Cooking From Your Pantry: Use It Up

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Have you heard that saying? I’m sure you have – it’s a good one. And lots of frugal blog articles at this time of year suggest making use of what’s in your pantry to lower your grocery bill. But how does cooking from your pantry work? When you look in your cupboards, do you see a random hodgepodge of food, instead of potential meals? If you haven’t had your grocery budget on lockdown and a set meal plan, chances are good you have a slightly strange assortment going on – but that’s OK.

Reduce grocery spending AND food waste by cooking from your pantry.

I’m going to lay out a few steps you can follow, as well as some specific ideas to use. Find the ones that work for you, and you’ll be cooking from your pantry in no time. Perhaps for dinner tonight?

Go through your pantry and make an inventory

This is the most tedious thing, I know. Pulling everything out and seeing what’s actually there can seem overwhelming. But look at it as a chance to reorganize and perhaps make some donations to a local food pantry if you find you have lots of extra food.

Write down each item and the quantity on a notepad. There are apps for that, I’m sure, but I feel like apps just add a layer of difficulty that doesn’t need to be there. I may be a luddite here, though, I don’t know. Still, with a notepad, you can write “Kraft macaroni and cheese” and make a mark each time you find another box hiding behind the potatoes.

Once you’ve written everything down, you can glance over the list and think about rough categories for  your pantry. Mine are roughly as follows:

  • Side dishes (mac and cheese, Rice a Roni, instant flavored mashed potatoes, etc.)
  • Canned veggies
  • Canned fruit
  • Pasta and noodles
  • Rice, couscous, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other grains/starchy sides
  • Sauces, marinades, and dressings
  • Soups for eating vs. soups for cooking with – I don’t always distinguish because I actually like canned cream of mushroom soup as… a soup.
  • Tomatoes – I give them their own category for crushed, whole, diced, paste, sauce… so many canned tomatoes!
  • Spices, herbs, and seasoning mixes
  • Proteins (including beans, meat, and seafood)

If you really don’t want to make a list…

at least get a rough idea of fifteen or twenty items you have in there. Don’t buy any more til they’re gone and you’ve taken note of what was behind them!

Don’t forget the freezer

Especially if you buy meat or frozen veggies on sale, look in that freezer and see what you have! It doesn’t make sense to buy ground beef “because it’s on sale” if you’ve got chicken legs going all freezerburned waiting their turn.

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Set items for meals next to each other

I don’t suggest organizing your entire pantry this way, because it would get disorderly fast, but if you’re planning on cooking from your pantry for a week or two weeks, why not group meals together? Especially if you haven’t gotten around to official meal planning, this will let you look and see your options more easily. You could also write down your ideas on paper or in Evernote or something – it depends on how visual you are and how likely you are to look at the paper vs standing in front of your open cupboards at 5pm.

Pantry meal ideas

  • BBQ sauce, a box of mac and cheese, bread crumbs + a protein (canned or cooked chicken, black beans, etc) = combine for a casserole.
  • Canned tuna, egg noodles, seasoning salt, bread crumbs, canned soup = tuna noodle casserole.
  • Rice a Roni, canned green beans + rotisserie chicken (or any other protein) = hey, it’s practically Sunday dinner! Add dinner rolls and you’re really living it up.
  • Ketchup, worcestershire sauce, bread crumbs, onion powder + ground beef + eggs = meatloaf! Instant mashed potatoes and green beans or corn are great sides for this meal.
  • Couscous, dried cranberries (or other dried fruit), canned chick peas, spices, olive oil, lemon juice + fresh parsley = couscous and chickpea salad.
  • Pasta, jarred sauce, canned green beans, garlic powder, bread = 1980s style spaghetti Wednesday – so comforting.
  • Pasta, jarred sauce, canned tuna, olives or capers, red pepper flakes = pretend pasta Puttanesca
  • Canned fruit + cottage cheese = a great breakfast or snack
  • Jiffy corn bread mix, canned creamed corn = spoonbread to eat with chili
  • Black beans, taco seasoning, tortillas or taco shells + ground beef = stretch your budget by adding black beans to the beef for tacos

Step away from the Pinterest

Well, sort of. Instead of just looking for inspiration (i.e. meals that you’ll need to buy ten ingredients for), look for ideas using what you already have. I love Pinterest as much as (possibly more than) the next person, but I know it can also be hugely tempting. I see stuff that just looks amazing and feel like I have to fit it into my meal plan somehow! So if you’re hopping on, try putting ingredients that are sitting there waiting into your search.

The more you do it, the better you get

As in most things, eh? The more you use stuff from your pantry, the more you’ll figure out what actually gets used and what you have to work really hard to get anyone to eat. This can help you narrow your shopping list and your meal planning efforts – it’s easier to resist a “great sale” on canned tuna if you really only eat it once every four months. And the better you get at stocking, the easier cooking from your pantry becomes!

I’d love to know how your pantry cooking efforts go!

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  1. Excellent ideas! I found 2 cans of butter beans in my pantry. No idea when I bought them or why as we don’t eat them and I have never used them in my entire life. I found a recipe for butter bean burgers (vegetarian), modified it to better suit our tastes and wound up creating a vegetarian Chik-Fil-A sandwich. It was so good! My kids even ate them not realizing the burgers I cut up for them weren’t chicken nuggets. Mom win!

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