Long before pandemic life became reality, my husband always made a big deal about being prepared. He maintained that we needed to keep a month's supply of food, water and basic supplies on hand at all times, and I'll admit I often rolled my eyes at what seemed like paranoia. However, when the economy suddenly halted in the uncertain days of late March, I was indeed grateful for the security afforded by a stockpile of stuff.
Attempting to stock up all at once on everything a family would need for two weeks is a daunting and cost-prohibitive endeavor for almost anyone, and panic shopping is never advisable. The key is to prepare in advance by building up a supply over time and maintaining a system. Beyond providing security in a time of uncertainly, it's wonderful to be able to go shopping in your own pantry and it's much easier to cook well when you have the right ingredients.
You don't need a dedicated pantry space – anywhere that is dry and doesn't get hot or freezing cold will do. I don't have a pantry in my house, but I have open shelves in my kitchen and a cabinet where I keep everyday ingredients. Almost everything else is stored in the garage in heavy-duty plastic tubs on a commercial-type wire rack. Silica packets, which can be ordered online, are a useful tool for keeping the contents of the bins fresh and dry.
Choose uniform, transparent containers with tight lids and transfer as many items as possible into them. This makes your pantry more attractive and easier to organize, but also keeps product fresher and facilitates bulk buying because you can buy exactly as much as you need.
Buy in bulk (sometimes)
It only makes sense to buy in bulk that which you're actually going to use in time for the product to still be good. While most canned foods are usually good for a while past their expiration date, items such as cereals and whole grains can become rancid and develop an off taste if stored too long at room temperature. Stores like Food Fantasies have a wide variety of ingredients for sale in bulk, including spices, grains and nuts. Only buy large quantities of items that you use regularly and have a system for rotating them out.
Many shelf-stable items like nuts, whole grains, flour and cornmeal will retain their quality in the freezer. Wrap meat in extra plastic wrap or butcher paper to ward off freezer burn. Sauté and freeze seasonal or on-sale vegetables like spinach and mushrooms in zip-top bags for later use.
Think like a restaurant
Use a PAR (periodic automatic replenishment) system for most items that are used often, such as peanut butter, salt, rice and canned tomatoes. Decide on minimum quantities you want to have on hand for each item, and then when items get low it needs to be brought up to PAR. So If you decide you want to have a minimum of five pounds of rice in your pantry, then if you use some and now only have four pounds, then you need to buy another pound to bring your rice up to PAR. If you have six pounds of rice on hand, you're above PAR and can hold off on buying more. In rethinking your food storage system, it's helpful to make a full accounting of the items in your pantry as well as everything your family consumes over two weeks in order to determine how much you should have on hand at a time.
'First in, first out' is an essential concept for maintaining a working pantry. Basically, use the older stuff first. Stack new purchases behind older ones. It can be helpful to write the purchase date on items with a marker as you put them away and write 'use first' on older items.
If you're building a pantry from scratch, find 10 recipes you like and use those ingredients as a starting point. Here are my pantry essentials for creating fast, healthy meals:
Cans and jars: Canned beans, tuna/salmon, whole tomatoes, Rotel tomatoes, coconut milk, jarred pasta sauce, applesauce, salsa, roasted peppers, olives, capers, pickles, cooking oils (olive, avocado, and sesame) , vinegars (cider, rice, balsamic, red wine), soy/fish sauce, condiments, jam, nut butters, tahini
Spices and seasonings: kosher salt, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, dried mustard, ginger, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, curry powder, red pepper flakes, dried thyme, oregano and marjoram
Flours, baking powder and soda, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, chocolate chips, vanilla
Rice, grains, beans, and nuts/seeds: white and brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, couscous, barley, farro, dried beans and lentils, pasta, Asian noodles, cornmeal/ polenta, breadcrumbs, pumpkin, flax and sesame seeds
Root vegetables: Onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes
Dairy and eggs: milk, cream, yogurt, cheddar, mozzarella, feta and Parmesan cheese, unsalted butter, cream cheese, eggs
Long-lasting produce: carrots, celery, cauliflower, lemons/limes, bell peppers, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts
Peas, spinach, lima beans, corn, green beans, berries, ground beef and pork, boneless skinless chicken thighs, whole chicken, pork and beef roasts, bacon, sandwich bread, nuts and whole grain flours
Ashley Meyer is a cook and writer based in Springfield.