You know what’s great about having a pantry? You can stock up on all those bargain foods when the price is low. The problem is, we all love a bargain, so we stock up and then we stock up some more.
A well stocked pantry is a wonderul tool to help you make the most of your grocery budget. But if it’s always well stocked and possibly full to the brim, there’s food there going to waste and you’re wasting money.
How often have you reached to the back shelf and realized that most of the items are past their use by date? Yep, me too.
That’s where the pantry challenge comes in.
Why Do a Pantry Challenge?
When you’re not sure what you want to eat it’s easy to stop by the grocery store and buy a few things. However, this can quickly add up and lead you to spending more money than you intended. A pantry challenge will help you save money by inspiring you to use the food that you already have in your pantry.
Living off your pantry for a while is a fun and creative way to motivate yourself to achieve your goal of saving money.
It can be turned into a game in which you see how many different pantry challenge recipes you can create using only the items in your cupboards. This will help you use up the food you’ve already got, as well as get more creative with your cooking.
How Long Should You Do The Pantry Challenge For?
You can do the January pantry challenge, a week long challenge, a 30-day pantry challenge or even a 90 day pantry challenge. It depends on the size of your food stockpile and what you want to achieve.
A week is too short in my book and a 90 day challenge too long. A month long challenge is my sweet spot. Challenging but not impossible.
What do you do if you don’t have money for groceries?
Pantry challenges are perfect for when you have more month than money and need a creative way to feed everyone without going to the grocery store.
If you’re on a tight budget, try doing a no spend pantry challenge for a week or two until your next paycheck and see how much money you save. Not only will this help you stick to your budget, but it’ll also help you get rid of any food that’s about to go bad.
How the Pantry Challenge Works
The premise is simple: for a set period of time, you only eat foods that are already in your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. This can be a great way to clean out your pantry of foods that are near their use by date, reduce food waste and save yourself a decent chunk of money.
How do I save money on a pantry challenge?
The food you have in your pantry, cupboards and freezer is money you have already spent. When you challenge yourself to focus on eating from the pantry you will save money.
On one level it’s not that you save money, you’ve already spent it previously on this food, your spending challenge is to make the best use of the money you have already spent.
But on another level you will save money because during your challenge you won’t be spending any or much money on groceries. You might be surprised at how much food you have hidden away in your cabinets! You could keep your challenge going for quite a while.
How do I use everything in my pantry?
The key to being able to use up pantry items is to be very creative with the meals you make. You might have to have similar meals each week (likely if you have a lot of pasta or rice for instance).
Or you might have have some strange food combinations. Aiming to use up everything in your pantry is a big ask, especially if this is your first time trying. So set your deadline and do your best. But don’t stress about the last few packets.
Is there an app that tells you what you can cook with the ingredients you have?
There are plenty of apps that allow you to search for recipes using your ingredients, and they give you numerous recipes depending on the ingredients you have. For more details of these apps check out this post with all the details.
Is there a website that you can put ingredients and get recipe?
Yes, there are many websites that you can use to find recipes. Many of these websites now have apps as mentioned above. For a good list of websites that you can put ingredients in and find recipes have a read of this post.
How do I save money on a pantry challenge?
You save money because the pantry challenge is about making meals from the food you already have and not going to the grocery store. Or eating out.
Don’t go to the grocery store for 2 weeks and you’ve already saved half your grocery budget for the month. Make it a whole month and you’ve saved yourself hundreds.
For more money challenge ideas check out these posts:
How to Prepare for Your First Pantry Challenge
Before you start any challenge, it’s important to think about what you are trying to achieve and why. A challenge is an opportunity to achieve something different, so work out what you want to achieve most.
Do you want to save money first? Or is this about having an empty food cupboard for the first time in a long time? Or perhaps you want to combine a pantry clean out challenge with a 30 day no eating out challenge? Because eating out is becoming a regular habit you can’t afford.
You will also want to carve out some time each week to both menu prep and meal prep. You could be using new recipes and new ingredients. The unfamiliar always takes longer.
Make life easier for yourself by meal prepping ahead of time while you can. You can also batch cook some of your meals. Make double so you cook once and eat twice.
Pantry Challenge Rules
There are no hard and fast rules for the pantry challenge. But here are a few that many people decide to follow:
- Use only the ingredients you have in your pantry and food cupboards
- If a recipe requires a missing ingredient – leave it out or find a substitute. Don’t go buy it!
- Essentials are allowed after the 1st week. Eg. milk and fresh fruit.
- No extra eating out during the challenge – you could insist on no eating out but again, your rules.
