Making the Most of Your Pantry, Fridge, & Freezer (Eat Well, Spend Less)

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All of us have been there at one time or another, staring into the pantry or refrigerator and thinking, “There’s nothing to eat in this house.”

While this truly may be the case for some families, for many of us, this is a gross exaggeration. “Nothing to eat” often translates to:

  • nothing I want to eat
  • nothing I want to prepare
  • nothing I want to battle with my kids over

Chances are for most of us, there really is something to eat. We just need to suck it up and get cooking. Sometimes that takes an attitude shift. Other times we just need a little inspiration.

Take a pantry challenge.

One or two times a year I take a month or a few weeks to reduce my grocery shopping and make the most of what we already have. I shop less and cook more. Typically this takes a time investment and some good home cooking, but it also usually results in some money savings and better stewardship of the things we have. I even create these wonderful concoctions that we want to eat again! Necessity is the mother of invention.

I do a periodic “pantry challenge” for a number of reasons:

  1. I save money.
  2. I use up things I forgot I had.
  3. I am reminded to count my blessings.

Could you make do?

What if we ran out of power and had to live off what was already in the house? What if we experienced an unexpected job loss and needed to truly “make do” for a season? What if there was some kind of emergency that limited our ability to add to our food stores and we had to make the most of what we had?

After several years of doing “a pantry challenge,” I’m convinced that we could make a go of it for several weeks if we had to. Would it be all the foods we loved? No, obviously not. But, it would be nourishment, and for the most part, it would be tasty.

Take an inventory of your cupboards. What do you have? Make a list and see how many meals you could create with what you already have on an average day. I read a statistic once that said the average US household has the makings of at least three weeks’ worth of meals.

Make the most of it!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a doomsdayer and I don’t imagine that any awful thing is coming our way. But, I think it’s good to spend a few minutes thinking about these things. Times are tough, and budgets are slimmer than they once were.

Years ago we hit rock bottom. We got a wake-up call when my husband was suddenly out of work for an extended period of time. All at once we realized that we couldn’t continue on the ferris wheel of revolving credit. So we sucked it up and made the most of what we had.

Speaking from experience, I do know what it’s like for the cupboard to get empty. It’s a humbling feeling.

God graciously used that season to teach us many valuable lessons. One was to learn how to make the most of a little.

And that has helped us to think through how to be prepared for emergencies: natural, political, or financial.

5 Ways to Make the Most of What You Have

Here are some techniques we’ve used to put good food on the table when it didn’t really seem like we had very much to begin with:

1. Make breakfast for supper.

You don’t need pancake mix or frozen waffles in order to prepare a great “breakfast” meal. In fact, making pancakes from scratch is almost as easy as shaking out a boxed mix. This is my go-to recipe for homemade pancakes. It’s simple and filling and can be doctored up in a number of ways. It’s also usually cheaper than a prepackaged mix.

If you really miss the convenience, make your own mixes.

2. Have a weekly soup night.

Making good soup is not rocket science. You can pretty much pull one together with very little work. If you’ve got veggies, broth, spices, and a starch like potatoes or rice, you’ve got the makings of a great soup. Serve it with crackers or bread for a hearty, cold-weather meal.

Thursday Night Soup is great for beginners — and you’ll quickly see that making soup from leftovers is as easy as can be.

3. Go meatless.

We have had at least one to two meatless meals every night for years. It wasn’t because we had lofty social or health ideals, we just knew that meat was a more expensive component of a meal. So, Beans and Rice and Pasta and Red Sauce are two of my go-to meals, even today, when the pickings aren’t as slim as they once were. They come together fast and easily — and my kids gobble them down.

4. Bake it yourself.

Unless you have a great source of clearance breads, chances are storebought bread is taking a big bite out of your budget. I just saw that bread is $4 a loaf! Holy cow!

Flour, yeast, salt, and water are really all you need to bake a good baguette. Sugar and eggs add richness. Either way, these are ingredients that the average kitchen will have already. Make your own cookies, cakes, muffins, and breads. And it doesn’t take much to make them beautiful.

5. Be satisfied without X, Y, or Z.

Years ago I would make a special trip to the store for one ingredient, spending time, money, and gas. Nowadays, I usually go without it. We’ve learned that we can live without a myriad of costly ingredients — and still be satisfied come meal time.

