Clearing the Pantry

There are a few basic mysteries in life that we have learned to accept as cold cases. In addition to the MIA socks and bobby pins, there is another major unsolved quandary: Why does food go bad faster when I pay for it?

Don’t misunderstand…I love the idea of cooking, but by the time I get everything home, I just want something quick, easy, and preferably brought to me by a delivery driver. In knowing this about myself, I have started buying more frozen or canned goods. That way, in theory, I can be prepared to cook whenever the urge hits me. Makes sense, yes? Nope. Instead, I still feel like I have “nothing to eat,” only now I also have no available pantry or freezer space.

As a result of this conundrum, I decided to give myself a challenge: I am only going to eat the stuff that is currently in my home. I will not be doing any grocery shopping or buying food out in the real world.

Baseline:

I have been away on vacation, so it’s already been a minute since new groceries have been introduced into the house. The last time I went shopping was three weeks ago with my dad to Costco. In other words, I am starting the week at a disadvantage. No milk. No eggs. No bread. On the other hand, I have a shocking surplus of other items, such as the following: Canned veggies (some I like, and some I loath); nuts–SO MANY NUTS; pasta, rice, and oats; frozen fruits and veggies.

Now, the only rule I have is that anything I eat this week must come from home. So, I’m not limiting any spices or food group. That said, I am going to be taking nutrition and general enjoyment into consideration. Sure, I could munch on dry cereal and rice all week, but life’s too short to torture myself for a story.

Day 1:

I have already goofed up. Now, considering I have no milk or eggs, I’m still pleased I managed to bake anything. And the fact my meat-loving boyfriend choked down my vegan cake with minimal sass was also nice. I believe his exact words were, “It’s not that bad; you’ve definitely made worse.” Ah, yes. The words every homecook wants to hear. Sass aside, I had started playing the game on hard mode, for no good reason.

I knew I had a lot of frozen fruit I needed to consume, but I wanted something more interesting than a smoothie for breakfast. After looking through Pinterest a while, I found a vegan blueberry breakfast bread. Fantastic! This would use my stockpile of nuts and some of the fruit. However, halfway through mixing the ingredients, I realized the recipe called for dairy-free plain yogurt. Alright, no big deal–let’s improvise! I had already used apple sauce for the moisture and binding, so I assume the faux-gurt was there for smoothness and fat, yeah? After poking around, I found about a dozen single-serving hummus packs from Costco. Surely, this will make for a lovely substitution.

I was primed and ready to accept my James Beard award. That was, until I tasted the batter. The combination of salted nuts, oats, apple cider vinegar, and ½ cup of hummus made my teeth shrink in my head. Imagine eating a battery-charged granola bar while smelling old garlic. By some miracle, once baked, this bread was shockingly palatable, and only vaguely tasted of Duracell and chickpeas. After this debacle, I played it safe for the other two meals, and had rice and canned sardines for lunch, then rice with canned peas and “curry” for dinner. I started this project with so much gusto, but after using some of my favorite things in these three meals, I’m skeptical about how the rest of the week is gonna shake out.

Day 2:

For my second round of the Ultimate Chopped Challenge, I played it a bit safer. The hummus-nut loaf made for a pretty satisfying breakfast (and later midnight snack). For lunch I had rice cooked with canned tomatoes; for dinner, I made us vegan “pizza” from scratch using canned pesto, olives, and spinach. All my flour is officially gone, so any future baking will be an adventure. And for those who don’t care to finish this article, I will go ahead and tell you, the adventure did not go well. You may have noticed I’m putting a lot of my meals in quotation marks. This is because I cannot in good conscience blaspheme other curries and pizzas by lumping my creations into their categories.

Day 3:

Breakfast was a smoothie from some frozen fruits and water. Lunch was a stir-fry from leftover rice, frozen onions, jarred garlic, and assorted canned veggie. Dinner, however, was a struggle. Though I’ve enjoyed cooking again, my partner is not nearly as jazzed about this little experiment. He is an avid meat-eater who abhors 95% of all vegetables. Sorry, dude. There’s no more meat in the house, which means no meat in our bellies.

After some pantry-raiding, I pulled out 4-5 different cans of veggies, along with half the spice cabinet, and threw together a nice little Mexican chili. If there is any place where canned food can shine, it’s in a chili.

Day 4:

Without flour, I had to be creative to make bread. Apparently, there is a traditional Nordic bread that is made with raw oats and nuts. Rad! I have an egregious surplus of nuts. The bread was easy, but did take a long time to make–four hours in total. And y’all, this batter looked nasty. Have you ever added too much water to oatmeal, taken a three-day vacation, and then returned only to be greeted by a milky mush? Of course, right? So, you know exactly what I was facing.