Set a time frame for the challenge
When you set a time frame for your pantry challenge, it will help to keep you on track. You can choose to do a week-long challenge, a 30 day challenge or even a 3 month long one. Just be sure to choose a timeframe that challenges you without defeating you.
Decide and set a budget if you intend to grocery shop at all
If you’re trying to stick to a strict budget, you may want to decide if you intend to step foot in a grocery store at all.
However, if you are doing a pantry challenge for longer than 2 weeks I would allow for a little wiggle room and allow for essential fresh items, like milk or fresh produce to be bought once a week.
If you have special dietary needs or children with specific nutritional requirements, you may need to shop for these if you don’t already have them stockpiled.
If you know that you cannot go without groceries altogether, set a limit on how much you will spend each week. This way, you can still purchase the essentials without breaking the bank.
Clean out your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry
As part of your challenge you will be wanting to do an inventory of all the food items you have (see below). While you do this, take the time to clean as you go.
Pantries and cupboards are notorious for accumulating bits in corners. Pasta shells, rice, lentils and flour all seem to magically make their way into nooks and crevices far away from where they are stored!
A clean pantry means an organized pantry. With the perfect pantry organization you will know exactly what is in it.
How Long Does the Challenge Last?
The challenge lasts for the duration of the time period that you have chosen. It’s up to you to decide how long you want to do this for. If your pantry is full to the brim you might choose to do a 30-day pantry challenge, give yourself a month or two off and then do another.
Personally I would not encourage you to do a 90 day pantry challenge or anything that long. Better to have a short, sharp, focused blitz on using up your excess food a couple of times a year than doing it until you can’t bear it any more.
How to Do a Pantry Challenge
Your pantry challenge is about eating down your pantry so you don’t waste food and you use what you already have. All within a deadline you choose. Here’s how to do it.
1. Set Your Ground Rules
Decide on the time frame and rules for your pantry challenge.
Setting the ground rules for your pantry challenge is the key to success. Determine how long you want to participate in the challenge and what kind of restrictions you will put on yourself.
For example, you may decide that you only eat foods that are already in your pantry regardless of whether you have any veggies or fruit. or that you cannot go grocery shopping during the challenge.
You might want to set a rule that you use up those items almost at their use by date first before eating other items.
2. Take An Inventory of all your food
Take a complete inventory of the food in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. These are the foods you are going to use to meal plan and use up.
Your inventory is essential as it helps you see what you have on hand and can plan meals around that. You may be surprised at how much food you have that you forgot about.
3. Plan something for every Meal
A pantry challenge requires a little planning. Because you might be using food items you don’t normally use. You might need to research recipes to make use of what ingredients you do have, given your plan to not buy anything else.
Using your inventory, meal plan for the week ahead choosing recipes that make use of all those pantry staples you’ve stocked up on.
Use the apps and websites mentioned above to find recipes that use the ingredients you have. Be flexible with substitutions and missing out an ingredient or two.
4. Decide on a time frame
There are a few things to consider when choosing a timeframe for the pantry challenge.
- Have you completed a pantry challenge before?
- How big is your food stockpile?
- How long do you think you could stick to only eating pantry food and not buying other groceries?
If this is your first time, I suggest starting with a 2 week challenge. If you find that a breeze you can always extend it for another couple of weeks. Your challenge, your rules.
5. Brainstorm meal ideas
When you’re looking for meal ideas, some people like to use cookbooks, Pinterest or apps. If you’re missing an ingredient, try thinking of something else that you can use as a substitute.
You can of course go without the odd ingredient or two. Your recipe doesn’t have to be an exact replica of the printed recipe.
The Benefits of a Pantry Challenge
1. You Save Money on Food
For the length of your pantry challenge the aim is to spend as little as possible on groceries. Instead you are effectively shopping from your pantry. Planning your meals based only on the ingredients you already have means you have no need to buy food.
You may choose to supplement your challenge with some fresh veggies and fruit. I certainly do when I aim for a 30-day pantry challenge. You will save money by not buying much else other than some fresh essentials.
2. You Avoid Food Waste
We have bigger pantrys to stockpile excess food and we have more access to fast food, take outs and restaurants. According to recent statistics from some reports, almost one third of food produced for us to eat gets wasted!
Minimize wastage and your food bill will inevitably go down. Secondly, by reducing your own food waste you are doing your part to reduce global wastage. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?
3. It Puts the things in your Stockpile to Use
Planning a stockpile when on a budget is useful and necessary but an over-stuffed pantry is money going to waste and food piling up with no intention to use. You want to make best use of your pantry stockpile without digging into your emergency stockpile.
