Eat Well, Spend Less: How To Live Off Your Pantry

I’m being the renegade blogger in the Eat Well, Spend Less series this weekend.  On Monday, our group will be sharing five frugal meals you can make from your pantry, but as I’ve tried to write my post on this topic, my friend Toni’s post about how the military may not receive a paycheck due to a potential government shutdown has been heavy on my mind.

What would you do if you didn’t have a paycheck coming?  What if you didn’t have a paycheck coming and didn’t have any money left?

This post isn’t really about Eating Well, Spending Less.  It’s about Eating, Spending Nothing.  It may not be a pretty post, but many of us have been, are, or will face a time in our lives where we simply cannot go to the store to buy groceries: it may be as simple as not wanting to spend money on groceries in order to place money elsewhere, or as complicated as being at the end of the paycheck and not knowing if or when the next one is coming.

I’m going to show you how to live off your pantry, no matter what’s in it.  This is not a post for those that have years’ worth of food stockpiled – it’s information for the average American who probably has enough food to eat for a month, but didn’t realize it until they were placed in a situation where they couldn’t buy food.

These are not principles that should guide your everyday food decisions: these are things that you do when there is no other option.  They may even seem to be desparate to you – and maybe they are, but when you don’t know when the next paycheck is coming, you may have to do something desparate.

With that said, cheer up!  If you’re at the end of the last paycheck, this is not the time to wallow in despair.  It’s a time to rise to the challenge, get creative, and put your pantry – however plentiful or meager – to work for your family.

Take overall stock of your pantry

You can make this as simple or as complicated as you like: simple notes in your head, or an Excel spreadsheet.  However you choose to do it, take a few minutes to look at what you have in your pantry and freezer – especially if it’s disorganized or you have a lot of stuff.

You just want to get an idea of what you have so you know what you’re working with.  You could make an actual menu plan if that would help you be able to focus.

Buy versatile ingredients

This won’t help you once you’re at the end of the paycheck, but if you realize tough times might be coming up, you should focus on buying ingredients that can do many things.  A basic item like oatmeal can be used in many different ways, but granola bars are kind of a one-hit wonder.  Try to buy items that can be used in several ways.

Also, try to refrain from buying items that require other items: for instance, most people would want some salad dressing to eat with their lettuce.  So, a purchase of lettuce requires another item.  A bag of frozen peas would not, and in this type of situation, would likely be the better choice.

Use the fresh stuff first

One of the worst things to do when you’re living out of your pantry is to let something spoil in the refrigerator.  Make sure you know what’s in your frig and how long you have until it starts to spoil so you make sure to use it before then.

If you just can’t use it before it spoils, take a few extra minutes to cook or partially prepare it into a meal and put it in the freezer so that you can use it later.  Just don’t let it go to waste!

Use the “hard” stuff first

You know what I mean.  That package of Asian noodles you bought and has sat in your pantry for months, lonely and neglected because you lost the inspiration to learn how to cook that exotic dish?

Use it first.  One, you will feel like you’ve conquered something.  Two, you’ll no longer dread getting to the absolute end of your pantry, knowing that that package of noodles will be sitting there, taunting you.

Use the hard stuff first, if nothing else, for the psychological effect of being done with it!

Don’t go to the store

Even if you happen upon $20 to spend, I would strongly suggest not going to the store.  If you go to the store too soon, you’ll probably buy things that are not essential.  I know, you thought milk was essential, but I’ll bet if you didn’t have that $20, you could figure out a way to make it non-essential.

Cut it in half

I’m not a huge proponent of just “cutting everything in half” to save money.  I certainly do that quite a bit, but as a general rule, I don’t think it’s really going to save you that much to always cut the amount of chicken broth in half when you make soup twice a month, and you can lose out on a lot of flavor if you do it just because.

But, when you’re in this situation, I look at it as time to keep myself from going to the store for as long as possible. It’s not so much about the dollars and cents, it’s about not spending anything until it’s absolutely necessary.  So if buy cutting the amount of broth in half, you can delay purchasing more but just another day, it’s worth it.

Get creative with spices

A few weekends ago, Jeremy and I stopped by Savory Spice Shop to spend a Groupon, and of course tasted a variety of spices while we were there.  When we left, I had the weirdest feeling: I was quite hungry, as it was past lunchtime and we hadn’t eaten, but my taste buds were very satisfied from the spices we’d sampled!

I mention that experience to say that spices can play an amazing role in helping your mouth feel like it’s eaten an incredible meal!  Plain and boring white rice can be tasty and filling with a variety of spices, so use your spice cabinet like a painter’s palette and see what you can come up with.

