“What should we make for dinner tonight?” seems to be a common question that rings through our home each night. We know the story: you get home from a long day at work, take the dog for a walk, chat with a neighbor and POOF! it’s suddenly later than you expected and now you need to run to the store to buy and prepare ingredients for a magnificent dinner? For most of us in this situation, we opt to go out to eat instead of performing such laborious tasks ourselves or settle for something highly processed but quick to make at home. Both of these options leave us feeling lighter in the wallet and usually nutritionally deprived.

However, with just a little planning, you can cook from home any night of the week by keeping your pantry stocked with everything you need for conjuring a fantastic, quick and nutritious meal. All while saving money and time by eating out less and making fewer trips to the grocery store.

Wow! Sounds like the perfect solution to solving such a frequent conundrum, how can I get started?

WHAT’S IN YOUR PANTRY?
First, start with your pantry. The pantry includes items contained in your home’s dry storage, refrigerator and freezer. Perhaps your home garden can be considered another source of pantry items for your household. Your pantry is the food you have immediate access to at your home.

Once in your pantry, dig around. What do you find the most? The least of? What is missing? Are things past their expiration date? If so, compost or dispose of them.

While digging, take an inventory of the things you have, then compare the list to the things you would like to have or need to make your favorite recipes. The items that you need will go on your shopping list.

Divide your inventory into categories: grains/carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, protein, dairy (or other calcium) and, of course, sweets, oils and fats. Most cooking requires some sort of oil or fat to start with. Make sure to have a wide variety of choices so you won’t be left with only one type of oil for all cuisine cooking.

Do you have items from each category? If it seems like you have an abundance of one food group over another, for example, you have six boxes of pasta but no canned tomatoes or fresh vegetables, you may want to increase your stock of produce. When cooking at home, you are in control of how balanced your diet is. By keeping your pantry well-balanced, you in turn will be well-balanced.

This pantry inspection should be done on a regular basis, right before a weekly shopping trip, mainly for perishable items like produce and dairy, but is more realistically done on a bi-weekly or monthly scale for dry and freezer items. By doing an inventory before shopping, you reduce the amount of waste (both food and food dollars), refresh your memory and creativity for meal planning by noting what you have available, and avoid buying duplicates of things you may already have.

PLAN AHEAD
Once you’ve constructed your inventory, take some time to plan your weekly meals. This list should come easily if you are used to cooking at home. Think of your favorite meals, the type of cuisine you most often stick to, and things you know you can whip up easily. Include meals or cuisines you would like to add to your current circulation.

For example, my fiancé and I love to make Mexican-themed food. During a typical week in our kitchen, we will probably make any one of these meals for dinner:
Monday: Veggie Quesadillas
Tuesday: Homemade Pizza
Wednesday: Breakfast Burritos
Thursday: Leftovers
Friday: Stir-fry
Saturday: Mexican Macaroni and Cheese
Sunday: Salad with Texas Toast

It may seem silly to make a weekly menu. However, by doing this it is easier to visualize what you are consuming on a regular basis and, in turn, make modifications according to what you may be getting too much or too little of nutritionally.

GO BEYOND DINNER
After you cross-check your inventory with your newly formed weekly menu, add missing menu ingredients to your shopping list. You should now have a comprehensive shopping list of the items you will need for dinner. Hopefully you included some new items to experiment with or ingredients for a new recipe.

Not so fast! Before you run, bike, drive or teleport yourself to your nearest co-op, remember that pantry stocking goes beyond dinner. We must include breakfast, lunch and snacks in order for our shopping list to be complete.

In last month’s featured article, “Pack to Work” by Bonnie Sweetland (www.willystreet.coop/article/14353), we learned that packing our lunches can be one of the biggest budget-savers as well as a much healthier and calorie-controlled option than eating out at a restaurant. Bonnie tracked her spending to find out that she spent between $2,000 and $4,000 a year on lunching out! In addition to saving money and eating healthier, she also pointed out that by packing our own lunches we are making a more eco-conscious decision by avoiding wasteful take-out containers, extra packaging and all those pollutants put in the air by either driving to a restaurant or having something delivered.
So, make sure to take breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks into consideration when creating your shopping list and building the inventory of your pantry.

TIME TO GO SHOPPING!
By doing a weekly inventory of our pantry, planning our meals, and shopping from a list, I save us from blowing our budget and buying impulse items. If we are lucky, a few of our weekly items will be on sale, in which case, we stock up.

