My house doesn’t have a pantry. So I found one anyway…
Like many city houses built in the 1920s, our house has a small kitchen with not many cabinets. In my tips for a tiny kitchen, the very first tip is to set up a pantry outside the kitchen, and I explain how Daniel and I used space adjacent to the kitchen in our two previous 1920s homes – but in this house, we just don’t have a good space on the same floor as the kitchen.
We placed a shelving unit facing the bottom of the stairs in our basement to serve as our pantry. When we expanded into keeping some non-food items in the pantry as well, we added a second shelving unit against the wall and moved some food over there.
I hope you’ll consider creating a pantry, too, even if your house officially doesn’t have one. Keeping a stocked pantry has a lot of advantages!
Why I Love Having a Pantry, Even Though I Don’t Have Space for One
- I can plan menus using mostly ingredients we have in the house already. We live in a walkable neighborhood, with a supermarket and an Asian food store within a few blocks. This makes it easy for Daniel or me or our 11-year-old son to stop by the store and pick up an onion, a block of cheese, or whatever miscellaneous ingredients are needed to complete a meal of pantry foods, fresh produce from our CSA farm, and ingredients from our refrigerator and freezer.
- Having lots of food on hand means we’re prepared if bad weather or illnesses keep us housebound for a while. (We even keep a spare can opener on top of the pantry shelving, in case we’re sheltering in the basement during a disaster.)
- We save money by stocking up on shelf-stable foods when they’re on sale or found in bulk packages. This includes bulk foods from the health-food co-op in reused glass jars – we can fill a lot of jars with a sale-priced food, store them in the pantry, and just keep one in the kitchen at a time. We then relabel the jars for a different food after they’re empty.
- We are less tempted to eat unhealthy foods or spend money in restaurants when we have easy access to staple ingredients for healthy meals.
- We save gasoline by making fewer car trips to stores. We drive to Trader Joe’s, Costco, the co-op, and Target (each 2-4 miles away) once every month or so, often hitting two of them in one trip. Every 2-3 months, we shop at Gordon Food Service (9 miles away), and we usually only drive to the local supermarket for heavy things we can’t carry on foot.
- We save time by buying more in one shopping trip instead of making multiple trips to that store.
Our pantry is functional and semi-organized, but it’s not beautiful. I hesitated to share photos because our basement is so cluttered! Looking at all the chaos of our workshop and storage area behind the pantry would distract you from understanding our food-storage system. Then I realized that simply covering the back and side of the open shelves would block the clutter.
We did this so very elegantly with an old sheet:
How to Stock Your Pantry Staples
Exactly what you keep in your pantry and how you organize it will depend on what you eat regularly and what categories make sense to you, so I’ll mention just a few basic principles:
- Some foods are essentials that you want to have in stock at all times–but think about how soon you need to restock each item. Some are used frequently or used a full package at a time; put them on the shopping list when you take the next-to-last package (or refill from a big package) from the pantry. Foods that are used more slowly, like cooking oils, go on the list when you take the last package out of the pantry. Foods you use really slowly or sparingly, like mustard, don’t go on the list until the one you’re using is less than half full. (Bahahahahaha! Katie has to jump in here to say that we love mustard so much, I’m unsettled if we have fewer than two backup bottles in our “pantry” in the basement, because we can blow through a bottle in a week! To each their own…)
- Some foods are things to buy only when the price drops and you don’t have a lot of similar food already. One way to avoid getting overstocked is to think about the general category of food rather than the specifics. For example, pretzels, wheat crackers and pita chips are interchangeable in my family, so we need to limit the total volume of “crunchy snacks made from wheat” to avoid many open packages going stale.
- Buy extra of your essential foods when they’re on sale. Check expiration dates to calculate how many you can buy so that you’ll use them all before they expire, and make sure to check your existing pantry stash before you go to the store.
- Group together foods of the same general type to make a basic organizational scheme that fits your current stash into your pantry space. Then keep an eye on how it’s working out as you use up foods and buy more foods. Adjust your categories, or the shelf space allotted to them, as you find empty or overcrowded spaces developing. Be sure to tell the other cooks/shoppers in your household if you’ve relocated a section!
What if you don’t know which foods go fast and which are slower? Keep a list (or computer spreadsheet) for at least two months: List each type of food and mark how many you used. That should give you an idea of how to pace your stockpiling.
