If you hate to waste food and find it happening more often than you like, you're not alone. Here's a way to save food that may not make sense at first glance: you have to stock up.
No, not on everything, but on pantry basics. Because if you have the basics on hand, you can always use the perishable food in your fridge.
What are the basics? Only you can decide that. Everybody's different. But here, we offer some guidelines on pantry basics that we hope will help you make your own list of what staples you want to always have on hand.
Why Worry About Wasting Food?
You know you waste some food because everybody does. It's pretty unavoidable.
But the truth is that you probably waste more food than you think.
According to sciencedaily.com, Americans throw away 80 billion pounds of food every year. According to this site, "Food waste is the largest source of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and the most destructive type of household waste in terms of greenhouse gas emissions".
And according to feedingamerica.org, 25-40% of all food grown in the United States is never consumed.
Even if the environmental and socially conscious aspects of this don't bother you, the financial aspects of it almost certainly will: according to a report on NPR's Science Friday, Americans throw away almost a third of the food they buy. If you spend about $4500 a year on groceries--which is right around the national average for a family of four--well, that's a lot of money down the garbage disposal.
How Does Stocking Up Help You Waste Less Food?
If you have pantry staples on hand, you will always be able to make a nutritious, easy meal with the perishable food you have in your fridge.
You probably already know that. But have you taken the time to stock your pantry, freezer, and fridge with basics that allow you to use your fresh food instead of throwing it out? There's a real talent to doing this well--if there weren't, we wouldn't all waste as much food as we do.
Say you have some red bell peppers and some chicken breasts in your fridge. What can you make with those ingredients?
Well, if you have a well-stocked pantry and freezer, about 500 different dishes, including:
- Stir fry (with frozen broccoli, onions, soy sauce, and rice.)
- Baked chicken breasts with Italian vegetables (with canned tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and parmesan cheese)
- Hungarian-style chicken casserole (with canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, paprika, and pasta)
- Grilled chicken salad with red peppers, onions, whatever other veg you have in the fridge/freezer, and Italian dressing
- Chicken and black bean soup (with dried or canned beans)
- Fajitas! (with onions, cheese, tortillas--keep 'em in the freezer--and seasonings)
- Sheet pan chicken and roasted veggies (red peppers plus whatever you have in your freezer).
If you google "recipes using chicken breast and red bell pepper," you get more than 16 million results. So you should have little trouble finding something you and your family will enjoy--if you keep the right combination of pantry staples on hand.
Stock Up On the Right Stuff
What are pantry staples? In general, they're the foundations of food prep that can be used in many different meals. In particular, they're basics that you and your family will like and eat on a regular basis.
In general, pantry staples are the foundations of food prep that can be used in many different meals. In particular, they're the basics that you and your family will like and eat on a regular basis.
Sometimes when trying to stock up or buy in bulk, it can get a little crazy. What do I need? What will I use?? How do I know what to buy??? Here are a few tips to help you avoid the panic that can sometimes set in when planning your pantry:
It can take a little trial and error before you get skilled at keeping a well-stocked pantry. If you know what you and your family like, know what you eat regularly, and have an "emergency" stash for quick and easy meals and desserts, you'll have gone a long way towards knowing what to stock up on. But once you get into the habit, it becomes second nature, and usually only takes a couple of minutes a day.
So, What Should I Stock Up On?
Because everybody's tastes are different, everybody's well-stocked pantry will be, too. With so many people having special diets these days, from paleo to vegetarian to gluten-free, it's difficult to provide a list of pantry items that are going to work for everyone.
Having said that, there are some items that will work for just about everybody, even if they have to be adapted for special diets. For example, stock is a base for many, many dishes. If you're a vegetarian, you can use vegetable stock--but you'll still use stock. Same with pasta-- if you're gluten free, you can use rice flour pasta or chickpea pasta. If you're paleo, leave it off your list.
So with some caveats, you can use these three lists (one for the pantry, one for the freezer, one for the fridge) as guidelines.
Onions, garlic, and potatoes: Onions and garlic are the foundation of meals from practically every cuisine, so they're a necessity in any well-stocked kitchen. They don't have a long shelf life, but almost everyone has to keep them on hand nevertheless. Potatoes are a highly versatile food, so unless you're a low-carber, you should keep them around, too. HINTS: 1) Do not store potatoes or onions in the refrigerator (green onions/scallions are the exception). 2) Store onions and garlic in a paper bag (like a grocery bag) to prolong freshness. 3) Do not store onions and potatoes in the same drawer or cupboard. The onions give off a gas that makes the potatoes go bad faster.
You can greatly extend the shelf life of onions, garlic and potatoes by storing them correctly.
Stock: chicken, beef, vegetable, and seafood/fish. Homemade if possible (although this is a freezer item unless you have a pressure canner). Also bouillon cubes for when you don't want to use a whole jar or can of stock.
Canned tomatoes: sauce, crushed, diced, paste. Seasoned and unseasoned.
Canned and dry beans: black, pinto, chili, garbanzo, etc. Dried beans are cheaper, but canned beans are more convenient.
