I had a dream. And in this dream my pantry always had everything I needed. I never ran out of ingredients to make dinner. I would go to the pantry, pull out what I needed to make dinner that day and it’d be there—no surprises. I had achieved well-stocked pantry perfection.

But it turns out that making this dream a reality was much harder than I thought it would be. Still, it’s worth the effort to keep a well-stocked pantry. So, let’s talk about how to do just that.

So, you go to make spaghetti and there’s no tomato sauce. You go to make soup and there’s no chicken broth. You think you’ll make tuna noodle casserole and then there’s no tuna or no noodles, or neither. This is frustrating. And it illustrates one of the troubles of menu planning.

Menu planning isn’t just coming up with ideas of what’s for dinner. It’s managing this whole magic of having the idea of what’s for dinner, having the ingredients for that dinner on hand, starting dinner at the right time, on the right day, and of course, keeping it all frugal and within budget. There’s a lot that goes into keeping a menu plan. It takes practice. And with practice comes skill. But we need to practice—not just making a list and following that list, the menu planning proper—we also have to manage that pantry ingredient, grocery shopping side of things that makes the meal planning possible.

It’s really this whole separate piece that if we aren’t aware of it, managing it, keeping track of it, then that menu plan that we’ve worked on doesn’t work. And we’re thrown back to plan B, or takeout, or frozen fish sticks (if those are in the freezer). 

So, what does it take to keep a well-stocked pantry? What is in a well-stocked pantry? What should be in your pantry? What should be in my pantry? How do we know that? And then, how do we keep our pantry well-stocked while feeding people three times a day?

There are four important steps to keeping and using a well-stocked pantry.

  1. Know what your family actually eats and keep a master list of those items you actually use.
  2. Determine how much your family consumes of each pantry staple in a week or month.
  3. Check your pantry stock before grocery shopping – every time.
  4. Keep what’s in your pantry rotated so you use the oldest items first.

The Pantry Stock Problem

I know when I was newly married and stocking our pantry for the first time I felt at a loss. There’s so much food at the grocery store. There are so many options. How do I even know what to buy?

Sometimes we solve that conundrum by making a menu plan first and then buying the food that we need for those meals that we’ve planned for and that works. But it actually takes a lot longer to make that menu plan, to grocery shop for that menu plan, to follow the recipes, and to just make it all work.

We can cut down on the time and energy that it takes to make our meals if we become pantry cooks. If we keep a regular stock on hand and then base our meals off of those things that we just always keep on hand. It’s actually in limiting our choices that things take less effort, energy, attention, time. Not only that, but when we function within limits, our creativity is called into play. It’s needed. And so choosing dinners based out of a pantry system is not only more efficient, it’s also more creative. 

But the question still comes down to what is in the pantry? And it’s certainly something that takes experience to build up, experimentation to figure out, and iteration and flexibility in continuing it. One of the things that I tried to do the first time I was stocking a pantry was look up that Martha Stewart list of what belongs in your pantry. I didn’t know what should be in our pantry but I figured someone else knows what I should buy, and so I took Martha Stewart’s list and stocked our pantry with the things she said that we should have.

And you know what? A lot of that I didn’t really use. I had to be creative and use what I purchased, but I quickly realized that a lot of what Martha Stewart considered pantry basics I did not and I was not going to use and I was not going to restock. 

We all need to go through that process of figuring out what belongs in our own well-stocked pantry. There is no single definition, single master pantry list that we can all use as a standard, and as long as we follow this list then we have a well-stocked pantry. No, a well-stocked pantry simply means that our pantry has on hand multiples of the items that we consistently use in our cooking.

There’s going to be a lot of overlap from what’s in your pantry and what’s in my pantry, but the identical lists, the master lists made by some expert, or my list used by you, or your listed used by me, is not going to work.

We each need to go through that process of figuring out what we actually use regularly and keeping those things on hand A well-stocked pantry is not a full pantry. A well-stocked pantry is a pantry that has plenty of what you actually use. If your pantry is full of items that you don’t use, that you aren’t sure why you bought, that you aren’t sure what they’re going to go into, maybe you bought multiple something because it was on sale, or because this one recipe that you made for a special occasion called for it, so you bought several, now you don’t know what else to do with it.

A pantry full of items that we aren’t sure about, that we aren’t used to using, that we are likely not going to use, is not a well-stocked pantry, even if it’s stocked. It’s not well-stocked. So we can brainstorm the typical, usual dinners that our family likes to eat, the lunches, the breakfasts, the snacks—all the food.

What are the usual things that we make? And a lot of times there’s overlap and common ingredients. We need flour. We need eggs. There’s going to be a lot of similarities in the basics of anyone’s master list, but they’re going to vary for sure. Not only that but the amount of those basics that you need is something you have to figure out for your family, that I have to figure out for my family, and that can definitely change as our families grow in number and grow in size and change in eating habits.

