Pantry Challenge 101: The Ultimate Guide to a Shelf Cooking Challenge

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Use a pantry challenge to save money and reduce waste by preparing meals using the food you already have in your pantry, freezer, and fridge.

To be honest, participating in a pantry challenge or shelf cooking challenge isn’t the easiest thing in the world. In fact, the thought of digging through the depths of your pantry and freezer to eat for several weeks might even sound scary.

Retro black & white photo of woman standing in front of an open refrigerator filled with food | A Reinvented Mom #pantrychallenge

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to eat unusual food  combinations or go without basics while you participate in a pantry challenge. In fact, while cooking from your pantry, you can even have a small shopping budget that helps you come up with tasty meals.

The point of a pantry challenge is to use up the food you’ve already bought and save money in the process. It isn’t to eat questionable food combinations or whip up dishes that will make your family complain. Think of a pantry or freezer challenge as an episode of Chopped – it’s a way to use what you’ve got in creative and new ways. 

About this Pantry and Shelf Cooking Challenge Guide

In this mega-guide to how to successfully thrive at your first pantry challenge, we will cover everything from planning to execution and even what to do when the challenge has ended.

First, you’ll need to have a bit of a mind shift as you meal plan during a food pantry challenge. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is a pantry challenge and how to define it for your household
  • Tips for preparing for a shelf cooking challenge
  • How long should your freezer challenge be?
  • Tips for success
  • Do the challenge with me!

What is a Pantry Challenge?

A pantry challenge, shelf cooking challenge or freezer challenge is a simple concept. Use what you have in your pantry and freezer to cook for several weeks. The point is to save money and reduce food waste (a huge problem in the United States by the way!). It’s a win for the environment and your wallet.

Utilize frozen leftovers, canned food, and other ingredients you already have on hand to create delicious meals for your family.

Here’s a little secret: a shelf cooking challenge shouldn’t be something to be feared. In fact, it’s a flexible cooking challenge. The point is to save money by using what you have, not to suffer.

There is no right or wrong way to structure a pantry or shelf cooking challenge.

It’s OK to allow for a small budget for essentials like milk, bread, and fresh produce.

Feel free to take a night off the pantry challenge wagon if there’s a special event.

It’s also just fine to have a short, week-long shelf cooking or freezer challenge instead of drawing it out over a month.

The first rule to a pantry challenge is to make it work for your household. The overall point is to eat up the pantry and freezer so you can save money and get rid of perfectly edible food.

How to Prepare for Your First Pantry Challenge

Before you embark on your pantry challenge you want to set a few expectations. Here’s a look at the first steps to setting up a pantry or shelf-cooking challenge.

    1. Take stock of your current pantry inventory. Go through your pantry, freezer, and fridge to identify what you’ve got lying around. If there are any perishables you’ll want to use those first. Use the free pantry challenge inventory printable to make quick work of this task.
    2. Throw out any expired or freezer-burned foods. Ideally, you won’t have any (that’s what a freezer challenge is for), but for your first challenge, there may be some items lying around that are of unknown origins or are unsafe to eat.
    3. Set a weekly grocery budget for the essentials. Think fresh produce, milk, eggs and bread. I spend $35-40 a week when I’m doing a pantry challenge. Groceries are expensive in my area – you may be able to purchase the essentials for less.
    4. Determine how long you want to run your challenge. Hang tight, we’ll chat more about this in a second.
    5. Plan your first week of meals.

How Long Does the Challenge Last?

The duration of a pantry challenge is totally up to you. My family doesn’t like to eat weird meals with mismatched ingredients. But I have to balance that with the need to make sure I’ve actually made a dent in my kitchen inventory. I’ve found a three week duration to be the sweet spot for shelf cooking challenges for my family.

Your shelf cooking challenge could be a week or two months. The duration doesn’t matter as much as the intent of the challenge.

