Lessons Learned from a Pantry Challenge

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A pantry challenge is a concentrated effort to shop the kitchen before heading to the stores. I learn lessons afresh each time I do it.

Cannellini Bowtie Pasta Salad

Every January now for several years I give special attention to “eating down the pantry”. It’s a great way to scale back after the business and excesses of Christmas.

It’s also a great way to clean out the freezer.

The Pantry Challenge is one way that I “get back to basics”.

It’s in January that we do a type of clearing house, using up what’s in the fridge, freezer, and pantry, rotating stock, and trying to cut our expenses a little. We have so much after the holidays, that it’s actually pretty fun for the first few weeks of the pantry challenge.

While we could certainly “live” off the food in our home for an extended period of time, it would produce some very interesting, not to mention monotonous, meals. I don’t forbid myself from spending money. I just try to shop my kitchen first and only buy what we really need.

I don’t stop our produce box during this time so we still get fresh fruits and vegetables. And special dispensations are allowed to take advantage killer deals on items that we normally use. I can still stockpile, but in the absence of any great deals, I just use what we have.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from a Pantry Challenge:

1. Core basic ingredients allow you to make a myriad of meals.

I realized early on that there are some ingredients that give me so many options. They are the basis of my frugal pantry. If I have an abundance of these items, I can keep my family happy for weeks on end:

  • flour
  • whole grains and pastas
  • eggs
  • leavening
  • sweeteners
  • herbs and spices
  • root vegetables
  • legumes
  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • fats and oils
  • tomatoes
  • nuts and seeds
  • rich flavors, like spicy peppers, rich cheeses, vinegars and sauces
  • liquid dairy

Sure, we add in meat, but we could live without it if we had to. These basics are things that I stock up on when I find a good sale and they build a pantry that is easy and fun to cook from.

When things started to get dicey during this recent Pantry Challenge, I found that eggs, flour, milk, and cheese could get us over a number of hurdles.

2. We have more than we need.

We live an abundant life here in the US. While it’s been some time since I traveled abroad, my earlier experiences teach me that we really do have an abundance. The pantry challenge is a small but poignant reminder to be thankful and not to take my full cupboard for granted.

Once upon a time, we had an involuntary pantry challenge. We had no income and lots of debt. This was years ago and I still had more than enough in the cupboard to see us through a rough spell.

3. I bake more during a pantry challenge, and that’s a good thing.

In order to keep my kids from complaining due to lack of snacks, I found myself baking a lot more. Not only did this provide my kids with ample “fun food” but it was also better fun food than if I had loaded the cupboards with boxed crackers and chips. Plus, homebaked is usually a lot cheaper than storebought.

Now that my boys are coming along in their own culinary endeavors, I’m able to hand off a recipe and let one of them do the baking.

We made a many, many batches of Artisan Bread Dough in 5-Minutes a Day which at fifty cents a loaf saved us a fair chunk of change each week.

4. I meal plan more carefully.

Careful meal planning means I’m less likely to run for take-out — though it did happen on occasion — or just throw together a meal. I found that I felt better about what I was feeding my family on the days when I put careful effort into our meals. Not only was that effort saving me money, but it was an expression of my care for my husband and children.

Those fend-for-yourself meals just weren’t that much fun.

5. I build a better pantry.

In the weeks and months directly following a pantry challenge, I tend to buy more carefully. It’s fresh in my mind that my family doesn’t love eating too many pork dinners in a row and that dark meat really isn’t a favorite.

This guides my shopping and helps me buy things that I know are better for our family. I end up with a pantry that works for us. Since my kids and our seasons of life are always changing, this is an ever-evolving process.

Years ago I stocked up on organic pumpkin at 50 cents a can. I bought two cases, fearing the inevitable pumpkin shortages. Well, I still have some of that pumpkin, but I don’t need it like I once did since our produce box drops a wealth of butternut squash on my doorstep each week. (Butternut can be used in place of pumpkin in most recipes.) Thusly, my pantry needs change over time.

