Meal Planning: A Pantry Challenge

WARNING: THIS POST IS ABOUT MONEY, FOOD, AND A PANTRY CHALLENGE. Oh yeah, and there’s a meal plan, too.

The Money Part

About a week ago I loaded updated Quicken software on my computer. The old version was from 2002, so it was due for an upgrade, especially considering that the computer it came preloaded on was threatening to kick the bucket. Seeing as every photo and financial record is stored on that computer, it was time to make a change.

So…. I balanced the books for our year-end status report. We didn’t save as much as we made — we had to eat and all that, but we didn’t go in the hole, either. I’m thinking that that is a good thing.

I like the color black.

One thing I learned from all my number crunching was that we spent an average of $612 per month on groceries. Not too shabby considering that I think we’ve been eating like kings!

We also spent about $150 per month eating out. This brings our monthly food average to $762 which is still less than the $966 that the US Department of Agriculture says food for a family of 8 on a “thrifty” meal plan should cost. Heavens! We could definitely eat like royalty if we spent that. WHAT are they thinking?

It gets better. The “liberal” plan sets my food costs at over $2000 per month. Oh! That makes me laugh!


All that to say I’m feeling pretty good about how I shop and how we eat — at least by government standards.

One of the things that helps us to have such low food costs is to keep a frugal pantry. Last year I explored this in more detail in the Build a Frugal Pantry series. If you haven’t checked it out before, I recommend doing so as there was input from many great bloggers in that series on my food blog.

The short story: I regularly buy items on sale that I know we will use so that I’m not paying full price when I need or want them.

Currently, our freezer is still really full. It’s also growing a protective coating of ice on the inside walls. Must be time to defrost. But, in order to thaw, we need to empty. So, this month we’re digging in and using up what we have.

Here’s my meal plan for the week:

2. Hot Dogs on Homemade Buns, Veggies, Potato Salad

3. Roast Chicken, Quinoa Pilaf, Green Salad, Biscuits

4. Pasta with Red Sauce, Green Beans, Cornbread

5. Beans and Rice, Leftover chicken, Chips

6. Soup Night — even if it kills us

7. Pizza Night

8. Lasagna, Green Salad, Garlic Bread

A Pantry Challenge

I am also going to do a little pantry challenge. Last January I did this and it went pretty well. I cut our budget for the month and tried to make the best of what we had.

By the time I was done, the cupboards were bare, but I think I’d shaved a good chunk of cash off our expenses, too. And as I mentioned above, we did okay on food costs this year. I think this helped. And since it’s in my mind to keep our costs low, I figured I’d do it again this year. And I want you to join me!

Don’t feel like you need to eat yourself out of house and home this month. I’m not putting you to that kind of challenge.

Instead, I’m thinking of this:

Make the Most of What You Have This Month

  • For some that might mean digging deep into the cupboards and using up those odds and ends.
  • For others that might mean building a frugal pantry, scouting for good sales, and starting to stockpile items that you regularly use.
  • Still others might want to give the pantry an overhaul and remove unhealthy items and replace those with more wholesome alternatives.

You get to decide what best fits your family and your life. Shop till you drop or work toward using what you’ve got. This isn’t a “no spend” month — unless you want it to be. It’s a “be mindful about what you have and what you need” month.

We’re working on our kitchen pantries to make the most of the resources at our disposal.

I just hope you’ll join us in talking about money, food, and the pantry challenge.

My personal January challenge

  • Spend $100 (or less) a week on groceries.
  • Focus on buying fresh produce and dairy.

Ya with me?

I’ll have a link up on Tuesday if you want to “formally” commit. And I’ll be posting daily (or close to) updates on GoodCheapEats so you can see “a month in the life.”

Don’t forget to pop over to I’m an Organizing Junkie for more meal planning inspiration.

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  1. I hope you don’t mind a little bit of self-promotion on here. I wrote an article a couple months ago on associated content about how to use “food storage” (what you refer to as a frugal pantry) to save money on food. I haven’t been quite as good as you have, but since I don’t coupon, I think I do reasonably well.

