2018 Intention Check-in: PANTRY COOKING

I’m checking in on the progress of my 2018 intentions. Read all about my fruitful year here.

When I first started planning meals for my little family, Pinterest was making its debut. I was in college, I had a lot of free time (sigh. Remember that?), and I would watch endless hours of television while pinning recipes and cute sweaters and inspirational quotes. Grant and I both lived in small apartments, and neither of us really made the most of our limited pantry space. So, on the weekends, I would shop for basically all of the ingredients to make several recipes that sounded good from my Pinterest boards.

I was still learning, obviously, but it is so cringeworthy to think about how much money I wasted (and the FOOD WASTE! 😢). And, until recently, I was still planning meals in much the same way. Sure, I had more pantry space, and I keep a lot more staple ingredients on-hand. But my grocery cart was always overflowing with new things to try and full ingredient lists for new recipes.

When I saw this video and blog post about “shelf cooking,” a.k.a. cooking from the food you’ve already got on hand, I seriously felt like I’d been smacked. What was I doing? Why was I wasting so much money? 

Some of it was totally learning to deal with our new semi-vegan diet. I made a bunch of new purchases to try new recipes and techniques. But some of it is just overpurchasing. I love grocery shopping, and things that I don’t need often make it into my cart. Which just leads to an maxed-out pantry and a busted budget.

We don’t have a real pantry in our kitchen, just a very skinny closet w/ shallow shelves. I use a few kitchen cabinets for food storage, and they are overflowing with dry goods. It’s my mission to use up my stores, relying on tried-and-true recipes and a little inventiveness.

HOW TO CREATE A STOCK OF INGREDIENTS

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got plenty of random odds and ends to work with for this pantry challenge. But you may not! I follow two guidelines to ensure that a quick and cheap meal is never too far away.

    1. Buy double sometimes. This may seem counterintuitive to my goal of saving money while grocery shopping, but it’s really not. A couple of times a month, I’ll buy double amounts of the canned and frozen goods on my shopping list. Four cans of diced tomatoes, six cans of chickpeas, two bags of frozen peas. You can add those items to your cart for just a few dollars, and they will be there waiting for you when you’re building a pantry-based meal plan the next week.

      I do not double-up on grains purchases because I am currently working through a pasta and rice stash like you wouldn’t believe. Why did I keep buying grain blends? But once that stash is depleted, buying two boxes of macaroni or two bags of rice is hardly more expensive than buying one.
    2. Double freezable recipes. This has SAVED MY LIFE! You may think I’m exaggerating, but having some frozen chili to defrost when you’ve got to feed unexpected guests on a Friday evening?! LIFE SAVING!!!!

      Often, when I make a soup, chili, stew, curry, etc., I double it and freeze half. We have a deep freeze, so this is super-easy for me, but you could totally make it work with a regular freezer, too. I let the meal cool to room temperature, ladle it into freezer-safe gallon bags, and then lay the bag flat in the freezer. Once the bag is frozen, it can be stacked horizontally (like books on a shelf) or vertically, and that takes up barely any space at all. When it comes time to eat these frozen meals, I let them defrost in the fridge for ~12 hours (always wrapped in an absorbent dish towel in case the bag is invisibly ripped) and then reheat on the stove, OR, if I’m really in a hurry, the frozen contents of the bag can go in an enormous pot on the stove with a splash of water.

      Having these frozen meals (which I keep a list of on my phone) means that I can incorporate one of them into my meal plan each week. I usually defrost a soup or chili that becomes my lunches, but they are also perfect for nights when I need to write after work.

MAKING A PANTRY-BASED MEAL PLAN

This is where creativity comes in. The goal is to buy as few new groceries as possible, so planning meals starts with assessment. Towards the end of the week, usually Friday or Saturday morning, I check out the contents of my fridge. I start there because refrigerated stuff has a shorter shelf life than pantry and freezer items, so it needs to be used up first. I usually have veggies, hummus, various non-dairy milks, and leftovers.

For example, if I have bell peppers, I come up with a plan to use them. That can be sliced for hummus dipping, or added to soup, or making fajita peppers.

Let’s say I decide to go with fajitas. Next I move to the pantry, where I’m hoping I’ll find black or pinto beans. I don’t see either, but I do have brown lentils. Check! I also have a ton of brown rice and an unopened jar of salsa. I add lettuce and cilantro to my grocery list, and now I have the makings of burrito bowls with bell peppers, lentils, and brown rice!

While I’m looking for the black beans, I find a ton of red lentils, and I know I’ve got a box of spaghetti. If I buy marinara sauce and some mushrooms, I’ll have all the makings for my vegan Million Dollar spaghetti (recipe coming soon!).

This process flips the order of how I used to make a meal plan. I used to choose recipes first and check my pantry second. NOPE. Now I check for ingredients and choose meals around that. Last week, I noticed that I had two bags of frozen edamame, and that inspired the rice bowls I made the other night. I used this recipe, but I customized it to fit the veggies I had on hand. I bought a package of tofu to substitute for the eggs, but everything else was in my pantry, fridge, or freezer.

