5 Things to Know Before Doing a Pantry Challenge
Are you looking for a way to cut this week’s grocery bill? A pantry challenge may seem like the solution.
But is it worth it?
During a pantry challenge, you plan meals around what you already have on hand instead of making your usual big weekly shopping trip. Then you shop for staples such as milk, eggs, and bread as you run out or get creative and do without them for the rest of the challenge.
It can save you money in the short term and prevent food waste.
That’s a win, win, right?
I do a pantry challenge before holidays and parties to make space in the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. Here’s what I learned.
1. You Don’t Save Money in the Long Run
It takes a few weeks to shop sales and loss leaders to build a pantry on a budget. And a pantry challenge can undo all that hard work in one week.
Although it may seem like a pantry challenge is a great way to cut costs, it’s not an effective grocery savings strategy. You miss out on sales when you take a week off of grocery shopping. Weekly sales are an opportunity to buy your family’s favorite foods at the lowest price and to keep your cabinets stocked.
After the pantry challenge, you’re out of food and need a big shopping trip to replace many staples. Unfortunately, you’ll probably need most items before they’re on sale again, so you’ll pay full price to replenish the pantry.
2. Not a Balanced Diet
Depending on how stocked your pantry is, you may have plenty of food left after a week but not enough variety to make balanced and healthy meals.
What’s a “balanced meal”? A meal has protein, fruits or veggies, and a carbohydrate.
Protein foods are usually the first foods to be depleted unless you start the challenge with a large inventory of meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, cheese, eggs and canned tuna. After that, carbohydrate-based pantry foods are likely all you’ll have left to create meals.
There’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates, but adding protein, vegetables, and healthy fats helps you feel full longer. And, these food have essential nutrients everyone needs.
3. Not Sustainable
After a few days, you might run out of cooking staples, especially if your pantry isn’t stocked with multiple quantities of each item. It’s more difficult to come up with meals that everyone will enjoy. While I’m a big proponent of substitutions, some ingredients can’t be replaced without significantly altering the meal.
I needed to supplement my pantry with weekly trips to the grocery store for the kids’ favorite foods and pantry staples. I also continued to buy my grocery store’s advertised loss leaders so I didn’t miss out on the savings.
4. Have to Rebuild Pantry From Scratch
While a pantry challenge is a great way to use up the food you forgot in the back of the cabinet, it can take weeks to rebuild a pantry.
There are a few ways to stock a pantry for the first time. You can make one big shopping trip for the main staples you frequently use, shop for the ingredients as you need them or wait for sales and stock up.
If you’re like me, you want to stock up on food when it’s at its lowest price. Unfortunately, it can take weeks for sales on tomato sauce, pasta, beans, rice, condiments, and broth/stock. What tends to happen is that you’ll need certain ingredients before they’ve gone on sale, or you use them up as you buy them and you can’t get ahead.
5. Limited Options for Family
If you’re feeding a crowd, it gets harder to please the family, especially if you have picky eaters in the house. Not everyone is flexible and willing to try pantry meal experiments like eggs over rice.
As the pantry is barer and barer, some family members may feel deprived when they run out of their favorite foods. And you’ll have to say “no” to special requests for specific foods for meals and snacks everyone is accustomed to having.
Before starting a pantry challenge, the whole family should be on board and you’ll want to have your kids’ favorites stocked.
What Are the Benefits of a Pantry Challenge?
Yes. There are downsides to depleting your stock of food.
But there are also benefits to cooking from what you have in the house. For example, a pantry challenge might be right for you if your pantry is overstocked, you don’t have time to shop or you need to cut that month’s grocery bill.
Here are a few benefits:
- Cut Grocery Bill – If you need to find money in your budget for one month, cutting your food budget is one way to do it. You can reduce your grocery bill by limiting your shopping to only the essential items during a pantry challenge.
- Get Creative with Meal Planning – When you’re stuck with the same ingredients for a few weeks, it forces you to get creative in the kitchen and think of new ways to make meals out of what you have in the house.
- Reduce Food Waste – It’s easy to lose track of the food pushed to the back of the pantry or forgotten about in the fridge, leading to spoilage and waste. Doing a pantry challenge allows you to use up food that could go to waste.
- Get Organized – Shopping your pantry for meal ideas is an excellent opportunity to reorganize your food shelves. Here are three easy steps to get organized:
- Take stock of what you have
- Group similar items together
- Rotate your stock so the food expiring soon is in the front and newer food gets moved to the back.
Make Better Shopping Choices – After you shop your pantry for meals, you’ll know which foods were a hit at the dinner table, which foods you bought too many, and the ingredients you wished you had on hand. Then, when you restock, you can focus on buying items you need for your family’s favorite meals and avoid unnecessary purchases.
Do you have food that no one in the family likes? Keep a donation bag in your cabinet and bring it to a food pantry once it’s full.
Wrap It Up
A pantry challenge can be a great way to save money in the short term, especially if you need to take a break from food shopping, make some room in your pantry and freezer before the holidays or free up some cash when you need it.
There’s a downside, though, and it may not be for everyone.
Only using food you have in the house depletes your pantry. So while you save money on groceries during the challenge, you’ll have to start from scratch.
What’s your experience with the pantry challenge? Let me know in the comments below.
About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD
I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!