How to Get Maximum Value From Your Pantry and Fridge

If you’re like a lot of families I know, you probably have a surprising amount of food tucked away in various places in your home or apartment.

In our house, for example, we have a pantry that’s almost always quite full of nonperishable food items of all kinds. Much of it is staples, like flour, pasta, beans and canned tomatoes, but there are a lot of unusual ingredients in there bought for specific meals.

Those items have value, and there’s no better time than right now to start digging through those items, figuring out what you have, and putting some of that to good use. In fact, that’s something we’re actually doing today at our house!

Why? For starters, this enables us to use up things that are close to their expiration date. If we don’t get around to using those items, they’ll go stale or bad, and if we have to toss them, that’s just money thrown away. You’ll probably find a few items that are past their expiration date by a little — make sure that it’s actually an EXPIRATION date and not a BEST IF USED BY or a BEST IF SOLD BY date, because if it’s the latter, it’s still definitely usable. You just want to use it sooner rather than later.

Another reason is that it feels good to know exactly how much food you do have on hand. It’s often easy to underestimate how much food you have and keep buying more. If you pull out everything, however, you can look your food resources straight in the eye.

Yet another reason is that the more meals you can prepare largely out of what you have on hand, the lower your food costs will be for at least a little while. If you’re worried about unemployment or underemployment right now, drastically cutting costs in the short term can be really helpful. If you can cut your food costs by using the stuff you already have, that can be incredibly helpful.

Here’s how we’re doing it.

First of all, we pull everything out of our pantry, cupboards, fridge and freezer and put it in sensible groups. Basically, every non-perishable food item in our pantry gets pulled out for examination. We also go through our refrigerator item by item, make a list of them and put them back so they stay cool, then do a similar task with the contents of the freezer.

Yes, it’s a big task, but there’s no better moment than the present to tackle this.

As we go, we discard unusable items. If it’s old or spoiled in some way, we toss it immediately. This process will free up a little space in the cupboards, pantry, freezer and fridge.

As we pull out the non-perishable stuff, we group things sensibly. All of the spices go in one place. All of the beans go in another place. Pasta goes here. Flour goes over here.

The trick here isn’t to just follow a checklist but to group things together in ways that make sense to you. You want things to be organized in a way so that you can intuitively find them later, so make up your own organization system.

The vast majority of the things in our pantry can be grouped together in sensible ways. The things that cannot are just placed in an “other” group (second-lowest shelf on our pantry).

So, at this point, we have a big list of refrigerated and frozen items, along with all of the items in the pantry grouped into sensible groups. Everything there has been checked for expiration, so it’s all good. Now what?

The next step is to create a meal list. Make a giant list of meals you could make out of the items on hand or with minimal additions.

Do you have a sack of flour and some yeast? You can make loaves of bread of all kinds. Got some pasta, a can of diced tomatoes and some spices? That’s a one-pot pasta meal. So many things can combine into a simple meal.

Remember, we’re not necessarily talking about challenging meals with long ingredient lists. Those are great, of course, but what we’re particularly looking for are meals that are simple to prepare that you’ll enjoy. You can plan out a few really complex things, but unless you’re planning on making challenging meal planning into a frequent occurrence, bank instead on simpler things.

Another good strategy: you can use the internet to quickly find recipes for any pair or trio of ingredients. I particularly like using Yummly for this. For example, let’s say you found a half-used bag of elbow macaroni, a can of condensed milk and something in your head is telling you to use them together, you can just search and quickly find that they’re the basis for a really good homemade mac and cheese — all you really need in addition is some cheese.

As you go, write down these recipes you find and choose. What you’re essentially doing is making a really long list of recipes you can make out of all of the stuff you have on hand. That way, you’ll be able to choose from those meals as time goes by.

One good idea is to put a marking of some kind — like a star — next to any recipe for which you already have all of the ingredients on hand and won’t need any more ingredients.

One really good strategy for doing this is to put items back in the pantry as you find recipes to use them. For example, if you found a good recipe that uses that condensed milk and elbow macaroni, put it back in the pantry and then only use the ingredients that are still out there. That way, when you look for the next recipe, you’ll be restricted to only the stuff that isn’t in the pantry.

At first, you’re going to find this really easy. Ingredients will fit together really clearly into meals that you like and are familiar.

As you start whittling down the ingredients, it will get harder. You’ll find that the stuff left is more esoteric and perhaps includes some things you don’t particularly like. Those are the things that you’ll really need to dig into tools like Yummly to figure out what to do with them, but that’s a good challenge.

Ideally, as you’re putting stuff back in the cupboards and the pantry, you’re organizing things as you go. Since you purged unusable stuff, you should have more space, and because you’re putting things back in a more sensible way, you should have even more space. Ideally, this should give you better access to all of the items in there as well as making things easier to find.

I strongly recommend having “sections” in your cupboards and pantry for each of those food groupings you came up with as you pulled out the foods. Put all of the spices back in the same place. Put the baking supplies back near each other. This will make it so much easier when you’re actually pulling out items to cook.

The last time we did this, I had a list of about 40 meals we could make entirely out of what was in our pantry, freezer and fridge and about 40 more that could be made with just a couple of ingredients each.

Once you’re done, you should have a nice list of meals you can make with stuff that’s on hand, and another list of meals that requires you to have another item or two from the store. That’s a lot of meals that you can make at home without going anywhere and with almost no financial impact.

This might seem like a simple step, like a common sense thing, but if you’re feeling a lot of stress about what’s going on in your world right now and you’re not sure how you’re going to keep your financial head above water, start with the basics. Start with food. Go through what you actually have and assess how you can turn that into things you and your family can eat.

Focus on what you can control — the food you have on hand, your behavior, your thinking, your actions. Let go of the things you can’t control. If you take care of what you can control to the best of your ability, that’s really all you can do.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.