Bargain Betty and the Pantry Project

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Virgil Evetts

Diana Clement has a genius for frugality. She can spot a bargain at 50 paces, smell a decent garage sale from several streets over, and is a Trade Me trawler of formidable prowess. And so she should be. By day -and quite often night- she writes about personal finance and various consumer issues for the Herald, Consumer and several other publications in New Zealand and abroad. It is literally her job to know about money, spot bargains and cut costs.

Her fascinating and often hilarious adventures in bargain-ferreting can be found at . Diana recently invited me, and by association Foodlovers, to help her with a simple but compelling project: to see how long she can feed herself and her two children from her well-stocked pantry, with minimal trips to the supermarket. As she puts it “One of the best ways to cut your grocery bill, at least in the short term is to simply not go shopping”. I certainly can’t argue with that, not in theory anyway.

It’s our shared contention that most people visit the supermarket far too often, and instead of creating meals based on what they have at hand, choose recipes and treat the ingredients as a shopping list. All of us do this to some extent, but it’s a long way from an economical approach. Even if you don’t go shopping on an empty stomach (a potentially disastrous rooky mistake) and actually stick to your list as dictated by Jamie et al, this day-by-day, piecemeal attitude will still eat a sizeable hole in your wallet. Take it from one who knows.

A more cost-effective and considerably less frustrating approach (assuming you’re not some supermarket-loving weirdo), is to maintain a well stocked pantry full of versatile, basic ingredients.  Not only is this a thriftier way of operating, it’s makes you a better cook. Anything that encourages an abandonment of recipe books and their inevitable rules and regulations can only improve ones craft.

Diana’s experiment in pantry-cooking is interesting, not just in terms of the basic economics involved, but also because it represents a reaction against how we cook and eat in the western world. Unlike the vast majority of our species, we of the affluent few do not eat whatever we have but whatever we want, or even more alarmingly whatever some lauded food writer commands. Somewhat conversely, certain well-intentioned food media phenoms and their espousing of ‘free-style’ cooking – as derived from rigid recipes- are really just creating another generation of cooks with a rote-learned, cook-by-numbers ethos. Pukka indeed.

The Experiment

Last week I did a full inventory of Diana’s pantry, which I have provided below. Our job at Foodlovers is very simple: at the bottom of this article post either original recipes or links to recommended Foodlovers recipes which use items from Diana’s pantry. Recipes need to be family friendly, as Diana’s children Milo (7) and Maya (9) are still fairly conservative eaters –although by no means fussy.  At the time of writing Diana hasn’t embarked upon a major supermarket expedition (fresh fruit, vegetable and milk top-ups notwithstanding) for 3 weeks, and is showing no signs of malnutrition just yet. I have every confidence that we can help her to hold out quite a bit longer, and who knows, we might just learn a thing or two along the way.

Diana’s Pantry

Note: In the interests of encouraging creativity I have deliberately omitted quantities. Just assume she has enough…




Flour, baking powder, semolina, oats, etc

Cocoa, vanilla essence

Salt, pepper etc

Pinenuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, walnuts, raisins

Vita wheats, girl guide biscuits

Reduced Cream, coconut-flavoured reduced cream


Basic spices: Cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, etc

Dried spaghetti

Instant noodles

Basmati rice, sushi rice

Mariumiya Japanese seasoning

Weetbix, Cornflakes, rice bubbles

Muesli bars

Potato chips

Soy Sauce, Worcester sauce, tomato sauce

Sesame oil, rice bran oil, olive oil

Balsamic vinegar


Peanut butter


Instant soups – laksa, pumpkin and potato, tomato

Tomato paste

Stock powder

Tinned tuna, pink salmon


Canned fruit –peaches, fruit salad etc

Canned tomatoes

Frozen wedges, fishfingers, corn, asparagus, various frozen herbs

Canned pineapple

Beef schnitzel, lamb chips, frankfurters, kransky ,chorizo,  chicken burgers, prawns, lamb loin chops, beef mince, pork medallions, minute steaks, bacon

Pita bread, white and wholemeal sandwich breads.



Lemon juice

Cheese, butter, milk

Various fresh fruit and vegetables (replenished weekly)

Post your recipes, links and suggestions below and stay tuned for Diana’s updates…

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18 thoughts on “Bargain Betty and the Pantry Project

  1. Finally had the baked bean cassoulet last night. It was a real hit. Even with me – the great baked bean hater. Definitely worth doing again. And I might cook some regular cassoulets in the near future. Bean-based meals usually go down reasonably well in this household.

  2. One of the amusing results of this project has been the free food that has been coming my way as a result of it. I’ve been given eggs and grapefruit. This morning I was called by someone I know whose mother has gone into a rest home suddenly, and offered food from the mother’s cupboards. :) Shows how deeply the need to store food sits in our psyche. People have been worrying about the lack of food on our shelves.