On a typical weekly shopping trip to the Co-op, we purchase the following items: whole wheat or sprouted tortillas, bell peppers of all colors, carrots, mushrooms, snow peas, spinach, kale, 3# bag of apples, a bunch of bananas, a dozen eggs, specialty cheese, pre-made pizza dough from the Deli, sandwich bread, lunch meat, Red Hot Blues Tortilla Chips, Bumble Baby Bars from the bakery, orange juice and milk.
From our pantry/items we restock less frequently: black beans, canned tomatoes, dehydrated refried bean mix, enchilada sauce, cumin and other spices, venison sausage, chicken, homemade canned pizza sauce, brown rice, soy sauce, tahini butter, olive oil, sesame oil, salt, mustard, Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, peanut butter, Vegenaise, butter, homemade jam, homemade salsa, ice cream, block of cheddar cheese, frozen juice, tea, sugar, tomato paste, ingredients for granola.

From the garden/farmers’ market/Produce: fresh tomatoes, thai basil, bell peppers, green beans, cilantro, cucumbers, zucchini squash, green onions, broccoli, honey.

Voila! My kitchen is stocked and I don’t have to worry about running to the store for another week! We eat happily and mostly healthfully and try and get creative in the meantime.

PANTRY STAPLES:
I found this list on simplebites.net, it paints a pretty good picture of a standard pantry. This list may be modified to suit your personal or family needs:

  • Flours: unbleached white, wheat, rice, cake, almond
  • Sugars: brown, cane or beet, powdered, turbinado or demerara
  • Dry pastas: a few different shapes and sizes
  • Grains: couscous, rice, barley, quinoa, oats, flax, cornmeal
  • Oils: olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil
  • Vegetables: onions, potatoes, garlic
  • Canned/Jarred Tomatoes: sauce, diced, stewed, paste
  • Spreads: peanut, almond & hazelnut butters, jam, jelly
  • Natural sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, agave
  • Vinegars: balsamic, white, red wine, apple cider, rice wine
  • Specialty sauces: hot sauce, Tabasco, oyster sauce, mirin, rice wine, soy sauce
  • Nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, coconut
  • Dried fruit: raisins, apricots, dates, cherries, cranberries
  • Dried or canned beans: black, navy, pinto, kidney
  • Canned fish/seafood: tuna, salmon, clams, sardines, anchovies
  • Specialty items: artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, olives
  • Herbs and spices: oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, cumin, peppers and many more
  • Salts: kosher, sea salt, pickling salt, rock salt
  • Baking ingredients: baking powder, baking soda, yeast, cream of tartar, chocolate
  • Extracts: vanilla, almond, lemon, peppermint
  • Beverages: coffee, tea, cocoa

 

REALLY? I’M JUST NOT THAT ORGANIZED!
For those of you who are nodding your head while reading this article and saying to yourself, “Oh yes, if only I were that organized!” I want to compliment your patience, most of us are not that organized but we can still be prepared (a little bit). Take a baby step, try shopping for one or two “menu” items and keep your basics in stock: rice, noodles, beans, canned tomatoes, macaroni and cheese—whatever suits your fancy. If you don’t mind a daily shopping trip (I know many who look forward to it), then you can dress up your staples with the freshest of produce, meat or cheese each day!

Or if you are unable to shop each day and still find yourself clinging to externally sourced food because you are just too busy, consider stocking up on the staples once in awhile and trade fresh produce for frozen or canned to prevent waste and ensure that you have veggies on hand when needed.

The main point behind keeping a well stocked pantry is to keep your life simple and stress-free, so don’t stress if you don’t have your monthly menu written down and laminated somewhere—most of us do not.

EXTRA TIDBITS

  • Take advantage of the season’s abundance by canning/preserving/freezing. That way you can savor pieces of summer when it’s 30º below and you can’t bear making a trip to the grocery store. This increases the amount of items you have on hand as well, making cooking really easy. I spent some time canning and freezing last summer and fall and was able to minimize our trips to the Co-op in the winter by half all while enjoying the sweet taste of summer in the dead of winter.
  • Use the long, quiet winter months to make large batches of your favorite meals and freeze them for when things get really busy.
  • When preparing a meal, make extra for quick meals on the run for the week or freeze it for later.
  • Buy herbs in small quantities to maintain freshness
  • Be firm but flexible: stick to your shopping list as best you can to avoid impulsive buys and overspending but...take a look at the end caps when shopping the Co-op for good deals and a chance to stock up on staples.

 

WILLY TO THE RESCUE!
The Willy Street Co-op can make your pantry stocking a less daunting task! We offer several classes that can help you familiarize yourself with the store and your nutritional needs. Many of these opportunities are offered each month. Check out our website, Reader or event calendar boards at both stores to see when classes are offered.

No Secret to Savings: Understanding the Bulk Aisle
Get to know the bulk aisle a little better with a tour from one of our friendly and knowledgeable staff. This session includes how to shop on a budget as well as nutritional information.

Individual Nutrition Consultations with Human Nature, LLC
Join Nutrition Consultants from Human Nature, LLC in a one-on-one health assessment which may include a tour of the Co-op and a helpful shopping list.