Pasta: long, short, flat, round, lasagna, whole grain and regular, egg noodles. Asian noodles too, such as soba and rice noodles, if you'll use them.
Rice: white, brown, long grain, short grain, Jasmine, basmati, wild, etc. Keep two or three of your favorite varieties on hand, and you'll always have an easy meal (extra easy if you have a rice cooker).
Canned soups: cream of mushroom, consommé, maybe tomato for a quick lunch. Even if you don't use them often they're a great time saver when you need them.
Canned tuna, salmon, sardines, crab, and maybe even chicken. All are great, quick sources of protein and you can use them in salads, sandwiches, and casseroles. You can also keep anchovies and/or anchovy paste around if you'll use them: they add a ton of umami to dishes (without actually tasting fishy at all).
Canned vegetables: throw them into soups, casseroles, and stews, or in a pinch serve them as a side.
Coconut milk: if you like to make Asian and Indian food.
Dried fruit: Raisins, dates, prunes, coconut, cherries. Good in salads, baked goods, or stewed in a syrup and served over ice cream for a quick dessert. (And it keeps almost forever.)
Oatmeal: Versatile and healthy, oatmeal makes an excellent pantry staple. You can have it for breakfast, use it as filler in meatloaves and meatballs, make granola with it, use it in baked goods, and grind it into flour for use in baking and breading. It keeps for a long time, particularly if you transfer it to airtight containers, but it will go stale, so be careful not to buy more than you'll use in a few months' time.
Dried mushrooms and dried chiles: They are both excellent flavor enhancers and keep virtually forever.
Baking supplies: flour, sugar, brown sugar, chocolate chips, raisins, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, yeast, corn meal, etc. Even if you don't bake you'll want to keep many of these items on hand because they're used in so many applications, e.g., flour for breading meat, canned milk for tuna casserole, and baking soda for a dozen different household applications. (Note: Flour, yeast, and corn meal keep longer in the freezer.)
Vinegars: white, cider, white wine, red wine, balsamic, sherry, and whatever other flavors you like. Vinegar never goes bad, it's good for you, and you can use it in SO many things, from cleaning to salad dressings.
Cooking oils: olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, sesame oil--whatever oils you use and will rotate regularly. Keep in mind that most cooking oils have about a year shelf life. They may go rancid after that, but they will certainly not be at peak flavor even if they don't, so stock up accordingly.
Seasonings: salt, pepper, soy sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, seasoned salt. Everyone's seasoning list will be different (and you don't want to overdo it because spices lose freshness quickly once they're opened) but here are a few common ones that many people go through quickly: Italian seasoning, thyme (prefer fresh but always keep dried around, too), cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, mustard powder. HINT: If you buy spices in whole form and grind them as you use them, they'll stay fresh a lot longer.
Condiments: ketchup, yellow mustard, brown mustard, horseradish, taco sauce, chili sauce, fish sauce, etc. Mayo is also popular, but it's a lot healthier to make your own.
Sweeteners: sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, palm sugar, stevia, jams and jellies, etc.
Nut butters: peanut, almond, cashew, tahini, whatever you like. (As far as peanut butter, try not to buy conventional as it is full of horrible trans fats (yes, Skippy, looking at you). Costco now makes a shelf-stable organic product with nothing but peanuts and salt in it. And it's delicious! Once opened, though, all real nut butters have to go in the fridge.)
Canned parmesan cheese--keeps for a long time and is delicious on just about anything savory. Buy a known brand or you may get a product that's 50% filler (not real cheese).
Crackers: Nice to have on hand for company and the like, but don't keep too many around because they can get stale pretty quickly (more than 6 months is probably too long).
Maybe a few cake mixes and pie fillings, depending on your tastes and eating habits.
A few prepared dinners (mac and cheese, cans of soup, chili, spaghetti, etc.), if you think you'll ever be glad you have them around. They last for years and can be a blessing on those nights when everything's crazy and you haven't had time to plan a meal.
Paper and cleaning products: don't forget your paper products, soaps, cleaners, cleansers, sponges, microfiber cleaning towels, aluminum foil, storage baggies, saran wrap, wax paper, parchment paper, and throwable aluminum baking pans (which you may not use often, but they're great for potlucks, parties, picnics, and grilling).
This is just a start. If you look through your cupboards, think about what you like to cook, and how you like to plan your meals, you'll come up with the staples that best fit your needs. The great thing is, pantry staples are just that--staples. Most last for a long time, so if you overbuy, or don't use them up as fast as you'd like, it's okay because you have years before they go bad.
Potato and Onion Storage Hints
1) Do not store onions, garlic, or potatoes in the refrigerator, with the exception of scallions.
2) Store onions and garlic in a paper bag (like a grocery bag) to prolong freshness. Open air storage is prolongs their freshness.
3) Do not store onions and potatoes in the same drawer or cupboard. The gas given off by the onions makes the potatoes go bad faster.
Meat and seafood (easy meals like bags of shrimp and chicken breast as well as steaks, roasts, salmon, tuna steaks, hamburger, chicken wings, and breakfast meats like bacon and sausage). If you're freezing your own, remember to season it first for easy prep later on!