No matter the reason for “making do,” attitude matters. If you feel like you’re lacking, then you certainly are.

The power outage, gas leak, natural disaster, financial downturn — these all can be bad deals. And they are. But people throughout history who’ve faced adversity and triumphed had one thing in common — a desire to fight and overcome the hardship.

Being prepared is one step toward doing just that.

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 discussing emergency preparedness ideas and how we can make the most of our resources should the unexpected come our way.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week or browse their archives:

About Jessica Fisher

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

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  1. mahek says

    Thanks for this lovely post…
    can you tell me where you got those great looking plates…

    • Jessica Fisher says

      The white one is Mikasa French Countryside. The flowered is a cheap seasonal plastic one from Walmart. 🙂

  2. april says

    Im doing a pantry challenge in m house right now. we accumalated alot of meat in the freezers over the summer since no one really wanted to eat,so before all theholiday sales we are working on cleaning them out.

  3. sherry says

    I want to start by saying I love your blogs. This post came at the right time, we just had some unexpected home repairs and we are doing a pantry challenge. Thank you for writing this series.

  4. Martine says

    Good timing for this post. I want to empty my pantry so I can start fresh before filling up for the winter. It is also a great way to fine tune my list of what I should be stocking up on.

  5. What a timely post! I have totally overhauled the way I grocery shop lately, doing far less couponing and purchasing much more in the produce department. However, I’ve been lamenting that my budget has almost doubled.

    When I look at the amount of food in our house, including the sheer amount of produce (from the store, farmer’s market, garden, friend’s garden), I really need to re-evaluate how I blew the grocery budget so badly. We could easily make do with half of what we have.

    I have done pantry challenges before, but it was mainly to stay within budget. I think I’m going to try again to see how we can make do with what we have and possibly the budget will lower on it’s own.

    Thanks for the reminder to be grateful for what we do have.

  6. Stephanie says

    I enjoyed your post and the reminder of how fortunate I am. It is a blessing to me and others to have food in the pantry. This weekend we had a new family in our church call my husband (he’s the Bishop of our church )to say that they didn’t have food for dinner or money for groceries. My husband and son started filling a box with food for this family. They found items that I had forgotten I had or had put off preparing because I wasn’t sure how the family would respond. They took pantry items and food from the freezer. We stopped to pick up a gallon of milk and the family had enough food for a couple of days. The family was so grateful when we arrived with this food. And I haven’t missed one thing that they took. What a blessing to be able to share.

  7. I always love all of your encouraging advice on how to eat well and save money.

  8. This week “nothing to eat” has turned up 2 nights of chilli and rice; ham risotto and sausage with pasta.
    Impromptu call for a couple of days work for hubby and a glance in the cupboards said “nothing for lunch” to pack for him. 20 mins later he had frozen mini pittas (be defrosted by the time he eats), some ham, some grapes and a small tub of cheerios. I whipped up some bagels from scratch for him the next day.

  9. Danielle B says

    Great and timely post! Love the picture of the bread in the shape of heart!

    I would gently and respectfully disagree wholeheartedly that “nothing awful is coming our way”. It is so hard to accept that indeed, much much much harder times are heading our way, but unfortunately all signs point towards that idea becoming fact. I won’t go into all the facts and details that supports that idea, because this just isn’t the place. The point is that practicing preparing our meals strictly from what we have on hand for any extended amount of time is great practice that will come in use as time continues.

    We just finished a long run of eating mostly from the pantry, cleaning out a lot of the super processed foods to make way for more basic staples like beans, rice, flour, and basic baking supplies. It was also necessary from a budget stand point. Win win. 🙂 Now I’m slowly adding canned veggies, soups, and other pantry staples a little at a time.

    One major issue I’ve come across though is cooking rice. I don’t have a rice cooker, and really can’t give up the space it would take (tiny townhome, no extra space). I mostly cook white rice right now as we’re getting used to eating more rice. It never comes out right. Either too gooey, too sticky, not soft enough and then it becomes gooey when I add a little more water and cook it longer, etc. It’s just never “right”. How do you cook rice properly without using a rice cooker?