Ditch the cookbooks – and then bring them out again

If you’re living from your pantry, you’ve got to get out of the mindset of cooking from a recipe.  If you don’t have one ingredient, you’ll have to do substitute or do without.  Forget trying to follow your normal recipes; be flexible.

And then again, get those recipes out again, and find ones that use the ingredients you can’t figure out what to do with.  Go to and type in the ingredients in their ingredient search and see what you can come up with.

Forget about “meals”

As you work through your pantry, you’ll run out of items that go well together.  Learn to be OK with eating scrambled eggs, pasta, and carrot sticks as a meal a few times.

Use your Groupons and gift cards

If you’ve got Groupons and gift cards for restaurants, now’s the time to use them.  Look at their menus online ahead of time, and carefully plan your order to spend less than $1 out of pocket if you can.  Call and ahead and get it to go so that you’re not tempted to overspend, and don’t have to tip a server.

The goal is to feed your family

I think most people, if truly pressed for honesty, would say that ultimately, their goal is to feed their family.  Period.  A close second is to feed your family healthy food, but in some situations, the goal is simply to get something on the table that will fill tummies.

I hope this post has given you some ideas on things you can do to feed your family with what you have.  We’ve been blessed to rarely be in this situation: God has always provided for us generously,  but most of the tips above are from personal experience with very lean times.

As I said before, if you’re at the end of the money, it’s not the time to despair.  It’s time to pray for God to provide, and then get to work with what He already has provided!

This post is linked to Kitchen Tip Tuesday.


  1. Thank you for this post! 1. That you acknowledge the problem and 2. that you care to write it is great. As a former military spouse with most of my friends still being military, this is something I have been keeping up with, but sadly, a lot of Americans don’t know about this possibility (probability) and don’t realize the effect it will have on so many families.

  2. Love this, Carrie! It’s good to have these ideas for stretching what we have when times are tough, and it’s also a great reminder to be thankful for when we DO have enough! I like you renegade blogging. :)

  3. Another great post, Carrie! These tips are helpful for rough times financially but also when you can’t get to the store for other reasons – snowstorm, no time, sickness, etc. I feel so bad for all of the military families that will be effected by the pause in pay.

  4. You rock, my little renegade. So glad you put this together. Love the point about the spices. And, when we’ve spent the month of January on a modified “Eat from the Pantry” I have found that that is when I’m my most creative and we eat better than we had been. Necessity is the mother of invention.

  5. I can’t believe I never heard about this mlitary paycheck problem until reading this post!
    In fact its so little known that my friend will not believe me when I tell him about it and show him articles!
    Your advice is right on, and I hope it inspires moms to dig into their pantries and have fun in the process.
    One thing I ate a ton of when I was broke for a while was pancakes. If you have flour, you can find recipes online that don’t require milk or an egg and still make yummy pancakes!

  6. Sharon W says:

    I hadn’t heard about the military paychecks either. Thanks so much for the post, Carrie. Some of the tips you mentioned would be good for me to follow even when times aren’t particularly rough. I am awful about letting food go to waste in the fridge because we forget about it. When you said about praying for God to provide, it reminded me of a story my husband told me last night. “There was a priest stranded on top of a building after a flood. He prayed to God to save him. Three different people came by to help him (with a boat, helicopter etc) but he refused their help and said “God will save me.” And, of course, he died. When he got to heaven, he asked God why he didn’t save him and God replied that he had tried to save him, three times!” All of that to say, God can provide in many, many ways. One way he can provide is by the pantry and fridge full of stuff that we already have on hand, and can make the most of, as you recommended in your post.

    • Yes! That’s a great story to illustrate, Sharon!

      Like you said, even if money isn’t particularly tight, it’s not a bad idea to implement some of these principles temporarily, just to make sure we’re making wise use of what we’ve already been provided with!

  7. Tangerine says:

    Another great post Carrie. This post is a great reminder of being thankful for what we have and how to be cognizant of what we have in our refrigerator and how long before it would spoil. I know when there is not enough in the fridge, I usually make rice….I call it special rice. I make rice and just add whatever I have in the fridge. I love your reminder about using spices. I use turmeric and/or other spices to make that rice special.

  8. Powerful stuff, Carrie. It’s amazing how much we can ‘make-do’ with what we have. This is very helpful and I’m glad you went rogue on us!

  9. I did this alot when I had no income. I do it on occasion now to use up stuff in the pantry. I often wonder when people complain about food as I think we lose sight of what food should be, nourishment and fuel, instead of always the best. I love to think of it as a challenge, how can I use this food I have to make something that tastes good, does not cost much and yet is creative!