Day 3: Plan Your Meals

Plan Your Meals | 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero | EASY PANTRY STAPLE RECIPES
This is the third day of our 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero challenge.   Start with Day One here.

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Welcome to Day 3! Were you at least a little excited this morning when you woke up and thought of your organized pantry and freezer? (Or am I the only one who wakes up excited about organization?)

With a freshly organized freezer and pantry, the load on your shoulders is hopefully just a little bit lighter and you are feeling good about the days to come. When it comes to food, at least now you know what you have; but now you have to figure out how to use it!

Thus, today’s assignment is to brainstorm as many meal ideas as possible!


Meal planning eliminates dinnertime stress and overspending. Rather than navigating weeknight meals without a plan, go in with a plan and dinner is served. Simple!


First, as fast as you can, make a list of your family’s favorite meals or your favorite recipes. Don’t worry if you have the right ingredients; just start writing things down. If your kids are old enough, they can help you with this task. Keep writing until you can’t think of any more.

Next, read through your inventory lists and try to think of one dish that corresponds to each different food item. For instance, if canned corn is on your list, you could write down “corn chowder” or “corn casserole” or “goulash.” If you are really stumped for an item, keep moving. For items such as ready-to-eat canned soup, it is okay to just jot down “soup.”

Print our meal idea worksheet and list your favorite meal ideas from all the brainstorming you’ve just done. Be sure to cite the source of the recipe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to make something for a second time and can’t find the recipe again (especially online recipes).

Consider your family’s tastes. Hopefully the majority of your pantry items fit in with meals your family enjoys. (Otherwise, you may have to really hunker down for a long month.) If there are a few favorite meals, jot them down and assess if you have the ingredients or at least most of the ingredients on hand. Pasta can be substituted for rice or try putting saucy items over toast or baked potatoes if you run out of starches.

Pinterest, Yummly, MyFridgeFood, and other online resources can be really helpful. Check the blogs you follow for recipe ideas as well. There are several lists and recipes at To get you started, here is a list of my favorite recipes which can be made from pantry staples.

Plan Your Meals | 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero | EASY PANTRY STAPLE RECIPES



  1. Freezer Breakfast Cupcakes
  2. Homemade Yogurt
  3. Cinnamon Roll Waffles
  4. Breakfast Casserole

Soups and Chili

  1. Taco Soup
  2. Beef Stew
  3. Corn and Black Bean Chili (vegetarian)
  4. Ham and Bean Soup

Sides, Starters, and Snacks

  1. Bloomin’ Olive Bread
  2. Easy Asian Chop Salad
  3. Pizza Muffins (vegetarian)
  4. Caramel and Cream Cheese Apple Dip
  5. No-Fuss Mashed Potatoes
  6. Cheesy Potato Casserole

Main Course Meals

  1. Grilled Steak Tacos
  2. Cheesy Chicken and Rice Casserole
  3. Freezer Beef Burritos
  4. Slow Cooker Pot Roast
  5. Honey Sesame Chicken
  6. Spaghetti and Meatball Pie
  7. Grandma’s Sloppy Joes (optional vegetarian)
  8. Easy American Goulash
  9. Taco Casserole (optional vegetarian)
  10. Taco Bites (optional vegetarian)
  11. Easy Pesto Chicken


  1. One-Bowl Brownies
  2. White Chocolate Rice Crispy Treats
  3. Five-Minute Ice Cream Cake
  4. Maggie and Annie’s Everything Cookies
  5. Chocolate Insanity Cookies (gluten free)

A few of my favorite dishes are very simple ones, like vegetarian chili made with mostly canned or frozen items; pasta with a simple sauce of olive oil, cracked pepper, and Parmesan; or grilled or baked protein with greens or veggies. Sometimes the most satisfying meals are the easiest. Eggs can stretch your meals quite a bit. Try quiche or a frittata and use up the veggies, protein, and condiments you have on hand.

