Guest post: Planning a pantry, chapter one of…?

Guest post by Tegan
Note: This is the beginning of our effort to build up advice on the kind of pro-social prepping mentioned in the direct action post

When thinking of creating a pantry, there are of course two immediate questions that need answering: (1) what is the pantry for? and (2) how do you utilize those foodstuffs to ensure that money spent on it isn’t wasted?

To me, building a pantry always seemed like the easy and logical step. My mother and grandmother both always had pantries filled with options for food. In regards to my grandmother’s pantry, which included her kitchen fridge and freezer, the downstairs full-sized freezer, the freezer in the building next door, and a root cellar, my grandmother seemed prepared for an apocalypse – or simply grandchildren visiting, as she would usually pull bags of potato chips and cookies out of the bedroom closet as well as the ice cream from the basement freezer. My mother, not having the space my grandmother did as well as having to move several times in her adult life, had fewer options. I grew up with only a single extra three-quarter size standalone freezer as well as the requisite amount of cupboard and pantry goods. This meant that when I was first developing my household management skills after I moved into my first of many apartments, I naturally knew that I had to buy food for pantries. This meant that my initial answer to the first question, asked implicitly almost two decades ago, was ‘the pantry is to have a pantry.’

In the intervening two decades I have moved households dozens of times. I have had any number of roommates with differing or similar approaches to food. I have learned to cook a wider variety of foods as well as learned a large number of general-use techniques in the kitchen. I have gone in and out of doomerism concerning peak oil and into concern about late-stage capitalism and climate change that Abe discusses so eloquently. I have moved internationally twice. And throughout most of this, I have been very poor. Answering that first question now, my response would be: ‘the pantry is to protect against lean times, to buy in bulk for savings if possible, to ensure that my household will always have something to eat even if it is boring.’

All well and good. We now have a more coherent and well thought out answer to the first question. The task gets harder as we move into the second question.

How to use the foodstuffs in your pantry to ensure that it isn’t wasted money and effort? My mother and grandmother have never fully known the answer to this question. For both of them, they use what they remember having in stock, and purchase duplicates of what they don’t remember. By the time I knew her, my grandmother was not in the habit of rotating through her stock and when she first entered a nursing home a few years ago, there was a great purge of old food. Meat expired over a decade previously. Frosting from the Clinton era. Home-canned vegetables that were both unlabeled and unrecognizable. My mother rotates her pantry semi-annually, but still has to throw out a fair amount of food. Usually vegetables that lurked in the back of the fridge, or the occasional item that was equally hidden in a freezer. Who actually gets to the back of their freezer often? Unless it is specifically a planned event, it can be difficult to remember to check the storage corners of the household. All this is to say that any ideas regarding pantry management I have, I have learned at the expense of good food gone to waste, and not from any training while growing up. Most of this advice can be summed up into one single sentence: Know What You Cook.

Almost every pantry article I have ever read – and I have read many! – has been written by a chef. Unsurprisingly, their ideas of what are kitchen Must-Have ingredients have been very different from my own. From lists stating that every household needs a quart of buttermilk at all times, to needing preserved lemons, or flatly stating that the author cannot live without at least three types of cheese in the house – these lists are each designed for one household in particular. And that’s ok! I don’t need a chef to put a stamp of approval on the type of cooking that my household does. We just need to eat the food that we buy as efficiently and effectively as possible. So what decisions do Abe and I make when purchasing food?

Firstly, we buy pasta. As cheap as we can find it, and several different kinds. Classic Italian pastas like spaghetti or rotini; the food of broke people everywhere, ramen; and if I wind up at an Asian grocer or the like I’ll buy rice pasta or egg noodle nests. But I want each purchase to at least offer me two packages per unit of currency, preferably three. Other households eat bread or rice or potatoes as the primary carb of their diet. We eat mostly pasta.

Secondly, we have lots of flavor options. Bouillon, tomato sauce, bbq sauce, sweet chili sauce, and hoisin sauce, when we have the resources. Even if you are eating the same food every single day, it won’t taste the same if you change up the flavor profile.

Thirdly, we always have the ability to bake. If I can’t figure out how to bake a cake with the ingredients that we have, we do not have enough food in the house. One of the first things I did after I arrived in Dublin was to bake a cake. I threw together canned coconut milk (we were out of milk), canned pumpkin, an egg, sugar, spices, and GF Halal flour intended for fasting meals (which was the only flour in the house). Was it the world’s best cake? No. But it filled that urge to have a warm sweet treat and did not require me to break quarantine.

