Preparing for a Pantry Challenge

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A Pantry Challenge is an excellent time to accomplish a number of great things for your kitchen as well as your pocketbook.

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

This is the month for the Pantry Challenge. Every January and July here at Good Cheap Eats, we take some time to focus on our food storage, use it up and set some better habits in order. I’ve found that this helps me to be a better steward of my resources and helps me be more mindful of how I shop and cook.

In using up what you already have, you clean out the cupboards, getting a chance to tidy and declutter while you’re at it. Once those shelves start to empty, wipe them down and even do new shelf paper if that’s your thing. By eliminating excess, you will free up space, both physical and mental, making cooking more fun.

It seems that I look forward to cooking more when there’s white space in the fridge or freezer. When it’s packed to the gills, I just feel overwhelmed.

By focusing on what you have you will save money in not buying more. You also avoid the grocery store which means you reduce your impulse purchases, again saving you money. You learn what not to buy when you force yourself to use the things that have been there for a very long time.

I bought several cases of canned pumpkin on clearance a few Christmases ago. They lasted for years. Years. They hit their expiration date this fall and I had not used them all up. Note to self: two or three cases of pumpkin is a little too much.

Here are some tips to help you make your pantry challenge a success:

1. Clean out the fridge, freezer, and pantry.

It may take some time, but you’ll find that clean storage areas will make your cooking and your pantry challenge that much more enjoyable. If feasible, pull everything out, consolidate duplicates, and dump stuff that is no good.

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

While I didn’t love doing it, I threw away several old and unlabeled items from my freezer. Oops! It just wasn’t worth it to me to figure out what they were and hope they weren’t five years old. But, it’s reminded me anew to keep a sharpie at hand in the kitchen so that I can label things more accurately.

I found several small bags of homemade spice mixes, most of them different. I collected them all in a plastic food box so that I’ll know where they all are. Now, I have a system for where to store them, I can (hopefully) eliminate some of the hodge-podge going forward.

Generally, I reorganized the fridge-freezer according to shelf: opened vegetable bags and spice mixes, ice cream/frozen treats, breads and baked goods, breakfast items, and our smoothie drawer.

In the deep freeze, I sorted out the different proteins: chicken, pork, beef, and ground meat are all divided in different grocery bags, per a reader’s suggestion. Frozen vegetables and fruit in other bags or boxes. All the frozen broth is in one basket, and all the freezer meals are in another area. I know what we have AND I know where to find it now. Yay!

I followed the same general methods with the fridge and pantry, consolidating like items and moving the opened stuff toward the front so that we can use it up sooner.

Looking for ideas on how to organize your food storage? Check out these past posts:

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

2. Take inventory.

Once you’ve cleaned and organized and discarded the icky stuff, take stock of what you have. It’s really important to know what you have so that you can plan great meals from it. This post from the Meal Planning 101 series, Take┬áInventory explains how to create an inventory of what you have and includes a free inventory printable.

Obviously, I’m not organized enough to print the inventory sheet. You can use a plain piece of paper, too. ­čśë

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

3. Plan meals.

If you’ve cleaned up and organized your food storage and taken inventory of what you have, you should be able to make a meal plan. I sat down with my inventory list and just started brainstorming ┬ámeal ideas of things I could make with what I had on hand.

If you can plan easy meals, like recipes that use the slow cooker, then you’ll spend less time in the kitchen. Well, less time than you would if you were making time-intensive meals. For a Pantry Challenge to be really successful, there’s a lot of cooking and eating at home. The easier you can make it on yourself, the better.

Looking for ideas in using up certain proteins or bulk ingredients? Scroll through the Good Cheap Eats recipe database here:

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

4. Fill in the gaps.

You have a clean storage space, an inventory of what you have, and a list of meal plans. Now, it’s just a matter of filling in the gaps. Most of us have enough to make all of some meals, but not all of all meals. I needed a few odds and ends to make the meal complete. In some cases, we could do without. In other cases, it’s nice to have a certain ingredient to make the meal complete.