Those master amounts that we figure out, that work for us, overtime end up not working. A well-stocked pantry master list is not a once-and-done project. And this is another thing that threw me off for sure. I did this early on, made the master list—these are the items that I’m going to keep on hand in my pantry. I never want to run out of these. I want to always have them on hand and all of the dinners that I make are going to rely on these ingredients only, so that I know I can go to my dinner rotation list and pick any one of them and I’ll have the ingredients on hand because these are just the things that I buy.

Download the free menu planning templates – including a master pantry list – that will help you get every meal on the table with less fuss.

Step 1: Figure out what belongs in your own well-stocked pantry.

You have to figure out what belongs in your pantry. Take notes, make observations, go back over your menu plans for the last few months and figure out what do you use consistently? What could you make dinners out of easily based on basic ingredients that can keep on the shelves in a pantry or in the fridge or in the freezer? All three of those are pantry locations not just the dry goods shelves, but there’s pantry, fridge, freezer. Each of these is really a pantry. It’s a place where we keep the food on hand.

So, what do you want to always have on hand? And if you had those things on hand you could pull together several different meal options. Pull together that list for those three places in your pantry. And that is your master pantry list. But still we need to know how much of those things do you need? And there are two pieces of that equation to figure out this second step, which is the rate of use, which determines the amount that you should keep on hand. 

Step 2: At what rate do you use your pantry staples?

How often do you go through canned tomatoes, canned tuna, a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a block of cheese? About, typically, how long do each of those last your family? And then in addition, how often do you tend to go grocery shopping? Maybe you want to say I only want to go once a week or every other week or I want to have one major stock up trip a month and then just fill in with milk and vegetables in-between those big monthly trips.

Your grocery shopping pattern determines how much stock your pantry needs. So you figure out by experimenting, by estimating, how much do you usually go through in that time period between a stock up grocery trip (which might be weekly, might be monthly)? 

Step 3: Before shopping, check your stock in your pantry.

Before you go grocery shopping, you don’t just stare off into space, pen and paper at hand, and make a list based on what you feel you want to eat next. And you don’t have to be combing through a recipe book and writing down all the ingredients for things that you think maybe you will want to make. We’re limiting our food options based on our master pantry selection.

So, we really just restock the pantry and then choose meal options that fit what we have basically determined is our palette. What we keep on hand is our palette. And it’s a broad enough that we can have a lot of flexibility, but it’s not limitless. And so, we actually do have to narrow down those choices. And that’s actually freeing and it helps us get into routines and patterns that make mealtime and menu planning and grocery shopping a lot less taxing because options are actually tiring. 

What’s the difference between the actuals in our pantry and the well-stocked list? And that’s how you make your grocery list. You don’t have to consult your recipe books. You don’t have to look at Pinterest. You don’t have to look at what’s for sale and base it solely on that. But this does allow you if you get to the grocery store and something is on sale that you do use, you know about how much you’ll use in a certain amount of time and you also know that you have options. The backup ingredients if pork is on sale or chicken’s on sale, sausages on sale. Whatever is the deal that you find when you go to the grocery store, you know that you can purchase those staples and have backup ingredients in your pantry that will help turn those pieces into a full meal. And that’s the real beauty of pantry cooking and of knowing what we use and having those things on hand. 

Step 4: Rotate your well-stocked pantry so the oldest items are used first.

You have your two cans of diced tomatoes that were already there. You bring home four more cans. You make sure that the new cans go in the back. And that you use what’s there first. This is especially important with things like flour, oats, any kind of grain or dry good—beans, rice.

You don’t want to open a new pack you want to use the oldest first. And so, storing the goods in such a way that that is simple and straightforward is helpful, but it doesn’t need to be complicated especially if you are shopping every week or every other week.

The quantities that you keep on hand aren’t going to go bad and they aren’t going to require conscious management beyond just putting the new stuff a little bit farther back because you’re only buying what you really are using at a rate that’s pretty typical use. So, you’re not storing things for a long time. You are buying what you use and then you’re using it and keeping it keeping it replenished. 

A Well-Stocked Pantry Makes You Efficient

Having a master pantry list speeds up grocery shopping because you know what you’re buying, you get a typical route, you get your typical purchases, and it’s easy to just get in the flow and do it. But it turns out that our family’s eating needs change and we have to be aware of that and be adapting and iterating our master pantry list, our grocery shopping habits along the way. So, what worked one year is not necessarily going to work two or three years down the road.

It’s a project to get that master pantry list going, to get your pantry stocked, but after the project we still need to keep our attention on it, keep iterating, keep noticing, adjusting as we go, because it will change. But changing doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time or that it’s not helping us be more efficient because it does make us more efficient in the kitchen. It makes us more efficient in the grocery store.

It makes it easier to menu plan when you know what you use, you purchase those things, and keep extra stock on hand in the pantry. 

Download the free menu planning templates – including a master pantry list – that will help you get every meal on the table with less fuss.

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