Are you ready for a pantry challenge in 2024? This is a great way to ditch the grocery store to use the food you already have! It’s easier than you’d think (and doesn’t have to feel like a drag, either).
Ready to save money and reduce your waste this year? Learn everything you need to know about setting up a real food zero waste kitchen. If you love a good challenge, this no spend month challenge will get your budget into shape in no time.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen food prices skyrocketing. Grocery shopping feels like a meeting with the IRS. You want me to pay how much for some organic asparagus?
The thing is that most of us already have perfectly good food hanging out in our pantries, fridges, and freezers that we’re just not using fast enough.
When was the last time you had to toss some stale or old food?
We try to be careful, especially since we love to buy in bulk with Azure Standard, but I recently found a really old box of corn meal. It had turned rancid and was no longer safe to eat.
What a waste of food and money!
What is a pantry challenge?
A pantry challenge is a fantastic way to temporarily shrink your budget while eating up those almost-bad foods before they go bad.
In a pantry challenge, you commit to only eating food you have on hand before you go to the grocery store.
You can adjust the rules however you see fit.
For example, during a pantry challenge, we continue to buy local produce, eggs, and cheese.
Can a pantry challenge help you save money?
Yes! We like to do a pantry challenge at least once a year for this exact reason.
I realized lately that our kitchen freezer is barely closing, and with some big tax payments coming up, it’d be awfully nice to leverage my grocery budget to use it elsewhere.
Basically, when you do a pantry challenge, you shrink your grocery spending to just a fraction of the original amount.
This is a great way to flex your budget to cover big expenses or to help you save up for something special.
Fight food waste by eating from your pantry
It’s so important to us to have a low waste pantry!
Buying in bulk or refilling our containers at our local co-op makes it easy for us to reduce our packaging waste. But that’s just the start.
Did you know that approximately 40% of all food produced in the US ends up in the trash?
Americans waste so much food. This food waste happens across every level of food production, from farming to packaging, but much happens in our homes.
We often forget to finish our leftovers or overlook containers in the pantry; before we know it, they’re no longer edible.
We also tend to fall for the best buy and sell-by dates, meaning we toss perfectly fine food before it’s actually unsafe to eat.
The most frustrating part is that you’re not just wasting food – you’re also wasting all of the water, fuel, packaging, and labor that went into producing the food.
When you start thinking about this, you realize that your box of cornmeal or expired cereal is more than just the product in the box.
Fortunately, you’re already jumping into a pantry challenge for 2024, so you’re well on your way to minimizing your food waste (and grocery bills) right away.
14 Easy Tips for a Successful Pantry Challenge 2024
If this is your first pantry challenge, I’d love to share some simple tips to set you up for success!
It’s way easier than it seems (especially if you’re gentle with yourself and let it be easy).
These tips help me figure out what to do with too much brown rice or random cuts of meat and I’m sure they’ll help you, too!
1. Take inventory of your fridge, pantry, and freezer
Although it’s easy enough to peer into your pantry to see what you have, it’s always a great idea to pull everything out to see what you really have.
This is also a great time to clean up any spills and deal with food that needs to go.
Last year, I created these really handy matching kitchen inventory lists to track what I have in my fridge, pantry, freezer, and spice cupboard.
About once a year, we pull everything out to get organized and remember the random bag of this or that hiding underneath a frozen chicken or bag of frozen raspberries.
If you’re a home canner or love to preserve food, this is a great way to use up those older jars of pickles and jams to make way for this year’s harvest!
2. Set some rules
Define a few simple rules for how this is going to go. I mentioned above that we still allow fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and cheese.
Do you also want to allow those things, or are you going on a complete spending freeze?
How do you feel about…
- Dining out?
- Buying ingredients to make a specific recipe?
- How long should your challenge last?
- Stocking up on your must-have items?
- Buying household goods (soaps, TP, etc)?
For example, we have a ton of dried beans and grains, but we’re quickly running out of the flour we use to bake our homemade bread. Do we go without flour or replace what we need?
It really doesn’t matter. You get to decide the rules, so do whatever works for you!
3. Meal plan
Good things come to those who meal plan. Especially when your pantry starts to get a little bare, you’ll need to be more and more creative to assemble a delicious meal.
Take the time now to figure out what you want to make instead of waiting until you’re already tired and hungry.
Try these resources to see if they help:
- Zero Waste Meal Planning (start here if you’re trying to fight food waste)
- How to Simplify Meal Planning
- Read this if you’re overwhelmed meal planning
Ready to dive in?
My kitchen organization bundle includes my Kitchen inventory lists, a matching meal planning template, and my canning bundle to help you prepare for all the new recipes you want to make this year!
All the best tools in one
Kitchen Organization Bundle
Get the kitchen inventory lists, weekly meal planning template, and my canning bundle in one easy download you can print again and again!
4. Let it be easy
Some of us love to really mean and strict with ourselves. We say that we can never do this or we have to do this complicated or unpleasant thing.
It doesn’t have to be that way. What would this challenge look like if you let it be easy?
Maybe that means setting a smaller weekly grocery budget instead of forcing yourself down to $0.
Maybe that means visiting the grocery store once a month to get fresh items.
What is a small change you could make to help reduce your spending a little bit that doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to run out of food forever?
5. Let things run out
This is one of my all-time favorite times for sustainable or frugal living.
We’re so used to keeping things well-stocked so we never run out of dish soap or maple syrup.
In fact, we feel nervous about running out of dish soap or laundry detergent.
But what if we did?
If you run out of dish soap today, what would you do if you couldn’t go to the store?
You probably already have something on hand that could wash your dishes.