    In retrospect, one of the best outcomes of the experiment was the psychological stuff. It’s made me think long and hard about why I hoard food. It is a wonderful feeling to open the freezer and pantry now and not have them full to the brim with food. (The fridge is a different story because it’s full to the brim with olives. There is less general food in the fridge, but it’s hard to tell that because the fridge is so full.

    I’m now going to be very careful not to constantly stock up on everything I might use one day, and try to plan meals for the week. I’m also going to go onto a fortnightly shopping regime. That will save me considerable time.

  3. I make a veg and pasta soup when I’m short of stuff (I tell the kids it’s minestrone so they don’t go into auto-‘yuck’.

    Dice whatever veg you happen to have (onions, carrots, cabbage, celery, yams), then saute in oil until soft.

    Add garlic and some chopped fresh rosemary and/or thyme if you have some growing in your garden, and saute for another couple of minutes.

    Add chicken stock (and maybe a wee bit of white wine if you happen to have a bottle open).

    Bring to a simmer and add a can of tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add broken sphagetti or pasta and cook until pasta is done. Season to taste.

  4. Here is my so called baked bean cassoulet recipe…
    I should point out that I share Diana’s dislike of baked beans. The horror, the horror…, but needs must.
    Traditional Cassoulet is a (often brutally) rich and complex dish of beans, goose or duck fat, stock and several types of meat and sausage all baked in the oven until rich and unctuous.
    Diana’s well stocked pantry allows us to create a more than passable approximate. The rather pervasive flavour of baked beans is hard to shift and your success here will be dependent on the quality and quantity of your stock.

    Baked Bean Cassoulet
    2 tins baked beans
    4 cups hot stock (chicken/beef)
    Kransky-roughly chopped
    Chorizo- roughly chopped
    1 onion-finely chopped
    3 cloves garlic crushed
    2 tablespoon butter/margarine
    ½ teaspoon dried thyme
    ¼ teaspoon dried sage Or 3 fresh sage leaves
    Vegetable oil
    Preheat oven to 200c
    Sauté the bacon and sausages in 1 tablespoon of the butter/margarine and a little oil until browned. Add onion garlic and herbs, sauté until soft and fragrant. Add beans and stir until simmering.
    Now add the stock. Bring to the boil and reduce to a low simmer. Stir frequently until reduced and thickened. Use a wooden spoon or potato masher to crush some of the beans. This greatly improves the texture of the sauce.
    Adjust seasoning to taste.
    Transfer to a suitable oven dish, sprinkle liberally with breadcrumbs and stud with little knobs of butter/margarine. Bake until golden and sizzling or stir in crust and add more breadcrumbs and butter/margarine and bake again.
    Serve with crusty bread and plenty of rough wine.

  5. Dianna,I have shopped once a month for many years.Although it’s only me and my husband at home now we have lots of visitors and grandchildren very frequently. I’m gluten and lactose intolerant so I make my bread but also wholemeal bread for my husband and others.I also have milk powder so that I can mix some up should we run short, I use Anchor Soylife milk and buy 6 cartons at a time which last for at least the month.I bake for the family with regular wheat flour but also convert many baking favourites to be gluten free, mostly no one realises.
    I have a freezer with meat, froz home grown veg and some ‘special” surprises which I can produce easily when needed.I have an extensive veg garden too which helps but there are a few veg which I buy when I need to.Even at this time of the year I have carrots, parsnip, celery,leeks, celeriac,cavalo nero and lots of herbs. Broccoli, cauli, cabbage more silver beet and lettuces coming on.
    I would like to try your challenge and see just how much longer I could go by just relying on what’s in my pantry. I would need to restock with tea,coffee etc mostly for my husband.
    Would anyone like to do the challenge too?

  6. Diana, a paella type dish could be made with chorizo and prawns. I can’t see any capsicum on your pantry list but that would not matter and you could use some canned tomatoes and a little frozen sweetcorn for colour. Perhaps there are some frozen peas lurking in the back of the freezer? If the kids don’t like prawns, you could just put a few in for yourself. Good luck with lasting the distance. It’s obvious that you had an exceptionally well stocked pantry to start off with.

  7. This is a great idea and reflects my approach as well. Nigel slater wrote a book called Real Fast Food that emphasises having a well stocked larder and it was a huge influence on me.
    The other big saver for me has been have a full-sized freezer. Anything that needs long slow cooking is an ideal candidate for freezing. It doesn’t take much more effort to make 4 or 5 times more quantity than you need and freeze the rest. I do it with soups, stews, ragu, chili, beans, pastry dough, roux, bechamel, crepes, tortillas, bread, rice, polenta, stock, cooked fruits, etc. I also make great use of a vacuum sealer to freeze meat nuts coffee etc and avoid things like freezer burn and oxidation.
    Not only do you save time energy and money but it also means you always have nice meals that can be assembled in short order.