After it baked for over ninety minutes, I pulled out something that  looked like seed bread. Or, a “block of birdseed” according to my partner. For breakfast we put some butter on the slice and…oh, boy. As my partner took his first bite, his face instantly contorted. His chews became slower with each passing moment, as the mushy oats and soggy nuts started to break apart in his mouth. In a tone of utter dismay, he said, “It doesn’t even feel like food.” I asked if I should add some salt, but he quickly let me know I could add whatever I wanted in future efforts, because he’ll never be putting that “bread” in his mouth again. My best friend chimed in: “It looks like you chewed the nuts up, spit them out, and then packed them back together.” Everyone’s a critic.

Lunch was leftover chili, and dinner was a hodgepodge of various whatnots: pickles, jarred olives, pita chips, and hummus, along with some frozen banana and peanut butter “nice cream” for dessert.

Checking In

Okay, I’m about halfway through the week, so let’s talk about nutrition and lifestyle. Honestly, despite the hiccups in cooking, I’ve enjoyed time in the kitchen and pursuing Pinterest for ideas; however,  this is only possible through a concerted effort to schedule cooking and prep time into my day. A few months ago, when my work and school schedules were at their peaks, this would have been tedious, if not an impossibility. Not grocery shopping has been nice, and being creative has been cool, but all of that’s only feasible with the privilege of time.

Nutritionally speaking, though I have consumed more rice in the last four days than the six months prior, the rest of my diet has been pretty healthy. I’m eating fruits and veggies for almost every meal, a habit I’d sadly fallen out of over the summer. That said, I really miss fresh produce. Everything is processed in some way, and they feel so heavy. A cup of fresh green beans compared to a cup of canned ones feels different inside my body. These preserved foods have a surplus of sodium, so while my vitamin and mineral intake increased, my sodium levels raced for the sky. My tongue and stomach are craving a fresh salad so stinking bad.

Day 5:

It’s class day! My fellow procrastinating college students know what that means–if it takes me away from my work for more than ten minutes, I’m not doing it. After my morning smoothie, I stayed in work mode until I had to hit the door; as a result, instead of preparing a packed lunch (like a responsible adult), I tossed assorted snack foods in my bag, and munched on them throughout the day. By the time I got home (around 9:00 PM), the last thing I wanted to do was cook.

Instead I pulled out the remaining four-day-old “curry” leftovers, zapped them in the microwave with a wet paper towel, and bang! Bob’s your uncle! I have seen medical documentaries about college students dying from eating old, contaminated leftovers, but I figured I have enough dumb luck to roll the dice on this one. If working in healthcare for three years didn’t kill me, these rice and peas won’t.

Day 6:

Today feels like cheating…my editor-in-chief took me out for lunch, so while I didn’t spend any money on food, I was not being true to the challenge. But, you guys, I think getting fresh veggies and actual bread was a huge morale booster. And later that night, my partner cooked us soup that smelled like Thanksgiving.

Day 7:

Final day! And thank goodness, because I am running out of things to make. I have instant pudding mix, cranberry sauce, and garbanzo beans. Just looking at these three things by each other is making me a little ill…Breakfast offered a pleasant surprise when I discovered a random instant oatmeal packet tucked behind the coffee maker. Times like this make me grateful for being untidy. Lunch was rice steamed with some frozen soybeans and a healthy smattering of sriracha. For the final meal of the challenge, I used what was left of the rice for a garbanzo-bean and canned-tomato stir fry. The one redeeming trait of this dish resulted from my complete lack of self-control with the spice rack.

Closing thoughts

I will start with the good news: I saved so much money this week. I also had fun playing around with new recipes and combos I normally would have been too lazy to attempt. My beau and I enjoyed cooking together, and experimenting as a team improved the entire experience. The highlight of the adventure was him try the demon nut-loaf, and time can never erase the memories of watching his face morph through virtually every emotion. With good company, even failures can be a blast.

Now, for the negatives

I’ve already aired many of my grievances, so I’ll refrain from beating any more horses. I’ll add, however, I think I gained weight this week. I haven’t checked the scale–nor do I plan to, since that wasn’t the intention of the challenge–but I definitely feel…different. Maybe it’s bloat from all the sodium, or it could be actual weight due to the stark carb intake to supplement my meals. I also feel icky as I digest the preserved foods I’ve been living on. In any case, I’m not feeling too hot. I have spent my free-time over the last week searching for “vegan food porn” and watching farm-to-table cooking videos, because it helped satiate my bodily desire for something ripe and real.

Final TakeAway

This challenge inspired me to be less wasteful in my grocery shopping. As hokey as it sounds, I have a new appreciation for being a responsible produce shopper, as well as homecook.I mean, sure, I knew that eating “good” food makes us feel better, but until I switched to eating mostly frozen or canned foods, I didn’t appreciate the impact whole, non-processed, fresh ingredients have on my body. Now that the weekend is here, you better believe I’m going to treat myself by going ham on a salad bar. I may really splurge and buy myself a cookie.

About the Author
The Exhausted Millennial is holding down a full-time job, going to graduate school, attempting to have a social life whiling time with both family members and a boyfriend, trying to buy organic food while on a typical millennial budget and then to head home every damn day to prepare healthy meals—working in exercise on the rare occasion that extra moments can be found in a day, and raising a gorgeous but needy cat.