Menu Planning and the Pantry Principle

Stocking your pantry at rock bottom prices is a great way to save on your grocery bill. Today, I want to talk about saving money on groceries using the pantry principle. While the idea is not original to Amy Dacyczyn, she coined the phrase in her fabulous newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette. (The newsletter is now available in book form, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in thrift, but I digress.)

By and large, frugality writers suggest planning a menu based on the deals found in the store circulars. While it is a good place to start saving money, the next level beyond is to buy in bulk the cheapest things you can find. “In bulk” does not mean in giant containers from the local mega warehouse store. Bulk can mean buying multiples of one item, such as several one pound packages of mozzarella cheese. Like, say, thirty. Yes, I have proudly walked in my local salvage store with two shopping carts packed to the brim with only two people to feed.

When it comes to planning your menu, you just look to your pantry, freezers and other storage places, determining what you have. Create your menus based on what you have already bought. You can be secure in the fact that you paid the lowest possible price for any food that is residing in your home. It is helpful to keep a current list of the foods in your home, but I find that I am not diligent enough in recording incoming groceries.

Some people like to plan their meals the night before, but I like to do it once a week, on Sundays. I keep in mind things that need to be used up, such as the pork from June or the fish from the spring. On days when I know I will be busy, I use slow cooker recipes, which makes life much easier. I also make sure that I include at least two days of vegetarian meals, usually beans and rice, because they are extremely cheap, in addition to being tasty! In order to keep it as simple as possible, I have a few websites and books that I use for tried and true recipes. However, because I like to cook, I will usually throw in a recipe that I’ve never tried. While this process sounds cumbersome, it usually only takes a half hour while sipping on tea.

I know you could always write it in list form on a piece of notebook paper, but presentation is important for your psyche. I recommend using an actual calendar or printing out a menu from your computer. Putting graphics on the calendar really makes it special, or at least the Easterseals Christmas stickers on my December menu make me happy. Remember to write in pencil, because you will change your mind at least a few times.

As the saying goes, “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” By planning meals in advance, you will remove the stress of not knowing what to do for dinner. It will help you to avoid eating out, because you will have food waiting in the refrigerator or slow cooker. It’s hard to justify the expense when you have a thawed roast giving you the proverbial hairy eyeball from the refrigerator or soup ready in the slow cooker. Trust me, while it seems like a lot of work, you’ll find it fairly simple and even fun. Besides, using the food that’s already in your home will save you money and that’s worth the effort.

Do you use the pantry principle? Has it worked well for you?

Photo by Incase Designs.


By , on Dec 8, 2008
Copperwyre is the blogger at Copperwyre's Blog. It's a relatively new blog, but I must say I'm impressed with her posts so far. If you like what you see here, consider subscribing the the Copperwyre Blog's RSS feed.


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  1. I think that planning meals based on what is on offer is a great idea in principle however in reality those things that are usually on offer are normally high in salt or sugar content. We try and plan our meals on a seasonal basis and find out what the seasonal food is around a specific time of the year and then create menus around these specific types of food. I do agree though that the key to frugal living is to plan meals rather than impulse eating

  2. AnnieJ:

    “In bulk” doesn’t have to mean giant containers at the warehouse store, but if you have the space for it, that’s the best way to save money, especially for things like flour, sugar, rice, beans, canned goods, oil, chocolate chips, oatmeal, bagged onions and potatoes, and even some fresh veggies if you can use them up in soups and casseroles.

  3. @Jonathan
    My husband and I almost eat entirely local food. Meaning, that I can, freeze or dry vegetables to eat in the winter. I can without using salt or sugar. Through out the harvest season, we attend the local livestock auction which offers seasonal veggies. I have a bunch of acorn and butternut squash in my basement. What I’m getting at is that the pantry principle doesn’t necessarily mean that you purchase overly processed food.
    It’s very smart that you shop on a seasonal basis; not only is it cheaper, but it’s also environmentally sound practice.

  4. Pantry staples are definitely what gets me through. I definitely plan weekly meals, but sometimes my plans don’t necessarily fit with life. I keep good canned stuff on hand. For instance,
    canned clams for a quick pasta with clam sauce or
    diced tomatoes for quick tomato sauce
    arborio rice for risotto
    beans and rice
    boxed soups- I usually have cheese and can make quick grilled cheese and tomato soup
    canned salmon for either salmon salad or salmon burgers
    In the freezer is always leftovers individual portions of soups I’ve made or other leftovers

    I try to keep a running inventory of extra meals I can make so that I plan about 4 or 5 meals a week, then use the pantry (or freezer) for the other 3 or 4.
    I could definitely improve on my coupon usage though. That’s next!

