How to Stock the Pantry . . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

“Stocking the pantry.”  Sounds like it should be a nice, predictable process akin to stocking inventory at the local shoe store:  Five red shoes, ten black, three tennis shoes. . . In reality, it’s not quite such an orderly, linear process.

“Raucous,” “adventuresome” and “messy” are more descriptive, likely because stocking the pantry is such a unique, personalized process.  “Journey” is another word which comes to mind, since pantry stocking isn’t so much a task that can be accomplished in an afternoon, but an intriguing passage.  It unfolds as you grow in understanding of different foods, cooking techniques and your particular tastes and eating ideals.

This is not to say that you must simply wander the supermarket wilderness with only a hope that a pantry will somehow materialize from your efforts.  There are definitely signposts and trail markers for guidance; they just require some personal interpretation to make sure they lead to a destination that meets your tastes and needs.  After all, what good is a pantry stocked with six kinds of olives if you hate olives?  Or a pantry stocked with healthy whole wheat crackers if you are allergic to wheat?

Previous posts have convinced you of the beauty of a pantry.  In the spirit of an ever-unfolding journey, here are some beginning “trail markers” to get you started:

Make Room I once coached a woman who understood the magic of pantries and was desperate to set one up so she could stop dragging to the store every night after work with her two year old.  It was a good thought, but there was one small problem:  she had nowhere to put a pantry!  Her cupboards were packed to the gills with riff raff like extra tea pots, three sets of plates, 40 dish towels, and so on.  The closest place to store extra rice was down in the basement-a decidedly unhelpful place.

The ideal solution:  a kitchen reorganization which invariably creates lots of extra space that is perfect for stocking a pantry.  If a complete reorganization isn’t in the cards right now, just pack up two or three boxes worth of stuff that hasn’t been used for the last year (don’t worry, you’ll find plenty.)  Now put that in the basement and bring the rice up to the newly created cupboard space–and schedule an appointment to begin working on a comprehensive kitchen reorganization!

Stock the “Very Basics” Besides rice, what else do you put in this newly created space?  The tricky thing about stocking a pantry is that it’s so taste dependent.  In other words, because tastes vary so widely person to person, I can’t just give you a list and say, “Here, go buy these 50 items and you’ll be set.”  Nevertheless, there are a few items that almost everyone will want, no matter what kind of cooking you do.  Buying these “Very Basics” is a good starting point for stocking the pantry.

My book, Take Control of Your Kitchen identifies the Very Basics.  Join my e-cooking community and get a free copy of this worksheet.  (Just include “Free Pantry List” in your email)

Get Personal Beyond the Very Basics, the contents of a pantry get more personal.  What kinds of foods do you like?  What dishes do you cook?  Are there any particular cuisines you like to make?  What health restrictions must you work around?  Your pantry is shaped by the answers to these questions.  As an example, I like bean dishes, so my pantry includes six different kinds of canned beans.  Over the years, I’ve gotten into Thai cooking, so my refrigerator pantry features fish sauce, curry paste and ginger.  Being allergic to wheat, I stock only rice crackers and flours from alternative grains.

To start stocking the Personal Basics right away, head to the store with an extra allotment of 30 minutes.  Then, instead of whipping through the store, picking up just the few things you absolutely need, slow down and observe at least a couple aisles (the canned goods, condiment and grain sections are good places to begin.)  Note items you use frequently:  Rice? Soy sauce? Refried beans? Canned tuna?  Pick up one or two extras of each, depending on the item and how often you use it.  Now you have the beginnings of a pantry.  Repeat this exercise over the next few shopping trips, exploring different aisles each time.

Starting a pantry from home offers a more leisurely alternative.  Begin with the Master Pantry List from my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which is yours for joining my e-cooking community (just include “Free Pantry List” in your email).  Keep your Master Pantry List handy in the kitchen, with a pen next to it.  As you make meals over the two to three weeks, check off those pantry items you draw on.  Spiral pasta?  Stoneground mustard?  Eggs?  Parmesan cheese?  Onions?  On your next trip to the store, stop!  Before racing out the door, look over your Master List, check your cupboards to see which are low or missing, then make a list of the ones you can afford to stock up on.