Plan Your Meals | 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero | EASY PANTRY STAPLE RECIPES

Hopefully your pantry contains some tortillas, bread, rice, grains, or pasta. I find that these items really help round out our meals, plus they can be used in multiple ways. For tortillas, you can make wraps, tacos, quesadillas, pizzas, or even enjoy them with a little cinnamon and sugar as a dessert. Get creative and explore new uses for items you might normally think of as one-trick ponies.


Yesterday I had finally run out of fresh options and started digging around in the freezer. I found some cooked hamburger and corn. I added them to rice, salsa, seasoning, chicken bouillon, and onions and voila—Hamburger Surprise was born! Pretty good stuff. I did rinse the ice crystals off the meat before I added it to the rice cooker though! Keep those good ideas coming! — Steffanie

I’m a vegetarian, but my family eats meat and I fix it for them pretty regularly. You may find that using a small amount of meat in items like tacos, then adding quinoa or beans, helps to stretch the recipe, while still giving your family a “meaty meal.” Mushrooms are another meaty substitute, as are many types of zucchini and squash. Using sausage or bacon (meat with a lot of flavor and oomph) can help make a mostly vegetable meal feel more filled out.

Plan Your Meals | 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero | EASY PANTRY STAPLE RECIPES

I’ve had some readers inquire as to how to best create a no-spend meal plan while on a specialty diet. For my family, our pantry and freezer contain items we regularly eat. Hopefully yours does too, and if you follow any specific diet, it should be fine to continue with what you have on hand. If you’re gluten-free, you probably have gluten-free pasta or rice flour on hand, and if you’re a vegan, you probably have some shelf-stable tofu or almond milk in your storage. Having a month of no spending is no reason to assume you have to eat pasta or cereal at every meal (unless, of course, that’s all you had on hand and you’re committed to spending absolutely zero).

If you grow flowers or food, you can trade what you have with a neighbor or at the farmers market. — Jonathan

Another good point raised by readers is that many of us have our own gardens. Now, you may be doing a zero spending month in the winter, or perhaps you have a black thumb and just don’t like gardening. However, if you do happen to enjoy gardening, planting and harvesting some staple ingredients like lettuce, herbs, zucchini, or beans can really stretch out your food supply. You don’t have to be a farmer to plant a head of lettuce, and you can even grow romaine from the base or “heart” of a used head. Just place in water and put it in a windowsill! How’s that for thrifty? You can also try the same process with green onions.

Plan Your Meals | 31 Days of Living Well & Spending Zero | EASY PANTRY STAPLE RECIPESGet your printable brainstorming meal ideas worksheet HERE.

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By the way, throughout this challenge, there will be many different worksheets and printables for you to use. I suggest you print them out and organize them together in a binder or folder so you can journal as you go.  Be sure to follow @RuthSoukup on Instagram and post your own photos using hashtag #31daysLWSZ for a chance to win daily prizes.  (Get more information about our Instagram giveaway HERE.)  Remember, I will be broadcasting LIVE each day on Periscope (usually between 10am and 11am EST, but a little earlier this morning!).  You can find and follow me at @RuthSoukup.  Finally, be sure to check out our BLOG TOUR page, where you can find all sorts of additional ideas and inspiration from other bloggers who are taking the #31dayLWSZ challenge this month too!


  1. Heather
    October 3 at 01:17PM

    I am a LWSZ virgin and am loving this so far! I jumped ahead in that I was kind of feeling worried on the meals and on the first day I got a list of dinners I could make for us based on what we already own. (We take leftovers for lunches. I came up with 24 meals; which I know is shy of 31 dinners…Eek! Well, then it dawned on me that I didn’t repeat any meals which I know at second glance I will be able to duplicate another day given on hand ingredients. I also realized that my coffee creamer won’ t make it to the end of the month and felt instantly panicked, but then found a Pinterest recipe for one which I luckily have all my items needed! So far, so good…

  2. Molly
    October 3 at 03:04PM

    I am surprised how many of your recipes have convienent bought foods in them, rather than saving money and making them homemade. Like buying cooked sausage and potatoes rather than making them yourself and having more for other recipes. Or using canned dough, etc. Sadly disappointing how many highly processed recipes that would cost more than making them homemade. But I’m still enjoying the tips on saving money. Time to continue the work on my meal plan for the month. Thanks.

