Cooking With What You Have: Challenging Yourself to Eat Down the Pantry

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In the last few months before summer’s bounty, we like to have a little pantry challenge in my house…a challenge to eat up what’s in the pantry!

No, I don’t plan on eating EVERYTHING in my pantry, I wouldn’t want to clean out my stockpile completely! We just try and eat up the things that might be expiring soon and eat up some canned goods that I plan on making more of during the summer. In other words…it’s spring cleaning on my pantry.

In the last few months before summer's bounty, we like to have a little pantry challenge in my house...a challenge to eat up what's in the pantry! #pantrychallenge #cookingwithwhatyouhave #eatdownthepantry #nospend

Challenging Yourself to Eat Down the Pantry

Eating down the pantry is a true challenge. The reason we all grocery shop so often is because we have certain recipes that we all love to make and eat and we have certain ingredients that we need for those recipes. Our pantries tend to be filled with things that we’ve purchased for many different types of recipes…maybe some that we only made once and still have the rest of the ingredients hanging out in there. Let’s face it, it can be a hodge-podge of things.

Since we very much dislike food waste, we need to have this pantry challenge each year to make sure that we don’t throw away our valuable grocery dollars. If you need a way to test your homemaking skills, this is a great way to start!

Cooking With What You Have

First things first…

You will need to start by actually taking a look in your pantry (or where ever you store food) and writing down or taking some kind of inventory of what you have. You won’t know what to cook until you know what you have!

Apple Cheddar Soup Recipe

Get creative with old recipes.

If you can make recipes that you know your family already loves by just adding in similar ingredients or substitutions, that is the easiest way to eat up what you have. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a lasagna dish using regular pasta instead of lasagna noodles. Be creative! (Try something like this Apple Cheddar Soup Recipe!)

Discover new recipes.

There are some fun websites out there where you can plug in the foods that you have in your house and they will give you recipe suggestions. If you want to find some new recipes to use up those pantry foods, this is a great way to start. Here are some websites to try out:

Plan out your menu.

You should always make a meal plan but when you are doing a pantry challenge you almost have to plan out your menu in advance. It’s hard to just be digging around your pantry right before you need to have supper on the table and coming up with something creative. If you are looking for a great service that will help you plan your meals by using your own recipes you will love Plan to Eat. It will help you keep your recipes together and organized so you can be better prepared for your challenge.

Ingredients for Coleslaw

Don’t give up on fresh foods.

Fresh foods are a HUGE staple for us. During a pantry challenge, we do not completely go without fresh foods but I do a few simple rules that we follow. First I try and find “fresh” foods in the freezer and on my canned goods shelves before I add something to my grocery list. If I’m looking for some fresh fruits for snacks for the kids during the week, instead of picking up some apples like I normally would, I might add canned pears to our snack menu. Don’t give up completely on fresh foods but try and limit them to what you really need. We’ve found that lettuce for salads is a good, cheap fresh food during a pantry challenge. We can still plan our meals around my “fresh” canned and frozen fruits and veggies but adding a side of salad makes it seem like the entire meal is fresh.

–Don’t forget about making your own Homemade Dressings. (Which you can usually do with pantry items!)

Raspberry Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe

Come up with unique combinations of foods.

Cereal, maple syrup, and shredded coconut isn’t something that I’d normally put together but it turns out that it can be a good base for a sweet/salty snack mix! Remember, not everything that you try will turn out tasty but sometimes fun recipes can be made with some very interesting combinations! (Like the Raspberry Cookies pictured above.)

A tip from LHL reader Sally…

Not only is eating down your pantry a good idea for what you’ve given, but it’s an excellent practice for emergency training. I live in the area of the Cascadian Subduction zone in the Pacific NW and this is one of the challenges given to CERT members (Community Emergency Response Team) and recommended to families. No pre-shopping – just let your family know and don’t tell them when it will start, just spring it on them one morning…sort of like an earthquake would do.

Our local emergency manager tried this at home-
There’s just him and his wife. He told her about his idea and without going into it any more, they pretended like the “big one” happened. They were ok, but had to depend  on what they had in the house. They wanted to see how long their food would last because we’ve been told here that we might have to be on our own for up to 14 days. The first thing they ran out of was water so cheated by using tap water (which will not  be available). I’m not sure if they used the water in their water heater before “running out” or not. Anyway, they were able to last three weeks with some pretty different meals toward the end. Oh, both worked so part of the deal was that they couldn’t eat out and had to take to work food from home. It was a good experiment and might even be fun in a family situation.

