What’s in your refrigerator? Saving money by stocking basic food items

by Emily from Frugal Living NW on January 31, 2013

Last weekend I was fighting a stubborn head cold that resisted everything I threw at it. I even suffered the indignities of the Neti Pot. As I was getting ready for bed one night, I looked into the mirror to see a strange hobo looking back at me: bright orange hunting cap, college scarf, fleece sweatshirt, old sweats, and ratty socks. All topped off with the strong scent of Unker’s. Needless to say, it wasn’t a good look.

Even though we slipped into survival mode for five days, we all came out alive. Meals made it to the table without a single emergency run to the grocery store. Which got me thinking again about the importance of having a well stocked pantry for life’s little ups and downs. It might be surprise company or a late soccer game or just a normal Wednesday night, but having a good stock of basic foods makes a huge difference in staying within your grocery budget.

I am going to share a few basic staples that I try to keep on hand at all times in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to make last-minute meals or from-scratch cooking easier on everyone.

REFRIGERATOR

My preference is a relatively empty-looking fridge. Only basic condiments. No salad dressings. Quick turnaround on leftovers. Lots of cheese butter fresh produce. As little waste as possible.

Sturdy vegetables - After wasting too much money and tossing too much slimy food, I no longer buy bagged lettuce or pre-cut vegetables. As much as possible, I try to major in whole, fresh vegetables that have a longer shelf life like cabbage, potatoes, carrots, beets, etc. (for more, read How to Roast Vegetables).

Maple Syrup - We eat our fair share of waffles and pancakes in our home, both for breakfast and dinner. Maple syrup is also a delicious sweetener in baked goods.

Corn tortillas - I love the long shelf life on these babies; they are perfect for enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas, tacos… Or just warmed with simple beans & rice. Mexican food is definitely my default mode.

Parmesan cheese - I buy a big block at Costco every 2 months or so. Because it is a sharp, hard cheese it adds a nice punch in small amounts and has a good shelf life.

Lemons - I use one lemon every time I make a juice, but they are also great for homemade marinades or dressings. If you are on a low-salt diet, lemon juice is a nice alternative.

Trader Joe’s Goat Milk Plain Yogurt – My kids can’t do cow’s milk so we’ve had to get creative in the dairy department. Translation: It costs way more money to buy similar products. My favorite recent find is this yogurt. I like that it is low in sugar and contains active cultures, unlike the expensive coconut milk yogurt I had been buying. My kids happily eat this in place of standard yogurt or sour cream.

FREEZER

My freezer is 99% free of processed food. It only took me nine years, but it’s a good place to start if you are looking to move your family toward eating more whole foods and less processed junk. Picking and freezing produce in season is one easy step, especially in the NW.

Quinoa – Cooking a double batch of grains and freezing half is a great way to stretch one planned meal into a second last-minute one. Just let it cool completely, spoon into a freezer bag, press it flat, and stick it in the freezer. It is perfect to have on hand to start a low-maintenance meal (like Quinoa Patties).

Ginger – Delicious in so many different dishes. Fighting a cold last week, I made Honey, Lemon, Ginger Tea. Good for what ails you.

Beans – I hate to be bossy, but if you haven’t started cooking and freezing dried beans, START! I promise, the steps are easy and the results are fabulous. And I never say fabulous.

I was tired of buying cans of beans and running out of this cheap staple, so I just started regularly soaking, simmering, and freezing different varieties of beans anytime I had a quiet morning at home. I am convinced that having a stash of cooked beans on hand for simple, inexpensive meals has done more to cut our grocery bill than any other small step.

Roasted Garlic – Roast several heads of garlic at once (learn how to roast garlic here); serve or store one in the fridge and keep the remaining cloves in the freezer to add to homemade Spicy Hummus, mashed potatoes, soup, stew, whateva. Don’t know what to make for dinner? Just start sauteing onions and garlic and something good will happen.

