Eating Down the Pantry: How to Save by Eating Just What’s in Your Cupboard

Your pantry is a hidden stash of cash.

February 9, 2015, 7:45 AM
PHOTO: You have a hidden stash of cash in your house in the form of cans, grains, pastas and sauces.
You have a hidden stash of cash in your house in the form of cans, grains, pastas and sauces.
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— -- You have a hidden stash of cash in your house in the form of cans, grains, pastas and sauces: I’m talking about your pantry. Eating down the stores of food in your cupboard can save you money and help prevent some of the $165 billion in food waste that goes into U.S. garbage cans each year.

I start by organizing my pantry; it’s a jumbled mess. Figuring out what I have is half the battle.

Why do I have four bags of quinoa? I’m not even sure I like the stuff. I have three open bags of flour, 27 servings of Miso soup and enough cans of beans, tuna and crushed tomatoes to open my own food bank.

Next I bring in the queen of the pantry challenge, Jessica Fisher. She is the author of the Good Cheap Eats blog and a mother of six!

She recently did a month-long pantry challenge and cut her $1,200 grocery bill down to $550. Even more impressive, she says, “my kids didn’t even realize we were eating down the pantry until I mentioned it two weeks into the month-long challenge.”

As we open my pantry doors, I tell her that I only see spaghetti as my meal option. It feels like a culinary death sentence to imagine eating just the dry goods for the next couple weeks.

She sees something totally different, “Salsa fixings, lots of soup, pizza, Chili, Chicken Parmesan.” She sees loads of meals and offers her first tip …

A Pantry Challenge Includes the Fridge and the Freezer

Unless you have completely emptied your fridge and your wallet, you should include the frozen meat or vegetables you have in the freezer, the condiments in the doors of your fridge, the staples you always have like eggs and milk, and then plan to pay for some vegetables and cheeses.

“You can try to eat exclusively from the pantry, but if you include fresh produce and cheese, it doesn’t feel like such a hardship,” Jessica explains.

It may take you a month to eat down the pantry if you organize and include fresh food, but you are more likely to stick with the program and reap the savings at the end of that month rather than in a quick, but more painful two weeks. While beans can carry a meal, Fisher says, ground turkey or beef in the freezer will really give your meal-planning options a lot more diversity.

Tuna: It’s Not Just for Lunch

Jessica says any canned meat can be worked into a casserole or into mac and cheese. Because I have jars of capers and olives in my pantry, she points out I have the option of making Pasta Puttanesca and I find a great recipe that includes some lemon rind to really make it taste fresh. Yum.

Pancakes - It’s Not Just for Breakfast

I am drowning in pancake mix, so Jessica suggests pancakes for dinner. “Kids go crazy for it.”

I happen to have some link sausage in the freezer and she was right; my kids flipped when I made it for their supper. Mom for the win!

Jessica also says it’s worth making a huge batch of waffles and freezing them for easy breakfast fare. My kids love corn toasties for breakfast and I notice I have a ton of corn meal in my larder. I found a recipe for them (you bake them on cookie sheets so they are square not round) and while they aren’t the healthiest thing I’ve made my kids, they are a huge hit, easy to make and freeze well. Pop them in the toaster before school and we are good to go.

Use Apps and Websites to Get Creative

I had a frugal foodie helping me, but websites like and apps like Dinner Spinner let you input the ingredients in your pantry and then they generate recipe and meal ideas.

Lighten Up on Dinner

I tend to think of dinner as an event that needs a lot of details, but Jessica reminds me that dinner can easily be a one-pot dish, a hearty soup and salad, or even a sandwich.

In all, Jessica came up with 16 dinner recipes I could make from my pantry. They included a few things I had in my freezer (two chicken breasts, 1 pound of bison stew meat and 1 pound of ground turkey), staples like cheese, eggs and milk, and some but not a ton of vegetables.

I got cooking: burrito pizza (pizza with beans and cheese), Chicken Parmesan, Pasta Puttanesca, pancakes for dinner.

On tap for next week is chili and corn bread, stew, corn chowder, Lawnmower Tacos (made with the crushed up tortilla chips at the bottom of an open few bags, Quinoa bowls with beans, a tuna salad/corn/mayo concoction served on baked potatoes (this is akin to the British pub favorite tuna/corn Jacket potato I love).

Looking at the ingredients for the 16 meals she has planned, Jessica estimates I’m saving about $200. This far exceeds what I thought we could get out of this pantry challenge and as an added bonus I spent much less time in the grocery store and now have an organized, lean mean gold mine of a pantry.

Link to your favorite pantry challenge recipe in the comments.

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