The Year-Round Money-Saving Benefits of Doing a Pantry Challenge

by Andrea Norris-McKnight

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A pantry challenge is an easy way to free up some extra cash when you need it, but there are other benefits to doing a pantry challenge that you should consider that can help you save money year-round.

Most of us could use a little extra cash this month. Maybe you’d like to pay off those holiday bills as quickly as possible or you have some other expense that you’ll have to put on a credit card if you can’t come up with the cash. A pantry challenge is a great way to free up that extra cash.

If you’ve never done a pantry challenge, the point is to avoid the grocery store and only prepare and eat meals using things you already have in your kitchen so you can use the money you normally would be spending at the grocery store on other things. How much extra cash could you free up if you skipped the grocery store for just one week? What about a month?

A typical pantry challenge is one month, but you can do it for however long works best for your family and your wallet. At the end of the challenge, you hopefully have most or all of that needed extra cash.

If the idea of a little extra cash is not enough to convince you to do a pantry challenge, here are seven other pantry challenge benefits you might want to consider that can help you save money all year long:

A pantry challenge helps prevent food waste.

How often do you find spoiled or expired food sitting in your cupboards, fridge, or freezer that you have to toss? You might as well be tossing money in the garbage.

A periodic pantry challenge gives you a reason to clean things out and eat things up before they go bad.

A pantry challenge makes it easier to get your pantry, fridge, and freezer organized.

If you don’t have a system for keeping your kitchen organized, it is easiest to create one when there is less in your kitchen rather than more.

Your kitchen will likely be its barest at the end of the challenge. As you restock, take a few minutes to organize your canned goods with the older items to the front. Make sure everything that goes into your freezer is packaged properly and labeled to help prevent freezer burn. Designate a certain shelf in your fridge just for leftovers so you no longer find things decaying behind your soda stash.

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A pantry challenge provides an opportunity to master meal planning skills.

If you are new to meal planning or simply struggle with it, a pantry challenge gives you a reason to learn how to meal plan or to hone your meal planning skills. The internet makes it so easy to search for recipes that use specific combinations of ingredients, which will be key in creating meals that use what you have on hand.

Once your challenge ends, continue to plan meals around what you already have in your kitchen, along with what is on sale at the grocery store. Strong meal planning skills will go a long way in helping you keep food costs down, not just during your pantry challenge, but all the time.

A pantry challenge encourages you to try new frugal recipes (or practice cooking without recipes!)

A fun part of doing a pantry challenge is getting creative in the kitchen as you create or find recipes that incorporate those ingredients you have on hand.

Getting creative doesn’t mean complex. Choose recipes that are simpler to prepare so you don’t get so overwhelmed that you give up on your challenge.

You’ll learn new ways to stretch your food budget during a pantry challenge.

The object of a pantry challenge is to avoid buying anything additional. But what if you have everything you need to make biscuits except the buttermilk? No need to buy it. Go online and learn how to substitute with other ingredients. (You’ll find up to 14 different ways to make a substitute for buttermilk!)

Want to make tacos but have no tortillas? This might be a good time to see how easy it can be and how much you can save making them from scratch. Not enough ground beef for those enchiladas? Stretch what you do have using black beans, lentils, or even mushrooms.

Make note of your newly acquired substitutes and recipes and use them on a go-forward to keep your food costs to a minimum. You might find there are certain things you no longer need to buy at the store because you can easily make them from scratch for so much less.

A pantry challenge is an ideal money-saving project for the whole family.

Use the pantry challenge to introduce food costs to your kids. I am sure they would love to be part of lowering those costs if they understood that some of the savings could go toward some treat.

And does your spouse know how much the food budget is? This can be a good way to get both of you thinking about this discretionary expense. At the end of the challenge, reward the family on a job well done using part of that extra cash.

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How To Do a Pantry Challenge in Six Simple Steps

So exactly how do you go about doing a pantry challenge? Just follow these six steps:

1. Decide how you will structure your pantry challenge.

For some people, a pantry challenge means no spending on food whatsoever. For others, it is limiting weekly spending to a small amount, such as $25, to purchase perishables like milk and veggies.

You want to structure a pantry challenge with parameters that are strict enough to help you meet your goals for doing the challenge without making it so impossible or unpleasant that you give up before seeing any benefits.

2. Make sure your family is up to the challenge and understands the benefits.

Your family might not feel the same excitement as you do over the thought of avoiding the grocery store for a month or finally having an organized pantry. Tell your family you won’t be grocery shopping for four weeks and they’ll likely panic over thoughts of snackless lunchboxes and meatless dinners.

But tell your spouse how much money you hope to save and promise the kids a special treat if the challenge is successful and see how quickly they decide that a pantry challenge just might be a great idea after all.

3. Invite a friend to do a pantry challenge along with you.

A pantry challenge pal can provide a bit of moral support when you want to vent about your kids’ complaints that your homemade granola bars are not nearly as good as the ones from the store, as well as trade her four of your 15 boxes of stockpiled pasta for one of her 5-lb bags of rice to help get you both through the challenge.

4. Inventory and organize your pantry.

You will need to inventory your pantry, cupboards, fridge, and freezer. Make a list of everything you have and how much. This list will be invaluable as you plan meals.

Then figure out what you don’t have. This will help you decide if you will need to allow for minimal shopping during the challenge or if you might wish to stock up on a few things before the challenge if you think having them on hand will help your family stick with it easier.

As you inventory your kitchen, take notice of how much, if any, expired food you find and have to throw out. One expired can of evaporated milk isn’t going to break your budget too much, but if the food you have to throw out adds up to several dollars, you might want to look into ways you can stop food waste once the challenge is over.

Also, pay attention to any item of which you may have an overabundance. If you have enough oatmeal on hand to feed your kids breakfast for the next eight months because you stock up every single time it is a BOGO buy, you likely need to come up with a system for how often and how much to buy. This can help you trim your food budget and minimize the chance food could expire before it gets eaten.

5. Plan your meals.

Use the inventory list you made and start to plan out what you will cook and when, how many meals it will make, etc. If you are attempting a challenge for four weeks, you will basically need 28 breakfasts, 28 lunches, 28 dinners, plus snacks planned to get you through the challenge. And unless your family primarily drinks water, don’t forget about beverages.

Yes, that is a lot! You do not need to plan everything at the start of the challenge, but you do need to get a good idea of how and when you will prepare your food so you have more than just pasta left in the fourth week.

6. Assess what you learn during the challenge that could help you cut your food budget on a go-forward.

A pantry challenge can teach us a lot about how we manage our kitchens and grocery budgets.

Maybe you’ll learn that your pantry disorganization causes you to buy things you already have on hand because you never really know what you have on hand. Or perhaps you’ll discover that hubby loves lentil tacos just as much as beef tacos when they are seasoned the right way.

Use these discoveries to help lower your grocery budget on a go forward.

So do you think you’re up to a pantry challenge?

Why not give one a try and see how much you can save, not just during the challenge, but every month thereafter.

Reviewed March 2023

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