Every year around this time I go into total organization, budgeting, planning and goal-setting mode.
After the frenzy of the holidays, I’m more than ready to settle into a routine and get back on track with my spending, simplifying and health goals. I know I’m not alone when I say I overdid it again this year in every way. But that’s why God made January:)
One of the first things I love to get organized is my home food storage and meal planning. I am blessed to be able to maintain a pretty full larder stocked with both store-bought items and home-grown and preserved ones as well.
I regularly “shop from my pantry” and plan our family’s meals according to what we already have on hand. I then either make a meal work out of just what we have or add the fresh ingredients necessary to make something yummy out of it.
I rarely (if ever) buy all the ingredients I need to make a meal at once.
Tip # 1: Stock your pantry by shopping on sale and buying extra of the things you love and use
I try to shop on sale regularly and always keep a pretty fully stocked pantry, fridge and freezer. We do a lot of cooking at home and both my husband and I love to eat all sorts of food. From down-home cooking and greasy spoon type plates to exotic dishes and restaurant style meals, we love to experiment with food in the kitchen and make as much as possible from scratch.
My philosophy is to keep a lot of versatile ingredients on hand that can be made into many different dishes. I also try to only acquire and keep foods we actually use and consume, because duh! We want to actually enjoy our food! This also means doing our best to avoid processed foods and questionable additives and ingredients. Plus, it ain’t a deal if you don’t eat it.
Tip #2: Use up what you’ve got (especially leftovers and perishables)
I like to plan my meals around what I have to use up before it goes bad. So leftovers and other perishable items take priority when meal-planning. Then I build a meal from there by adding other ingredients I have on hand in my pantry. If I don’t have all of the ingredients I would normally use to make a dish, I first ask if I can do without or substitute something else I do have on hand. If not, then and only then will I go buy what I need from the store.
Usually we can get a couple weeks worth of meals without really having to buy anything else, except maybe some fresh produce and dairy products. I would estimate we could survive for at least a month on only what we currently have in the house, definitely longer if we really rationed. But we do go through fresh staples like milk, eggs, butter and fresh fruits and veggies quickly, so they get replaced as needed.
Tip #3: Choose something to start making at home instead of buying from the store
I’ve started baking all of our own bread now so I’ve knocked that off our grocery list! And we do grow lots of our own fruits and veggies in the spring through fall, but not nearly enough to put up for the year… yet.
Now, you don’t need to have an insane amount of food to get organized and shop from your own home pantry. I do, however, highly recommend looking for deals and dedicating a portion of your budget toward building up your pantry. Stock up on basic, staple ingredients like flour, sugar and fats & oils so that you can turn these into all sorts of different dishes that you can make from scratch.
Related: Easy, No-Knead, Homemade Bread
And definitely preserve your own food! Whether you grow and raise your own food or not, you can still shop local and in season and get top quality organic food for a great price and preserve it by freezing, canning and drying. You’ll never have to buy jam, pickles or frozen fruit again if you start putting these up yourself when they’re in season.
Related: One-Minute Homemade Mayo
Tip #4: Make do with what you’ve got
Even if all you’ve got to your name right now is a sack of rice and a few tins of soup, you can still apply the following principles to whatever you have to work with and simply supplement whatever you need. Get creative and find ways to incorporate the ingredients you have on hand.
As you make a habit out of planning your meals around what you have at home, you can add to your food supply by stocking up on basic ingredients and buying extra of the foods your family loves when they’re on sale or in season.
My 8-Step Plan to Help You Shop From Your Pantry Like a Pro
Without further adieu, here are the steps I personally take each new year to start saving money, wasting less, getting organized and eating good, homemade food all January (and year) long. Plus I’ve got some great free downloads to help you with your planning:) Read on my friend…
Step 1: Overhaul your pantry, fridge and freezer
First, take everything out of your pantry. Second, decide which items you will never use and put them in a box to go to the food bank (or toss them if they’re expired or otherwise not consumable). If you’re not sure whether you’ll eventually eat something, consider how long it’s already been in your pantry. If it’s more than a year, probably time to toss it.