    And lastly, would you think about doing a post on what are a few of your best recipes using rice…. beyond beans and rice, chicken and rice or mexican/spanish style rice? Trust me, we have those dishes down pat now! 😉

  10. Megan says

    I just started a blog because of this very thing. We were without funds coming in for a period of time and we were forced to live out of our pantry. I think we did alright but sadly, I don’t think The Husband learned anything from the experience. Any tips on how to get him to learn?

  11. These posts are always so inspiring for me. I know just what you mean – staring into a full fridge / pantry and thinking there is nothing to eat. It’s good to clean out sometimes. Great tips.

  12. Katherine says

    One of my biggest problem is waiting until I’m really hungry to think about what to make for dinner. I get all cranky and my brain seems to stop working and I just want Thai take-out. One solution is to plan a weekly menu, but I find that this is a little too time-intensive for me or I end up not being in the mood for Tuesday’s dinner on Tuesday night. Or I plan too many meals and then plans change due to last minute get togethers with friends and I end up with a lot of extra ingredients. Plus, I subscribe to a CSA most of the year, so I don’t always know what I’m going to have to work with.
    My solution? I put a white board in the kitchen and I write down all my meal ideas for what we have on hand, both pantry and fresh groceries. After we go grocery shopping, I jot down meal ideas as they come to me so that by the time dinner rolls around I have a lot of quick, easy options. I also keep a list of fresh produce on there, to help remind me what to use up before it goes bad, and I keep a list of leftovers to help my husband remember what he could take for lunch (I work from home). I also add a small section for frozen “leftovers” like extra grains and roast veggies that I need to use.
    It’s not a perfect system, as I am still susceptible to bouts of Thai cravings, but it has really helped us avoid the “nothing to eat” problem, and we hardly ever throw away food that has gone bad. Seriously, I probably throw something away at most once a month. And it doesn’t take much extra time, because I’m often thinking about food anyway, so all I have to do differently is just write it down.
    If you’re more techie, you could keep the list as a Google doc or a shared Evernote so you could access it online and share it with whoever else cooks. Heck, you could probably even connect it to your smartphone so you could add ideas on the go, but I haven’t tried that yet.

  13. Karen says

    I have to admit my pantry is fully stocked. If I had to I could live off my pantry and freezer for a good solid 2 months. I believe in being prepared, but I also believe in not wasting. I cook from my pantry everyday and when my kiddos tell me they can’t find anything to eat I laugh and tell them to take a good look around. We don’t have a lot of junk in the house, so if they want cookies they have to get in the kitchen with me so we can make them. All in all I am very happy with my pantry and feel I save money with it. I am also a strategic shopper so my money is well spent not over spent or wasted on nonessentials. Life is good.

  14. Anna says

    Thank you! I’ve been doing this for about 14 years and it’s a great way to clear space and waste less, and spend less. Hubby’s job doesn’t pay regularly so I have to stock up in times of plenty and use up in times of little. The worst it’s been in the last five years was when I had $20 a week to feed 5 people and 2 dogs. Scouring the web for sites like yours with ideas helped me get by.

    One “recipe” I made is a mac and cheese pizza. My whole family hates leftover instant mac and cheese, so I made Alton Brown’s pizza crust, topped half with the leftover mac and sprinkled it with a bit of shredded cheese, garlic powder, and two crumbled leftover pieces of crispy bacon. It was good! And even better cold for breakfast.

    The other half of the pizza dough I rolled into a rectangle, filled with all bits of meat I had in the fridge (including baloney), used the three leftover wrapped cheese singles, rolled the dough over and sealed it. Baked it. Wa la! A stromboli. Slice it and serve it. The kids liked this so much hot and cold that they took pieces to school for lunch.

    Next time I’ll be trying a mashed potato pizza, taco stromboli, mystery “pouches” — leftovers in little hot pockets of pizza dough, mana pua (yeast rolls with a tiny bit of leftover bbq meat inside) but you could use taco meat or other leftovers.

    Another thing I do is turn chicken bones into soup, those leftovers thickened into stew, any of those leftovers into pot pie with a bit of homemade pie crust on top of it. You could also use failed bread dough as dumplings, which can then end up as pot pie. Stretch it all out.

    Thanks for the blog. I’m always searching for new ideas and every one helps!

  15. Thanks for your post. I am pantry cooking to tighten up my food spending. I appreciate your ideas and encouragement!

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