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How to Eat Down the Pantry and Start Fresh

I learned pretty early in my zero waste journey that the pantry can hold many terrors. When we started, I was absolutely overwhelmed looking at the stockpile I had collected over the years – cans upon cans, half-eaten bags of chips and who-knows-what, all wrapped in packaging. Ugh.

We are still slowly eating down the packaged goods from our former life. Here’s how we regained control of our pantry and started to go zero waste in the process!

1) Take a food inventory. 

Make a list of everything you have in the pantry (and the freezer if you have time). If you have duplicate items, keep track of the amounts, then prioritize those ingredients in your meal plan for the next couple of weeks.

Read More: How I Use Google Sheets for Grocery Shopping and Meal Planning

2) Set aside extras for emergencies.

If you have cans of black beans coming out your ears, save a few for an emergency kit and then eat the rest as soon as possible. This is a great way to make use of food purchases you’ve already made without taking up too much space in your kitchen.

Once you have your emergency kit boxed and ready to go, store it outside your kitchen – say, in the basement or a storage closet.

3) Get creative with what you have on hand.

Pantry challenges are a wonderful way to force the habit of “making do.” Allow this experience to encourage menu creativity and see what you can do with the things you’ve got!

How to Eat Down the Pantry

4) Don’t replace the packaged items you cleared away.

Soon you will be free of all the packaged groceries from your pre-zero waste life. In coming weeks, work hard to avoid food packaging and opt for more sustainable solutions like buying in bulk or shopping at farmers’ markets.

5) Make the shift toward local, in-season grocery shopping.

One of the best things you can do to reduce your environmental impact is to shop local. Local goods require less transportation, create jobs in your area, put your taxes to good use, and encourage local prosperity. It’s also a great idea to eat what’s in season.  

It’s often easier on your wallet (again, transportation is a beast), it encourages variety in your diet, and it puts you in direct touch with the earth and its cycles. I think that’s so cool!

6) Still struggling? Donate pantry items you won’t use.

Have some non-perishables left over? Donate the items to your local food bank or shelter. (Here’s a nationwide database that will help you find locations in your area.)

Bonus Pantry Tips:

1) Follow your meal plan religiously. Keep it simple and less food will go to waste.

2) Do a mini pantry challenge mid-week. Eat leftovers before they go bad and clean up any leftover items you’ve passed over.

3) Look for an open shelving solution for pantry staples. This helps ensure nothing gets stuck in the back of the cupboard. Here’s some inspiration!

4) Shop for pantry essentials just twice a month. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options.

5) Store pantry essentials in glass containers. This helps you see exactly what you have and how much is left.

How do you keep track of what’s in your pantry? I’d love to know!

Gwen Parsons

Wednesday 18th of April 2018

My goodness. I could never clear out my pantry and freezer,. We grow all of our own food that is "growable" and bottle, freeze,dry all excess to last the whole year. This is ongoing. But I do reorganise my supplies once a year in the autumn so that nothing gets too old. We own a very large deep freeze, so this summer's food goes on the bottom - leftovers from last season on the top ready to use. Same goes for dried and bottled produce. First in is first out. After all these years it just becomes routine. We also have a "cool cupboard" where we store potatoes, pumpkins, onions etc that will keep us going for the whole year. It's a good system and works for us. We only buy the staples we can't produce ourselves. Gwen Parsons


Wednesday 1st of August 2018

That sounds like an amazing system! Glad to hear you grow your own food – that's really wonderful.


Wednesday 4th of January 2017

This sounds good for zero waste. i have to admit that i do none of this


Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

I love these tips! I really want to start doing meal plans this year. I cleaned out my pantry a few weeks ago, and have been making an effort to use the items that I already have. Your tips are really going to come in handy!


Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

That's great to hear Shasha! Best of luck!

Kelly Hoggons

Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

I really want to start producing less waste, but it's so difficult to do it where I live. EVERYTHING is prepackaged, and farmer's markets are really rare.

Kelly x


Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

Oh trust me, I know the struggle. We have to drive about 45 minutes to a new state to get bulk options, but we find that if I meal plan well enough and we only shop every two weeks that we can make it sustainable. It's saved us a lot of money overall!

I would definitely recommend checking out my new blog post on package-free grocery shopping. I've purposefully included tips for people like you who don't have immediate access to sustainable options. Let me know if you have questions about any of the tips! I'll respond :)

Missy Burson

Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

This is great! I've been meaning to clean out my pantry for awhile (er, six years?)...I have this freezer and pantry inventory list from a "30 day No Spend" challenge held by Ruth at Living Well Spending Less that I can send you! It helps a LOT when you have a deep freezer or a bigger pantry. And I love your blog overall, I just signed up for your newsletter to stay in the know:)


Tuesday 3rd of January 2017

A solid freezer/pantry cleanse feels so good doesn't it?! And I'm delighted to hear how much you love the blog! It's really encouraging – thank you :) Glad to have you in the community!