How to Build Your Pantry on a Budget

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This month, I’m working to organize my pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Part of doing that is to use up what we have and do a major stock rotation. I’ve set some goals for the month and am trying to be diligent in how I cook and how I shop.

Each day, I’m recording on my food blog a diary of what we eat and how I’m making the most of what we have in the house already.

But, that doesn’t mean I didn’t go shopping. I’m also trying to be mindful of good sales and to build a better pantry. I’m not going to pass up screaming deals, but I’m not shopping like normal, either. I’m using up the old stuff and happy to welcome some new sale items.

Out with the old and in with the new, as they say.

Here’s my process to build a better pantry while staying under budget.

1. Take the long view.

Rome wasn’t built overnight. And if you’re just starting out to build a pantry, don’t think you’re going to go out and stock up in one fell swoop. At least not on a budget.

Instead, realize that this is a process. You will add to your pantry overtime, based on what’s on sale.

2. Check the sale ads.

Consult the grocery ads and buy only the items that are a really good deal or those that you truly “can’t live without.” This week was a perfect week at my local Ralphs (Kroger) to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Here are a few items that are on really good sale this week.

whole chickens – 59 ¢/pound
bananas – 39 ¢/pound
Special K cereal – $1.99 each when you buy 4 boxes
Yoplait yogurt – 10/$5
Quaker Instant Oatmeal – $1.99
Sargento cheese sticks – $2.99

These are basics in a house with children, and items that I can build a number of meals around. Plus, they fit my definition of a Frugal Pantry.

3. Match with coupons.

Use coupons when you find the item on sale. Redeeming a coupon for an item at full price really doesn’t save you a ton, unless you really “can’t live without” that item. But, matching the coupon with a sale helps you significantly lower the price of the item, making it a stock up-portunity.

I found coupons in the recent newspaper inserts and online that match many of these items. After coupons, my prices were this:

whole chickens – 59 ¢ (limit 3)
bananas – 39 ¢ less store produce coupon
Special K cereal – 99 ¢ each when you buy 4 boxes, using this coupon (thanks, Money Saving Mom)
Yoplait yogurt – 10/$4, using an insert coupon, I also got back two catalinas for $1.25 each, making them 32¢ each.
Quaker Instant Oatmeal – 99¢, using an insert coupon
Sargento cheese sticks – $1.99, using an insert coupon

I also had several Ralphs store coupons that further reduced my bill, such as “Save $1 when you buy $4 in fresh fruit.” I made sure that I bought enough bananas and markdown produce to make this work.

You don’t have to use coupons. The prices I’ve listed in Step 2 are still good stock-up prices, but coupons make them better.

Wondering how to get started with coupons? Read my Adventures in Couponing series.

4. Scan the clearance.

The section of your store that holds the marked down items is a storehouse of treasure!

Shortly after Christmas, my Ralphs was selling organic pumpkin for 50¢ a can. I stocked up. At Henry’s a few weeks ago, I found oat flour, turbinado sugar, and Bob’s Red Mill baking mixes for $1 a bag.

This week I scored major big time on several fronts. At Target this week (not a grocery trip), I cruised down the grocery aisle just in case, looking for clearance items. I found butter for $1.25, the lowest price I think I’ve ever bought it for. I bought five pounds.

At the above mentioned Ralphs trip, I got the following items on markdown or really good sale:

pumpkin spice instant coffee $1.00 each – $1/2 coupon, making them 50¢ each
frosting for birthday cakes $1.25 each
fresh cranberries 69¢/pound
chocolate covered cranberries $1/bag
apple slices 99¢/box
baby carrots 79¢/bag
10# potatoes $1.98

While I won’t use five pounds of butter or six pounds of cranberries this week or this month, I’ll have them frozen for later when I will use them, saving a significant amount of money by not paying full pop at that later date.

I can build my pantry easily and economically with items that the store has marked down.

Remember that manager specials are not bad food, just items that the store wants to move quickly because they want the space for something else or they don’t want to take a loss if it goes past its sell-by date.

4. Allot some budget toward pantry building.

For many people this is tricky. How do we make ends meet for this week and still buy ahead for the future?

Part of the answer is found in doing a Pantry Challenge. Make do with what you have in order to have extra funds for something else. It’s the age old secret of don’t spend money you don’t have. But spend less on one thing, so you can spend more on another.

So, since I’m mostly using what we have in the freezer, fridge, and pantry for our meals this week, I have wiggle room, even in my reduced Pantry Challenge budget, to buy things for the future at a greatly reduced price.

