This week I’d like to do a series on the pantry. We all have some kind of space in our kitchen where we store food. Whether you have an actual pantry or just utilize various cupboards like I do, there are definitely ways to better organize it. Today I specifically want to talk about creative ways to stock your pantry so you can save time when you need it the most and have more flexible meal options.
Why stock your pantry?
A while back, I wrote up an illustration about two starkly different scenarios with regards to meal preparation. One instance in each scenario involved going to your pantry and seeing if you had the ingredients you needed for the recipe you chose. In the chaotic scenario, you were missing some ingredients and had to make a run to the grocery store, while in the organized scenario, you had what you needed and were able to get started right away. The key here is saving time by avoiding inefficient and inconvenient trips to the store when all you really want to be doing is getting that meal cooked. Let’s face it, evenings especially can be busy and stressful with meetings, kid’s activities, and generally everyone running in different directions. Furthermore, if you’re like me and live well out into the country, a trip into town to just go to the store for a couple of items is a real time killer and gas waster. Finally, stocking your pantry certain ways can offer your family more flexibility in cooking–who wants to eat the same thing every night?!
What about meal planning?
Some people are meal planners. In other words, they map out their days or even weeks and decide what they will cook each night. This makes grocery shopping easier and stocking your pantry a little less important because you know exactly what you will need and can buy it in advance. However, if you aren’t really much of a meal planner week to week (I tend to decide what I’m going to cook right before I cook it), keeping your pantry adequately stocked will accommodate this lifestyle beautifully. So let’s take a look at how we can do it!
Assessing what you need
The first thing you should do is figure out what you need in your pantry so you can maximize its usefulness. This involves a little analysis, but you only have to do it once and it’s definitely worth it in the end.
- Skim your recipes. However you organize your recipes (we’ll talk about that later!), you most likely have a set of recipes that you make regularly. Take a look at those recipes and see if you can spot common ingredients. For example, when I look over some of my regular recipes, I repeatedly see ingredients like pasta, rice, onions, chicken broth, cream of mushroom soup, french fried onions, soy sauce, white cooking wine, flour, sugar, baking powder, and various spices to name a few. If you stock up on these common ingredients, you are much more likely to have what you need to make a complete recipe on any given night.
- Think about how you improvise. Admit it, we don’t have time to cook everything from a recipe, now do we?! Sometimes I just throw things together quickly so I definitely want to make sure I have those ingredients on hand. In fact, just last night I made a quick batch of spaghetti before our meeting and all I had to do was go over to the pantry and grab a box of pasta, a can of tomato sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, an onion, and some spices. What do you improvise with? Do you have the ingredients to get by?
- Walk through a typical day. What do you eat for breakfast or lunch each day? Do you have to prepare meals for your kids, yourself, or your spouse for school or work? We always make sure we have plenty of things like cereal, oatmeal, peanut butter, bread, crackers, chips, pudding, macaroni and cheese, canned soup, etc. on hand. Even though these meals don’t take as much prep time, they are still necessary and you don’t want to be milling around the kitchen 10 minutes before school starts trying to figure out what to make for your kids in their lunches.
Assessing how much you need
This step is a little trickier and really takes some trial and error to get it down to a science. I avoid just having one of any given ingredient because you have no idea how much or when you will need it between stops at the grocery store if you don’t plan ahead. So I usually end up getting a minimum of two, but with extremely common things, I often try to have several on hand. To illustrate, let’s look at two examples, cream of mushroom soup and chicken broth. I use cream of mushroom soup in casseroles a lot, but I don’t tend to make casseroles that often. Therefore I keep two cans on hand at all times because when I peruse my recipes, I see that the most any given recipe calls for is two cans. However, I cook with chicken broth a lot more regularly, especially if I am just throwing something together (it makes great additions to improvised soups, sauces, and sautés). So in that case, I keep about 5 cans on hand. You will need to keep track of your own cooking habits to decide how much of any given ingredient to keep around. Just don’t forget to consider the ultimate goal at all times: having what you need when you need it so you don’t have to go to store or change your plans.
What about perishable foods?
I’ve really only mentioned non-perishable foods in your pantry up to this point. As far as perishable foods go, I take the same approach, but with moderation due to the fact that these foods don’t keep as long. I also rely heavily on my freezer to keep foods like meat on hand. I always try to have chicken, hamburger, Italian sausage, and pork available to cook with. You just have to be careful not to forget about these items to avoid freezer burn and spoilage. Furthermore, I also use my pantry to store back-ups of ‘refrigerate-after-opening’ items like salad dressing, BBQ sauce, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, etc. That way when the item in your fridge runs out, you have another one available in the cupboard.
Keeping on top of stocking
So you’ve stocked your pantry once, but when items start disappearing how do you keep on top of re-stocking? I keep a grocery list magnet on my refrigerator and whenever I take an item out of my pantry, I add it to the list. It’s like keeping an inventory and always making sure you replace what you use.
How do you stock your pantry and keep track of how much you use? I’d love to learn creative ideas from people with different lifestyles.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at a few money-saving tips in your pantry because if we’re going to buy ahead, we might as well try to save money too!