Here’s a story that might sound familiar to you. It’s the last week of the month, and you only have a few bucks left to buy food. You’ve looked for ways to stretch your grocery dollars, but you just can’t see how you can get a whole week’s worth of meals out of them. You check the pantry to see what else you have to work with, but as far as you can tell, it’s just full of miscellaneous junk — a half-empty sleeves of crackers, a few odd cans of beans, a bag of lentils you bought for some reason you don’t even remember. There’s no way you can turn that stuff into dinner, is there?
Actually, there probably is. And a pantry challenge could help you figure out how.
The pantry challenge is the brainchild of Jessica Fisher, who runs the website Good Cheap Eats. The idea is to buy no groceries for a fixed amount of time — anywhere from a week to a month — and make all your meals entirely out of what you already have in the pantry and freezer. It offers a way to clear the clutter out of the pantry, avoid food waste, and save money, all at the same time.
Benefits of a Pantry Challenge
A pantry challenge serves many different purposes. The benefits of staying away from the supermarket for a month include:
1. You Save Money on Food
It stands to reason that for every week you don’t buy any groceries, you’ll save a week’s worth of grocery money. Becky Worley of ABC says doing a two-week challenge with Fisher’s help saved her around $200, and various contributors on Good Cheap Eats say they’ve saved anywhere from $50 to $400 per month. Fisher says her yearly pantry challenge helps “even out” her grocery spending for the year, so she can afford to splurge when she needs to.
2. It Avoids Food Waste
Some people argue that a pantry challenge can’t really save you money because you’ve already spent money on what’s in your pantry. That’s true, but on the other hand, that money is wasted if you don’t actually use the food. Let’s face it; it’s a rare shopper who never buys anything at the store that ends up languishing at the back of the pantry.
If you don’t see that as a problem, consider this: According to Feeding America, about 70 billion pounds of food is wasted in America every year, even as millions of people go hungry. By clearing out the unused food in your pantry, you’re doing your own small part to fix this problem.
3. It Puts Your Stockpile to Use
Many extreme couponers have large stockpiles of food they’ve acquired for little or no money. They often object to the idea of a pantry challenge because they’ll use up all these bargains. However, they’re looking at it backward. The whole point of buying all that cheap food was to eat it; if it just sits there in the pantry, it does them no good. This makes the pantry challenge an opportunity to make sure all those stockpiled groceries get used and to free up storage space for new bargains.
4. It Saves Time on Shopping
Buying groceries takes time as well as money. According to a 2016 paper from the Time Use Institute, the average trip to the supermarket takes 43 minutes. That means a one-month pantry challenge could save you three hours of shopping time, which you can devote to anything you’d rather do — for work or fun.
5. It Cleans Out Clutter
If you’re like most people, you have food lurking at the back of your fridge or cupboards that you don’t even know about. For example, when Worley dug through her pantry for the challenge, she found three open bags of flour, 27 servings of miso soup, and four bags of quinoa, which she doesn’t even like very much. Clearing all this unused stuff off your pantry shelves makes it easier to see the food you have left, so you can find what you want when you want it.
6. It Teaches You What Your Family Likes
A pantry challenge can force you to try new recipes and cook with ingredients you don’t use most of the time. If your family likes these new dishes, that’s great; you can file them away as useful recipes to make in the future. However, even if your family hates some of the things you make, that’s still useful information. It will tell you which ingredients to avoid in future, so you won’t waste time cooking dishes no one will eat. For instance, a couple of commenters at Good Cheap Eats said the challenge had taught them to stop spending money on fancy products, such as exotic grains, and stick to the basics their family actually eats.
7. It Improves Your Skills
One of the biggest advantages of a pantry challenge is that it helps you sharpen all kinds of skills, including cooking, meal planning, and managing resources. For instance, a couple of commenters on Good Cheap Eats said the challenge had convinced them to try baking their own bread. Another commenter said all the cheap meals she made during the challenge convinced her that her family could get by on a smaller food budget, saving them close to $2,500 a year.
