Living Off Your Pantry Is A Lesson In Creativity And Zombie Preparedness

I have this perfect not-for-profit proposition: Pantryholics Anonymous. It would meet weekly in the basement of churches around the country. All the members in a meeting would sit on metal folding chairs arranged in a circle, and one by one, each member would go around giving an introduction to the general effect of, “Hi, my name is E.S. and I have a quart-sized mason jar full of cheap za’atar.” And then everyone would say, “Hi, E.S.” And then the za’atar would be distributed to interested members, and everyone would go home with their hearts, as well as their pantries, unloaded onto caring strangers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Hi, my name is E.S. and I have a quart-sized mason jar full of cheap za’atar that I haven’t touched since I purchased it two years ago. I also have a multitude of dried beans, more wheat bran than I know what to do with, and about five pounds of neutral-flavored whey protein that I bought back when I was into macros and bulking. Among other things.

My pantry overfloweth with cooking and baking riches that I never use. I’ve packed it up and moved it to three different states in the past four years. And still—and still! I find myself exceeding my not-insubstantial grocery budget each month.

The Elon Musk Challenge is this slightly nutty thing modeled off of something the Tesla CEO dared himself to do for a month when he was seventeen years old: live, foodwise, on just $1 a day. Musk’s rationale was that $30 was not too difficult to earn in a month, and so if he could keep himself alive for just a dollar a day, he’d do fine as a starving entrepreneur.

A couple months ago, Kathleen Elkins over at Business Insider tried the challenge for herself, adjusting for inflation and coming up with a $60 budget for the month. She succeeded, but it involved an awful lot of pasta and peanut butter.

Me, I want to go in a different direction. I want to spend no money on groceries for an entire month. Why? To see if I can do it. To extract myself from the food-based economic system for awhile. And because I’m pretty sure the Zombie Apocalypse is coming and I want to know that I can survive if I have to barricade myself indoors.

The other thing is, I’ve been trying to save up for a trip to Norway. A month of no trips to the grocery store means that I can get that much closer to the fjord tour of my dreams.

What I’m Starting With (An Overview)

As far as fresh produce goes, I’m starting off on an okay foot. I’ve got four apples, a half a lemon, and some shriveled-up Cuties in the fruit drawer. In the vegetable drawer, I’ve got a good-sized bag of Brussels sprouts, a pack of bagged salad, some spinach, four avocados, and a half a red onion. I’ve also got a spaghetti squash, garlic, and some sweet potatoes in the pantry. And I don’t need to worry about scurvy: I take a multivitamin every day.

I also have, as I mentioned before, a crap ton of dry pantry goods: 6 different types of dried legumes, lots of kinds of flours and meals, cashews, almonds, walnuts, all the sugary stuff I tried to avoid during my low-sugar experiment, and three flavors of homemade granola.

I’m not that much of a carnivore, so if I run out of meat, it’s not going to be the end of the world. I’ve got a bit of chicken I’ll probably cook up early on, and a fair amount of frozen and canned fish.

I’m flush when it comes to spices, and oils are mostly the same. Except for olive oil, which I stupidly finished three days before March. It’s going to be a long month without my main cooking staple.

I’m also running low in the dairy department. I have just two eggs to start the month off with, a little bit of half-and-half, and a quarter of a carton of milk (that really needs to be used up ASAP). I’m doing alright in the cheese department, though. Which is a relief, because cheese and crackers are a meal.

Finally, as far as alcohol goes, I have four assorted beers left, a half bottle of red wine, and a fully-stocked liquor cabinet. So I don’t think I’ll be hurting too much there. When zombies maraud across the land alcohol will be a perk, anyway.

All this is to say, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about my month. I’ll be operating in vegan mode fairly early on, but I’m okay with that. That’s what this whole experiment is about: versatility. Creativity. Stick-to-itiveness.

The First Week

The eggs get used up the very first day. I’ve got a half pack of frozen Italian sausage that I’m not sure what to do with, other than to scramble it into an omelet. Afterwards, I find the perfect meatball recipe that needs two eggs to hold the meat together. I kick myself.

I also use up the chicken and my single, solitary can of tomato sauce (sob) in a slow-cooker chicken tikka masala. I have to improvise: I don’t have cilantro, nor do I have diced tomato, nor do I have a full onion. I use the red onion half in the vegetable crisper and throw some old pizza sauce into the pot as well, hoping the changes won’t affect the flavor too much. They don’t. The chicken is ridiculous-level good.

On Thursday, I use up the last of the milk in an afternoon snack-attack smoothie. Coffee is going to be so not fun from now on. I also use up the last of the all-purpose flour in a fit of crumpet-making. Another adaptation: I have to use almond milk in place of regular milk in the recipe. It doesn’t change the flavor, thank goodness.

Casualties: Eggs, milk, half-and-half, onion, tomato, chicken, all-purpose flour.

The Second Week

On Monday, I decide that it’s time to use up the Brussels sprouts, because I’d rather eat them than have them perish at the bottom of my fridge. My preferred method is roasting. And miracle of miracles: I actually do have olive oil! The story is that last January I placed second in a chili-making contest and won one of those fancy bottles of oil with whole chili peppers in them. Since I am officially operating under the impression that the yellowish-tinted oil inside is of the olive variety, my crisis is averted. I toss the sprouts with the oil, stick them in the oven, and whip up a Sriracha-mayonnaise sauce for dipping. The combo is so good I want to cry. The sprouts last me all of two meals before they’re gone. Have I mentioned that I love Brussels sprouts?

