One of the most important factors in the life of a busy cook is having a well-stocked and convenient pantry. When the pantry is well supplied with various meal “finishers” and essential staples, mid-week meal planning and emergency last-minute meals become a great deal less stressful. The ultimate goal is to have enough variety available in the pantry that weekly grocery shopping becomes less of a task – and less of an expense. Knowing that you have all the sides in the world that you need at home allows you to just shop for main dish items such as meats and seafood.
In a worst-case scenario (such as a couple of weeks ago when not one, not two, but ALL members of my family were down sick with the flu all at once), grocery shopping can be skipped altogether and a family can “live” off of “cupboard food”. Such an event necessitates replenishment, of course, but when all you’re concerned about is sheer survival, NOT having to make a run to the store is a godsend.
To begin with, let’s discuss “instant” food. Many die-hard cooks poo-pooh the use of such things as instant rice, instant stuffing, and instant potatoes. However, the quality of such foods has increased dramatically from the generic, pasty, bland versions of our parents’ and grandparents’ day. When preparing a fast meal, it is so much easier to boil up instant rice or potatoes in five minutes than spend a half-hour or more on preparing the “real” kind.
Take, for example, that roast that you (efficient cook that you are!) threw in the crock pot this morning. The last thing you want to do when you get home at 6:00 at night is to spend the next 45 minutes peeling, quartering, boiling, and mashing a pot of potatoes. A couple of envelopes of instant potatoes are done in five minutes, and you will eat dinner and finish cleaning up in less time than it would have taken to prepare “real” potatoes.
How about the leftover chicken sitting in the fridge. Boiling a pot of “real” rice will take 30-40 minutes. Making instant rice takes five – you can heat up the chicken in the microwave, whip up a bunch of rice, and have dinner over and done with in no time at all.
So. I’m sure you get the idea. Now, nutritionally speaking instant foods tend to have a higher fat, calorie, and sodium content. So those with dietary concerns will want to keep this in mind and check labels accordingly. Many types of instant foods have lower fat-and-sodium preparation alternatives.
It is also important to have a lot of variety in canned, frozen, or jarred foods. Not only to canned vegetables provide for a quick and easy side dish or addition to a casserole, but they are also nearly as nutritionally sound as their fresh counterparts (again, choose low-sodium products, of which there are now a clearly-labeled variety). Having canned soups and “convenience” foods (such as Ravioli or Mac and Cheese) are also handy when only one or two people are eating or if “the cook” (and isn’t there usually just one in the house?) doesn’t feel like cooking. For example, sometimes I myself throw my hands up in the air and declare a “fend for yourselves!” night, in which I don’t feel like cooking AT ALL and everyone just kind of scavenges around the kitchen. My family members will generally grab a can of soup and make a grilled cheese or ham sandwich to go along with it.
It is a good idea to have meal solutions stocked in the pantry for those days when you are fresh out of ideas. Dry noodles and jars of pasta sauce, cans of tuna and “cream of” soups (chicken, mushroom, celery), even frozen meats and seafood (Trader Joes has a GREAT variety of frozen fish) can be pulled out, whipped up, and prepared with ease. I routinely make Shepherd’s Pie, Tuna and Noodles, or spaghetti and meatballs or meat sauce just based on what I have available in the pantry.
Most grocery stores and warehouse stores cater to those of us who wish to “stock up”. Soups, canned fruits and vegetables, convenience and frozen foods, and dried goods are routinely on sale or sold in bulk for ridiculously low unit/ounce cost. Even when I know I don’t “need” an item, if I see it on sale for a really good deal I’ll stock up anyway. It becomes a habit, perusing the isles for the things you need now but finding items that you will need, eventually. And in the end you’ll find that you spend less on groceries overall.
So, with all the “why” reasons out of the way, it now comes down to the “what”. Following is my recommended list for a well-stocked and convenient pantry.
- Dried pasta
- Jarred/canned pasta sauce (in different sizes)
- Canned tomatoes (diced, stewed, whole)
- Tomato paste
- Several varieties of canned soup
- Cream of chicken, cream of mushroom, cream of celery soup
- Canned corn and green beans
- Canned beans (kidney, pinto, garbanzo)
- Refried beans
- Boxed mac and cheese
- Canned convenience foods (spaghettios, ravioli, beefaroni, etc.)
- Canned fruit
- Canned tuna
- Canned chicken
- Ramen noodles
- Instant rice
- Instant potatoes
- Instant stuffing
- Rice and pasta “mixes” (Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni)
Stock your freezer, too – burger meat, chicken breasts, fish and even frozen breaded fish (I recommend Trader Joe’s breaded cod and tilapia – not your mother’s fish sticks!). Plus there are a lot of excellent “steam fresh” frozen vegetables in family and single sized servings – I recommend Bird’s Eye Steam Fresh peas and brussel sprouts (yes, brussel sprouts!). It’s also a good idea to have a variety of long-lasting refrigerated items on hand – various sliced and shredded cheeses, deli meats, and plenty of condiments (our family would DIE without ranch dressing).
The ideal is, of course, to have all the time and inclination in the world to prepare fresh meals the “hard way”, all the time, every time. But we live in the real world, and reality dictates that we do what works for our busy lives. Convenience foods are no longer the anathema they once were, and your family will appreciate consistent hot, nutritious meals that appear as if by magic minutes after you walk in the door.
Stay tuned for next week’s article – Menu Planning by the Week.