Keeping a well-stocked pantry and a dialed-in grocery budget is kind of my thing. So when I was asked to take one for The Penny Hoarder team and do the pantry challenge, I didn’t hesitate. To be fair, I like the challenge of creating something out of nothing.
With pantry challenges, you’re competing against your own cooking habits to find delicious meals using what you have on hand. So I rolled up my sleeves and got started taking stock of my pantry shelves.
How the Pantry Challenge Works
There’s no right or wrong way to do a pantry challenge. But the idea is to reduce food waste by eating down the contents of your pantry. This means no grocery shopping during the entire challenge. GASP.
The trick of pantry cooking with a mostly empty fridge is that you have to get creative with your meal planning. And this was more challenging than I expected because, as vegetarians, our family’s daily diet relies on lots of perishables like fresh vegetables and eggs.
Because I hate grocery shopping, I typically create a monthly menu and try to stretch the time between grocery store trips to as long as possible. So when we started this pantry challenge, it had been two weeks since my last grocery trip, and things in the fridge were getting desperate. Let’s just say the light was on but not much was home.
To make the food we already had in the house stretch to feed a family of four until the weekend, I had to be frugal. Here are a few things we learned along the way.
4 Pantry Challenge Tips to Help You Succeed
To have a successful pantry challenge, it helps to have a solid strategy for meal planning and recipe ideas. Here are the things that helped us shop our pantry and make the most of what was on the shelf.
1. Start With Protein
As vegetarians, our protein sources can be a tricky balancing act. I need to cover all our nutritional bases with a wide variety of eggs, beans, lentils, seitan, tofu, nuts and more. By putting all the potential protein sources out on the counter, I could clearly see how to divide up what we had.
Take stock of these 11 pantry essentials . These supplies can stretch a long way if you’re willing to spend a little extra time in the kitchen.
2. Mine the Freezer
Because we didn’t have much in the way of fresh produce beyond baby carrots and wilted arugula, I dug deep into the freezer for buried bags of frozen fruit and veggies. I discovered some good stuff we’d forgotten about and reduced inevitable food waste. Win-win.
3. Make a Menu
Our family eats most meals at home, with the exception of when we pack lunches. And we have a regular rotation for breakfasts. I was able to take our standard menu (oatmeal Mondays, cereal Fridays) and adapt it. The hard part was finding homemade dinners that weren’t just tolerable but tasty.
4. Communicate the Plan
In a family with teenagers, you have to clearly communicate they can’t go on a pantry raid when the whim strikes. I made sure mine knew that some stuff was available for snacking, but the rest was earmarked for specific meals, so hands off.
A Successful Pantry Challenge Meal Plan
Before we start, let me specify that just because we’re vegetarian doesn’t mean this is a plants-only pantry challenge. There are plenty of meals where you could toss in frozen chicken or chicken breast instead of a can of beans, and it would work just as well.
Interested in cooking more vegetarian stuff? You could save big on groceries. Researchers found substituting with vegetarian meals reduces grocery bills by 14%.
Also worth noting that for this pantry challenge, we had only a few eggs left, less than half a gallon of milk and six slices of bread that included the heel. Fresh produce was down to wilted greens, half a bag of baby carrots, a quarter head of browning cabbage and some fruit that included lemons and limes, an apple and two oranges.
Monday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
Breakfast: DIY Oatmeal Packets
Oatmeal Monday started rocky because we were out of oatmeal packets. But as I reminded my kids, the rolled oats on our baking shelf are what’s in oatmeal packets. Throw in a bit of sugar and add hot water, then a handful of nuts or dried fruit.
Lunch: Leftovers and Sandwiches
The adults dug into leftover soup and curry from the weekend while the kids used some of the bread and sliced turkey for sandwiches.
Dinner: Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
We found a few sweet potatoes on a pantry shelf. Once baked, scooping out the insides and mixing them with the last of the green onions, a can of chickpeas and a little homemade peanut sauce wasn’t a hardship. You can also do a Mexican variation on this recipe idea with black beans and salsa.
Verdict: So far, this pantry challenge menu wasn’t far off from our normal meals, and complaints were few.
Tuesday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
I realized we should put the fresh produce we had left to good use. The kids were willing to drink some frozen berries blended with a scoop of yogurt and a little honey and coconut milk. I blended the wilting arugula, frozen mango and some more coconut milk. We didn’t have bananas, so I used protein powder as a thickener and tossed in some chia seeds.
Lunch: Stir-fry and Snacks
The adults at home threw together some stir-fry from old ramen noodles, a handful of seitan (we call it fake chicken), some cabbage and chopped carrots. Making a slurry of soy sauce, sugar and cornstarch added plenty of flavor. The kids had crackers, the last of the colby jack cheese from the fridge, and they shared that chopped apple and some sunflower seeds.
