“How do you look at what you already have in your freezer/pantry and figure out what meals you should make? I have many items in my pantry and freezer but it’s a bit overwhelming, so I feel like I never use those items but could be saving money if I did use them.”
I got this great question in my inbox recently. I’ve been reverse meal-planning for a number of years, so it just sort of happens pretty naturally and without a lot of effort. But this question challenged me to really dig into what my thought-processes are for looking at ingredients I have on hand and coming up with meal ideas.
As I was mulling over this, I realized that I do I have a very simple three-step system I use. So, in this post, let me break down my ABC’s of Reverse Meal-Planning.
The ABC’s of Reverse Meal Planning
First off, if you are new to Reverse Meal-Planning, it’s just a fancy name for planning your meals based upon what you already have on hand and what’s on sale at the store.
Many people think of meal-planning as thinking of what sounds good or what recipes you like, writing down the ingredients you need to make those recipes, and then buying those items at the store. While this is definitely an effective way to menu-plan, it’s not the most cost efficient.
Instead, I practice the Buy Ahead Principle and Reverse Meal-Planning — which means I buy extra items I know we will use when they are at their lowest prices and then plan our meals based around those items.
This means that what I buy at the grocery store isn’t all just for meals that week — it’s often extra items (that are on a rock bottom sale!) for us to use in the weeks (or even months!) to come. This means that we always have a variety of items on hand to work from.
Homemade Energy Bites are a favorite recipe here — and they are so adaptable! You can tweak the recipe to what you have on hand!
1. Assess What You Have
You have to know what you have in order to be able to use what you have! To be able to begin Reverse Meal-Planning, I recommend quickly cleaning out and re-organizing your pantry, cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer.
Pull out everything you have. Discard what’s old, past its prime, freezer burned, something you know you’ll never eat (as in, your whole family thinks it’s gross and won’t touch it), or expired.
The, organize what’s left by like items. I find it’s really helpful to have a shelf in the freezer where I keep all meat, a shelf for all of the bread, a section for frozen veggies, etc. I do the same in our pantry and cupboards. This way, you can see at a glance what you have.
If you struggle to remember what you have, you could have a whiteboard or spreadsheet or app that you use to track what you have on hand. That way, you don’t end up buying something you already have or forgetting that you have something that would be a great addition to a meal!
I buy eggs anytime they are marked down (you can use them at least 2-3 weeks after their sell by date!) and bread when it’s marked down (I stick it in the freezer). This way, we almost always have the makings of French Toast — which is great for Breakfast for Dinner nights!
2. Break the Rules
Guess what? When it comes to your family’s menu, you can break the “rules”. Some people would think that our meals are weird or don’t go together… but who decides what is weird or what goes together. There aren’t hard and fast rules on this stuff. So relax and have fun experimenting!
When I share our meals on Instagram stories, I will often get comments from people saying, “Wow! I would have never thought that you could serve that together!” If your family likes it, no one is stopping you!
One thing we do each week is buy whatever fruit and veggies are on sale or marked down. Usually, that means we buy more of 2-3 types of produce instead of buying a lot of different varieties of produce.
This produce is then what we use as sides for our meals for the week. It means that we will often eat the same fruits/veggies multiple times in one week. I know that this seems odd to some people, but because the sales/markdowns vary, it means that — over time — we eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies. And, at the same time, it saves us a lot of money on produce.
I buy bananas when they are marked down and freeze them. Then, I use whatever greens or fruit or milk or yogurt we have on hand for smoothies.
3. Create New Recipes
Speaking of experimenting: one of my favorite ways to get creative in the kitchen is to concoct recipes from what we already have on hand or to come up with substitutions instead of making a trip to the store!
I see recipes more as a guideline than a hard and fast rule, so I am constantly tweaking or changing recipes. Note: some recipes — liked yeast breads can’t be tweaked like a casserole can be!)
If you are new to substitutions, the best way to find out what works is to Google for ideas and then just try it. If you’re making a wedding cake for a friend’s wedding, it might not be the best time to try substituting things, but if you are cooking a pot of vegetable soup for your family and it calls for potatoes and you only have sweet potatoes, totally use those instead.
The more you have fun with experimenting, the more you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. Always keep some cheese on hand and some ice cream in the freezer. You can “fix” a lot of things with cheese and ice cream!