A well-planned pantry saves time, money and stress in the kitchen.
What's the goal of establishing and maintaining a pantry? It's two-fold: household convenience and protection against unexpected events. A well-planned pantry means that the household will never run out of commonly used products such as toilet paper. More important, a pantry is a reserve against hard times. Whether it's job loss, illness or natural disaster, a pantry ensures that the family will continue to be fed, clean and comfortable in the face of adversity.
A beginner's pantry focuses on convenience and contains back-up products for each storable item used in the home. The standard is simple: for each open bag, box or carton, the pantry contains a second, back-up product. A good first goal: a three-day supply of food and hygiene supplies adequate to support your family plus one additional person.
More robust pantries serve additional aims. In case of emergency, a mid-range pantry can feed a family for a period of two weeks to a month. This pantry includes substitutes for fresh foods, such as powdered milk, dried fruits and vegetables, and protein products.
The most comprehensive home pantries are designed to meet long-term food storage needs. To do so, these premier pantry managers stock versatile foodstuffs with long shelf life, such as whole wheat berries, together with a variety of preserved and dried foods.
Whether it's Chef Boy-ar-dee brand ravioli or Wolfgang Puck's upscale condensed soups, build your pantry to suit your family, your finances and the storage space you have available.
Single-income households with young children will build pantries replete with cold cereal, formula, disposable diapers and child-friendly snack foods. Empty-nesters with an active social life and his-and-hers diets will lean toward pickled asparagus, low-sodium veggies, and tiny jars of cocktail nibbles for pick-up appetizers and hostess gifts. Dedicated home bakers will include specialty flours, gluten and dried buttermilk powder in their pantries, while noncooks will rely heavily on microwave entrees and freezer pizza. And just about every family can stockpile basics for kitchen and bath, such as toilet paper, toothpaste, detergent and paper napkins.
Where's the best place to discover your family's pantry preferences? Your grocery list. If you buy it, use it, and it can be stored, it's a pantry candidate. Building a pantry from the grocery list is also a powerful antidote to Pantry Mania: the indiscriminate purchase of case lots of canned turkey chili or house brand soups that no one in the household will eat.
An expansive view of the pantry principle also allows for freezer storage and a limited amount of refrigerator real estate. Carrots, potatoes, oranges and apples enter the pantry zone when bought on sale and tucked into corners of the vegetable bin, while freezer convenience entrees qualify, too.
To work the pantry principle, you've got to get organized. Maximum pantry power requires that you know what you have, how long it will keep, and how to store it safely.
1. Starting a pantry does not require complex organization. Create it by buying twice as many of each item as needed for weekly use, then store the extras. When you've used up the mayo in today's tuna salad, retrieve the back-up jar from the pantry, and add "mayo" to the week's shopping list.
2. The beginner's pantry can often be stored side-by-side with opened or in-use items. For example, stack the open box of detergent on top of the pantry box or line up cans of chicken noodle soup front to back on the canned goods shelf.
3. Rotate the contents of the pantry by placing just-purchased items at the back of the stack or row; use the front items first.
4. A dedicated pantry area can be a big help. Set aside a cabinet or shelf to hold pantry items. Organize them by category, stacking cans and boxes. Flat-bottomed plastic baskets support and contain bags of dried beans, rice, or pasta.
5. Complete pantry meals are one exception to the "store by category" rule. On a section of pantry shelf, assemble all the makings for three to five pantry meals: a family-sized can of clam chowder, an extra can of chopped clams, and the box of oyster crackers shelved together make it easy to spot the empty spaces after use, and restock.
6. Larger pantries require more storage space and may be sited in multiple locations around the house, depending on different foods’ storage needs. Root vegetables and apples need to be cool and dry; canned goods can tolerate greater temperature fluctuations. A written inventory can remind forgetful cooks of the location of pantry items.
How to Store Pantry Items
Select pantry storage areas in cool locations; canned food and pantry items should be kept at 70 degrees F or below; don't store them in direct light. Newer packaged foods now include a use-by date as a guideline for product freshness. Where dates are unavailable, observe the food storage guidelines given here for best quality.
Product Code Dates: What Do They Mean?
Sell-by date. A sell-by date sets the last date of sale for perishable products, such as milk. A period for safe home use follows. Newer products often list both the sell-by date, after which the food should not be sold, and an expiration date, after which the food should not be eaten.
