Grocery Geek: The End of the Pantry Challenge

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The month is almost over! And I’m so glad about that.

I think that I may be pushing myself past my comfort zone. My family is pretty much done with the Pantry Challenge. They are ready for some more variety and regular meals like sunbutter sandwiches. Ha! Truth be told, so am I.

I’ve plotted dinners for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Tuesday is hubby’s birthday and then we’re left with two more days in the month. We’re at slim pickings now.

Overall I think we’ve done a great job. Tomorrow, I should be able to move what’s left in the deep freeze into the fridge freezer in order to thaw. It will be a tight squeeze, but I need to get that ice accumulation off the sides before I refill it.

(I’ve got a freezer cooking plan brewing, so I’m more than ready to refill it.)

As I was saying, I have a few more dinners, but then we’re hitting a wall of creativity and variety. So, I didn’t feel bad about making good with Ralph’s Mix and Match Sale yesterday.

Ralph’s Mix and Match Sale

I had to go in there already for eggs (for weekend breakfasts) and pepperoni (Friday’s pizza). The kids are sick so I got orange juice and a gallon of milk to make more yogurt.

At first I thought I would resist and just wait until the end of the sale to stock up. As it turns out, the pepperoni that I was going for was $1.49. It’s rare to find it that low. So, I bought ten packs. (I might even go back for more.) I also went aisle by aisle, something I haven’t done in weeks, to look for more of the blue savings tags.

Don’t rely on the sale flyer alone. There were some things that I got, like the salsa and the cereal, that were not in the ad. I would have totally missed them if I hadn’t done an aisle-by-aisle search.

Here’s what was part of the sale so you can see why it was such a stock-up opportunity:

  • canned beans – $0.49
  • canned tomatoes- $0.49
  • Herdez salsa – $1.49
  • Dreyer’s ice cream – $2.99
  • Mom’s Best cereals – $0.99
  • Hormel pepperoni – $1.49
  • French’s mustard – $0.99

These are all things that we regularly use, so I know that they will disappear quickly. Plus I checked the sell-by dates and we have several months to go also.

Total spent at Ralphs: $54

Abundant Harvest Organics

This is our last produce box for the month. I set next week on vacation to let me catch up and to save some money at the end.

As you can see, the box was pretty abundant: nappa cabbage, potatoes, squash, carrots, mache, greek oregano, spinach, apples, chard, rutabagas, radishes, lemons, oranges, and avocados. The leeks were extra. We haven’t got any yet this season and if next week was going to be the week, I didn’t want to miss it.

Total spent: $38

Other expenses this week

Cheese curds from farmer’s market: $14

clearanced graham cracker crumbs: $1.50

Total spent this week: $107.50

Total spent this month to date: $450.50

Truth be told, we don’t need anything in order to eke out our existence this month. But, the sales are hopping and I have freezer cooking to shop for. So, while I could sit out and be good at $450. I’m going to shop this week because of those two important circumstances.

The challenge is about being a good steward. And saving earlier in the month is going to really help me fund next week’s “shopping spree.”

How’s your grocery budget crunching this month?

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  1. just under $200 yay! do you coupon?

    • @meg, I used to be a coupon fanatic. Doing so helped us get over a very rough spot financially.

      But, I found that as we moved to whole foods, the things that were a steal weren’t things I wanted to buy. I know that you can still do whole foods and coupon, but the number of coupons is few and far between and takes more time than I have to hunt them down. So, I don’t do it very much. I shop between five different stores (as opposed to ten), hunt the bargains and mark downs, and stockpile. It works for us really well.

      • i was coming on here today with the intent to say that!!until recently i shopped like crazy with coupons and loved krogers mega event for great sales to feed my family of 9!!well trying to clean up the food i bring into the house has been a real eye opener. went to krogers for a sale they had..and guess almost nothing!!(some ww pasta, some hand soap and same Moms best cereal!!i will still use coupons for non food items, but there are not so many for the stuff i now shop for..wanted to ask you jess, i havent made the switch to organic sugar(yet)it might be a silly question, but in baking(which i do a lot oi) do you notice any difference??thanks again for everything you do!!

        • @kelly d, isn’t that the truth? Ralphs had canned beans and tomatoes — those are still some of my favorite “convenience” items, but yeah, our choices are limited now.