Bacon – My family eats a vegetable-based diet, but we happily add in meat whenever the craving strikes. Bacon is my favorite meat in the freezer because it works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, rounding out a simple meal (pancakes and eggs) without a huge added expense. Also, a little bit stretches a long way. Cook and crumble it into potato chowder or pasta carbonara, and for a few extra bucks you’ve added a little protein and a lot of flavor.

Roasted Marinara SauceIf this isn’t sitting in your freezer right now, make plans to stash some away next summer! Oh man, I’m getting bossy again. But in the time it takes to thaw the sauce and cook some spaghetti noodles, you can have a seriously delicious dinner on the table. It’s also great in lasagna or on pizza.

PANTRY

Every year I try to add new tools to my cooking belt, simple recipes to replace pre-packaged foods. This year, I am hoping to stop buying crackers (If I can finally find a recipe my kids will actually eat. Any ideas?) and cut out as much processed food as possible. My pantry is packed with basic cooking and baking ingredients, but here are a few extra items I always have on the shelves:

Old fashioned rolled oats – I rarely eat a bowl of warm glue oatmeal, but we burn through bags of rolled oats like they’re going out of style in Maple Cluster Granola, homemade granola bars, and veggie burgers. Yum.

Honey – I can totally relate to poor Pooh Bear. I hate running out of honey. Oh, and if you haven’t heard about “honey laundering,” check out the Food Safety News article, Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, is Flooding US Grocery Shelves. It’s a long read but worth it.

Coconut Milk – This is one of the few store canned products in my pantry. I like having it on hand for everything from dinner to dessert. For the world’s easiest soft-serve Coconut Milk Banana Ice Cream, combine 7-8 frozen bananas (you can actually use any frozen fruit) with 1 can coconut milk. Pulse in a blender or food processor until smooth. A delicious, non-dairy treat!

Trader Joe’s Unsulphered, Unsweetened Dried Mango - Just mango. Just… kidding. No really, don’t get started on this stuff. You won’t be able. to. stop.

Now it’s your turn! What are the must-have items in your refrigerator, freezer, or pantry?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia M. February 4, 2013 at 8:39 am

I’ve always been a pantry stocker… now that my son is grown and married sometimes it seems a bit ridiculous. Anytime I buy premade-frozen meal type things I am always sorely disappointed. My only 2 exceptions are Trader Joe’s frozen mandarin Chicken…. add a little extra brocolli and yumm. 2nd is a trip to IKEA wouldn’t be complete without a bag of swedish meatballs to take home. I digress. Living alone and not going through the fruits and veggies so fast, I am the queen of making them last. Lining your drawers with paper towels and sticking a piece of paper towel into your boxes of berries or bags of whatever definitely helps absorb excess moisture that makes them rot. My back up frozen veggies are trader Joe organic corn and Costco Normandy blend veggies which is broccoli, cauliflower, carrots. While the Normandy blend is a huge bag, everything is frozen separate so you can take out just carrots if you want. They taste the most like fresh of any frozen I’ve tried.

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Diana February 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Thank you for the coconut milk / ice cream recipe. I altered it a little and tried it today. I put 2 frozen bananas, 1 12 oz bag of frozen organic strawberries from trader joe’s, a few squirts of organic dairy free chocolate syrup with the can of coconut milk into the vitamix – yum! My dairy-free son loved it! And now I have some in the freezer for later. We are going to experiment with different flavor combinations in the future.

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Christy M. February 1, 2013 at 8:48 am

This isn’t panty basics specific, but this cracker recipe looks enticing.

http://www.bojongourmet.com/2009/09/spelty-sourdough-crackers.html

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liz January 31, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Anything from Trader Joes is addicting! LOL

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Bethany F January 31, 2013 at 11:00 pm

It’s SO true, that Trader Joe’s dried mango is addicting!!!

Thanks for this wonderful list!

