Grocery shopping tops my list of least favorite things to do. It’s stressful, time consuming, and expensive. I practice all of the strategies to save on our grocery bill: the coupons, the comparison shopping, etc. But I’ve learned another trick that could help you as well. I call it “Pantry Living.” Simply put, it’s using the food that you already have to hold off on your next grocery trip for a couple more days, or longer. After all, money not spent is money saved. And time not spent on grocery store excursions is time that can be used for other—more pleasurable—endeavors.
Pantry Living is a simple concept and it taps into your creative spirit, but it requires discipline and a willingness to bend some dinnertime rules. But once you’ve tried it, you’ll feel like a conqueror and you might just get addicted to the challenge. Here’s how it works:
- Hold off on that next trip to the grocery store. Instead, take a look at all the items in your pantry, your fridge and your freezer. Check expiration dates, look for spoilage, etc., and discard where necessary.
- Make a list of everything you have. One column for meat, one for starches, one for veggies, etc. Now look for the potential meal combinations. Figure at least one night per package of meat (longer, if you have larger cuts). And aim for a meatless meal or two. How many boxes of pasta do you have? Bags of rice? Veggies: fresh, frozen, and canned? You get the picture.
- Now write down some menus for the next few days. You may be surprised at how far you can stretch out the current supply. A pound of ground beef, a can of beans, and a can of tomatoes, add some spices and you’ve got chili for Monday night. Save some for later in the week and use as topping on a few nuked potatoes and you’ve got a second hearty meal. That roast in the back of the freezer is still good for a few more days. Thaw it, cook it and use that bag of carrots hidden in the bottom of the veggie drawer. Chances are, you and your family might be dining pretty nice for a few nights. But, like all good things, that will end and it’ll be time for … (cue the music) Pantry Living Level 2.
- Level 2 is your opportunity to dig deep. Deep into the darkest corners of your pantry and to the depths of your culinary soul. By now you’ve used up all the convenient boxes mixes, frozen potpies, etc. But you may still have some potatoes or packages of macaroni. Got cheese and milk? You’re good to go! Dust off the old Betty Crocker cook book (or look for a recipe online) and cook up some potatoes au gratin (really, it’s not that hard) or some old-fashioned mac and cheese (same concept, different starch). Grill up that package of chicken thighs and your family will think you’re amazing! That bag of beans you bought last winter is black gold. Soak it, cook it, serve it with rice and a veggie, and you’ve got a balanced meal. Not flashy, but balanced.
- When you think you’ve exhausted all possibilities for Pantry Living 2, then it’s time to throw out convention and just look at what’s left. This is what I call Pantry Living Level 3. Who says you can’t have pancakes for dinner? (Your kids will love it!) Or even scrambled eggs? No spaghetti sauce? A can of tomato sauce is really all you need—just add a little bit of olive oil, basil, onion, garlic, oregano and a tablespoon or two of brown sugar (trust me). If you’re a brave soldier, you may even venture behind enemy lines (the grocery store) but you must obey orders and purchase only those ingredients that you need to complete another meal—like that half gallon of milk. Do not let yourself buy anything else, no matter how tantalizing or how great the savings. Bring only the cash that you need to buy what you need.
Our pantry is average, the size of a small coat closet. I shop for groceries weekly and I’ve never been one to hoard up on sale items. We venture into Pantry Living about once every four to six weeks and I’m always surprised at just how far we can stretch what we already have. We spend about $30 a day on groceries for our family of four. If I can delay that trip to the store for three or four extra days, I figure I’ve saved $90–120 and at least two hours of my time. Do that eight to ten times a year and it adds up to nearly $1,000 in savings and twenty-plus precious hours.
Pantry Living is good exercise for all of us. It pushes us to be disciplined and creative and to remember that it’s OK to bend the rules sometimes. We discover favorite new recipes and menu combinations. We save money by using what we already have on hand and we learn to be more strategic when we do go shopping. And, by avoiding those miscellaneous trips to the store, we find that extra hour or two that we’ve been craving. Finally, as an added bonus, we’re teaching our families the values of efficiency, creativity and being grateful for what we have, even if it is just beans and rice.