A Grocery-Shopping Hiatus: How Long Can You Eat from the Pantry?

The following post is from contributing author Laurel Gray.

I have a confession to make. I am a food hoarder. I love to cook, and I try out new recipes almost every day. In the process, I accumulate a lot of food.

To give you an idea of what my pantry looks like, right now I have three kinds of tapioca pearls, six types of dried beans, four kinds of flour, and various partly used bags of barley, quinoa, red lentils, mung beans, dried shitakes, bulgur wheat, and so on. I have stockpiles of canned goods, and over 50 spices.

Taking Back the Pantry

I think it’s time for a shopping hiatus. I recently read an article about a couple trying to go one month without shopping—and I am inspired to give it a shot myself.

According to ConsumerReports.org, the average family of four spends $500 a month on groceries. I don’t know if I can last a whole month, but I intend to whittle down my stores significantly, and lower (or eliminate!) my monthly grocery bill in the process.

There are many good reasons to skip the grocery store run for a while:

  • To free up money in your monthly budget to pay down debt or to handle an unexpected expense such as a car repair.
  • To survive a period of unemployment or underemployment
  • To reduce pantry clutter and use up supplies before they expire
  • To combat food inflation

Take the Challenge

Starting today, I am going on my own shopping hiatus to see how long I can last without going to the supermarket. Frugal Dad has decided to take up the gauntlet starting March 1.

If you are considering and attack on your own pantry, here are some ground rules to follow:

  • Take Inventory—Take a moment to sort through your food stores, unearth buried items in cupboards, and identify the contents of those mystery packages in the freezer. Discard any items that are unusable or spoiled.
  • Research—Using a list of the items you have on hand, hit the internet or scan your cookbook indices for recipes that call for the items you have available.
  • Plan ahead—Make a list of dishes that you can prepare using ingredients on hand. Prepare food on weekends so you won’t be tempted to stop by the store after work when you lack motivation.
  • Improvise—Make creative substitutions in recipes to use up the supplies you have on hand.
  • Shun Dominos—Don’t succumb to expensive delivery or take-out meals in order to supplement your restricted diet. This will defeat your thrifty goals, and thwart your efforts at de-cluttering.
  • If All Else Fails—Make Soup! Soup is a great way to use of a hodgepodge of ingredients such as pasta, dried beans, canned vegetables, and dried legumes and grains.

I’ll be reporting back with details of my effort to use up my languishing pantry products. I hope you will be inspired to join me in the shopping hiatus challenge and share your stories. So…Tapioca Soup, anyone?

Comments

  1. I think we could easily go a few months from our deep pantry, also depending if our produce garden is in season. Minor quibble with the last bullet point on the first set, combat food inflation by not shopping for a month. Given the current rate of increase in food prices, it’s shopping ahead that gives a time advantage. The frozen veggies bought today may cost more 3 months down the road.

    • I probably won’t use this strategy on my main staples, but will use it to clean out the unnecessary things I’ve bought over the last few months to make room in the pantry for more “stockpile” items.

      Most of us have things in the back of the pantry bought on a whim (a quick look in my pantry reflects some nearly expired Jambalaya mix, ravioli, and a variety of soups nearing expiration.

      We could eat from these items and supplement with salads and fresh product for a period of time, then restock the pantry space with things I believe will be more expensive in the future (rice, corn, and other staples).

  2. I am in the process of moving to another state and will be living in a “Tiny House” while we build a new house ourselves again. So finishing up as much of my pantry and freezer right now is a necessity! I am doing a LOT of baking amidst the packing and am putting together gift baskets for my neighbors with fresh baked goodies and jellies or apple butter to go along to use up my preserves I have left over from summer. I have also made some pretty crazy stuff in my crock pot! As we get a side of bison every year, I have been making lots of stews. The struggle has been to finish it all so we have no leftovers.

  3. Was knowing you got a perfect score on the easiest part of the SATs intended enhance this article in some way?

    This plan doesn’t include buying any fresh staples like milk and produce? Also, not that I’m advocating “hoarding” food, but I’m not sure how clearing out your pantry combats inflation. If the cost of food is rising, the longer you wait to buy more, the more you will have to pay.

