Week after week we fill our supermarket trolleys to the brim with groceries, only to bring it all home to stuff into fridges and pantries already bursting with food.

Tired of wasting food AND money, I parked my supermarket trolley and joined the shelf cooking challenge! And I saved $800 in the process! Here’s how I did it – and how you can too.

I’m outing myself as a food hoarder. I have a habit of buying all the things in the supermarket. Products that are new, look interesting, specials, markdowns – you name it, it ends up in my trolley. Such zealous overbuying every week inevitably leads to an overflowing pantry and freezer. I call it “being prepared”. My husband calls it “Doomsday prep”. Either way you get the drift, the situation was dire.

Time to take action.

The Shelf Cooking Challenge

I stumbled over a ‘Shelf Cooking Challenge’ YouTube video of Jordan Page (of Fun, Cheap or Free fame), which resonated with me – and more importantly my bulging backlog of foodstuffs. (See my pantry and freezer chaos captured below if you don’t believe me). Then and there, I decided to join the shelf cooking challenge.

With a freezer and pantry this full, I don’t REALLY need to shop so much. And that’s the whole point of the shelf cooking challenge.

What is shelf cooking?

In a nutshell, shelf cooking is shopping your pantry, fridge and freezer first, buying only what you TRULY need to create meals for the week within a $30 -50 budget. The money you’d otherwise spend on groceries is put towards paying down debt, a weekend away, Christmas savings or whatever your heart desires.

My shopping style and habits

We’re a family of five, live in a small rural town and mostly shop from our town’s only supermarket, an IGA store. I usually do a ‘big’ shop fortnightly and a generous handful of top-ups for bread, milk, fresh fruit and vegetables. While I don’t have a strict grocery budget, we usually spend around $400 a fortnight on food. My fridge typically looks like it does below. I predicted shelf cooking was going to be quite the challenge.

My tale of shelf cooking survival

First thing I learned quite quickly is that old chestnut ‘fail to plan and you plan to fail‘. You need to know EXACTLY what you have in your home to cook with. Take a quick inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer contents. You might be surprised by the meals you can already cook without shopping for extra bits and pieces.

My numerous top-up shops were the first thing to go. Shelf cooking guru Jordan advises shelf cookers to do one major shop a week and one top up shop if required. Otherwise, you find yourself buying stuff you don’t need. Which frankly, is the truth. We’ve all gone to the shop for milk and walked out with a bag full of “just in case” items, have we not?

Stick to your budget

Limiting myself to a weekly $50 budget, I had to really think about what I was buying. Do I really need zip-lock snack bags or can my kids just deal with Gladwrap? I did draw the line at not buying dishwasher tablets though.

I was lucky enough that my freezer was full of meat so I only had to buy meat once for the whole month of May. By introducing a few meatless meals, I made what I had on hand go even further. We ate through the freezer stockpile of chicken, many weird and not so wonderful cuts of beef and I even accidentally fed my family squid tubes five years past their best before date. Oops.

No takeaway or packaged snacks

There is zero wiggle room for cheating. Convenience foods went out the window during the shelf cooking challenge. No takeaway, no dining out, nada.  The lack of convenience extended to kids snacks. This is often my downfall in my normal shopping routine, I’ll buy packets of this, that and everything else so I don’t have to listen to my children moaning “there’s nothing good to eat. EVER…”.

With pre-packaged snacks ruled out, I found myself every other morning up early, baking a batch of biscuits, muffins or the like to last a couple of days at a time. The kids LOVED it and truthfully, their appreciation for my efforts gave me all the warm and fuzzy feels. No money was spent on pre-packaged snacks for the whole month AND I used my stockpile of rolled oats. Everyone won.

shelf cooking baking

The savings, OH THE SAVINGS!

I took the $400 I would normally spend on groceries every fortnight and divvied it up between money to spend and money to save. I kept $100 cash and the other $300 I transferred to another account for safekeeping.

When the last day of May rolled around, I had a depleted freezer, a reasonably spent pantry and had managed to save $800. Yep, EIGHT. HUNDRED. DOLLARS. Just by using the food I had at home, meal planning and plenty of good ol’ fashioned cooking from scratch.

Tried and true shelf cooking tips:

  • If you can, shop at a fruit and vegetable market store. Your dollar seems to go further here, as does the super fresh produce.
  • Eat fruit and vegetables that are in season or on special. There will be a lot of apples and citrus fruit. Not so many avocados or berries. But hey, FRUIT IS FRUIT.
  • Batch cooking is kind of genius and inexpensive. Cook with two meals in mind – a large lasagne instead of a smaller one. Or double Bolognese sauce, using half for spaghetti one night, stuffed jacket potatoes the next!
  • Eat your leftovers. When you throw out food, you’re throwing away money.
  • Find recipes to use those random tins of chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, beans at the back of your pantry. They might be inexpensive to buy, but that’s no excuse to not use them. They’re great for filling out curries, casseroles and making hearty side dishes, saving you money on meat.
  • Choose cheaper cuts of meat and make them delicious. Chicken drumsticks can be fancied up in a jiffy and a slow cooker can make the toughest of beef cuts melt in your mouth.
  • Prioritise your weekly budget. Although they’re nice, no one really NEEDS fancy cleaning products – you can clean most things with vinegar or bicarb soda. Save your budget for fresh food, toilet paper and the occasional luxury like dishwasher tablets…

shelf cooking chicken dinner

Now that we’ve shown you how to save money on your weekly grocery shop, here’s how to save big bucks on your next family holiday.

Author

South Australian mum and self proclaimed foodie, Lexi can most days be found in the kitchen, apron tied firm and armed with a whisk or wooden spoon!

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