The Ultimate Guide to a Pantry Challenge in 2024

Is your pantry stocked but you don’t know what to cook so you order in?

Do you find yourself wasting money on groceries that go unused, eventually expire, and end up in the trash? 

Do you need extra cash this week?

Then, it might be time for a pantry challenge.

A pantry challenge is when you try to use the ingredients you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer to make meals before buying more groceries. It challenges you to get creative and come up with tasty new combinations for dinner.

All you need is a plan, a willingness to experiment, and a stocked pantry. 

This article will show you how to prepare for a pantry challenge, plan your meals, and provide tips on what you should know before you start. So, get ready to declutter and organize your kitchen to prevent food waste, and give your grocery budget a break. 

What Are the Benefits of a Pantry Challenge?

A pantry challenge is a budget- and eco-friendly way to use up food in the house. 

Here are a few benefits of cooking with the food available in your house:

  • Spend Less Money on Food  – If you need to find money in your budget, cutting your grocery bill is one way to do it. By limiting shopping to only the essential items during a pantry challenge you can divert cash to other things that you need.
  • 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 everyday pantry items. 
  • Reduce Food Waste – It’s easy to lose track of the food in the back of the pantry or refrigerator, leading to spoilage and waste. A stocked pantry and freezer is a popular meal planning strategy, but there’s also potential for a lot of food waste. A pantry challenge gives you time to take stock of the food in the house and use up what you have before it spoils.
  • Get Organized – Shopping your pantry for meal ideas is an excellent opportunity to reorganize and clean your shelves. Take stock of what you have, group similar foods together, and rotate your stock by moving the food with upcoming expiration dates to the front. 
  • 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 much of, and the ingredients you realized you need. Now you can readjust your grocery plan to fit your family’s preferences and prevent buying food that no one wants or needs. 

How to Prepare for a Pantry Challenge

Taking a break from grocery shopping requires a little prep and ideally a stocked pantry and freezer.  

Step 1: Assess Goals and Pantry Challenge Rules

Assess your goals before setting the pantry challenge rules. 

Start by determining how long you want the challenge to last. It could be a week or even a month, depending on the size of your pantry and your family. 

Next, set a goal for how many meals you want to create using only pantry staples. This gives you a target to aim for and ensures that you’re actively working towards reducing your pantry inventory.

Then, decide on the rules you’re realistically able to commit to. Do you plan to do a modified pantry challenge and buy some food? Or are you ready for an extreme pantry challenge?

Extreme pantry challenge: The extreme pantry challenge is where you only use up what you have in the house until the end of the challenge or when you run out of food. 

This method saves the most money in the short term. So, if you need cash or have an overstocked pantry, this may be the way to go.

Modified pantry challenge: During a modified challenge you buy groceries to supplement pantry ingredients to make meals.

There are two strategies for a modified pantry challenge and which one you choose is a personal preference that depends on your goals.

1. The first is you only shop loss leaders. Those are the steep discounts advertised on the front page of a grocery store’s flier. Shopping for sales during a pantry challenge allows you to replenish your pantry and save money in the long run.

2. The second strategy is to primarily meal plan from the pantry and freezer, but shop for fresh produce or additional items to stretch pantry meals longer.

Step 2: Assess Your Pantry and Freezer Inventory

Food gets wasted when you don’t even know what you have in the house. So, before diving into a pantry challenge, take stock of what you already have in your pantry. 

Empty everything onto your kitchen counter and categorize the items by type. This will give you a clear picture of what you’re working with and what needs to be used up first. Next, check the expiration dates of your pantry staples and prioritize using the items that are closest to their expiration date. 

Once your pantry is organized, take a comprehensive inventory of your items. Create a spreadsheet or use a notebook or a pantry inventory app to keep track of what you have and what needs to be used up. 

Now that you have an inventory of your pantry, it’s time to create a meal plan.

Step 3: Plan Your Meals and Snacks

Meal planning is crucial during a pantry challenge to ensure you’re utilizing your pantry staples to create healthy and balanced meals. 

And it’s important to assess how many meals you can make to ensure enough food. Restriction is not the goal of this challenge. 

Start by brainstorming meal ideas based on the ingredients you have on hand. 

Consider recipes that require minimal additional ingredients or ingredients that can be substituted with items you already have. Then, look for recipes that use similar ingredients in different ways to create diverse meals throughout the challenge. 

For example, if you have a can of tomatoes, use it to make pasta sauce, tomato soup, or even salsa. Get creative and think outside the box to make the most of your pantry staples. 

Start with protein and then build the meal around that. Grains such as rice, pasta, cereal, and bread do have some protein. But you’ll need more protein to get the amount your body needs and to feel full.

