Pantry Cooking

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Okay so I was planning on writing about Amy Dacyczyn’s Pantry Principle, but when I reviewed the article of that name in The Tightwad Gazette, I realized that I don’t actually do what she advocates. I don’t buy everything when it is at its cheapest point and make all meals entirely from my pantry.

I do however rely greatly on my pantry and freezer, and it’s a key part of cooking for less. So I slightly adjusted the title of the post and I’m going to focus on the general strategy of making meals from things you have on hand, because the real trick to shopping and eating for less is … (drum roll, please …)


Because in the words of Schoolhouse Rocky, Knowledge is Power.

The good thing about life in general, and the process of cooking and eating for less in particular, is that you will automatically gain knowledge as you go. The bad thing is that if you haven’t been doing it already, you have no knowledge to start with and it can feel overwhelming.

But remember that being able to shop and cook cheaply and efficiently is a SKILL not a talent. You do not have to be born with the ability to do this, you can figure it out one step at a time and you will get better and better at it until eventually it will be second nature and you no longer have to think about it at all. And you will be able to laugh about how overwhelming it seemed when you first started and all the dumb mistakes you made.

Ha ha ha.


One of the key strategies you need to develop is to be able to make a meal from things you have on hand. (Important note: You do not need to always have everything you ever might want on hand. You do not need to turn into one of those Mormon survivalists with a year’s worth of food in a bomb-proof shelter in the backyard. You just need to be able to make something that you will be willing to eat with what you have available to you at one particular point in time.)

I am not a good decision-maker. In the language of Barry Schwartz in the Paradox of Choice, I am a “maximizer” — I always want to feel like I’m making the very best decision I could possibly make. I am also a perfectionist with OCD tendencies. This is a terrible combination that can make life torture. I am often completely unable to make any decision at all, for fear of making the wrong one.

One of the ways I’ve improved my quality of life is by eliminating vast swaths of options from the realm of possibility, leaving me with a much more limited number of items from which to choose. I do not have to decide what hotel to stay at on vacation because I do not go on vacations. I do not have to walk up and down every aisle of the supermarket thinking about what I could or might or should get because I only have $12 to spend, so most things are not in my budget.

Problem solved.

This is also why I am not a Mormon survivalist with a year’s worth of food in a bomb-proof shelter in the backyard. I would have as much trouble deciding what to do with that as I would dealing with the grocery store.

Less is enough.

You want to have a few meals that you like and can make with simple ingredients that you can then try to make sure you have around most or all of the time.

So what do I like to keep on hand most or all of the time?

In the freezer

• tortillas (corn, flour)
• cooked chicken (roasted and/or poached)
• uncooked chicken, cut into pieces
• bacon • chicken stock
• bananas, unpeeled and individually wrapped
• other fruit (peaches, blueberries, cranberries)
• vegetables purchased frozen (peas, spinach, corn)
• vegetables purchased fresh then processed for freezing (mushrooms)
• ginger root
• tomato paste, wrapped in 1 Tbsp packets
• nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pecans, almonds)
• bagels, sliced in half
• bread, sliced
• bread crumbs
• jam, from my mom

I also like having at least one other kind of meat available in the freezer, sausage or ham or kielbasa or ground beef, because sometimes I’m really hungry and that’s just what I want, pasta with chorizo or empanadas with ground beef or something like that. Sometimes the no-meat thing just doesn’t do it for me.

In the pantry

• canned tomatoes
• dried legumes (chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans)
• canned beans
• canned tuna or salmon
• pasta (fusili, macaroni, spaghetti)
• Asian noodles (rice noodles, rice sticks)
• rice (white, brown, Jasmine, Basmati, wild)
• grains (millet, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, bulghur wheat)
• nut butter (usually peanut, sometimes almond, if I win the lottery I’ll buy cashew butter)
• baking supplies (shortening, flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, powdered milk or powdered buttermilk)
• cornmeal
• grits
• dried fruit (raisins, figs, plums)
• popcorn
• oils (olive oil, canola oil)
• vinegars (Chinese black vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic, white, cider)
• assorted sauces (fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce)
• spices

Then in the pantry or refrigerator I have basic condiments like ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise as well as Asian condiments like chili paste with garlic and hoisin sauce. Plus random things that keep forever like capers and pickles.

I also favor long-lasting vegetables like carrots and cabbage over ephemeral things like lettuce. I try to keep onions and garlic on hand, and it’s good to have some potatoes or sweet potatoes around too.

And these are obviously more perishable, but I almost always have eggs, fruit, and some kind of cheese in the refrigerator.

And also I usually have some kind of leftover something in the freezer, too, soup or pasta sauce or chili or…

And again, I must emphasize that I do not always have every single one of these things around, but I pretty much always have some of them. (Like I said, you just need enough to make one meal, not all of them.)

So that’s what I have around.

And I started to write out specific examples and recipes, but this post got really long, so I split it into two and will put those up separately tomorrow.

3 Responses to “Pantry Cooking”

  1. Trish Perkins Says:

    I’ll continue sending these to my son, who really needs to learn how to cook and eat for less! Thanks, Rebecca.

  2. Liz G Says:

    Hi, Rebecca, Thank you for the helpful list. Do you freeze your chicken stock in ice cubes or larger amounts?

    There’s a group of people trying to design a well balanced minimalist pantry here:

  3. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

    I have done chicken stock in muffin tins, and that was a good size, but I found it difficult to get them out of the trays. Probably silicone would work better, but I don’t have those.

    Usually I do some in quart-sized containers (e.g., yogurt containers) and some smaller square tupperware containers that I have. The square ones are better because they stack well and take up less space.

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