These are the seven basic principles for maintaining and using a food pantry to prevent overspending and running into the “what’s for dinner” quandary: plan, price, purchase, protect, prepare, present, and preserve.
Planning a menu and creating a grocery list of what you need to make meals is absolutely key. Over time you will fill your pantry with the basic ingredients you need to make a rotating list of recipes that your family enjoys, becoming less reliant on creating a menu for each week. Some families do this by having chicken night, spaghetti night, taco night, stir-fry night, pizza night, and vegetarian night. The seventh night can be “use up all the leftovers” night. Some families save time and resources by using the concept of “cook once, eat many times”. Some dishes can be made to fill meal requirements for more than one night. Some nights a baked potato, steamed broccoli, and scrambled eggs can fill the bill.
Once you know what you need the next step is to research prices in order to get the best value for your money. Which stores have the best deals on certain items in your area? Will buying in bulk online make the most sense for certain ingredients? We love chickpeas and buy 25 lbs of dried chickpeas at a time in order to get the most savings by cooking them from scratch.
Purchase at least what you need to make meals. If something is on sale for a good price and is shelf-stable, buy and store it in the pantry. That might include pasta, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, canned fish, canned vegetables, oatmeal, sugar, flour. Produce and refrigerated foods won’t have the shelf-life to buy in bulk unless you are able to preserve them through freezing, canning, and dehydrating. Fruits, mushrooms, and some vegetables can be dehydrated for a longer shelf-life. If anyone has ever eaten leather britches (dried string beans). If you live in the Ozarks or Appalachia you may know exactly what that is!
Once you get your groceries home you need to protect them from going bad. That may include preserving them in some way if you can’t use them soon enough. It may involve some prepping and packaging to make mealtimes easier. Green onions are a favorite flavor enhancer with visual appeal in our household. Getting them chopped and into the freezer quickly cuts down waste. And the root bottoms can be regrown in your kitchen. Broccoli and cauliflower can be steamed ahead and frozen. Sometimes buying fresh is the best deal, or buying just buying it frozen to begin with saves the most money. That’s why pricing research is important. Throughout the week continue to monitor your food and step in to protect before it goes bad. You can freeze stale milk to resuse in recipes, grate and freeze a block of cheese, half-bake and grate potatoes to freeze for hash browns, chop and freeze onions and other vegetables, and make bread crumbs to store in your freezer. I love to reach in my freezer for frozen chickpeas, sliced zucchini and carrots, and put together a quick soup. It is important to to use the foods you protect and incorporate them into as many recipes as you can. The savings will add up quickly.
Prepare food and create meals using basic cooking techniques and pre-cooking as much as you can. Pre-cook rice, beans, baked potatoes, meats, and vegetables where you can. We love fried rice and will cook a batch of rice just to freeze it for the next time we want to make it. For days when our family is on the run, a pot of pre-cooked rice in the fridge can become the basis of a very quick and tasty meal. Explore the recipes for ideas.