How the Food Inventory Works And Why You Should Do It

Are you trying to order less take-out meals and cook more at home? Meal planning and meal prep are critical to being successful. But did you know that one of the biggest hurdles to meal planning is not making a food inventory? Learn what a food inventory is and why you should include it in your meal planning process.


The biggest mistake almost everybody makes in meal planning is not making a food inventory.

What Is A Food Inventory?

Making a food inventory is the process of looking through your kitchen, fridge, freezer, and pantry to find what foods you already have, how much of each item, and how soon the food is going to go bad.

It’s taking stock of the food items you already have to give you ideas of what you can make this week to use up ingredients you already have.

What Are the Benefits of a Food Inventory?

A food inventory has many benefits, which is why it’s a foundational part of your meal planning process. Let’s look at how making a food inventory can help you.

  • A food inventory helps you save money on your groceries because it reminds you to use up ingredients before they go to waste.
  • It reduces the clutter in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. A well-organized kitchen saves you time and energy because you don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for ingredients.
  • A food inventory reminds you of the ingredients you already have in your kitchen so you avoid buying duplicate ingredients, which lead to an over-stuffed kitchen.

Why People Don’t Take A Food Inventory

Here are common objections for why people don’t do a food inventory.

  • It takes more work. In fact, making a food inventory takes a lot of work the first time.
  • It’s easier to buy more and throw stuff out without thinking about how to use what you’ve got.
  • Maybe it’s more exciting to tackle new recipes than to use up leftover ingredients.
  • Maybe the subscription meal plans are incentivized to churn out new shopping lists to justify why you should continue paying for the service.

While many of these concerns are valid, you’re a smart cookie who knows that planning means working a bit more upfront so you can work less overall.

Reasons for skipping a Food Inventory in the meal planning process.Pin
Reasons for skipping a Food Inventory in the meal planning process. Are these reasons valid?

Tell Yourself Skipping Food Inventory Is A Problem

I bet you’ve got more food in your fridge than you think (unless your fridge is empty, in which case, why would you be reading a cooking website anyway? :P).

Buying more food is a waste of money, and it’s inefficient.

  • You throw food out because it spoils.
  • You spend more time shopping for groceries.
  • Stuffing your fridge full makes it difficult to find the ingredients, thereby slowing you down when cooking.

How To Make A Food Inventory

Go through all the places where you store food.

These are the most common locations:

  • fridge,
  • freezer,
  • pantry, and
  • kitchen counter
Food Spaces photo with fridge, freezer, counter, and pantry highlighted.Pin

If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Making a food inventory with two people can be faster. Here is how it works with two people:

  • 1 person says what items there are
  • 1 person writes down the items

As the note taker, the following is my preferred system. I note down the:

  • Food Itemwhat is it?
  • Quantityhow much do you have?
  • Use Byhow much longer will this item last for from today?
  • Locationwhere is it? Fridge? Pantry? Freezer?
    (This is optional. I like to categorize, for example, so I know whether the dumplings are frozen or cooked leftovers from last night.)

Tips For Taking A Food Inventory

It sounds simple. And it is. But it’s not easy the first time.

Be prepared for how life-changing this process of making a food inventory will be.

But I want to make sure you’re aware that it will be hard the first time because you’ve probably got a lot of junk in your freezer and pantry that need to be thrown out. That’s OK. You got this!

Here are the mistakes we made the first few times we did a food inventory. It led to a few squabbles. So these tips are from our lessons learned, and they will make the food inventory process smoother and more fun for you.

