Lessons I’ve Learned from The Pantry Challenge (Guest Post)

Guest Post by Jennifer from Saving and Giving

Our family decided to take The Pantry Challenge in January and this has been quite an experience for us!  Not only have we cleared out some of the older items that were lurking in our pantry, but we’ve learned many unexpected non-cooking lessons along the way:

1) We’ve slashed our grocery budget by another 30%.

Before I started my own frugal shopping adventure, our weekly grocery spending was hovering around $100 per week.  That was for a family of three, and our daughter was under three at the time.  Once I learned the ropes and began hunting bargains, I got our weekly grocery spending down to about $70 per week.  I was even creating a nice little stockpile as I did our weekly shopping.

I used to wonder how Crystal was able to feed her family (which is slightly larger yet similar in age to mine) for $40 per week. I couldn’t seem to get out of my $70 rut!  This month, I had my ah-hah!  moment.

It all came down to the menu plan.  Since joining the frugal shopping ranks, I have been menu planning using what we had on-hand as a starting point.  This month has shown me that, while that’s a good start, I was making one fatal mistake.  I was using my pantry as a starting point AND purchasing several additional ingredients for each meal.

If I had a can of diced tomatoes, I would decide to make chili.  So I would buy ground beef, tomato sauce, kidney beans, and chili beans.  I saved $0.99 by not having to buy the diced tomatoes, but I was spending another $6 to $8 on the other ingredients.  Somehow that just wasn’t saving me money!

I wholeheartedly jumped into the Pantry Challenge.  I wanted to give it my all!  So I planned meals that truly used what was in the pantry.  If I found a can of diced tomatoes, I paired it with several other ingredients I had on-hand to create a meal.  I had to buy a few extra ingredients to round out the month, but not many.

Since we have truly been eating from our pantry, I have been able to use a smaller amount of grocery money (less than $50 each week) to purchase a few fresh produce/dairy items and whatever was on sale at rock-bottom prices.  I’ve found myself adding things to the back of the pantry for use when the challenge is complete.  Once the challenge month is over, I will menu plan from the new items I’ve added to the pantry.  Then I can continue the cycle of cooking with what we have and purchasing only the very best sale items each week.

I am so thankful that the Pantry Challenge has helped me break the $70 per week grocery cycle.  This challenge has been exactly what I needed to kick-start a new way of menu planning!

2) I’ve learned that my meals don’t need to be extravagant.

As I searched my pantry, I found several cans of Progresso Tomato Basil soup.  At first I thought they might be good for lunches, but then I realized that my husband loves grilled cheese with tomato soup.  That’s not even close to what I usually make for dinner since our dinners are usually the meat-potato-vegetable variety.

But in the spirit of the Pantry Challenge, I served grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner one night.  It didn’t seem like much of a dinner to me, but it was a hit!  Preparation was quick, our meal was enjoyable, and clean-up was a breeze.  It was a very healthy meal, and we were all quite satisfied.

I realized that maybe I’ve been making things too hard–and too expensive at the same time!

3) The Pantry Challenge has encouraged me to stop making excuses.

Though I always menu plan, I don’t usually stick to my plan.  I might be tired, feel lazy, or just not want to make my planned meal.  I always find some reason to either eat out or make something other than what’s on my plan.  Normally, I skip a planned meal or two and then forget that I’d bought the ingredients to make those meals.  My habits are what lead to so many orphan ingredients being in my pantry!  (Though I must admit that the dry black beans I found turned into some fabulous Crock Pot Black Bean Soup during the Pantry Challenge!)

This month, I’ve stuck to my meal plan.  I have had to make a couple of changes due to being treated to a meal out and forgetting to defrost some meat.  But I’ve adjusted the plan and am really and truly using up the ingredients this time!

4) I’ve been reminded how very blessed we are.

I knew that I had a reasonable amount of food on-hand.  If we had a snowstorm or other issue that kept us from the grocery store for a week or two, I knew that we would be just fine.  However, I had no idea exactly how much we had.

