After attending the Ultimate Food Rescue Challenge a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about ways to reduce food waste in my own life. As a society, we are undoubtably pretty bad at using all our food. According to the USDA, we waste around 30% of our food at the consumer level – think produce that you forgot about in the crisper drawer or leftovers you forgot to eat. That’s why I love the idea of a “pantry challenge” for a few weeks.
If you want to reduce your own food waste and save a few bucks on your grocery bill this month, read on!
What inspired this pantry challenge?
As I mentioned, I try to attend an event each year called The Ultimate Food Rescue Challenge. This charity event put on by Three Squares New England raises funds to support hunger relief and fight food insecurity in Massachusetts (where I live). This year, the event raised over $31,000!
The premise of the event is kind of a like an in-person version of Chopped, food rescue style. Top Boston-based chefs come together and use rescued produce and surplus meat and fish to create delectable dishes. This year, they used 350 lbs of produce from Russo & Son’s, surplus meat from Verde Farms and Chestnut Farms, and fish from Puritan.
It’s absolutely amazing what these chefs come up with using food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Which got me thinking – we have so much food in our own kitchen that sometimes goes to waste – why not try these same techniques at home? A “pantry challenge” lets you do just that.
What is a pantry challenge?
Here’s the basics – instead of grocery shopping or eating out this month based on what you’re in the mood for, you’re going to “shop” your pantry, fridge, and freezer first to create meals. You want to try to use up the foods you have before purchasing more foods.
Simple in concept, but can be tough for many of us to implement! Here’s some of the benefits though:
- Reduces food waste. Because you’re using things that may have otherwise gone bad – like those zucchini you forgot were in the crisper drawer, or that half full container of yogurt in the fridge – you’ll minimize food waste during this time.
- Saves money. Generally speaking, the less you go to the store (and especially the less you eat out), the more money you’ll save. And while yes, you’re using food you’ve already paid for in the past – I would venture to guess you’ve got some food hanging around your pantry that’s been there forever and you still haven’t used it yet. Time to use up what you’ve got!
- Forces you to get creative. Many of you reading this are runners and triathletes, so I know you’re up for a challenge. 😉 Think outside the box and get creative with pulling together unusual ingredient combinations or cooking methods.
- Clears out clutter. Dude, my kitchen is insane most of the time. I’ll attribute some of that to food blogging and testing a lot of recipes, but I’m also a huge fan of the clearance section at the grocery store and buying things that “might be good to try.”
How to do a pantry challenge
There are no official rules for this, so implement it in a way that works for you! Here’s a basic outline of how to get started:
Decide on a time frame and set goals
Some people like to do a pantry challenge for a week, others like to do it for a month. Some people refuse to spend any money at all during their challenge, while others allow for minimal expenses like milk and fresh produce.
I’m of the later camp in this one – I don’t want to sacrifice my health by eating a bunch of meals without fruits and veggies, for example, so I allow a budget for these items. But of course, I try to use up any of those I might already have on hand first. And I challenge myself with a very particular monetary budget for what I do need to buy.
Do an inventory of your pantry, fridge, and freezer.
I’m a pen and paper girl, so something about the act of writing everything down in an organized list helps me to better think through what kinds of meals I can make. Create a list and separate it by category, like meats, grains, vegetables, etc.
Don’t forget that you might have foods from a certain category in different spots in your house, like frozen vegetables (freezer), canned vegetables (pantry), or fresh vegetables (fridge). This is why listing by category on a piece of paper tends to help, rather than just staring at an open refrigerator door trying to figure out what to make.
If you’ve got a garden, definitely include any produce that’s ready to harvest in your inventory too.
Create a meal plan.
Now that you’ve got an inventory of your food, start thinking through meals you could make using only what’s on your list. Depending on how much food you’ve currently got on hand, you may be able to come up with a ton of meal ideas — or you may only be able to only think of a few. That’s OK! Just do your best to try to think through as much as you can.
One helpful part of this process is to use a website like SuperCook, where you can enter in all the ingredients you have on hand and it brings up a list of recipes that fit that criteria. I use this site all the time!
Another helpful tip is to go into Pinterest and type an ingredient you’re not sure what to do with. For example, we had a bottom round roast the other day in the freezer and I didn’t know what I wanted to make. But a quick glance at Pinterest showed me an easy recipe for roast beef that could be sliced thin for sandwiches and salads.
Write out your meal plan for the week (or month), crossing ingredients off of your inventory list as you list recipes that include them. This helps you to see what’s left as you go along.
Get creative with “waste.”
While you’re making your meal plan, think about ways to really maximize every bit of food you’re using.
- Roasting carrots for dinner one night? The carrot tops can be made into a delicious pesto that can be used on chicken and potatoes the next day.
- Using fresh broccoli in a stir fry? The broccoli stems can be sliced with a mandolin, then bake into veggie “chips” for you and your kids to snack on later that week.
- Using a can of beans in chili? The liquid from a can of beans can be used as an egg replacer in baked goods, like these chocolate cherry brownies.
