready for the freezer! Here you can see the reference number I'll look for later.

Given the maximum number of rows allowed in the typical spreadsheet – somewhere in the tens of thousands – I’m not concerned with running out of row numbers. I just continue the numbered sequence for new items coming in and forget about row 45 that indicated the odds-and-ends from a doe my brother-in-law shot a couple of years ago. He wanted to try his hand at homemade venison sausage, but didn’t have room in his own freezer and didn’t really remember to come back for it. Until I pointed it out to my husband, who reminded his brother, who picked it up the next time he was over (see how handy this is?).

How’s it working for us? Not bad. Although we still need to get into the practice of committing to cooking more of our wild game in the freezer or some of it will have to be sacrificed to the freezer burn gods. Because, much as we’d like to think otherwise, cooking a hunk of permafrost does not a delectable meal make.

I found another use for it when duck season was beginning. My husband occasionally aims for a duck but hits a goose (he swears it’s not his eyesight). So as he prepared to leave for the first weekend of hunting this season, I made a request/demand: no geese for the freezer. I was not taking in more geese. “But what if one happens to cross paths with a bullet?” came the query. I pulled that 3-ring binder off the counter and proceeded to point out all the goose items we currently have in inventory, assuring him that we were not wanting in goose bits. Nor were we wanting to add to them. That right there made this process worth it to me.

Want to try this out? Here’s a blank sheet for you to get started with. But in all honesty, it’s probably better to create your own spreadsheet that you can maintain yourself, especially if you have a large freezer to keep tabs on.

Inventory Blank

(And if you happen to give it a try, leave a comment to let us know how it worked for you!)

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