      • Agree. What’s in your cupboard is worth more now than when you bought it.
        Another thing to remember is that in most cases, the date stamped on a can etc, is actually a “best used by” date, and not an expiration date.

  4. If it were just me…. I am sure I could go a year on what’s stored here – freezer, canning, bulk staples. (Recently Moving my full canning jars was a major undertaking! ) But, with grandkids eating here regularly, I need the fresh milk, fresh fruits, and a few fresh veggies til the garden comes in again, cuz they will tire of kales and swiss chard, which are my only greens growing at the moment.

    But – having just moved, the grands are helping me clear the pantry of surpluses…. I put together a list of a dozen things that need eaten, and they get to pick what we will have. Some is new to them, but they are enjoying the variety also :) and the choosing…. In the past, when I found that cans, jars, or mixes are getting older, I will place a dozen items on the counter…. meaning those are to be used – somehow – in the next week or two. As they sit out on the counter til they are gone, it is a constant reminder to use them up!

  5. I virtually do not grocery shop unless items are on sale and a great deal. We just continue to eat from the pantry and our freezer. I don’t have unlimited amount of space so this seems to work well. I do the same for non-food items like clothes soap, toliet paper, shampoos, etc.

  6. The key thing here is about using up what you have in the pantry in a timely fashion, so that stuff does not expire or go bad (or get infested!). We know folks who buy on sale, forget about what they have and then end up tossing it. That defeats the purpose.

    We shop in bulk for some food items (canned, bottled) when on sale, as available. That means some months our food spending is higher than others when we are either restocking or sale buying.

    As others noted, even when using frozen foods (we have very limited freezer space), we need to do weekly (or twice a week) shopping for fresh vegetables and some oerishable items.

    Also, I don’t want to eat dishes made JUST with staples. Need FRESH foods, too. Eggs, milk, veggies, fruit.

    Shopping once a month? How can that be possible with ANY fresh foods, which don’t last more than a few days, at best (Even onions and potatoes seem to go bad in a few days.)?

    One of the biggest issues in this country is eating healthy. That means FRESH food for the most part. We live in a city apartment. We would KILL to have a garden at any time and have fresh veggies. The nearest we get is the weekly farmers markets at certain times of the year. Not cheap, but oh, the difference in taste.

    We could easily go vegetarian if that type of fruit, veggies were available all year.

    Healthy is more important than cheap per se. Especially given the costs of disease, etc. that can come from poor nutrition, eating junk food, etc.

  7. It’s funny that the topic of using food before it expires is brought up here. Now, if it’s in the refrigerator, it’s easier to monitor for me. I seem to know in my mind when I bought things and when they’ll expire. If it’s past the date, I pitch it. Not everyone agrees, but that’s what I do. Erring on the side of caution makes sense, as saving a little money isn’t worth one’s health.

    When food is in the pantry, I find it easier to forget about expiration dates until it’s too late. Now, my policy remains the same: past the date, it’s gone. However, there’s more risk when it comes to stuff in the pantry, at least for me. For example, I just looked through the pantry this weekend, and discovered a bag of black beans that I had purchased last year. Expiration date: 2 months ago. I just forgot about this bag, and never really thought to follow up on the date. Needless to say, I pitched it right away.

    I too have started to enjoy some of the things you mention: quinoa, mung beans, etc. The thing is, we have to remember that they don’t last forever.

    • Odds are that bag of black beans, and most other things past expiration (if dried or canned) are ok to eat. I have a plastic tub of pinto beans going on 3 years now – just as good as the day they went into the sealed tub. I take them out as needed, rinse, any floaters get tossed, any rocks get tossed, and as long as bugs haven’t gotten into them, they are fine.

      The natives would store corn and grain in reed baskets for a couple years at a time in their emergency locations – the food was still nutritious years later.

      Odds are you could take those beans, soak them, and they would germinate – that would prove that they were still good :)

      But, everyone has their own idea on the subject, I know.

  8. Don’t forget about making soup stock. Those meat packages which are freezer burned probably won’t saute well, but you can always roast the meat and then put it in a large pot of water. I roast old steaks, ground beef, etc. for one hour at 400 then dump into a large pot with carrots, onions and celery, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf. Cover with water and simmer for six hours. Strain and refrigerate overnight. Remove fat and reduce by half. Great stock for soups and stews.

