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


2 Responses

  1. […] How to Stock the Pantry […]


  2. […] 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 […]


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