  1. The first time is the hardest. The more food you have, the tougher it will be. Block off time to do it. It took us 2 hours and we were exhausted after.
    1. Therefore, take breaks. You can make your first food inventory over a weekend where you do it for an hour an take a break.
    2. Reward yourself. Eat some ice cream or watch Netflix afterward.
  2. Throw things out if you’re not going to eat it ever again. Anchovies from 2 years ago. Olives from…no idea. Trash it all. These things only take up valuable space.
    1. If it hurts too much to throw out food that is precious to you, find a recipe or make a strategy to cook it this week. If you don’t think you can ever cook that food, then it needs to go in the trash. Or you can donate it to the food pantry if it is unopened and not expired.
  3. Make the food inventory when you’re well-rested because it can take energy to document each food item and throw things out at the same time.
    1. One time, we tried it Saturday afternoon when we were exhausted from the workweek. I did it for 1.5 hours and felt like I got nowhere. I gave up. I looked at it with a fresh eye the next morning and knocked it out in 10 minutes. What was I doing wasting that hour and half the day before?
  4. For empty or missing food items you need to replenish, mark them as “0 days” in the Use By column. That way when you sort it, you’ll remember to add it to your shopping list.
  5. Speaking of sorting, go with a spreadsheet. This is one of the rare times where paper slows me down. I like to filter and sort columns in my food inventory. Spreadsheets are great for copying and pasting your food inventory for the next week.
  6. For the Use By date, stick to the same unit of time, especially for perishables. I standardize to days. I like days because our food moves on a daily basis. I sort on the Use By column when meal planning to decide what ingredients to use first. Here is the cheat sheet for quick calculations:
    Cheat Sheet illustration showing Days, Weeks, and Months conversion to help with food inventory.Pin
  7. Eyeball the quantity. Quantities can be the exact weight on the package. Otherwise eyeball it as a handful, a bunch, a smidgen, a cup, a knob. This isn’t a precise science. It’s a guide to remind you of what you have in your kitchen and what you need to get rid of
  8. Don’t be perfect. Stick to good enough.
  9. Make a food inventory for 2 to 4 times and do it a few times a year. If you make a food inventory, you’ll get most of the benefits by repeating it 2 to 4 times. This gives you enough repetition that you will be more mindful of not buying ingredients you don’t need. And you’ll have a well-organized fridge and pantry. Go back to making a food inventory every quarter so you can re-calibrate your grocery shopping habits and continue to keep your kitchen clean and organized.
    1. I found making a food inventory too annoying after more than 2 months. You might find it more fun than me. However, I could not stand doing it after 6 to 8 weeks. And I already had all the benefits. If you’re getting bored of the food inventory process, take a break for a month or two and return to making a food inventory once a month or 2 to 4 times per quarter.

Good luck. You got this!!

Leave a comment to tell us if making a food inventory was as life-changing as I have found it up to be. Share your tips. And most importantly, tell us if the food inventory was a waste of your time!

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

2 thoughts on “How the Food Inventory Works And Why You Should Do It”

  1. I was going to ask about the inventory after reading your piece on internet meal planners, and now I see you’ve written down your thoughts.

    Inventory is a huge challenge because it is always moving.

    During one of my parents’ visits, we did a careful inventory of the freezer, writing down everything, tossing the old and too obscure. We made sure to use a large piece of paper and leave space for additions. I kept it going for a year or so, but stopped recently.

    My issue with inventories is keeping them up to date, especially for dry goods. When I come home from the store after a long day with a bunch of dry goods (multiple granolas, grains, legumes) it can be hard to think about updating an inventory. So I rely on my memory and also run a check of my stocks when I’m planning to cook something.

    Perhaps you’ll keep looking into subjects like inventory management, possibly share some tips or find an app that syncs your shopping list with the inventory (e.g., you check something off a list — like 2 cups rolled oats — and it moves to your inventory).

    My mother has a great trick for handling duplicate items on paper. Say you have four packages of macaroni and cheese in the freezer. On the inventory list, write : “Macaroni & cheese 4 3 2 1”. Then, when you take out the first, cross out the 4. And so on.

    • Your mother’s trick is great! I love that idea.
      Wouldn’t it be great once we finally have RFID tags on all the items from the grocery store? Then we:

      1. don’t have to wait in line at the check out
      2. the sensors in the fridge can do food inventory for us
      3. don’t forget the food hidden in the back, waiting to spoil.

      Yes, it’s creepy data collection. But it would also save a lot of time 😀


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