How to Spring-Clean Your Pantry in 6 Easy Steps, According to Melissa

Find out how Melissa ushers in springtime (and saves money) by cleaning out the pantry.
Melissa d'Arabian

We moved into a new house last weekend. While it was only a few blocks away from our old house, the logistics were deceptively still monumental. The upside of moving, however, is that you purge, if only to save yourself from having to tape up, carry and unpack yet another box. So, in the spirit of celebrating spring (and because this is all so very fresh in my mind with our move), I’m sharing with you exactly how I do my favorite kind of spring cleaning: Clear the Pantry Week.

First, I should admit up front that I don’t love to clean in general. When friends say they find it soothing or relaxing, it only makes me wonder if they’ve never been to a spa. So let that shed a little bit of light onto my loose use of the term “favorite” when I’m describing any cleaning task. But stay with me here, because Clear the Pantry is a fun game, and I don’t mean that in the same way I try to talk my daughters into making their beds every morning by singing our way through the steps. I actually like Clear the Pantry (CTP) Week. And, unlike lots of spring cleaning tasks, CTP will actually save you cash immediately, which is the same thing as making money, except better because the saving is after-tax.

CTP, at its simplest, is a commitment to shop from our own pantries instead of the store, which reduces clutter and improves inventory rotation and cash flow. We’ll have fun, your pantry and fridge and freezer will be clean, and you’ll have some extra cash in your pocket. Ready?

How to CTP in 6 Easy Steps:

1. Decide on how much “bonus money” you are giving yourself to spend at the store. Bonus money is the total amount of money you can spend at the store during CTP – it is intended for perishables like fresh milk and true necessities like diapers. I usually allow $20 bonus money for my family of six.  Time commitment: 5 minutes

2. Take three sheets of paper, a pen and a trashcan, and head to your kitchen. Make a list of everything you have in your freezer, fridge and cupboard (one list for each). Group the foods roughly by category, such as proteins, dairy, vegetables, etc. This sounds overwhelming, but just keep moving and jotting things down. Have a trashcan handy and toss anything that is bad or that you don’t recognize (which is why when it comes to freezing food, the first rule is to label and date everything!). Here is the fun part: You get one hour total to do this, so 20 minutes for each zone – freezer, fridge and pantry. This time limit will keep you from getting too precious about this process. Keep moving.  Time commitment: 1 hour

3. Take your lists and tape them somewhere near your computer. Get a coffee. If you are tired of dealing with your gazillion random groceries, most likely because you broke the 20-minute-per-zone rule above (been there; no judgment), then congratulate yourself on a job well started, step away, and come back tomorrow, because you will need to be creative for this next party. Time commitment: 5 minutes to 1 day, depending, including inactive relaxing time.

4. Feeling refreshed? Good. Take a look at your list of ingredients. You are now going to make a list of meals or dishes you can make with your ingredients. This is a three-step process. (I know, steps within a step seems kind of mean, but here we are. I’m sorry.) Time commitment: 1 hour

— Start with the proteins, and make a list of some common dishes that you make for your family that feature those proteins and other ingredients from your three lists. If you are missing ingredients, scan your lists again, and see if there isn’t ANYTHING that you could use to swap – vinegar instead of lemon juice, for instance, or frozen peas instead of fresh beans. Or, decide if it’s worth using some of your very precious bonus money (but that’s a last resort, and we aren’t there yet, are we?). Write all your dish ideas on a menu sheet (so, yes a fourth sheet of paper).

— Next, scan your list for any food items that have really been around a long time and need to get moving on to greener pastures. I don’t mean food that has gone bad, but food that you just haven’t found a use for yet. Find a use. Can you spice up those canned baked beans from 2012 with some harissa? Yes, you can, and today is the day to jot that down on your menu sheet.

— Lastly, scan your list for foods you can’t quite figure out what to do with – that harissa, for instance (had you not stumbled on that bean idea). Sit down at your computer and search for these ingredients online and get some ideas. Run a search on multiple ingredients you think might go together and see what recipes come up. Remember, you don’t have to follow these recipes exactly, but take inspiration to swap out and have a little fun.

5. You should now have a pretty decent list of meal ideas that use what is in your pantry. As the week goes by, cross off ingredients as you use them. You will find this disproportionately satisfying, if you are at all cut from the same cloth as I am. Time commitment: a few minutes a day

6. Continue as long as you like/are able/can get your family to be on board. Time commitment: however long it takes to count how much money you saved by not shopping for a week

4-Step Chicken Marengo

I do a Clear the Pantry Week or two a couple of times a year, just to ensure that I don’t keep meats too long in the deepest part of the freezer (I hate throwing out an ingredient simply because I forgot about it).

To inspire you, I’ll share a few of my favorite dishes to make during CTP Week: all-purpose pulled pork, my four-step chicken (pictured above), which allows me to swap out ingredients for just about anything lurking in my cupboard, and a Clear the Pantry original recipe, my salmon cakes that I made out of a can of salmon I found one day in the back of my cupboard.

What are some of your favorite CTP discoveries? Tell me in the comments below.

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