Cleaning out my pantry, freezer, and cupboard area as part of the Pantry Challenge was an eye-opening experience.  I was saddened by what I had to throw away, knowing there are many people in our area who could have used that food.  I was surprised at how little meat I had to buy for this month’s plan.  I was thrilled to know that, with very few additions from the grocery store, we would be able to eat for a whole month without our cupboards being bare.

God has blessed us with more than we need.  In fact, I’ve even taken some bags to the food pantry collection area at our church over the past two weeks. In reality, this challenge hasn’t been a challenge to stretch what we have.  It’s been a challenge to be better stewards of what we have, and to share more with people who aren’t as fortunate.

Jennifer Bruce is wife to Jason and mom to five-year-old Emma.  She blogs at Saving and Giving where she encourages people to save money and be generous.  Jennifer hosts a weekly meme called A Time to Give where she invites others to share simple (and often free!) ways to give.  When Jennifer is not blogging, she can be found playing Candy Land with Emma, spending time with Jason, reading, or making stationery and invitations for her clients.

photo credit: Br3nda; jkelber

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Eating From the Pantry: The Final Stretch (Come link up your progress reports!)

Whew! We’ve made it to the last week of Eating from the Pantry. Our stockpile is getting a little thin, but I’m every bit happy to have used up so many odds and ends. I’m also happy that my freezer is almost empty. It had been so full at the end of last month that things would sometimes fall out when you opened it up (wait, did I just admit that out loud on the internet?).

This last week, we’re just aiming to make it through without mishap. So, in other words, I won’t be trying four experiments in one recipe. I will, however, be trying to use up the last little bits of everything so that we start February with a clean slate.

And it’s a good thing, because FishMama and I are planning another big Freezer Cooking Day the first week in February. Truth be told, I’m also really looking forward to using coupons and hunting for deals again. It was nice to take a four-week break, but I have really missed it.

Here’s our plan to use up the rest of the assortment of random ingredients in our house right now:

Breakfasts Ideas:

Cereal x 3 (trying to use up some of our extra boxes of free or $0.50-$0.99 cereal!)

Oatmeal and bananas

Pancakes

Yogurt and granola

Bread-machine Cinnamon Rolls (A reader sent me a winning recipe last week. I made it and we all loved it. I’ll be posting it later this week in case you’d like to try it, too!)

Lunch Ideas:

Tuna Salad, apples

Beans and Rice with cheese and sour cream, carrot sticks

Chicken Nuggets, apples

Fish Sticks, carrot sticks

Baked potatoes with broccoli and sour cream

Leftovers x 2

Dinner Ideas:

Broccoli Chicken Cheese Casserole, Cornbread Muffins, Grapefruit, Chocolate Pudding

Barbecue Chicken Stirfry over rice with Chow Mein Noodles, Slab Apple Pie

Turkey Meatballs, Sweet Potatoes, Bread Machine Buttery Rolls, Corn, Grapefruit

Chicken Tetrazinni, Mixed Green Salad, Broccoli, Homemade Bread

Lasagna, homemade bread, steamed veggies

Dinner at friends’ house

Waffles, scrambled eggs, fruit

Dinner out

Snack Ideas:

Popcorn, Fruit, Cereal, Hot Cocoa

How’s your Pantry Challenge going? If you’ve been blogging about it, be sure to leave direct links to your update posts below so we can all be inspired!

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Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Homemade Pizza (er, how not to improvise when making pizza!)

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The pizza might not look that bad, but let me tell you, looks can be deceiving!

As you all well know, we've been eating from the pantry this month. We've used up lots of odds and ends, we've tried some new recipes, and we've been eating better than usual because it's inspired me to cook and bake more.

And so far, the challenge has gone on without much mishap. Until last night, that is.

I had planned to make Homemade Pizza–something I've made countless times before. I already had the dough frozen and the meat cooked up, so I thought it would be a snap to pull off.

Well, it spiraled downhill quite quickly.

First off, the dough just didn't feel right when it thawed. Something seemed "off" but I couldn't place it, and I didn't have time to re-make it so I just rolled it out and went with it.

Then, I went to get the barbecue sauce out of the refrigerator and discovered we had used it all up. Oops.

