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Bread And Butter: Pantry Cooking


Last week, while making my mom’s goulash, I used the last cans of diced tomatoes in my pantry. I hadn’t realized I was so low until cracking open that last one to dump into my pot of simmering garlic, onion and peppers. I immediately had my son add it to the perpetual grocery list hanging on our refrigerator and bought several cans during my weekly shopping trip last weekend. (Future) crisis averted!

What makes up pantry staples in your house? How often do you shop for those staples? Do you have a finely tuned system or are you more of a buy-what-sounds-good-today kind of shopper? If so, does that result in an eclectic mishmash of spontaneity in your pantry or are you good at following through and using all the ingredients?

I’m afraid my must-haves are terribly boring, but I’m also wondering if boring is bad. I have places for dried beans and rice, oatmeal, green chile enchilada sauce, diced green chiles, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, pasta. Any and all of that can be grabbed and transformed into any number of dinners. 

Rarely do I have a surprise lurking in the back of my cupboards, abandoned from a long forgotten whim. Rarely can I not come up with anything to eat—as was once famously said, our cupboards are full of ingredients, not simply food—even if sometimes what I come up with is less than fun. Add my freezer full of different cuts of meat and canned fresh in the summer veggies and fruits and our winter shopping trips are pretty mundane: yogurt, milk, bread, eggs, cheese. 


I’m curious how others tackle this spot of real adulthood, however. I browse social media and see things flying by that I would never think to buy and eat, but that always look good. Am I missing out, being set in my pantry ways?


I know there are websites in which you type in ingredients you have on hand and they spit out any number of recipes you can try with said ingredients. While we’re not yet to the “Monday meatloaf” type of routine in our house, we do have a basic list of favorites that are regurgitated more often than not. 

What if I opened my pantry, and instead of whipping up my from-scratch stroganoff, hold the mushrooms, please, I typed in beef stock and Greek yogurt and made a different suggestion instead? Trying one website, and using just those two ingredients, up popped recipes for curries, tagine, chilis and stews, beef sandwiches and more ways to cook a lamb than I’ve ever tried. And in searching what to make with green chile, black beans and green beans, several salad and soup options popped up as well as enchilada suggestions a mile long. I realized these types of resources would be great when feeling in a cooking rut and needing to shake things up without shopping for a lot. 

Usually, this many years into adulthood, I do a large restock a couple of times a year. Throughout the summer and early fall, I make sure my pantry is ready for winter and then again in the spring, to fill holes left by my bear like hibernation. I know of friends who are much less intense on the pantry stocking front, aiming to keep a low simmer throughout the year instead of a frenzied large stock up. 

I also know people who stock around case lot sales at their local grocery or employ the 52 week method of stocking up on certain extras once a week, rotating each year. There are plenty of websites and people that will tell you what you should be stocking up on, but I find that doesn’t work in practicality. For instance, lentils are always on somebody’s list, but I can’t tell you if a lentil has ever passed my lips and can tell you, quite emphatically that I never cooked with them at all. It just would not be wise for me to stock up on an item with which I don’t cook. Likewise, I stock up on cans of diced green chile and red chile sauce by the gallons because I find they go in ninety percent of what I cook.  

So, I think, starting there is the most logical first step. If you’re new to pantry cooking or want to start and feel overwhelmed or need a refresh after habits slipping, take the next month and really zero in on what you logically eat. Pay attention to what’s in season and sale cycles. Make a list that fits into your budget and slowly build out until you have a list of things you can type into a recipe finder that will overhaul Taco Tuesday into Mexican Fiesta night with a variety of dishes that won’t feel routine.