If you don’t have much in the pantry to begin with — though I bet you do with a little creative thinking — then plan some budget meals for a few days each week to allot yourself extra funds to put toward stockpiling.

Beans and Rice and Pasta with Red Sauce are two of my quick budget meals that cost less than $5 to feed my entire family of 8!

Here’s what I spent on groceries this week:

Target (butter) – $6.20
Ralphs (pictured) – $46.79, after catalinas
Henry’s (produce, eggs, plain yogurt) – $23.25
CVS (dental items) – $5.27, after ecbs

I spent a total of $81.51 during the first week of January.

Obviously, we’re not going to eat all these items in one week, but I spent a total of $81.51 and I’ve stocked my pantry with items that we can use over the coming weeks. I made sure to check expiration dates before I bought and I’m stashing on a top shelf the items that I don’t want the kids to inhale in a mere five seconds.

It makes for an odd looking cart to see bulk purchases of a few mismatched items, but once you do this over the course of a few weeks, you will have a well stocked pantry that you paid less for than if you had bought “a coordinated cartful” every week.

5. Store wisely.

Once you get your purchases home, think about how you will store them to make your investment stretch. Untimely expiration dates, bugs, rodents, and just disuse can kill your investment in short order. Avoid this at all costs!

Some things might need to be repackaged for the freezer or stored in special ways to extend their shelf life. Flour, nuts, and other baking products can be stored in the freezer to keep them fresh. Even cheese and yogurt can be frozen. Keep your stock away from excessive temperatures or moisture.

As for my purchases this week, the butter, cranberries, and the chickens went directly into the freezer while the cereal and dried cranberries went on a top shelf. The cheese and yogurt obviously headed to the refrigerator. The oatmeal went to the pantry and will probably be consumed by the end of the month. Ten pounds of bananas? We’ll eat as much as we like before they turn brown, and then I’ll freeze the rest or bake a banana chocolate marble cake.

6. Go back to step 2 and repeat.

If you do this every week, soon you will have a well-stocked pantry. Not only does this prevent you from running to the store at a moment’s notice for something you “need,” but you will see your grocery bill diminish. Or, at worst, your costs will stay the same, but you will have much more to show for it.

Having a well-stocked pantry also allows you to take time off shopping for a season to use what you have and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

How do YOU build your pantry on a budget?

Don’t forget to visit Super Savings Saturday! I have learned so much about how to save on groceries from that weekly carnival.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Li says

    Good job! I knew cheese could be frozen, but I had no idea that yogurt could too. My DH told me that milk can to, but it’s a little weird about how you have to store it (basically said you have to take a little out, to allow for expansion).
    I have built up a really good pantry, we have Ronzoni pasta that was on sale, plus I had a coupon, plus my store (Meijer) had their instore coupon. So I stocked up. I had gone to every site that had a ronzoni coupon and printed it. By the time I was done, I had 15 boxes of pasta and only paid about $.45/box. 🙂 Not too shabby! Soup is another great deal you can find in the winter/spring time…. the stores are always running sales on them, and almost every brand has coupons out there. I have an entire shelf devoted to soups (we have a major mixture: tomato, chicken with rice, minestrone, beef pot roast) and combined with either mashed potatoes, rice or pasta, can be a great quick fix meal for under $3-4!

  2. Jennifer says

    I have something to share that goes along with the benefits of stocking your pantry. This morning I woke up to a almost 2 feet of snow outside. Now, I live in northern Indiana so snow really isn’t a big deal. But you know its bad when the police and media are telling everyone to stay off the roads. And as of this conversation, it is still snowing now at a rate of 2-4 inches per hour. Wow!

    Yesterday, as I was taking note of what is in my freezer (sound familiar?), I realized that I hadn’t taken out the pork that was suppose to go in the crock this morning. So of course, it’s still very hard. In the past, this would have left me in a bind. However, since I started menu planning and stock piling a pantry, I already have a backup meal started! Like Jessica, we love beans and rice!

    So, instead of being in a panic about what to cook for dinner and praying I can make an emergency trip to the store, I’m sitting in my pajamas reading Life as Mom! Maybe my entire family will stay in pjs today while the snow continues to pile up. Life as THIS mom is good!

    Thanks Jessica for all the motivation, great ideas and recipes. You rock!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Jennifer, yeah! I love it when a plan comes together! Enjoy your jammie day!

