My kitchen's corner cupboard is one of those spaces I hesitate to get into, literally and figuratively. It's become the repository of so many broken culinary dreams: half-used bags of crackers, rice, and nuts languish alongside cute little cans of pâté that I imagined—what, two, three years ago?—serving at a chic party. Packed bunker-tight on the bottom shelf are enough canned tomatoes, corn, and beans to feed a whole town, yet oddly, they never seem to get eaten by my own family of four.

My overcrowded, undertapped pantry isn't pretty, but it is typical. According to author Jonathan Bloom, who explores our food-squandering ways in his 2010 book American Wasteland, we throw out almost half the food we purchase. "People have this subconscious fear of not having enough, so we buy more food than we can possibly consume," Bloom says. And recessionary times have spurred the natural impulse to stockpile goods when they're on sale. Yet Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has found that people eventually even toss up to 12 percent of nonperishable foods, the result of buying things they don't actually like (in a misguided attempt to be thrifty or healthy) and purchasing items for specific recipes that get used only rarely. Once items are shoved to the back when new groceries move in, they're less likely to be consumed.

Simply recognizing our tendency to overshop helps rein it in, says Wansink. He suggests rotating items forward from the back of the pantry; being able to see the food "motivates us to cook with it," he says.

As people learn more about wasted food, many are challenging themselves to spend a week creating meals from what's on hand, buying only fresh ingredients like milk (google a phrase like "eat from the pantry" to see their efforts). For inspiration, consider the recipes here, which use familiar staples in unexpected ways. Canned tuna doesn't have to mean sandwiches; instead, toss it with ribbons of zucchini, pappardelle, and a lemony cream sauce. Beans can be slow-roasted and used as a crunchy topping for tacos or served solo as a cocktail snack. And rice becomes the foundation for coconut pudding squares, which use up any dried fruit or nuts you may have.

So tonight I'll pull out those cans of pâté and serve them to my more intimate party of four. After all, I purchased them to be eaten and enjoyed—and now they will be.

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