When push comes to shove, it’s remarkable what we really can do without. And in very dire circumstances, you will amaze yourself. If we really didn’t have the money, I would just make do. In this season, I’m good with filling in the gaps with a few things, namely, fresh produce, milk, and cheese.

Preparing for a Pantry Challenge - tips and tricks for making a pantry challenge successful.

5. Start prepping make-ahead items.

While advance prep is not absolutely necessary to a pantry challenge, I’ve found that baking a bunch of snacks and treats ahead of time really makes this experience successful. If my kids have freshly baked bread or cookies, they have no idea that there’s no cheese in the casserole or no sour cream for their quesadillas.

Preparing a few make-ahead items also makes it easier on me because it reduces my temptation to run to the store or through the take-out lane. It makes the challenge more fun and definitely more delicious.

Are you ready for a Pantry Challenge?

If you’re the type of person who stocks up on bargains and doesn’t like to let the cupboards go bare, a Pantry Challenge might be in order. It’s a little outside the comfort zone, I admit, to let white space creep into your food storage, but it’s a good thing to help you pare down, save a little coin, and consider how to make the most of what you have. Those who keep stocking up without using up run the risk of their food storage going bad. That defeats the purpose of bargain hunting.

If you have all that you need and money to spare, why should you make things hard on yourself? Having lived a season of fighting debt and a very, very small grocery budget, I know that keeping my skills sharp during my twice-yearly Pantry Challenge is good insurance toward the possibility of future tough times. I don’t anticipate their coming, but I like to prepared just in case.

If you find yourself on tough times, here’s hoping that the Pantry Challenge will help you know you’re not alone. It’s my hope that you’ll find recipes, tips, and resources here on Good Cheap Eats to help you weather a tough season. And I’m sure you can help us learn to be better stewards of our resources as well.

How do YOU prepare for a Pantry Challenge?

About Jessica Fisher

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

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  1. are you doing a link up with those of us who are joining you this year?

  2. Heather says

    I am ready, the menu is made and the groceries have not been bought. other than the casserole we were supposed to have last night that was to include broccoli which I didn’t have, I should not have to get too creative. I will probably be getting a few items on Sunday, but not many. However, I am about to put in a tea order from montana tea and spice company which I will use a full weeks worth of this month’s grocery budget. I know you break down and buy good coffee, I break and buy taste teas.

    • Yep. I think you have to have those splurges. I think that’s what helped us get out of debt, having a little “blow money”, even just a little to feel like we had something special.

  3. Good point about sharpening our frugal skills with this challenge. I went through my pantry today and like you, threw away some foods that were too far expired (oops 2011 condiments!). I’m going to try and use some of the boxes / cans that just recently expired within the last month or two. I also moved everything out of my downstairs upright freezer to my kitchen freezer that I want to try and use up this month. I hope that will help me not forget what is in my freezer!

    • The expired food is always a bummer, especially when you got it on a great deal. That’s part of why I keep doing these challenges twice a year, to make sure we’re rotating our stock.

  4. Jessica, you’re the queen of the pantry challenge! I’m always so inspired by this! Tackling a challenge this month and sharing this great post. What do you do with the extra money after a pantry challenge?

    • Thanks for your kind words! Honestly, the money usually gets absorbed into the larger grocery fund because I inevitably overspend some other month. This helps me keep my averages low, curbs potential bad purchases, and helps us waste less. So some of the savings is hard to measure.

  5. Crystal says

    I love your Pantry challenge posts, and this is the first time I am brave enough to join in! My fridge is bare(I just cleaned it out this morning, and after spending Christmas and New Years away from home, there wasn’t much to begin with!) but my freezer and pantry are bursting at the seams! Thanks for giving me the idea to do a pantry challenge!

  6. Kara says

    awesome post! I have loved reading your blog for years and especially the Grocery Geek posts because I am a GG myself. I decided to start a blog to document my journey this year. Thanks for inspiring me! I spent a lot this first week but I plan on eating my pantry and freezer down now!