The same goes for the food in your pantry. If you run out of oats, what could you do?
Well, maybe you start eating yogurt instead or try eating cooked quinoa instead of oatmeal.
There are so many creative solutions to your problems if you just let the problems arise!
Trust yourself to be able to figure it out and you’ll have fun along the way.
6. Make your own
Just because you ran out of bread doesn’t mean you can’t eat any…you just have to make your own.
What if you’re out of yeast? You could make your own sourdough starter or unleavened bread, like pitas.
Or, would it be so bad if you didn’t have bread for a while? I bet you could find something else to eat that tastes just fine.
7. When in doubt, make soup
Back in the day, I think people ate soup all the time because it was the easiest way to throw together a nourishing meal with all the little leftover odds and ends.
Plus, you can always add more broth to stretch a pot of lentil soup to feed a crowd.
I like to have my pantry challenge in the fall or winter so I can eat as much soup as possible, but don’t let that hold you back. It’s always better to start now than to wait!
Get organized with the kitchen inventory lists!
This handy bundle of 4 printables will help you know exactly what you’re working with. Even better, you can print as many copies as you’d like for years to come!
8. Focus on abundance, not bare shelves
Do you know how people on restrictive diets almost always regain their lost weight?
The second you start to restrict anything in your life, this part of you believes it’s never coming back.
People freak out when they imagine having empty pantry shelves.
Especially if you ever grew up with food insecurity, a pantry challenge can really trigger these feelings of not-enough.
You don’t have to do a pantry challenge. You can always start by just meal planning or shopping from your pantry once a week.
If you do try this pantry challenge, focus on the abundance.
You could go to the store and buy whatever you want; you choose not to because there are bigger, more important things that matter to you.
This isn’t a punishment, you’re not in trouble, and it’s not forever. It’s just a way to have a little extra spending money and use up food before it goes bad. That’s all!
9. Think in categories
I recommended this in my post about cooking without recipes, but thinking in categories can totally change how you cook.
For example, think of all different types of pasta as just pasta. It doesn’t matter if its rotini, bowtie, macaroni, or lasagna noodles; they’re all just pasta and can be prepared and eaten the same way.
Think of all grains as just starches. Substitute couscous, quinoa, wheat berries, farro, rice, and any other grains in your recipes.
You will need to change how you cook them, but they can serve the same role in your recipes.
If you run out of sugar, you can use maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, and even dates to add sweetness to your recipes.
This way of thinking adds so much flexibility and will make it much easier to assemble nutritious meals with random items in your pantry.
10. Turn it into a game
Whether you’re a strong cook right now or not, you’ll learn and practice so many interesting recipes over the next few weeks!
Have fun with it. How many different ways can you use black beans? You can make soup, burgers, brownies, and probably a million other things.
You might even enjoy pushing it to the extreme if you’re a little competitive. Some people like to do pantry challenges until they literally eat all the extra food.
If that’s your thing, more power to you!
Not interested in that type of thing? You can stop or adapt this challenge however you see fit.
11. Learn how to refresh old foods
One of the things that got us into this situation in the first place is the lie of the expiration date. You need to learn to tell when foods are fresh without a label or date.
Another great trick is to learn how to refresh foods (or at least hide them).
- Bake stale tortilla chips in the oven to crisp them up again.
- If you microwave stale bread covered with a damp paper towel, it will become soft and fresh again!
- Stale, freezer-burned meats taste great in stews and casseroles covered by many spices.
- Soak wilting greens in cold water to perk them back up.
- Stretch meats by adding lentils or canned beans.
- Freeze leftover chicken to add to soups and recipes later.
If you love tips like this, try these 80+ frugal food hacks to help you make the most of the food you have on hand.
12. Keep it a secret
If you’ve got some picky eaters in your house who would balk at the idea of eating the random foods hiding in your pantry, keep this challenge hush-hush.
They don’t need to know what’s going on and if they’re young kids, I bet they’d have fun getting hands-on and making bread or scones and other treats with you.
13. Redefine a “meal”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat healthy, nutritious meals. I don’t want messages from people who told me they stopped eating all vegetables for a month thanks to this challenge.
Instead, play a little loose with your idea of a meal.
We like to have meat, a starch, and some veggies at every meal. But that can look lots of different ways!
- Breakfast for dinner
- Throw your veggies into a protein smoothie
- Try a yogurt bowl with chia seeds and berries
- Make a frittata or quiche
- Enjoy a charcuterie board (aka grown-up Lunchable)
- Make chicken or tuna salad sandwiches
14. Eat your scraps
Are you throwing perfectly good food in the trash? Repurpose carrot greens and broccoli stalks into your next meal!
Most leaves, like broccoli and cauliflower, can be prepared like collards or kale.
The stems of your kale or chard can be sauteed or pickled.
Any veggie peels can be saved to make homemade vegetable stock.
There are many ways to repurpose your food scraps and there’s no better time to start than now!
P.S. You can throw bits of leftover this or that into chili or other recipes and no one will ever know!
Don’t forget your pantry challenge printables!
This handy bundle of 4 printables will help you know exactly what you’re working with. They’ll help you reduce your waste and save money at the same time!
Are you ready to try this pantry challenge in 2024?
Remember: you’re in charge here! This pantry challenge can be however you want it to be. Try following these helpful tips to gently push yourself to start writing some meal plans and use up those foods before they go bad.
You’ve got this! Don’t forget to grab my kitchen inventory checklists or kitchen organization bundle to help you get organized and start meal planning.
Be sure to tag @milkglasshome on Instagram with your pantry challenge meals and ask any questions below!