Use-by date. A use-by date is a guideline for best quality for foods with a longer shelf life. The use-by date is not a safety date. The food remains edible for some time after that date, but food quality will begin to decline.
Expiration date. Commonly used for highly perishable foods like meats and dairy goods, the expiration date is the last date on which the product should be consumed.
Pack date. Pack dates for canned goods and processed products indicate when they were packed. Use specific food storage recommendations to determine how long the food remains edible after packing.
Building a Pantry on a Budget
Investing in the pantry principle pays off in savings of time and money, but it does involve an up-front cost. Try these tips to spread the load:
"Tithe" for the pantry. Set aside a regular percentage of each week's grocery budget for pantry building.
Buy on sale. Take advantage of supermarket loss leaders — tuna, tomato sauce, canned soup and canned beans — to stock up.
Buy in bulk. Bulk-buying for the pantry really pays off. A 25-pound sack of bread flour at the warehouse store will be better value than the supermarket's pricier 5-pound bag. You'll save and stock up at the same time.
Storage Time: 6 Months or Less
Baking powder (opened) - 6 months
Baking soda (opened) - 6 months
Breakfast cereals, ready-to-eat (opened) - 2-3 months
Crackers - 6 months
Flour, cake - 6 months
Juice, canned citrus - 6 months
Marshmallows - 3 months
Mayonnaise (unopened in original packaging) - 4 months
Milk, nonfat dry - 6 months
Molasses (opened) - 6 months
Pancake mix - 6 months
Rice, mixes - 6 months
Shortening (opened) - 6 months
Soft drinks (unopened in original packaging) - 3 months
Stuffing mix or croutons - 6 months
Sugar, brown - 4 months
Storage Time: 6 to 12 Months
Breakfast cereals, ready-to-eat (unopened) - 6-12 months
Breakfast cereals, hot (oatmeal, farina) - 12 months
Brownie mix - 12 months
Cake mix - 12 months
Canned fruit - 12 months
Canned vegetables - 12 months
Catsup, chili sauce, barbecue sauce - 12 months
Chocolate chips, semisweet- 12 months
Coconut, grated (unopened in original packaging) - 12 months
Coffee, instant (unopened in original packaging) - 12 months
Cornmeal, regular or self-rising - 12 months
Flour, whole wheat (opened in refrigerator) - 6-8 months
Grits, instant - 8 months
Grits, regular - 10 months
Herbs and spices, dried - 6-12 months
Honey - 12 months
Jelly, jam and preserves (unopened in original packaging) - 12 months
Juice, canned noncitrus - 12 months
Milk, condensed - 12 months
Milk, sweetened condensed - 12 months
Molasses, unopened - 12 months
Nuts, unshelled - 8 months
Oils (canola oil, corn oil, vegetable oil) (opened) - 6-8 months
Oil, olive - 9 months
Olives - 12 months
Peanut butter - 6-9 months
Pickles (unopened) - 12 months
Rice, brown - 12 months
Salad dressing (unopened in original packaging) - 10 months
Sauces, condiments and relishes (unopened) - 12 months
Shortening (unopened) - 8 months
Syrup - 12 months
Storage Time: 12 to 24 Months
Baking powder (unopened) - 18 months
Baking soda (unopened) - 2 years
Beans and peas, dried - 18 months
Biscuit mix - 12-18 months
Chocolate, unsweetened - 18 months
Coffee, ground - 2 years
Cornstarch - 18 months
Flour, white - 10-15 months
Gelatin - 12-18 months
Infant formula - 12-18 months
Meat and poultry, canned - 12-18 months
Oils (canola oil, corn oil, vegetable oil) - 18 months
Pasta, dried - 2 years
Popcorn, unpopped kernels - 1-2 years
Potatoes, instant - 18 months
Pudding mixes - 12-18 months
Rice, white - 2 years
Sugar, granulated - 2 years
Sugar, powdered - 18 months
Tea, bags - 18 months
Tea, instant - 3 years
Tea, loose - 2 years
Tomato sauce or paste - 12-18 months
Storage Time: Indefinitely
Vinegar (balsamic, cider, rice, red wine, white, white wine)
Excerpted from Houseworks, by Cynthia Townley Ewer
Text Copyright © 2006, 2010, Cynthia Townley Ewer, extracts from Houseworks, reproduced with permission from Dorling Kindersley Limited