Experiment with what works best for you and your family. If you regularly eat from your freezer, then you may only need a week, but if you have two freezers like me, a longer challenge might be helpful.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t last through the entire challenge. You may misjudge how long you can go for your first freezer challenge and that’s okay. The pantry challenge isn’t supposed to be painful – it’s supposed to be useful.

Can I Save Money with a Pantry Cooking Challenge?

Oh yes, bring on the savings! The biggest impact you’ll see while you are cooking from your pantry is the huge drop in your weekly grocery bill. But, you’ve got to be disciplined to see the savings.

Once you start the cooking challenge, you may be tempted to eat out more often. Resist the urge! You’ll quickly spend all your savings by opting for take out and you won’t actually use up any pantry inventory.

If you like to see your savings grow, be accountable and note how close you were to your set shopping budget. Then write down the amount of money you saved that week. Put that directly towards your savings for instant satisfaction.

Related Article: Save $500 in 30 days

How to Meal Plan During a Shelf Cooking Challenge

Meal planning during a pantry challenge takes a bit of creativity. First, see if you have any obvious winners, such as fully-frozen entrees. These are low-hanging fruit. Gobble them up first.

Next look at proteins in your freezer. Pair your proteins with bottled sauces and marinades for quick-and-easy meals.

Sides are typically easy when you utilize a mix of fresh produce, canned goods, pastas, rice mixes or frozen side dishes.

Don’t forget to look at items like flour and sugar. Sure, you may not want to bake into oblivion, but you can easily fry up frozen chicken for a tasty freezer challenge meal that the kids will enjoy.

Rice, beans, and meats make great main dishes while you use your small grocery budget for the basics or fresh additives that keep meals tasty.

Remember, you don’t need to combine weird foods for the sake of eating everything if you don’t want to. I certainly don’t! Keep similar flavors together and don’t forget to scour the fridge for sauces and flavorings that go well together.

Tips for a Successful Pantry Challenge

Set yourself up for success with these pantry challenge tips:

  • Consider keeping it a secret for as long as you can. This stops the kids from grumbling and actively resisting food. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.
  • Stick to your budget! This pantry challenge doesn’t work if you blow the budget and buy a bunch of extras.
  • Make a list and stick with it. Shopping without a list encourages frivolous spending.
  • Highlight fresh ingredients. Spruce up older, frozen entrees with things like fresh bread, delicious roasted veggies, and more.
  • Get creative! Have breakfast for dinner (yummy), make a finger-food lunch, or whip up a tasty casserole or soup.
  • Don’t forget the spice cabinet. Use your spices to bring older dishes back to life.


Shopping and Restocking After a Pantry Challenge

Now that you’ve dwindled your kitchen inventory it’s time to stock your pantry, right? Think again. The last thing you want to do after you’ve put in a lot of time and effort into saving money is to immediately spend it.

RELATED: How to Restock Your Pantry after a Pantry Challenge

Go back to writing a weekly grocery list only of things you need. Of course, if you run out of a staple item, like sugar, you can refill it while you partake in the challenge, but don’t get too slap happy with your shopping.

If you happen to miss a sale, keep in mind that grocery stores tend to put the same items on sale every 6 weeks. Note when you saw the last freezer sale and snag items when they are on sale again instead of paying full price.

A great way to give back to your family after a shelf cooking challenge is to make their favorite meal. It’s like a welcome back to the good times.

Take your time re-stocking and enjoy having a little more space in your freezer and pantry.

Are You Ready to Get Started?

Every year I track my progress during my 3-week pantry challenge. Follow along, or join me in the challenge as I eat my way through the pantry and freezer. Get excellent cooking tips and shelf cooking challenge insights with this year’s pantry challenge.

Have you tried a pantry challenge? What did you think? Let me know your insider tips and tricks.

*** Pin the Ultimate Pantry Challenge Guide for Later ***

Photo of pantry shelves filled with food containers, a basket of towels, recipe box, cutting boards, a clock & a plant with a graphic overlay | A Reinvented Mom #pantrychallenge

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