6. I waste less.

A Pantry Challenge takes me back to the basic wisdom of our grandmothers: waste not, want not. I repurposed leftovers, made homemade stock, incubated my own yogurt, stirred up multiple pots of Thursday Night Soup, and used up little random bits that would have gone to waste had I not been mindful of what we had.

(An inventory at the beginning of the challenge showed me what I had to work with.)

In fact, I remembered to check the dates of some things in our Emergency Food Supply and was able to swap out some crackers that were expiring this month. It’s not a good deal if it ends up going in the trash.

7. I spend less.

All this homebaking, using up leftovers, and cleaning up odd bits of stuff in the freezer results in an overall savings on groceries. For our 28 days of this Pantry Challenge, I ended up spending $468, shaving several hundred dollars off our $800/8 people/month grocery budget.

We ate well and the savings helps offset fluctuating grocery prices throughout the year, helping us keep our spending in check.

The pantry challenge was a success, in more ways that one. Could we live on less? Sure. But, we might not enjoy it as much as we do now. We pick and choose our special to us things.

As for our family, we’re learning to find balance, buying the things we love, eating well, and spending less.

Eat Well, Spend Less

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to eat well and spend less. Along with some fabulous foodies, organizers, and frugalistas, I’ve been bringing you suggestions on how to eat like a king without becoming a pauper to do it.

This month we’re going back to basics. From how to cook pasta or make homemade chicken stock to how to cook from scratch or get your husband on board with diet changes, we’ve got you covered.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week:

What’s YOUR experience with a Pantry Challenge?

About Jessica Fisher

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

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  1. Kiffie says

    We went through so much in our pantry and freezer this month, it was crazy. We were well under budget until this week…when I realized that we were down to our last can of tomatoes and tomato sauce. And lo and behold, our local Fry’s was having an amazing sale on these and other pantry staples. I ordered some coupons to match with a few items, and then stocked up ion essentials only, about 6-8 months worth. My OOP was $493 for the month; $7 under budget. I ended up saving 68% on all the staples. So I call it all a win!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Total win, especially when you were able to buy ahead.

  2. cherie says

    You know one of the reasons I generally read your blogs in the morning when I really don’t have time to peruse email is that it really helps me center my thoughts for the day on what MY priorities are. It’s so helpful to listen to you go through your thought process on things whether it’s child rearing or how to best use leftover beans LOL – you are thoughtful about it all and have the same basic core values I’m striving to align myself with – family first, notice the small things, take time to make the most of our time, don’t waste money or tie yourself too much to things . . .

    After I read what’s been on YOUR mind I’m in a better place to consider what’s on mine

    Just wanted to thank you 🙂 Have an awesome day

  3. I’ve been following along doing my own pantry challenge. I started with a freezer/pantry inventory and went from there. We’ve eaten pretty well, there have been a few interesting dishes made this past month but only one was a – please don’t make this again – meal.
    Even with a Sam’s Club trip in the beginning, I’ve only spent less than $400 to feed me, DH, DD4, two dogs and a cat. Eating out a few times added about another $140 to my total.
    I’m happy with that amount and can probably manage to keep my grocery bill under $500/month if I continue to keep track of what we have in stock.
    And I just picked up 80 pounds of sausage (bulk and links) that we had processed at the local meat market for $122 (which isn’t included in the above total). So it was a good thing I’ve cleaned out the freezer, otherwise it wouldn’t have fit.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Great job! It is so nice to have an empty freezer right now.

  4. CarolH says

    As teachers for our whole working years, both my husband and I were paid during the school year and not in the summer. Our pantry challenge for our family happened each August where we ate mostly from our pantry/freezer. We did shop the farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and veggies which made the challenge much easier to face.

    I like your idea of baking more to use up ingredients which tend to sit for long periods of time. Thanks for this post. We never felt like it was a hardship to face the necessity of the challenge.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      I think it’s what our ancestors lived, but sometimes we forget.

  5. Jess says

    Do you have the PDF for your weekly meal plan pictured above? I just love the way it is laid out. Thanks

  6. I think it is also a good time to clean out the pantry. If you know you are not going to use it, put together a box and donate it before it expires, great way to clean out the pantry and bless others with our abundance!

