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.
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 and make the Loaded baked potato salad with bacon, plus the best way to cook potatoes).
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 such as our Maple Cluster Granola. My family has cut out refined sugar and this is a fantastic replacement.
Corn tortillas – I love the long shelf life on these babies; they are perfect for enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas, tacos… I love them in Chicken Tortilla Soup or just warmed with simple beans & rice. Mexican food is definitely my default mode. Learn how to cook and soak dried beans and make crockpot pinto beans.
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. Delicious on this vegetable pizza.
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. Find out what else I like to buy at Trader Joe’s here.
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).
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 butternut squash carbonara, and for a few extra bucks you’ve added a little protein and a lot of flavor.
Roasted Marinara Sauce – If 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.
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, especially the 2 ingredient coconut milk ice cream. 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.
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