How One Family Accepted — and Survived — the Pantry Challenge

A mother and daughter prepare dinner together.
Gwen Connors, 10, helps her mom, Tiffany, prepare Thursday's dinner. The family dog, Bauer, looks for scraps. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

When my editor called me on the last day of my vacation to ask me to take on a Pantry Challenge, my first thought was: I wish I had gone grocery shopping first.

But then, where would the challenge be in that?

If you’re unfamiliar with it, a Pantry Challenge requires you to use what’s in your cupboard (and refrigerator and freezer) to create meals for one week. The only rule: no buying.

If you’re like my family, you often pick up specific ingredients for a recipe, but don’t necessarily use all of them. You forget about the food, leaving it to languish in the back of the refrigerator until one day, it’s grown enough mold to qualify as your daughter’s science project.

Then when it comes time for dinner, you default to stopping by the store for more ingredients or worse, ordering takeout. Neither option is good for the budget, and you end up wasting food.

Just us?

My husband, Chris, regularly cooks a delicious dinner — my culinary skills are mostly limited to chopping vegetables and reheating leftovers — so I figured we could accept a five-day pantry challenge without much trouble. (I got to skip the weekend portion due to the story’s deadline.)

I announced our participation in the Pantry Challenge to Chris and our 10-year-old daughter, Gwen, Monday evening. Although neither seemed particularly excited, they humored me.

How the Pantry Challenge Works

Meal prepping is an essential component of the Pantry Challenge, since you’ll need to plan your meals using fresh produce before it goes bad and saving items like a frozen pizza for a break-in-case-of-emergency dinner.

So after I talked to my editor, I shopped our refrigerator and pantry for inspiration.

Inspiration quickly turned to perspiration as I realized we had no frozen pizza. Or eggs. Or apples. Or bread. Or gummy bears.

I looked online for recipes from people who’d done the Challenge before me. One person suggested barbecuing banana peels.

What had I gotten us into?

We weren’t going to starve, but I did experience a moment of panic when I realized how little fresh produce we had and how gross it was turning before my eyes. We were going to have to dig deep (in the freezer).

Here’s the daily play-by-play of recipes we came up with for creatively meeting the Challenge.

A family eats dinner in their home.
Tiffany, Gwen and Chris eat Thursday’s dinner. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Monday Dinner

We based Monday night’s dinner on the produce. We had some nearly wilted lettuce, half a tomato and an inexplicable plethora of onions. That, along with the hamburger buns in the fridge had all the makings of a burger night. 

Unfortunately, we’d used the remaining ground turkey last week. But my husband found a package of Asian-flavored soy burgers he’d bought months ago during our ill-advised attempt at vegetarianism. With plenty of ketchup, mustard and a leftover bottle of chipotle mayo, we decided they’d be the best companion for our paltry produce.

We also discovered a couple leftover sweet potatoes from a bag we bought for a stew weeks ago. Those sweet potatoes were not getting any younger, so Chris cut around the less-than-desirable parts, tossed them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika and baked them to a crisp.

And to make sure we didn’t waste anything, I used up the rest of the chicken Caesar salad my daughter and I had split for lunch. The croutons were a bit soggy, but it was an easy way to add extra veggies to our meal.

Reviews: There’s a reason those burgers collected ice crystals in the back of our freezer. My daughter ate half the sandwich and a few fries before claiming she was “full.” She wasn’t. 

Tuesday

Here’s the thing about the Pantry Challenge. In the evening, you have time to gather items and experiment, so cobbling together dinner from your pantry is a bit easier. 

But in the morning rush, when I was in charge of making lunches, the Pantry Challenge became more of a Pantry Struggle.

Breakfast was easy enough: We still had English muffins, bananas, frozen waffles and cereal. 

But often when I pack our lunches, I use leftovers. And nobody was eating the sad, lonely veggie burger from last night (except maybe the dog, whose palate is decidedly less discerning). 

But my teacher husband and daughter were headed to school to set up his classroom and I was headed to the office, so we needed to some kind of subsistence.

I dug into the produce drawer and picked out the good pieces from a bag of deteriorating spinach, topping them with a cucumber that was on its last legs. (It hadn’t really grown legs. Yet.) To help keep our tummies full, I sent along bags of almonds, rice crackers and the last of the fresh cherries. 

That covered vegetables, protein, carbs and fruits, so we’re good, right?

Unfortunately, in my rush to pack lunches, I forgot to take the chicken thighs out of the freezer to defrost in the refrigerator for dinner. 

Normally, that would have resulted in a trip to the grocery store for an alternative meal or maybe takeout. But tonight, we just delayed dinner a little while I figured out how to defrost solid chicken thighs in the microwave. 

In case you were wondering, it takes about 20 minutes for 2 lbs. of chicken to defrost. And yes, they were a bit rubbery, thanks for asking.