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yvonne February 1, 2013 at 8:27 am

If you think TJ’s dried mango is addicting try the ones from Asian grocery story. Talk about addicting…

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Teirney January 31, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Fridge:
Greek yogurt – plain (for everything), fruit kind for the kids
Peanut butter
milk – almond, fat free and whole for our toddler
ground flax
Dave’s killer bread (I love living near the breadquarters :)
Turkey lunch meat
carrots, spinach, cauliflower
String cheese

Freezer:
Blueberries
Chicken breast
Kashi waffles
Veggies

Pantry:
Peanut butter
canned beans
canned tomatoes
quinoa, Brown rice, barley
oatmeal
Toddler fruit pouches

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Sarah January 31, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Refrigerator:
Milk, butter, eggs, cheese (including string cheese), sour cream, salsa, carrots, apples, diet soda (mine), whatever fruit or veggie is on sale

Freezer:
Chicken, elk, tortillas, spinach, berries, cooked beans, butter, hot dogs, lots of frozen veggies

Pantry:
All the baking ingredients, oatmeal, pasta, dried beans, rice, soy sauce, coffee, goldfish crackers, LOTS of peanut butter.

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Howard January 31, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Interesting posts, to be sure.
For me, the 4 Basic Food Groups: chocolate, beer, popcorn, pizza.

Seriously–pasta, hot dogs, steak, tortillas, hot pockets, taquitos, spag sauce, taco sauce mix & shells, ground beef, whole chickens and/or chik breasts, peanut butter, butter, 2-lb cheddar, Amer cheese slices, diet soda, bottled water, cooking oils, packaged mac & cheese and various noodle/rice/potato boxes and pouches, frozen pizzas, bread/rolls/buns, refrigerated biscuits, cake mixes. (Reading this over makes me realize why I’m gaining weight.)

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Chelsea January 31, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Love this post and all of the great ideas! Thanks for sharing!

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julie January 31, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Love almond meal (almond flour ) in place of bread crumbs winco has it in th bulk section.
Always have chicken and elk hamburger (hubby is a hunter) in the freezer.
Also have veggies in the freezer from our garden last year. My favorite are bell peppers. Hoping to can some tomatoes this year. That alone will save me a ton.
Thanks for the bean idea, need to do that. We eat a ton of beans. I also have chili, spaghetti sauce (complete with meat/veggies) calzones and the ocassional casserole frozen and ready to eat for those nights I don’t want to cook. Freeze sauces in ziploc’s layed flat and you’ll save a bunch of room. Great suggestions from everyone! Thanks~

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Jennifer January 31, 2013 at 4:25 pm

In the freezer: cooked and shredded chicken in 1lb portions (I buy whole chickens when they are on clearance or sale and spend the day cooking, shredding, and portioning them for later use.

In the pantry: steel cut oats (for breakfasts in the slow cooker, or for dinners in a savory ‘risotto’); old fashioned oats (for so many uses…), and quick cooking oats which I use in place of breadcrumbs in almost all my recipes. (And when oats are 38 cents a pound at WinCo, I stock up!). Bulgur, brown rice, quinoa, and barley are also staples always on hand. I haven’t tried the big 25# bags of oats as I don’t have room in the pantry. I do mean to start cooking/freezing my own beans, but haven’t yet. Also canned tomatoes (store brand ok) by the box (I’m not a canner) and onions. With those things I can easily put together a cheap and healthy meal for my family of 6.

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Terry January 31, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Yep, I freeze organic whole milk in Mason jars when there is one of those free milk deals, since I use it rarely. It came in handy when I bought too many potatoes at Christmas and we had a big ol mashed potato night and then potato pancakes with fresh chives the next day. I also freeze chicken broth in jars when I get a pre-baked chicken and simmer off the bones and leftovers. I freeze lots of berries in the summer. I am still attached to Amy’s frozen meals when I get a coupon/sale deal. I have never mastered waffle & pancake-making, much less with weird gluten-free batter, so I keep GF organic frozen waffles in stock. Right now Van’s is doing coupons via email-yay! Hubby is fond of Dave’s Killer Bread, which I get in two-packs at Costco & freeze. Our go-to meal is usually breakfast when we are out of energy, time & whatever. On thing I have had less success with has been freezing cilantro leaves that I painstakingly process when I get a bunch of cilantro & don’t use it all. It’s not working very well in salsa when I toss it in-no real flavor. Should I be freezing it in water in ice-cube trays? One last thing-I have been looking at honey everywhere but not buying; I’m confused. And hot chai tea without honey is just sad. What’s the haps out there with honey?