Next, put everything back in an organized manner. Be sure to put foods with faster-approaching expiry dates in front of foods with longer ones. Otherwise, how you organize your pantry will depend on your own needs, style and space. I am lucky enough to have a walk-in pantry under our stairs where I can store tons of food. I organize mine into categories and sub-categories.
For example, on one side I have all of my dry goods, sweet condiments and treats organized into the following subcategories: dried fruit, nuts, seeds, cereals, spreads, baking ingredients, sweets and snacks. On the other side I have mostly sauces, condiments, spices and grains organized into the following subcategories: oils, vinegars, herbs & spices, Asian foods, Mexican and spicy foods, Mediterranean food, Italian-style sauces, pasta and rice and other grains.
Once your pantry is organized it will be much easier to see what you have and take an accurate inventory. If your pantry is deeper than it is wide or food is hard to see for any reason, you may want to do your pantry inventory as you put things back. Again, this depends on personal preference and needs.
I also like to store many of my bulk and dried goods in large glass containers so I can see what I have and how much of it I have at all times. I buy my storage containers from the dollar store for a buck or two a piece and just keep adding one or two to my collection every time I shop there. Mason jars work great too!
Once you’ve completely overhauled and organized your pantry, do the exact same to your fridge, and then your freezer. (I organize my fridge by putting all of my leftovers and most perishable items on the top shelf in plain view so they have a higher likelihood of being eaten).
Step 2: Write out a complete inventory
Go through everything in your pantry, fridge and freezer and mark every item on an inventory list so you know exactly what you have and how much. Check bottles to see how much is left in each one. Open boxes of cereal to determine whether you actually have a whole box or just a few crumbs hiding in the bottom. Count every onion in your cold storage and take note of all of the leftovers that need to be consumed before they perish. Prioritize which foods need to get used up before others. Leave no potato unturned!
You can download my free Pantry, Fridge and Freezer Inventory Templates by clicking the link and then finding them under the “Meal Planning” section of my resource library. I have created categorized templates for each one as well as blank templates for you to fill in as you wish.
There are 4 categories under each of the subsections on each inventory list: Item, Amount, Use First and Replace. I write the item (ie. white flour) and then I estimate how much I have left and fill in the amount. So I might estimate I have about 2 quarts of flour left, or half a bag. Or 1.25 large bottles of olive oil if I have one full one and another with a little bit left. That’s just the system that works for me and my brain.
After I write out my list, I decide if there’s anything I need to use up first. This mostly applies to items in my fridge that are perishable. I put one checkmark under “Use First” if it’s something I should use in the next few days or week and I put two checkmarks if it’s something that needs to be used right away (like the next day or two at the most).
Finally, I decide what needs to be replaced when I do finally hit the supermarket again. I put a checkmark under “Replace” for any item I’m running low on that I use a lot of and/or use frequently. This makes writing out a shopping list a breeze!
Step 3: Write a list of meals your family eats regularly
It’s funny how you can take a full inventory of all of the food you have and still not have any idea what to make with it. This is why I love to write out a list of all the meals we cook and eat regularly so that I can get some inspiration for using up the ingredients we have on hand.
Our list includes pasta, stir fry, rice bowls, sandwiches, soups, salads, tacos, “meat and potatoes,” breakfast foods and casseroles. Once we made this list it was much easier to plug in the ingredients we have to make these types of dishes. For example, this week we’re doing a turkey rice bowl, spaghetti squash lasagna, pasta with pantry ingredients from our “Mediterranean” section, bangers and mash and egg and potato hash.
Step 4: Write a list of meals you can make using the ingredients you have on hand
If you have completed the other steps until now, this part should be pretty easy. What do you have on your pantry, fridge and freezer lists that can be made into dishes your family loves to eat regularly?
