How to Meal Plan When You Need to Use Things Up

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I’ve been using a new creative way to meal plan lately that has nothing to do with shopping lists or trips to the store. Today I’m going to share how we make a meal plan when we need to use things up!

I've been using a new creative way to meal plan lately that has nothing to do with shopping lists or trips to the store. Today I'm going to share how we make a meal plan when we need to use things up!

How to Meal Plan When You Need to Use Things Up

I’ve really slacked off on posting my meal plans lately but I promise I have a good reason for that!

As we’ve settled into late fall/early winter, my husband and I have realized we have a lot of things that we purchased throughout the year that need to be used up. I typically do a “pantry challenge” in January and sometimes February to tidy up my pantry space to prepare for the upcoming canning and preserving season. But it’s not quite that time of year yet and I still need to make more space in my pantry.

You know those boxes of things or cans of whatever that sit on your pantry shelves and stare back at you when you go in to get a jar of beans or something that you use often? Yeah, I have those too. And it seems like I have too many of them right now, PLUS I feel like I have this same problem in the freezer. We have all this stuff we use for our regular meals on a regular basis and the “oddball” stuff, never gets used up.

Pantry Buckets

But I’m not mentally ready for a true pantry challenge yet, so I came up with something a little different.

I wanted to play a little game.

You know those cooking shows where they give you weird ingredients and you absolutely have to use them? My “game” is very similar to that. Here’s how it works.

Each day, my husband picks 2 things out of the pantry or the freezer. 

And each day, I have to use those 2 things in my cooking to use them up.

It’s a total surprise to me and sometimes I feel like he picks the hardest stuff just to test me (I’m looking at you can of sweet potato puree), but it’s fun because I enjoy a good challenge.

That might sound a little complicated to have to come up with all of those meals on the fly. But I also do some other things that make it easier on me.

First, I come up with an outline of our meals for the week. This is not a plan of specific meals, it’s a plan of meal ideas and inspiration. This helps to give me a guideline of what dish I want to incorporate the items in. I made this simple spreadsheet in Google Drive and then I printed it off and have it hanging on the side of my fridge.

So you can see on Sunday morning, I make pancakes. But it doesn’t mean I make basic pancakes! If my husband gives me a jar of cherries that day, we could have cherry pie pancakes, or I could make a cherry sauce to go on pancakes (or I could use it later in the day….cherry sauce to go on a roast? Sure!).

I created this “map” with meal themes so that I have a bit of structure for each day, but to ensure each day’s meals are different, and also to give myself flexibility.

You can also see that it’s based on our plans for the week. We often do things on Sundays and Wednesday is our town/field trip day so meals need to be easier or packed. You can read more about meal planning here.

The second thing I do to make this game easier is to have my husband pick out the foods early in the morning or the night before. This allows me plenty of time to figure out what I might make with them but doesn’t allow me too much time to try and put off using that item. Urgency helps me get it used!

Lastly, if I have something I really have no inspiration to use, I use a site like SuperCook or My Fridge Food to give me inspiration on new dishes that I can make. I find those particularly helpful if I want to incorporate the mystery item in a side dish or a dessert.

Honestly, this has been a fun challenge for me. I can clearly see that we are making more room for things we will use more often in our pantry and in our freezer and it feels wonderful to not let the food go to waste.

On occasion, some of the food hasn’t been great to use in our personal meals (or I just can’t figure out how to use it at all and wonder why I ever bought it….). For these items, I either give them to our ducks, or I make them into a meal for the dog/cats. In fact, that sweet potato puree that I couldn’t figure out is currently being made into a treat for our dog, Kady. Everything has a use!

I hope this game will inspire you to have fun with your food and to bring a new challenge to your cooking and meal planning if you are getting a little bored with it. It’s certainly helping our family in many different ways right now!

Have you ever played this meal plan game? What are some odd things you need to use up in your pantry right now? Tell me in the comments!

Merissa Bio

This blog post on How To Use Food Up was originally published on Little House Living in November 2021. It has been updated as of January 2023.

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  1. Awww come on now! Sweet potato puree is an easy one. It is one step closer to one of my favorite foods: a quick bread.

  2. I love sweet potato puree. It makes wonderful pie, muffins, beads, and soups. It can replace anything pumpkin or can replace an oil in a baked item.

    Thanks for sharing this! I use a structure very similar to your meal plan google Sheet so I have some sort of plan daily.

    1. The puree makes a wonderful soup. I’ve been doing this “game” for years to stretch our money from food buying. Growing up and raising children in the poor rural south gives me s a unique opportunity to be extraordinary at this “game”.