Fourthly, we make sure that we have food other than carbs. Abe cares about vegetables so he ensures our freezer stays stocked with frozen veg. I care about protein so I make sure that we have eggs, and canned fish, and frozen meat, and deli meats that were on clearance that I also freeze.

Outside of these strong guidelines, we shop for deals. If something is cheap this week, we buy extra to have it in the house. We try to keep track of what we go through swiftly and adjust our shopping accordingly. But just as it’s important to know what to buy for yourself, it’s also important to track the failures. We don’t purchase a wide variety of grains. In the past we have done so, and we had a LOT of fancy or specialty grains to get rid of with the first international move. We don’t purchase a large amount of dried beans. We go through beans regularly enough, but not so swiftly as to require a significant portion of our storage space dedicated to them. We don’t buy items that we don’t know how to use. A friend had gifted me homemade pomegranate syrup. That stayed in my fridge through three moves and then it molded and I threw it out, unused. A package of boba survived ten years of moves before finally being eaten. In short, we don’t purchase food aspirationally.

So there it is! My two main tips for building a pantry can be summed up into two pithy and almost unhelpfully brief sentences: Know What You Cook, and Don’t Purchase Aspirationally.

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  1. brucegee1962 says

    Just curious — I note that you have meat on the list. Since I know your primary concern is global warming, what do you think of the articles that say we will never reach our carbon reduction targets if we don’t cut down on meat (especially beef, but other meat as well)?

  2. says

    I generally agree with those articles, we’re just… less than perfect on that. Some of it is because until just recently our affordable non-meat options for protein have been very limited, some of it is that the household sometimes has anemia problems, and some of it is a matter of habits not yet broken. I try not to hold myself up as an exemplar of a carbon – neutral lifestyle, partly because it’s difficult to do on our budget, and partly because individual action/”personal responsibility” is, in my view, something of a red herring.

    I generally try to focus on the systemic issue because it seems pretty clear to me that while it’s good to do what we can on an individual basis, that’s not actually going to solve problems. On the meat issue, for example, production is massively subsidized to make it cheaper and easier in comparison to other forms of protein.

    We’ve just moved to a place where we can get tofu at a reasonable price for the first time in two years, so we’re putting that back into our diet and cutting down on meat. That said, yes – we could definitely do better than we do in a number of areas.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Hey, I’m not perfect either. My wife converted me to vegetarianism when we got together, and I don’t miss meat or milk looking back, but we still haven’t given up on real cheese and eggs entirely.
    But I do want people to know that, from what research I’ve done, giving up meat is the single biggest way that most people can cut back on their personal carbon footprint.

  4. says

    Yeah, we are alll a work in progress. In our youth, we shared a house with a couple who were vegetarian, but the guy, in deference to his Penssylvania Dutch heritage, declared that wurst was a vegetable.
    More to the point — completely elminating meat would make a big difference, but it is also true that drastically reducing meat & dairy intake can help a lot. “The best is the enemy of the good.”
    We get our meat and dairy from a small biodynamic farm, in which the animals are seen as essential parts of the system for maintenance of fertility on its unpromising New Hampshire hill. So meat becomes available when the herd needs thinning (alas, culling the bull calves most often), the animals are not raised for meat. This keeps meat consumption low, so the main produccts are enoguh dairy, eggs, & vegetables for 100 families, & hay for the cows in winter (and, of course, a lot of rocks). The pastures are grazed and therefore kept open and productive. Much is in woods, and so there is a diversitry of habitats, which supports a diversity of flora and fauna

  5. says

    Another point to add is that our habit is generally to get discounted meat – deli ends and stuff like that.

    We do it because it’s more affordable, but it’s also food that would otherwise simply be thrown out, without actually affecting demand for meat much.

    This has been a good reminder for me to start pre-cooking beans though, to get around the time issue.

  6. anat says

    Do you have a pressure cooker of some kind? It saves much time in the cooking of beans, and also makes them more easily digestible, if either of you has problems with gas.

    It’s funny how my pantry has changed over the years as our eating style changed.

  7. says

    @anat we do have an instant pot, though it requires a power converter, as it was given to us in the US. We had formed a habit of using it, and then lost that habit. Now that our landlord has finally moved the extra furniture out of the apartment, it should be easier to find a place for it in our tiny kitchen and start using it again.

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