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The Surprisingly Fun No-Spend Pantry Challenge That Seriously Cuts Down My Family’s Grocery Bill

published Mar 1, 2023
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Someone looking into kitchen pantry.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

I’m embarrassed to admit this — especially in this economy, where most people are seeking out ways to save money on groceries rather than spend — but I’m someone who usually has an overabundance of food in my home. With a family of four to feed and meal plans that don’t always come to fruition, I often end up with overcrowded shelves.

But these days, with inflation and the rising cost of food, our grocery money doesn’t buy nearly as much as it used to. So now, more than ever, I have been extra-motivated to make a regular practice of something that our family has been doing for years. It’s my surprisingly fun way to cleanse my guilty conscience and out-of-control pantry, while saving money in the process!

Credit: Sarah Crowley

What is a No-Spend Pantry Cleanse?

At least once a year, when we feel like our family has reached a point where we shouldn’t go on ignoring our unused food, we’ll do a no-spend pantry cleanse challenge where we agree to stop buying groceries until we use up the food that is already in our fridge and pantry.

My husband and I came up with this idea one year while trying to figure out a way to afford a family zoo membership. At that time, the only wiggle room in our limited budget was our grocery spending. So, we decided to challenge ourselves and see how long we could go without buying groceries while using whatever money we saved to buy that zoo membership. After a month, we were amazed to see that we had saved almost $300, more than enough to buy the membership we had been vying for!

Credit: Ahanov Michael | Shutterstock

How to Do a No-Spend Pantry Cleanse Challenge

This is how we do our no-spend pantry challenge, but feel free to make any adjustments you need to make it work for you.

Take inventory of all the food you have in your house. 

Make a master food list and put everything in categories (veggies, grains, sauces, etc.). To conserve energy (and stay warm) while itemizing the food in your fridge and freezer, I recommend snapping a photo of their contents and referring to those snapshots to complete this list. Bonus points for those who also take this step as an opportunity to deep clean their fridge and pantry!

Create a menu of things you can make with these pantry items. 

I usually start with my family’s favorite go-to recipes to create the bulk of my menu, then try to include some new recipes to keep our meals from getting repetitive.

Update your inventory list throughout the challenge. 

Each time your family uses up one of your pantry items, cross them off your master inventory list. Continue this challenge until you use up everything in your pantry or there is nothing else that you can make unless you buy more food.

Decide if there are exceptions to the no-spend rule.

It helps to determine in advance what items you would still be allowed to purchase during the challenge. To make sure our family is still eating a nutritious diet during the challenge, we allow the purchase of milk, butter, and fresh vegetables and fruit (when we’ve run out of frozen).

Prepare to be like a Food Network “Chopped” contestant toward the end of the challenge. 

This is part of the fun of using up the last bits of food in your pantry. How will you piece together random leftover pantry ingredients like a puzzle to get a delectable meal on the table? Here’s a tip for the less creative cooks out there — make use of online recipe generators or apps that can give you a selection of recipes based on ingredients you enter.

Celebrate your savings. 

Remember that any money you’ve saved over any amount of time doing this no-spend pantry cleanse challenge is a win!