A couple of months ago on TBM, I shared a new savings challenge with you.
As I was doing my meal planning at the beginning of November, I was overwhelmed by how much food I had in my house! I could have fed an army! So, instead of going to the store and overbuying, I challenged myself to simply use up the food that was just chilling in my freezer.
I ended up saving over $300 in the month of November by completing this challenge! So now that we’ve moved into a new year, I am going to try and implement this challenge even more into my meal planning process.
The “November Freezer” Challenge
The idea is to take advantage of what you already have on hand in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.
Why complete a Freezer Challenge?
- Because it’s going to save you big money this month – and who doesn’t need budget help following the holidays? I saved $300 in November by taking on this challenge, and I know you can save big too.
- Chances are, most of what you already have on hand is healthy! Since we tend to devour the ice cream sandwiches and leave the frozen broccoli, this challenge will help you stick to your “Eat Better” resolution by keeping you out of the grocery store and away from the cookie aisle!
- Decluttering reduces stress and makes you more productive. It’s just a fact. When I opened my baking cabinet, I felt overwhelmed by the clutter! Not only that, but the significant number of items on those shelves actually made me NOT want to bake! Simplifying things helps you feel so much better about life!
- Eating what you already have reduces waste. Now, you may not think it’s a big deal to toss out a couple of bananas that have become black mush or throw out that heel of bread at the end of every loaf, but consider this:
- According to the EPA, the U.S. wastes 37.6 million tons of food each year.
- That’s nearly 1 BILLION bags of groceries – 3 bags per person every year.
- Nationwide, that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 billion dollars’ worth of food that we throw away each year! That makes me feel crazy!
Taking part in this “Freezer” Challenge is a win/win!
All it requires of you is a little bit of planning and preparation.
Step One: Take Inventory
You can’t cook what you have if you don’t KNOW what you have!
This inventory step will take you a few minutes, but it’s absolutely essential. You can’t just glance into your pantry and call it good. You need to make a list of every item in your refrigerator, your freezer, and your pantry.
I know, that’s a ton of food to write down, but I promise it’s worth it. I invite you to follow my own inventory/meal planning journey by watching this video!
And, if you absolutely don’t have time to write down all your ingredients, then shortcut this step by taking photographs of everything. It’s not as helpful as having a full list, but it will work in a pinch.
Start by getting everything out of the refrigerator, taking the opportunity to rinse out the drawers, wash off the shelves, and even toss anything that already looks like a shrunken head (What WAS that? A cantaloupe? A plum? A Chia Pet? And why do I have five jars of jalapenos shoved to the back of the top shelf??)
- Write down what you have. It helps to do this by organizing everything into categories: meat, veggies, fresh produce, carbs (rice, pasta, crackers, quinoa), etc.
- Mark how much or how many of each you have.
- Make note of expiration dates. The expiration dates are important when you get to the Meal Planning Step. If you have multiples of one item, write down the date of the one that expires the soonest. You might even need to make up your own expiration dates for refrigerator items like produce. If you need a little help deciding what’s safe or not safe to eat, click here for some guidelines.
Repeat this process with the items in your freezer and your pantry – and don’t forget about your spices, seasonings, and baking supplies! Again, you will need to know everything you have for the meal planning step.
Congratulations! Now that the tedious part is out of the way, you’re ready to move on to the fun!
Step Two: Meal Planning
Your inventory list is now your reference guide for putting together a month’s worth of menus.
I should tell you, I haven’t always been a meal planner. It’s been a rough process learning how to work with my food budget. It’s so easy to sabotage your budget by eating out too much. If you’re interested in how I created something that helped me enjoy planning and preparing at home (Who knows? It might help you too!) then check out my TBM Meal Planning Workbook. It’s filled with everything you need to set up an easy meal planning system!
- Now, start by planning recipes that will use your soon-to-expire ingredients. If you have several produce items that are quickly becoming “iffy”, maybe a stir-fry dish or a vegetable soup would be a great place to begin.
Think about creative ways to use oddball items. Fresh veggies can be chopped up into tiny bites and added to all kinds of recipes! Try adding them into your queso or chili.
- Next, plan your favorite stand-by recipes. These are the foods you know your family enjoys. Meals that are simple and comforting – spaghetti, nachos, breakfast – whatever makes your people happy.
Arrange your familiar recipes so they are spread out over the next few weeks. You don’t want to eat all your family’s favorites in the first few days, then end up with two weeks of “What is THIS?”
Note: if you are short on meat, try cutting your normal portion in half and using fillers like bread crumbs or diced cauliflower or cheese.
- Make a search for fun, new recipes using the list of remaining ingredients and the wonderful help of Google! Curries, soups, fried rice, omelets and such are perfect for tossing in extra ingredients if you have a ton of them, but they’re also great as “bare bones” meals if you are lacking some things!
You might find these sites to be really helpful:
- Finally, make a game out of dinnertime with these leftover ingredient meals.
- See who can name the most ingredients in a complex soup or casserole.
- Make the presentation special with pretty garnishes, or unexpected serving bowls.
- Try a “Name That Dish” night once a week where everyone submits their name idea for an inventive recipe. (Noodle Surprise! Cheesy Yumminess! Raisin Rice Ragout!) You can choose the winner by drawing or voting or even throwing it out onto social media!
I was surprised by the recipes I came up. If you know me, you know I am not a cook. I found new ways to be creative in the kitchen, and I was finally able to use some of the cookbooks I had laying around my house.
For example, I had one Instant Pot Cookbook that I had for over four months that I never even opened, and most of the recipes that I created for the month of my Freezer Challenge were inspired by the recipes in that book.
Have fun with it – you may inspire others to waste less.
Doing the Freezer Challenge doesn’t mean you can’t buy ANYTHING, you just want to use up what you DO have. So, if you need a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs to make the best use of your existing supplies, go for it!
I continued to go to the store for milk and the necessities, and I even made one grocery trip that was unexpected. As you can see from the picture, the bakery and my favorite chips got the best of me. That's okay. The point of the challenge is to focus on saving money by using the things you already have at home. No one is perfect, but we can take small steps to saving money.
Remember: the goal is to fill up tummies, not garbage cans.
Did you complete the “Freezer Challenge” with me? How did it work out and what fun recipes did you come up with?