Cook your pantry: 10 day pantry challenge - are you brave enough?
Cook from your pantry.
Some of you might respond with a “well yeah of course, with what else would I cook?” or maybe with “pantry? What is that – we only eat fresh”. Since these two represent both sides of the extreme the rest of us would most probably fall somewhere in the middle. Meaning you try to eat real fresh food, but that is supported and enhanced with a few smartly-chosen pantry staples. So you buy tomato paste, tuna, pasta, etc. and these staples help you to create the nutritious and yummy meals that you serve yourself and your family. The pantry. The holy grail of meal planning mammas. The treasure chest of secret delights for all the frugal mammas. The trophy case for all the homesteading mammas. For most of us, no matter how we choose to feed our families, the pantry is an integral part of our cooking process. So when I say cook from your pantry, what do I mean?
We have all been there – those days where you rush from one thing to the next to collapse in an exhausted heap on the couch and then realise you did not buy anything to make dinner. And the fridge is empty. And so is the freezer. Who else has experienced that panicky moment? On the other hand, you might also be wondering where your grocery budget goes every month. Because you never have enough money to buy enough food for the entire month. And even if you max your budget you still run out of staples. Then there are those of us who feel guilty about the amount of money we spend on things that we only use a little of. In each of these cases, the answer or solution can be found in one place: your pantry.
When you have not bought anything for dinner, I am sure there are enough bits and pieces in your pantry to whip together a good meal. If you don’t know where your grocery money is going, go check what is in your pantry. All of those fancy sauces and infused oils, exotic spices and funny packets cost money. And lastly, all of those half-empty packets, open boxes and almost-not-used bottles must be better utilised before the ingredients must be chucked for safety’s sake.
With all the talk about living below your means, generating less waste and saving money on your grocery bill I had an idea – I wondered how long I could go without having to buy any groceries except the absolute necessities such as milk, yoghurt and fresh vegetables. I have heard about pantry challenges but never even considered doing one. After having a look at the full pantry I concluded that we could go for weeks without having to buy anything and so decided to give this challenge a try. Yes, most of the meals won’t be entirely healthy and balanced, but we will be well fed.
So what is a pantry challenge? It is when you challenge yourself to use up all the food that you already have. This has various benefits, one of which is it saves you money. This challenge can last any amount of time, depending on your circumstances, needs, and the current stockpile of food. Partaking in such a challenge may serve different purposes, some of which include:
1. You save money
Obviously. Every meal that you make using what you already have is one less meal that you need to give money out on. Yes, I understand that you have already paid for the ingredients that you are now using. Are you aware of the economic adage “there is no such thing as a free lunch”? That means nothing in life is free, even when you don’t pay for it – someone else has already or will shortly. So when we say a pantry challenge saves you money it means it saves you from throwing away money into the bin in the form of uneaten food, rotten food, or wasted leftovers.
2. You decrease your food waste
Not only are you saving money, but you are also saving space at the landfill. Food that is not eaten inevitably end up on a huge garbage dump, so if you eat it instead of throwing it away you are helping to keep those garbage dumps smaller. Theoretically. This principle is especially efficient if you make your own food products such as stock, sauces, stuffing, etc. because for these items, you use all of those little pieces and off-cuts that you would normally chuck.
3. You use your food
When you partake in a challenge such as this you are using the food that you already spend money on. Another economic principle – when you have money on the shelf. Meaning that your money is tied up in things that you are not currently using to make more money. In this case, you have money tied up in the food that you could be using to supply sustenance and energy.
4. It saves you time
For the duration of the challenge, you save time because you don’t have to plan and execute trips to the shops. This gives you extra time to read that book, do that project, or simply veg out on the couch.
5. It decreases clutter
By using what you have you are using up what you have, leaving you with awesome space. No more 100s of open packets of pasta. All those almost finished herbs and spices get finished. You have tasty meals and open shelves.
6. It emphasises what your family likes to eat
After a few days or weeks of cooking with funny exotic spices and grains that you only read about on an obscure health website, you will realise that your family likes eating “normal” stuff. Of if the “normal” ingredients are the ones that are left to work with you know your family has a more adventurous palate. Either way, it gives you valuable information to work with. No more spending unnecessary money on foods they will not like.
7. It stimulates your creativity
You will reach a point where you will have only your creativity to rely on. Only have a can of white beans, wilted garlic, frozen stock and bits and pieces of spices? With a dash of creativity, you can transform that into a beautiful white bean and garlic soup. Without creativity, you will have a can of beans with nothing else to show. And no dinner.
8. It improves your planning abilities
Not only will you learn how to organise your pantry better (so that you can see what you have) but it will also teach you other valuable principles such as FIFO (first in first out, meaning you eat the older version first), meal planning, making of lists and containing yourself when there is a sale. You do not need 4 crates of pasta. Also if you know what you like to cook, and like to eat, you will know which ingredients to buy in large quantities, and which ones to rather stick with the smallest unit.
9. It teaches you new tricks
From interesting combinations to how not store foods, this challenge can make you delve into depths you never knew you had. Not to mention new cooking skills – did you even know you could do that with a potato? And that leads me to the last benefit:
Starting, and finishing, this challenge can be fun. That is as long as you have something in your pantry to start with. Pushing yourself past your comfort zone is one of the best ways to grow. While saving money, and time, and space. What is not to love?
To give you an idea, here is the list of some of the things I found hidden in our pantry, followed by ideas of how I could use the ingredient:
· Tuna + olives + capers + tomato paste + pasta = puttanesca
· Canned tomatoes + onion + butter + pasta = tomato pasta
· White beans + garlic + water + parsley = white bean puree. Serve with protein of choice
· Carrots + lentils + red wine vinegar + mustard + za'atar + feta = lentil salad
· Polenta + water—just top it with whatever leftovers you have
· Chickpeas + onion + pinches of turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne + coriander = crispy chickpea salad
· Coconut cream + eggs + onions + garlic + turmeric + chili powder + tamarind paste = sweet and sour egg curry
· Canned tomato + onion + red pepper flakes + water + basil = tomato and basil soup
· Frozen stock + carrots + ginger + onion + garlic = roasted carrot soup
· Forgotten chicken breast + tomato paste + olives + rice = one pan chicken dinner
Sounds good? Sounds doable? If so, then join me on this challenge! The rules are fairly straightforward:
1. Do not go grocery shopping between now and the end of the challenge. Whatever is in your pantry now is what you have to work with.
2. Do not buy for the week ahead in anticipation of the pantry challenge. It’s okay to make a quick run at the beginning for fresh produce or a few odds and ends, but the goal is to clean out what’s already in your kitchen. No points for pre-buying everything you need!
3. Try to come up with well-balanced meals. This might take some thought and creativity.
4. Have at least one friend who is doing it with you or is at least interested enough that you can send photos of your weird food to them. This gives you accountability and makes the process a little more fun – because if you have to eat soup made from spaghetti and last summer’s frozen sweet corn, at least you can laugh about it with a friend.