My Pantry, Shelf by Shelf
At the top left of our main pantry is the Department of Tea and Grains.
No, there’s no special reason they’re together – it just worked out that way. We’re super-stocked on peppermint tea bags right now because when I work outside the home, I drink peppermint tea every morning at work. I buy it by the case from the food co-op–and I ordered a new case in May without thinking about the fact that my job was ending in June. I’ll take it to my new office when I have one!
Cornmeal is mainly for cornbread and Flexican Cornbread Pizza. Bulgur wheat is great (if you’re not gluten-sensitive) in recipes that call for “cooked grain”, like Nutshroom Burgers – it’s very low-priced. Wheat bran, also cheap, is an important ingredient in Raisin Bran Bread.
In back are big jars storing the whole-wheat pasta we buy in 5-pound bags from Gordon Food Service. Up in the kitchen, we store pastas and rice in boxes that hold enough for 2-3 meals; when the supply gets low, we refill from these big jars. Pasta stays fresher in these jars and is less likely to spill than if it’s stored in an open bag. We get the jars from pretzels that we occasionally buy or cheez puffs other people buy – ask to keep the big jar if you think it might get thrown away!
The other end of the top shelf is the Department of Dry Beans – not to be confused with the Department of Canned Beans. My family eats some type of bean or lentil 2-5 times a week (not counting leftovers) so several varieties are among our essentials.
Here you see instant hummus mix, red lentils, split peas, black beans, and in the background green lentils. We use dry black beans mainly for slow-cooker soup and tend to grab canned beans for other meals because dry beans take so long to cook. Lentils cook more quickly, so they’re more versatile; two of our favorite family meals are Honey Baked Lentils made with green lentils and Masoor Dal made with red lentils.
In the back is a big jar of rice, which we buy 5-10 pounds at a time. I guess it got shoved over by that giant bag of corn chips! We tend to let the chips fall where they may, filling in spaces that are currently empty of what would usually go there. (Katie inserts laughter again – because we pretty much have half a shelf just for those huge bags of Costco corn chips, because I buy them 4-5 at a time so I never run out!)
All right, here’s the part where I admit that my family sometimes eats foods that you just stick in the microwave or cook a few minutes in a pot! We do try to choose these carefully, and we don’t eat them all that often. Here’s some detail on those pouches of Indian food; the madras lentils that my son likes come in a 6-pack at Costco.
If I’m choosing so carefully, how come we have so many packets of ramen noodles? That’s a fair question!
They’re a “sometimes food,” really! We stock up in large quantities because we only like Maruchan brand, and it isn’t sold at any of our usual stores, so we hit Shop’n’Save just once or twice a year. Ramen noodles are made from white flour, fried in vegetable oil, and absurdly high in sodium, and they contain numerous additives.
The reason we keep eating them is that we all feel they’re the perfect food for certain miserable states of being: colds and flu, first meal after vomiting, low blood-pressure dizzy spells, and extreme heat. This salty food forces us to re-hydrate by drinking lots of water, it’s easy on a sore throat or delicate stomach, the steam clears congestion, and it just helps us feel better – so we’ve gone on stocking ramen even as the rest of our diet has improved.
One product I do plan to quit buying is canned cream-of-mushroom soup. I’ve gradually devised substitutes for the casserole recipes in which I used to use it. (Katie’s Better Than a Box eBook details not only how to make homemade “cream of” soups but how to sub them in all your favorite recipes.)
In the middle of this shelf is the Department of Vinegars, which also includes lemon juice and (visible in the big photo) blends into the Department of Sauces. We’re also keeping popcorn and nuts on this shelf and, in back, some giant bags of Pretzel Crisps that were on sale at Costco (good example of a sale item that’s not a staple) and a half-full bulk bag of fair-trade organic coffee.
On the next shelf down, we’ve got coconut milk, nut butters, olives, pickles, and canned fish. That plastic bag in the back corner contains candy left over from the gingerbread house my mother and son made last Christmas – they can use it on this year’s gingerbread house!
Coconut milk is delicious mixed into a spicy, exotic food like curry. My partner Daniel doesn’t like coconut milk, but the kids and I do, so I make curry without coconut milk and then add it to individual portions as desired.
Canned salmon is better for our health and environment than tuna, so salmon is what we use in family meals like this delicious Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens. Tuna is just for those times when Daniel craves tuna salad.