Necessity is the mother of invention, right? So I attempted to replicate barbecue sauce using ketchup, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce. Bad idea.

I pulled the thawed browned turkey out of the bag and noticed it also seemed really tough and dry. But I threw it on the pizza anyway along with some cheese. And then I stuck it in the oven without waiting for the oven to heat up entirely–which was also a dumb mistake.

When I pulled it out of the oven ten minutes later, I was congratulating myself on my improvisations and felt so happy that the pizza looked just fine despite the issues which had arisen while making it.

We cut it and starting eating it and I quickly stopped patting myself on the back. While the pizza looked just fine, it tasted awful. The crust was doughy and yeasty, the "barbecue sauce" was icky, and the meat was anything but appetizing.

All put together, the pizza was disgusting. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is the worst pizza I've ever had in my entire life.

We did our best to try and eat a few pieces, but we finally gave up and pulled out some Tyson Any'tizers we still had lurking in the freezer. And we did something we've never done before–we threw the homemade pizza out!

Maybe that seems wasteful, but the pizza wasn't fit for anyone to eat, believe me. However, the flopped pizza was good for something–we all had a hearty laugh over how bad it tasted. And we also were very relieved to remember that the Eat From the Pantry Challenge is almost over. Almost!

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Eat From the Pantry Challenge: Week 3 Menu Plan

Eat-from-the-pantry-challenge 

We've been Eating From The Pantry for over two weeks. The first week was hard but it seemed to get easier the second week. My creativity kicked in and I had fun experimenting in the kitchen, trying some new recipes, and using up a whole lot of odds and ends from our freezer, cupboards, and refrigerator.

There was only one night when Jesse and I both just felt really tired of the whole Pantry Eating thing. So we decided to forgo the Chicken Tetrazinni planned on the menu that night and eat at Taco Bell instead. It was a nice diversion–and then we just skipped our planned dinner out on Friday night!

Here's my list of ideas for Pantry Meals this coming week (some of these are repeats from last week because we still have more ingredients or I ended up making something else last week instead of what I'd planned–yes, I'm giving myself lots of freedom to experiment on this Pantry Challenge!):

Breakfasts Ideas:

Cereal x 3 (we're still using up some of our free or $0.50-$0.99 cereal!)

Whole-Wheat Blender Pancakes

Homemade Cinnamon Rolls (A reader sent me a yummy-looking recipe to try out in my bread machine so I'll post it if these turn out well.)

Whole-Wheat Waffles

Oatmeal with cinnamon, apples, and sucanat

Side options: Fresh Orange/Apple Juice, Oranges, Grapefruit

Lunch Ideas:

Creamy Mac and Cheese

Tuna Salad

Homemade Stromboli

Taco Potatoes

Beans and Rice with cheese sour cream, and lettuce

Leftovers x 2

Side options: oranges, apples, carrot sticks, frozen veggies

Dinner Ideas:

Barbecue Chicken, Cornbread Muffins, Oranges, Chocolate Pudding

Hot Wings/Chicken Nuggets, Steamed Mixed Veggies, Twice-Baked Potatoes, Oranges

Sweet and Sour Chicken Stirfry over rice with Chow Mein Noodles, Apple-Pineapple Salad

Turkey Meatballs, Sweet Potatoes, Homemade Rolls, Corn, Grapefruit

Chicken Tetrazinni, Mixed Green Salad, Broccoli, Homemade Bread

Homemade Pizza, Carrot Sticks, Apples, Brownies

Dinner out

Snack Ideas:

Popcorn, Crackers/Cheese, Popsicles, Fruit, Cereal, Hot Cocoa

How's
your Pantry Challenge going? If you've been blogging about it, be sure
to stop by FishMama's place tomorrow morning and leave your link so we can all be inspired. See more menu plans for this week over at I'm An Organizing Junkie.

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Bread Machine Buttery Rolls

My dad surprised me with this brand-spankin’-new bread machine for Christmas! My other bread machine was on its very last leg after being used countless times over the last seven years, so I was thrilled with this gift. Plus, this new one is more high-tech, larger, and has two kneading paddles. I’ve already been extremely impressed at the difference in texture of the dough I’ve made as opposed to my other smaller bread machine.