8. It Cultivates Gratitude
In a piece for Kitchn, Fisher says many people object to the pantry challenge because it makes them feel poor. However, she says that for her, it does exactly the opposite. Reminding herself what it’s like to get by with less makes her feel grateful for what she has. Several commenters on her site have also said the challenge helped them realize just how lucky they were.
9. It’s Fun
Finally, a pantry challenge can be fun. Trying to make a meal out of a can of tuna, a box of oats, and a jar of peppers is kind of like solving a puzzle. It forces you to be creative, and it can give you a real sense of pride when you successfully turn what looks like a whole lot of nothing into a satisfying dinner.
How to Do a Pantry Challenge
A pantry challenge takes planning. Since you’ll only have a limited amount of food to work with, you’ll have to know exactly what you have and what you can make from it. Here are some steps that Fisher and other people who have taken the pantry challenge recommend to make yours a success.
1. Set Your Ground Rules
Before you can get started on your pantry challenge, you need to know what the limits of the challenge will be. The first thing to decide on is a time frame. Fisher, who does this challenge every year, usually plans hers to last two to four weeks. However, if you’ve never done the challenge before, you might decide to do it for just one week to start.
Next, decide on the rules for exactly what you are and aren’t allowed to eat during the challenge. In her ABC interview, Fisher strongly urges participants to include the contents of their fridge and freezer, as well as their pantry. That way, “it doesn’t feel like such a hardship,” she explains. Also, if you have a home vegetable garden, by all means, continue to pick and eat what it produces; there’s no point in letting that fresh produce go to waste.
You should also decide whether you’ll avoid buying any new groceries at all during the challenge or just limit the amount you purchase. In her Kitchn article, Fisher says she doesn’t completely give up buying groceries during this period; instead, she gives herself a small budget to buy milk and fresh produce so her family doesn’t have to live entirely on packaged food.
By contrast, “Tiffany” from Don’t Waste the Crumbs says she never sets foot in a grocery store during the challenge. This forces her to clean out her pantry completely, “think outside the box” when creating recipes, and be more mindful of her habits. If going entirely without groceries is too harsh for you, she suggests a compromise: Buy nothing at all for the first week, then set yourself a strict limit of $10 per week for new food after that.
2. Take Inventory
After establishing your ground rules, the next step is to make a complete inventory of everything you currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. This step is crucial. Since you’ll be making all your meals from this food for the next week or more, you need to know exactly what you have to work with.
Be thorough. Open up every cupboard, even those above the fridge that you almost never look into. Fish out every scrap of food you can find and write it down on a list, from the five pounds of chicken in the freezer to the lone packet of instant soup crumpled in the back corner of the pantry. After all, part of the point of the challenge is to use up all those odds and ends, and you can’t use them if you can’t find them.
If it helps, you can turn this part of the challenge into a game. The goal is to find as much food as possible that you didn’t remember you had. If you have kids, you can probably persuade them to play along with you. With their little hands, they can reach into the smallest crevices and possibly unearth some “treasures” you’ve overlooked.
3. Plan Meals
Once you have a complete list of all the food in your home, you can start figuring out what to make from it. Even if you don’t normally plan your meals ahead of time, it’s essential to do it now. Otherwise, you could find yourself with five days left to go and nothing in the house but half a box of oatmeal, two packets of microwave popcorn, and 17 different sauces.
Here are some tips cooking experts recommend for making the most of what you have in your pantry:
- Conserve Your Resources. Since food is now a limited resource for you, it’s important to use it wisely. If you have only four eggs in the fridge, think twice before blowing them all on an omelet on the first day of the challenge. Maybe it would make more sense to stretch them out by using them to make pancakes or muffins.
- Plan Two to Three Days Ahead. Cooking from scratch with foods from your pantry often involves extra prep time. For example, if you want to make a meal of dry beans, you need several hours to soak them and cook them. To make sure you allow yourself enough time, “Tiffany” recommends planning out every meal you and your family will eat — including snacks and desserts — for the next two to three days. After that, you can reassess what you have left in your food stores and make a new plan for the next few days.