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Karen January 31, 2013 at 3:51 pm
Jen January 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Great post! I have been procrastinating learning how to cook beans for years. This was great inspiration! I skimmed through the honey article. Have you found a good place to buy honey? Wondering about Costco….

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Elena January 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Freezer-
cooked pulled apart chicken and pork
Tortillas
cooked beans
homemade stock
pesto
tomato sauce
frozen berries and frozen bannannas

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yvonne January 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm

My freezer looks much like yours, tons of summer fruits and veggies in plastic bags. I am becoming concerned about using plastic bags in the freezer because I keep seeing reports of plastic leaching into food when placed in the freezer. I bought some freezer cups, but they are also plastic. I wonder if anyone has come up with better ways to freeze things.

I also store some marinated and seasoned chicken in … plastic bags… sigh.

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Elena January 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I freeze things in mason jars. Don’t fill to the top.

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Rachelle Benson January 31, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I use a foodsaver… the plastic is food grade… not ziploc thin… We use our freezers ( yes plural) for meats that we raise and process here on our homestead. The large chest freezer is for the beef ( two years to eat through a cow/two years to raise one to put in the freezer, so as soon as we butcher we get a couple more to grow out, one for us and one to sell) and the stand up freezer for the pork ( a year for a pig ) and the gaps are filled in with the poultry we raise… turkeys, chickens, muscovy ducks and rabbit. We eat more poultry than anything, so the larger animals take a lot longer to get through. The only animal I have professionally processed anymore is the beef… I can cut and wrap pork as well as make sausage and smoke it all out in our smokers… At this point you should know I still have three kids at home but help feed my older two that are now married and my grandson… making the head count 10… :)

We over the years have stockpiled an enormous amount of canning supplies as its our way of life… and so that if the power were to go for any length of time… we could can up all our meat from the freezers and still be able to ‘survive’ awhile. Our pantry is stocked with staples for baking ( everything is bought in 50 lb increments, organic flours, dehydrated sugar cane, steel oats etc)… herbs and you guessed it…canning supplies. when we harvest and can in the fall ( ok… I can year round) we can for two years in case something fails the following year… We make our own tomato sauces, paste, juices, salsas, chili verde,, spagetti sauces, jams, jellies, apple sauces, fruites, meats, veggies, pickles, peppers, you name it… we can it… (you can can your own dried beans… easy cheesy…) Our two fridges are stocked with veggies from the garden (research “cold house” and you can have fresh ‘greens’ year round) the ‘shop’ and wellhouse are stocked with potatoes from the garden, sweet potatoes, and winter squash we grow here on the homestead. We also grow enough onion and garlic to last from year to year, as well as save all seeds so everything is finally heirloom and organic. Its a full time job being self sufficient, but well worth the health advantages. This year we are adding bees so that I dont have to buy honey from the local farmer down the road ( not really, we use alot of honey) lol I buy his beeswax to make all our own lotions, lipbalm, and many other things beeswax is good for. We started our adventure into being self sufficient/chemical free many many years ago and were belittled by so many… its so nice to see others finally getting away from processed foods/chemicals these past few years… you truly are what you eat…

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yvonne January 31, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Rachelle, you are my hero. I have long been wanting to live like you but both my husband and I grew up in the city (he particularly “needs” to live close to people) so I don’t think we’d do very well in a farm. But I do canning and small scale gardening. I hope to raise chickens someday in my backyard. I also buy my meat direct from farmers. Once the kids are off to college I’ll be brave enough to try it :)

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Charlene Heil January 31, 2013 at 10:11 pm

This inspires me! Maybe someday, I have to take it step by step though. Thanks for giving me something to strive for!

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Candi August 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I agree. You are an inspiration. Way to go!!

