The Benefits of Eating Down the Pantry

The Benefits of Eating Down the Pantry

When I was a young newlywed, I cooked almost every day. I planned meals once a week. I shopped regularly, if not daily.

I also spent enough to feed a small country. In fact, in 1994 I spent more on groceries for two people and occasional guests as I did in 2006 to feed a family with five children!

One of the causes of my overspending was that I bought whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. Our cupboards and fridge were almost always bursting at the seams. As was the trash bin.

I sigh at how much food and money I once wasted.

Now, almost twenty years later, I’ve learned a few things about managing money and food storage. And I am a huge fan of The Pantry Challenge.

If you’ve been following along with Stephanie over the last month, you’ve had an inside look at a pantry challenge. Maybe you’ve even had a taste of it yourself by playing along.

A Pantry Challenge is a wonderful way to make the most of what you already have.

The Benefits of Eating Down the Pantry

Eating down the pantry is a twice yearly ritual of mine. I set aside the months of January and July each year to use up what we have and hopefully save some cash. After several years of doing this, I’ve learned a lot about the benefits and value of this practice.

1. I waste less.

When I make a concerted effort to use what we have, I end up throwing away less. Leftovers are gobbled up for lunch or get remade into something tasty and different, like soup or stir fry.

I tend to keep my refrigerator cleaner and more organized, so things don’t go bad before I am able to use them. I’m able to rotate the stockpile of pantry items so that we use things before they hit their “best by” dates.

2. I learn to make do.

In the old days, I would run to the grocery store if I needed any ingredient for a recipe. This means that I would spend $30 when all I went for was a head of garlic. I ended up finding other things to buy while I was there, and the trip cost me much more than it should have.

During a Pantry Challenge, I learn to go without or make something else work just as well as the usual. Maybe we use garlic powder instead of fresh cloves. Maybe I serve chicken and gravy over rice instead of potatoes. Maybe I add red pepper to a salad for color instead of tomatoes.

After all, it’s just one meal, and it all works out fine in the end.

quinoa salad with beans

3. I discover old (and new) favorite ingredients.

While I’m rifling through my cupboards during a challenge, I find all kinds of things I forgot I had.

:: Oh! We have all these chocolate chips? Let’s make cookies!

:: I didn’t know that we had all this quinoa. Let’s make a salad!

In the process of eating down the pantry, I get reacquainted with old favorites and am inspired to use them up.

4. I learn what not to buy.

On the other hand, I also get to face the music when it comes to poor purchases. I am reminded or discover what not to buy in the future, thus avoiding more poor purchases.

:: Why did I buy this almond paste when my daughter is allergic to nuts?

:: Note to self: never buy this kind of pasta again.

5. I am more creative.

Twice a year when I batten down the hatches and make a concerted effort to eat what we already have in the kitchen, I find that I’m more creative in the kitchen. That marinated steak salad at the top of the page? A result of a pantry challenge. The dish has become a family favorite.

Learning to make do and rediscovering old and new favorite ingredients often results in great recipe development that I wasn’t suspecting.

6. I save money.

Limiting my shopping saves us money. To some this is a novel idea. You mean you don’t have to go grocery shopping every week — or every day? No. Most of us have several weeks’ worth of food stored somewhere in our homes. We often overbuy.

Eating down the pantry helps us lose the excess and keep in our wallets the money we might have spent.

There are huge benefits to using what you already have. Good stewardship and good eats can be a package deal when you do a Pantry Challenge.

How have you benefited from a Pantry Challenge?

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  1. Well said ! I know I used to do the very same thing! It’s a great feat when you realise the whole family ate well and enjoyed a cooking from the pantry/freezer week or month!
    I was so inspired by these recent posts that I was able to save enough money to buy clothes for our family as we had a need in that area thanks for the inspiration!

  2. we just bought a house and in the move, i noticed how many things i had in the pantry that i had forgotten about. i’m very excited to implement your idea of twice a year. thanks for the tips and the great reminder to use up what we have on hand.