  3. Do you ever blog or ask community for help with the challenge?
    My thiughts went to sweet potato pancakes? Or a sweet potato casserole by adding 1 egg, cinnamon, nutneg and ginger, butter add to a greased pan top with pie crust or any sweet potato casarole topping. Bake and eat. Julia P has a youtube channel I like about as much as I like your blog. has one of her sweet potato recipes.

    Much love Kate

  4. Thanks for the great ideas!! I think many of us could perform multiple pantry challenges a year. I recently retired this past April and spending a lot of time going through my various stashes. Honestly I was shocked with the amount of “stuff” that accumulates. I’ve planned my menus for as long as I can remember. And actually, started to make homemade cat food for the outside gang with odds and end freezer items. Since income is reduced I am finding more creative ways!!! For your bucket storage, the “dried beans and potatoes” bucket, are these stored together? Do you have any issues with potatoes spoilage? Enjoy your emails and your site so very much

    1. All of the items in my buckets are dried, fresh food goes in the root cellar. So the bucket with beans and potatoes was dried potato flakes and dried beans. 🙂

  5. What a great idea. It never is wrong to try to use up what we have. I thought that I have found the Chili Mix recipe on your site but don;t find it. I was just going to say that I put the spices in and old spice jar and put them in the jar with the beans. I like to sort, rinse and soak my beans the night before. I changed the spice quantity to suit our taste. Now I am not sure that this came from you.

  6. Several years ago there was a soup and sandwich restaurant, Julia’s in the next town over from us. They and various soups and sandwiches depending on the day. The one staple on the menu was Sweet Potato soup. Once I tried it I knew why it was always available. It was delicious and became our go to choice of restaurant and meal when we were out and about. Sadly Julia’s has been gone for years now, but the memory of that soup lives on. I’ve long considered trying my hand at Sweet Potato soup and that can of Sweet Potato Puree would have gone that way at my house. I hope your dog enjoyed the treats.

    1. Darlin;, where you at??? I’m trying to find for you THE sweet potato soup recipe!!! Cuz I’d love it to!!

      Merry Christmas!!

  7. You can easily use sweet-potato purée to make pie; it tastes so like pumpkin pie that it’s surprising. Take it from a die-hard pumpkin-pie advocate! 😊

  8. I enjoy your blog and find it very helpful. I would like to know how you keep your herbs alive all winter. I have failed at indoor herbs so bad. Especially Basil. Help!

    1. Having an indoor hydroponics system (like an Aerogarden) has been a game changer for me. My mom has even tried some of the off brand “Aerogardens” and they worked well for her too. If you use and grow a lot, they are worth checking into at least!

  9. Oh, my gosh! We play, “Chopped Kitchen” all the time!!! (#random: we hosted a bridal shower where every person was encouraged to not only bring a gift but a small handful of canned goods to fill the bride’s pantry… and we removed every single label. Talk about a hoot!!! We gave them “Chopped Kitchen” for the first year of their lives – if THAT doesn’t inspire happiness, joy, creativity, and willingness to kill your best friends, nothing will!! The funniest thing is, however, it brought them closer, trying to problem solve the 4 cans they’d randomly picked!!! Too much fun!!! Hence, the point!!!).

    So,I’ve got about 100 gallons of tomatoes, romas/big/best boys/yellow all canned, including some San Marzano. I’ve got about 20 pounds of diced “spoon roast” jarred into quarts and pressure canned. I’ve been grinding chicken and freezing it into chorizo, breakfast sausage, etc., just to keep calories down. I reconstituted 8 pounds each of black, pinto, Great Northern Beans, etc. and pressure canned them into quarts and pints. Past that, the majority of my harvest is multiple types of chile peppers – poblanos, anaheims, serranos, jalapenos, etc, Carolina reapers, Ghost, etc. Next summer will be the summer of beans: zucchinis, green beans, wax beans, – I’ll run them all up and down our trellises and go nuts.

    For my kiddos, with whom I’m introducing this concept, I have a worksheet that allows them to put in a recipe that they’d like to prepare, and then breaks it into every category. They fill in all the things they HAVE, and put an X by them… Anything left over becomes the last category, which is the shopping list. But, after one of my kiddos started going to the Food Pantry, she received items that were unfamiliar. So, I reworked the worksheet in reverse: write down all of the ingredients you have when you take inventory!! THEN, go to, and enter in 3 main ones: work the rest of them out into the other categories, and you’re done!! It’ll give you recipes based on the ingredients you have!!!

    I’d be more than happy to share!!! They’re just Word templates, easy-peasy!! V1 is something I’d like to make, this is what I have, this is what it takes, so this is what I need. V2 is is This is what I have, This is what it takes, so this isn’t what else she needs atm… Happy to upload!!!