This month’s guest post comes not from another blogger, but someone I’ve known through Facebook for a year and a half since I first started my “No Spend November” challenge back at the end of 2017. This past January, she let us all know in the group that she would be embarking on a pantry challenge and shared her wins along the way.
She did such an awesome, thorough job, and as clearly reducing food costs is a constant struggle in my house, I asked her to write a guest post here all about her experience so I could share it here with all of you.
While a pantry challenge may not at first blush seem in line with my guest post series here on “sustainability and zero waste,” food waste is something that pretty much all of us struggles with, and as something like 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, it’s something we should all be paying much closer attention to.
We’ve gotten much better than reducing our food waste ourselves, but we are still far from perfect. Just reading her words here and then reading once more about the global problem of food waste makes me think we need to try this for real ourselves (just because something is composted doesn’t mean it’s not also waste). We’ve done a number of months where we’ve focused on eating what we have in the freezer and pantry, but never in a serious way like this. Hopefully I will take inspiration and create our own challenge in the near future, but for now, I’m going to pass this off to Loni and let her talk about her first experience with a Pantry Challenge.
The Dry Run Pantry Challenge
Sometime early in the month, I challenged myself to eating only what I had on hand. With the Marie Kondo craze taking over closets and bookshelves across the nation, mine was focused on the pantry, freezer, and fridge. However, unlike the Kon Mari method of thanking the item that no longer brings joy and discarding it, I intended to consume it.
The basic idea was to eat what was available in the house and only supplement as necessary from the grocery store. It actually lasted about four weeks. My goal was to: (1) reduce January’s normal food expenditures, (2) use, and not waste, all of those calories stashed in my house, and (3) learn something about my food buying (and hording) patterns, so that in the future missteps could be avoided and I could maximize smart purchases.
Organizing The Kitchen
The first thing I did was organize the kitchen. This is an important step for understanding your inventory. Through the organization process, I learned what I had and what I (might) need. I am not such a Type A that I took an actual inventory, but feel free to do so if that helps reach your goals.
In the process of inventorying, I re-arranged the spices so they were easier to use and transferred a lot of them to glass jars I had. This seems obvious, but you will only use what you can see and what is easy to access. So, I dedicated the cupboard to the left and right of my stove to spices and teas.
I also re-arranged counter space to maximize areas for food preparation—another important part of using food you have. Again, it goes back to the ability to easily access kitchen tools.
If you have little to no space for a cutting board, you won’t be chopping carrots. If you can’t easily chop carrots, the package in your refrigerator will certainly go to waste. Either that or you will have an unpleasant experience of gorging on carrots in one or two days rather than brighten your meals over a two-week period.
(Side note: carrots last a long time and are excellent vegetables to have on hand. Same goes for red cabbage. Both add color to your plate and color will make you happy). By the way, use your pretty plates and stop saving them for a nice occasion. Trust me on these points.
You may be surprised to learn that I did not meal plan significantly in advance. While that could make perfect sense and possibly maximize efficiency, my meal planning was determined each morning or spontaneously. On a typical morning, I have to feed two picky children, myself, and a spouse.
Said picky children will, however, almost always eat the same thing–either oatmeal with strawberry or blueberry preserves mixed in or waffles with strawberry or blueberry preserves on top with a glass of water or possibly milk. Since I purchased a 50-pound (that’s right!) bag of oats last January, I still have plenty on hand.
I stored the oats in plastic containers in my pantry and had no issues with pests or spoilage. I also have a waffle maker (on of my best small appliance investments) and a ridiculous amount of different flours on hand, such as almond flour, coconut flour, etc. The waffle recipe I use is super-easy and grain-free and can be found here.
My spouse is typically content with oatmeal and adds protein powder to it. We had plenty of protein powder on hand because that is his go-to. I tend to eat an omelet or similar, which means I can throw odds and ends into the pan and just add egg. Therefore, the limiting factors were eggs (necessary for the waffles and omelets I make) and preserves. These items were purchased as supplies ran low.
I also had a lot of plain yogurt on hand from a sale where I bought three containers. The picky children won’t eat yogurt (unless I laden it with preserves or a ton of honey), so I consumed yogurt with the plethora of random granola I had in the pantry and would top with any fruit I had. For example, I had a lot of apples that were not fit to eat, but made excellent filler for apple pie.
I used some of the extra baked apples for the yogurt-granola concoction. I also had some strawberries in a container that were a little past prime, so I “fermented” them by letting them sit in the refrigerator in a glass jar with some apple cider vinegar. Right before use, I drained the excess vinegar and stirred in a dollop of honey. I know this is not for everyone, but it tasted good to me!