    The article is at:

    A couple months ago, I ran into someone I knew while I was at the grocery store, and she gave me a funny look when she saw that I had about 10 boxes of pasta in my cart. Now, this lady knew that at that time, my daughter was just barely starting on solid foods, and other than that, it’s just my husband and I. I ended up explaining to her that pasta was 75 cents that day, and it had been $1.29 for the previous two months, and at least a 99 cents every time I’d been there for the previous year.
    (side note: we live in a place where cost-of-living is a bit on the high side, and my husband lived in italy for a couple years and is *very* picky about his pasta… a different brand, or even a different part of the country, this might not have been as exciting of a find)

    Anyway, I’m glad that you are encouraging people to use a frugal pantry as I’ve found it to be the easiest way to keep my costs down.

  2. I am with you! I am going to eat what we have in the pantry and then re-build a healthy frugal pantry. Also on my 2011 goals list: Attempt to freezer cook! I love the fresh start the new year brings for me!

  3. I am in “kinda” LOL

    I say kinda because like Mother Hubbard, my cupboards are nearly bare, however I am definately on board for the build a better pantry, bake more/eat more from scratch and I would also like to throw in “not eating out as much” at least for us.
    I just had a conversation a week ago with my closest gal pal and said ya know I have really laxed on the couponin and penny pinching and with New Year’s right around the corner its time to get back on track. She agreed and passed the word and so a few of our friends will be getting together to do couponing together and hopefully save save save!!

  4. Every January and February, I work on living off my stockpile and only buy persishables – fruits, veggies, milk, bread and try to limit myself to $50 a week.

    The hardest part is being in a food rut and afraid to try new dishes – and a picky DH.
    Glad to know I’m not the only one who choose Jan/Feb for this challenge.

  5. Can’t wait to start! I did this with you last year and it as such an eye opener for me and my family. 2011 Pantry Challenge here we come!!

  6. I will be joining too. I have set a goal of spending no more than $50 a week for groceries until February 15th. I am hoping I’ll spend less than that weekly because we are VERY stocked up.

  7. I just cleaned out my pantry, so this would be great for me! I have some stuff that really needs to be used up.

  8. I’m on board too. I just moved to a new place with a MUCH smaller kitchen – and need to pare down on the pantry! I’ll go for 50 dollars per week on groceries and try to incorporate what I have on hand.


  9. Ill be joining as well, but my freezer is almost empty and my cupboards are close to bare. Im trying really hard not to spend any money this first week, though Im definitely tempted. Im most excited about refilling my stockpile with better, healthier foods and baking more for my boys’ snacks. My food/household items budget is set at $75/week for a family of 5.

  10. I’m in – I’ve been thinking that I need to use up my pantry so this is right up my ally. I used up most of my freezer meals so I’m thinking that I’ll use most of my pantry stockpile for to re-stock my freezer. I bought my husband a new cookbook for Christmas (now if I can only get HIM to use it) and there were some yummy casseroles I was wanting to try. Thanks for hosting!

  11. Seems to be a never ending challenge in my house 🙂 I’m in … this being said AFTER I went to get milk, bread and salad stuff and walked out with a receipt showing $96 spent. My pantry is busting as are the freezers … I need to be accountable! I do not have a goal as to what to spend, just buy as little as necessary and make room in freezers and pantry … seriously 🙂 no ice cream and NO room for any.

  12. I’m hoping to clear up the freezer a bit. We just defrosted last January, so we don’t need to remove a layer of ice at least, but I am feeling like there might be some stuff out of rotation and I would like to find it and use it.

  13. We’re definitely working through our pantry and freezer!!! We have a TON of frozen zucchini and other produce from our garden. Gotta start clearing some of it out!

  14. I’ve been planning for our January cleanse of the freezer and pantry for the past month. Can’t wait!

    In order to not go to the store, I decided to give our CSA a chance this month – $35/wk for fresh, organic, local produce delivered to our door. Plus we got to choose our box, so I know we’ll eat it all. Though it was more than I would typically spend on produce, it will be the only expense we have each week for food. YIPPEE!

    Thanks for the challenge!

  15. I did this last year with you. This year we are in northern minnesota with hardly any kitchen or cupboards. I can not stock up like a like. Extra salsa I bought on sale this week is stored on shelf in refidgerator. extra cans on bit of shelf near microwave. Can not wait till we move next fall to bigger apartment. I agree stocking pantry when sales are good is the only way to go.

  16. I too am doing a no spend month. I am excited to see how much money we save. I look forward to reading your progress.

