Life isn’t perfect…
Much of my life is spent in scrubs, jeans, and tees. I typically go through three pairs of scrubs and three sets of farm clothes per week. In a perfect world, three sets of each would be enough to cover my bits and bobs. After all, laundry is done on schedule in a perfect world. However, life isn’t perfect.
My life, in particular, is hectic and messy. Some days, my coffee misses my mouth, my patient misses the emesis basin, and/or I miss the moment to dodge flying farm muck. When this happens, I rely on the backup layer of my wardrobe. These spare clothes fit my needs but aren’t my first choice. The scrubs may be older, faded, and a bit tight in the bum. The jeans may be stained (and a bit tight in the bum), but they give me the option to do chores in something other than my bathrobe or dress clothes.
The second layer of my pantry works much the same way. This isn’t a layer for dealing with minor emergencies or special occasions, but rather for days I need to stretch the time between regular grocery shopping trips. When I need a little extra cushion, my pantry gives me the ability to handle hectic and messy things smoothly.
I enjoy cooking from scratch and prefer using fresh or home-preserved ingredients. However, when needs must, I’m flexible. The foods in this layer need to be at least (semi)shelf-stable* and nutritious. A large portion of my food is canned, frozen, or dehydrated at home. We enjoy producing and preserving our food, so we make it a priority. If your situation is different, you can certainly provide your family a pantry cushion without DIY food preserving. Not everyone has to have Ma Ingalls aspirations!
Either way, start by making a list of meals using (semi)shelf-stable ingredients. If you need ideas, Chef Google is your friend. I’m also planning to include lots of recipes on this blog, so please check back often or subscribe so you don’t miss me. Once you have a list of meals, use it to compile a list of ingredients. If, at that point, you need more meals, look at the ingredients and see if they suggest other meals. For example, if spaghetti with marinara and chicken quesadillas are on your list, add a jar of Alfredo sauce and some taco shells. Then, you can make spaghetti, chicken quesadillas, chicken Alfredo, and chicken tacos. These are meals that require very little experience to cook.
However, the strategy holds true if you’re more adventurous in the kitchen. For example, if you have a roast, carrots, onions, and potatoes you can do much more than roast meat and veg. All you need is canned broth (or bouillon) and corn starch. Put diced roast in a pie pan with vegetables and thickened broth. Boil some potatoes, mash them, and put them on top. That’s cottage pie. Another option is adding diced roast to veggies and broth. This makes great soup! If you have pasta or rice in your pantry, you can add it to the soup or turn that roast into a casserole.
I know it’s difficult to change mindsets, but it can be worth it. Shopping for a pantry, rather than a recipe, is freeing. Don’t misunderstand. There are meals that require special ingredients. I only use dried figs in one dish, but it’s one of our favorites. So, I keep a small amount on hand for when we crave that dish. I also buy things I don’t use often enough to store. Having said that, I’d wager that about ninety percent of my food shopping is done to replenish my pantry.
I’m going to list some semi and fully shelf-stable foods I keep on hand. I’ll admit to keeping a larger than average pantry, but I cook more than average as well. Remember, you don’t need all the following items. Consider the list to be options from which to choose. Start with a few things, that go together in more than one dish. This is like the wardrobe concept of having key pieces that mix and match. So, what items do I use most?
Meats: Frozen chicken/turkey, beef, pork, lamb (We raise them.). Home-canned chicken/turkey, beef, pork, broths. Purchased canned salmon/smoked salmon, tuna, corned beef hash (I agree that it looks and smells like dog food, but it’s nostalgic to someone who lives in my house.)
Vegetables: Fresh potatoes, carrots, onions (These keep well when stored correctly.). Home-dehydrated carrots, onions, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, corn, peas. Canned tomatoes, green beans, black-eyed peas, corn, hominy, Rotel, pasta sauce, picante sauce, pickles, condiments. Frozen Brussel sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, mushrooms.
Dry goods: Baking basics (flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, leavening, brown sugar, oil, butter, solid fat [for most people, this might be shortening, but we use rendered lard],…), oatmeal, dried beans (several varieties), dried white, brown, and wild rices, herbs and spices, peanut butter, jams and jellies, condiments, dried milk, canned milk.
Cold storage: Butter, basic cheeses (these store well in the fridge), eggs (I store mine in the hens, but they keep very well in the fridge or arguably on the counter.)
Let’s step away from our clothing analogy for a moment and look at this another way. Think of it in terms of money. Imagine a family living paycheck to paycheck. If something happens to disrupt the flow of paychecks, they immediately find themselves in the position of “doing without”. There’s no financial cushion. Our family spent a long time living paycheck to paycheck. It’s manageable, but I find it very stressful.
Families, who shop only for what they plan to eat weekly or bi-weekly, are basically eating paycheck to paycheck. If something disrupts their ability to grocery shop on schedule, they find themselves with no pantry cushion to fall back on. Even if it is only a day’s delay, it can be inconvenient and expensive.
Typically, a financial cushion must be saved slowly. Similarly, most pantries must be built gradually. If a windfall comes your way, that’s wonderful! If you decide it can be spared to purchase pantry items en mass, I think that’s a responsible option. However, most of us build our pantries five extra dollars and one loss leader at a time. The best part is: That’s a responsible option too!
Next, in the Pantry Series, we’ll discuss special and not-so-special occasion pantry planning. If you are just joining in, you can find the first post in this series here. What are some items you wouldn’t be without? What are your favorite pantry meals? Please let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear what your family relies on to stretch the shopping!
*Normally, shelf-stable foods are dried or canned foods. These are stable for years when stored correctly. For this post, I’m coining the term semi-shelf-stable. By this, I’m including frozen and refrigerator foods that keep for a significant period, but aren’t truly shelf-stable.