–Learn more about Building a Whole Foods Basics Stockpile to help in situations like this too.

I love this idea, thanks Sally!

Whichever methods you decide to use while you eat down the pantry, you will save money on your grocery bill and your family might just find some interesting new recipes that they will enjoy.

You might also enjoy these older articles on Little House Living (they include some great pantry recipes!):

What are some simple tips that you have for eating down the pantry foods?


This Pantry Challenge was originally published on Little House Living in January 2018. It has been updated as of January 2020.

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  1. These are some great tips to be creative with what is left in the pantry! I have to admit, I am not very good at using up what I have stored in the pantry, but this was definitely inspiration to go home and give it some more effort!

  2. I was just thinking about doing something similar with all of the food in my house! Thanks for sharing how you do it!

  3. Some of my favorite meals have been born during weeks where we were cleaning out our pantry! I think the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention” applies here because you can definitely invent a lot of neat recipes when you need to clean out a pantry. 🙂

  4. One of my favorite “least favorite” things to do! I only allow myself to buy fresh fruit, veggies, and coffee cream for a month or so every fall. We’ve actually discovered some of our favorite meals this way, but I hate doing it ~ thanks for the idea of making it a “challenge” instead of a chore – it’s all about attitude right?

  5. Great approach to reducing the stockpile. This is something I need to do too. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. I am going to read all this for some ideas. I thought I was the only person who said “eating down the pantry or freezer”. I have been working on this since the first of the year. I agree fresh vegetables are a necessity but I am amazed what I have on hand. Not only does it save money, it also saves trips to the store where I pick up other incidentals I may or may not need depending on my mood. Thanks so much for sharing all your ideas.

    Wishes for tasty dishes,

    1. You know I’ve sat here and stared at that title for about a month now as I’ve been writing this article and wondering if I should change it but that’s just what we call it! 🙂 I’m always amazed at how much we have on hand as well.

  7. The timing for your article is perfect for me right now We just finished homeschooling. We have a backlog of food in pantry and freezer. We have been preparing our sons for college/technical school, my ministry duties and calling home contractors. So busy. I accept your friendly challenge!

  8. Near the end of the month, we look at what we have leftover and that’s what we make meals with. If we ate out a bit much or didn’t use all of the ingredients those are put into next week’s meals so there is usually very little leftover by the end of any given week.

  9. Interesting idea to use the older things up. Here in northern Wisconsin the winters are so brutal (30 below zero or colder at times) so we frequently can’t get out to shop. Most often we are cooking from the pantry alone. (The closest town with groceries is about 20 miles away) I am very used to pantry cooking. However, in the summer months, it’s easier to buy things at the store and bring them home! I have to make a conscious effort to use enough of the home canned items up that I will have enough empty jars to can the “harvest” from the garden and yard. Thankfully, it’s not all ripe at once! Though I am on 65 acres here, the landscaping per se’ is all edible! Trees are all fruits: Plums, several Apple varieties, and cherries. The bushes are all Currants, black berries, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, grapes, and elderberries. I use things like parsley for “greens” in the flower beds, I use Kale as a hedge behind the flowers. The flowers themselves are mostly edibles. (I love Nasturtiums stuffed with crab salad!) I try to do everything as sustainable as possible here. Not wasting things is a BIG part of that!

  10. Those are all great tips, thanks. I need to try doing this someday. This summer, I’m organizing the house, so when I get to the pantry I’ll have to see what I have and then try this.

  11. A couple times a year my husband does an inventory of our freezer. He always discovers items we forgot we had. It is a good way to cut down on current grocery spending and also prevents waste. Who wants to eat food that has freezer burn.

  12. I did this last August through September and plan to do it again for this year, but I wasn’t as organized about it. Thanks for the tips.

  13. We try to scrimp on groceries at least one week each month and use what we have. It’s challenging but in a fun way. Thanks for sharing with us at Merry Monday.

  14. I have been trying to eat from our pantry this week. We’ve had a lot of big expenses and I have a fully stocked pantry, so no need to shop for anything besides, milk, meat and fruit! Thanks for sharing with Small Victories Sunday Linkup and I hope you linked up with our Pintastic Pinterest Party too. Pinning to our linkup board and hope you found some great posts to visit this week!

  15. These tips came at a great time for me! I have two weeks until hubby comes home from working out of town and we do our big stock up shop. I don’t have as much in the pantry as I do the freezer so I am challenging myself to clearing them both out as much as possible over the next two weeks. I think my first step is to make out a plan.