The Refrigerator Cooking Challenge

My friend Moxie and her squeeze decided recently to endeavor on what they call a "refrigerator cooking" challenge. This meant that they were not going to make a single trip to the grocery store or eat out for two weeks.

They went cold turkey, if you will. Sans the turkey.

Whatever was in her fridge, pantry, and freezer that day, with no "pre challenge stocking up" was what they'd eat on for the next two weeks, combined with what they could take in from their small but fruitful backyard garden.

Frankly, I didn't think they could do it. They are notorious cravers, experimentors, "let's- try-to-make-tira-misu-RIGHT-NOW" kind of eaters. They go to the grocery store every day, for crying out loud.

But they appear to be holding steadfast in their resolve. I invited them over to dinner this week, which totally should be within the rules since it will cost them zero dollars, and I can tell they're even wavering on that, because it will feel like cheating, even if it's not.

I say this is a good challenge for all of us. The rules: Eat for two weeks on the things that are already in your house. No grocery or convenience store trips, no eating out. Extra points if you have to go to a party or function and take a dish with you. I suppose we could make a caveat for a gallon of milk, especially if you have kids and you feel you MUST give them calcium.

Most of us have surprisingly more nutritious and edible food on hand at any given moment that we believe we do. We have cans of beans, random blocks of cheese, bits of four different shapes of pasta, tunafish, and that jar of pickles in the fridge that are totally overlooked on a daily basis. We also have flour, sugar, and maybe a few eggs on hand.

The tricks to refrigerator cooking are A) to be willing to actually COOK instead of just heat up, and B) to subvert your cravings in leiu of a more frugal dinner, which will turn out to be just as satisfying anyway, I promise.

Moxie's challenge has been so successful in part because of her garden, and in part because she is a good grocery shopper most of the time. If you are shopping carefully, you will find that you always have a stock of certain proteins in your fridge or freezer. When the family sized pack of pork chops goes on sale, you buy it. When the big bags of frozen chicken tenders are marked down two dollars, you snatch them up. Not because you have a meal planned for them, but because they're good to have around, esp. when they were purchased on the cheap.

As she and I discussed the various meals she's invented out of the scraps of this and that in her pantry, I got to thinking about my own pantry, and some of the things I buy with regularity. If I had to stop shopping for two weeks today, with no warning, could I do it?

I believe so, simply because there are things I pretty much always have.

They are: a bag of frozen chicken thighs or tenders two pork tenderloins, purchased on buy one get one free sale a bag of frozen shrimp a couple of pounds of ground beef and/or sausage bacon a bag of edamame a pack of tortillas a loaf of wheat bread a bag of whole wheat English muffins eggs bacon mayo mustard random pasta frozen Sunday gravy plus the fixin's for another batch flour, both white and wheat bacon sugar butter random frozen vegetables frozen black bananas (after they go bad, I freeze em) heavy cream or half n half (takes forever to go bad) white rice bacon random bits of various cheeses whatever my garden is currently producing

So let's say we stop shopping today. What would we eat?

I would make a couple of pizza crusts one night, and load them up with some sauce made from my garden tomatoes or pesto from my garden basil (it doesn't HAVE to be pine nuts - whatever oily nuts you have will do), and maybe a little squash and eggplant from my garden, and some random cheese from my fridge.

Another night, I might cook up the odds and ends of pasta and use up the Sunday Gravy in the freezer, along with some frozen veggies, which I might steam if I'm in a hurry or saute with the bits of red onion I can collect from the bottom of the produce drawer, along with some balsamic vinegar.

I might make a couple of pie crusts and do chicken pot pie, if I have enough milk or half n half, which I usually do. If not, I might do shephard's pie and use the last of the potatoes before they grow eyes and die.

There's always the taco with garden fresh veggies. And don't be afraid to make a batch of bread dough (or use the frozen Rhode's dough that's been in your freezer for a year) to make calzones.

Make scones with the random dried fruit in your cabinet, and banana bread with the dead black bananas in your freezer, for quick and tasty grab and go breakfast items, since you're sure to run out of eggs soon enough.

If your pantry is full of beans, a pot of chili or a rice bowl is not far away. This is your chance to experiment with flavors and combinations you formerly would have avoided. Whip up a peanut sauce out of the peanut butter and soy sauce I KNOW you have in your cupboard. Pour it over some noodles, with or without a protein, for a quick side or main dish.

So, are you ready? Start today. No cheating - no grocery stock ups. Go home and start cooking with what you already have. You'll be amazed at the variety of foods you'll eat and the ingenious ways you find to use your already-purchased ingredients. And then you can use all the money you saved to buy yourself that new KitchenAid mixer. Or, buy it for me.


Moxie 13 years, 6 months ago

I have been ABSOLUTELY LOVING THIS. I didn't think we'd make it either, but we have and somehow we have managed to eat better these last two weeks than we NORMALLY do just because we've been forced to eat outside of the box, so to speak.

I get so used to cooking the same ten to twelve meals over and over again that I sort of forgot that I knew how to cook other things, so this is a great reminder of the meals you forgot you knew how to make. And, its forced me to learn some new tricks when I go to the internet armed with a list of ingredients I have on hand, looking for recipes that will fit my needs and my available ingredients.

And, oh my goodness, have we been saving some serious cash by not making all those extra little trips to the store and by not eating out!

So far, my favorite recipes have been a pesto pizza made from homemade dough and the basil from our garden and pasta salad made with our garden tomatoes, some roasted red peppers and a little bit of mayo and some fat free Italian dressing. So easy and so uncomplicated!

The only thing I would suggest is that if you have access to FREE food that its okay to supplement with that. For example, I took advantage of the Pendleton's pick 'em and keep half deal by going out in the fields on a good weather day, spending an hour picking some green beans, let them keep half and brought my other half home for free. All it cost me was my time and a little effort, which was well worth it to be outdoors enjoying the unseasonably cool summer! And those beans tasted far better than anything I would have gotten from the store anyway!

linswri 13 years, 6 months ago

This is awesome, and we do it often.

One of the things I do is go to You can type in what you've got layin' around, and it searches for recipes on the internet with those things in them. Sometimes it works really well, other times...meh. But it's fun and easy, and I've stumbled upon some awesome recipes this way.

Megan Green Stuke 13 years, 6 months ago

Also, has an advanced recipe search that allows you to click on the ingredients you'd like to use and find recipes that include them. Very nice.

sallyride 13 years, 6 months ago

I have been meaning to give this technique a try. It seems impossible that my pantry can't have enough supplies for some yummy meals. Will be using those recipe websites pronto.Thanks for the inspiration!

Megan Green Stuke 13 years, 6 months ago

A couple of years ago, on Christmas Day, Mr. Meat and Potatoes and I decided to have a couple of friends over, sort of impromptu. He said we couldn't do it because the grocery stores were closed. I laughed at him.

An old jar of olives turned into delicious cheese puffs with olive centers. A log of frozen rhodes dough and some bacon turned into a savory "monkey bread" concoction. I had some breakfast sausage in the freezer that turned into sausage-y meatballs, and I think I had a few other tricks up my sleeve as well. Never tell me I can't. ;)

Commenting has been disabled for this item.