  5. Vanessa:

    @ Connie:

    I have solved that problem by simply not buying what I call “mindless snacking” and “crave” foods. Mindless snacking foods are the kind that you would never think to eat except when they are right in front of you. As in “Mmmmm…those chips look good” never mind the fact that you just finished a filling dinner. Crave foods are the ones that you feel you really, really must have, even without the stimulation of seeing them in you pantry (I often feel this way about oreos and milk). I just don’t by them, and the desire for mindless snacking foods disappear. The crave foods are harder, though, but I manage. Essentially, everything in my kitchen requires some sort of preparation, and nothing comes in individual sizes. The only exception is fresh fruits/veggies and individual fruit, applesauce and yogurt. All of these are tasty enough that my kids will eat them if they are hungry, but not so much that they will eat them just because they are there. If they are hungry enough to go through the trouble of making a sandwich or heating up a can of soup, I am not going to worry about their weight (especially since these options are much healthier than snack foods).

  6. marci:

    I almost always ONLY buy food on great sales or with great coupons. Rarely will I buy anything not on sale. And then I just stock the cupboards with everything and anything.

    I always eat from what’s on hand and in the freezer and in the garden – so I know I am always eating at rock bottom prices and very often at FREE (except storage) prices. I really like knowing that a meal is 100% free or home produced!

    I loosely plan meals a week at a time, allowing for lots of leftovers. I also freeze meals for taking to work for lunches or for quick dinners – about twice a month I’ll do that – as the mood strikes! Soups, stews, and stirfries are very economical in my book also!

  7. Sheri Davis:

    I also plan my meals on Sundays and I enter them in outlook and my MSN calendar. Then I set it to repeat on the same day every 3 months. )For example the 1st Monday every 3rd month.) This has allowed me not to repeat meals too often and eventually you will have a whole year of menu’s in your calendar. It’s very easy to change the date and move the meal to another one if need be. I love this method and it maked life so much easier! I also glued a 12×12 piece of corkboard to the inside of my kitchen cabinet door closest to my stove. I put my recipes in plastic sheet protectors in a binder so I just hang up the one I need for today and it is easily visible yet out of the “splatter” zone. Just a couple tips that work for me I thought I would share!

  8. Hi:

    Yep,keep my pantry well stocked with the basics…get a tonne on sale. Unfortunately, it backfires a bit. My teens will see all the stocked up food and decide to snack (eat more)…they are getting pudgy. Need to think this through a bit more.


  9. I have a post on my new blog on this very topic: I call it “commodities trading” after Andrew Tobias.

    Come read that post and others from my frugal life!

  10. CJ:

    ooops- typo

  11. CJ:

    I keep a well stocked pantry with sales and coupons too.
    It is a life saver and I know I’ve gotten the best price on items.

    As you said, one great reason to plan a menu is to destress the process. Another is, when chopping or prepping, you can do enough for later in the week, thus reducing meal time prep.

    We always try to gauge how much onion, clery, green peppers, etc. and cut enough for a week’s meals. You don’t need to cut everything for every planned meal; but if you are cutting onions or peeling garlic and you know you will need more later in the week, do it all at the same time. It’s a great time saver.

  12. I loosely plan my meals a month at a time, based on what we already have on hand in the freezer and pantry. Each week, I review the week ahead to see if there are any changes that need to be made (i.e, I didn’t serve the green beans last week, so they can go in somewhere this week).

    Then I look at the sale ads, mentally compare the sale prices to Aldi prices. I make a list of both my needs for the week and any outstanding specials I can stock up on. I then buy the items on my list at whichever store has them cheapest (I always shop Aldi, and will sometimes shop at two other local stores).

    As for salvage stores, I have to be careful. I tend to overspend in them. The food will eventually get eaten, but I have little will power in them and find it’s easy to blow my budget when I go to them. Sometimes it saves me more money to just stay away from the bargains. :)

  13. Wow, you folks are really organized! I never use coupons because I get my food from a salvage store, in bulk from the Amish or the butcher shop, none of which take coupons. I”ll have to try the recipes inside the cupboard. That’s genius!

  14. I’m right with you Lynnae. I combine the two methods. I compare coupons with sale flyers AND keep my pantry stocked with sale items I use frequently. I used to dread choosing what we were going to eat each night, but it’s far less of a chore when you make the time to make a plan.

  15. Amy:

    I have used this idea for the last year, and it has been wonderful. I always have plenty, and like someone above said, I combine the coupons and sale ad specials with my list of needed pantry items. I plan menus, too, but I am definitely implementing the calendar idea. I have a written list, and there are times I have forgotten about my menu (blame it on having three girls under 5 years old!). I am getting started on a calendar menu right now! Thanks for always having great tips!

  16. @Frugal Dad: Thanks!

    Sounds like the folks on this site already know what they’re doing. Hopefully, it’ll help those who are stressed by their grocery bills.

  17. Excellent post, Copperwyre! We usually employ both strategies, but start out with the pantry principle first to use up what we already have. Then we pick up a few sale items to fill in meals, and then use up those leftovers the next time.

  18. Dawn:

    I’m a menu planner myself. I like to work on it over Sunday breakfast. I love to cook, so I find that if I make mostly new recipes, I rarely get bored, that means I rarely have to make changes to my plan. I shop mostly from the pantry and use coupons and fliers to fill in where necessary.

  19. Great advice- the same way I do my menu planning! I used to do a month at a time when the kids were smaller but now Sunday’s are my menu planning days as well and I focus on a week at a time due to the extra curricular activities, etc.

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