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How to Unstuff Your Packed Pantry or Freezer

A woman holding a bowl of apples and picking a jar off the shelf in a pantry.
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Shopping patterns certainly changed last year, causing many of us to load up on tons of pasta and canned foods. If your pantry or freezer is overflowing, it’s time to take an inventory and find some recipes to use up all those extra groceries!

It’s a good idea to regularly take stock of what you have in your pantry. This way, you won’t waste food or accidentally buy more of the stuff you already have. Plus, planning meals that will use up all the nonperishables and frozen foods you already have will help you save on groceries for a few weeks.

Unstuff That Packed Pantry

There are two main problems with packed pantries and stuffed deep freezers. One is that most people have no idea what they’ve got in there, and the other is that the ingredients are so random, it’s hard to know what the heck to do with them.

So if you have a stray can of cream of mushroom or neatly stacked packets of ramen in the back of your cupboard, we can help. Even those frozen chicken breasts, pork tenderloins, and ground beef have a purpose, and we’ll give you the rundown.

How to Take a Pantry and Freezer Inventory

A woman reading the back of a canned good.
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Taking inventory of the food you have on hand is a great way to save money and reduce waste. In fact, we recommend you do this at least once or twice a year.

This process might take a few hours, depending on how much stock you have. To get started, grab a pen and paper, and maybe throw on a little music to lighten the mood during this not-so-exciting task.

Organize your list by zone, like the pantry, storage cabinet, or freezer, further by category like meat, produce, bread, pasta. Pick one location and start from there. Remove all contents from the zone and lay them out on the counter.

From there, start writing down all the contents by name, including the amount of each item and the use by date. If anything is expired, you can put it aside, empty the contents, then recycle the cans or cardboard boxes later.

The expiration date will also let you know which foods should be used first, so they don’t go to waste. Just toss anything half-used, like old cereal and stale crackers. Some foods tend to go rancid in the pantry and actually do better frozen.

Once you’ve gone through your pantry and cabinets, move on to the freezer. As long as your freezer is plugged in and functional, your food will keep indefinitely, however, keep in mind it will lose some of its quality of taste and texture over time.

As you start putting things back in the freezer, be sure to organize it all in a way that optimizes space.

Check the Fridge, Too

A woman organizing a fridge.
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Now that you know the types of ingredients you have on hand, browse your fridge as well. This will give you an idea of which perishable foods you have on hand to complement what’s in your pantry and freezer.

Opened containers of heavy cream, blocks of cheese, and various fruits and veggies are all foods you can use up to save on groceries now. Your fridge, pantry, and freezer inventory lists will help you figure out some solid meal plans.

Start with Soon-to-Expire Foods and Proteins

Highlight or mark the foods on your list that will soon expire. You’ll want to use those up first to minimize food waste and optimize grocery savings.

From there, take a look at your protein options, whether it be canned beans, frozen ground beef, or chicken thighs. Then, start comparing protein ingredients with fridge foods and see if any ideas pop into mind with just those few foods.

Think about which ingredients you already have at home that complement one another. From there, you might have to get creative or substitute with items you already have. That’s the fun saving-money component in all of this.

Tricks for Creatively Using Excess Ingredients

A pan of macaroni and cheese.
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If you have an ingredient, you aren’t sure how to use, whip out your smartphone and do a quick search to find a recipe. Your search might inspire you to make something you’ve never tried, while also using up other foods you already have on hand.

Here are a few tips and tricks for using up random ingredients:

  • Frozen veggies: These tend to lose their texture once defrosted. However, they make great additions to soups, stews, and purées.
  • Refrigerated veggies and fruits: Use these veggies in stir-fries, soups, or stews. Fruits transform nicely into a coulis (sauce), baked desserts, or smoothies.
  • Frozen berries: Use these in a cobbler or crisp. You can also make a smoothie bowl or protein shake for a healthy on-the-go breakfast.
  • Boxes of pasta: Combine all those half-full boxes of pasta together and create a fun, mismatched dinner. Just boil it up and toss it in some tomato sauce. Or, you can make a macaroni or pasta salad filled with fun shapes and colors.
  • Ramen and rice: Recipes that call for egg noodles can also be made with ramen, other types of pasta, or sometimes, even rice.
  • Cheese: Use up all those half-blocks of cheese or half-used bags of shreds by making a big mac and cheese. Cream cheese, Parmesan, cottage cheese, or anything else you have will taste amazing baked with macaroni.
  • Ham: Not in the mood for that big baked ham in your freezer? Check out these 10 other ways you can use all that delicious pork.
  • Canned goods: You can use random cans of enchilada sauce, corn, tomatoes, chilis, jalapeños, or anything Mexican-inspired in a big pot of chili.
  • Fresh herbs: You can learn how to dry fresh herbs before they go bad. Then, you can crumble them up and use them year-round.

Now that you’ve taken an inventory and have some tips that, hopefully, inspired your culinary imagination, there’s just one more thing to do: Write your grocery list! You’ll probably find that it’s much shorter than usual, and you’ll likely spend a lot less, too.


As many of us stocked up on nonperishables over the last year, our pantries are overcrowded with cans, boxes, and frozen goods. So take your inventory today, and try to do it at least once a year, to limit food waste and save on groceries.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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