Treasure Hunt Now comes the fun part.  You’ve got your Very Basics and Personal Basics.  You’re all set to quickly make your basic five, 10 or 15 recipes.  But what happens when those comfy five, 10 or 15 recipes become “The Same Old (Boring) Thing.”  Indeed, in my work as a kitchen coach, the most frequent complaint I hear is, “I make the same things night after night.”  Happily, the pantry can come to our rescue here, too.

On your next shopping trip, gift yourself five extra minutes for some “treasure hunting.”  Pick one section of an aisle, temporarily suspend the to-do list tapping its toes on your brain, and take time to actually look around at the various products, especially the quirky ones on the bottom and top shelves (that’s where they put the newer, less familiar-and often more interesting-products.)  The other day, I re-discovered hearts of palm which made a special splash in a green salad that night.  Now I plan to stock a can or two for winter days when my salads are looking a little barren.

Note that this doesn’t need to be an exercise in extravagance.  For example, because it is so flavorful (as specialty products often are), a pound of high quality sausage from your freezer pantry can be divided four ways for four different dishes, making it very cost-effective.

Work It and Enjoy Very often when I talk about pantries I hear responses that go something like this:  “I don’t like stocking a pantry because I buy all this stuff and then never use it.”  That’s an easily remediable problem:  Go open a cupboard, find one or two items that you’d like to use up and set them on the counter.  Now go find a recipe for them (an Internet search makes this easy.)  Finally, look at your calendar and schedule a day for making your dish.

What a wonderful way to get some mealtime inspiration while using up valuable pantry inventory so it doesn’t go to waste.  Do this once a week and you won’t have any excess staples choking your cupboards.  Also, the more you work your pantry, the more you’ll enjoy it, precisely because you’ll be experiencing how easy it makes your kitchen life.

Ready to begin experimenting with a pantry.  Build one if you’re pantry-less, or if you’ve got a pantry, find out how to make the most of it.   Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. Also, check out tomorrow’s blog: How to Avoid Time Panic, and you might like to read all the articles in this series:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

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Portrait of Pantry Meals for a Week

So you’re convinced that the pantry is a smart time investment.  Let’s look at how a real life pantry works, so you can begin to see what kinds of things can be bought, successfully stored, then translated into deliciously quick meals.

Key fact to remember:  the pantry is bigger than just a couple cupboards on the back porch where you store extra boxes of cereal and cans of coffee.  Think of the “pantry” as encompassing the frig, freezer and practically every other cupboard in the kitchen.  All these locations can hold foods that can be bought in advance and stored for at least a couple weeks which, by the way, is the definition of a “pantry staple.”

Viewing the pantry in these more expansive terms presents a lot more opportunities.  For me, discovering the pantry possibilities of the freezer has been especially fun.  Year after year, I discover more and more foods that can be successfully and conveniently stored in the freezer to facilitate fast and efficient mealmaking.  I even adopted a deep freezer that a neighbor was discarding a couple years ago and, as you’ll see this in the following table, I draw on it extensively for winter meals:

Day 1

  • Poached Salmon with Celeriac and Pear Mirepoix
  • Wild Rice with Butter
  • Sauteed Green Beans
  1. From the freezer:  salmon, green beans
  2. From the frig:  celeriac, pears, carrots, green onions preserved in olive oil, butter
  3. From the cupboards:  onions, wild rice blend, spices

Day 2

  • Sun-Dried Tomato Salmon Cakes
  • Peas with Butter
  • Leftover Wild Rice
  1. From the freezer:  sweet green peas
  2. From the frig:  leftover rice and salmon, mustard, ketchup, eggs
  3. From the cupboards:  sun-dried tomatoes, breadcrumbs, spices

Day 3

  • Steak with Moroccan Spices
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Cumin Scented Cabbage Salad
  1. From the freezer:  steak, corn on the cob
  2. From the frig:  cabbage, carrots, apples
  3. From the cupboards:  Italian salad dressing, spices