  3. Michele says

    I’ve been trying to rearange our budget so as not to use credit cards (ever again!). I decided to stick with my current grocery amount. My husband gets paid 1x/month, so I’m going to take 1/4 of the grocery budget when he does get paid & put it towards “stock-up”. We shall see how it works.

  4. Jen says

    This post is very helpful. I’ve been trying to follow this same process for the last 3 months and have a good stockpile building up but I find it harder to get meat on sale when I can afford to buy a lot of it. Maybe it just takes time.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Usually sales run in 6 week cycles. So, if you miss the week that chicken is on sale, expect that price to come around in six weeks. Hang in there! You’ll figure it out.

  5. Brie says

    Waste and disuse is a big thing I try to avoid with creativity. I just made the oddest soup but the kids are loving it! I may serve it along with other leftovers for dinner:o)
    (and in the soup is cabbage, 4 cut up hot dogs, three kinds of pasta including broken up lasagna noodles and chicken bouillon…oh and a stray package of ramen noodle seasoning)

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Brie, I made a wacky soup today, too. Leftover chicken, rice, and stuffed mushrooms pulsed in the food processor. No one knew there were mushrooms in it! And they loved it. LOL

      One child even commented on how fresh it tasted. 🙂

  6. You are great! Please come grocery shop for me!! 🙂 lol

  7. Kerry D. says

    Building a pantry has worked really well for us–we save about $300 a month from our old grocery budget,while expanding what we have on the shelf. I just get a lot of whatever the best deals are. Just yesterday, I bought 20# of 80/20 ground beef for $1.58 lb, which I will cook into fourteen meals and freeze tomorrow. Each meal will cost much less than if I’d just bought the ingredients as needed, plus sooooo convenient with our busy schedules. 🙂

  8. Erin says

    I recommend buying a *big* frozen turkey a day or two before thanksgiving. I got a 19 lb turkey for 29 cents / lb. It’s sitting in my freezer, and I’m going to cook it later this year. Most of it will be shredded, then frozen again for use in all types of dishes.

  9. Cathie says

    You mentioned throwing your whole chickens in the freezer. I bought two this week on sale, am cooking one in my crock pot today but I am wondering what to do to freeze the other. Do you leave it in the package in came in and throw it into the deep freeze as is, or does it need any special prep to avoid freezer burn. I love freezing everything but this is one I have not done yet. Thanks!
    (By the way, milk does freeze beautifully but you do have to let a little out beforehand so that you do not have a mess on your hands! We used to live in a very remote area and I had to do this to pay less that $4 per gallon!)

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Cathie, I put the chickens in the freezer as is. If you ever wonder about packaging, ask your butcher, but generally speaking, they package it in a freezer-friendly way.

  10. So what will you do with all your cranberries???

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Angela, I’ll use them in baking over the course of the year.

  11. Martha in Georgia says

    I’ve had bad luck freezing yogurt. Gogurt seems to work, but the cups have a strange texture upon thawing. Suggestions?

  12. margo says

    wow, that is definitely the best butter price I’ve seen! I would stock up like you did, and freeze it.

    When you say you stocked up on pumpkin, how many cans are you talking?

    I do most of my shopping at a farmer’s market, so when I go to the grocery store, I’m just filling in. . . and it does make my cart look really odd when I’m just buying the loss leaders 🙂 And then bringing my own cloth bags to boot. Ah well, I’ve gotten used to it.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      I bought 24 cans of pumpkin. They kept restocking it each time I went, so I figured they had a lot to get rid of.

  13. Esther says

    Ack, I can’t believe how much cheaper food is in the US!
    I’m feeling it because I have go get a load of groceries today! 🙁

  14. My BIG investment this year was a new (commercial) chest freezer. We actually took out a 90 day LOAN to buy it…it was SO worth tightening my culinary belt for those 3 months. The money had to come out of my grocery budget or I couldnt have the freezer, so it forced me to get very creative on MUCH less money. Fortunately we grow all of our own meats, but even with that I had to be creative. Picked lots of dandy greens and grew lots of radishes, both to braise and to use the green tops to make scalloped greens. Biggest money saver was in learning to make Mozzerella at home. VERY cool and saves a ton of money. Add a bit of Italian seasoning and mozzarella over tomatoes, beans and rice and they will about eat it every day of the week – lol. Cheese is SO DANG expensive and so NOT hard to make. Now that I have my freezer I DO shop sales, but only for things I cant make at home ir items that allow me to make things at home.

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