Keeping Track of Pantry Inventory Can Reduce Food Costs

by Dollar Stretcher Reader Contributors
Keeping Track of Pantry Inventory photo
Keeping track of what food you have on hand and what you need to buy can help reduce both food waste and grocery bills. Our savvy readers share their best tips for keeping track of pantry inventory.

Because of our flexible work schedules, my wife and I share cooking duties. We both actually enjoy cooking, but we’re running into a problem. Both of us plan our recipes in advance and make sure that we have (or I buy) the things we need. At least once a week, I look for one ingredient or another to find that we don’t have it. I can’t blame my wife. She didn’t know that I was also counting on using that last clove of garlic. Is there a way that we can keep track of our pantry inventory so we know what we have and what needs to be bought before we run out?

Use a Spreadsheet to Keep Track of Pantry Inventory

We made a spreadsheet of all the pantry staples we use regularly, listing the number we have of each and where they’re stored (the regular pantry or our overflow pantry downstairs). We printed out a copy and taped it to the inside of the pantry door, and whenever we use an item, we cross out the number and write in the new amount we have left.

This also helps us know when it’s time to buy more of something and how many we need. Whenever we restock the pantry, we update the spreadsheet and print out a fresh copy. If you only need to keep track of a few items, an erasable whiteboard and marker might work just as well.

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High Tech Pantry Inventory

If you and your spouse have smartphones, a free app, Our Groceries, allows us to keep a running list of what’s in our pantry. On another list, we keep a current grocery list. When a person uses the last of something in the pantry, he/she adds it to the grocery list. Both lists can be seen and edited by both of us, and they cost nothing.

Last Bottle? It’s Your Responsibility

In our house, the person who takes the last bottle, box, jar, etc. off the pantry shelf or out of the refrigerator immediately writes that item on a shopping list that hangs in our kitchen at all times.
Barbara in Florida

Give Yourself Wiggle Room

My husband and I used to have this same problem! For us, the solution was to organize and increase our “pantry” area by finding room for shelving in an area close to the kitchen. Then, we began doubling our normal amount of food staples kept on hand. This took about a month, so the cost didn’t hurt quite as much. Also, when either of us uses up more than half of a spice, package of cheese, etc., we immediately add the item to our grocery list! This has saved frustration in the kitchen and also gives us some wiggle room if we have bad weather, unexpected dinner guests, or a short paycheck.

5 Steps to Keeping Track of Pantry Inventory

  1. Make your meal plans together.
  2. Create a reusable grocery list in either a word document or spreadsheet to be used when making your meal plan.
  3. Beside each grocery item, create two boxes. One is for him and the other one is for her.
  4. When you make your meal plans, mark each item needed for each meal. You can also include the quantity you will need for each meal.
  5. Using the grocery list, you will know how much of each food item you will need and can shop accordingly.


Pantry Help at Your Fingertips

Out of Milk is a fantastic app that can do just this. It’s available for iPhone and Android, but there’s also website access as well for free. For each item, you can set the type of measurement (i.e., jars, cans, ounces, etc.), and as you use items, you simply adjust the amount of inventory left. The key feature is the ability to share access to your pantry list with another user and keep the lists synced.

By the way, the app also features an item scanner, shopping lists (multiple lists plus categories to organize by aisle), circular deals from local stores (pushed), and to-do list capability. Plus, it has the ability to shift items from one list to another. For example, when something is bought, move it from the shopping cart to the pantry. I love this app to death.

It’s a Photo Op

My solution to the “missing from the pantry” problem is the camera on my cell phone. Before I grocery shop, or in the early morning of a day I plan to cook, I photograph the pantry shelves (and the refrigerator). That way, when I have time at the store or during the day, I can review whether everything I need is in stock or whether I need to get more to make a wonderful meal. I often review the photos in my car before going into the grocery store. Although I would like to take credit for this time saver, I am happy to acknowledge that it was my husband’s idea.

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Buy Two

Buy two of all items that are going to be used up eventually. When you open the second one, add it to your grocery list (which I keep on my kitchen table) to be replenished next shopping trip.
Jan in Western KY

Create a Dated Master List

To keep track of pantry inventory, make a dated master list of all of your pantry items, including the number of each item you have on hand. Keep the list with your grocery list and menu planner. Each time you use items, update the numbers, adding the items to the grocery list before you run out.

His and Her Pantry Inventory

To keep track of pantry inventory, divide your pantry and freezer into three sections. One section is a general section, which includes things you have stocked up on or bought for another meal and did not use. Then, have a separate section for each of you. You could each have a shelf. If space is tight, use one shelf and have his and her sides. You could also use baskets.

As you make your menus each week and want to use something from the “general” section of your pantry or freezer, put that item in your basket or on your shelf. By doing it this way, the other person knows your plan to use it that week. If plans change and you don’t use it at the end of the week, put the item back into the general section.

“R” Means Reserved

I write on the package with a permanent marker: an “R” with a circle around it means “reserved.” This also works for plastic-wrapped packages of cheese or foil-wrapped bags of chips. My family respected this notation well, even when the children were in grade school.

Keep Meal Ingredients Together

Because of multiple “cookers” in our home, sometimes we reach for things that someone else has used. To help avoid this, whenever we buy ingredients for a particular recipe, we place them in a bag together and label the bag so others know what not to use. Colored stickers on individual items might also work.

Plan Menus and Make Shopping Lists Together

My husband and I also share cooking duties. We were running into the same problem! We were also double-purchasing just to be sure we had an ingredient needed for one or two meals.

We shop once a week on Friday. On Thursday, we plan our meals for the following week and make our list based on those meals. On Thursday night, we go through the fridge and pantry, cross off what we already have and note quantities of things we may be low on. Then when I do the shopping on Friday after work, there’s no worry of not buying enough or buying too much!

Reviewed January 2024

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