The Well-Stocked Pantry: Dinner in a Flash

How many days do you come home from work or running kids all over town, finally turn your thoughts to the eternal “what’s for dinner?” question, only to find that you have nothing in the house to eat?  Ok, you have things to eat, but not exactly any combination of foods that will resemble a tasty or well-balanced meal.  It’s taken me a few years of trial and error, along with some interesting McGyver-like dinner experiments, to finally figure out the key.  Yes, planning ahead is great, but not all of us can prep ahead a month’s worth of freezer meals on a Sunday afternoon, nor do we have the room in our kitchen to store an entire SUV-sized Costco run. But when you have a well-stocked pantry – and freezer- the meal options become far more plentiful and appealing.

My Pantry

My pantry is small.  In fact, it may not even truly qualify as a pantry.  It’s not a closet and wire shelving is completely out of the question. It’s basically a kitchen cabinet, about 18” across, 12” deep, and just a touch taller than my fridge.  I’m not complaining (well, maybe a little).  But my point is that I don’t have a lot of room, but I keep the right things on hand.  And I strive to keep it stocked with a variety of options that will allow me to whip up something quick, tasty, and at least semi-nutritious at a moment’s notice.

It really doesn’t require a lot of planning (which is why this works so well for me!).  It just requires an awareness of the types of items to keep on hand that are shelf stable (or freezer friendly), and you pick up a few things to replenish every time you hit the supermarket.  If you grab certain items when they are on sale, you also save money in the process.

Do I plan meals?  Of course! I absolutely love to cook and entertain and the act of planning: finding the right recipes, making lists, shopping, prepping, and cooking, is one that I relish.  But the reality of life doesn’t afford me that option for every meal.  And whether or not I plan, I still need to eat 3 square meals a day.  What do I keep on hand for those times when time isn’t my friend?  Here’s my go-to pantry supply list:

  • Grains – grains can serve as the building block of many great meals. You can open

    my pantry door just about any time and put your hand on at least 3 different types of rice; various types of pasta, including couscous; and an assortment of whole grains such as freekeh, bulgur, grits or polenta, barley, oatmeal, and quinoa.

  • Nuts – unless you have a nut allergy, you should have several types of nuts and at least one type of nut butter on hand. Peanut, almond, cashew, pecan, walnut, pinenuts – whatever makes you happy. Same for nut butters, and don’t forget about tahini for homemade hummus.
  • Canned fish – Tuna and salmon are my favorites, you may like sardines or other small canned fish. Anchovies (or a good anchovy paste) are a must, because while they are fish they don’t taste strongly of fish, they just make everything taste better.
  • Beans – I keep just about every type of canned bean on hand. Black, kidney, garbanzos, cannellini, kidney – you name it.  At the moment, I even have a can of cranberry beans at the ready.  And dried lentils cook very quickly, those are a great pantry go-to.
  • canned goods

    Tomato products – whatever you like, I usually have a mix of diced, whole, sauce and paste. And given my propensity to take a lot of my meals south of the border, a can of tomatoes with chilies (Rotel or similar) can often be found.  I typically buy my tomato paste in a tube, as I usually only use a little and hate throwing out a partial can.

  • Canned Goods – My pantry now contains a mix of other canned goods, such as canned chiles, chopped pimentos, and coconut milk.
  • Dried Fruits – stock a few basics: apricots, prunes, cherries, cranberries, dates, figs, or raisins.
  • Broth – I prefer low/reduced sodium or salt free, as most boxed broths and stocks are simply too salty for my taste. But I almost always have a box each of chicken, beef and vegetable.  I do have some shrimp stock in the freezer (as well as chicken), but that can take a while to thaw.  So I reserve those for when I’m in my planning mode, and use the box for shortcuts.
  • Sauces – whatever you like! Worcestershire, Hoisin, Soy, hot pepper sauce, barbecue, taco, horseradish, and sriracha are all good candidates. Go with what you like and think about what type of foods you like best (are you partial to Italian, Mexican, or Indian?). I also keep a jar of honey and one of maple syrup.
  • Dried spices and herbs – again, think about the style of cooking you do. If you don’t make a lot of Indian food, having 3 types of curry powder won’t serve you well.  Salt and pepper are must haves, then incorporate more of the basics: oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili flakes, garlic powder (but not garlic salt, you want to control the level of salt).  Feeling adventurous?  Add others like rubbed sage, marjoram, cilantro, chives, tarragon, dill weed, turmeric, mace, ginger, fennel seeds and build as you go.  But don’t overdo it, dried herbs and spices really do start to lose their flavor within about 6 months.  They don’t go bad that quickly, their flavor just isn’t as strong.
  • Oils and vinegars – a variety of these items will serve you well from making a salad to whipping up a flavorful stir fry. Whether you like standard options or those infused with all types of flavors, you know what you like. Keep those on hand!  Choose your favorites; popular vinegars include balsamic, red wine, champagne, and apple cider; popular oils include sesame, olive, peanut, pecan, sunflower, just keep in mind that many oils have a limited shelf life, so don’t overdo it.
  • refrigerator

    Refrigerator Basics– every fridge door should house the usual mix of ketchup, mayo, assorted mustards (yellow, brown, Dijon, etc.), pickles, olives, jellies/jams, capers. It’s also good to keep eggs, butter, milk, and assorted cheeses on hand.  Extra sticks of butter freeze well. If you don’t use a lot of milk, make it as you go with shelf stable powdered milk.  I love to make my granny’s cornbread, but that’s about the only time I use buttermilk.  I was thrilled to recently discover powdered buttermilk.  Works just as well in this recipe, I always have it, and never pour the dreaded “chunky” expired milk down the drain.

  • Frozen goods – most items will last at least a couple of months, many will last a year or longer. MVP’s in my freezer rotation include quick cook meats and seafood such as chicken breasts and thighs, ground beef or turkey, bacon, sausage, and shrimp.  A good assortment of frozen vegetables will provide lots of dinnertime options: green beans, corn, peas, broccoli, spinach, soy beans (edamame) and diced hash brown potatoes.  Bread keeps well in the freezer, and is a must in our household lest we end up throwing at least half a loaf to the birds.  Things like sliced sandwich bread, tortillas, phyllo dough or puff pastry, pie shells, and rolls.  Frozen berries and other fruits make great additions to a smoothie.
  • Dry goods – I don’t do much baking, but even I keep things like A/P flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, cocoa powder, baking soda and cornstarch at the ready.

Fresh produce isn’t truly shelf stable like most items listed above, but things that do have a much longer shelf life are well advised: potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and celery.  Some things like shallots, mushrooms and tomatoes can be purchased freeze dried and reconstituted as needed.

Note that i don’t have a lot of packaged foods on my list: boxed pasta and rice mixes, prepackaged dinners, ready-to-eat cereals, prepared sauces and the like.  That’s because we don’t really eat those types of foods and would rather spend a few minutes putting a meal together so that we have a little more control as to what’s in it.  What you put in your pantry is entirely up to you.

This list may look daunting, but it’s not meant to be.  I don’t have all of these items on hand at any given time, this is intended as a framework to stimulate your thoughts on what your well stocked pantry might look like.  You likely already have many of the basics on hand, and should supplement with what you like and will appeal to your family.   Still not sure what to do with this arsenal of ingredient?  Next time, I’ll feature some simple ideas on what you can make with your pantry staples.


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