  3. We ate down the pantry over the last month before we moved and it was great because it allowed me to start the pantry over from scratch in our new home and now buy anything that I didn’t want to be in our new home – a fresh start approach to the pantry. We don’t do boxed stuff but now that there are no sugary cereals or items we don’t need or use we aren’t adding them back in. Even starting over on the basics like flour and sugar was nice. This time around I started fresh with organic cane sugar and organic unbleached flour and it was easy because there wasn’t any left so I already had to replace those ingredients.

  4. Great thoughts! We “eat down the pantry” all year long. I have learned that I save so much money by meal planning with what I already have, then only buying food when I find a good sale (with the exception of some weekly fresh produce). We freeze a lot of “good deals” and then eat it up as I meal plan with it.

  5. We are actually “eating down the pantry” this week because we had to spend a large chunk of money on emergency vet bills. Which in a way make me glad I have all this stuff crammed in the cupboards and freezer. At least it will be used up and we can restock rather than letting it sit past the expiration date. Your post made feel not so bad about making do with what we have. : )

  6. As a blogger and cookbook writer, I frequently feel pressure to buy certain ingredients so that I can “create.” But as I’ve let go of the deadlines and the rush and started to worry more about my family’s budget and using up what we have around, I’ve become much MORE creative. I might come up with 4 – 5 simple recipes in a day, using what’s leftover in my kitchen. Recipes good enough to make again and share with my readers. Right now I’m going to be working on oatmeal pancakes, coconut-banana muffins, and sprouted amaranth bars, because I had the main ingredients for these in my pantry…and my kids will appreciate the quick breakfasts and snacks! I like being creative in the kitchen so that’s been a bonus for me.

  7. Maybe it’s the nerdy/competitive side in me but I love taking the last week or two of the month and challenging myself to use up all the food we have in our fridge and pantry and avoid the grocery store at all cost! It’s actually fun for me and challenges my creativity {because I am not as creative as I wish I could be in the kitchen!} and my husband loves it because we save money every month that we get to put into savings!

    Thanks Jessica for the motivation and inspiration to continue to do this! I love your blog!

  8. Need this reminder regularly. Just out of curiosity, do you take the stuff you have left at the end of your clean out to a food pantry?

    When we finally finished our 14 month remodel (that should have taken 2 months) I un earthed box after box of pantry staples that were all expired. Combined with the freezer full of food that I lost from an electrical mistake… well, I probably lost several thousand in food. I am now a serious believer in routine pantry challenges.

    1. I only donate things that I know we won’t use, like the almond paste that my daughter can’t have. If it’s expired we use it up (within reason) or chuck it. Doing this often helps reduce waste.

  9. I think this is such a great idea! Something that you can do all the time even 🙂 That is what my hubby and I have discovered this past year. We try to use up as much as we can from our pantry/fridge all the time, and save so much as opposed to when I just shopped whenever and picked up whatever without planning.

  10. I found that in Spring I’m too busy for this challenge but I still managed to unplug a small freezer that badly needed defrosting. I made all the thawed berries into bumble berry jam(mixed berries). Almost unbelievable how much was in there. I did add some fresh strawberries and my yield was 21 pints of jam! I think I’ll do this every year. I’m saving on this years strawberry u pick purchases already because a big portion of my annual jam making is already done.

    1. What a fabulous treat to find under your own roof! I find that January is ideal for a pantry challenge because we usually have so much excess from the holidays. I chose July since I have more time to be creative. Though, I’m not sure how I’ll do with fresh produce in July since I want to preserve and freeze a lot for winter.

  11. We are doing this right now as well. Because we are going on an extended vacation we are eating everything in the fridge and most of the freezer, except for 2 freezer dinners that I am saving for when we return so we aren’t tempted to eat out.

    I always enjoy your pantry challenges. Lots of good ideas and recipes!