Rotisserie chicken: Buy a few, portion out the meat and freeze it, and use the carcasses for stock. The meat is great to have on hand for soup, salads, pot pies, casseroles, tacos and enchiladas, pasta dishes, and so much more.
Frozen vegetables (peas, corn, spinach, mixed veggies. Frozen potatoes (tots, fries, browns, etc.) are convenient, too, but they take up a lot of freezer space, so keep them if you'll use them.
Bread: regular loaves if you don't eat bread fast, plus take-n-bake French loaves for quick crostini and to eat with soups and stews.
Homemade stock (mostly chicken and vegetable (made with your carcasses and scraps), but also sometimes beef, pork, ham, and seafood, depending on what you have on hand that you need to use up).
Frozen fruit (primarily for smoothies).
Nuts For long-term storage (more than a couple of months), keep nuts in the freezer. They can last for a couple of years this way without getting stale or going rancid. See more on nut storage
Meals and leftovers (make extra and freeze a meal or two).
Pie crusts and puff pastry--these are GREAT for quick, easy meals and desserts! Use them with your stock, rotisserie chicken and frozen veggies for an easy pot pie. Use with frozen fruit, sugar, and cinnamon for a delicious pie that you can put together in about 10 minutes.
Flatbreads for quick weeknight pizzas (which you can make with just about any food + cheese)
Lemons and limes (limes for Mexican and Thai dishes, lemon for everything else)
Celery and carrots (along with onions and garlic, serve as the basis of hundreds of dishes. Both will keep for at least a couple of weeks, so buy accordingly.)
Yogurt, sour cream, mayo: whatever you prefer and use most often for toppings, sauces, and making salad dressings.
Lunchmeats if you like sandwiches.
Condiments. A pantry staple when unopened, a fridge staple after opening.
You can add to (or subtract from) these lists based on how you cook, what your family likes, your dietary needs, and any other personal considerations. But they should get you started.
What Should I Not Stock Up On?
This is probably obvious, but there may be a few things you haven't thought of.
Perishables: You can't stock up on perishable foods like fresh produce and dairy. (In fact, this article is meant to help you use up those fresh items so you waste less of them.)
If you find yourself overstocked on certain perishables, don't despair: you'd be amazed at the things you can freeze! Cheese, milk, fruit juice (squeeze that citrus into ice cube trays), bread, and produce...almost anything can be frozen, or cooked into a meal that can be frozen!
Great sales on bad food: You also don't want to stock up on foods you don't like or that your family won't eat. If it won't get eaten, it's not a good deal no matter how little you pay. So if your family hates split pea soup, forego the BOGO special on dried peas. You aren't going to use them.
Oddball meats: Same goes for oddball meats, like organ meat. Don't get a bunch of liver just because it's on sale unless you know your family will eat it.
Items you've never tried: Sometimes coupons get us to try new products, and that's fine. It's a great way to experiment with new foods cheaply. But don't stock up on things you've never tried. Buy a small amount to see if you like it first, then decide if you want to commit pantry space to it.
Junk food: Be honest: sometimes you like junk food. So keep a few shortcut meals on hand for nights you don't want to cook, or for an occasional snack. A little once in awhile is okay--everything in moderation, even junk food. But you'll probably regret buying that Costco-sized box of Pop Tarts or potato chips, or all that soda just because it's a dollar a bottle. Resist the urge. These purchases don't make life easier, they don't help you use up your fresh food, and they certainly don't make you feel good.
Keep a List
Already mentioned, but it bears repeating. Most people have a grocery list, but it's smart to get in the habit of using it for more than just things you're running low on. You can be as detailed as you want to be, but a "grocery" list is a great way to stay on top of your pantry, fridge, and freezer inventory.
You don't have to use your grocery list as an inventory if that doesn't work for you, The point is to keep on top of your perishable food items, however that works best for you, so you throw out as little as possible. Some people like a more regimented list (there are a ton of templates you can download), and separate documents for different needs, which can also work very well.
Check out How to Make a Grocery List for more info on how we like to do it if you're interested in a loose-yet-effective way to keep track of your food without a lot of meal planning/prepping.
Keep an Inventory
Once again, this can be as loose or as detailed as you like, but the more detailed it is, the better you'll be at both budgeting and at wasting less food.
You can try to keep a running tally of what you've got, but this can get outdated very quickly if you don't stay on top of it. You can also just take inventory every couple of months; this works for most people. After awhile, you develop a sort of intuition for knowing what you have and what you need.
Being organized helps too, that is, keep items organized logically and labeled (especially in the freezer!) so you can see at a glance what you're running low on.
No, it's rarely this simple in practice--those freezer shelves can get messy fast--but just paying attention and updating your list every couple of weeks helps a lot.
Throwing away too much food is a good problem to have. We live in a country abundant with food, and that's something to be grateful for. And yet our "throw away" society has perhaps made us okay with the idea of wasting food. But it's not just food we waste--we also waste money and resources. Nobody wants to do that if they can help it!
With a little bit of effort, you can put together a well-stocked pantry that meets your needs and keeps your family happy. Once you have this, you'll be able to plan meals easily, use up your perishables, and waste less food.
Thanks for reading!
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