Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to Shop for the Pantry


I've written a couple of posts about my style of meal planning, which is essentially NOT planning, some ideas for expanding your pantry ingredients, and "Desperation Dinners" made from pantry ingredients, but how would a person go about stocking the pantry? This is a very good question I received from a reader, and I'm hoping I can address it thoroughly here.

If, the day before your trip to the grocery store, you are feeling like "Old Mother Hubbard" as she describes, you have a bit of groundwork to do.

First of all, find some good storage space.
If you don't have a built in pantry, you may have to look outside your kitchen for it. The above photo is my pantry storage in the basement. We live in an old house, and these shelves were made for home canned goods. I do a lot of canning in the summer and autumn, but admittedly, less than I used to do, since we got a deep freeze and I now freeze many of our home grown vegetables. This has made a lot of space free for things like canned beans, canned fruit, vegetables, pastas, oils and pickles. Have some extra shelves in your basement? What about a clothes closet? Under a bed? Get creative! Just be sure you store foods in a place where they won't be exposed to extreme temperatures that would cause them to spoil.

Second, look at your budget.
It would be very easy to just go to the store and spend $300 just to stock up your pantry and freezer, but you would likely be paying full price for most things and that would defeat your good intentions of saving money. If you have a grocery budget of $70 a week, next week see what you can do to only spend $50 on weekly essentials, and plan to spend $20 on pantry items that you can find on sale at their lowest price. As you slowly stock your pantry over time, you will come to the point where MOST of your grocery budget is going towards stocking, and only a very little is being spent on weekly essentials. It may be helpful to look at your monthly budget as opposed to weekly. One week, the sales might be rather disappointing, while another, they are incredible! In that case it is advantageous to rollover grocery money until it is worth spending it on the items you need at their lowest cost. I have a lot of flexibility in our budget, but if things are really tight, do what you can. As you start saving over time, you will be able to do more and more.

Third, prioritize.
A) What grocery items are the most useful to you? It may well be different for you, but for us, things like crushed tomatoes, pasta, dried beans, rice, cornmeal, baking supplies and for the freezer, meats and vegetables are most heavily used and are the backbone of my cooking. If my cupboards were bare, these would be the items I would want to start stocking first.
B) Look for the best sales. Know the rock bottom price for your most used items, and buy extra at that time. Until you see that rock bottom price, just buy what you need, but when you finally see it, buy the store's limit or as much as you can use by the expiration date.

Maybe an example would help clarify?
28 oz. cans of crushed tomatoes went on sale for $.75/can. This is the rock bottom price for my area barring the very, very rare coupon/sale combo where quantities are even more limited. I bought the limit of 12 cans, and because they don't expire for over 2 years, and because we use them every week for Spaghetti Sunday and Friday Night Pizza, I went back and bought two more cases over the course of the month long sale! The cases are stacked in my basement.

When I see a 20 lb. bag of rice for less than $7, I buy it and put it in the deep freeze. When I go to Super Wal-mart (which is actually only a couple times a year for us), I buy a bag of lemons for freezing (paid 2.50 for 11 lemons) and 12 cans of their refried beans for desperation dinners because I know they have the rock bottom price. Incidentally, Wal-mart RARELY has the rock bottom price on groceries... only on a couple of items on my price list! Keep a sharp eye! Which brings me to my next point...

Fourth, know your stores!
If you have a scratch & dent grocery outlet in your area, check it out for some AMAZING deals! We don't. :( If you have an Aldi, look for some more incredibly good deals. We don't. :( My options are rather limited. We have two basic grocery store options and I finally quit even shopping at one of them after having so much trouble every single trip with their prices not being correct. I got tired of ending each shopping trip by straightening things out at the customer service desk and decided the little bit of savings was not worth my time. (Always check your receipt!!!) Our other grocery store is quite good though and I'm happy there. I know that this store runs a "Can-Can" sale every January. All canned goods are at their rock bottom price of the year. I plan ahead that this is when I will stock up on those things, and boy do I! Preacher Man always comes along to help me with the heavy cart!

I also know that they run a special on their hams/turkeys every Thanksgiving and Easter and I can earn a free one. I know that they double coupons up to $1.00. I know that if an item is buy 10 for $10, you can just buy one and get it for $1, BUT if the item is buy 3 for $5, you MUST buy three to get the sale price! (Tricky, they are!) I know that they accept internet coupons. I know that certain cashiers do the coupons correctly and others don't. I know that you get $.05 off for each canvas bag you bring and use. I know that they offer sales that include free canvas bags every spring, so I always get my canvas bags free... I don't know what the situation is at your local store, but these are good things to know and keep in mind when planning your shopping. Every store is different. Learn as you go!

Fifth, start filling the shelves! Remember that you are undergoing a paradigm shift, so your cart will look very different than it used to. I am no longer embarrassed to buy 9 bags of frozen brussel sprouts or 16 bricks of cheese, but I used to be! Be a smart shopper and learn to win the grocery game!

This post is a part of the Four Moms linkup on Food Storage. Check out the other posts for some creative ideas.


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  1. Very helpful indeed! I am undergoing this paradigm shift right now. Alaska is an incredibly expensive place to live and finding deals is about as easy as finding the sunshine right now. But I shall prevail! Question: do you freeze all that extra cheese? Never tried this...does it work?

  2. Cheese lasts a very long time... usually for several months if you check the date on the package. I think you *can* freeze cheese, but I have never had the need.

  3. You can freeze cheese, but when it thaws it isn't great for slicing. It grates and melts wonderfully though! I buy 5 pound blocks of cheese all the time and cut them up, vacuum seal them and freeze. My parents do the same thing, but just put them into containers, no vacuum sealing. I find I can store for a long, long time when they are sealed though! You can freeze cream cheese as well, but the texture will change. It is best for cooking or melting at that point. Same with cottage cheese...it becomes almost like ricotta in texture. Great for pasta dishes and such, but not my favorite to eat out of the carton once it has been frozen.

    Hope this helps,

  4. I second that, cheese freezes well, but I find it crumbly when defrosted, so plan on that.


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