          Organic sugar — I buy it at Walmart. That’s the cheapest source I’ve found. I did some research though, the “sugar” is not really all that better for you. It’s still processed. Demerara is the least processed. Walmart has that as well. I use that in a lot of things, considering it a step up from granulated, but it has an odd texture. I’ve done sucanat in the past, but it’s just too pricey and not easy to find without buying 50 pounds of it. It’s at Trader Joe’s and Sprouts here, but pretty expensive.

  2. Denise C. says:

    Truth be told, my grocery budget is WAY OUT OF CONTROL. I have been re-reading your site about meals, meal planning and grocery shopping! My 6 and 4 year old are eating A LOT these days, good stuff too. It seems like I am always at the store buying fruit, veggies, milk for them. We did eat down our pantry for the first 2 weeks of Jan, before I did a big shopping.

    • @Denise C., we all have those moments. Don’t worry. It sounds like you’re going to get back on track. Reading stuff to inspire me always helps me. Hope it helps you!

      • Denise C. says:

        It does! I love both your sites, and am going to crack down in Feb. I love fresh months, they are always a fresh start! 😉

  3. I’m done with the pantry challenge due to an absolutely crazy schedule this upcoming week. Just too much on the calendar, 2 nights of work activities which will put me home at 10pm or later and 4 deadlines at work (think stress!). Because of that I’m calling the pantry challenge and I will say it was a success. We came in at $100 under our usual budget. Although I can’t “pocket” that savings because it went toward stocking the college girl’s cabinets for her 2nd semester. Not only were we able to fund the girl’s groceries, but we also cleaned out the odds and ends from the freezer and pantry. Feels good to be cleaned out and ready to start fresh!

    Thanks for your encouragement throughout the month! I think you did a great job as well and honestly, it was kind of fun, at least the first 2 weeks.

    • @Nancy, it WAS fun for the the first 2 weeks. Think we should do it for just three weeks next time? I was wondering about starting on Dec 26th. I actually did start about then, and it makes so much sense. It might also fit the sales cycles better. Sales were lame around here until right about now.

      I am thinking that the three weeks of limited shopping totally makes way for good stocking up. I may have to go back for more beans, tomatoes, and salsa, since those are things we go through so quickly. And I won’t go over budget because I scrimped on the front end.

  4. Great deals! I was at Walmart yesterday trying to pick up some mini oreos for the twins teachers science project next week.. I was getting ready to go and I saw a clearance rack… All laundry tabs- 10 pk marked down to 1.97.. and I had 7 coupons for $2 off 2 packs.. so I am now the proud owner of 140 laundry loads for under $14.00….

  5. I would love to get more Mom’s best cereal and at 99c around here its $2/box my boys eat through it rather quickly although we are still using up our May boxes (which expire this month) only due to the fact that they don’t care for cheerios.

    I am changing up the menu for next month, so I’m about to head out to the local bulk food store b/c they have what I need and its 10% off entire purchase right now. think wheat flour and sugar free for the entire month. In the beginning of Dec., I bought 50lb bags of flour, oatmeal and stocked up on powdered and brown sugars (I didn’t need any more regular sugar I get that one closer to jamming time when its on sale).

    I have spent about $75 so far this month (typical month $400). And yes I can bring in a few items from one of the chest freezers into the fridge freezer and perhaps turn it off but its too cold to thaw it out. I did start right after Christmas so I’ve been doing this for the last month.

  6. Every year I tally the grocery expenses, and began this year wanting to shave about $30 a week off the total. So far I’m $155 under my revised budget! This is good. We don’t really need anything right now, but like you, I hear the siren calls of the sales. I’ll be going this coming week for loss leaders, eggs and milk. I will be making yogurt today so we will be down to one jug of milk.

    I think this will be an ongoing event for me. When I went shopping for produce last week I passed by broccoli marked at $2.98/#. Brussels sprouts were $1.98 so I got them instead, even though the price is at least twice what I usually pay. I’m glad I have some alternatives that will last until I can get the garden planted!

