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How To Do A Pantry Challenge


An oil painting depicting a woman and child standing in a pantry doorway. The woman is handing a metal container to the child.
Woman with a Child in a Pantry (c. 1656 - c. 1660) by Pieter de Hooch


Lots of people on the internet are doing pantry challenges in the first part of the year. A pantry challenge is simply using up the food you already have to feed your family for a week, a month, or even several months. Some do it as a way to keep their spending on food low after the more costly holiday season. Others do it to use up items before they go bad and make room for new food that will be coming in once the garden starts producing in the spring and summer. And some simply do it as a personal challenge to get more creative in the kitchen and save a little money in the process.

Regardless of the reason, a pantry challenge of any length is a way for the homemaker to practice good stewardship of all the resources she's been given. With prices where they are today we certainly don’t want to let food go to waste by getting lost in the bottom of the freezer or the back of the pantry.




A woman in a yellow fur-lined robe sitting at a desk writing.
A Lady Writing a Letter (ca. 1665) by Johannes Vermeer. Original from the National Gallery of Art.

Take a Complete Inventory

I went through every bit of my food storage and wrote down every single thing I had. This included my kitchen pantry, bulk food storage, fridge & freezer and my deep freezer. I did not measure out how many cups of rice or flour, I simply estimated using the measurement that made the most sense to my brain for each type of item (cups, quarts, gallons, pounds, etc.). This is also the time to get rid of expired items. I've linked some charts below that have suggested shelf life for food.


Make a Meal List

Once I had my inventory list, I made a list of possible meals that I could make from that inventory with little to no additional purchases required. I mostly listed dinner meals, but I did think of a few breakfast, snack and dessert ideas as well.

My goal was to work through as much of our food storage as I could for the month of January, particularly the meat and the frozen leftovers. I did not commit to a no-buy January as some do,  however I did commit to not buying any more protein, but instead work through what we already had even if was not our favorite.

My potential meal list included some of our favorite recipes, but also some new ones that would make use of the odds and ends and less exciting cuts of meats I had been avoiding cooking for the past year. One of my favorite discoveries was a fabulous recipe for a top sirloin roast. The roast came in a grocery order by accident and since I've never cooked one before it languished in the back of the freezer for months. It turned out to be unbelievably easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. We will certainly be making that again.

As I used things up throughout the month, I crossed them off my inventory list . We did not use all the protein we had stored but we made a sizable dent and were able to feed ourselves really well for a month.


Menukaart voor een diner op 7 januari 1911 in Grand Hotel Restaurant 'Victoria' (before 1911) by anonymous

Work the List

Even though I had a suggested meal list, I still made my menus and grocery orders on a weekly basis. I simply looked at what was left on the inventory, consulted my meal ideas and my calendar and made the menu that would work best for that week. I still had to put in a weekly grocery order for fresh dairy, produce and a few missing ingredients, but my grocery bill for January was about 30% lower than normal. I don't think I would have had that kind of success if I had not taken the time to make a detailed inventory and a list of meal ideas to inspire me.


Think Outside the Box

When getting towards the back of the pantry or bottom of the freezer we have fewer and fewer options. This is when creativity can rescue your menu from monotony. Think of different ways to use familiar ingredients. Do you always and only ever make tuna salad with your canned tuna? Try making tuna patties instead. Consider going meatless for one or two meals per week and serve a dish with beans and or eggs instead of meat. Let technology do the thinking for you. There are several websites that allow you to enter a list of ingredients and then they will give you recipes you can make with those ingredients.

Consider how your ingredients can work with simple classic meals: soups, sandwiches, quiche, rice or pasta with some kind of meat sauce, tacos, casseroles, and when all else fails...have breakfast for dinner!


Review & Reflect

When you get to the end of your pantry challenge take stock not only in what remains of your food storage but of what you learned during the process. Ask yourself some questions.

  • What food items did you have an excess of and why? Is it because you forgot you had it, you didn't know how to prepare it, you simply over-bought or if you're a gardner over-planted, or your family really just didn't enjoy it?

  • What did you really miss because it was gone early in the challenge? That may be a family favorite that you should always have in stock.

Let your answers to these questions inform your future food buying or growing.


I personally enjoyed this challenge. It forced me to be more creative in my meal planning and I believe will help me be mindful of how I buy food in the coming year. I will definitely do this again next January and I’m thinking a summer pantry challenge would be a good thing to make room for preserving the bounty of summer time.



No matter the time of year, I highly encourage you to do some kind of pantry challenge, even if just for 1 week. See if you can make a week’s worth of meals from what you already have in your home. I think you will be surprised at how creative you can be in the kitchen. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.




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