  9. We could probably last awhile on all of the random items in our pantry, and it would be fun trying to make up new concoctions in order to combine all of the ingredients on hand. But we’d still need to hit the store for staples like milk, eggs, and fresh fruits and veggies.

  10. Are you going to omit fresh veggies and dairy this month then?

    I am a food hoarder too. My deep pantry isn’t big enough and dry goods tend to get stored all over the house. I read your post and thought, “what only 4 kinds of flour?” I love to cook too, and anjoy being creative for my family… foods from around the world all month long, though I linger in Italian foods the most.

    Only $500/month for groceries for a family of 4? Is that because they eat out a lot? Or because they eat cheap crap?

    My family food budget is closer to $900 CDN for our 4 mouths. And we don’t eat steak and lobster either! There is a lot of vegetarian dinners and ground beef meals in my menu choices.

    I think it may be time for a pantry challenge myself… off to the freezer to make a menu plan!

    • Here in Costa Rica, we use the UHT boxed milk, which I buy in bulk so I have plenty of that on hand. I will continue to supplement the pantry with fresh produce, while whittling away at the pantry. Let us know how your attempt turns out!

    • pol,
      Keep in mind those are US$ and if you’ve ever checked out an American couponing site you’ll make yourself nuts trying to replicate the cheap prices or virtually free food they seem to be able to get. Since we don’t have double coupons (or many coupons on anything healthy), no grocery store memberships that get you deals (not counting Costco, but regular grocery stores), we don’t CVS here (not sure when a drugstore name became a verb, but you get the point).
      In a country with a much shorter growing season and long winters of imported produce, and higher taxes on the processed goods (13% here in Ontario) I agree it would be fairly difficult to keep to $500. I can only see managing it if 2 of the four are small children, you have a garden to suppliment, and you do basically all scratch cooking.
      Our gang of 4 includes a teenaged boy which means $500/mth isn’t remotely possible at this stage. At our local store milk is $4.39/ 3 litres. We go through 9 litres a week (that’s over $52/month on the milk alone). I used to budget $200/wk but now I’ve got it down to $180/wk and think I’m a star. We almost never eat out so that is our total food comsumption, but it’s still a lot of money.

      All that to say, cut yourself a break and don’t freak out when you hear US grocery budgets mentioned!

  11. Just have to add one more thought. I have found online sites that offer pantry cooking recipes. They are really good and almost always I have everything! I have found that quite a few of the Italian pasta and soup recipes require nothing more than getting in my pantry. Really like that on cold, blustery, rainy days.

  12. I see the financial benefit of what your article discusses, definitely see the benefit. If I may play devil’s advocate — I/we consider a deeper pantry of more immediate value. That said — in addition to following your blog we also read a lot of survival blogs too (James Wesley Rawles is a good one) and they’re always pretty big into laying in supplies just in case, and we follow this idea in general so we won’t be going on hiatus with our food supplies. (ie: think hurricane, earthquake, EMP, meteor strike, riot, marshall law, terrorist attack, dollar devaluation, hyperinflation, etc.) Anyway, I think my comment is a bit off topic from what your article is about, but thought I’d throw in my two cents. Keep the articles coming :-)

  13. I have taken a pantry challenge in the past and do plan to do another one again in a few months. When I did this last year, I went about 6 weeks without a major grocery trip. I did still buy milk and fresh produce, but otherwise used what was in my pantry & freezer. I’m single and not a big cook (although that’s slowly changing) so I was really surprised I could go that long.

  14. I can’t imagine going even a week without buying fresh produce, dairy, & seafood (unless we were in dire circumstances, but we’re not). But a variation that would make more sense to me would be to pull everything out of the cupboard and use some of those obscure or forgotten items in the back before they expire!