The new bread machine came just in time for the Eat From The Pantry Challenge and has proven to be a very useful tool to have at my disposal–especially on days when I don’t have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen.

I tried a new recipe yesterday since we needed some bread to go along with dinner. This is a recipe from my brother, it uses basic ingredients you usually will always have on hand, and it literally took me 5 minutes of labor!

The rolls turned out beautifully and my whole family thought they were very delicious. It’s definitely a winner recipe and one I’ll be making many times again.

Now that I have a bread machine which makes beautiful dough with only a few minutes of work, I think I’m going to be doing a whole lot more baking. I might even attempt making cinnamon roll dough in the bread machine–something I’ve never had success with before.

Do you have any favorite bread machine recipes which only take staple ingredients that I’d likely have in my pantry? Leave me a link to them so I can consider trying them during our Eat From the Pantry Challenge!

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Pantry Challenge: My Update and Menu Plan (Share Your Progress, too!)

Eat-from-the-pantry-challenge 

Well, we've officially been Eating From The Pantry for a whole week. And I'll admit, it's definitely been a challenge.

We always have surplus since I practice the "Buy-Ahead Principle" in my grocery shopping, but I didn't do a whole lot of shopping in December, so we actually started this month a little low on reserves.

I'm okay with that, though, because I wanted this to be a true challenge. A learning experience. Something to force me to be creative.

You see, I've been feeling stuck in a rut when it comes to cooking recently. I've been making a lot of the same things over and over again. Sure, they are good recipes–and we like them!–but too much of the same thing quickly becomes lackluster and boring.

So this Pantry Challenge and spending a few days eating at a gourmet chef's house has been exactly the motivation I've needed to experiment in the kitchen again. And while it was hard at first to get my momentum going, I'm starting to get all inspired. In fact, I keep coming up with new ideas and am beginning to wonder if the month will be up before I have a chance to make all the recipes I want to try with our pantry ingredients. I suppose that is a good problem to have.

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We made a quick trip to the store yesterday to pick up fresh produce, milk, and cheese and then I made up a list of meal ideas for this coming week based upon those ingredients and what we already have on hand. These ideas are just to serve as a starting point as I'm giving myself free reign to be creative in the kitchen–so long as I can make the recipe with what we already have on hand!

Breakfasts Ideas:

Cereal x 3 (trying to use up some of our extra boxes of free or $0.50-$0.99 cereal!)

Whole-Wheat Waffles

Pumpkin Pancakes

Oatmeal with cinnamon, apples, and sucanat

Side options: Fresh Orange/Apple Juice, Oranges, Grapefruit

Lunch Ideas:

Creamy Mac and Cheese

Tuna Salad

Mixed Green Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs, cheese & crackers

Chicken Nuggets

Fish Sticks

PB&J

Leftovers

Side options: oranges, apples, carrot sticks, frozen veggies

Dinner Ideas:

Lit'l Smokies with Potatoes, Onions, and Carrots in the crockpot, Cornbread Muffins, Oranges, Chocolate Pudding

Sweet and Sour Chicken Stirfry over rice with Chow Mein Noodles, Apple-Pineapple Salad

Turkey Meatballs, Sweet Potatoes, Homemade Rolls, Corn, Grapefruit

Chicken Tetrazinni, Mixed Green Salad, Broccoli, Homemade Bread

Barbecue Chicken in the crockpot served on buns, Steamed Mixed Veggies, Twice-Baked Potatoes, Oranges

Homemade Pizza, Carrot Sticks, Apples, Brownies

Dinner out

Snack Ideas:

Popcorn, Crackers/Cheese, Fruit, Cereal, Homemade Funnel Cakes, Hot Cocoa

So there's my list of ideas to work from this week. I'll let you know how it goes. And if I have any colossal flop or discover a really incredible recipe, I'll be sure to let you know.

How's your Pantry Challenge going? If you've been blogging about it, be sure to leave direct links to your update posts below so we can all be inspired!

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