  8. hi there good luck i’m to greedy and love making the recepie perfect the first time then i use what i have ,it does have to be like with like thou. love this one so did kids shock horror, prawns,oil, coconut cream,1 tblesp tamarind paste or lemon jucie,2 onions,2 tsp paprika. Make a paste of 100g of coconut,tsp chilli or dried, 4 tsp coriander seeds or powder, 2 1/2 tsp cumin seeds or powder, 1/2 tsp turumric ,1 tsp peppercorns or ground, 2cm piece of ginger grated, 4 cloves of garlic chopped,blitz. I added veg of pumpkin, spinage in the curry with mushrooms and armond slices in my rice .oil to pan/wok, brown onions with veg, add paste to release flavor add prawns ,cream and paprika simmer for 5mins then add the tamarind paste or lemon then season have with rice yummy!

  9. I should have added that I had a brainwave and mixed the lamb strips in with some chicken tortellini, along with sour cream and a few other ingredients. It turned out to be a real hit – even if it was a strange mix. I was about to put some tinned pineapple in it when my friend the chef called by coincidence and persuaded me against it. Oddly enough my two guests for dinner that night said they would have quite liked pineapple in the mix.

  10. This was a hit in our house last night
    Potato & leek soup,

    75g butter
    2-3 large leeks, washed thoroughly in cold water and sliced
    4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
    1 large onion, finely chopped
    2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    1 each: sprig of thyme, bay leaf
    1 litre of vegetable
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2 tbsp cream
    pinch cayenne

    sour cream to serve and chopped chives to garnish (optional)

    Heat the butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan or stockpot. Add the leeks, potato, onion and garlic. Cover and cook over a very low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring often.
    Add the thyme, bay leaf and stock. Simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until the potato is tender. Remove the thyme and bay leaf and allow the soup to cool slightly before puréeing in batches in a food processor.
    Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper & cayenne Add cream. Return the soup to the pan and reheat gently – do not bring to a boil.

    serve with cheese on toast or fresh made cheese & onion damper/scones.

  11. Thanks everyone. Those are great suggestions. I might make the Spaghetti Puttanesca tonight as I have about eight two litre plastic packs of olives in the fridge as well as some capers that I haven’t attacked yet.
    So far I’ve missed four weekly supermarket shops. Up until this week I only bought milk and fruit (the latter being something my kids aren’t going to get away with eating). It took four weeks to run out of fresh and frozen veg.
    It has amazed me how long I’ve been able to go without shopping. If there was an earthquake today, we’d still eat for a number of weeks (albeit not a balanced diet) before we ran out of food. I’ve been amazed how long this challenge has gone one.
    FYI, we ran out of bread early and I’ve been baking it. Twice I’ve made sushi for the kids’ lunches when I ran out of bread. That’s not unusual. I have been amazed at how long our cereal has lasted. If you include oats (of which I accidentally had two packets), we could eke out the cereals to last for three to four weeks’ of breakfasts. But I suspect the kids will protest.
    The beef olives are a great idea. Unfortunately we’ve now eaten the beef. But I’ll do this as soon as I start shopping again because it sounds nice.
    I’m really looking forward to Virgil’s baked bean cassoulet recipe. I’ve tried to Google one, but the ones I’ve found don’t use tinned baked beans. For the record, I hate tinned baked beans and things like Watties spaghetti. They’re bought for the kids who like them. Philistines…
    Please take the time to pop over to my blog and comment. I’d love some comments from new blood commenting. It’s at
    Diana Clement

  12. Kids Meal which we also love.
    I steam enough veges to feed the family – pretty much whatever you have (pumpkin, silverbeat, cauli, potatos, kumera, brocolli, carrots, the list goes on)
    I then make my own short pasty and cheese sauce (out of the edmonds cookbook).
    Put the steamed veges into a pie dish.
    Pour the cheese sauce over top.
    Put a pasty top on the top and bake for 20-25 minutes at 180 or until pasty is cooked.
    Cheap, delicious and an easy way to get your kids eating their veges.

  13. These “sausage” rolls are good, if you can whip up your own pastry here is the recipe for the filling.

    275 g fresh breadcrumbs
    225 g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
    1 large onion, grated
    3 tablespoons sour cream
    1 level tablespoon fresh chopped herbs (chives, parsley, thyme, etc)
    1½ level teaspoons mustard powder
    pinch cayenne pepper
    salt and freshly milled black pepper

    just combine all filling ingredients,

    Egg to brush pastry if wanted

    Pre-heat the oven 220°C, and cook until golden 20-25 min
    let cool for 5 min on wire rack before eating!

