Meal Planning Basics: Pantry Planning Guidelines


I've gone on about pantries for three weeks now, and they've been my obsession for much longer as I've had to set up three in the past year or so. Here are a few basic guidelines to get you started on your own pantry-planning quest:

1. Reflect on what you cook, bake, and eat.

Hopefully, you have a meal planner squirreled away from your previous abode that you can page through to see what kinds of dishes you regularly cook. If not, simply make a list of what's in your regular rotation, to the best of your memory.

I know that I cook pasta dishes with tomato-based, oil-based, and milk-based sauces frequently. I also make variations on chicken and rice often, as it's my husband's favorite. In addition, I like to cook meatballs, meatloaves, and hamburgers. I enjoy baking of all sorts as well. Finally, I know that cereal and oats are popular breakfasts and that eggs and sandwiches make frequent lunch appearances.

2. Make a list of the basic components of your "usuals."

This step is not so hard. If you know from the first step that you eat spaghetti with meatballs once a week, put spaghetti, ground beef, and either sauce or the basic sauce components (tomatoes, garlic, and onions) on your list.

If you bake, don't forget to list those staples, too: yeast if you make a lot of bread, baking powder, baking soda, and so forth.

3. Add the essentials used across all sorts of cooking.

Think oil (I like a neutral one for baking and frying and cold-pressed olive oil for everyday cooking), a basic vinegar, salt, pepper, butter, nonstick spray, and so on. Also, even if you're not a baker, pick up at least a little all-purpose flour and white sugar for thickening and seasoning, respectively.

Don't go overboard and buy every sauce known to Asia and twenty kinds of olives. You can buy capers or canned green chiles later, when you actually have a recipe planned that calls for them. Here, we're just looking for the items that you can't cook most meals without.

Spices can be the real money sink at this point. It's hard to anticipate every spice you will need. When I lived in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, I bought small packets for about a 25 to 75 cents a pop whenever I needed them and gradually built up a stock that way. Here, I'm lucky to find jars of the basics for $1 each.

I say, if you know you don't use spices much, then buy the handful you reach for frequently (perhaps salt, pepper, a seasoning blend, dried oregano or thyme, garlic powder, and cinnamon) and wait on the rest until the need arises. If you don't want to feel limited when the spark of creativity strikes over a pot of chili, then consider buying a pre-stocked spice rack from the housewares store to save money.

4. Buy just the essentials to get started.

You have a full pantry list, but don't go crazy shopping yet! Stick to your all-meals essentials list from step three. Add on food items you'll need to follow your meal plan for the week (including breakfast and lunch staples), and then proceed to step five.

5. Check the store circulars.

You have your lists, so now start checking for deals. When your store has chicken breasts on sale, buy as many as you can keep frozen. If Costco offers a fabulous deal on pasta, scoop up a bunch of bags for the cupboard.

The idea here is to build your pantry stock over time as the best prices arrive. After your first disorganized move-in week, you can start planning meals based on the circulars and the supply of staples (step 2's list) you stocked up on when you found them at a rock-bottom price.

For example, perhaps your store is selling sausage for $2 a pound. Your family loves sausage and eats it every week, so you buy six pounds for your pantry. You also pick up a 5-pound bag of rice on sale, and back home, you have a freezer stocked with last week's $2.50 a pound lean ground beef.

Now you can use your stock to your budgetary advantage. When you shop, you'll only need to purchase specific, one-off items (say, pimentos), fresh produce (lettuce, for example), and whatever of your staples are on sale. You won't have to buy new chicken every week to meet your recipe needs, and thus you won't have to suffer through paying $4 a pound for it one week when it was only $2 the week before.

6. Find a warehouse or outlet store to use as a backup.

Even the best-laid plans can fall through. Coupons and supermarket loss leaders can net you the best deals, but sometimes you run out of spaghetti at an inopportune time. Check your local area for discounters.

You might already have a Sam's Club or Costco membership. While they don't always beat an advertised sale at your local market, they often have the best everyday price for an item. If you have Smart & Final in your area, you won't even have to pay a membership fee to take advantage.

If you're not a bulk warehouse sort, try looking for grocery outlets or private-label stores like Aldi. In my experience, the prices are also lower than usual at Wal-Mart's grocery stores and Fred Meyer, both of which don't require you to have a special "shopper's club" card to take advantage of discounts.

7. Put your pantry to use!

Lucky number seven is just a reminder that there's no point in stocking something in your pantry if you don't plan your cooking around it. Don't let your food sit idle!

If you find after a while that you are getting backlogged with certain items -- say, you buy a ton of cream soup on sale but don't end up making a lot of casseroles -- re-evaluate your staples list for your current style of cooking.

This list is my new pantry plan. I'm working the system successfully so far. While I know there's another move sometime in our relatively near future, I now feel prepared to face another new kitchen with confidence.

Other Pennies & Pounds articles about meal-planning basics:

Photo: Colleen Fischer

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