Here are common pantry staples that are good protein sources:

  • Peanut butter and other nut butter 
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Canned chicken
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned salmon
  • Sardines

Also, it’s important to ensure that kids and teens get all the nutrients they need every day. Not getting enough crucial vitamins and minerals as kids grow can affect healthy development. 

A few examples of how nutrient deficiencies affect kids are not growing as tall as their height potential, getting sick more often, and having difficulty learning and staying focused. 

So, when planning meals for our youngsters, it’s crucial to make sure they’re getting a mix of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and carbs. 

Here’s a breakdown of the 5 food groups for kids and teens according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Daily food group requirements for kids ages 2 to 18.

Step 4: Track Your Progress and Adjust Your Plan

Have fun challenging yourself to come up with meals using pantry staples.

One way to keep track of your progress is to note any new recipes you discover or flavor combinations you love on the meal plans. Also, note what worked, what didn’t, and whether there was enough for the family or extras for leftovers. 

Maybe you’ll want to add new pantry meals to your family’s regular meal rotation.

Are you running out of food faster than you thought?

Some families find they’re more aware of snacking habits and portion sizes when trying to stretch the food in the house. 

When running low on food outpaces your meal plan, snacking and portion sizes are the first places to look. You might find you underestimated the appetite of growing teens or there’s a lot of mindless snacking throughout the day.

Instead of grabbing a snack or reaching for seconds, take a moment to assess your hunger. Are you physically hungry or automatically reaching for food out of habit?

If you’re hungry, then readjust the meal plan so everyone is satisfied.

Step 5: Make a Shopping List for Fresh Produce and Perishables

The goal is to cook as many meals as you can with what you have in the house. But you may find you run out of staples and perishables faster than you planned.

A modified pantry challenge allows you to buy fresh produce, dairy, and other perishables. Create a budget and a pantry meal plan, and make a list of fresh vegetables, fruit, and other perishables such as milk, cheese, eggs, meat, chicken, and fish to buy during the challenge.

Sample Pantry Cooking Meal Plan

This menu includes common pantry staples, incorporates some fresh vegetables, and fruits and provides a balance of nutrients and variety so you don’t get bored.

Depending on how much food you start with, you may have to find ways to use pantry staples such as canned beans, canned vegetables, pasta, and rice after a few days. 

Feel free to adjust the menu to fit your tastes and the ingredients you have on hand!

Monday

Breakfast: Oatmeal with dried cranberries and almonds
Lunch: Tuna salad sandwich with carrot sticks
Dinner: Lentil soup with whole wheat bread

Tuesday

Breakfast: Peanut butter and banana smoothie
Lunch: Tomato and cheese sandwich with cucumber slices
Dinner: Quinoa and vegetable stir-fry

Wednesday

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with whole wheat toast
Lunch: Black bean and corn salad
Dinner: Spaghetti with canned tomato sauce and sautéed vegetables

Thursday

Breakfast: Yogurt with honey and mixed berries
Lunch: Hummus and vegetable wrap with apple slices
Dinner: Rice and vegetable bowl with canned chickpeas

Friday

Breakfast: Breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, canned black beans, and salsa
Lunch: Greek salad with canned tuna and crackers
Dinner: Bean and cheese enchiladas with canned green chiles

Saturday

Breakfast: Banana pancakes with maple syrup
Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fresh veggie sticks
Dinner: Creamy tomato and canned chicken pasta

Sunday

Breakfast: Bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato
Lunch: Vegetable soup with canned vegetable broth and whole wheat crackers
Dinner: Shepherd’s pie with canned mixed vegetables and ground beef

Recipe Ideas

Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new flavor combinations. For example, you can use canned beans to make a hearty soup, a protein-packed salad, or even a veggie burger. 

Pasta can be transformed into a cold pasta salad or a creamy pasta bake. (Yes, you can bake spaghetti). 

Use canned fruits for smoothies, and desserts, or as toppings for pancakes and waffles. 

To help you get started, here are a few recipe ideas for a pantry challenge:

Chickpea and Vegetable Curry: In a large pan, sauté onions, garlic, and spices. Add canned chickpeas and a variety of vegetables such as carrots, bell peppers, and spinach. Simmer in a can of coconut milk until the vegetables are tender. Serve over rice for a satisfying and flavorful meal.

Pantry Pasta: Cook your favorite pasta according to package instructions. In a separate pan, sauté garlic, chili flakes, and anchovies (optional) in olive oil. Add a can of diced tomatoes, drained and rinsed chickpeas, olives, and capers. Simmer the sauce for a few minutes until heated through. Toss the cooked pasta in the sauce and garnish with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese.

