Using What’s Already in Your Pantry to Make Amazing ‘Free’ Meals

Whenever I open our pantry door, I’m almost assaulted by the quantity of goods that I find in there. I see jars of pasta sauce, containers of beans and rice, boxes of pasta, herbs and sauces of all kinds.

The items in our pantry were built up over many months of buying items on sale, picking up bulk purchases of items we know we’ll eventually use, and meals that were planned but went unmade for one reason or another. Those items get pushed to the back by newer items in the next meal plan and, over a period of months, begin to fill up our pantry.

That’s a shame, too. There are many great meal ideas sitting in here, but things are often forgotten in the back of the pantry. Even worse, if those items sit in there too long, they become old and even potentially unusable. We don’t want those things to go to waste – there’s nothing worse than throwing away food that’s perfectly good and could have been used.

At the same time, if we actually use all of those foods, we’re going to dramatically cut our food bill for the next several weeks because the items in the pantry form the backbone of a lot of meals.

(The same exact philosophy exists with our deep freezer. Items will sometimes get shuffled to the back, and there’s great value in finding a use for them before they succumb to freezer burn.)

This is a situation we face every several months to a year or so, and here’s our strategy for dealing with an overstuffed pantry. This strategy takes some time – usually a few hours on a weekend afternoon – but it saves us a lot of time on grocery store visits for the next month and cuts our grocery bills dramatically. Here’s how we handle it.

First, we pull everything edible out of the pantry and cupboards. We just empty all of it out, covering our kitchen counters and dining room table with jars and boxes and other containers. It looks like a giant mess, to tell the truth. We try to roughly organize things as we’re unpacking – we’ll put all of the beans in one place, all of the sauces in another place, and so on – but it’s not exactly perfect, especially since many things are hard to perfectly categorize.

As we’re pulling all of this stuff out, we make sure everything we pull out is still edible and discard the things that are past date and unusable. We usually do this routine frequently enough that very few things have truly gone bad in our pantry or our cupboards, but occasionally we find an item or two that’s far past the date on the container.

It’s worth noting here that different containers have different meanings when it comes to the date on the package. Many packages use a “sell by:” or “best if used by:” date, which means that you can still use the item after that date without any problems. It just might be lacking in freshness. On the other hand, true expiration dates should be paid attention to. For the most part, nonperishable goods of the kind you keep in your pantry use “sell by” dates, which means you rarely have to throw anything out, but it’s always worth making sure what kind of date is on the package.

Once we have everything out on the counters and tables (and floors…), we go from ingredient to ingredient, planning meals around them, until we’ve found a use for virtually everything. This is usually done physically, as we actually pick up items and group them together into sensible meals as much as we can. We’ll often do this with an internet device nearby so we can look up recipes as we’re doing this. For dry bulk items, like a five pound bag of beans, we’ll often take the amount required out of the bulk bag, put it in a smaller container, and sit it with the ingredients for the recipe. I’ll usually put a piece of masking tape on one of the containers indicating what the planned meal is.

With this meal planning, our goal is to minimize purchases of items outside of the produce aisle to complete these meals. Fresh vegetables and other things are fine, but additional nonperishable foods are avoided as much as possible. So, for example, I have no problem buying fresh vegetables for a stir fry meal, but I don’t want to buy another packaged item to complete a different meal if we can sensibly avoid it.

As we’re doing this, we assemble several weeks of meal plans, taking note of what additional items need to be purchased to complete the meals. What this ends up looking like is that we have several sheets of paper with a week’s worth of meals on each one. Alongside those meal plans is a grocery list of the handful of additional fresh items we’d need to complete those meals. Those meal plans become our actual meal plans each week.

Once we have those meal plans, we take one additional step to make sure this all works quite easily for us. We put the items back very carefully so that the items needed for each meal are grouped and can easily be found. Grocery bags with little masking tape labels around the handles make this very easy – we write the name of the meal on the that masking tape label so we can find the items for the meal really easily. Meals that will be made sooner rather than later are kept near the front, so we put away meals from the final meal plan first, then follow it with meals from more and more and more recent plans so that the meals for the next week are sitting at the very front of the pantry. That way, as we move through the meal plans, the meals for those plans are always right at the front of the pantry for easy access.

After all of this, we’re really set for the next several weeks.

We have meal plans already in place for the next month or two. All we have to do is copy them to the whiteboard (or even just tape them up there, which is actually more convenient).

The meal plan sheets already have the grocery lists we need for the additional items for those meals, so there’s no grocery list construction. All we have to do is add last minute items to the list (things like coffee or milk or toilet paper).

Those grocery lists usually end up being really short, so the actual time spent creating a grocery list goes down to almost nothing (we just add the perishables and toiletries) and the time in the grocery store is drastically reduced, too.

Doing this trims a typical grocery list for our family from about 40 items to about 10 items. If you assume that the items have the same average value, that means we’re trimming 75% off of our grocery store bill for several weeks. That’s a tremendous savings, no matter how you slice it.

In addition, over the long haul, the time invested in this kind of pantry cleaning is pretty close to a wash, because you end up regaining so much time from substantially shorter grocery store visits.

Eventually, however, our pantry is bare, so we return to our traditional methods of meal planning – looking at the store flyer once a week, building a meal plan from that flyer, making a grocery list from that plan, and heading to the store. Eventually, the pantry builds back up again.

This begs the question: Why do this cycle at all? Why wouldn’t we just use everything in our pantry before buying more? The big reason is that we usually save quite a bit on sales and bulk purchases along the way, so as long as we eventually use the stuff, our average cost per meal is pretty low over the long term. We also find that our meal plans for the week are sometimes interrupted and planned meals can slip through the cracks, especially if I handle the meal planning one week and Sarah handles it the next week. All of these factors cause items to accumulate in the pantry.

If you find yourself in a situation like us, where your cupboards and/or pantry are full of If you have a full pantry or full cupboards, give this strategy a shot. Empty everything out, build some meals from the things you find, make some long term meal plans, then put everything back in an organized system sorted by meal so you can easily find the items for the meal you want.

The end result of all of this will be some very low grocery bills for a while, an actual use for many of the items floating around in your pantry, and, eventually, a pantry with a lot of free space in it.

The best part? You end up recouping the time investment of the initial work because your subsequent grocery store visits are much shorter.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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