  7. You’ve been rocking this pantry challenge! It’s all very inspirational. I can’t believe how much you’ve saved!

  8. Karissa Sjaarda says

    We’re doing a “pantry challenge” right now. For some reason we ran out of our $400 Walmart fun before the month was over (was it the extra box of diapers, or extra meat for James’ birthday party or the extra medicine since my DH and I were both sick?)? We’ll find out in a couple days when we have our monthly budget committee meeting (thank you, Dave Ramsey). All I know is that there was $6 left in my envelope and about 12 days left of January. So I shopped our pantry and freezer and counter. Now, I’ll have you know, you can, and 12 days ago, you could, easily see the bottom of our freezer, but I’ve learned that I could stretch a pound of ground turkey over three meals (spaghetti, omelets and soup). And we made our own pizza crust instead of eating Jack’s (babysitting ate the last one 🙂 and right now I’m making a tuna salad to eat on homemade buns (thank you Duggars, for the great recipe). I have two days left and three recipes left from shopping our pantry. I miss fruit (doh) but we continue to eat vegetables from the freezer. My husband was fine with messing with the budget a bit, but I wanted to take on the challenge. It’s been fun and intentional and we still have lots of cans of diced tomatoes. 🙂

  9. Robin says

    Wow! I’ve currently got my own unintentional pantry challenge going. I know dried goods get old and tough after a while so we’ve been using up all the beans, grains, and flours–and in the process using up other things as well. And you’re right, it leads to lots more baking! Great idea, great list, and well worth sharing.

  10. Vanessa says

    I’ve enjoyed following along with the Pantry Challenge this month. I agree with you on every point. I have surprised myself with my baking abilities, I made fresh bread and hamburger buns for the first time. I have been inspired to reduce our families consumption of processed foods for health and frugality. I know this will take some trial and error and I look forward to the change. I have learned that I need to reduce the frequency of my shopping to keep my budget in check. I am continuing a reduced budget/pantry cooking into February for finacial reasons. With careful meal planning and fresh produce we’ll do just fine. I wanted to ask you about CSA, did you do one when you lived in KC? I’d really like to join one this summer.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      I could not afford the CSAs I found in KC — and I found the farmer’s markets to be a joke. They were too pricey and not good stuff. If we still lived there, I would probably have made a bigger effort to make gardening work.

      We have really enjoyed “cleaning up” our diet. We now find that we like what we make at home more than most restaurant fare, so that saves us money, too.

      • Vanessa says

        My garden is somewhat small due to needed space for dogs and boys and mature tree cover. The drought last year really killed my efforts. Praying for rain this year. Thanks for all that you share

  11. Jessie says

    I find that I’m much more intentional about purchases. I’ve found myself slacking in the homemade department in the past, but with a tight budget it became more of a priority to bake bread, make stock, and even some yogurt. I also realized that I tend to save the large amount of beef we bought and the garden produce because it’s so good and I don’t want to use it just anytime. This challenge reminded me that we already have it, so we need to use it; it can make a weeknight meal special!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Enjoy it while you have it! If the power goes out, you’ll lose it.

  12. Mary says

    I have appreciated every day on this pantry challenge, I set my goals to spend less than $50 per week on groceries (we are a family of two), but I committed to six months. We did not suffer at all through this first month, we were able to feed ourselves, entertain on several occassions, give homemade bread to friends, and I was less than the $50 each week. We only had one issue that came up, our hog was ready for butchering about 6 mos ahead of schedule. I chose not to include this money in our weekly alottment, but also to not use this meat until May or June. I think I have been successful in promoting this concept to many of my friends, and they in turn have spread it to many others. I have always been a frugal person, but I was not always a good steward of the resources I had available to me. Thank you very much, I will miss your daily reports as I continue on, you are very inspiring and motivating!!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      How wonderful! I will try to sneak in a daily report here and there. How’s that? 😉

  13. I enjoyed reading this very much! I cook for two people, yet if you looked at my pantry, I have enough to feed 8. It’s wasteful. I’m going to ‘shop my pantry’ and cut back starting now!

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