The more comfortable you are winging it in the kitchen, the easier pantry cooking is. It’s easy to make the most of your pantry if you can cook without a recipe. This is a skill that comes with time and practice, BUT anyone can do it. The easiest way to make a cheap AF meal with what you’ve got on hand: soup, pasta, or stir fry. All three will use up any veggie or protein, all have really flexible recipes that have easy ingredient swaps, and they’re pretty foolproof! Chop and saute veggies, add sauce or broth, simmer until tender, add cooked protein, and serve over a grain. You did it!

If you want an example of an easy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along type of “recipe,” see this Instagram post:

View this post on Instagram

Quick and easy and DELICIOUS “chicken” noodle soup 🐥🐥🐥 Sauté chopped onion in olive oil. Add salt and pepper. Add chopped carrot and celery. Sauté for 5-7 mins, until it gets soft-ish. Add 8 c broth (or water + Better Than Bullion Not-Chicken base, which is what I did!), and bring to a boil. Add two cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed. Simmer for ~20 mins. Bring back to boil, and add 1/2 lb angel hair pasta, broken in half, and frozen green peas. Boil for 5 or so mins, just short of pasta being ready. Turn off heat, and let sit for 10 mins. ✨✨✨ This has @traderjoes everything bagel seasoning on top, but @franksredhot is delish, too. ❄️❄️❄️ Perfect for an icy, snowy day.

A post shared by Caitlin Wallace (@caitlinmwallace) on

I love answering your recipe questions on Insta or in the comments here, so don’t hesitate to reach out ♥️

RESULTS

I’ve gone grocery shopping twice this year. I spent $30 the first week (making the most of leftover Christmas and New Year’s food) and $60 the second. That feeds Grant and I for 21 meals/week EACH, plus snacks. (We rarely eat out — just a few times each month, usually with friends.) That’s less than $1.50/person/meal.

It could be lower, but I buy a lot of fresh produce, like salad stuff. That adds up quickly. I think it’s worth it.

I know that this way of meal planning isn’t revolutionary. But it is a real way that I can be more intentional about spending, cut down on food waste, and flex my culinary muscles (which are bigger than my actual muscles).

What budgeting tricks do you use in the kitchen? I could always use the help!

Caitlin

Caitlin

Hi, I’m Caitlin! Thanks for reading. If you're new, here's a little about me: I'm a writer, editor, eater, and reader living in the Kansas City area. When I'm not working my 9-to-5, I'm cooking without a recipe, exploring the city, and probably procrastinating. I start from scratch each morning: progress is way more important to me than perfection.

Connect with me on Instagram and Pinterest, and subscribe to The Fruitful Blog for tips on intentional living, meal planning, and more.
Caitlin

Author: Caitlin

Hi, I’m Caitlin! Thanks for reading. If you're new, here's a little about me: I'm a writer, editor, eater, and reader living in the Kansas City area. When I'm not working my 9-to-5, I'm cooking without a recipe, exploring the city, and probably procrastinating. I start from scratch each morning: progress is way more important to me than perfection. Connect with me on Instagram and Pinterest, and subscribe to The Fruitful Blog for tips on intentional living, meal planning, and more.

10 thoughts on “2018 Intention Check-in: PANTRY COOKING”

  1. Love this! I’m going to start thinking like this. We clean out our fridge every Sunday and almost every week I’m throwing out something that has expired, it’s a terrible waste of money and food.

  2. This is so helpful. Since I live in the country I am big on keeping my pantry pantry stocked. You have inspired me to use it to better advantage and best of all eliminate waste and trim the grocery bill. Thank you so much.

    1. You’re so welcome! Thanks for reading! There’s nothing I hate more than finding expired food in the back of the pantry, so I’m trying to fix that issue 😌

  3. We are going to start doing this! We are doing a couples finance class right now and I was astonished by our grocery bill! Trying to get it under $50/week is my goal! This will help tremendously!

  4. My best trick is… SPICES! I’m easily bored by eating the same flavors over and over, but it’s really easy to use what you have on hand in a variety of ways by mixing up the flavors you cook with, even when the cooking methods are similar. In the summer we grill a ton, so it’s fun to see how many different flavors I can come up with when I buy that giant package of deeply discounted chicken thighs or make quinoa/steamed broccoli/grilled zucchini etc for the millionth time in a row. Some of my faves are jerk spice, curry powder, garam masala, lemon pepper, and like, you know, any/all TJ’s spice blends. I really miss our go-to bulk spice guy at the River Market in KC, for his prices, variety, and all-around delightfulness, but now I just troll grocery store sales for what looks yummy. ((Also, when I do decide to try a fancy Pinterest-y recipe, I often find that I’ve already got the called-for spices in my pantry due to my addiction LOL))

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