  14. Thai noodle salad
    12 ounces egg noodles * use pasta or noodles
    4 tablespoons sesame oil

    8 green onions, chopped
    5 garlic cloves, minced
    1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
    1/4 cup honey
    1/4 cup peanut butter
    1/4 cup soy sauce
    3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
    1 1/2 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce
    1 cup finely shredded carrots

    Cook noodles in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite. Drain. Transfer noodles to large bowl; add 3 tablespoons sesame oil and toss to coat.
    Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 6 green onions, garlic, and ginger; sauté until onions soften, about 2 minutes. Add honey, peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar, and chili-garlic sauce; whisk to blend. Simmer sauce 1 minute. Cool to room temperature. Pour over noodles and toss to coat. Add carrots; mix well. Transfer to platter; sprinkle with remaining green onions.

  15. Garden Veg Pie
    3-4 med-large potatoes, thinly sliced (mandolin is helpful here)
    1/2 small broc cut into florets
    1/2 small cauli cut into small florets
    1 large carrot thinly sliced,
    1.5 cup frozen peas
    100g grated cheese

    50 g butter
    1 small onion finely diced
    1/4 cup flour
    1 tsp mustard powder
    freshly grated nutmeg
    600ml milk
    100g grated cheese

    Boil the sliced potatoes in salted water until just cooked. Drain
    steam the cauli, broc & carrots until tender. set aside.

    Melt butter in small frying pan & saute onions until soft and golden but not browned. Add flour & mustard powder and stir over heat for 1 min, add milk gradually, bring to boil stirring until thickened. Add grated nutmeg & season, then stir in cheese until melted. Stir in the caul, broc, peas & carrots.

    Butter an oven proof dish and add half the potatoes to cover the bottom of dish, pour over the veg in cheese sauce, top with remaining potatoes, and sprinkle with grated cheese. pop into preheated 180oC oven and bake until golden approx 25 min.

    This can be a side dish or a main meal, and great for using up small amounts of veg left hanging around in fridge.

  16. Beef olives, jump out. Make a stuffing mix out of fresh bread crumbs, one small finely minced onion, dried herbs and a couple of table spoons of milk to moisten. Add this to the beef schnitzel, secure with a toothpick, brown the stuffed “beef olive’ in a oven proof pan, then add 2.5 cups of water to the pan and beef stock pdr, cover and pop into an oven on about 150oc for about 1 hour.

    Some meal ideas using the ingredients
    Fried rice, Pita bread pizza, Sweet-corn fritters, served with bacon, eggs & salad. Make a paella style dish, using the chorizo & prawns, perhaps using turmeric instead of saffron. Fish pie, using the tuna with a mash potato topping. Spaghetti Bolognese, Veggie bake, curry. If the chicken burgers are crumbed make a chicken parmigiana style dish making your own tomato sauce. Quiche.

    Good luck!

  17. I saw the canned tomatoes and the schnitzel and was going to give a recipe for beef olives stuffed with felafel but sadly I don’t see chickpeas, either dried or canned, nor any other dried legumes that might have been a substitute for chickpeas.
    Looking at the items in Diana’s pantry, I realise I could probably feed a family of four very easily from my pantry for at least a month, shopping only for perishibles as necessary. As I live alone, I wonder how much I can save over the next 4 months. Now that WOULD be a challenge! Anyway, I’ll still give the recipe for the beef olives with felafel because it’s so easy and so tasty, just needs a little advance preparation:

    The night before, soak dried chick peas in plenty of cold water.
    Next day, dry pan-toast some coriander seeds, cumin seeds and lots of sesame seeds with just a hint of chilli and grind up in a mortar & pestle or whatever method you prefer.
    Drain the chick peas and put in a food processor (or whatever), add the spices along with garlic, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Whizz until your preferred consistency, using a little olive oil to bind if necessary.
    Spread the mixture evenly but not too thickly over slices of schnitzel, roll up and place seam side down in rows in a baking dish.
    Pour over a can of chopped up tomatoes, Moroccon flavoured are nice in this recipe.
    If you have felafel mixture left over, roll into little balls and place on top of the beef olives.
    Cover the dish with foil and bake at 180ºC for about 40 minutes.
    Remove the foil and if you like, sprinkle with grated cheese and return to the oven to allow the cheese to melt.
    Serve with rice, noodles or mashed potatoes and some green veges.

  18. One meal I make when trying to eat down my pantry for a while are Spaghetti Puttanesca (home made tomato sauce with anchovies, olives and capers). While not strictly authentic you could leave out the olives and capers and add tuna or bacon or chorizo or kransky. Serve with a salad.

    Good luck Diana!

    Sushi with the canned tuna or canned salmon. Use the Japanese seasoning, wrap in nori and serve with soy sauce.

    Basic fried rice with eggs, frozen vege, soya sauce. Could add in bacon if you liked.

    Rice Pilaf with with vege added (pumpkin and carrot would be nice. I would add pistachios and raisins too.