A well-stocked pantry saves time, money
What's for supper?

Wanda English Burnett, Editor

We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the refrigerator contemplating the contents all the while wondering, “What’s for supper?” And what could be more frustrating than to be in the middle of meal preparations and discover you are out of a key ingredient for the recipe?

“Having a well-stocked pantry is important for several reasons,” said Louann Menchhofer, Consumer and Family Science Educator for the Ripley County Extension in Osgood. Menchhofer says the pantry can save time, money, and provide the opportunity to make healthy, home-cooked meals. Having the ingredients on hand for several quick and easy, as well as nutritious, meals prevents the cost of eating fast food or take-out or even using lots of convenience foods.

Beginning a pantry starts at the grocery store. One does not need to purchase everything at once, but rather a little bit at a time at each grocery trip. For instance, when purchasing chicken breasts that are on sale that week, purchase extra to store in the freezer. Or when cooking soups, double the recipe and freeze the leftovers in individual portions for quick lunches or suppers.

According to Menchhofer, the best buys are pasta, rice, and other grains. “Make them whole grains if possible, which are healthier options,” noted Menchhofer. Add some vegetables and fruit and you can make some healthy meals in minutes.

Menchhofer advises to watch for items your family likes when they are on sale. “Try store brands,” she encourages. Remember that those products, while having the store label, are made from a manufacturer just like the other brand names. “You may have to experiment with them to find one to your liking,” she said.

The pantry:

Pantry items are basically in three zones: dry storage, refrigerator for perishable items, and the freezer for long term storage. The items you stock may depend entirely on the storage options available. For example, if the only freezer space available is the one in the refrigerator, choices for long term storage and fresh frozen items will be limited.

Items to include in the dry storage portion of the pantry are canned vegetables, fruit and meats. “You should have some items such as tuna or salmon and fruit that can be eaten without cooking in case of power outages,” noted Menchhofer. Canned beans, tomatoes and tomato sauce and paste should be included as these can be the start to many meals.

Other food items to keep on hand in the pantry are flour, sugar and brown sugar, salt, oil or shortening, and spices. Canned milk, also known as evaporated milk, powdered milk, or milk in a shelf stable packaging are great to have on hand for cooking. This type of milk can be substituted in recipes without compromising the taste of the food. In addition, the use of powdered or canned milk can save money over fresh milk.

Oats, dried beans and bread crumbs are the basis of many entrees and meals. Peanut butter and popcorn make thrifty and healthy snacks and can be kept for several months when properly stored.
Canned low-sodium broths, such as beef, chicken, or vegetable, are great to have on hand for soups, sauces, or gravies. A whole chicken can be simmered for hours with carrots, celery and onions for a flavorful, homemade stock, then frozen in meal sized portions. Fresh vegetables that are past their prime make a delicious vegetarian stock. By making the stock homemade, one can control the sodium content as well as having the opportunity to cook to suit your taste.

For refrigerator storage, perishables such as milk, eggs or egg substitutes, butter or margarine, should be included as well as condiments like mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise. Some fruits, such as apples, keep for long periods in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. “It is also a good idea to keep carrots, celery and other salad makings available,” advises Menchhofer.

Fruits, vegetables, breads, and meat depending on the space available, can be stored in the freezer portion of the pantry, according to Menchhofer. “Ideally, some frozen chicken breasts or thighs can do a lot to stretch your food dollars. You can make your own chicken nuggets and bake them for a healthier alternative,” said Menchhofer.

Ground beef purchased on sale has the potential for many cost effective and time saving meals. After purchase, just brown and drain well, then package in meal size portions for tacos, chili, spaghetti, or sloppy joe sandwiches. “If you are willing to take time on the weekend, you can cook once and eat many times without lots of extra time or energy,” noted Menchhofer.

The pantry is not limited to what can be purchased at the grocery store. Many gardeners have home-grown, organic vegetables and fruits that have been canned or frozen; as well as the sauces and jellies made from them.

Plan ahead:
Many entrees can be frozen for a quick, home cooked meal for very little effort. For instance, when roasting a chicken, roast two and freeze the leftovers for chicken tacos, quesdillas, or to use in casseroles or soups. Marinara sauce for pastas can be easily doubled or tripled when preparing and then frozen in meal sized portions.

When preparing home cooked foods for freezing, it is important to properly cool the food before placing in the freezer. Also, store foods in containers especially made for freezing to prevent spoilage or freezer burn. Freezer bags, heavy duty aluminum foil, and plastic storage containers are best.
“If you plan ahead, you will also be able to make a lot of meals easily without buying ready made items or convenience foods,” said Menchhofer. “It is helpful to have a few convenience products on hand, but some things are healthier for you and just as quick if you make them yourself. You can often make several meals for the cost of one ready-to-eat item,” she noted.

By keeping some tomato sauces and spices on hand, one can put together a quick pasta or rice dish for the family in as little as 30-minutes, according to Menchhofer. Just add some cooked chicken, beans or ground meat for protein and fruit to complete the meal. Be creative!

Watch those expiration dates:
Steps should be taken to use the items in the pantry in a timely manner to prevent spoilage, and throwing food away. “If you have to throw it out, it is food wasted,” said Menchhofer.

When restocking the pantry after grocery shopping, rotate the stock on hand so that the fresh items are in the back. This will prevent any wasted money on spoiled food. Spices should be purchased in small amounts as they lose flavor if kept too long. Menchhofer advises to keep spices for about a year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition advises the following storage timetable for foods:

• Ground beef or pork: refrigerator, 1-2 days; freezer, 3-4 months. Beef or pork roasts, steaks, chops: refrigerator, 3-5 days; freezer 6-12 months.

• Fresh fish: 1-2 days in refrigerators and up to 6 months in the freezer.

• Chicken can be kept in the refrigerator 1-2 days and up to 12 months in the freezer.

• Some dairy products such as cheese can be frozen, but the taste and texture may be affected.

• Fresh eggs can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

• Canned foods can be stored up to 2 years with the exception of high acid foods such as tomatoes or tomato sauces. These are best used within a year.

• If a can has a bulge or is leaking, immediately throw it away as this shows contamination in the food.

• Fresh potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool, dry place.

Create meals on a budget:

When a pantry is property stocked, it is possible to create meals when the grocery budget is limited. For example, breakfast can be oatmeal or rice; pancakes or waffles made from scratch. Eggs and toast or biscuits are good choices, too. The addition of fruit and milk or juice makes the meal healthy and satisfying.

Lunches can be as simple as a sandwich, tuna or peanut butter, for example paired with either canned or home made soup or broth. Left over chicken or steak can be used in quesadillas, salads or wraps.

Canned chicken, dried noodles and cream of chicken soup becomes a delicious chicken and noodle dinner when paired with a favorite vegetable, bread or biscuits and fruit. Canned salmon, full of heart healthy nutrients, mixed with seasonings, bread crumbs, and an egg, make wonderful patties when fried to a golden brown.

The well stocked pantry can also provide desserts for those with a sweet tooth. Canned peaches become an easy peach cobbler; or prepare instant pudding and mix with whipped cream in a graham cracker crust for a quick and delicious pie. And, those who bake can easily whip up cakes or sweet rolls from the ingredients in the pantry.

Every pantry is as individual as the family stocking it. “It is important to purchase what your family needs and will eat so that you are not wasting money,” said Menchhofer.

For more information on food storage, visit www.fda.gov. Information on food and nutrition programs offered by the Ripley County Purdue Extension can be found by calling the extension office in Osgood at 812-689-6511.