Trying to eat healthy but don’t know where to start? Afraid to give up your favorite foods, don’t want to waste money by throwing out foods you already have, or worry about spending a lot of money on new foods only to see them rot? Here’s what worked for me as I transitioned over time from the standard American diet to going vegan. It’s called the pantry method and it may work for you as well.
In November 2017, I started my whole foods journey back to remarkable health – though I had no clue that was what I was doing back then. I was just trying to drop 12 pounds using the slow carb diet popularized by Timothy Ferriss (author of The 4 Hour Work Week). Ferriss’ method was to cut out all processed foods, dairy, wheat products, fruit, rice. It was fairly strict. You ate protein at every meal and could eat as many vegetables as you wanted. One day a week you could binge on whatever you wanted, as much as you wanted – cake all day if you so desired.
In one week I saw results in my waistline and in a month I was seeing incredible changes in my health. Chronic pain and inflammation gone. Digestive issues gone. My moods and emotions evened out, anxiety and stress levels dropped. The change was remarkable and life-altering. See my article What Happened When I Gave Up Bread. This diet changed my life and set me on the road to investigating how the foods we eat impact our body, minds, emotions, energy-levels and vitality.
2 years later I am a changed person in health and vitality, which have all gone to new highs. This year I’m going vegan.
I didn’t get here though by quitting things cold turkey. I wish I had that restraint! Instead, I transitioned through various phases, including going whole foods-based, pescatarian, vegetarian, and now vegan. The pantry method is the method I used to make the changes and shifts sustainable, both on my psyche and on my wallet.
What is the Pantry Method?
The pantry method is to eat your way through your current pantry, replacing foods with new, healthier alternatives as the old foods run out. For instance, if you’re going from a typical processed food lifestyle to a whole foods-based one, you probably have tons of packaged food in your pantry and fridge worth lots of money. You don’t want to throw them out and waste the food. Also, you’re highly attached to them. Some might even say addicted. I certainly was! With the pantry method you still eat through them but don’t replace them once they run out.
It’s that simple.
Cleaning House One Food Product at a Time
Some of us don’t have the willpower to clean out our pantries and toss out everything bad for us. We have to start where we are. For me, that meant a fridge of meat, frozen meals, ice cream and pizzas; pantries of pasta, sauces, snacks, cookies and chips; and counters with breads, pastries, and more snacks. If I tossed everything, I’d have to spend tons of money on new foods and waste the tons of money on the foods I had by tossing or giving them away. Growing up poor as a kid where we sometimes ate at food kitchens or subsisted on cups of ramen means that even now food and money aren’t something I can easily waste. Back when I started my food journey I wasn’t going to toss any of it, even if it was horrible for me. Also, I wasn’t made of money! The best I could do was give some of it to work colleagues, friends and neighbors.
When I went on the slow carb diet, I refrained from eating my bad foods for six days and ate up portions of the “bad” food on my weekly binge day. When I shopped for groceries, I topped up my cart on the good foods and usually only allowed myself one cheat food. Hey, I’m not perfect. I’m human. Sometimes I splurged. But overall, I focused on filling my cart with new, healthier foods and not replacing the unhealthy foods as they ran out.
Slowly or swiftly the old foods depleted and my pantry, fridge and counters became increasingly healthy as I replaced old loves with new items. Some of those new items I grew to love and they became permanent fixtures. Over time my pantry became healthier and healthier. Now it’s amazing. As I transition to a fully vegan lifestyle, the animal-based foods are running out one by one but I don’t mind as I stock their empty areas in my pantry with new, delicious vegan items.
Why the Pantry Method Works
The pantry method works for a number of important reasons:
Gentler on your wallet. If you’re not tossing out food, you’re not wasting it. This naturally saves you money. Additionally, you don’t have to buy a lot of new unfamiliar foods at once to replace what got tossed. Many times people think going healthy is expensive. It will be if you follow the marketing hype and eat pricey products touted as the latest superfood or only shop organic. I eat a really healthy, delicious diet but spend the same or less as I did previously on my unhealthy foods.
With the pantry method you’re also not wasting money on food that will sit and rot. If you suddenly buy a shopping cart of fresh produce and other short shelf-life foods, they’ll wilt and rot if you don’t know how to preserve, use or time them with your meals. You may also buy tons of food, not like any of them, and then they rot or go uneaten. Again, huge waste of money and highly demoralizing.
Experiment-friendly. The pantry method allows you time to experiment with foods a few at a time rather than go all in and overwhelm yourself with new food choices. New recipes and foods THAT YOU ACTUALLY LOVE take time to discover and learn how to make. As I transitioned off gluten products, I knew I hated lettuce-based salads. A salad lifestyle would kill all my motivation to eat healthy. Instead, I slowly replaced bread, pasta and pizza with bean dishes like bean salads, chili and Mexican foods like burrito bowls and tacos. I ate more curries and stir fries. None of this happened at once but developed week by week and grocery trip by grocery trip.