  12. i am so doing this mostly because my husband was just laid off and we will HAVE ti coast on whats we have. i just wish we could get real produce where we live but we are stuck with our one grocery store and sad sad options from it. but with 4 kids i know i have a tun squirled away. and i love allrecipes because i can just put in the few things i have on hand and presto a recipe because honestly i am so horrible at coming up with something new. looking forward to all your posts

  13. What an awesome idea! My pantry and freezer are both busting at the seams so I’m going to give this a try! Our middle of the month pay period is always less because my husband gets paid monthly so from the 15th to the end of the month we live off of my check which doesn’t go very far at all. This may just be an awesome solution to an already tight budget period. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!

  14. While this is a good idea, money HERE is tight, so when i do have some i overbuy and then when its uberlean, i have food to eat. If i ate down my pantry i’d go hungry some times. Maybe when money isn’t as tight.

  15. #5 is my favorite reason. I also must admit that I feel proud of my cooking and planning skills when the end of the month comes around and my fridge and pantry LOOK empty, even though I know I have a few full meals left to conjure!

  16. Sounds like fun to me! I noticed about a year ago that we were throwing alot of food away both from the pantry and fridge/freezer as well, so I made a dedicated effort to stop the wasting. I actually do a mini-challenge every week! I go through the fridge, freezer and pantry (usually on Friday evening while cooking dinner) and take out everything that needs to be used, then make a point to cook it all that weekend. I also keep a running supply so to speak of veggies/produce in the freezer. When I see at the end of the week that there is an excess of some fresh fruits or veggies around that I know we aren’t going to eat and are destined for the trash (maybe I bought apples which weren’t too tasty, or we ate too many and got sick of them) I sort them into 2 different freezer containers/bags in the freezer: 1: fruit which will get used in shakes and smoothies 2: full veggies, which I wash, peel, chop etc to be used in soups or some other dish. Especially since I always have homemade stock on hand in the freezer I can whip up completely homemade soups from scratch at any given time simply by thawing the stock and tossing in the veggies to cook! It’s also handy to keep out of the ordinary stuff around and convenient to eliminate trips to the store which as you say, cost more in the long run for example, you just HAVE to have some gumbo but no fresh okra? Oh, theres a bag ready to go in the freezer….I also do this with my meat and veggie “scraps” to make the stocks in the first place. I’ve got little bags saved up of chicken, beef trimmings, bones, etc and the somewhat non-usuable, but still flavorful pieces of the veggies, such as the ends of green onions, or corn cobs (only when you cut the corn off though, I DON’T mean when you bit it off!!), stems from herbs you’ve cooked with and so on. I will tell you, everyone says I make the best soups, so there’s gotta be something to the method I think! 🙂

  17. Sounds like a great idea to go through all your accumulated dry goods, but at the end of the month, don’t you have to go and spend $ to re-stock? Do you really end up saving money?

    1. Well, it’s not something I would do really frequently, because you’re right, then I’d need to go and stock up all over again. But, when I do it once or twice a year, I find that it helps me to stay in control of the stock that I have, and making sure that I’m using everything I buy. It’s easy to forget about things that we have, or for items to get a bit buried in the pantry or freezer, and then they don’t get used up before going bad. I find that I can also sometimes stock up beyond what I need, and so it’s good to really assess what I have and how I can use it every once in a while, to make sure that we really eat everything we buy and that I don’t stock up unnecessarily. Doing it this way, just as needed, definitely helps me to save money.

    2. I’m going to agree with Stephanie. Doing a Pantry Challenge is like putting a governor on our spending. It helps me to ID areas of overstocking as well as things-not-to-buy-ever-again. I also find that the months where I eat from our stores help balance the other months when things go crazy.

    3. By eating from the pantry you do lighten up your stock and will have to restock at the end of the month. Thus spending the same amount, or at least close to it restocking… but what you have done, is cut down on what is in your pantry so you are not wasting food (wasting food is wasting money) and it also lets you evaluate which foods you really use the most and which foods you could live without. By doing it every 3-6 months you could really simply your grocery list and budget.

  18. How do you get your husband on board with this? when I try to do this pantry/freezer challenge, my husband doesn’t want to eat up the old food. instead he likes to buy lots of new snacks and ingredients and fill up the spaces with them. I think it’s partly because his family lived through a situation where food was scarce, so for him an excess of food is a good thing. sigh.

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