Are you ready to clean up and clear out — and eat well in the process? Then join the Pantry Challenge starting January 1. We’ll be making the most of what we have so that we waste not, want not.
Shopping your kitchen is a great way to save money on food. Doing a Pantry Challenge takes that practice to the next level, spending extra effort on making most of the food you have on hand so that you can avoid food waste and save grocery money.
Every year for awhile now, I’ve spent concentrated effort to do a pantry clean out. By doing so, I limit my grocery shopping, I use up what we have, and I’m forced to be creative. I also learn to be more thankful for what I’ve got. I realize how full my “empty” cupboards really are.
We Americans are generally blessed with full refrigerators. Yet, in her fabulous book on home cooking, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Kathleen Flinn states, “as a country we collectively waste about 40 percent of the food produced for consumption.” Yikes!
I can’t argue with this. I just cleaned out my fridge. Due to poor planning prior to a busy holiday, I threw away food that could have been enjoyed if it hadn’t been forgotten.
The start of January marks the start of our yearly pantry clean out. Care to join me?
Why Do This
A pantry challenge is a focused, but limited, time to “eat from the pantry.” Rather than buying groceries like I normally would, I focus on what we already have. I build my menus around the ingredients I have as well as those I’ve been avoiding.
Sometimes it’s the meal that is is cumbersome to prepare or something that I’ve been too lazy to be creative with. The pantry challenge helps me deal with those items — and teaches me not to buy it again or not to avoid it for so long.
Another fringe benefit to giving my pantry, fridge, and freezer a good clean out/overhaul is that we save money, too. And January is a fabulous month to do that, is it not?
A pantry challenge can take many different forms and serve different purposes. It is basically the idea of cutting your grocery budget by a significant amount so that you can save money and use what you have. Sometimes this can be drastic; other times, it can be a chance to trim some fat from your budget.
An “involuntary pantry challenge” happens when weather, illness, or loss of income prevents you from shopping like you normally would. You make the most of what you already have.
By practicing this on a yearly basis, I balance out my grocery spending as well as keep things in perspective in case I have to make my pantry work overtime against my wishes.
How to Prepare
There are a few things that you can do to prepare for a Pantry Clean Out:
Make a few goals.
At the start of each pantry challenge, I determine some of the things that I’d like to accomplish. This has changed over the years as my shopping habits and the appetites of my family have changed.
By establishing some goals, I’m making it clear to myself what the point of this whole endeavor is. This month I hope to do the following:
- Spend $900 or less on groceries to feed our family. In 2022, we spent an average of $1600/month on groceries to feed our family of 7. With inflation, shrinkflation, and bird flu, I’m not surprised that this number was an all-time high. The most recent USDA Food Cost Reports say that it costs $1920 to feed our family. Yikes! I’m hoping to keep January’s spending to $900 or less.
- Give my freezers and pantry a good clean out. We have two refrigerator freezers and a deep freeze. All three are pretty full right now and could use some breathing room. (Fun fact: your upright freezers need space for air to circulate.)
- Use up those things that I have too much of or kind of wish I hadn’t bought in the first place. They are a weight on me, so if we use them up, I’ll feel better. Hopefully, this will teach me to shop better, too.
By taking inventory of what you have in the fridge, pantry, and freezer, you know what tools you have to work with. You also have a chance to start out with a cleaned and (sort of) organized food storage.
Cleaning the fridge on a weekly or even twice weekly basis helps keep foods front of mind so that you can use them up before it goes bad.
I’ll be doing a big fridge clean as soon as my company leaves on New Year’s Day.
Write a list of all the meals you could make with what you already have. You may be surprised that the list is so long.
Now add to the list the meals that you could make with just one or two ingredients yet to be purchased. This can be the start of your grocery list.
Planning a month of meals at the start of a Pantry Challenge can be really helpful. I’ll be sharing mine on Instagram, so follow along there if you like.
Don’t confuse “pantry challenge” or “pantry clean out” with a “no spend month”. They aren’t the say.
If it meant that I had to go cold turkey and not buy anything, I’d be hard pressed to feed my kids. I could probably do it, but it would be a full time job getting creative in the kitchen.
Over the years, I’ve learned what’s realistic for us to manage. Sometimes I’ve cut our spending in half; other times, I saved just a fraction of our budget, but we were good stewards with what we had.
Use it or lose it tends to guide my efforts these days.
Keep a record.
Jot down each day of the pantry challenge, what you serve for all meals, and how your family responds to those meals. We have discovered some of our favorite meals based on recipes I developed during the pantry challenge.
I’ll be posting daily here on Good Cheap Eats our log as well as posting or linking to recipes that I use. Read our Pantry Challenge Daily Logs as we go along.
Make it a family affair.
One of my renewed goals as a parent and a home cook is to include my kids more in the meal planning and execution. With two high schoolers, two college students, and a college grad, we have a very busy household!
I hope to include the kids more in meal prep and part of that will be their taking stock of what we have and getting creative.
Give yourself a break.
Don’t freak out if you don’t meet all your goals. If you fall off the wagon, just brush yourself off and climb back on. Doing something is better than nothing.
Go beyond your comfort zone and learn to make use of the food you have. Waste not, want not, right?
Read The Kitchen Counter Cooking School if you haven’t already, paying careful attention to Chapter 12 which is all about using what you have to your best advantage.
Be a good steward.
Most important of all, be a good steward of what you have. That, really, is the point of Pantry Clean Out.
Only you can know what suits your household best. If you find a killer deal on grocery items that your family needs, go ahead and stock up — even if it is a month to spend less.
Likewise, if you are tempted toward take-out, but know you have chicken that needs to be cooked, head home and do the right thing: cook that chicken. Save the take-out for another time.
Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list so you don’t miss out on January’s Pantry Challenge.
More Tips for a Pantry Challenge
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This post was originally published on December 30, 2012. It has been updated for content and clarity.