Late winter is the perfect time to do a pantry challenge. When spring comes, you’ll want to start enjoying all the new fresh foods you can find at the farmers markets, and making space now means you have more room to store all the delicious foods you find!
Why Do a Pantry Challenge?
There are more benefits to doing a pantry challenge besides cleaning out your stores before spring and summer come. A pantry challenge will save you money, because you will eat all your leftover and stored foods from last year rather than wasting them.
A pantry challenge done right will also show you what you didn’t eat, so you can begin the next season knowing your habits better. You’ll be able to buy more of what you really like, and avoid what you didn’t.
A pantry challenge will also allow you to minimize your food waste, helping the environment as well. Learning to use up everything you buy is good for your wallet, and means less food rotting in the landfills.
For a regular seasonal and local eater, a pantry challenge in late winter is perfect, allowing you to empty out your freezer, your pantry, and clean and organize it ahead of the early spring farmers markets.
How to Do a Pantry Challenge
The ultimate goal of your pantry challenge is to eat as much as you can out of your pantry. It means eating what is getting old, eating your leftovers, and finding creative ways to cook what you didn’t want.
Depending on how much you have stored, you may be able to eat solely from your pantry for a few weeks. Or you may figure out what random odds and ends you have and then need to buy extra ingredients to cook with them over a week or two.
You know your food habits. Can you eat only from your pantry for a while, saving money, and using up that half a cow you bought last fall? Or do you find yourself with half eaten ingredients that need to be used up, but need to buy extra vegetables or cheese to make them a meal?
You need to commit to your pantry challenge. Usually what you have leftover are things you don’t really want to eat. Alternate weeks or meals, allowing yourself some pantry meals, then switching it up and making something you like.
Find new ways to use up what you didn’t want. Make soups, fritters, frittatas, burritos. Buy tasty additions that will boost the flavor of what you have in your pantry.
Start by assessing what you have on hand. Then you can plan out meals to use up what you need to get rid of. Substitute ingredients, or try new dishes.
Consider setting some guidelines for yourself. That may mean you can’t buy any fruits, or beans, or meat. You may limit snack foods until they are gone. Maybe only buy milk, eggs, or things that go bad quickly to add to your pantry meals.
Make sure your leftovers are safe to eat, as well. If you have home canned them, make sure they are still good to eat. Don’t eat store bought cans that are misshapen. Dates are a guideline, not set in stone, but be smart about your older foods.
Pantry Challenge Meal Ideas
Only you know what ingredients you have, but there are many ideas out there to use up any random ingredient you might have on hand. Search for recipes that use your leftovers. Here are some potential things you might have on hand and some ideas on how to use them:
Canned vegetables, whether home canned or store bought can be added to soups or chili. Mash them up and mix with pancake batter for a fritter. You can grill fritters or fry them. Add some cheese, or put the veggies in a quesadilla. Blend veggies into a pasta sauce or put into a casserole.
Too much jam? Add to yogurts, or top ice cream. Blend them into fancy cocktails. Add them to baked goods, whether thumbprint cookies or a quick bread. Mix them with cream cheese and put on crackers, or make a glaze or marinade for meat.
Leftover salsa? Serious Eats has some great ideas. I love the idea of mixing salsa with soft cheese for a dip, adding to chicken salad, or making a salsa butter for steak. An easy way to use your leftover salsa is to cook eggs and cheese with it.
Substitute ingredients into meals you already love! Or take a simple favorite and spice it up. Omelets, pasta sauce, casseroles, curries, stir fries, and salads are all ready for substitutions.
Cleaning After Your Pantry Challenge
The point of a pantry challenge is to eat your stores up so you are ready for new and delicious foods, and to avoid wasting your food. Once you have eaten down your pantry, you should think about cleaning it all up so it stays better organized and you don’t lose foods again.
Defrost your freezer if it needs it. Wipe it down. Consider adding bins or boxes to help you organize better. Think about keeping an inventory of your freezer so that you know what you have without having to open it in the future.
Wipe down your pantry and reorganize it. You should have an idea of what ingredients you use frequently, and should always have on hand. Consider buying extras of those so you always have what you need to make a meal. An inventory here is a good idea as well.
Have a plan for the year to come. What local foods did you really enjoy this past year? How can you preserve more of them so you can enjoy them all year? Do you have the space to buy larger amounts of produce to freeze or can? Do you want to buy bulk meat and save money on quality protein?
If you stock up on staple ingredients and have a way to keep track of them, you will always have what you need on hand to cook a meal. You’ll spend less time shopping, and won’t have to resort to ordering food when you have what you need ready to go.
A pantry challenge should end with a clean space for the future, and a plan to keep it looking nice! As a seasonal eater, you’ll want to do a pantry challenge each winter or spring. Save some money, enjoy your local foods, and get ready for the year to come!