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Stocking Your Pantry for Simple Meal Planning

My house doesn’t have a pantry. So I found one anyway…

The best way to stock the pantry

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:

Stocking Your Pantry For Simple Meal Planning

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

Keep an organized stocked pantry for simple meal planning

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!

Great tips for pantry organization

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!)

Stocking Your Pantry For Simple Meal Planning

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.

Tips for stocking a pantry - make food planning simple!

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.

Tips for organizing the pantry-make meal planning simple!

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!

Department of dressings, sauces, oils and big jugs

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.

Organizing the pantry - tips for the spice shelf

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.

Keeping a stocked pantry can help with meal planning

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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How do you organize your grocery storage? What are your favorite things to keep stocked up? Have you ever created a pantry in a space that wasn’t designed for it?


Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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9 thoughts on “Stocking Your Pantry for Simple Meal Planning”

  1. Katie, I knew someone would say that about mustard! We only use 1 or 2 bottles a year of each type (yellow, brown, and right now we have a fancy kind too) but I was sure there must be mustard-loving families who would speak up about the necessity of keeping it stocked up.

    We “need” those corn chips, too, but being a smaller family we can get away with having only 1-2 spare bags at all times. It’s important to have an extra when I have to host church coffee hour on short notice, and when a dinner plan falls through we can always Mexicanize a couple cans of beans and pull out the chips!

  2. It’s amazing how far I’ve come in my baby steps towards cooking real foods. It would be easy to judge you by saying “she buys this” and “she buys that” and “I’d never buy such and such.” However, that wouldn’t be fair. Me Minus a Few Years did buy “this” and “that” as well as “such and such.” It’s a journey. Some of us are farther along than others.

    I have a modest kitchen, but most of my cupboards are for the non-edibles such as dishes, pots, silverware and appliances. The food in the kitchen is open packages. I keep cans and jars downstairs in the basement. Boxes and bags are in a half-closet in the laundry room that is over the stairs. I have been canning tomatoes like they’re going out of style and running out of shelf space. The basement is unfinished, so I am debating buying another shelving unit for the applesauce I plan to can in the upcoming days.

    I’d like to have storage in my kichen, but that would require a complete overhaul of my mindset and/or my physical kitchen. Until then, I have a solution that works for me.

    1. It’s definitely a journey! Although I’ve been on it for a long time, I make changes every year. Also, not everyone’s journey reaches the same destination in terms of which real foods are on the menu–my main struggle with judgment when I read about others’ diets is the amount of meat many people eat.

      Speaking of judgment, looking at my pantry photos reminded me of visiting my brother in Minneapolis in 1998, when he was shopping at a food co-op and I hadn’t started doing that yet: His cupboard was filled with random old containers with handwritten labels, and it just looked so junky and haphazard to me! My perspective on bulk food and reused containers is VERY different now!

      Your storage system sounds kind of similar to mine. My kitchen has just two full-size cabinets, one half-width one, and one half-height one–so one of the big cabinets is for spices, baking ingredients (we found we have to buy flour only 5 pounds at a time and keep it upstairs to avoid weevils!), and handy small amounts of things like pasta, rice, sorghum, honey, nuts. We keep the tea in 1/4 of the half-height cabinet over the stove. The other cabinets are all dishes and appliances. Under the counter, we have only drawers except under the sink (and who wants to keep food under the sink?!) and the drawers are filled with utensils, pots, lids, and the heavier small appliances. The only appliances we keep on the counter are the toaster-oven and electric kettle, because we have so little counter space!

    2. Agreed. Plus you will have leaps forward and backward as your stages of life change. When my daughter was put on a low FODMAP diet, we suddenly had to reintroduce grains because she now cannot have many of the fruits and vegetables that we previously had enjoyed. In addition, we eat some processed foods that I just don’t have the sanity to make from scratch, because I’m dealing with a child in pain.

      1. Yes, we have had stages when we used processed foods at a faster rate than normal. Right now, we have a lot of boxes of mac&cheese because we bought a case, but that should be about a year’s supply. When my daughter was born, though, my son was 9 and able to make dinner for the family using mostly foods that have instructions on them or are very easy to prepare; I was happy to eat mac&cheese twice a week if I didn’t have to cook while dealing with a newborn! Earlier that year, we had a sudden, unexpected illness–all 3 members of the family were stricken with viral bronchitis within 48 hours and were sick for a full month–so it was great to have plenty of food in the house, including many almost-ready-to-eat things that can be prepared by a person who isn’t feeling well.

  3. I hope the costco chips are nonGMO/organic! Our grocery stocks big bags now, yay. And nonGMO corn tortillas, but theyre stupid pricey, bummer. I actually bought the chips for a taco meal recently becuz they seemed better than the gmo corn torts to me. Cuh-ray-zee!

  4. We have a bookshelf in the hallway close to the kitchen that is just right for all my one-gallon jars full of dried beans, grains, sugar and cereals. My pantry is in my laundry room, which is the next room over from the kitchen. That is stocked up with cans of tomato products, pineapple, peanut butter, stock, pasta, jams and jellies and opportunistic shopping finds at Grocery Outlet, like canned soups for work lunches.

    I had to laugh at the quantities in the pantry. We use 3 cups of rice or lentils for a meal. Those quart jars would be too small for my storage needs! We feed seven adult-sized people in my house. The youngest has two hollow legs! That big pot in the back is what I would use all the time! In fact, if I were making chili, I would use two! One pot is not enough! And… We want leftover chili.

    Oh! Chili reminds me of our other food storage, besides the 5-gallon buckets of rice, pinto beans and wheat in my kitchen. I buy those huge cans. I guess they are about a gallon… For my chili I use 3 pounds of hamburger, 2 huge cans of kidney beans and one huge can of crushed tomato. Of course I use onions, garlic, chili powder and cumin. We buy the 1-quart size bottles of some spices and they stay in the cupboard in the kitchen. The smaller size bottles and bags are on other shelves. I buy the big size of: chili powder, paprika, cumin, Italian seasoning, oregano, granulated garlic, pepper corns. Oh… back to the huge cans… I have a bench at the table that is against the wall. The huge cans go under the bench. They are out of the way and are hardly noticed. Those cans can also fit under my couch.

    I have storage space, I just don’t have counter space. I have about 7 feet broken up into three pieces. The dish drainer takes one piece. The blender and mixer take another. Then there’s the corner for the toaster, knife block, cooking oils and whatever else lands there.

    Thank you for helping me think through my storage again.

    1. My family is only 4 people, one of whom weighs under 30 pounds, so we don’t need to cook huge quantities! Marinara sauce, though, I make using the big can of tomato puree, and I only freeze one quart because we will go through the rest fast enough that it doesn’t get moldy.

      We had a bookcase as our pantry in our previous home (where it was just two of us) placed in the open doorway that was behind where the refrigerator door opened–very convenient. We didn’t need to use that door to the hallway because the kitchen also had a door to the dining room, and there was a door from dining room to hallway.

      I’m glad to help you think through your storage! Thanks for sharing details.

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