Monday, 4 June 2012

the lost art of the pantry

I love being frugal. I think I get it from my family. My father taught me to do things myself instead of paying someone else. He taught me the economical value of manual labour, and the excitement of getting a good deal. He taught me to watch my pennies, and let the dollars take care of themselves.
My mother never wasted anything. Clothes were mended and leftovers were eaten. She taught me the value of practical skills like sewing and cooking, and the pride in keeping a beautiful and money-wise home.
My grandmothers both lived through the Depression and World War II, and were/are masters of crafting a frugal lifestyle. My maternal grandmother is a great example to me of how to life a thrifty life without deprivation. Her home is an oasis of simplicity and pleasure.

I like to think I have absorbed some of my elder's sensibilities as I've grown. As I try to craft a life of equal security and simplicity for my own family, both financially and otherwise, I am continually drawn to my kitchen as the source of much goodness and frugality. There is good reason the kitchen is said to be the heart of the home. It calls us to the kind of work that is both meditative and productive; what is more noble than creating the meals that sustain our loved ones? Preparing food is an activity that draws people together, unlike television or computer time.
Food does not just sustain the body, it sustains the soul. When we are mindful, preparing and eating food is a holy ritual. When we eat, we plunge ourselves into the web that connects all life. We take a life, and with it, we sustain the lives of those we love. This mindfulness, I think, it the true root of frugality. To not waste is to pay respect to the Earth, and to show our gratitude for the plenty we have.

I think this is why I enjoy working in my kitchen so much. This weekend I was really in the mood. I made fresh pasta, tomato sauce, roast chicken, leftover vegetable soup, homemade dog food, salad from the garden and fresh bread.
By far, the single best thing I have done lately in my kitchen is to create a well-stocked pantry. If there is one thing you can do to save your family money, eat healthier and create more opportunity for home cooking, it is to have a good pantry. When your cupboards are full of basic essentials and the things you use most often, along with keeping fridge and freezer basics stocked, you will ALWAYS have something to make for dinner. You won't have to order pizza every time you miss your Monday grocery shop or you get home late. You'll always have a favourite or two on standby. You'll be prepared if unexpected company shows up. And, if you lose your job or run into a period of financial hardship- you will still be able to put food on the table for awhile. This last one is huge for me. Now that we have a child in our family, I am way more aware of how we as individuals need to take responsibility for ensuring our own wellbeing and not assume that the government will always sort things out for us.
I notice things a lot more now, like the fact that our warm weather spike in late winter might mean soaring apple prices this summer, or the fact that either of us could lose our jobs tomorrow if the economy turned again.
Being financially prepared for hardship- personal or nationwide, starts in the kitchen for me. You can lose your tv or your car, have your electricity shut off, even lose your house- but you have to eat. Food in the pantry is as good as money in the bank. The author of a blog I read that deals largely with disaster preparedness likes to say that Mason jars are more valuable than cash. I get it. The value of our dollar might tank tomorrow, but the ability of a can of beans to fill an empty stomach will be the same no matter what.

I reorganized my pantry a few months ago, and here's what (part of) it looks like now:

It's not big, and I have grand dreams of what it could look like someday (think walk-in with ladders and oak barrels!), but I figure that if the worst happened, I could feed my family nutritiously for several weeks, maybe even a month, without leaving the house. Granted, it would be mostly vegetarian and might get tedious after awhile, but no one would go hungry.

Here's a quick breakdown of what I keep stocked:

Chicken stock (I don't have the freezer space to make my own right now)
Creamed soups
Tomato sauce
Diced tomatoes
Tomato paste
Canned and dried beans
Canned tuna
Creamed corn
Roasted red peppers
Pasta (lots of different kinds, but mostly spaghetti and penne)
Extra condiments and cooking sauces (we have a few prepared favourites like butter chicken sauce)
Sweet potatoes
Sugar (brown, white)
Flour (bread, pastry, all purpose)
Instant yeast
Baking soda
Vinegars (red/white/rice wine, balsamic, white)
Oils (olive, vegetable, grapeseed)
Peanut butter
Coconut milk
Sweetened condensed milk

That's not a complete list, but those are the things I always have.
And here's what I always keep stocked in the fridge/freezer:

Frozen fruit

Take a second and think about all the things you could make with this stuff. The only things missing are fresh vegetables and fruit, and meat. And as long as you have milk, cream and eggs, you can make butter, cheese and yogurt, too.
I was thinking about making a month-long menu using nothing but these ingredients just to show you it's possible, but I don't want to lose you here. You might not find this as exciting as I do. Just trust me. It's possible.

So, my point is- if your in charge of the kitchen, finances, or both in your home, I think the best thing you can do is to stock your pantry with essentials, and the things you enjoy most. Focus on raw ingredients that are the building blocks for other prepared foods. With basic baking ingredients you can make pastas, breads, pie crusts, pizza dough, muffins, cookies and cakes. Canned tomatoes are the basis of zillions of dishes. Beans and rice, pasta and oatmeal can fill you up for fractions of a penny. With noodles and a block of cheddar, you can have mac and cheese for a crowd on the table in 15 minutes.

You don't have to do it all at once and break the bank. Build it up slowly over time. If there's a great sale on tomato paste, buy a case. If you love Kraft Dinner, get 15 boxes of it. When your shelves start to fill up, you'll feel good, I promise.


  1. I started stocking my pantry a couple months ago, mostly with baking ingredients (since I've been in a baking flurry lately).

    It's definitely encouraging to see the shelves fill up, to realize that you can make supper with just a few ingredients out of the pantry and the fridge.

    I'm beyond-anxious to learn canning his late summer/fall once the harvest starts. I'll also be freezing a lot of my produce as well. That will flesh out my stored goods even more! (Good times. heh.)

  2. Me too, Jenna. I'm making this the year I learn how to can and preserve. I've never done it before! I would love to can enough tomato stuff to make it through the winter without having to buy any! Baby steps though. I don't think I can afford that many jars all at once :).