We went on a short vacation this week and spent four days away from home. Because I was busy preparing for the trip, I didn't bother going grocery shopping except for a quick stop for milk.

Did we starve? Of course not. I used the week to "thin out" our pantry and freezer, planning our meals around staples and frozen foods that were nearing their expiration date or taking up valuable space.

Even if you're staying home this summer, now is a great time to declare a "no spend" or "milk only" week at the grocery store. If you've been shopping the sales and picking up great deals, your pantry and freezer are probably filled with food! The following steps will help you purge your own pantry or freezer and also save you money.

Check expiration dates

The first step to cleaning out a pantry or freezer is to check expiration dates. You don't have to pull everything out just shift through everything, making sure to glance at the stuff hidden in the back. Put the "newest" items with the longest expiration date in the back, and pull older items towards the front so that you'll eat them first.

If you find a few items that are very close to their expiration date, you've found a candidate for "no spend week."

Pull these items out and set them on the counter, or place them on a special shelf in the pantry or freezer. These items will be your main ingredients for meals during the week.

Also keep an eye open for any surplus items. I once bought 10 bags of instant flavored rice and pasta on sale, because we enjoyed them in the past. But now that we're focusing on healthier ingredients and meals, I don't like to serve packaged food items very often. I placed these bags on our "use up" shelf as well, so that we don't forget about them and let them expire.

We'll slowly eat them on busy nights and the shelf will serve as a reminder to not buy them again.

If you really are leaving the house for an extended time, also plan to eat any perishable foods in the refrigerator. Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and leftovers are all fair game for "no spend week."

Keep it simple

Now that you have your main ingredients lined up, it's time to start planning meals. Dig out your cookbook to discover new ways to use those extra carrots or a nearly-expired can of tomato soup. (Hint: Combine the two in a casserole or soup!) Many cookbooks have an index that lets you search by ingredients.

If you have access to the Internet, try searching for recipes online. Use the "advanced search" option on websites such as www.epicurious.com or www.foodnetwork.com to find recipes that feature your must-use ingredients, or do a simple search for ingredients on Google or Bing.

I found some great recipes to use up carrots and tomato soup roasted carrot and tomato soup with basil, hearty chicken soup with rice, and chilled tomato-thyme soup.

The recipes may call for whole tomatoes, but you could use the recipe and improvise with a can of soup.

Get creative, and don't be afraid to tweak recipes to use up what you have and to avoid buying extra ingredients that aren't already in the house.