This article, Waste Less Food By Stocking Up, was last updated August, 2018.
I hate wasting food. I've gotten better over the years, but with just two of us, it's always a challenge. Here's one thing I've learned: If you want to save money, waste less food, and still eat delicious, nutritious meals, you have to stock up.
I know that sounds contradictory, but it's not, and here's why. If you stock up on pantry and freezer staples, you will always have the ingredients on hand to use up your fresh food.
If your pantry and freezer are stocked with staples, you will always have the ingredients on hand to use up your fresh food.
Why Worry About Wasting Food?
Because you probably waste more food than you think.
According to sciencedaily.com, Americans throw away 80 billion pounds of food every year. "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," according to this same site.
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 recent report on NPR's show 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--well, that's a lot of money down the garbage disposal.
How Does Stocking Up Help You Waste Less Food?
Easy. If you have pantry staples on hand, you will always be able to make a nutritious, easy meal with what you have in your fridge. I realize 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 up your fresh food instead of throwing it out? There's a real talent to doing this well--if there weren't, we wouldn't 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, etc.)
- 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
- Sheet pan chicken and roasted vegetables (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.
This process is infinitely easier with a well-stocked freezer and pantry.
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 stocking up or buying 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 happen when planning your pantry:
Don't buy stuff you don't like just because it's on sale or you have a great coupon for it. If you don't like it now, you won't like it when you get it home, no matter how great a deal you got on it.
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.
So, What Should I Stock Up On?
Because everybody's tastes are unique, so will everybody's well-stocked pantry be unique, as well. 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 will work for everyone. (This is why I encouraged you to figure out your own likes, dislikes and eating patterns in the last section.)
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, and if you're paleo, then those sad little spiralized vegetables.
So with those caveats, you can use these lists (one for the pantry, one for the freezer, one for the fridge) as guidelines:
These are the items I always have in my pantry:
Onions, garlic, and potatoes: Onions and garlic are the foundation of most meals all over the world, so they're a necessity in any well-stocked kitchen. They don't have a long shelf life, but you have to have them nevertheless. Potatoes are a highly versatile food, so unless you're a low-carber, you should keep them around. 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.
Stock: chicken, beef, vegetable, and seafood/fish. Homemade if possible (this is a freezer item unless you have a pressure canner). Also bouillon cubes. I keep both homemade frozen stock and canned stock because I use so much of it.
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. I keep some of both.
Pasta: long, short, flat, round, lasagna, whole grain and regular, egg noodles. I also like to have Asian noodles such as soba and rice noodles. And ramen, too--you can doctor it up into a pretty flavorful soup if you like that sort of thing.
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, etc. (I don't use these often, but they're nice when I don't feel lime making a bechamel.)
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. I also keep anchovies and/or anchovy paste around for Caesar salad dressing.
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, some ethnic recipes, 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, 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: I group these together only because they're both dried vegetables. They are excellent flavor enhancers and keep very well.
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 of my favorites: Italian seasoning, smoked paprika, 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. (Notice I don't list mayonnaise--that's because I make my own. Most bottled mayo has unhealthy fats--and the ones that don't cost a fortune--so I make my own with olive or avocado oil. If you don't want to do this, by all means keep some mayo and/or salad dressing in your pantry.)
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, I'm looking at you). Costco now makes a shelf-stable organic product with nothing but peanuts and salt in it. 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.
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 dinner.
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 I don't use often, but they're great for potlucks, parties, picnics, and grilling).
This is just a start. If you look through your cupboards and at your meal plans, I'm sure you'll come up with a lot more items. The great thing is, pantry staples are just that--staples. They 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.
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.
Freezer basics are easier, largely because you have less space to work with. I keep mine stocked with meat and seafood, but also keep space for other important items.
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). Remember to season it first for easy prep later on!
Rotisserie chicken: I buy several at a time, bag and freeze the meat, and make a big batch of stock out of the bones. 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, but I usually have fresh potatoes that need to be eaten, plus they take up a lot of freezer space, so keep them if you'll use them.
Bread: We don't eat it often, so I keep it in the freezer for our occasional sandwiches and toast. I also keep take-n-bake French loaves for quick crostini and to eat with soups and stews.
Homemade stock (mostly chicken, but also sometimes beef, vegetable, and seafood, depending on what I have on hand that I need to use up)
Frozen fruit (primarily for smoothies)
Nuts For long-term storage (more than 3 months), keep nuts in the freezer. They can last for a couple of years this way without getting stale or going rancid.
Meals and leftovers (I make extra and freeze a meal or two, and I freeze leftovers so we're not banished to eating the same thing two or three times in a week)
Pie crusts and puff pastry--these are GREAT for quick, easy meals and desserts!
Flatbreads for quick weeknight pizzas (which you can make with just about any food + cheese)
Eggs (can be used in hundreds of ways, in any meal and in baking, plus they keep for a very long time)
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.
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 I included it because 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. When I was a kid, my dad went through an organ meat phase where we ate cow heart, tongue, and liver. I don't know if it's because it was cheap or if he really wanted to try it, but after a few awful meals, organ meat was never spoken of again. Yes, there are ways to cook it that are delicious, but if you don't know what they are, stick to other stuff.
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: Yes, I like to keep a few shortcut meals on hand for nights I don't want to cook, or am sick, or haven't had a chance to plan a meal, or am just feeling lazy. I defend every chef's right to do that! But I don't like to resort to junk food or really have it around at all. A little once in awhile is okay--everything in moderation, even junk food. But you'll probably regret buying that Costco 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
I keep a running grocery list in Google Docs that I can access from anywhere to read and modify "in real time," so I am as up-to-date as possible on my grocery needs. As soon as I see I'm low on something or have run out, I add it to my list. This is particularly important for stock-up items, because you often don't think of them until you need them. What a shame to have to run to the store for chicken stock so you can use up the aging meat and produce in your fridge!
I actually have several lists in the same document: one for the grocery store, one for Costco, one for food I need to use up, one for recipes I want to make, and a list of staples organized by fridge, freezer, dry goods, spices, and more. This way, I always have my list with me and I always know what I need, whichever store I'm at. And, if I forgot to write something down, I can consult my list of staples to jog my memory.
For example, I may not have written down "butter" on my shopping list, but when I see it on my pantry staples, I remember that I'm getting low and I pick up a few packages. (I freeze butter so I always have it on hand because it's one of the things I hate to run out of.)
When I first started keeping lists, I had them in different documents, some electronic and some on paper. But I found it was easier to keep everything in one place. Yes, the list is long, but it's organized enough that it's easy to use.
You don't have to do it this way, but the point is to keep on top of it, however that works best for you. 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.
Keep an Inventory
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.
I tried keeping a running tally of what I had in my freezers and pantry at all times. After just a couple of weeks, the list was a mess of crossed out items and question marks where I couldn't remember if I'd updated it or not. Now, I just clean out my freezers regularly (about every 4-6 months) and keep them well organized, and I go through my pantry about once a month to see what I'm low on (if anything).
This has worked out pretty well. I've found that I've gotten a feel for what I use often and have developed a sort of intuition for when I need to buy. Paying attention is half the battle. 🙂
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 along with that food, we also waste money and resources. Nobody wants to do that!
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.