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The well stocked pantry

Weekends — when I was a childless writer working full time — allowed for revelry in grocery shopping. Leisurely strolling the aisles, considering which fruits and vegetables were freshest and which new products I might encounter constituted both entertainment and contemplative relaxation.

Now that I almost always have kids in tow, grocery shopping is more like running a gauntlet. Every parent who squeezes shopping into a day of work schedules, school shuttling, weekend activities and household errands knows the harried drudgery of schlepping through stores with tired and all-too-often hungry children. Plenty of childless people, as well, view the exercise of purchasing groceries with something akin to dread.

I used to scoff at the notion that anyone could grocery shop less frequently than once a week, much less monthly. How naïve I was when free time was plentiful. So it’s probably not too surprising that I would become a staunch advocate for simplifying life with fewer trips to the store, facilitated by a well-stocked pantry and freezer, validated by a “we’ll-get-by” mentality.

The method goes beyond day-to-day menu planning. Devising a few dishes to prepare at a vacation rental over spring break, I didn’t shop specifically for the trip. Rather, I mined the pantry, freezer and refrigerator for ingredients that would travel well, do double duty over more than one meal and would have been prone to spoiling during our absence from home.

Thai-style green curry, pasta carbonara and a breakfast of bacon, eggs and toaster waffles were the result. And my home inventory that produced those meals wasn’t particularly diverse, given that it had been at least a week since my last grocery-store foray. Such simple but satisfying meals are possible because I routinely buy, not with specific meals in mind, but an array of options at almost any point in time.

Part of the trick is balancing purchases between shelf-stable staples, commodities that freeze well and fresh items of varying perishability. When I spot a sale item priced too low to refuse, I stash it away for a rainy day. An auxiliary freezer in the garage, initially purchased to store large quantities of locally raised meat, has become invaluable.

To that, we added an auxiliary refrigerator in the garage, reclaimed from a relative who bought a new appliance last year. It affords, in late fall and winter, storage for enough apples, pears, citrus, root vegetables and brassicas that grocery shopping becomes mostly a matter of replenishing milk.

While heat-and-eat items are useful on occasion, serviceable pantries and freezers are filled primarily with whole foods that lend themselves to a variety of recipes, including advance preparation and repurposing from leftovers. And while not every home has space for more than one refrigerator or freezer, some thoughtful planning still saves time at the store and during the run-up to dinnertime.

Just as every household’s diet has its unique aspects, so do pantries. But any number of useful guides can be adapted to accommodate just about any dietary requirement, preference and budget.

One of my favorites was posted to my blog, The Whole Dish, courtesy of Ashland Food Co-op, whose culinary educators compiled it to complement the store’s basic pricing program and “Co-op Basics” cooking classes. Variety comes through pairing the following staples with seasonally fresh produce.

This list is in addition to shelf-stable baking necessities, including flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. I’d also add canned coconut milk and jarred Thai- and Indian-style curry pastes.

For families unaccustomed to soy products and canned fish, I urge you to give them a try. Start by substituting them into your favorite stir-fry or pasta dish.

Likewise, experiment with which types of whole grains play best on your palate. Millet, for example, is a low-cost, high-protein alternative to quinoa that’s widely available in grocers’ bulk-foods sections. I love it as a gluten-free substitute for couscous.

Households that are gluten- and grain-free, of course, can make the appropriate substitutions to this list with corresponding products. For the average family, however, purchasing these items and learning to regularly incorporate them sets a course for eating better meals on a budget.

Spending precious time in the comfort of one’s own home, even if meal preparation takes a bit longer, is the prize for evading the grocery-store gauntlet.

Read more on Sarah Lemon’s blog at www.mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish and tune into her podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.


Pantry Basics

Rice, brown and/or white

Oats, pressed

Quinoa, millet or other whole grain

Pasta, any variety

Corn or flour tortillas

Whole-grain sandwich bread

2 to 3 vinegars

Extra-virgin olive oil; avocado or grapeseed oil

Tamari sauce

Canned tomato products

Beans: pinto, black and garbanzo


Tofu or tempeh

Canned tuna and salmon

Broth or stock

Dried or fresh herbs: basil, oregano, dill, sage, bay

Dried spices: cinnamon, allspice, pepper, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, turmeric

Maple syrup

Almonds or other nuts of choice

Peanut or almond butter

Onions and garlic

Carrots and potatoes


Butter or coconut oil

Jack/cheddar cheeses or dairy-free substitute



Meat, poultry and seafood (in the freezer)