Day 4

  • Carrot Cashew Soup
  • Roasted Potatoes
  1. From the frig:  carrots, celeriac, cashews, bottled ginger
  2. From the cupboards:  garlic, onion, potatoes, spices, chicken broth

Day 5

  • Fish Tostadas
  • Leftover Cabbage Slaw
  1. From the freezer:  white fish, green peppers, red peppers
  2. From the frig:  leftover cabbage slaw
  3. From the cupboards:  tostada shells, salsa, diced chilies, spices

Day 6

  • Spaghetti Squash Marinara with Pesto Gratin
  • Sauteed Spinach with Lemon and Garlic
  1. From the freezer:  pesto, chopped spinach
  2. From the frig:  lemon
  3. From the cupboards:  spaghetti squash, marinara sauce, breadcrumbs, garlic

Day 7

  • Pumpkin and Black Bean Stew with Green Peppers
  • Brown Rice
  • Carrot Sticks
  1. From the freezer:  green peppers
  2. From the frig:  limes, carrots
  3. From the cupboards:  rice, black beans, onions, pumpkin, chilies, salsa, garlic, canned tomatoes

Surprised at how many meals I can make without having to set foot in a grocery store?  And they aren’t just mac ‘n cheese or spaghetti.  They are real, healthful, balanced and interesting meals that are a delight to eat.

Since I always go a week or two between shopping trips (sometimes more), I shouldn’t be surprised that I can eat so well and long from my pantry.  Nevertheless, every time I write things out as in this exercise, I’m amazed at how bountiful a pantry can be.

Ready to begin experimenting with a pantry.  Build one if you’re pantry-less, or if you’ve got a pantry, find out how to make the most of it.   Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. Also, check out tomorrow’s blog: How to Stock the Pantry, and you might like to read all the articles in this series:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

Investment Thinking at the Grocery Store

Coming home to an empty frig after a long vacation reminded me of the importance of a good pantry. I put a fair amount of time into stocking my “larder” each autumn, a use of time that might seem crazy.

Normal people likely wonder why I buy bags of potatoes, winter squash and onions at the Farmers Market; lots of frozen vegetables on sale, boxes of frozen fruits and fish from a supplier in the Northwest and part of a whole beef with my neighbor. It takes time to order, pick out, pay for, haul home, clean shelves and then put away and organize everything. With three grocery stores within a couple miles, why not just run to the store and get something for dinner?

That’s where my post-vacation story comes in. There are times (e.g., after arriving home from vacation) when we don’t want to go to the store. In fact, I wonder if there is ever a time when we want to go trudge the concrete aisles of a mega-market, breathing stale air, getting sensory overload from so many products, being buffeted by insane amounts of marketing and packaging, fighting crowds of frantic shoppers and then having to deal with check out and crazed parking lots.

Remember these parts of grocery shopping and “running to the store to get something for dinner” loses a good part of its appeal. Think how much more pleasant it would be to shop just once a week or every other week and stock up when you go.

This kind of thinking is called “investment thinking.” People with an investment mindset don’t fret themselves into a frenzy about spending 15 seconds to throw a couple extra cans of tomatoes in the shopping cart. They will even spend 30 extra minutes bagging up several kinds of bulk frozen fruits without going into a panic. They might also clear space for a basement pantry where they could keep things like a 25-pound bag of rice.

How can they do that? Don’t they know they’re wasting precious time?

Actually, what they know (and a lot of us don’t), is that time spent stocking the pantry is not a waste of time at all. It is an investment of time that ends up saving boatloads of unnecessary shopping time.

Think about it: That “quick” trip to the store requires a minimum of 15 to 30 minutes. Whether you buy one thing or a hundred, you must still drive to the store, find a parking spot and walk in, trudge down most if not every aisle, wait at the check out line, check out and pay, then cart everything to the car and drive home. Time consuming? Yes! Aggravating? You bet! And the bigger the grocery store, the greater the aggravation!