  7. Natalie Muoio says:

    It is good to keep the sales flyer with you though b/c I planned a shopping trip to Meijer last week and in the sales ad Meijer had advertised their brand chopped frozen chicken on sale for $4.99 (3 lb bag) the sales price didn’t ring correctly on the register. Good thing I paid attention and showed it to the cashier and they adjusted the price but had I not had my ad I would’ve paid $2.00 more! It pays to be prepared!

  8. Maybe I missed it and you posted it before, but what do you usually spend on groceries a month? I’m just curious. I know it varies widely from place to place and family to family. I’m mostly wondering how much you ‘saved’ with the pantry challenge.

    • @Nicole, I usually post it in every grocery geek post, but apparently forgot to this time. We average $800 or just a tad over for eight people per month. This is mostly organic produce and a lot of baking from scratch. I shop at Trader Joe’s often because of their non-GMO guarantee which means I spend a little extra to ensure better food.

      We could make it to the end of the month with what we now have, but I’ll probably start stocking up since these sales are so good. I am calling it a $350 savings at this point.

      • @Jessica,

        Nice! We used to have a bunch of Trader Joe’s around us and I really miss having them as a resource. Now my organic/natural/whole shopping is pretty much restricted to one smaller chain natural food store we have here, and it makes things so much more challenging! Periodically, we drive about three hours to the closest Trader Joe’s and stock up on frozen and shelf stable items there. I’ve even blogged about it, lol.

  9. We’ve done well on the spending this month and I’m estimating we can cut our budget in half for February, too. I will have to pick up some things though, but I’m not too worried about it.

    Surprisingly my family is loving the challenge because I am doing more baking, planned favorites and creative cooking. However, I am craving a salad. I’ll be in town on the 30th and I will probably be picking up whatever we need that day just because town is soooo far away.

    We’ve depleted several things this month and it was good to see the last of them go. Even if I replace them next week I’ll know we’re starting with a fresh stock.

  10. Well, the deals have sucked me in also, along with a soda craving. I am at $191.09 for the month. I may try making yogurt. Making Foccacia bread tonight. I was able to clear out and de-frost the deep freeze this week.

  11. To be honest I am kind of floored how much your grocery bill is!! We eat 90% whole foods too, and I bake a lot, I think the trick is to stick to simpler meals.

    • Floored because you think $800 is a lot for 8 people? I get that, though we are well below the national average for the thrifty plan to feed 8 people of our ages, etc.

      I’m sure I could get it lower if I didn’t do the organics or the no-GMO products that I buy at Trader Joe’s. But, we’ve found that those things are important to us. If push came to shove and we couldn’t afford it, we would simply pare down on those items. With four teen and tween boys, it’s a constant challenge.

      Since I write cookbooks, I sometimes have to buy ingredients for recipe testing that we might otherwise just do without during that particular week. Every family has a different experience and different needs. For us, I think we’re doing pretty well.

      • @Jessica, Actually, I think you do pretty well on your budget, Jessica. We have 7 kids (with #8 on the way) and spend a lot more than you do every month. In fact, I don’t know how you keep your budget to that level with 4 boys… I have 6 (one is 16) and even the 7 year olds will eat more than my 13 yo daughter. We also seem to use a lot more milk than you do — at least a gallon a day, especially if I want to make kefir and yogurt (which I do, regularly.) Somebody is *always* hungry in our house, and it’s a real challenge to keep food around in general. As a family, we’re gluten-free, which is also a challenge and raises the bill (I restocked xanthum gum this week… 12.99/8 oz – ouch!), and like you, we choose mainly organic produce. But we also buy only grass-fed/pastured meat, free-range eggs, and (at least some) non-homogenized milk. Those choices add up, but they’ve also done more than anything else to improve our health and keep us out of the doctor’s office. Sure I could buy cheaper meat and milk (or make my kids and husband eat more beans and rice), but since we have the money and this is also the way my husband wants to eat, I don’t worry about it too much.

        And on the other hand, doing your pantry challenge this month has helped us trim the bloat that had crept into our budget from too many meals out, too many impulse buys, and throwing away too much food due to poor planning on my part. We got hit with a change in my husband’s monthly pay structure which required a heavy trim from *something*, and I’m happy to say that I think we’ll be able to do it and still maintain the diet that makes us feel best. You’ll still spend less than we do — I imagine there are a lot of big families who will spend less than we do — but I will be happy if I am doing the best job I can do to meet my own family’s needs, while staying within the budget my husband and I have agreed on. And like you, if push came to shove, we would roll up our sleeves and try to fit what we could into the new, lower budget.