  7. Kelly says

    Our freezers are arranged a bit differently because we raise a lot of our own meat, so when you butcher a steer, it takes a lot of space i the freezer! We have 2 shelves for beef, 1 for pork, 1 for frozen meals, and the bottom has misc stuff. The chest freezer has trays that fit just right and are stackable, making it easier to get stuff from the bottom. The top tray has our frozen fruit, then it’s chicken and other meats we don’t yet raise, ground beef, and then the lamb at the bottom.

    I read somewhere (wa it here?) To use a wet earse marker to write on the door of the freezer-the contents and location-of each item. Dry erase would probably work too if you could keep from accidentally rubbing it off, but if you keep the pen nearby, you can mark off what you took out, or write in new stuff as you add it. I haven’t tried it yet, but I like the idea.

    I don’t have one central place for pantry items and that’s where I lose track of stuff. I try to keep like items together, and more frequently used closest to the kitchen, but even that doesn’t always work. Perhaps this challenge will help me see a better way to store food.

    • I remember “somewhere” in the comments, someone saying that about the markers on the freezer door. Mine is a chest freezer that gets used as a table sometimes, so I know my people would wipe it off. When I do the clipboard thing, it seems to work. I just have to do it.

  8. CeCee says

    I invested in a dry erase board that I put on the wall by my freezer. We are about 90% diligent about marking things in and erasing things out. At the end of the pantry challenge I hope to have this inventory 100% correct. Best <$15 investment ever!

  9. Heather M says

    Prepping for this challenge was easy. I had already cleaned out and reorganized my cupboards in November. They’re still in great shape (no “pantry” in my pretty urban household just over the river from DC. No room for a deep freeze either, which is the one thing I wish I had that I don’t and can’t). Last night after getting home from our trip, I cleaned out the fridge. Was happily surprised to see that the two unopened bags of lettuce blends from Trader Joe’s were still edible! I had bought them for xmas eve dinner with friends where I had to bring salad for 40 and had bought extra to bring just in case. Plus, I always buy salad from Trader Joe’s since I eat tons and time is limited these days. $2/bag is a small price to pay if it makes the salad eating easier. This afternoon, I went to the grocery store and bought quite a few things on sale, and fresh items we needed ($112). Aside from one trip to Costco at some point, I won’t spend that much at any one time the rest of the month. I’ll be cooking and baking and planning. Which I love. In fact, I think I’ll be making banana muffins tomorrow, since we have overripe bananas from before we went out of town. ­čÖé

  10. I restock my baking supplies right after Christmas and fill in the deep freezer with what meat is on sale, ham, turkey, pork and one good size prime rib that I slice for 2-3 meals . Prime rib is my Christmas gift to Hubby that used to raise beef when he farmed.I try to keep my deep freezers organized so I always can see what I have. Though sometimes I find things get shoved around when Hubby has been in there. The pantry is always straightened as I can most of our veggies and some of the fruit and have everything on certain shelves.

    Tonight was another night of eating from the pantry, well, actually my son’s pantry that he passed to us when he moved in with his lady, my mother’s pantry that my brother and I split between us when she died and our pantry.

  11. Kjane says

    1. Get in the right mindset is my first pantry challenge challenge. I recycled the grocery ads without looking at them this week.
    2. Make a plan to use fresh ingredients up so they don’t spoil-I have spinach I need to use up soon or else saute and freeze.
    3. Already inventoried and looked up recipes to match what I have.
    3. Have fun. Hope my husband doesn’t complain too much.

  12. The biggest money saver for me is buying no name products and discounted items. That budget is not voluntary so I need to be as creative as possible!

  13. I am just too excited. I’ve been sharing this everywhere.
    The amount of extras and oldish things I have that need to be used…

    Happy New Year Jessica & Family!

  14. maricela says

    Hi. Just found your site. I been wanting to start the meal planning for a few days. This comes at the right time. I just subscribed too. I’m in too!


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