The pantry principle, aka Meal planning without a menu

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I used to make menus. And I saved them for reference, even. I have pages and pages of old menus in the back of one of my recipe binders. But as the years have gone by, I have moved away from making menus and more towards cooking with the pantry principle.

What is the pantry principle? I don't know if Amy Dacyczyn coined the term, but there are a few articles about it in the Tightwad Gazette. In a nutshell, you go grocery shopping to stock your pantry/fridge/freezer with low- and bulk-purchased staples, and sale-priced items. Then you create your meals from the items in your pantry. Cooking this way helps ensure that you're buying groceries when they are at their lowest prices, not just because your menu calls for that ingredient. Since you can't always know when things are going to be on sale, you can't necessarily plan meals far in advance. Certain items go on sale seasonally, and you can often plan for those. For example, I know that packaged stuffing mixes almost always go on sale around the holidays, so I buy a dozen boxes. We'll eat them until they are gone, but then I don't buy stuffing again until it's on sale again. Similarly, if I happen to be shopping and find packages of meat that are marked down because they are about to meet their sell-by date, I'll buy them all, freeze all but one meal's worth, and eat it for dinner that night.

One argument for making a menu is that it helps people avoid the "I don't know what to cook for dinner so I guess we'll get take-out" syndrome. I find that even if I plan meals a few hours in advance I avoid the dinner-time mind-blanks. When I'm at my best I plan a day or two in advance. Then I can take meat out of the freezer to thaw, soak beans, mix dough, etc. But even if I forget to plan ahead, I can usually whip up a meal in less than an hour because my fridge, freezer, and pantry are full of items that can make complete meals.

What types of things do I stock? My list will certainly vary from yours since I'm sure we have different tastes. I cook almost everything from scratch, so we store ingredients, not ready-to-eat food. I try to have on hand:

Fridge
butter
cream cheese
cheddar cheese
carrots
celery
apples
eggs
milk
tortillas
Parmesan cheese

Freezer
boneless skinless chicken (usually purchased in bulk on sale and divided into meal-sized portions)
ground beef (bought in large portions and frozen in meal-sized packages, or cooked and frozen in meal-sized bags)
hot dogs
grated cheese (mozzerella and cheddar bought in bulk at Costco and divided into smaller bags)
ground sausage
frozen berries (bought/grown in summer)

Pantry (many of these items are bought in 25 lb quantities and stored in 5 gallon buckets under the shelves)
pasta (spaghetti, macaroni, and other shaped pasta)
tomato sauce, paste, and whole tomatoes
canned soups (cream of chicken, celery, and tomato)
chili
refried beans
canned beans
dry beans
rice
flour
sugar (white, brown, powdered)
rolled oats
wheat
powdered milk
spaghetti sauce (home-canned or purchased)
canned fruit and vegetables (home-canned or purchased)
onions
potatoes
packaged stuffing mix
oil and shortening
smaller amounts of various grains (rye, spelt, barley, millet, quinoa, etc)
canned meats (salmon, beef, chicken, ham)
ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise
chocolate chips

When I want to try a new recipe, or I get a hankering for something that I don't have the ingredients for, or I'm shopping and see something on sale, I will buy something different that is not on this list but I don't usually keep things in the pantry that aren't versatile.

Some people might argue that this way of cooking is boring and lacks variation, but it works for this busy mom of five. Since I started watching what I am eating I am including a lot more vegetables in my meals but the backbone of our menu still comes from the pantry.

Tune in next time for application of the pantry principle at its finest.