Scraping slimy cilantro leaves off the bottom of the produce drawer is just gross. But what about all the food abandoned in your cabinets? Flours and nuts go rancid, dried fruit turn into rocks, spices lose their kick. What a waste! Every ounce of food required energy and water to grow, harvest, process and transport. And you spent hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars on groceries. Why not make the most of it?
An easy way to become less wasteful is to commit to a pantry challenge for a week or two. It’s a great way to boost your food awareness and grow your cooking skill.
Only One Rule
There is only one ground rule for a pantry challenge: do not buy any new food. You can make an exception and allow yourself to buy fresh produce, especially greens, but that's it. Other than that, cook from what you already have for the rest of the challenge.
First, Take A Hard Look At What You Have
Start by taking a thorough inventory of all the food you have in your home. Take note of all the types of flours, dried fruits and nuts, vinegars and oils, spices and condiments in your pantry. Take absolutely everything out of your fridge and freezer, toss what's spoiled or suspicious, wipe the containers clean (they always get sticky at the bottom), and jot what you have down on a sheet, or snap pictures with your phone. Once everything’s out, wipe the shelves and put everything back in. Peek into your emergency kit and anywhere else in the house where you may be keeping food.
Even if you end up going to the store partway through the challenge, having done your inventory will bring lasting benefits. Standing face to face with your grocery-buying habits will teach you some lessons. How many bottles of condiments do you have in the fridge that you hardly ever use? How many weird flours did you buy when you were first experimenting with gluten-free baking? Worse: is there a box of crackers that's hosting a growing colony of pantry moths? The inventory may take you an hour or two, depending on how much food you have, but it will be a great investment of your time, promise.
Plan To Rescue Those Ingredients
As you go through your inventory, pick some feature foods for next week's meal plan. Start with ingredients that are rare and expensive (nuts, dried mushrooms, saffron, fancy flours...) or with those you have severely overstocked. Plan some meals around those, but resist the urge to shop for "companion ingredients" to complete a recipe you have in mind. Substitute instead! Repeat the process until you have a week’s worth of meals planned ahead
Close Those Cookbooks!
Resist the temptation of searching for recipes. Chances are you will encounter ingredients you do not already have and be tempted to go grocery shopping. Don't! Use your experience and cook up an experiment instead. Think of the standard meals (stir-fry, casserole, soup, pizza, stew, etc...) and improvise with the ingredients at hand. If you do not feel very confident in the kitchen, go for basic meals. You probably have condiments or sauces that you can use to dress up a simple combination of rice and beans, for example.
Make yourself accountable by letting your family and friends know what's up in your kitchen. Better yet, challenge your friends to do the same and share your creations online. Not every meal will look like a perfectly styled plate, but you can still share it on Instagram! Use #pantrychallenge and #foodmatters to share your improvised pantry meals.
But Don't Go Overboard
When all that’s left is rice and ketchup, perhaps with a bag of frozen cranberries, it's time to opt out.
When you are done with the challenge, approach grocery shopping more mindfully. When you plan to cook up a new recipe, consider the list of ingredients as a suggestion, not a requirement. There are very few ingredients in a recipe that cannot be substituted with another from the same food family. If you need some help, join a Facebook group (such as Vegan Family Meal Planning) and learn from others. Before you buy a new ingredient, check whether you can get some from a neighbor, try to source only the quantity you need in a bulk bin, and start thinking about other recipes you will use it in.
Start today! In two weeks, you’ll have saved precious dollars, energy and water, and you’ll be a better cook.