  17. I’m planning on a no spend month in Feb. I look forward to reading your updates and results!

  18. Love the link for the USDA guidelines – what an eye opener! I suppose I should be spending a lot more than what I do! Family of 6 – I barely spend $60 every 2 weeks! It makes me feel like I’m doing OK. I’m all for cleaning out the pantry – at least the frozen and canned vegetables/fruits that I’ll replace this summer/fall. Thanks for all your motivation Jessica! Great Job!

  19. Good idea, I already made my meal plan for most of the month see here:

    but my in-laws sent us like $200 worth of Omaha Steaks that we need to eat/ get rid of. We avoid non-grass fed beef so I need to find a good way to use it up and free up some room in my freezer!

  20. Ha! We do spend what a family of 2 “should” on the thrifty plan, and we DO eat like kings!
    But we will, blogfree and all, be working on a moderated version of this pantry clean out. Yesterday we found some food that expired in 2008… guess we don’t need to buy any more of that.

  21. I’m in! Here are the details I worked out for our family. I’ll post them on the front of the fridge.

    January 2011 is Eat From the Pantry Month


    Focus on creating meals from what I have in the fridge, freezers, pantry and food storage

    Pick up groceries focused on fresh product and dairy

    Pick up single item groceries that complete a meal or a dish

    Use unspent grocery money to start a fund for some bulk food purchases in the spring

    Print the coupon on the Joseph’s website every Wednesday and carry it in my grocery envelope.

    Determine a budget for the month


    Clean out things that need to be eaten

    Replace with better food

    Save some money for a bulk food purchase

    Develop creativity in using what is on hand

    Cultivate a grateful heart for what I’ve already been given

  22. I’m in – will be buying fresh produce and dairy but otherwise I’m sticking with what’s on hand – which is too much!

  23. I’m in too. My freezer is in dire need of a cleanout! I did this last year and spent under $50 in the month of January on produce and dairy for my family of 3. This year, my doctor has put me on a specific diet for regulating my hormone levels, so I am increasing my budget to $100 to allow for that. I am really hoping I can keep it at the $50 level though. We’ll see!

  24. I was just talking about doing this with my Husband yesterday! I thought I wasn’t doing too bad on groceries last month then the credit card bill came, I spent double what I thought I had. So I’m all in, well except I still plan to purchase coupon stuff. Since we’re gluten-free, stuff doesn’t go on sale as often as the gluten filled stuff! I just plan to use what is already in there for the month, saving the new stuff.

  25. I need to work on a doable food budget. I know some areas that I need to work on (like going grocery shopping ONCE a week and stop making a trip here and there—-BOY, do they add up!).

    I was wondering how others view their “grocery budget.” Is it a straight food budget or does it include other stuff you buy while out grocery shopping like toiletries, cleaning products, napkins, ect…. Do you have a separate category in your budget for this?

  26. I’m in for using up odds and ends–we are moving by the end of March, so I need to empty our deep freeze completely by then! I’ll be planning meals around what we have and only buying what we need to complete entrees or round out meals. I’ll still pick up any non-perishables that are fabulous deals, since those can be packed up and moved with us.

  27. I’m in! We started last night by cooking up a whole chicken that had been living in our freezer since last summer. Tonight we scrounged up the fixings for our own version of Chipotle’s burrito bowl and loved it!
    Thank you for the encouragement and inspiration. I am so excited to start freezer cooking after completing the pantry challenge!

  28. I am so in on this challenge. It is new for me. I have a family of 8 and I usually try to spend under $150 a week. I have chicken and ground beef in the freezer all ready. My pantry needs help though, so I will by what is on sale to stock up this month. I am so excited! I just clipped all my coupons and organized them, they are ready and waiting!

  29. That sounds like a good plan!!! I feel like my pantry and freezer is overflowing….the fridge is kind of empty though!!! I like to eat fresh food though…..

  30. I think the “liberal” plan is $2000 if you did not buy your food in bulk or whats on sale but rather focussed on local, msg and high fructose corn syrup free, and organic foods.
    If you shopped at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.
    Then a family of 8 would easily spend $2000 a month on food.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      I’m sure you’re right. But, I don’t know that it would even have to be local, organic, or a special store. I think if I didn’t menu plan or I just bought what I wanted from the regular grocery store, I could have that kind of bill.

  31. I’m interested in your Quinoa pilaf recipe. I really want to find some more ways to use quinoa and I am having a hard time finding much variety.

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