        • @Angela, thanks for your input. Yes, it really is a challenge and so dependent on a family’s circumstances, personalities, etc. Our family looks at mealtime as a hobby. We don’t do a lot of other expensive things, but we will enjoy our food.

  12. Wow Jessica, you’ve done great! For three adults a grandson who is here every day after school and feeding my adult children and fams numerous times a month, I budget $450. I’m at $300 for this month. Since I stockpiled some meats in the freezer I hope to keep next month to the same. We don’t have Ralph’s in central CA so I googled and found out they’re owned by Kroeger. Kroeger also owns Food 4 Less. We have one right next door to our church so I’m going to stop by tomorrow and see if they have similar deals as you were able to get at Ralph’s.

    With the economy what it is and food prices that continue to soar, I think we all need to be more mindful of being better stewards of what we have. I know I have become much better at not wasting food. Fridge clean up days have seen very little tossed food. If we don’t eat a leftover right away, it gets frozen to be reinvented or reheated later. I think February would be a great time next year to do the challenge with just 4 weeks in it.

    • @Laurie, love the suggestion of February. I think some people’s guilt (ahem) over holiday excess will have worn off by then. LOL

    • I’m doing a pantry challenge in February since I didn’t as well as I’d hoped for this month, I was doing fairly well until we hosted guests last weekend. At least they were worth it. 🙂

  13. Hello! I have been keeping up with your pantry challenge this month and have really enjoyed the reading. My family is only me, my husband, and our baby, so we dont have a huge stockpile or need a lot of freezer planning. But we found out that we will be moving overseas in a month, so we need to start eating what IS in our pantry and refrigerator so that none of it is wasted, as no opened food can be shipped overseas Your posts have given me a lot of ideas. Thank you so much!

  14. I”m bad at setting an actual budget ever. I just keep in my head what we spend, know that it all balances out, and we’re good. But I really should be more careful. 2012 presented us with at least $1200/month in new required spending. And we certainly didn’t increase our income by that. at all. Saving $$ has become quite difficult. So, I’ve tried to be a better consumer the past year. I still don’t set an actual budget for spending, but we are watching our spending more than before. I only track spending sporadically. And I put most everything on one credit card (which we pay off at the end of the month) so I can look at it for spending patterns. That being said, I’m pretty sure I’ve been spending at least $800/month on food in the past. So far this month, it’s about $400. And that includes some stock up deals I couldn’t pass up.

    I’m going to keep up this challenge on my own. At least the way that I’ve implemented it. I want my cupboards to really lighten up. I found some cans of beans that were way too old. I checked one and they tasted, um, fermented. So I tossed 3 cans of what would have been perfectly good beans a few years ago. I don’t want that to happen again. So I’m eating down the pantry and need to figure out a better way to track what we keep there. The main cupboard is awkward (small door to a large corner cupboard) and it’s hard to see things in it, since it’s deep. I need to eat it out and start tracking things better and not keep it so full. I think. So, we’ll keep going and see if we can keep the spending down this next month, too.

    Oh, and the other win in this, is we’ve not eaten out as much and when we have, it’s been for us, relatively cheap. Three times instead of 5-6 by now in a typical month. Yay!

    But, we have to get the microwave fixed now. And it’s $100 just for them to come out. Not including parts, labor, etc. Ugh. There goes the savings in january. I sure hope I do ok this week without my microwave. It’s gonna require lots more time and better planning. oh well.

    • My microwave was $60…maybe a new one would be less expensive than having someone come fix it?? Ours has served us well for three years and going strong…that’s $20 a year. Bonus? They come in pretty colors!

      • Heather M says:

        @Charyse, Oh I wish it were that easy for me. We have a small kitchen (small house-urban area), and have a built-in stainless. It replaced our old built-in. Same model (except it was white) that we had for over 12 years and the only problem with it was the handle had broken and we were replacing the broken range and dishwasher and beginning the upgrade to stainless. I was shocked it did this, since the older one was so reliable. We’ll see what they say when they come out. Hopefully it’s an easy fix. I don’t even have the counter space for a toaster oven, so nowhere for a stand alone microwave.

