It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday night, and you’ve just realized that the last thing you ate was a baked potato and chili from the Wendy’s drive-through at lunchtime. You open your refrigerator and see only condiments, two glugs of unsweetened almond milk, and a wedge of champagne cheddar cheese you impulse bought from Aldi two weeks ago. If any part of this scenario is resonating with you, it’s time to rethink your grocery-buying methods and adopt a pantry-building strategy instead.
The advantages of pantry building are plentiful: you’ll save money and time, and you’ll never again be faced with a barren fridge or sparse cupboard staring back at you. And when friends unexpectedly drop by, you’ll be equipped to lay out a proper snack or meal for them. More money! More time! More friends! Isn’t this starting to sound great?
Researching Pinterest boards for ideas of what to keep in your kitchen is a great place to start. But ultimately, the ingredients you choose should align with meals you would make in a typical week. Unless you’re planning to cook your way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, keep it simple and easy for the days or nights you will inevitably be too tired to put thought into mealtime.
Time to Shop
If conserving money is a priority, start tackling your list at a budget grocery store such as Aldi, Trader Joe’s, WinCo, or Walmart. You should be able to find good deals on canned goods, produce, and staple items like grains, flours, nuts, and seeds. Instacart or other delivery or curbside services are an ideal option for people with time constraints or other circumstances that make shopping in person challenging. Many local grocery stores offer their own delivery or curbside services as well.
These are like the capsule wardrobe pieces of your pantry: they’re versatile, interchangeable and can be used in a variety of ways.
Canned and jarred goods
- Beans: Everyone has their favorites. Black beans and pinto beans are great to have on hand for chili while garbanzo beans can be whipped up into hummus or roasted with spices for an evening snack.
- Nut butters: Peanut butter is a staple in most homes, but almond butter is a great alternative for people with allergies.
- Canned tomatoes: A combination of diced, whole, and regular old tomato sauce will round out your pantry well.
- Tuna: There’s nothing like a quick and comforting tuna salad on a toasted bagel when you’re too tired to cook. It can also be used to beef up a lunchtime salad with extra protein.
- Coconut milk: Use this to add creaminess without dairy to soups and sauces.
- Salsas/sauces: The more of these you have on hand, the more options you have for cooking. For instance, you can liven up a chicken taco with some pineapple salsa or create infinite stir-fry and noodle dishes with staples like soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and red curry paste. Tailor your collection to your own palate.
- Stock/broth: Any odds and ends in the fridge can be made into soups as long as you have broth on hand. If space is at a premium, take a shortcut and go with bouillon cubes instead.
- Condiments: These can be used as toppings as well as ingredients. Some basics include ketchup, mustard (yellow and Dijon), mayonnaise, maple syrup, honey, Worcestershire sauce, and sriracha.
Oil, vinegar, and spices
- Olive oil is a pantry staple that you’ll reach for daily for sauteing and making dressings and marinades.
- Canola oil: This oil does double duty as a high-smoke-point oil and a common baking ingredient.
- Balsamic vinegar: Save money on dressings and marinades with this versatile ingredient.
- Apple cider vinegar: Like balsamic, this vinegar is so useful in dressings, marinades, and baking and as a flavor enhancer for soups.
- Rice vinegar: You should always have this in your arsenal if you cook a lot of Asian cuisine.
- Spices and Herbs: Choose what you most frequently cook with.
Some to consider (aside from salt and pepper) are:
- Bay leaf.
- Pasta: The best shape debate can be a fierce one. It is, though, to have a couple different types like penne and tagliatelle.
- Rice: This is a no-brainer side or even main dish if you have arborio on hand for risotto.
- Quinoa: A complete protein, you can use this seed as a substitute for rice in just about any dish.
- Nuts: Almonds, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts all make handy snacks and toppings.
- Crackers: What is better than munching on cheese and crackers while you’re waiting for your food to cook?
- Bread: Spread some pesto on a piece of toast and add a poached egg on top for a luxurious breakfast.
- Tortillas: Tortillas are easy to use, and they don’t take up much room in the refrigerator. Stuff them with eggs and salsa in the morning. Add some tuna salad and leafy greens for a tuna rollup lunch. Or make saucy enchiladas for dinner.
- Sugar: Depending on the type of baking you do, you may want white, brown, or confectioners’ on hand.
- Flours: These might look different depending on your diet—all-purpose for some, gluten-free and almond for others.
- Cornstarch: You can use this for coating chicken and tofu before sautéing or frying for a nice, crispy exterior.
- Baking soda and powder
- Chocolate chips: Don’t live with the regret that comes from not stocking your pantry with these little morsels of heaven. You never know when you’ll need to whip up some chocolate chunk cookies.
- Oats: This grain is perfect for hearty breakfasts and cookies.
- Yeast: This is a necessity if you jumped on the pandemic bread baking bandwagon.
- Psyllium husk: This can be helpful in gluten-free baking.
- Vanilla: Cakes, frosting, and pancakes all need that delicious vanilla flavor.
Dairy and Eggs
- Milk: For cereal drinkers and fans of baking, milk (either dairy or plant-based) is essential.
- Plain yogurt: Greek is nice for use in recipes and dips.
- Unsalted butter: Salted butter may arguably be tastier, but this version is a necessity for baking and for making roux for soup and sauces.
- Cheese: If you enjoy pizza or cheesy casseroles, shredded mozzarella and cheddar are important staples. Hard cheeses like Manchego are great for charcuterie and snacking, and goat cheese is delicious sprinkled on poached eggs or salads.
- Eggs: Hard boil a carton for easy protein throughout the week. You could chop them up on salads or eat them alone for breakfast.
- Leafy greens: Kale or spinach are versatile in salads or quinoa bowls and also work well chopped up in soup or sauces.
- Onions: Stock up on a variety, including yellow, sweet, and red onions. To really make your dishes fancy, pickle some red onion and layer it over everything from salads to salmon.
- Potatoes: Grated, baked, mashed, sliced, au gratin, or cut into wedges—potatoes are a side that’s easy to switch up.
- Garlic: Who doesn’t love fresh garlic? It quickly elevates any dish and the smell of sautéed garlic is heavenly.
- Apples: Drizzle them with peanut butter and melted chocolate for an after dinner treat.
- Bananas: These are handy for smoothies and on-the-go snacking.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, bell peppers, and carrots make good stir-fry vegetables or side dishes.
- Lemons and limes: If you’ve never made your own salad dressing, this is your sign to mix up a batch. Start with some lemon juice and add Dijon mustard, garlic, maple syrup, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Meat and seafood
- Frozen shrimp: These are great to throw in a stir-fry with vegetables or pasta—or both!
- Salmon fillets: Spice up your salmon with a honey garlic glaze, or keep it simple with lemon wedges and flake it onto a generous salad.
- Ground beef: Throw it into chili, form it into meatballs, or season it with chili powder, cumin, and paprika for homemade tacos.
- Chicken breasts: How much do we love thee chicken? Let us count the ways: grilled, fried, breaded on a bed of rice, tossed in pasta or stir-fry, in a sandwich, coated in cheese, or marinated in sauces. The possibilities go on forever!