  15. Thanks for highlighting our site and our challenge. We are moving (hopefully) into a new house soon so we are trying to get rid of all the stuff we never used rather than lugging it around and then not using it again. It is amazing how passionate people are about the subject. I think at least three people have questioned whether our whole wheat actually went bad. (Mrs. BP claims it did, so I will have to believe her). In short, it is really great that people get into it. We are definitely excited that we are saving money on it and we are going to donate 1/3 of any savings to a food shelter or other related charity, so as long as we don’t get scurvy (which hopefully the multi-vitamin will keep away, lol) it should be good for all involved. Thanks again!

  16. I know it is against the grain but we do this between every grocery shop. I plan as many meals as I can and then before I go back I make sure I’ve used up any and everything possible that will make a meal. I save a lot doing this. Of course I don’t keep a stocked pantry, but it hasn’t backfired on me yet. I have a family of 4 and spend $200 a Month for Groceries, and yes, we are all well fed.

  17. I don’t really stockpile at all. I spend $400 a month on food. That is for all household stuff (like the vinegar I use for cleaning, etc.) That is for 1 adult (me) and 2 growing boys ages 13 and 7 (they can eat so much.)
    I manage to buy lots of organic stuff with that. I cook alot from scratch, so that helps.
    I buy organic grains and grind them myself to make breads, cakes, cookies, etc.
    I try to food shop 1-2 times a month. But since I do like fresh salad sometimes I do run in to get that.
    I do not buy any junk (except tortilla chips and salsa, I haven’t been able to make ones I like as much as tostito brand.)
    We only drink water. I occasionally will make fresh oj. I do buy oraganic milk for the kids (but they don’t really drink too much milk.)
    I find meal planning to be the best money saver. Also we do not eat meat with every meal. That cuts down on cost.
    My house is very tiny, so that is the main reason we do not stockpile.
    Plus I think sometimes stockpile stuff ends up in garbage before it can be eaten.
    I really enjoy reading your blog and all your tips!

  18. Cute article. :)
    Your pantry sounds familiar! Yep, we definitely have an overstocked pantry/freezer at the moment. We decided in January to start trying to clear it out, but it is slow going. Beans, pasta, etc. we could eat from for a long time, and we still have a decent number of meats in the freezer, but we do supplement with grocery shopping for fresh veggies (or frozen veggies if they are on sale).

  19. Ooh . . . i did this once! And man, I gotta tell ya, I really missed Orange Juice. And fresh fruit. But I did it. I went 32 days with only buying one gallon of milk half way through . . .

    Oh, man . . . OJ. I missed my morning OJ! ;-)

  20. We don’t have much space and although I have groceries delivered once a week, I still go to the shops at least 2 times a week to buy fresh groceries, milk etc.
    I live in the centre of our city, so it’s only 5 minutes on my bike.
    I know I could do much better, but I find it difficult to plan my meals. There are 5 of us, and often my husband and my son let me know last minute they won’t eat at home. So I only plan 2 days ahead. I do have a bit of stock, but with only 1 cupboard and a small freezer it’s difficult. Maybe when the children live on their own…

  21. Oh my god, I’m so your people. I have four boxes of pasta (bought for 10c each after coupon), many cans of tuna, three kinds of dried beans PLUS dried peas, a variety of other grains, and 5 cans of tomatoes… and that’s not counting the grab-and-go items I cooked to keep in the freezer for those “I don’t feel like making my lunch” days. I’m in. Starting today for one month. May have to buy a couple of items between now and then (fruit, for example) but I so need to do this.

  22. To: Sarah R.

    Please be my bf…I can’t find one like minded person within 35 miles of me. Trust me…we could really brainstorm this stuff!

    Best to you.

  23. After reviewing our Quicken for the year thus far, we made some startling realizations – we spend way too much – over $800 on eating out alone for this year. We have been planning our “No Spend March” for about a month now. We are committed to spending “NOTHING” outside of our regular bills, with the exception of $50.00 set aside for literally “bread and milk”. No shopping, no home improvement projects…I wish you great success in your endeavor. I think it is a great way to get back on track with spending and reclaim some fun, family time as well.

  24. Even allowing for buying milk, eggs, and certain fresh produce once or twice during the month, I think this is an extremely worthwhile effort. I do not have a car, and live in a city where it’s VERY difficult to grocery shop without one (public transportation here is not very user-friendly), so I can only do a couple of grocery shops a month. I just went almost four weeks without stepping foot into a grocery store, and between my cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer, I was able to eat VERY well. I could go another week or two, but my dog is almost out of food!.