  15. Well, I kind of threw in the towel last week. We had a new grocery store open (our FAVORITE from FL) and we bought extra b/c of amazing Grand Opening sales. We only shaved off $50 from our monthly budget, but I guess it’s better than nothing. It was good overall and I’m working on Feb’s menu plan…still trying to use up some meat in our deep freeze.

  16. As in most things in life, money is not the only way to measure success. We have not saved much on the grocery budget. But we have been very successful in other ways. 1) We have saved a lot from not eating out this month (all eating out was paid for with gift cards from Christmas). 2) We used up a lot of our stock pile before it expired – long term savings. 3) We did a lot of baking and scratch cooking, which in most cases is much healthier than the store bought equivalent. That has helped up drop those extra holiday pounds. 4) My family has no idea I am participating in the pantry challenge. Their only comment about meals this month has been “Mom we really like it when you bake.”

    Comparing your grocery costs to another family’s is usually not very helpful. As any parent of teenagers can tell you, the age and sex of those you are feeding has a huge impact on your overall budget. For those of us cooking for spouses and children with special dietary needs can attest, it can be costly to buy the necessary alternatives to the more mainstream options. Those mainstream options are more likely to be cheaper, have frequent coupons and go on sale frequently. And if you have babies needing diapers and formula all bets are off! When we passed that stage in our family, our monthly grocery bill plummeted $100 overnight.

    We are going to stay with the pantry challenge until the end of the month. Thanks for the inspiration!

  17. We are still “in”, I think. Hubs and I went to the store this AM and they had cereal for 50% off. We bought about 6 boxes and he is happy. He loves cereal but I quit buying it when the price went to almost $4 plus $4 for milk.
    Beans were $0.50 a can and I bought several of those. We also bought tuna on sale for $0.85 a can. Those are very good prices around here. We didn’t spend a ton, and we were totally out of all those things.
    I still haven’t bought any meat this month. Our fridge is bare and we could probably get all of the freezer goods on the bottom two shelves. By the end of next week, we should be right where this challenge needed to take us.

  18. Things are getting a bit dicey going into the last few days, but I think we will survive. I have always tackled January pantry challenge as a game to see how little I can buy. I love sales and buy too much during the year (there are just the two of us) January allows me to semi empty the cupboards and freezer. I’ve learned that we really dislike process foods (basically too salty) so after eating numerous boxed things this month I think we’re done with that and will move on to being cleaner eaters. I am a much more creative cook in January which can be interpreted as good or not so good. We’re putting all the money saved by not buying groceries into our travel account.

    • @Kjane, isn’t that the truth? Processed foods really have no flavor except salt. We went to McDonald’s for the first time in a year on our fall vacation. The kids consider it a tradition for this locale. Never again. It had zero flavor and was expensive.

  19. My guys have had just about all they can take too… I’m baking cookies today to try to hold them off just a little longer…

  20. I am LOVING the pantry challenge! More than a third of our monthly income comes from my husband’s GI bill through school at this point…the catch is, during school breaks (Christmas, Spring, Summer), the GI bill money is prorated for the days actually in school the previous month. So, as Christmas break began three days into December, we received only a small percentage of school money on January first. Granted, we plan for this each year, but January usually ends up being pretty tight. (No one wants to hire someone AFTER black Friday and my ADHD hubby needs to be focused the last two weeks of the term, not working extra hours.)

    SO, we were on the pantry challenge partly out of necessity and cut our spending in half for the month! Being creative has been fun and I’ve been excited that I’ve not felt deprived. We did a shopping run midmonth for some cuties and oranges, cheese, milk, and flour but resisted spending.

    Eating out has been nonexistant this month and the best part of the pantry challenge?? I’ve dropped twelve lbs this month!

  21. I will be sad to see the pantry challange go; I have learned so much. I am ashamed of how much food is stockpiled in my home and how much is wasted. Thank you so much for such a wonderful learning experience as well . I plan on continuing to go as long as I can.

    • @Mary, oh we’re still going to be chatting about this kind of thing. I”m going to do a series on how to build your pantry in March. And we’ll do another pantry challenge in July. Stay tuned!

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