Pantry challenge is a method of saving money on food which is very popular with stay-at-home moms. Pantry challenge is a challenge to see how long you can go eating and cooking out of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer without taking a trip to the store. The idea behind pantry challenge is that we all have a tremendous number of ingredients that build up in our pantry, and which never get used, causing waste. It can be very helpful when you’re experiencing a cash flow problem, or if you’re needing to free up some money for another purpose, such as paying off debt. I’ve used this method many times over the last thirteen years when we were very low on funds, and I wasn’t earning an income from work. It has saved my life many times over.
Pantry challenge isn’t about doing without; it’s about using what we have more efficiently. It’s best not to try to attempt pantry challenge if your cupboard is nearly bare. If it is, stock up on groceries, taking care to buy what’s inexpensive and on sale. Focus on frugal basics like potatoes, onions, garlic, bananas, tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar, whole grain flour, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, pasta sauce, peanut butter, cooking oil, oatmeal, shortening, frozen vegetables, milk, yogurt, margarine and similar recipe ingredients. Buy the store brand and large package sizes whenever possible, if they’re less expensive than the other brands and sizes. Avoid convenience foods like microwave popcorn, TV dinners, boxed food, and small individually packaged items which tend to be expensive. When you’re sufficiently stocked with cost-effective necessities, you can start the challenge.
Doing pantry challenge successfully takes some cleverness and advance preparation. There are many online forums like Frugalmom.net that offer an opportunity for mothers who choose not to work out of the home to meet one another and give one another support and advice. There are also email groups such as one on Yahoo Groups which allows people to get together and exchange recipes, money saving tips, and compete to see who can be the most frugal.
One key to being successful at pantry challenge is ingredient substitutions. You have to know what to use when ingredients you need for recipes are missing. There are many excellent web resources on how to make substitutions, and I will address some of the most commonly substituted ingredients here.
This is one of the ingredients which we most frequently run out of. It also tends to be rather expensive, and if you do a lot of baking, you can save a lot of money by leaving the egg out of your recipes. The following are equivalent to one egg in a baking recipe.
2 T flour plus 1/2 T shortening plus 1/2 t baking powder plus 2 T water
2 T flax meal plus 1/8 t baking powder plus 3 T water
1 T corn starch plus 3 T water
1 1/2 t Ener-G egg replacer plus 2 T water
1/2 mashed banana plus 1/4 t baking powder
Baking powder is another thing we tend to run out of. These substitutions equal one teaspoon of baking powder.
1/4 t cornstarch plus 1/4 t baking soda plus 1/2 t cream of tartar
1/4 t baking soda plus 1/2 cup yogurt, buttermilk, or sour milk (omit 1/2 cup of liquid from recipe)
Substituting when you’re out of baking soda isn’t quite so easy. Baking powder contains acid to react with the baking soda, so if you’re baking a recipe which calls for acidic ingredients such as lemon, lime or orange juice, yogurt or buttermilk, you can simply switch to a non-acidic liquid ingredient and use the baking powder. Or you can try the following:
1/2 t potassium bicarbonate
In many cases I have run out of baking soda and have simply had the audacity to leave it out of the recipe altogether. This is especially effective when the recipe also calls for baking powder. Experimentation and trail and error will help you find the right combination of ingredients that will work in place of what the recipe called for.
Sometimes when we’re missing an ingredient, there is no viable substitute in the pantry. For example, I just looked on the back of my peanut butter jar, and it had a recipe for peanut butter cookies which called for peanut butter, shortening, brown sugar, milk, vanilla, egg, flour, salt and baking soda. I had everything except the sugar. In fact, at the moment I looked at this recipe I had almost no sugar left in the house. The closest thing I had was light pancake syrup, and since it’s liquid it would drastically change the texture of the recipe.
So in this case you would need to substitute the whole recipe. I did a quick search on “peanut butter cookies pancake syrup” on Google, and came up with a recipe on Allrecipes.com that would fit the bill. This recipe was titled Peanut Butter Chews, and called for:
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup white sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
4 1/2 cups corn flakes cereal
The author says it’s okay to substitute pancake syrup for the corn syrup. You’ll still need to do some substituting, since I can’t come up with a full cup of granular sugar. I replaced it with 3/4 cup light pancake syrup. Typically you should reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 T, but in this case there was no liquid to reduce.