- Search for Recipes. For every item on your food inventory, search your cookbook collection and the Web for recipes to use it in. Many recipe sites, such as Allrecipes.com, have a feature that lets you enter the name of a specific ingredient or group of ingredients and look for recipes that use it. It’s a great way to find uses for those odds and ends you uncover in the back of the fridge, such as a half-jar of chutney. It can also be helpful for finding new ways to use up more familiar ingredients. For instance, Worley found several cans of tuna fish in her pantry, but all she knew how to make from them was tuna sandwiches. Fisher pointed out that she could combine them with her jars of capers and olives to make pasta puttanesca, and Worley uncovered a great recipe for it online.
- Use Perishables First. At the start of your challenge, focus on using up the foods in your fridge that will go bad if you don’t get to them right away, such as greens and fresh milk. If you’re not sure how long your food will last, consult the food storage guide from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- Sweat the Small Stuff. Tiny portions of this and that, like a tablespoon of frozen peas left at the bottom of a bag, can be particularly difficult to use up. Make a point of focusing on these odd bits when planning your meals so they don’t go to waste. A quick online search will yield lots of tricks for using up leftovers, like tossing all vegetable scraps into a soup or crumbling crackers and stale bread to make homemade bread crumbs for a casserole topping. If you have little bits of ingredients that are only slightly different, such as half-empty boxes of mismatched pasta or dribs and drabs of similar-tasting sauces, you can simply combine them in one dish.
- Substitute Ingredients. If a recipe calls for something you don’t have on hand, consider whether you could substitute something you do have. For instance, if you normally use cream of mushroom soup in your tuna casserole, but you’re all out, think about whether cream of celery or cream of broccoli could work instead. You can find other lists of food substitutions online.
- Think Outside the Box. If you think of dinner as a hunk of meat on a plate with sides of vegetable and starch, it’s time to broaden your horizons. Dinner can be a one-pot meal, a hearty soup or salad, or just a plate of sandwiches. Foods you think of as breakfast dishes, like omelets or pancakes, can also be dinner fare. Worley tried this as part of her challenge, and her kids loved it.
- Don’t Use What You Hate. It’s possible your pantry holds a few ingredients that you tried once and absolutely hated. Using these up could mean choking down meal after meal of something you can’t stand, and you’re likely to get so frustrated that you quit the challenge early. Giving these unwanted foods to a friend, donating them to a food bank, or tossing them in the compost bin is a better way to get some real use out of them.
4. Learn From Others
If you find yourself stuck for ideas during your pantry challenge, it can help to talk to other people who have done it before. Fisher sells an e-book all about the pantry challenge on her website for $12, but if you’d rather not spend the money, you can consult her free archived articles about the challenge. You can also sign up to receive emails during her pantry challenge months with tips and tricks for doing your own.
While you’re reading through articles on Good Cheap Eats and other sites, check out the comments below each article. Lots of people have used this space to share their own experiences, including both their triumphs and the problems they ran into. You can post your own comments here to ask questions and get feedback from the community, or to share strategies you’ve discovered that could be helpful to others.
What to Cook During a Pantry Challenge
On her pantry challenge tips page, Fisher mentions several meals that are useful for disposing of leftover food. Some are specific recipes, while others are general ideas. Her suggestions include:
- Soups. According to Fisher, “Almost anything can be made into soup.” To illustrate this point, she has a flexible recipe called Stone Soup, based on the children’s story about a traveler who feeds a whole village by tricking the villagers into adding their hoarded food scraps to a “magic” soup pot. This recipe calls for a few specific ingredients, but she encourages you to “tweak” it to include any combination of broth, veggies, starch, meat, and beans you have on hand. Other soup recipes you can modify to fit your particular needs include chili and minestrone.
- Baked Goods. If your pantry contains a bag of flour and some leavening, this opens up lots of food options for your pantry challenge. You can bake bread or biscuits to accompany soup, make your own pizza crust and top it with whatever you have in the fridge, or make pancakes or waffles with either sweet or savory toppings. You can also bake cakes or cookies for dessert, which Fisher says “makes any odd meal go down better.” She offers a recipe called Mix and Match Muffins that you can make with any type of flavoring, including nuts, chocolate, and fruit.