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Jessica January 31, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Check out smittenkitchen.com for your cracker recipes… She’s done goldfish, wheat thins, cheddar straws, graham crackers, etc!

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Tab January 31, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Man. Just when I think I have properly stocked my kitchen, I find this. Still working out the kinks, but here is what we always have on hand. Lettuce, various types of squash, rice, beans, frozen produce, pancakes or waffles (I always make a huge amount and then freeze, seperate with wax paper pieces, and pop into a freezer bag. We use very little meat as of late, and when we do, it’s more for flavor, so there’s plenty of frozen chicken in the freezer, too. The pantry has gluten-free and non-GF flours, rice and soy milks, agave syrups (light, dark, and maple flavored). Still need to get a good system, but as we figure out dietary stuff (gluten free/egg free/dairy free for one of my kids), it’s pretty hard.

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Family of 6 January 31, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Pantry.
Flours (we make our bread, bagels and pizza dough)
Sugar (not so much in the winter but definitly summer for canning)
Spices (you can cut out almost all salt if you have spice)
Dried Beans
Quinoa (used for any meal of the day)
Pasta. we love pasta here, someday I will figure out how to make it Homemade jams, jellies, salsa, pickles, apple sauce, marinara, diced fruit, and this year veggies.
50lb of Oats
50lbs of Onions
50lbs of Potatoes
olives.. not sure why but we love those salty little things

Freezer
tortillas (any time of day)
meat (chicken and what ever is on sale)
Veggies & Fruit (especially in winter)

Fridge
Milk
Plain yogurt (can be dressed up with jams or fruit) also sub for sour cream.
Sour cream
Cheese
Eggs from the back yard
Beer (to make bread and pizza dough)
spinach (every meal)
carrots
garlic
celery

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cathy January 31, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Fridge – milk, butter, eggs, yogurt, variety of cheeses, sour cream, cream cheese, bread and fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets.

Freezer -large variety of meat that I bought on sale, homemade pre-prepped meals, big variety of produce and herbs from Bountiful Baskets. I like to have pre-sauteed onions, celery and herbs in small packages ready to be added to whatever I’m cooking for the day.

Pantry – all the usual baking basics, lots of herbs and spices, honey, olive oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, sweet & spicy Filipino sauces, vinegar, chocolate chips, oats, nuts, raisins and dried fruit.

Think I’m going to take your advice on the pre-cooked/frozen beans!

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Ann January 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I meant, learn to use more beans

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k January 31, 2013 at 1:30 pm

in my freezer I’ve got homemade stock (so good! and if you’re cooking a chicken anyways the stock is like a free bonus!) and a “stock bag” where I put ends of onions, celery, and carrots so that whenever I have bones to make stock with I’m ready with things to add.

I also learned from my mom that if you’re a meat eating family some pre-cooked meat in the freezer makes quick dinners easy-I usually have some ground beef or turkey already cooked. It’s easy to turn it into soup, tacos, etc.

And I froze a TON of berries this summer (plant raspberries in your yard and you get to eat yourself sick on them for free! I love them!) and I eat those now like it’s going out of style.

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Ann January 31, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Awesome post! I would love to use more beans! thanks!

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Susan January 31, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Must haves for fridge:
1/2 gallon milk
Butter
Yogurt (for DH- he eats one every day- I can’t stand yogurt!)
Eggs
I don’t buy pre-cut anything unless I am getting it dirt cheap. I always cut my own veggies, cheese,etc.
Pantry:
the basics (flour, sugar, olive oil, dried beans,etc)
Old fashioned oatmeal
Coffee
Homemade jams and jellies
Freezer:
Whatever meat is on sale!
Vegetables from the garden
Fruit from the fruitstands
I have 2 refrigerators -one in the house and one in the garage. We use the garage fridge for beverages and it’s nice to have the extra space during holidays. Also have an upright freezer in the garage. I keep ALL meat out there . It keeps it fresher than in the house. Mostly ice cream and misc things in the kitchen fridge :)

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