What is a Pantry Challenge and How Can It Save You Money?

The following post is from Jessica of GoodCheapEats and LifeasMOM:

photo source: Life as MOM

Food is my life. I think about it whenever I’m not eating it or preparing it. My kids do, too. Their parting words at night? What’s for breakfast?

Obviously, food is an integral part of our family’s culture.

Many of my early jobs, motherhood notwithstanding, have involved food: I was a clerk at a grocery store. I worked as a barista and later a waitress in an upscale restaurant and bakery. I worked in a university catering kitchen. Today I feed an army of six children and moonlight as a food writer.

Food occupies a lot of my thoughts as well as a lot of my budget. I am a shopper. A grocery shopper. I love to go grocery shopping. And I tend to overbuy, especially when I see a sale or when my mind races toward future meals to prepare.

You can imagine my chagrin five years ago when I realized that our finances were in dire straights and that overspending had caught up with and surpassed our income. We had to take desperate measures. One of those drastic actions was to cut our grocery spending. In the first month, we went from spending over $1000 on food to less than $400!

Talk about your rice and beans diet!

One of the ways that I saved so much money that month was that we ate from our pantry. I had stockpiled so much food that we were able to live off what we already had! Sure, I still bought fresh milk and other dairy products, probably bought fresh produce, too, but we were able to make do without buying more.

While my shopping habits have changed in the last four years thanks to budgeting and couponing, I still spend a month or two each year using up our excess. It’s what I call a Pantry Challenge.

photo source: Good Cheap Eats

What is a Pantry Challenge?

There are probably a number of interpretations of this kind of challenge. I hesitate to make hard and fast rules. People tend to fixate on one aspect and then freak out. So, here’s my boiled down explanation:

A Pantry Challenge is shopping your pantry (or freezer or refrigerator) before you go shopping elsewhere.

Savvy home cooks probably do this at least once a week. You check to see what you have already before going grocery shopping. You save time and money by not buying duplicates.

However, an extended Pantry Challenge, like the one we’re doing on Good Cheap Eats this month, allows for a greater turnover in your food storage, helping you to weed out items that may be close to their expiration dates as well as make the most of what you already have squirreled away for winter. Often we save things “for a rainy day,” and forget to use them!

In turn, you spend less at the store and can siphon that budgeted money to another category.

A Pantry Challenge can save you money.

photo source: Good Cheap Eats

Obviously, if you’re hard pressed for cash and have a large pantry or stockpile, you’ll find that eating from your stores will save you on grocery money. But, there are other ways that this can give you a bigger bang for your buck.

1. You will learn what NOT to buy in the future.

Ever feel buyer’s remorse over something you should not have purchased? Wasting money on superfluous stuff has been referred to as paying a “stupid tax.” We’ve all paid it at some time or another.

Working through your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer makes you confront some poor decisions. I paid my stupid tax when I chucked bags of chestnuts and boxes of almond paste that I purchased months AFTER my daughter was diagnosed with nut allergies. WHAT was I thinking?

A Pantry Challenge also forces you to either eat it up or ship it out. In this way, you feel a little pain which in turn informs your shopping decisions the next time you contemplate buying something your family may or may not like.

2. You reduce waste.

By shopping your pantry and making a concerted effort to use what is there, you are preventing food from going past their expiration dates or risk losing taste and texture and, in some cases, food safety. Use it before it goes bad! You’ll waste less.

I’ve also found that I’m more apt to be creative with leftovers during a Pantry Challenge. Just last week, I transformed potsticker dipping sauce into an Asian salad dressing. It was an easy tweak, but saved us a few pennies (and some time) by repurposing something that might have got chucked in a refrigerator purge later.

3. You create new favorites.

When I’ve challenged myself to make do with what we have, I often come up with some of our favorite recipes. What could I make with black beans, ground turkey, and enchilada sauce? The answer was a pan of these Turkey and Black Bean Enchiladas which make a hearty, freezer-friendly meal that my family loves.

By creating new favorite recipes or flavor combinations, I make cooking and eating at home more interesting. And we all know that if you enjoy it, you’ll do it more. And of course, eating at home is almost always better for you than take-out. Cheaper, too.

A Pantry Challenge doesn’t need to be constrictive. In fact, I’ve found it to give me more freedom each time I do it. Currently, I devote the months of January and July to focusing on our current food stores instead of shopping like a food-crazed maniac.

I purge items that have languished in the cupboard a little too long. I get a burst of creativity. And I save money. How can we argue with that?

How do you manage your pantry?

A foodie at heart, Jessica Fisher has learned to reconcile a tight budget with her love for great food. As a busy mom of six voracious eaters, she regularly shares healthy, delicious and budget-friendly recipes at GoodCheapEats. She also writes at her parenting blog, LifeasMOM.