I will start off with a confession. I detest packing children’s school lunches. Buying is not an option. I am limited by what I know they will eat. I have tried adding in variety and it always comes back in the lunchbox wasted.
Therefore, I would typically make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple or apple slices or apple sauce (in those horribly wasteful single serve packages), carrot sticks, some sort of chip or cracker for a snack (I had way too much of this type of thing on hand), a piece of cheese, and a little of this or that, based on what I foraged in the pantry.
I might throw in some pieces of chocolate from the holidays. The limiting factors: bread, preserves, peanut butter, fresh apples. I did buy these things as supplies dwindled. But I stuck to what I know they like.
I made the mistake months ago of buying two jars of a “nut butter” that no one would eat. Someone opened both jars and there they were both in the refrigerator taking up prime real estate. So, I made nut-butter balls rolled in oats. And guess what? Within two weeks, my son and spouse ate them up at breakfast or for a snack.
All The Leftovers
For myself, I will eat pretty much whatever, so I am a leftover queen. In the freezer, I found several pieces of grilled chicken from when I made too much months ago, a piece of vegetable lasagna that I had made, leftover gluten-free pasta …you get the idea. I made these things fresh my incorporating some new vegetables. I bought kale whenever I ran out, asparagus once, and broccoli once.
I had a lot of organic potatoes on hand (sale!) and often make roasted potatoes and vegetables. I do not regret buying all of those potatoes one bit. The picky children even like the “fries” I make in the oven. Its too easy: Oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, chop potatoes into strips, coat with olive oil, add salt and pepper as desired and 15-20 minutes later you have roasted “fries.” Start these first when dinnertime nears while you figure out what to go with it.
Leftovers are awesome! I stored leftovers in the refrigerator and re-heated as needed or incorporated the potatoes into breakfast or lunch meals. The key to refrigerator storage of leftovers: clear containers that stack nicely. These same containers go right into lunchboxes.
You won’t be surprised to learn I have lots of rice on hand. I also have dried beans. If you want a meal with beans and rice, you will need to plan ahead, since cooking dried beans take time. It’s easy though. I would put dried beans in the crock-pot in the morning with plenty of water on low and they would be ready by dinner.
One of two children will eat beans, both will eat rice. There are countless rice concoctions one can make and Miss Picky will eat rice and endless amounts of chicken with ketchup— another item I “had” to buy. One night I made a Thai beef curry and rice meal. Here is the recipe I followed, but I modified, since I had tons of carrots and no bamboo shoots and no red curry paste, but a huge jar of yellow curry powder and some cayenne powder to taste.
Cooking, unlike baking, is super forgiving, so it is usually not critical to follow a recipe perfectly. Anyway, it turned out great. P.S. I have a lot of cans of coconut milk on hand. I love the stuff.
Another staple that can be dressed up: pasta. Almost every pantry has a jar or two of marinara or canned tomatoes and dried pasta. Your pantry probably has some random items that are great in pasta, like a jar of artichoke hearts or olives.
Check the refrigerator for half an onion and the freezer for frozen vegetables that you can stir-fry and add to pasta, rice, or potatoes. You would be surprised how fresh and amazing your meals can seem using those remnants of almost freezer-burned veggies. Oh, and let’s be real. I had to buy several frozen pizzas. The children’s taste buds just aren’t mature enough to eat Thai beef curry over rice. I did not have to buy chicken. I had too much frozen chicken in the freezer. Note to self…
Grocery Shopping Necessities
So, I did go grocery shopping. I could have done a better job at only buying what was really necessary. I got caught up in sales a couple times (e.g., $2 off each package of all grass fed beef hotdogs, some goat cheese half off…) or habit purchasing (I almost always get a bag of potatoes if I only have one bag on hand, two half-gallon cartons of milk, even though milk drinking is almost zero, or I buy non-essential items like a bottle of Kombucha, even though I make it at home).
Maybe I would have spent less if I had meal planned more and baked my own bread (which I did once and it just wasn’t that great). However, considering my spouse and I both have full time jobs, I did have to pay for convenience sometimes. I will note that the “eating out” budget did not increase. We almost never eat out at a restaurant— this is literally a budget line for getting the children something to eat on evenings when there are sports of some sort and they cannot wait to eat a late dinner.
Overall, the grocery bill was only cut by about 28%. Not bad. The pantry is emptier, as is the freezer and the fridge. Not empty enough though. There is still work to do. And there is another month in which to do it. I wonder if I could go 28 days next month without going to the grocery store, except for those “absolute” essentials?