At the store, I avoided the bread and bakery aisles and instead shopped the dried and canned bean section, learning which beans I liked and which I didn’t. I also learned what I could pair with them to make dishes I enjoyed. There was a lot of experimentation, which the foodie in me loved – but I wasn’t spending a fortune on it. This way I learned that I would eat bean salads with tomatoes, cucumber and a protein like chicken or anchovies but I really wasn’t keen on pinto bean soup. I didn’t like lentil soup either but I loved lentil and tomato salad. Other favorites and preferences developed as I mixed and matched one shopping trip at a time.
Weaning off phase. The pantry method also allows you the space to see what are your “problem” foods and which are your successful ones. You can build on your strengths and problem-solve the difficult ones to wean off them. For instance, in going whole foods-based, pizza was one of the hardest addictions to drop. I could mostly refrain from buying it at the store but the craving would get so intense that I’d lapse and call Dominoes every other week. Then pizza would once again be in the fridge. Crap. This was certainly my problem food.
To get beyond the addiction, I focused on other foods I was successful with and ruminated on how to ditch the pizza addiction. On my shopping runs, I’d look for new foods to help replace the pizza craving. Mostly this resulted in eating more curries and stir fries and having ready to go snacks for when the pizza craving hit in the mid-evening. It worked and the pizza cravings and lapses eased until the addiction was broken.
This weaning off method really worked for me with gluten foods so that when I ran out of bread and pasta, I rarely lapsed into buying them. As I transition to veganism, I know cheese and dairy are my main weak points (dairy proteins break down into morphine-like chemicals that bind to our opiate receptors). So I’m preparing for their loss and withdrawal by finding foods that I love to replace them in my diet. My cheese snacks will transition into snacks that include hummus, grapes, bean dip spreads on whole grain crackers, marinated artichokes and olives – all of which I already love and already eat regularly.
Right now as I run out of animal-based foods, I’m not missing them as they disappear. This process has taught me that I’ll continue to find new treats that suit my vegan lifestyle. The same process will happen with you with your own food and lifestyle goals.
Tactically useful. The pantry method can also help you reach an overarching food goal more sustainably. If you find yourself overwhelmed going from a fully processed diet to a healthy whole foods, pescaterian, vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, you can use the pantry method to tactically select areas in your diet for change, plan out how to replace them, then make the changes one by one.
For instance, if sugary beverages are your weakness, you can let the soda run out and focus on experimenting with alternative beverages and snacks. Or if you want to go meal-based, you can let the refined carb breakfast meals run out as you replace them with healthier options for your morning routine. Food by food, meal by meal you can make the change and prepare ahead of time for it. This way you’re making headway but not feeling like its unmanageable. The pantry method is great for breaking diets down into stages, swapping out one food or group for better ones again and again to healthier options.
Time to say goodbye. Food is culture and we are often emotionally connected to our foods. The pantry method allows us time to say goodbye to the favorites we will mourn losing. Even if it’s the addiction talking, we mourn the loss of certain foods – whether they be bread, pizza, pasta, Dr. Pepper, cheese or ice cream. As they run low, then out in our pantries, we can appreciate them as they fade away and with the last bite say, “You have been a delicious part of my life but I have eaten enough of you for a lifetime. It’s time to move on to that which will sustain me.” Or you can say, “You have ruined my health and now it’s time to break up. I’m not eating you again. Farewell.”
Sometimes we need the emotional closure, even with food.
The pantry method isn’t for everyone but it certainly protects your wallet. If you’re wanting to go healthy, look over your pantry. Ask yourself the following questions and take notes:
- What foods will you not miss once they’re gone?
- Which ones will require planning and experimentation to replace?
- Which ones will be super hard to give up?
- Which foods do you really not want to say goodbye to?
Start where you are and begin by mentally thinking ahead to what you could replace each unhealthy item with next time you’re at the store. Then when grocery time comes, start the process. Starting is the most important thing. Once you do, it becomes easier over time. Let the old, unhealthy foods go. You can’t take hold of health and more energy if you’re holding on with both hands to foods that keep you sick and deprive you of your vitality. Say goodbye to the old and hello to the new. Your body and health will thank you for it.
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Sounds like a good method. Wasting food is something none of us like to do!
Being French, it’s almost impossible for me to cut on bread!! But I think apart from that, I’ve found the balance which works for me.
I plan my meals every week tin order to do one weekly grocery shopping trip. I only buy what’s on my list so my cupboards are filled only with what I need. I buy as much bulk goods as I can in my organic local shop (rice, pulses, cereals…). My veg come from the local farmers market. Only seasonal products.
I drink a lot of tea, a glass of red wine with diner, a beer or two during the weekend.
For breakfast, I try to avoid sweet things (1 egg, brown bread, cheese).
We’re not vegetarian but meat is rarely eaten more than once a week. Sometimes, not at all.
That’s really great! I have to admit that when I’m overseas or with my European relatives I always eat healthier by default. I admire your habits!
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Thank you. It came gradually of course. I didn’t do this overnight. The positive side is that once the good habits are taken, it’s complicated to go back.
Good luck with your new routine.