Chris cooked the thighs with a jar of Indian sauce (mostly to cover the rubberiness). Typically, we like to boost the dish with a colorful array of peppers, but there were no peppers to be found, so we settled for some chopped baby carrots. 

Fortunately, we’re almost always stocked on rice, so we cooked extra to ensure we’d have enough for our lunches the next day. We completed the meal with steamed frozen broccoli.

Reviews: Lunch was definitely a bust — the “meals” I sent with Chris and Gwen came back half eaten. I suspect they may have located pizza leftover from a staff meeting, but neither one was ratting out the other. Dinner was a bigger success, and I was proud of myself for sticking with the Challenge and defrosting the chicken rather than taking the lazy route to takeout.

Bonus: Who realized the slightly browning bananas could be cut up and frozen for smoothies and snacks for the remainder of the week? This mom!

Wednesday

Want to know the secret to the Pantry Challenge? Pasta.

Oh sure, there are other secrets — like frozen produce, dried beans and canned soups — but at the end of the day, when you’re tired and hungry, pasta saves the day. Plus, you can make a ton of it at once for easy leftovers.

And for a non-chef like myself, pasta is a godsend because you can serve it multiple ways without much culinary wizardry. 

I can toss it with olive oil, fresh basil and grated Parmesan cheese for a simple dish, with canned tomatoes, feta and olives for a Mediterranean flair or with canned tuna and cream of mushroom soup for a casserole. 

But I didn’t have half of those items in my house.

Instead, I found an open jar of spaghetti sauce in the fridge that was leftover from last week when my husband had only needed a couple tablespoons for a recipe. Normally, the sauce might have sat in the back of the fridge until fuzz grew on the inner lid and we ended up tossing it. 

But tonight we could mix it with the meatless crumbles (again, from our vegetarian attempt) and serve it over one of the many pastas in our pantry. 

We didn’t have any garlic bread in the house, but we did have the rest of those hamburger buns from Monday’s dinner. We threw them in the toaster while I roasted a couple garlic cloves. We  mixed the garlic with butter and dried oregano, then spread it on the buns for a DIY garlic bread. 

For a side, I trotted out the frozen broccoli again. (Creativity was quickly losing out to “good enough” this week.)

Reviews: Who doesn’t love pasta with garlic bread? Only someone who doesn’t appreciate how quick and easy it is, that’s who. Everybody in my house was happy, and everybody had lunch the next day. 

A daughter holds a plate while her mother places fish on it.
Thursday’s dinner: baked tilapia, steamed vegetables and couscous. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Thursday

We’d been holding onto the non-perishables long enough. It was time to cook up the frozen tilapia filets we had in our freezer. 

Chris came home beat from supply dropoff day (aka summer-fueled kids overrunning the school for two hours), so I needed to pick up cooking duties. 

I enlisted Gwen’s help since she’s watched so many cooking shows, I figured she was capable of preparing a boeuf bourguignon. If we had those ingredients. Which we didn’t.

We baked the fish with some of the fake lemon juice from the fridge (because no fresh lemons), a half jar of capers and a little olive oil. 

I found a box of couscous that had to have been at least a year old and served the fish over it with a side of — you guessed it — frozen vegetables.

Reviews: Although my daughter followed the directions and made a perfect couscous, it definitely lacked the flavor of the brand we now buy, so she left most of it on her plate. The fish would have been improved with real lemons, but everyone cleaned their plates, so I’m calling it a win.

Friday

Gwen was going over to grandma’s, who politely declined the leftover fish I offered for lunch. (Did it look that bad? At this point, I didn’t care because my mom said she’d take care of Gwen’s lunch.)

That left Chris and I to forage for our own food, so we were stuck with random chips, crackers and those almonds again. 

He had another work meeting, so I figured he’d get fed. And I said a silent prayer to the Penny Hoarder gods that the string cheese supply in our office refrigerator would be stocked today. 

If I had thought ahead, maybe I could have defrosted the remaining pack of chicken and cooked it when I woke up, but we were all kind of sick of the Challenge by this point. Who knew finding food in your home could be so exhausting?

Reviews: Nobody was very happy today until my mom performed a miracle by calling to ask if we wanted to come over for dinner that night. It’s free, so that counts, right? 

To be honest, we could have technically made it through the entire Challenge. We still had those frozen chicken breasts and enough pasta to survive for quite some time. The lack of fresh produce definitely was the biggest hurdle for us, but the Challenge did help us realize how much forgotten food we had in the cupboard. 

Bonus: This Challenge gave me an excuse to clean out the fridge.

Money saved: The best news is that we saved at least $150 by skipping our grocery run, random ingredient pickups and inevitable takeout night. (And that doesn’t even include the money wasted on food we might have let spoil and had to toss.) We decided to use a little of that savings to enjoy dinner out this weekend. Someplace with a salad bar.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. She is grateful to her husband and daughter for being good sports. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.