Black Bean Quesadillas: Drain and rinse two cans of black beans and add to a slow cooker along with one can of diced tomatoes. Cook on low for 4-6 hours until they’re mashable. Mash them slightly with a fork and season with cumin, paprika, and salt. Spread the black bean mixture onto a tortilla, top with shredded cheese, and fold in half. Then, cook the quesadilla in a pan until the cheese is melted. A grill press keeps the ingredients in place and speeds up the cooking. 

Serve with salsa and guacamole for a quick and satisfying meal. Or enjoy the black bean mixture in a taco or burrito with rice, tomato, and cheese.

Things to Know Before Doing a Pantry Challenge

A pantry challenge can save you money in the short term and prevent food waste. 

It’s a win-win, right?

Maybe not.

Here’s what I learned from my annual pantry challenge before the holidays to make space in the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. 

1. You May Not Save Money in the Long Run 

It takes a few weeks to shop the 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 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 

After even a week of a pantry challenge, you might have plenty of food left, but the remaining ingredients may not make balanced and healthy meals

What’s a “balanced meal”? A balanced meal has protein, fruits or veggies, and carbohydrates.

Protein foods are usually the pantry 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 groups have essential nutrients everyone needs.

3. Not Sustainable

After a few days, you might run out of pantry cooking staples, especially if your pantry isn’t stocked with multiple quantities of each item. It gets 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 grocery stores 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 Restock Pantry Scratch

While a pantry challenge is a great way to use up the food you forgot you had, 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 so 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. Also, only some people are flexible and willing to try pantry meal experiments like eggs over rice. 

As the pantry becomes bare, some family members may feel deprived if they run out of their favorite foods. And you might get special requests for specific foods to make 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.

Avoiding Food Waste during a Pantry Challenge

Cutting down on food waste is one of the most appealing aspects of using up what you have to make meals.

But sometimes, even with planning, you might end up with miscellaneous leftovers that need to be used up in a few days before they go bad. Instead of letting them go to waste, find creative ways to repurpose them into new meals. 

Leftover vegetables can be used in a stir-fry or turned into a hearty vegetable soup. Extra grains can be transformed into a flavorful grain salad or used as a base for a Buddha bowl. Don’t be afraid to mix and match ingredients to create unique and delicious dishes. Experimenting is part of the pantry challenge experience.

And consider donating any excess non-perishable items to a local food bank or charity organization. 

Tip for an organized pantry:

Keep a bag in the pantry for unwanted or excess food. Once the bag is full, deliver it to a food pantry

Tips for a Successful Pantry Challenge

Don’t let the downside of depleting your freezer and pantry stop you. Whether you need money or want to organize an overflowing pantry, a pantry challenge may be just what you need.

Here are some tips to make the most out of a pantry challenge so you come out ahead on savings.

  • If you plan to shop during a pantry challenge, make a list of the specific ingredients you need to complete your planned meals. Stick to this list and avoid impulse purchases. 
  • Look for sales and discounts on items that you frequently use and stock up when the price is right. 
  • Consider buying in bulk for pantry staples that have a long shelf life. This will save you money in the long run and ensure that you have a backup supply of essential ingredients.
  • Don’t go hungry or miss out on essential nutrients.
  • Use it as an opportunity to break out of a rut and try new food combinations.

Wrap It Up

The pantry challenge is your chance to explore new flavors, experiment with different cuisines, and make the most of what you already have. 

You’ll be able to transform forgotten ingredients into delicious and satisfying dishes. Remember to stay organized, track your progress, and celebrate your achievements along the way. So, get ready to reduce food waste, and save money on groceries.

Have fun with the challenge and share your journey on social media or with friends and family.

What’s your experience with meal planning from the freezer and pantry? Let me know in the comments below.

FAQs

How long should a pantry challenge last?

The duration of a pantry challenge depends on your personal goals and the size of your pantry. It can range from a week to a month depending on how much food you have stocked in the freezer and pantry. Choose a timeframe that’s realistic and manageable for you.

Can I still buy fresh produce during a pantry challenge?

While the focus of a pantry challenge is to use up pantry staples, it’s perfectly fine to supplement your meals with fresh produce. Just be mindful of what you already have in your pantry and prioritize using those ingredients first.

What if I run out of a specific ingredient during a pantry challenge?

If you run out of a specific ingredient, try to find a substitute from your pantry. Challenge yourself to use the food in the house. Get creative and experiment with different flavors. Keep a running grocery list so you can make a note of ingredients you run out of and purchase them after your pantry challenge is over.

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