My son got very excited about the cookie baking experiment, and insisted on helping. I cooked the first ingredients in the microwave, instead of on the stove as the recipe called for. I increased the corn flakes to seven cups to accommodate the extra liquid. The recipe called for wax paper. I didn’t have any, so I substituted parchment paper. We scooped the cookies onto the paper, which I had laid over cookie sheets, in small dollops. The result was a little goopy. I waited for it to set up.
After the recipe had set a while, it was a little firmer but still pretty messy and wet. My sons didn’t mind at all. On the contrary, they were overjoyed with the sticky, sloppy, sweet treats and demanded to have more prior to dinner. Of course, I put my foot down. I wrapped the chews individually in Hefty Baggies, which are cheap because they close with a twist tie rather than a zip lock. The next day they were quite firm and chewy and didn’t stick to the plastic at all.
Sometimes pre-made ingredients for recipes or meals can be made from scratch. Pantry challenge hinges on making homemade versions of commonly used products. I use these recipes which I created for many different things.
1 12 oz can tomato paste
2 1/2 cups water
2 T sugar
1 t salt
This kid-pleaser recipe will substitute very nicely for canned tomato soup, and will go in any recipe which calls for tomato soup. It’s also healthier than canned, pre-made tomato soup because it has more tomato and less sugar.
1 12 oz can tomato paste
24 oz water
1 t salt
Herbs such as italian seasoning, basil, thyme and/or oregano to taste
Add more water if you like your pizza sauce thinner. This recipe has a lot of leeway. Tomato sauce can be substituted, but the recipe will be runny. If you have at least a little tomato paste on hand, you can add it to thicken the recipe. Add a little bit of the tomato sauce first to thin it before adding it to the recipe. Crushed, diced tomatoes or fresh tomatoes will have to be cooked down. If you have fresh onion and garlic, you can saute them up in oil (preferably olive, if you have it) and then add them to the pizza sauce. Or add the garlic raw, if you prefer. Use whatever herbs you have on hand that fit the bill. Here are some potential substitutions.
Basil: oregano or thyme
Italian seasoning: combination of basil, oregano, rosemary and/or ground red pepper
Oregano: thyme or basil
Thyme: basil, oregano, marjoram or savory
Rosemary: thyme, tarragon or or savory
Savory: thyme, marjoram or sage
If you’re extremely low on ingredients, or are looking for more creative options, just do a search on “pizza sauce recipe” and you’ll come up with lots of ideas. Spaghetti sauce will also do in a pinch.
The biggest problem I have with offhand recipe substitutions is texture. The result usually tastes fine, in fact it often tastes fantastic. But it’s often too soft, too liquid, too dry, too crumbly, or lacks cohesion and falls apart while you’re trying to eat it. Take notes on your results, or create new recipe cards for each experiment that comes out well. Make changes the next time you try that recipe, based on your notes or what you remember about the last time you made it. Chances are you will end up with a huge arsenal of recipes that will help you more efficiently utilize your pantry stock.
Another excellent trick that helps tremendously with pantry challenge is a pantry inventory. Get a clipboard and a pen, and carefully go through your pantry making a note of everything that is there, and how much is left. Then you can refer to it when you’re searching for recipes, substitution ingredients, or creating your own recipes. This method is very helpful to prevent you from overlooking items you have in stock, but which you’ve forgotten about.
Whatever you’re thinking of making, a basic search on the ingredients you have on hand, and the name of the recipe you want to make, will often turn up a quick result. Always check Allrecipes.com first, as they have a tool that permits you to search on ingredients, as well as on recipe names.
There is a wealth of information online that can help us to save money on food and make the best use of the stock we have in our kitchens. Check out the boundless array of recipes and support options that are available on the web to make your pantry challenge more successful.
Uncredited, “Eggs.” The Cook’s Thesaurus. URL: (http://www.foodsubs.com/Eggs.html)
Julie Garden-Robinson, “Ingredient Substitutions.” NDSU. URL: (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/he198w.htm)
Uncredited, “Ingredient Substitutions.” Food Network. URL: (http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/ck_ingredient_substitutions/0,1971,FOOD_9812,00.html)
Uncredited, “Ingredient Substitution Table.” Joyofbaking.com. URL: (http://www.joyofbaking.com/IngredientSubstitution.html)
Uncredited, “Can You Substitute Baking Powder for Baking Soda?” OChef. URL:(http://www.ochef.com/364.htm)
Cindy (no surname given), “Peanut Butter Chews.” Allrecipes.com. URL: (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Peanut-Butter-Chews/Detail.aspx)
Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, “Herb Substitution Chart.” About.com. URL: (http://homecooking.about.com/library/weekly/blherbsub.htm)