The other half of that shelf is the Department of Canned Beans – and, for no logical reason, the big jar of dried garbanzos is behind the canned garbanzos instead of in the Department of Dry Beans.
Baked beans are a handy heat-and-eat option for a quick meal along with corn on the cob, or cornbread and a salad. We stocked up on baked beans at a recent sale, but when we run out, it’s easy to make our own “baked” beans by browning some onions and then stirring ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, garlic, and black pepper into plain (rinsed) canned beans.
By the way, if you’re worried that canned beans will give you gas, you can really minimize it by putting the beans in a colander and rinsing them thoroughly to remove the thick liquid. Then add whatever sauce or seasonings you’d like. Try our fancy Bean Wraps with Smoked Gouda and Pineapple, for instance!
The bottom shelf of our main pantry is the Department of Oils, Fruits, Tomato Products, and Big Heavy Jugs. We keep the big jugs on the bottom so they’re easy to grab from behind the shelving unit. One of those is obviously vinegar, and the jug on the left is sorghum syrup (which is a nice maple syrup substitute.)
Dried apricots are a crucial ingredient in Apricot Lentil Soup and Honey-Apricot Tangy Tofu, but it takes us a while to use 2 cups like we have in this jar, so we keep them in the refrigerator to prevent them from getting moldy or vinegary-smelling. Shown here are the apricots I just recently purchased, which will soon replace the almost-empty jar in the fridge.
Unlike apricots, raisins have never gone bad in our pantry, even when we’ve stocked up on six or seven jars full of bulk raisins on sale after the autumn harvest and it takes us all winter to eat them. The co-op’s bulk raisins are coated with a small amount of organic olive oil, so they don’t get dried-out, either. (Oh man, Katie again…I just bought a 30-lb box of raisins from Country Life, and we’ll probably go through it before Christmas. I think we eat too much!!!)
Yes, we have Hidden Valley Ranch…sigh…my son insists that none of my homemade ranch dressings and no other brand of purchased ranch dressing tastes as good as this one with its genetically modified soybean oil and corn syrup…and he talked me into buying it, for the first time in over a year, when it went on sale at Costco. That was a few months ago. He has yet to open it. Sometimes it seems like being allowed to have an undesirable food available is more important to him than actually eating it!
Spaghetti with marinara sauce is my favorite food, and although I enjoy making my own sauce, I “have to” have sauce on hand for those times when I “need” sauce but haven’t gotten around to making any! I look for sauce that does not contain soybean oil or corn syrup, and then I compare Nutrition Facts among different brands and flavors to choose sauces that are high in vitamins and fiber, low in sugar and sodium. Classico makes a lot of tasty, healthy sauces at a reasonable price.
Our extra spices and other baking ingredients are on the top of the auxiliary pantry shelves–along with my very big pot for those times when I make soup or spaghetti sauce for a crowd, and some flashlights in case of power failure. (Pardon the dust in this honest photo.)
Keeping spices in alphabetical order helps you find what you need quickly. We have a lot of spices in the pantry at the moment because a lot of the bottles in the kitchen are nearly empty, so their replacements are waiting! Same thing for the baking powder – don’t buy it too far in advance because it doesn’t work as well when it’s old.
Two shelves of our auxiliary pantry are non-food items. The third shelf is the Department of Cereal and School Supplies. The only reason these things are together is that there was a space when I needed one to stash the absurd surplus of composition books my son somehow acquired!
I guess those fruit leathers also are a school supply, in that they’re only for the lunchbox and not to be eaten at home. Every once in a while I succumb to a sale on an individually-wrapped item for the lunchbox, if it’s relatively healthy and not too horribly wasteful, but in general we try to pack a low-waste lunch.
My general policy is to buy only GMO-free cereals, but Reese’s Puffs are a special treat we can have when a great coupon and a great sale coincide. They’re for dessert, not for breakfast!!
So, that’s my pantry tour! Writing this has reminded me of one of my college application essays on the topic of “What does your closet say about you?”
My family’s pantry not only shows you what we eat and how we organize but also expresses some of our values.
Our pantry helps us stick to a mostly healthy diet, but you can see some exceptions that we allow. Although looking closely at the pantry gave me a few surprises, I’m relieved to find that there’s nothing spoiled, it’s not all that dusty, and it’s mostly well organized. If only we could say the same about the rest of our basement!
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