Dinner: Kitchen Sink Taco Skillet
This meal is one of my favorite things to do when supplies run low. Some rice, canned diced tomatoes, black beans, frozen corn and some salsa will deliver you a pretty good taco bowl. In this case, I was completely out of onions (gasp), so we had to make do with onion powder.
Verdict: The adults were happy with the smoothies. The kids, not so much. Taco bowls were a big hit, though, and no one asked when the next grocery run would be.
Wednesday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
Breakfast: Lemon Bars
Hear me out on this one. You know why we didn’t have eggs? Because my daughter decided she had to use half a dozen over the weekend to make lemon bars. And when I was scrounging for breakfast, I thought — eggs, fruit and a hit of carbs and butter. Close enough for me. Lemon bars for breakfast.
Lunch: PB&J Pinwheels
We didn’t have bread left at this point, but we did have a few tortillas. I made peanut butter and jelly tortilla wraps, cut them and stuck a toothpick through. Whoever said necessity was the mother of invention obviously had the right idea.
Dinner: Mushroom Pea Risotto
When I was digging around in the freezer, I saw a big bag of peas and a smaller one of mixed mushrooms and took a mental note. We had a half-used box of risotto in the pantry. Our mushroom and pea risotto used veggie bouillon and skipped the Parmesan in favor of a fried egg for an extra protein kick.
Verdict: As expected, the kids were enthusiastic about having dessert for breakfast. The adults loved risotto, but the teen suddenly had someplace to be once dinner started.
Thursday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
Breakfast: Pumpkin Pancakes
I know what you’re thinking. No eggs? Well, for pumpkin pancakes, that’s no problem. Pumpkin is actually a good substitute for eggs in baking. The pancakes turned out a little thicker but a perfectly acceptable partner for the last of our maple syrup.
Lunch: Pea Pesto Toast
The kids dug into some freezer-burned burritos to make it through lunch, but I turned my frozen peas into pea pesto and spread it on the very last piece of bread I’d hidden for exactly this purpose. It was delicious, and I have no regrets.
Dinner: Chile Verde
Got a jar of green salsa in your fridge and some beans in your pantry? Then you have the fixings for chili. I dumped a jar of salsa into a pot, threw in some white beans and added spices and some corn. Meat eaters can also use leftover chicken, pork or turkey. We drizzled bowls with lime juice, added a dollop of yogurt and toasted chopped-up tortillas to make tortilla chips.
Verdict: Things were starting to get to slim pickings, and while no one was going hungry, I wouldn’t say anyone was especially happy with my commitment to this challenge.
Friday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
Breakfast: Homemade Granola
I made a horrifying discovery when taking stock of the pantry. We were out of cereal. Fortunately, we still had some of those rolled oats and pecans from Thanksgiving. So I threw together this easy homemade granola with some dried ginger pieces instead of fruit.
Lunch: Lentil Soup
The kids scrounged some leftovers, but since the adults were home to cook, I made a quick batch of lentil soup using veggie bouillon, carrots, a cup of green lentils and some other frozen veggies.
Dinner: Thai Edamame Burgers
I spotted some edamame in the freezer and decided to make veggie burgers. I used cooked brown rice with the soybeans but then got stuck for something to bind the burgers together until I saw the jar of peanut butter. Enter Thai-flavored soy burgers topped with chopped cabbage pickled in vinegar and old burger buns from the back of the freezer.
Verdict: I thought dinner was pretty inspired, but the kids disagreed. Later I found them in the kitchen heating popcorn kernels on the stove, spraying the popcorn with cooking spray and sprinkling it with a leftover cheese packet from a mac and cheese box. Blame YouTube.
Saturday’s Pantry Challenge Meals
Brunch: Tofu Scramble
We didn’t have eggs, but we did have one lonely container of tofu in the back of the fridge, and that’s practically the same thing. I drained and pressed it, then crumbled it. Seasoned and colored with a little turmeric, this almost passed for an egg scramble with frozen vegetables tossed in.
Verdict: Alas, an Instacart delivery arrived that afternoon with loads of good stuff to refurbish the fridge, but all in all I thought the week went pretty well. The family was happy to have made it and discovered some frugal recipes in the process.
Can You Save Money With a Pantry Challenge?
As far as money-saving ideas go, pantry challenges are a pretty good idea. They help households eliminate food waste and stretch that grocery budget a little more. I’d say we saved about $100-$150 by shopping our own pantry and freezer.
That being said, there are some underlying costs associated with cleaning out your pantry — especially if you subscribe to the idea that time is money. You’ll lose some convenience and choice in the process and spend more time in the kitchen.
As a short-term solution, though, I’d say this year’s pantry challenge was a great idea for saving on the grocery bill. And who doesn’t want to eat that kind of challenge for breakfast?
Kaz Weida is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.