  25. Nothing to do with the pantry thing, although I think it’s a great idea, I’ve never met another person who got a perfect verbal score on the SAT. Dang, I thought I was unique. :-)

  26. My daughter is in school with a boy who got a perfect score on all three parts of the SAT: math, reading and the new writing section. Happens several times a year. Still very impressive.

  27. Having a well stocked pantry can take a little time to build. However, it can really save you when things get tough. It’s useful not only for those financially lean times but also handy when you’re too sick to leave the house, when the weather’s bad, car in the shop, etc. No one ever said, ‘Ya know, I wish we had been less prepared.’

  28. I diligently shop the sales ads of all the major stores in my town, and use coupons for items already on sale and only for items we already use. Then I buy what I don’t find on sale at a discount store, like Aldi, where prices are way less than at major grocery stores.

    From the holidays on through the Superbowl, the sales are pretty good, then they tend to fall off, so we stock up when sales are good and eat out of the pantry and freezer until the sales pick up again.

    We mostly buy frozen fruits/vegs when they are on sale so we don’t need to make in-between trips for fresh, which is usually dismal in winter anyway. As for the milk, no one in my family likes it, so we literally go months without having it in the house.

    The bottom line is, every family is different and needs to figure out what works best for them. We average about $400 a month for 2 adults and 2 teens, but I spend time coordinating the ads and coupons, as well as shopping 4 stores every trip. It works for me because I have more time than money to devote to my household’s meals.

  29. It seems rather narcissistic to hoard food like this. It makes more sense to buy what is needed instead of stockpiling food for some apocalyptic event. It not only costs money to purchase food in bulk, but it costs money, time, energy, and space in order to store all of that food. Most of this hoarded food is going to end up going to waste. I would rather buy a new bag of beans than go digging some old bag out of the cupboard and trying to cook it up 2 days before the expiration date.

    I think that anyone who has an excess of food is just as greedy as any hedge fund manager who makes millions of dollars in bonuses by investing other people’s money. Greed is greed, plain and simple. It would be wise and considerate to just donate any excess food at the end of the month. There are people suffering and hurting, but people only seem concerned with how much they can acquire. Only in America can someone justify being greedy as being frugal. SMH!

    • Yadgyu:
      Really? Planning ahead is hoarding, eating what you purchase is greedy? I do agree that to hoard and then waste would be a sin, and if you are close to expiration, then donation is preferable to trashing.
      But that’s not what people are talking about here (I don’t think). They are saving for a rainy day, buying when things are cheap or when money is plentiful, saving them for when the situation is the opposite – just as we all should be doing with our retirement and college funds. Or maybe that is being greedy too?

    • I would say that it’s narcissistic to believe that you’ll somehow be provided with food and supplies, along with all the other people who don’t prepare, in the middle of an emergency. I seem to remember a story about ants and a grasshopper.

      Obviously, there’s no need to prep and store foods for some apocalyptic event that will never happens, and no one should expect you to. After all, one never hears about disasters like nuclear explosions, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, floods. Pretty silly to prepare for things that never happen. Even sillier to store food against increasingly rare events like illness, injury or job loss.

      I’m sure all those people in Tokyo are really glad that they’re spending hours in lineups instead of eating from stored rice.

      We’re doing a pantry challenge right now, buying ONLY milk for the kids. I’m stunned by how much money we’ve put aside in just three weeks. We’re discovering exactly which foods we do eat and how much of them we eat. We’re realizing what we’re missing in our storage (chocolate!), what we should store more of (butter!), and what we should never buy again (canned peas and dried split peas).

  30. Kimberly–very impressed. We are doing well and starting to see daylight in the freezer, while also working away at the other pantry staples. Soup, pasta, and falafel are next in the line up, so we are not down to starvation rations just yet. Oh, and made fresh bread yesterday when the store-bought bread ran out!

  31. I am on my fourth week, but I did buy bread and milk….I had powdered milk but, bought milk instead. Time to rotate the old out. I probably can go another three to four weeks before needing any substantial purchase of food.

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