- Cooking a bone-in roast? Beef bones and vegetable scraps can be thrown in the crockpot to make a flavorful slow cooker bone broth.
- Using beets in a summer salad? Sauté the beet greens the next night for a healthy side dish.
- Your kiddo didn’t finish their berries at lunch time? Toss ‘em in the freezer and make your little one a smoothie with them tomorrow.
There are so many ways to really maximize every bit of food that we bring into the house and cook! Scroll down to the bottom of this post for some additional ideas.
Similarly, if you’ve made a big portion of a dish and you know your family is bad at eating leftovers – portion it into storage containers and freeze it. These can be pulled out in later weeks when you need a quick and easy dinner. And it helps prevent that end of the week purge where you’re emptying tons of Tupperware containers into the trash.
Rethink “expired” food.
A lot of people toss food from their pantry because it “expired.” However, these dates are almost exclusively related to quality, not safety.
Per the USDA, “Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.”
They go on to clarify some common terms:
- Best if used by = when the product will have the best flavor/quality. Not a purchase or safety date.
- Sell by = how long the store should keep products on the shelves. It is not a safety date. (For example, milk that is in your fridge past the sell by date is still safe to drink as long as it’s not sour.)
- Use by = last recommended date for peak quality. Not safety related except for formula.
- Freeze by = when a product should be frozen by in order to maintain peak quality.
The bottom line is that most dry goods are perfectly fine to eat past the expiration, provided the quality still looks and tastes fine. Obviously if something is moldy or smells bad or you have any doubt that it might be spoiled – it’s best to toss it.
Fill in the gaps.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are probably going to be some gaps to fill in if you’re doing this for more than a week. If you’re planning out a month, you can 100% still maximize everything you’ve got on hand. But you’ll probably need to shop for some fresh produce, dairy, etc.
You can certainly use the grocery store to fill in these gaps, but also consider other creative avenues. There’s a lot of pick-your-own produce in season in the summer, which can make for a fun family activity – and doubles as cost-effective food to eat later. Or consider shopping the local farmers market, where the food might be the same price as the grocery store – but helps you support your local economy.
YOU GOT THIS!
What do you think – does it seem doable? Who else wants to join me on a little pantry challenge over the next few weeks?
Let’s see if we can reduce food waste together and save a little cash on our grocery bills at the same time. And maybe, if you’re got the financial flexibility, you can filter some of that savings to a donation to Three Squares New England to help them fight food insecurity too. 🙂
Extra Pantry Challenge Recipe Ideas
Struggling to come up with some good ideas based on what you’ve got in the pantry or using up food waste? Here are 10 extra healthy recipe ideas from fellow food bloggers (and one from yours truly). All of these either maximize produce that’s about to go to waste OR are made from pantry staples that you’re likely to have on hand.
1. Lettuce pesto – I love this idea so much! If you’ve got wilted lettuce hanging around, why not turn it into a flavorful pesto that you can toss with pasta?
2. Vegetable skin crisps – if you’re peeling your veggies for an upcoming meal, set aside the skins to make these addictive crispy snack!
3. Vegetarian black bean chili – Got some canned beans, canned tomatoes, broth, and spices? These pantry staples are always around my house, so I love this easy vegetarian chili recipe as a way to quickly throw a meal together.
4. Tuna and Rice Bowls – Though you might not have everything on hand to make it exactly like this blogger did, the base of the recipe can be adapted with whatever you do have. Just combine tuna and rice with some veggies or fruits of your choice to make a delicious, healthy meal.
5. Tuna Bolognese – Another tuna dish, because let’s be real – who doesn’t have random cans or pouches of tuna in their pantry?! I know those are always on hand for me. This dish combines tuna with pasta and canned tomatoes for an easy, tasty recipe. (PS – it also calls for anchovies, but you can leave them out if you don’t have any on hand!).
6. Kung Pao Chickpea and Rice – Beans are a pantry staple for many people, and I love this new take on chickpeas. While normally my chickpeas get made into either hummus or a buffalo chickpea salad, I can’t wait to try this new way of cooking them!
7. Strawberry Peach Popsicles – With both of these in season, it’s easy to buy a little more than you thought you might use. Instead of tossing those on the verge of going bad, blend them up and freeze them into popsicles.
8. Instant Pot Peach Crisp – What a perfect way to use up those cans of peaches that have been in your pantry for a while – by making these sweet dessert! You can also use fresh peaches if you have extra of those on hand that you’re trying to use up.
9. Gingerbread Crockpot Oatmeal – Oats are such an inexpensive, awesome pantry staple. I love this idea for slow cooker oatmeal with all the lovely spices of gingerbread cookies. (Don’t worry, I won’t start my Christmas music…yet. 😉 ) Top this with whatever fruit you have on hand.
10. Radish greens hummus – I love this idea of using up radish greens (or really any vegetable greens!) as an addition to homemade hummus. Great for a snack for the whole family.
There you go friends – good luck!