The pantry challenge is an opportunity to make sure all your non perishable food items get used before they go out of date and to free up storage space so you can be more organized.
4. you Save Time on Shopping
Shopping at the grocery store takes time. More time if you go to multiple stores to get the best price on products. One of my tips I recommend you do in my post on the best ways to save money on groceries.
Eating out of the pantry by using the ingredients there to make meals means no need to buy a weeks worth of ingredients at the store. You might spend 10 minutes grabbing a basket of a few essentials like milk and fruit, but that’s all.
5. you DeClutter your Kitchen
Pantries, food cupboards and even freezers are notorious for getting cluttered. Your pantry can end up being full of food you don’t even remember buying!
Using up food from the pantry makes it easier to see what you have left, so you can find what you want when you want it.
When you vow to work through that pantry and use up the food it contains, you’ll be clearing it out, de-cluttering and leaving space to be so much more organized going forward.
6. It Reminds You of family favorites
A pantry challenge can help you learn what ingredients your family likes and doesn’t like. This is especially important when you’re trying to cut down on food waste and thereby save money. You’ll be able to see which ingredients your family look forward to each week and which, they really don’t!
7. you Improve Your Skills
Taking on a pantry challenge is a great opportunity to improve your cooking, meal planning, and managing resources skills. Cooking meals from scratch allows you to be more creative in the kitchen and use the ingredients you have on hand.
Meal planning helps you save money because you will plan meals around the ingredients you already have, no need to buy more. Eating down your pantry is all about managing the resources you have and making the most of them.
8. A use it up challenge helps you appreciate what you have
Completing a pantry challenge helps you focus on what you have and feel appreciation for having it. It can be easy to take for granted all the food in our kitchen, but by taking the time to go through everything, you can start to see just how much you have.
9. Pantry challenge goals are fun
Turn the pantry challenge into a game and have yourself some fun. See how many different food combinations you can create. See how many ways you can serve rice in one week without the family complaining.
How long you can hold off before heading to the grocery store for something essential? Make it fun and you will find it so much easier to achieve.
Is old, out of date food safe to eat?
In some circumstances old food can be safe to eat. If the expiration date is not yet passed or today, or if the best-by date has not yet passed, then it is generally safe to consume.
Indeed many people choose to actively buy food past it’s best by date (because it’s substantially cheaper) and there are companies that specialise in these.
But it’s not always safe to eat food past its expiry date, so it is important to know what the best-by date or other expiry dates mean.
“Sell by” is a term often used on food packaging to indicate the date by which the product should be sold. It’s actually aimed at the retailers more than you or I. Once the sell by date passes, the retailer cannot sell that item.
It doesn’t mean that the product will be unsafe to eat after that date, but it might not taste as fresh. The shelf life of food after “sell by” can be another good few days.
The best by date is a suggestion from the manufacturer for how long the product should be consumed before it starts to lose its flavor or freshness. This is not an expiry date, and most products will still be safe to eat after the best by date has passed.
These are the products that you can (if you choose) end up eating months or even years after their best by date. Dried beans, oats and pasta are classics.
“Use by” dates are not an exact science, and sometimes they can be misleading. Just because a food has passed its “use by” date, it doesn’t mean that it will automatically make you sick.
The food might not taste as good if you eat it after the date has passed, and I do mean just a day or two, not weeks past.
Milk is your classic example. A day or two after it’s use by date and it will smell and taste perfectly fine. Apples have use by dates on them, yet they can last another month in the fridge and have no harmful effect.
Use by dates are often used on fresh meat, dairy and fish products. I do not advise ignoring use by dates completely. Use your nose and err on the side of caution. I’ll happily eat yogurt past it’s use by date but I’m strict on eating fish within it’s date.
Pantry Challenge Tips for success
You’ve set your rules, you know what to do and the benefits of completing your challenge. But a few pantry challenge tips wouldn’t go amiss would they?
1. Give your pantry, cupboards and freezer a clean first
While you are going through your pantry and creating an inventory of everything that’s stored there, take the opportunity to give it a good clean too.
You’re moving products about so give the shelves a wipe at the same time. This goes for your cupboards and freezer if you have included them in your eating up challenge.
2. Know how to find Recipes Based on Ingredients you have
If you pantry is stocked with a very limited variety of products you may be fine conjuring up different recipes to use them up. Unfortunately you are probably more like me and have a multitude of normal and strange food items that you are going to need help finding a recipe for.
Get yourself a shortlist of recipe books, apps or websites that you can turn to each week to plan meals based on the ingredients you have. This will save you time and stress during the challenge.
