The Best Way To Save Money By Cooking From Your Pantry

1) What are the central traits of a good pantry recipe?

2) Can I build a well-stocked pantry and save money too?

3) How else can we think about pantry cooking and pantry recipes to maximize convenience and minimize food costs?

Readers, today we're going to talk about "cooking from the pantry," but we're going to tackle the topic in a way you won't see at the typical food blog. We're going to address pantry foods from a broader perspective, to see if we can arrive at some general principles readers can use to save both time and money.

Thinking More Broadly About the Pantry
Let's begin by thinking about what kinds of items we tend to find in the standard pantry. We'll start with the obvious:

* Canned goods (canned/diced/stewed tomatoes, beans, veggies, olives, etc.)
* Canned beans
* Dried beans and legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, split peas)
* Pasta
* Jarred/canned sauce
* Grains, oats, rice, brown rice
* Crackers, breadcrumbs
* Baking ingredients: Flour, cornmeal, sugars, oils, etc.
* Nuts
* Dried fruits, raisins, etc.

Great. But can we think a bit more broadly here? What about food items that, while they may not technically sit in your pantry, are essentially like pantry foods in that they can be conveniently kept on hand for a very long time?

How about considering foods we keep in our freezer? Some examples:

* Meats
* Homemade stock
* Frozen vegetables
* Frozen fruits
* Many freezable dairy items, including butter, cream, milk, buttermilk

Wonderful. But can we think even more broadly? What about long-lived refrigerator items? Once again, technically these aren't pantry foods per se, but many foods can be kept for surprisingly, even shockingly, long periods of time in the refrigerator. Fresh herbs and sturdy leafy greens can keep for weeks using the damp plastic bag method, while many of following examples of pantry-like items on the list below will keep for even longer.

* Eggs
* Hard cheeses (e.g., Parmesan)
* Very long-lived fridge vegetables (potatoes, onions, garlic, etc.)
* Moderately long-lived fridge vegetables (carrots, celery, leafy greens like kale, chard, etc.)
* Other: Sundried tomatoes in oil, homemade salad dressing, peanut butter, tahini sauce, lemon juice, etc.

I'm sure I'm missing lots of examples across these various categories, so readers, please share your own favorite staple items in the comments if you don’t already see them listed.

Convenience, Savings... or Both?
Now, the goal of building up a pantry can be convenience, savings, or both. If you don't care about cost, then all you have to do to build a maximum convenience pantry is look over your family's favorite recipes, identify those recipes made entirely or mostly from storable, long-lived ingredients, and then go buy a large supply of those ingredients. Voila, you're done.

But budget-minded consumers will see an obvious problem here: You're essentially carrying the grocery store's inventory for them in your own home--and paying money up front for the privilege. Using this approach to building a well-stocked pantry may actually increase your food costs. Again, though, if you don't care about the cost and have plenty of extra space in your kitchen, good for you. Just recognize that this is a move for convenience, not savings.

The thing is, we're frugal bastards here at Casual Kitchen, and convenience alone isn't enough for us. We want it all. We want convenience and savings.

The Rhythm of Retailing
Remember, there's a rhythm to the retailing of food, and discounting is a big part of that rhythm. You're likely to see attractive price discounts (say, 20-30% off) at one time or another for practically any given food item in your store. Occasionally, however, you'll see enormous discounts (50% off, or buy one/get two free sales) when the store or food supplier really needs to get rid of excess inventory.

Of course the grocery store isn't going to know which day you're going shopping (ironically, I'm pretty sure my grocery store does know… that's the only explanation I can come up with for them always seeming to put items on sale immediately *after* I buy them).

But all this just means that the consumer looking to maximize convenience and savings needs to add one more ingredient: patience. The patience to wait until your desired pantry items are available at deliciously attractive sale prices. This is when the savvy pantry-builder strikes, buying weeks or even months of supply.

A brief sidebar for newer readers. Many commodity foods--like dried pasta, canned tomatoes, canned beans and so on--are largely identical and interchangeable, and in some cases multiple brands are made by the same third party food company, sometimes even at the same manufacturing facility. Moreover, any of these brands might be offered on sale at any given time. Therefore, a savvy consumer, one who knows there’s little or no difference across brands, will get many, many more opportunities to acquire foods at sale prices. Why? Because they can take advantage and strike when any brand is on sale. This is yet another advantage of being an empowered, brand disloyal consumer.

