Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pantry Raid: An Easy Way to Save Money on Groceries

Each week I find myself engaging in a bit of insanity. We go to the grocery store, we buy food for the week, then we come home and I attempt to stuff new canned items and basics into an already overflowing pantry. Why do I do this?

The food in the pantry is good stuff. I bought it all with recipes in mind. There's only one or two items that are "experimental" in there.

The problem is, I simply forget to start my menu plans for the week from what I already have on hand. I always plan menus around seasonal produce, but I forget about the remaining grains and staples I bought for all of those meals. Now that it is winter, and seasonal produce is all but absent, it's time to focus on the pantry — and save a lot of money. Just by doing an inventory of what you have on hand, planning meals to incorporate the stuff you have already bought, you can limit your grocery cart contents to the few fresh items, meats and dairy for the week.

You'd be surprised at what you can build from you staples. This morning, I found a half cup of oat flakes and a half cup of spelt flakes. Neither quantity was enough for cooked breakfast cereal for the whole family, but both together, ground in the food processor, plus some brown bananas made great wholegrain waffles.

Various kinds of rice, couscous, pasta, quinoa clutter my shelves. All of these ingredients can stretch a small amount of protein and some vegetables, especially canned beans, into a whole meal — with leftovers for my brown bag lunches.

Over the next few weeks (five weeks until the first farmers market to be exact). I need to save up for fresh, local goodness and use up what I have on hand. Look for some recipes that use a lot of grains and pantry staples.

Mark Bitten recently published his list of "must haves" for the pantry. It's an okay list, but there are a few points where I differ. For example, he recommends making your own fresh bread crumbs over the purchased kind, and your own stock. Both of these recommendations are great — if you have time. I don't always have enough of that. Some of the ingredients will be new turf unless you regularly cook out of Gourmet magazine.

The best tip (from me) is to try and avoid buying any ingredient you will only use in one dish, and will only use part of.

Bittman also recommends a healthy list of spices to grind fresh — and that you should toss them out once a year. Spices can be pretty pricey, though you can save money on a lot of them by shopping at Indian food markets. Buy in small quantities if it is a spice you will not use much.

Bittman also recommends using dried beans over canned. I would say fresh shelled is the best, but it's rare to find those even in season, and a lot of work. By all means, try them fresh if you can. If you cook beans often, a pressure cooker can reduce your cooking time for dried beans quite a bit.

The points I most agree with on his list of pantry staples; forget about bottled salad dressings. It's easier and far healthier to make your own, stock a variety of grains and nuts, and keep winter squash and sweet potatoes around. I do that last one really well. Really. Well.


Chiot's Run said...

I agree with the homemade salad dressing. We often just love a good vinegar & some olive oil, salt & pepper. You just can't beat that.

I think dried beans are the only way to go. If you get in the habit of soaking them overnight they're much quicker & easier. Although split peas & lentils are quickies without soaking.

Every year around this time we have a pantry month. We try to eat only from the pantry and eat up stuff that's been in there too long.

I have much less trouble with things building up now that we preserve our own food and cook from scratch. I have mostly ingredients in there (grains, beans, spices, home canned items).

I'm so excited for the markets to begin. Around here though, we still have at least another month. And even then they usually only have plants & other items, not too many veggies this time of year.

ExpatChef said...

Most of our canned goods are beans like black soy beans, coconut milk, and tomatoes — since I don't can those myself. We'll be working through all the different rice types and grains, and dried beans definitely!

There's limited greens early in the season, not a lot, but something. :) It'll be here soon.

Matriarchy said...

I find it easy to make my own stock. I collect bones from the meat market and freeze them - organic chicken backs and pork bones, mostly. Then I make stock about once a month. It only takes a few minutes load the stockpot and put it on a low simmer. Then I just leave it there all day, while it perfumes the whole house. I let it cool a little at the end, strain it into a large lidded container, and then refrigerate it overnight. I skim the hardened fat the next day, and ladle the stock it into plastic quart containers that I pop into the freezer. I leave a quart or two in the fridge to use for sauces, soup, grits, rice, etc.

I store both dried and canned beans. I tend to get garbanzos canned, to make hummus a fast choice. We make a weekly slowcooker load of soup with split peas or soaked dry beans.

Sweet potatoes from a local organic farmer have been a great storage item for us this year. I bake them off when I have something else in the oven, then make puree in the food processor, which is handy for sweet potato biscuits and other treats. We also bake off Russet potatoes to have on hand for home fries.

CityHomeGirl said...

As a college student, I welcome any money saving advice. For all of you in San Francisco, I am sharing a local list of low cost delicious meals. I hope this helps!

oregontastebuds said...
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oregontastebuds said...

well stocked pantry is an art and takes some practice. Not only does it save money and time but reinforces the importance of a home cooked meal to our family since they all know how easy it is to order a pizza or hit the drive thru!

Stock ingredients of high quality and you will never go wrong.

Thanks for the great post and I look forward to more to come.