Are You Ready to Take the Pantry Challenge?

Pantry Challenge-
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Thu, Oct 6, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

by Kevin Gibbons & Melissa Tosetti

Ask any small businesswoman and she will tell you one of the most important factors in managing a business is inventory control. Unsold inventory is captive money locked up on her shelf. Just like that businesswoman's warehouse, or back room, unused food in your kitchen pantry is your money held prisoner. Take a look at your kitchen pantry. Do you have cans of soup, bags or boxes of pasta and rice, or the stray jar of olives that have been there for longer than you can remember? The Savvy Life issues this challenge to you: Once every three months, at the end of each season, commit to living out of your pantry. Except for fresh consumables like milk, pledge to prepare all of your meals using the ingredients you already have, until you have used up all of the food in your pantry.

Why do we ask you to do this exercise? There are several benefits to periodically "cleaning house" in this fashion. The most expensive food it the food we throw away. By cleaning out your pantry every three months, you ensure that your canned and dried goods are used before they spoil. Last year, my sister and brother-in-law bought my mother a new refrigerator for Christmas. When they went to clean out her old refrigerator, they found many food items that were well past their expiration date. On a hunch, they looked in her pantry next. My mother is a child of the Great Depression and has always viewed her pantry as a sort of "emergency food stash." My sister won the prize for finding the oldest item - a bottle of salad dressing from 1987! When they were done, they had thrown away over five 20-gallon garbage bags of food, probably representing a shopping investment of well over $2,000!

By taking the Pantry Challenge at the end of each season, you spare yourself from picking over the tail end of the fresh produce in the grocery store. At the end of winter, the potatoes and root vegetables are coming to the end of their season and the legumes and other spring vegetables are not yet to market. You either end up buying inferior produce or paying a higher price for goods imported from halfway around the world. Why not use this time to clean out your cupboards and prepare for the new season instead?

Committing to living out of your pantry until you have used up all the contents gives you a chance to review your buying habits. If you get to the bottom of your cupboard and just cannot figure out what to do with that box of dried lentils, then throw it away or donate it to a food bank and never buy it again! If you used up the fettuccine pasta right away, but it took you two weeks to use the manicotti, then make a note and buy more fettuccine when you restock.

Sometimes, we need a little push to stretch our cooking wings. Forcing yourself to get creative and think outside of the dry goods box is a great way to develop new skills and expand your repertoire. Take this opportunity to learn how to use canned soup as a sauce base, to use crushed dried crackers as a substitute for flavored breadcrumbs. Many recipe websites let you search for recipes based on ingredients. Take some chances and experiment!

Finally, emptying your shelves every three months gives you the perfect opportunity to wipe them down and clean them. This will eliminate pantry pests like weevils and silverfish, and help make your kitchen and more inviting place for you to want to cook. Use a good mild disinfectant cleaning solution like diluted bleach or white vinegar.

So, to summarize:

  1. Every three months, at the end of each season, challenge yourself to eat only out of your pantry until it is empty, buying only fresh items like milk.
  2. Anything you cannot use, throw away or donate - don't buy again.
  3. Take note of the most "popular" items you use in your pantry and preferentially restock those items
  4. Be creative in using your stock. Try new recipes or create your own.
  5. Take the opportunity to clean the pantry as you empty the shelves.

So far, the record for living out of a pantry reported by The Savvy Life readers is 2 ½ months! Tell us your story, what recipes you invented and how long your pantry stash lasted in the comments below.

Kevin Gibbons & Melissa Tosetti are the authors of the book " Living the Savvy Life " and founders of TheSavvyLife.com .