If you have a lot of turkey leftover from Christmas, for example, try substituting it for chicken in a dish that you usually use chicken in. Or use the bones to make bone broth and use that as a base to create a soup with other ingredients you have to use up. Or make turkey tacos. Or turkey shepherd’s pie with leftover gravy, veggies and mashed potatoes.
Got some pasta and some sauce? Throw in any meat or veggies you have and make it a meal. Or bake it with cheese and make some super easy and frugal homemade bread to go with it. Or just eat the pasta and the sauce if that’s what it comes down to (at least throw in some of your own herbs and spices).
Step 5: Write out a weekly meal plan
Once you’ve got a list of meals you can make, plan out your meals for the next week by plugging them into the different days of the week. I like to assign simpler meals like pasta and stir fries to weeknights when life is busier and keep meals that require longer cook times and/or more prep work for the weekends. I also plan which days I will bake breads and prepare foods for future use.
Write out all of your meals for the next week and plan to do so again the following week with whatever’s left. Plan leftovers for most lunches (if possible) and don’t waste a crumb!
For more help getting organized, you can find my Weekly Meal Planning Template under the “Meal Planning” section of my resource library.
Step 6: Buy only what you need
Do your best to use up what you have on hand and get creative with your ingredients. Omit ingredients that aren’t necessary or find clever substitutes on your inventory lists. Only replace what you can’t live without (for us that’s things like eggs, cream for coffee and butter… We eat a lot of butter around here).
We also replace some fresh produce items like bananas, lettuce and other in-season fruits so that we’re sure to incorporate the nutrients from these items in our daily meals. But we try to use up the produce we already have first so that nothing goes to waste.
Step 7: Create a running shopping list and keep an eye out for deals
As you go through your inventory lists, put a checkmark under the “Replace” column for each item that is running low, out-of-stock or otherwise needs to be replaced soon. Then write out all of those items on one big running shopping list.
I like the idea of using a white board in our kitchen like I’ve seen many cooks do in restaurants I’ve worked in. Items get added to and erased from the whiteboard as they get used up and replaced. It’s super functional and having it up on the wall makes it visible and accessible to use on a regular basis.
Keep your eye out for deals on the items you need. Check flyers. I use Flipp, a flyer app you can download to your smart device, to search for sales on the things I need.
As you find deals, write down the sale price next to the item as well as the store where it is on sale. Do this for all of the items you need that you can find sale prices on.
For items that you know you’re going to have to pay regular price for, decide what store you think will have the best deal and put those items on your shopping list for that store with an estimated price instead of a sale price. For example, I buy my milk and cream at Costco because their regular price is better than the other supermarkets around here. But I buy my cheese elsewhere because I don’t need as much of it and can get a smaller amount for much less money somewhere else.
You can download my free Smart Shopping List here from the “Meal Planning” section of my resource library.
Step 8: Stock up and cut down your grocery bill as you are able to
Build up that pantry! Set a little money aside each month to buy a little extra of the foods your family loves most when they’re on sale. Buy in bulk to save money. Stock basic and versatile ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, spices, rice, oatmeal, oils, etc. that can be made into or used in many different meals. Stock up on fresh produce when it’s in season and preserve it for later use by freezing, canning or drying it.
Cut down your regular grocery bill by choosing at least one thing to stop buying and start making at home. My resolution this year is to bake all of our own bread, so I’ve eliminated that from our shopping list. And consider growing some of your own food to eat and preserve (if you don’t already). Start planning your spring garden now! If nothing else, looking at seed catalogues is a welcome respite from the bleakness of winter in January.
And last but not least, budget, budget, budget. Decide on a comfortable weekly or monthly budget for food items and plan your meals to fit within that budget by making use of ingredients you already have at home. Soon enough January will be over and you’ll be able to afford a nice dinner out with all of that money you’ve saved! And that’s why God made Valentine’s Day;)