Smart shoppers know that minimizing trips to the store means minimizing both time and aggravation. There’s a reason they don’t get wigged out taking all of three minutes to pick out several cuts of meat that will go to the freezer. They know that three extra minutes at the meat counter, one extra minute in the pasta aisle and 30 more seconds in the frozen foods aisle eliminates two, three or four “quick” trips to the store at 15 to 30 minutes a pop.

Now that’s a good investment!

So the next time you’re at the store, don’t listen to the voices in your head saying, “Hurry up and get out of here. This is a big waste of time.” Instead, experiment: Slow down, have a little patience and see if there aren’t a few things you could buy for the pantry. Then notice how nice it is when e.g., you get home late after work and there are the fixings for a good meal, right in your kitchen. No “quick” stop at the grocery store necessary!

But how do you know what to buy to stock the pantry? Two ways: Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. Also, check out tomorrow’s blog: Some Pantry Meal Examples, and then read all the articles in this series:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

The Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Get a Happily Supplied Frig without the Hassle of Grocery Shopping

We just got back from three weeks in Argentina and Chile. Traveling in and about the Andes is no less amazing than you would expect. However, as we made the final leg of our journey from airport to home, the usual post-vacation gloom began to settle in.

To my mind, vacations have one fundamental flaw: They end. Fortunately, most of us don’t dwell on this too much. We might never leave home if we seriously considered the mountain of stuff that spoils the end of every vacation—mail to read, clothes to unpack and launder, newspapers to dispatch, emails to answer, projects to complete, and so on and so forth.

Eggs & beer could be good for dinner?

Eggs & beer could be good for dinner?

As annoying as these tasks might be, what I dread most at the end of every journey is the empty refrigerator. I know we’ll stumble hungrily into the kitchen with all our bags and there will be no leftovers to kick start a meal, no fresh vegetables to counter the road food we’ve endured on the way home, and no fresh fruit to bite into.

Of course there’s an easy remedy for an empty, uninspiring frig: Head to the grocery store! But that’s got to be the most depressing way for anyone to end a holiday—worse than sifting through the mail and paying bills in my opinion.

Happily, there is a strategy that provides a happy medium: Stock the frig from the pantry.

Opening my frig this morning I was amazed at how it had gone from forlornly empty to happily full in the space of a day:

  • Left over from yesterday’s breakfast was half a jar of luscious peach sauce (canned last summer) that I had brought up from the downstairs pantry to top pancakes.
  • My husband had thawed a bottle of fresh squeezed apple juice from the Farmer’s Market
  • Left over from lunch was a dish of rice, veggies and beans (I had frozen the last bit of brown rice and slow cooker beans that were remaining before we left; these I combined with some frozen mixed veggies and homemade salsa made last fall and frozen as well.)
  • Left over from dinner were salmon (from the freezer), a fresh batch of rice and pumpkin cornmeal pudding. I had combined these last night with sautéed petite whole frozen green beans for a complete—and completely delicious–meal.
  • In need of something to add pizzazz to the salmon I grabbed the jar of green onions packed in olive oil that I had prepared last summer and stashed in the downstairs frig.
  • Also pulled up from my downstairs frig were apples and pears, still hanging in there (even if just barely) from the Farmer’s Market. Added to these were some oranges and grapefruit from the boxes I had purchased from a fundraiser before leaving.
  • I also dredged up the last two heads of cabbage from the Farmer’s Market, as well as bags of carrots and celery root.
  • An extra dozen eggs had survived our vacation in fine order, as well as a hunk of unopened Mozzarella and some Parmesan I’d thrown in the freezer at the last minute.
  • Completing my frig ensemble was a Tupperware container of roasted pumpkin, from the store of squashes, potatoes and onions in the basement.

Surveying the happy clutter of dishes and Tupperware filling my frig, I felt a smile creep over my face. Maybe it’s only a nutcase foodie that is so easily gratified by a frig full of Tupperware. Nevertheless, I’m feeling a lot more confident that I can successfully wrap up all the post-vacation stuff that must be finished today, before work begins tomorrow.

And likely as not, I can put off going to the store for another week! Check out the next post for the meal plan strategy that will make this feat possible, and then read all the articles in this series:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

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