    • Ruth Soukup
      October 8 at 06:46AM

      Hi Molly, our recipes here at Living Well Spending Less are created to be quick, easy, tasty, and family friendly. I am not a “foodie,” I am a busy working mom. While I have no problem with whole foods, I also realize that many of us (including me) struggle with getting dinner on the table at all, and often resort to eating out or ordering takeout because life gets so crazy sometimes.

      In the end, my opinion it is more important to be able to sit down with our families to a semi-homemade meal than not at all. Most of the ingredients found in our recipes are pantry staples that go on sale frequently and can be easily stockpiled. If you have more time available, I encourage you to research creating your own processed food alternatives from scratch, but you probably won’t find those recipes here. 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  3. Becky Horst
    October 3 at 03:31PM

    Just wanted to say I am trying. I hope I’m not setting myself up for failure but instead of zero spending I’m going to reduce my spending. My husband isn’t exactly on board with the zero part. This weekend my husband is away for a camping trip and I am home with the kids. I had intentions of taking them out somewhere quick and junky for dinner tonight. But after reading the first couple of posts I have been inspired to dig into my pantry and make some tortellini soup for dinner. I’m assuming I’ll save at least $20. Not to mention I’ll be saving my health! Also I’ll be making a very exact grocery list every week. Fresh fruits & veggies are so important for me to get into my kiddos so I can’t not go to the store even though a month off from that chore sounds like heaven. I do have the problem of not planning ahead and then I overbuy. So I will go a few extra days in between trips and use up what I have first. Thanks for the inspiration. My goal is an all cash christmas!

  4. October 3 at 09:55PM

    I like how creative this challenge forces me to be. Thanks for providing the pantry staples recipes. It helped get me started on brainstorming some other recipes.

  5. Dana julian
    October 4 at 02:23PM

    My first time doing the LWSZ challenge and I am loving it! I was so pleased with my organized pantry that I wanted to show my husband … He wasn’t quite so excited. Lol! Made the freezer cupcakes for the second time yesterday – love that one. Thanks!

  6. bobbi
    October 4 at 03:50PM is so amazingly helpful for this. you enter what food items you have and it compiles recipes you can make only with what you have on hand 🙂

  7. Megan
    October 5 at 12:47PM

    Had to share this “ah-ha” moment. My friend just taught me how to make vegetable fried rice and it is a super easy – – saute onions and garlic in oil, add a few cups of day old rice, some frozen veggies (I used a pea-carrot-corn-green bean blend), and soy sauce to taste. Fry with lid on pan until rice is soft and veggies are heated through. Super easy and I usually have all of this stuff on hand!

  8. heather
    October 7 at 03:25PM

    I agree with one of the earlier comments, on how so many of your recipes have processed and unhealthy ingredients like grands products, etc. I would love to see more recipes put here that are on the cheap side that are whole food based. That said, I am enjoying all of the other money saving tips. you have inspired me to clean the pantry and there is so much food down there it is unbelievable. Looking forward to see what is next on the list to do! thank you

  9. nola
    October 8 at 12:59PM

    This is one that I already do. I bought an “empty book” 25 years ago, and started recording the meals that we actually eat (Spaghetti, Garlic Bread, Green Salad, Brownies in the summer and jello salad in the winter) and the receipies that go with them. This means that it is super simple to do up my menus. I have feasts for Thanksgiving, Birthdays, and other events, along with regular meals that I always have ingredients on hand for. My grocery list is based on these recipies and kept on my phone. Shopping is a piece of cake for me and I always have at least 2 months of food in the pantry. I learned as a child that it is better to have more than you think you will need because someone is always bringing home a hungry guest.

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