3. Link favorite and weird products together
You probably have some strange, weird or plain unusual ingredients in your pantry. Use those by themselves and you risk a meal that no-one likes. The trick is to pair these ingredients with your family favorites, pasta is a great one for mixing other ingredients in with.
4. Use almost out of date and perishables first
As part of your inventory you will know which items are nearly out of date plus of course those items that just don’t last that long. To save food waste and money, plan your weekly meals around using up these products first.
5. Be creative with your pantry challenge recipes
The more creative you are with your pantry challenge recipes, the more successful you can be with using up everything in your pantry. That’s where getting a little help from a pantry challenge app and websites that let you filter according to ingredient come in.
6. Try new recipes
Don’t just stick to your standard 20 favorite recipes that you know everyone likes, delve into new ones. You might have quite a stockpile of one ingredient like pasta, so the more varied recipes you use, the more often you can serve that pasta and use it up quickly.
7. Find substitutes for missing ingredients
You pantry challenge is about using up ingredients, not buying more. So if a recipe calls for an ingredient you don’t have, don’t go buy it. Think of a similar ingredient. You can even do without.
In my last attempt I had no kidney beans but lots of lima beans (butter beans in the UK). Making chili with lima beans is not in the recipe but I had ground beef to use up, a lot of those beans and I wanted chili. Still tasted great!
8. Factor in homemade snacks
Because you are on a no-spend or very limited spend challenge during this time, you should factor in homemade snacks for everyone. Don’t use all the oats for breakfast, make some granola bars for snacking. Same goes for flour. Make bread but save some for cookies, cakes and other sweet treats.
Pantry clean out meals to try
Your challenge eat Breakfast from the pantry
Oatmeal/porridge – keep it plain to save money and keep the cost down. A little milk and sugar makes this yummy. Go traditional Scottish and try it with salt as well as sugar!
Toast and canned tomatoes – or canned sardines. (You won’t catch me having either of these but my husband is a fan).
Toast with peanut butter. Or jam, chocolate spread, marmalade or any other spread lurking in your cupboards.
Pantry Challenge Recipe ideas for lunch and dinner
Pasta & homemade sauce or canned tomatoes & herbs. Pasta is one of the cheapest foods to buy when you’re broke. If you’ve got brown/wholewheat pasta then great but white is fine.
Egg fried rice. Add some peas or sweetcorn and you’ve got protein, carbs and veggies.
Bean soup. A great way to use dried beans (soak them first), add homemade crusty bread for a filling and frugal healthy meal. Soup is an ideal lunch but it can also be a hearty or light supper.
Tuna pasta tray bake. 1 or 2 cans of tuna, pasta, canned tomatoes and any veggies you already have (I often use a can of sweetcorn or carrots).
Tuna pasta mayo. This is my Grandkids favorite meal their Dad cooks. Simply cook any pasta shape for 12 mins, mix in a drained can of tuna and a big dollop of mayonnaise.
Vegetarian chili – This healthy, hearty, irresistible chili is made with easy pantry staples so very budget friendly. Miss out the onions and capiscum/pepper if you don’t have as I know it will taste just fab without.
Pantry challenge recipes for Snacks
Homemade tortilla chips – Just 3 pantry staple ingredients make these both an easy savory snack to make at home and the idea snack to use ingredients you already have.
Crunchy roasted chickpeas – The ideal recipe to use up both dried and canned chickpeas. Who doesn’t have these lurking in their pantry? Chickpeas and spices and you’ve got yourself a very tasty, healthy snack.
Candied chickpea snack mix – We all have dried fruit, nuts and spices in our pantry so these are the perfect using up pantry challenge snack recipe.
Peanute butter cookies – Cookies are the perfect snack in my eyes (apart from chocolate) and these make use of your pantry ingredients. Plus they are of course super easy to make!
your pantry challenge before and after
Completing a pantry challenge, regardless of the length of time you do it for, gives you a great sense of achievement. You gain all the benefits of completing the challenge as mentioned above and you prove to yourself that you can tackle something difficult.
A well organized pantry with a decent stockpile of foods you will use is extremely helpful. When you haven’t got time to go to the store, you’re running low on time or just stuck for inspiration. Your pantry can help.
But it can quickly become a glory hole of half used packets of food and food going to waste. The difference in doing a pantry challenge before and after is stark. Before you have expired items and food you don’t know about. After you know exactly what your store contains.
Perfect for saving money and being more organized going forward.
Come and follow me on Pinterest for more money saving hints and frugal tips!
Last Updated on 10th March 2022 by Emma