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Meal Planning Without Spending a Dollar on Groceries

Spend no cash and eat like a queen.

Perhaps six times each year, I take stock of the contents of my fridge, freezer and pantry. I make a physical list of everything in there and tape it inside the door of a cupboard.

I follow my easy formula for meal planning as usual, but I base it around what I already have. I call it “shopping the pantry”.

Waste not, want not.

I despise wasting food and it’s all too easy to do when you have a recipe that calls for 1 cup of wild rice and the packet you bought contained 1 1/2 cups. Multiply that by eight weeks of cooking and you’re on your way to spoiled grains, rancid nuts, freezer-burnt salmon, fuzzy cheese and expired condiments.

Here’s what I do to keep things under control. Every couple of months I spend a couple of weeks really turning over the contents of my kitchen.

If you follow my meal-planning method, you know that the 3-day rule is there for many reasons, but chief among them is using up the remaining odds and ends of fresh ingredients on the days after you’ve made what you planned. This is the bigger version of that. For a couple of weeks, it’s 3 days at a time of meals planned from what I already have.

Put down the Pinterest.

I keep meals really simple. During the clean-out, I avoid searching for recipes because that typically leads to the procurement of more ingredients.

Instead, during the pare-down, I focus on three-point meals of starch, protein and veggies, dressed up with a sauce. Like a “bowl” before bowls became a thing. (I use a plate?)

My focus for meal planning is usually on dinner, because that’s my priority for the day (and for life in general), but I’ll consider other meals as well. Often the bowl I make for dinner will be served hot, then leftovers will be served cold for lunch.

Or, say I’ve dug out a bag of barley, I’ll cook a big batch and have it for dinner one day, as a breakfast porridge (warmed with milk and topped with brown sugar — delish!) the next day, and toss it in a salad the third day.

The only sneaky ingredients that might necessitate a trip to the store are milk (for coffee, non-negotiable) and fresh produce if there’s actually nothing in the fridge or freezer to clear out (rare, but it happens).  Other than that, I treat it as a kind of mystery box challenge. It’s the creative part of cooking that I love.

Don’t use recipes, but oh wait here are some recipes.

I realize I’m contradicting myself a bit by offering these suggestions, but typically I have the ingredients on hand to make at least one of these bowl boosters. If you don’t, you could stick to a basic vinaigrette, or simple plain yogurt. (Or make a wee shopping exception). Here are some delicious sauces I use to liven up my pantry treasures:

Lemon Tahini Sauce

Coconut Peanut Sauce

Nacho Cheese Sauce

Green Goddess Dressing

Lemon Buttermilk Dressing

Sweet Chili Honey-Lime Dressing

Putting it together.

The starch might be Asian noodles, rice, whole grains, pasta, or something creamy like polenta or semolina.

The protein could be from the freezer (chicken, beef, fish), fridge (yogurt, hummus, tofu), or pantry (chickpeas, other beans/legumes, canned fish, or simply a handful of nuts).

The veg might be the remnants of my crisper drawer or bags of frozen peas, edamame, and chopped greens in the freezer.

I usually keep the components separate with a puddle of sauce to tie them all together.

I also love to make kitchen-sink quesadillas, omelettes, soups, and salads to eat up all the bits and bobs.

Doing this on the regular helps to keep my pantry and my budget in ship shape, and makes me flex my creative muscle in the kitchen. What do you think? Join me in a shop-the-pantry week?

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