4 Easy Steps to Save Money and Declutter with a Pantry Challenge

by Tracy · 6 comments

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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  • Persepone says:

    Cleaning the pantry and rotating stock is important. Checking for pests, moisture problems, etc. is also essential. If you find contaminated stuff, toss it and learn from it.
    We buy on sale and keep an “emergency stock” but one reason this works is because we repack stuff before storing it. If it does not come in glass or a can, you may need to repack it in glass or in a good storage container. For flour, sugar and similar staples, look into the heavy duty food service containers (sold in restaurant supply stores). If you buy items such as coffee on sale, storing it in the freezer is probably the way to go.
    Having said that, be aware that most (not all) of the “expiration dates” or “best used by” dates on food are totally bogus! Use common sense and think about the original purpose of canning. Check “home canning” guides. If it says that you can keep X for 3 years safely, then you should be able to keep the same food that was commercially canned for 3 years safely (provided of course that the can has no dents, is not bulging, etc.). Canning was used in the past to overcome the problem of this year’s harvest of X being good, and the next year’s harvest being terrible. During/after WWII people ate lots of “old” canned food (sometimes very “old” canned food) with no issues.
    By the way, even USDA, etc. admit that “expiration dates” and “sell by” dates are bogus. You can safely eat eggs for about 5 weeks after the “expiration date” on the carton, for example. In fact, since an egg that is not good will tell you so instantly (the smell is overpowering), it’s not an issue!
    One of my major “frugal” strategies is to be available when my friend cleans her pantry (which she does about once a month). When she tosses stuff out, I’m there with boxes to cart it home! She tosses out cans of tuna that are one DAY beyond the “best used by” date. What can I say? I have probably saved thousands of dollars by eating her food! I keep telling her that she is being ridiculous…. But if she wants to toss it out, that’s fine with me.
    As for what to do to avoid the problem: shop with a list and track both your “eat now” and “emergency stash” list. It may help to do a whole month’s worth of meal planning rather than just a week’s worth. That way you can allow for sales, etc. And your emergency stash should definitely be planned. How many people x how many days will tell you what you need. Don’t forget pets and don’t forget water (for drinking, for cooking, for clean up, for tooth brushing, etc.) because in emergency water is going to be the big crisis. And yes, you do need to rotate that also. In the end, you don’t want anything in your emergency stash that you don’t normally eat, but you may want more of certain things and less of others. You want stuff in your emergency stash that does not require a lot of water or fuel to prepare. So if normally you might eat pasta sauce with pasta, in emergency you probably would eat it with rice instead. [In emergency you may be cooking with bottled water.] And even though you normally make pasta sauce instead of buying the glass jars, you might keep some glass jars in your emergency stash. You may put stuff in your emergency stash that doesn’t require cooking at all (peanut butter) and you may eat it with crackers (packed in cans for “Export” work well in emergency stash) instead of bread. But you still need to rotate the rice, the peanut butter and the crackers… This is probably easy to do in the normal course of events. For us, for example, the glass jars of pasta sauce do rotate when we need to cook something in a hurry!

  • Jean says:

    It’s very important to check for pest habitats in your home. I had a frequent problem with ants in my kitchen/pantry. Jars of jam and other sweet preserves would also be swarming with ants when I got up in the morning. I was finally able to locate their burrows around the house and seal them up effectively.

    -Jean

  • Good tips! I rearrange/declutter the pantry once a quarter or so. I also try to put things away in the back of the pantry so I’m using the oldest items first. Otherwise I constantly use the newest stuff and the old stuff expires before I get a chance to use it.

    • I think my next “honey-do” project for my husband is to install lights in the deep closet that serves as our pantry. It will ease my frustration and make it less likely that things are left to expire in the dark corners!

  • Emily says:

    I probably declutter my pantry a couple times a year, manly because I keep saving glass jars from honey, etc. and run out of room!

    One tip I can give is that if you are saving things up for future use (we will eventually be on 5 acres and I will be dehydrating and storing much more than I do now for winter consumption), give that thing its own niche. For example, my jars could easily be stored up in our walk-in closet instead of taking up room in the pantry.

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