30 Minutes to Clean Out The Pantry and Cook With What You Have

Reach into the far corners of your pantry to create recipes that might become a staple in your home

kitchen that was quickly cleaned
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My kitchen is my happy. It is the place in which I am the most innovative, confident, and safe. I know I can open my fridge, take out familiar ingredients, and create a delicious meal from scratch. It’s also where I force myself out of my comfort zone–cooking with new ingredients or daring to try a recipe from Pinterest.

I live in a small apartment with a small kitchen to match. It’s perfect, with teacups hanging on one wall and an adorable 18” stove to cook on. When I first moved into this space, I wasn’t sure I could make it work. The refrigerator opens the wrong way, so I have to place myself in the corner of the kitchen to open it. And my pantry is inaccessible unless I move one of my chairs from my countertop. It’s funny how quickly I got used to these quirks.

When other people enter my kitchen I can tell they question how I can stand it. But the truth is that I couldn’t imagine myself in any other kitchen. I can swirl around, grabbing ingredients and moving pots off the stove, as if I’ve choreographed my movements to perfections.

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And with my small kitchen comes one small problem: I have limited storage space. I have one small cabinet that holds all my dry goods, one area on the counter for my produce, and a small fridge that stores my perishables. I also added a spice rack on wheels so I can place it out of the way when it’s not in use.

To fill this small kitchen with ingredients, I go through the same cycle: buying new dry goods/canned food, filling up my cabinet, cleaning out the cabinet, cooking with the old ingredients, and so on. Before this cycle, when I was in a much larger apartment, I fell into a much different cycle: buying new dry goods/canned food and never using them. I even moved into my current apartment with some of those leftovers!

Since I’ve experienced both sides of this coin, I know that it feels so much better to use up all my ingredients than to leave them sitting in the pantry. Plus, using ingredients I already have at home is a great way to cut spending toward the end of the month.

Luckily, if you’re interested in trying my current method and using some of those ingredients you bought last year, it doesn’t take much time to conduct a full kitchen overhaul. My suggestion is to set aside 30 minutes to an hour and gather your supplies–you need a pad of paper or a laptop and some good music that puts you in a happy mood. I’ve found that the soundtrack to the Broadway show Waitress can set a fun tone. And classical music playlists can make you feel like you’re in a scene from A Beautiful Mind.

In any case, try to reduce the distractions and make your kitchen a pleasant place to be for the next short while. You can overhaul your kitchen in a few easy, manageable steps.


Clean Out The Fridge

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Of course, I start with one that seems daunting. This won’t take too long once you have the right mindset. You’re looking to throw away anything expired and make visible any food that you’d consider aspirational. Go ahead and toss the food that has gone bad.

If you need help deciphering what to toss, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have some helpful resources. Do your research before you throw some items away–you may find that some of your favorite items can still taste great past their expiration dates.

Next, find one spot in the fridge and designate it for your aspirational foods. The goal here is to move them to the forefront of your fridge, and thus, your mind. If you have some asparagus (which you normally don't cook), chances are it is the last thing you’ll want to cook when you’re in a rush or not in the mood. Moving aspirational and adventurous items to a visible place in your fridge might give you the motivation to cook it up.

That said if you hold that asparagus (or any other item) in your hand and think “I will never ever cook this,” go ahead and toss it. It will feel strange and wasteful, but you can’t get your money back for it. And it’s better to start this kitchen overhaul with a fridge only containing foods you’ll find useful, delicious, and fresh.


Take Inventory

pantry items and jars categorized and inventoried
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On a surface in your kitchen or a nearby room, gather all your dry ingredients or canned goods. Place them in order of expiration date and make a list of all your ingredients on one side of the paper (with the fastest approaching date listed first).

I find that when I do this simple act, I am excited about all the food I already have at home. Without even thinking about it, I start to develop ideas for the recipes I could create with my inventory.

Before you put everything back, donating some of the nonperishable food. If you don’t see yourself consuming a particular item, donate it.


Build a Menu

cut and prepare meals and menu
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Now it's time to create a menu for the week. On the other side of the paper, write down all the possible combinations of ingredients you have (fresh or nonperishable). You may not know exactly how you want to combine some of the ingredients, but others you will know exactly how to use.

I often find two or three ingredients might taste nice together and then I do an Internet search for a good recipe. One time, I had canned green chiles, canned black beans, and a sweet potato.

I once searched for “black bean sweet potato chili” and found a fantastic slow cooker recipe that I often incorporate into my meal planning. Some of my favorite recipes include Vegetable Soup with Quinoa, White Bean and Kale Soup, and Refried Bean Enchiladas.

Next, use another piece of paper to write down the recipes you can cook with your nonperishable foods. Post that second list on your fridge or somewhere visible in your kitchen so you can have a fun menu to choose from when you run out of fresh food to cook up.

For example, I almost always have oats, peanut butter, and cocoa at home. One of the first items on my list that I keep in the kitchen is No Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Oat Cookies. They are delicious and I never have to buy more ingredients to make them.

At the end of this easy process, you’ve created a simple system for utilizing your back-of-the-pantry ingredients. I repeat this process once every few months, mainly when I feel like I need to tighten up my budget a little. This process reminds me that I don’t always have to spend more money on food when I have delicious possibilities in my very own small, perfect kitchen.

kitchen that was quickly cleaned
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Written by Jane Diener

Freelance writer, foodie, and budget enthusiast. She enjoys spending time outside, watching the "Great British Bake Off" on repeat, and
concocting new recipes in her favorite room in the house: the kitchen.