January is traditionally the time when we get rid of the old and bring in the new (and for most of us, a good time to give our credit cards a breather). What better place to start than in our pantries and freezers? It’s not just a great way to save money on groceries for a month or two, it can also help us get a better handle on how to optimize our grocery dollars. Since the price of food seems to be increasing several times faster than our paychecks, now is the time to figure out where we’re wasting money at the supermarket.
Step One: Pull Everything Out and Take Inventory
This will not only make it easier to stay organized and come up with recipes, it’s also a good time to toss expired or stale items and look for potentially dangerous food storage problems. As you pull things out, check the packaging for serious damage or signs of rodent or insect infestation. If you do see evidence of water damage or that pests have been getting into your food, investigate until you find the source of the problem and do any necessary repairs. Not only are pests and mold/mildew damage disgusting, they can also spread disease and cause serious structural damage to your home.
If you find food that you know you simply will not eat for whatever reason, do try to find somebody else who would be glad to have it. In fact, unexpired packages can be given to the food bank, but most will not accept opened packages. You could try Freecycle or Craigslist to give away, say a box of oatmeal packets with two missing, but if it’s a choice between letting it languish in your pantry for another year or two or tossing it, toss it. The money you’ve spent on it is already gone and clutter has a way of multiplying.
You don’t have to make a complicated inventory, a simple spreadsheet grouped by loose categories like “meats”, “vegetables” and “grains” will do. Do note approximately how much of each item you have to work with as this will help you later on when it’s time to use the list to plan meals.
Step Two: Set Some Simple Ground Rules for Yourself
Some people challenge themselves to buy absolutely nothing while doing a pantry challenge. Others will only buy perishables like milk while some will give themselves a small budget to purchase items to fill in the gaps or complete recipes. Do whatever makes sense for you and your particular needs and resources. The point of giving yourself specific guidelines is to provide a framework for making sure that you stick with the challenge as people tend to do a better job of sticking with a goal if they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing.
You should be able to get a fair idea of how long your challenge should last by looking at what’s in your inventory. Do prepare for it to end a few days earlier or later than you’d planned as there is always the possibility of a kitchen disaster or leftovers.
Step Three: Look for Recipes and Menu Plan
As you go through your inventory, certain meal combinations will seem obvious to you. For example, if you have a frozen packet of meatballs, a box of pasta and a jar of sauce, spaghetti and meatballs can go on the menu (and meatball subs the next day if you’re lucky!).
Other ingredients might prove more of a challenge. Luckily. the internet is full of recipes and today’s search engines make it easier than ever to find out just what to do with that ¾ cup of ground lamb and bag of frozen zuchinni. Google recipes is my go to place to start a recipe search since it brings up results from all over the web and lets you fine-tune your results based on what ingredients you have on hand, cook time and caloric content.
Don’t feel like you have to have every single ingredient on hand to make the recipes that you find, particularly savory ones. Sometimes you can simply omit it, swap it out for something you do have on hand or replace it with a known substitute (just do a websearch for the ingredient that you lack + substitute).
Write down your menu and tick off ingredients as you find a use for them. My personal preference is to mix up tried and true family favorites with more adventurous choices to make sure my picky kids don’t revolt, but it’s up to you how you arrange your menu. Do consider cook time and recipe difficulty as you schedule meals. In other words, the night that your kids have soccer practice and your spouse works late isn’t the best day to try out a new recipe that requires a lot of chopping and half an hour in front of the stove.
Don’t forget about using up flour and other baking ingredients. Homemade bread, muffins and pizza can go a long way towards making pantry challenge month seem like a rare treat instead of a drudgery!
Be sure to note any ingredients that you’ll need to pull out to thaw the night before. It can also be helpful to do as much prep work as you can the night before or in the morning before work to make take-out less tempting after a long day of work or parenting.
Step Four: As Your Shelves Become Bare
Start thinking about ways that you can help make your food purchasing and storage more efficient. Here are some questions to ask:
- Would menu planning and shopping with a list help?
- Do you need to find a system to keep your shelves and freezer more organized?
- How much food do you actually *need* to keep on hand?
- Are you throwing away too much expired food?
- Are impulse buys your weakness? (Here are some ways to avoid spending temptations.)
- What pantry staples have proven to be the most useful? Which ones did you have trouble using?
- Are you stocking up on ingredients out of habit instead of need?
Once it’s time to start grocery shopping again, you’ll be armed with the knowledge you need to make better decisions. It’s fine to keep extra food in the pantry (in fact, it’s downright necessary if you live in an isolated area where you can be cut off from the grocery store for days or weeks at a time), but do so in a way that ensures that you won’t have to throw out expired food and that you can carefully monitor your stores for evidence of damage.
How often do you clean out your pantry? What are your best tips for using up dds and ends?
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