A quick example: commodity dried pasta in my grocery store typically costs about $1.00 a pound for the store brand and anywhere from $1.29 to $1.49 or more for the various branded versions. I’m utterly indifferent to pasta brands, so when I see one brand marked down to an attractive 88c a pound, I'm going to both notice and strike. And when I see an extremely attractive sale price (recently one brand went on mega sale at 69c per 1 pound box), I'm going to really strike. That day I bought 15 pounds of pasta. It was an opportunity to stock up big time at a much lower cost than typical.

Okay. A moment ago we were talking about the extra ingredient of patience needed to build a truly low cost pantry built for both convenience and savings. That was a slight oversimplification: In reality, you need three things:

1) Patience (to wait for your sale),
2) Price knowledge (you have to have a decent sense of what things cost to be able to recognize really good prices when you see them), and
3) Aggressiveness (the willingness--even courage--to buy a lot when the opportunity presents itself).

Weirdly, this sounds a lot like investing in stocks, doesn't it?

Recipe Selection
We're almost done. Now, on to the final principle of competent pantry cooking: recipe selection. Once we begin to think of "pantry foods" in the broadest sense, including long-lived foods that we could store in our fridge and freezer as well as in our pantry, we've got an interesting and extremely wide range of possible ingredients to choose from. The challenge now is to have a decent database in your head of reasonably easy recipes built around those ingredients.

To give a few practical examples, I’ll share a few of the most pantry-friendly recipes we have here at Casual Kitchen:

Black Beans and Rice
A CK favorite recipe that lends itself beautifully to pantry cooking. Whenever we see green peppers on sale in the grocery store, we'll buy a few, chop them up, and freeze them in units sufficient to make a double batch. Once again, this is another example of thinking about pantry foods in a broader sense. All other ingredients in this recipe (canned black beans, onions, spices) we typically keep on hand.

Mole Sauce with Chicken
Another CK favorite that lends itself to pantry cooking. We'll generally always have some chicken in our freezer, and we usually keep a large inventory of canned stewed tomatoes. The rest of this recipe is just spices and unsweetened chocolate, items we always keep on hand.

Barley Pilaf
Barley keeps forever in dried form, and we just add whatever veggies (carrots, celery, mushrooms, etc.) we happen to have in our fridge.

Hilariously Easy Slow Cooker Bean Stew
A perfect, low-cost pantry recipe if there ever was one. All ingredients here are standard pantry items.

A somewhat unexpectedly perfect pantry food. Canned chickpeas, lemon juice and tahini all keep nearly indefinitely in your pantry and fridge, respectively. In fact, our experiences suggest that tahini sauce never goes bad, ever. Enjoy with still more pantry items like crackers, or fridge items like carrots or celery.

But wait, we're not done! There are also many recipes that depend largely--but perhaps not entirely--on pantry items. With these recipes, sure, you may still have to go to the store, but you'll only need to buy one or two minor items. Yet again, this is a way to get food on the table with maximum convenience and minimum money. Here are some recipes that fit the bill:

North African Lemon Chicken
Pasta with Tuna, Olives and Roasted Red Peppers
Lentil Soup
Chipotle Crockpot Chili
Fried Rice
Split Pea Soup

Once again, it's up to you to choose the specific pantry-centered recipes that your family really likes, and build the bulk of your cooking plans around those recipes.

"Cooking from the pantry" is one of those cooking concepts that--if we apply it broadly and with a little bit of patience--makes preparing healthy food at home incredibly easy and incredibly inexpensive.

So readers, let's hear your thoughts: What are your favorite pantry recipes? And what ideas would you add?

Read Next: Things Are Important Before They're Important

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Marcia said...

Very awesome post, and right up my alley!

I would say, so much of my cooking is from the pantry. I make big meals on the weekend, and during the week wing it when we run out.

One of my favorite tricks is to have diced celery and onion in the freezer. When I get a good deal, I chop extra and freeze in freezer bags. It's very important to keep an eye on your freezer.

My favorites:
one-pot pasta
black bean soup (crockpot)
slow cooker refried beans
spanish rice
chickpea curry
BBQ chicken (crockpot) - need to have BBQ sauce on hand
Teriyaki chicken (crockpot)

That's what's in my rotation right now, but I'm working on other things.

Other freezer items - I get a lot of CSA produce, so often I make a bunch of soup and freeze it for later. So I've got butternut squash soup and carrot ginger soup in the freezer right now.

Also with a FT job, kids (one a toddler) and PTA stuff, I prep when I have time. So some nights we are just having leftovers? I'll chop a head of cauliflower so it's ready for the next night.

Daniel said...

Great ideas Marcia! Thanks for sharing.