- Meatless Meals. Unless you have a lot of meat stored in your freezer, you won’t make it through the pantry challenge without eating at least a few meatless meals. Instead of feeling deprived by this, you can look at it as a chance to test-drive a vegetarian diet, which is generally cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally friendly than a meat-based one. By discovering vegetarian meals you like, you can enjoy these benefits on a regular basis when the challenge is over. Some meatless meals to try include beans and rice, omelets, veggie pizza, and burritos. Fisher has recipes for all of these on her site, and you can find numerous others with a simple online search.
- Meat-Light Meals. If you can’t face the idea of eating completely vegetarian for weeks on end, look for recipes that can stretch the meat you have so it will last longer. For instance, you can add small bits of meat to soup, stir-fry, or tacos. If you have recipes that call for ground beef, such as lasagna or chili, Fisher suggests cutting the meat by half and bulking up the dish by adding extra rice, potatoes, or beans.
- Leftover Concoctions. Finally, Fisher has several suggestions for turning leftovers into new dishes. In addition to her Stone Soup recipe, she proposes omelets, fried rice, pizza, sandwiches or wraps, hearty salads, quesadillas, pot pie, burritos, and pasta. You can find recipes for all of these on her site and many other cooking sites. A few other flexible recipes for using up leftover scraps include quiche, frittata, casseroles, and kabobs.
How to Know If Old Food Is Safe to Eat
When you’re using up ingredients that may have been in the back of your pantry for a while, you may wonder if certain items are still safe to eat. No one wants to risk food poisoning, but the National Resources Defense Council estimates that a whopping 90% of food is thrown away before it needs to be for food safety reasons.
If you’re not sure what the various labels and dates on your food mean, you’re not alone; even the USDA recognizes that consumers are confused by them. Here’s what you need to know.
This term is actually aimed at retailers instead of consumers. It lets stores know the date by which they should aim to sell the food it’s stamped on. It doesn’t mean that the food switches from “good” to “bad” at midnight on the “sell by” date; it’s just a way of helping retailers keep their inventory fresh.
If you buy food close to or past its “sell by” date, it’s usually still good to eat once you get it home. The Institute of Food Technologists estimates that one-third of a food’s shelf life remains once this date passes, so you’re still good to eat it within a reasonable amount of time.
This is the date by which the manufacturer would like you to eat the product to ensure the best taste and quality. Again, it doesn’t mean that the food will make you sick the minute this date passes; it’s just a way for food producers to suggest how quickly you should eat the product before it starts to taste less fresh or flavorful than it did when it was picked or packaged.
One exception worth noting: Salt without additives never goes bad, but some retailers won’t sell items that don’t have a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date on them, so manufacturers slap a date on the product regardless of whether or not it will ever expire.
Probably the most useful of the three, this label is meant to help consumers determine the date past which the product’s quality will decline precipitously.
This isn’t an exact science, so if you have food that’s a day or two past its “use by” date, but it seems fine, go ahead and use it at your discretion. If it’s something like milk that you consume all the time, you’re probably a pretty good judge of whether or not it’s still edible. Anything past its “use by” date won’t automatically make you sick, but it won’t taste as good once it hits that date. Exercise caution and you’ll likely be fine.
A pantry challenge offers more than just one-time benefits. It can become a regular tool in your frugal-living toolkit that you can pick up again whenever your pantry is a little too full and your wallet a little too empty. Fisher says she does a challenge once or twice a year as “kitchen discipline.”
Better still, the challenge can be a chance to develop new habits that continue to help you long after the week or month is over. After a few weeks of cooking from scratch, using up leftovers, and keeping a sharp eye on what you have in your pantry and freezer, you’re likely to find yourself continuing to do these things even after you start grocery shopping again. You’ll continue to spend less money and waste less food; you just won’t have to challenge yourself as much to do it.
Have you ever done a pantry challenge? How did it work out for you?