One of my favorite food bloggers, Smitten Kitchen, keeps publishing recipes that are entirely applicable to my pantry situation, and so I make fancy avocado toast using leftover whole-wheat bread multiple times throughout the week. I top the avocado toast with a drizzle of the aforementioned olive oil and, since I’m out of crushed red pepper, cayenne.

I also make Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for Roasted Yams and Chickpeas with Yogurt, because I can. It’s delightfully satisfying, even when I leave out the scallions and sub the lime juice for lemon. The chickpeas are especially satisfying, just as a snack on their own. I note the recipe as something to put into my regular rotation. (Not that I have a regular rotation, but maybe some day I will.)

On Thursday, I discover the miracles of aquafaba. Since I want to use up the quickly-souring ricotta in pancakes but have exactly zero eggs with which to make my recipe of choice, I whip the chickpea water left over from the Roasted Yam recipe into some semblance of stiff peaks. It’s really neat! But my ricotta pancakes taste like beans. I eat them anyway, because I’m not in a position to be choosy.

Finally, I’ve got a nearly-full tub of vanilla ice cream languishing in the freezer. I’ve always wanted to try making my own Magic Shell, and I know that I have plenty of coconut oil to try it out.
Except that it turns out that I don’t have much coconut oil at all, and my Magic Shell attempt ends up depleting the last of it. But at least I have peanut butter-chocolate Magic Shell, which really is freaking magical. I eat shell-topped ice cream nearly every day of the week. As per tradition, I save the shell for last.

Casualties: Aged cheddar cheese, wine, sweet potatoes, frozen parathas, ricotta cheese, Brussels sprouts, apples, coconut oil, ice cream.

The Third Week

On Wednesday, I go a little bit crazy with the cooking and baking. I remember the spinach at the bottom of my vegetable crisper; luckily, it’s only slightly wilty. I pick the bad bits out of it and then turn it into a spinach pulao using the last of the Basmati rice, plus a little bit of the Jasmine.

I also have a fair amount of rice left over from Week 1’s chicken tikka masala. Surely there’s a recipe online to make bread with rice, I think. And there is! So I make it, throwing in some of the pulao when I run out of regular cooked rice.

I’m not done, though: I whip up a loaf of bread with quinoa. In spite of the rising fail illustrated in the photo above, the quinoa bread turns out well. Except that I leave it to sit for too long (because I’ve run out of Ziplocs, and I refuse to go to the grocery store) and it stales up within two days. Add to this the fact that all my bread baking has used up the last of my bread flour, and I’m in dire straits when it comes to baking.

On Thursday, I find a recipe for Raw Peanut Butter Maca Cookies. Maca is something I ill-advisedly bought a whole lot of and then never used after the first week of purchase. (It also uses coconut flour and almond flour, BOTH OF WHICH I HAVE A LOT OF FOR THE SAME REASONS. I’m a sucker for new experiences, alright?) I figure the recipe will be a good pantry-cleaner, so I whip the cookies up, using water instead of almond milk. The dough is delicious, but when I “bake” them (using a low temperature in the toaster oven to simulate the dehydrator the recipe wants), they turn…not great. I choke down most of the cookies over the course of several days before I just can’t stand them anymore. The rest are donated to the trash can.

Casualites: Beer, basmati rice, spinach, bread flour, parathas.

The Fourth Week

The fourth week! While the prospect of being able to step inside a grocery store is thrilling, I’m deflated by the fact that 90% of my pantry still remains untouched.

This fact is not helped by all the frozen samosas I’ve been eating this week. But they’re easy! And they’re delicious! Unlike everything else I’ve been creating for myself. Which is just the problem with attempting an experiment like this.

When I’m not eating samosas or crappy peanut butter “cookies,” I’m eating avocado toast. I also whip up some steel-cut oats, because it’s something I can do. Topped with peanut butter and Soylent, which we keep around mostly for my husband (I’ve discovered that my stomach hates it on its own) the steel cut oats are nothing short of indulgent.

I also get creative on Tuesday and throw together some sad vegan nachos: stale tortilla chips topped with refried beans, avocado, and salsa. Seasoned with the tears of a person who hasn’t been shopping in over a month. They’re so satisfying that I repeat them until I run out of salsa.

(This week I also become so depressed with the experiment that I stop taking notes.)

Casualties: Salsa, except that I have a whole other untouched jar in my pantry.

Post-Experiment Debriefing

The one thing I can say for certain is that I survived the month. That should count for something.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! But with some modifications. I like to think I improvised pretty well with what I had, but in the future, I would allow myself the freedom to shop for just the ingredients needed to finish off a recipe. All that coconut flour, for example, can be made into coconut crepes, but only with eggs. Otherwise, like I said before, I’ll avoid the boring and fall back on the convenience foods I’ve got sitting around. Not good.

The whole month was a learning lesson, for sure. Usually when I’m planning meals for the week, I troll for recipes that sound good (Pinterest, wut?), or go for old favorites. But this month scrambled my brain enough that I’m now determined to look for recipes that will use up specific ingredients in the pantry, in order to keep saving up my cashmoney for that Norway vacation.

The ultimate point is this: Zombies, me and my terrible vegan cookies are ready for you.