A pantry challenge is a fun way to save money, spend less time shopping, and discover new recipes. Plus, it’s a great for your well-being.
Reducing your reliance on packaged foods and takeout is great for your well-being. Home-cooked meals are generally more nutritious and contain fewer calories than restaurant fare. And sitting down to a plate of food you’ve prepared helps you be more mindful of what you’re putting in your body.
You just need to take stock of what’s on hand. We’ve all stared down a pantry that’s a bit scary, cluttered with bags and boxes of half-used, out-of-date, or forgotten ingredients. According to Kelsey Lorencz, R.D., a dietitian and founder of Simply Nourished Home, this is just the time to kick off a two- to four-week pantry challenge.
So what is a pantry challenge? During this time, you’ll build your meals largely out of what you have on hand, putting only meat (if it isn’t already in your freezer), eggs, dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables on your shopping list.
By the end of the challenge, you’ll have a more organized kitchen and a better understanding of how to shop and cook based on what you currently like to eat.
Plus, you’ll likely come up with creative new homemade meals that outlive the challenge. Here’s how to get started.
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Step 1: The Inventory
Taking a clear-eyed look at what you have in your cabinets and freezer is half the battle, according to Lorencz. “I like to separate everything into categories: produce, proteins, starches, and condiments,” she says.
As you go, pull all items out of their storage spaces so you see the containers and bags hiding in the back. Often, perfectly good ingredients go bad because you don’t even know they’re there. While you’re at it, this would be the ideal time to clean those shelves and your freezer.
Step 2: The Purge
Once you see everything you have on hand, you might notice that you have some things you don’t really want after all. Perhaps there are items that are long expired or goodies, like packaged cakes or cookies, you purchased on impulse but don’t fit into your current healthy eating plan.
Now’s the time to trash spoiled items. And those unopened boxes of cookies and cake mixes? “This is the perfect opportunity to give back by donating to a local food bank,” says Lorencz.
Alternatively, freeze them in individual portions for occasional treats. That will curb the mindless grazing that happens when you pull the whole package out of the pantry.
Step 3: The Rules
How strict you want to be with yourself in terms of buying new groceries depends on your situation. If you already have frozen foods like fruits, vegetables, and proteins in your freezer, you may not need to buy much to eat well for a month of more.
For most people, though, Lorencz suggests your meals during the challenge should be about three-quarters stuff you have on hand and one-quarter fresh items.
“Allowing yourself to buy some perishable foods and produce makes it easier to create healthy balanced meals while using up most of your stored foods,” she says.
Step 4: The Culinary Magic
Even those who don’t think of themselves as creative cooks discover their inner chef during a pantry challenge. Often, you’ll combine things in new and unexpected ways (chickpeas and pasta together? why not!), resulting in a favorite that becomes part of your repertoire.
Watch enough cooking shows and you’ll learn that: a) almost anything can be made into soup, b) almost anything can be rolled into a wrap, and c) almost anything can be tossed with pasta.
Plus, take advantage of recipe sites with search boxes where you can enter an ingredient to find relevant recipes. Lorencz is a fan of allrecipes.com. And epicurious.com also has an excellent search function.
Just don’t let those recipes tempt you to buy more groceries. That soup will be just fine if you omit the fresh parsley or use the dried you already have.
Step 5: The Pitfalls
Don’t make it complicated. Maybe a few months ago you bought quinoa to make some elaborate pilaf that you’re probably never going to make after all. But that doesn’t mean the quinoa itself can’t be used another way.
“It can be used in place of any dinner starch or even as a breakfast cereal,” says Lorencz. Quinoa can also be cooked very simply. Just bring a pot of water to boil, and pour in the quinoa. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes, and drain. It’s exactly like cooking pasta.
Get the recipe for an easy quinoa breakfast bowl here.
Carry this thinking over to other ingredients you rarely use. Jarred olives? Chop them up and add them to pasta sauce. Curry powder? Sprinkle it into an egg salad sandwich filling.
Step 6: The Lessons
Even if you’ve been cooking for many decades, you may learn a lot about how you cook and eat today. Perhaps you discarded so much expired whole wheat pasta that you’ve finally permanently deleted it from your shopping list.
On the other hand, maybe now that you realize how simple it is to cook quinoa, it’s a new favorite. Make notes on what you’ve learned, and save any new recipes that have come into your rotation.
“Challenging yourself to eat from food that is already available is an excellent way to get creative in the kitchen, reduce food waste, and save some serious money in the process,” says Lorencz.
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