A few years ago we embarked on the most unusual challenge: we tried to go one month without spending any money.
Our no spending challenge covered our entire budget, but you can apply this concept to just your grocery budget – it’s called a pantry challenge.
I’ve referred to a pantry challenge in passing before, but I’ve never actually written a guide or a how-to post. I wanted to take care of that for you so you can start saving money ASAP with your own pantry challenge!
Let’s cover some of the basics…
What is a Pantry Challenge?
A pantry challenge is a quest to eat as much of the food you already have, with little to no grocery shopping. The purpose is threefold:
- to eat the food you have
- reduce your food waste
- save money
Pantry Challenge Rules
Because this is YOUR pantry challenge, there are no hard and fast rules. Some people will tell you that they eat MOSTLY from their kitchen, and still buy fresh produce and dairy at the store.
You can do that, but I personally don’t agree with that method and here’s why: two of the three purposes of a pantry challenge are to eat the food you have and save money. Going to the grocery store goes against both of these!
I think that when you give yourself permission to go to the store, you are…
- less likely to eat the food that’s been pushed back to the corner of the pantry
- less likely to think outside the box and create new recipes that your family may love
- less likely to change poor habits you’ve developed over time
Spending during a pantry challenge doesn’t have to be all or nothing – you can find common ground.
Maybe your rules say to go one week without shopping first, and then when you do go shopping, you limit your budget to just $10.
Whatever you decide the rules are, establish them up front and stick to them. A pantry challenge is an exercise in kitchen discipline, and it’s not meant to be easy. Your rules will help keep you in line to meet your goals.
Set a Goal for Your Pantry Challenge
Speaking of goals, you need one for each pantry challenge you do because every season is different. What’s going on in January will look different than what’s going on in June. So every time you start a pantry challenge, revisit your goals.
Pantry challenge goals can be well-defined like these, but they can also be a little softer. I recommend outlining three different goals for each pantry challenge:
- Financial Goal – How much money do you want to save? (Take your monthly budget and divide it by 30. That’s your daily budget. Use this figure to determine how long your pantry challenge should run in order to save a certain amount of money.)
- Time Goal – How long do you want your pantry challenge to last? (This should be aggressively attainable. Not so short that you’re not challenged in the kitchen, but not so long that you’re having beans and rice for days on end.)
- Food Goal – How much food do you want to eat? (Do you want to eat down half the pantry? Clean out the entire deep freezer? See the bare shelves in the fridge?)
Once you establish your rules and your goals, you can start preparing for your pantry challenge.
Preparing for the Pantry Challenge
Before you can actually start a pantry challenge, there are a few things you need to do to get ready.
First, you need to take inventory of your kitchen.
That means opening every fridge, every freezer and every cabinet and writing everything you find. EVERYTHING.
Most students in my Grocery Budget Bootcamp class dread this task, but they’ll also be the first to tell you that you have TONS more food than you think you do!
Plus, how can you eat what you have if you don’t even KNOW what you have?!
I will warn you that there will be a temptation to cheat and only write down the major things. That won’t do you any good.
The major successes in a pantry challenge don’t come from eating the chicken and lettuce…
- They come from finishing that half bottle of marinade that’s been sitting in the fridge for six months.
- It comes from that ¼ cup of wild rice that you weren’t sure what to do with.
- It comes from the frozen tomato paste and the frozen yogurt you put up but never actually used.
A successful pantry challenge is made up of small wins, and you won’t get those if you cheat on your inventory.
Second, you need to look ahead.
What do you have going on in the next few days? Do you have any big chunks of time where you can cook up those dry beans in the pantry? (Here’s how to cook beans in the slow cooker, and how to cook beans in an Instant Pot.) Will you have a chance to make homemade chicken stock with the bones in the freezer? (Again, here’s how to make chicken stock in a slow cooker, and how to make chicken stock in an Instant Pot.)
You want to make sure that you plan appropriately, giving yourself plenty of leeway if things need to be made from scratch. Remember that you won’t be able to run to the store for a can of beans or a carton of stock – these things will need to be made from scratch and that takes planning in advance.
Third, make a detailed meal plan for every single meal – including snacks and dessert – for the next 2-3 days.
It’s important that you really get nitty gritty in planning your meals when you do a pantry challenge. It’s easy to overlook using an ingredient for breakfast, only to realize you needed that same ingredient for dinner too.
I suggest making a meal plan for only 2-3 days because when you’re doing a pantry challenge, your inventory will change quickly.
Actually DOING the Pantry Challenge
Just like there are no right or wrong ways for setting the rules of a pantry challenge, there’s no right or wrong way to actually DO a pantry challenge.
I can say though, that I’ve done quite a few of these myself and coached over 2,000 others through a pantry challenge and I’ve learned some helpful things along the way.
Your goal isn’t just to use up the food you have. You also DON’T want to go shopping. That means you have to think carefully about the ingredients you’re using BEFORE you actually use them. If you have 4 eggs, would it be better for two people to have scrambled eggs for breakfast, or for you to make a double batch of pancakes? If you have one 8oz steak, would it be better for one person to have an awesome dinner, or to cook up a bunch of veggies and rice and the whole family have stir-fry for dinner?
Start with the small portions. If you find half a sleeve of crackers in a box, go ahead and make a plan to use them up. Crackers, chips, pretzels and frozen bread make great homemade breadcrumbs. Go ahead and prep it and plan it, so you can get those small portions out of the way.
Be intentional with your food. If you’re really going to go several days without going to the grocery store, you can’t willy nilly eat your food nor give free reign on your pantry. Be intentional, and tell the family what you’re doing so the snackers don’t accidentally eat your plans for dinner.
Consider the perishables and use those up first. The milk in the fridge will go bad before the yogurt. Fresh spinach and lettuce will become wilty before the carrots go soft. Eat your perishables according to what will go bad first.
Marry similar items. My husband loves mustard, and we often have 2-3 kinds open in the fridge at one time. When we have a pantry challenge, I’ll combine all of the mustards together so there’s just one bottle. Throwing away two empty bottles gives me a little “win” and encourages me to keep going. Plus the fridge looks neater and I suddenly have three times as much mustard as I thought I did!
Think outside the box. If a recipe calls for red salsa, could you use green salsa instead? Or if a recipe calls for ground pork, could you use the meatballs you have in the freezer instead? Give yourself permission to deviate from a recipe in order to use what you have.
Substitute, substitute, substitute. If you don’t have something you think you need, substitute! I give students of my course Grocery Budget Bootcamp a list of 150+ substitutions the day they sign up and almost every student saves money right off the bat simply with that list. Substituting not only means not going shopping, but you’ll use up something you have at home too!
Mix/match the little bits. No one said spaghetti had to be ONLY spaghetti noodles. I’ve made plenty of spaghetti nights using up elbows, ziti and lasagna noodles I found in the pantry! The same can be said for rice and whole grains too, and even various sauces!
Throw away or donate the foods your family doesn’t like. I once bought a huge bag of quinoa at Costco only to find out that NONE of us even like it. I kept that darn bag for YEARS, despite the fact that I KNEW I wasn’t going to cook it. I finally gave it to a friend when we moved from California to Georgia. Don’t feel bad for not wanting to eat something you spent money on. Give it away and chalk it up as a lesson learned – don’t buy it again!