In Part 1, I discussed why stocking your pantry with healthy staples is a great way to go, and what staples I stock myself.
In Part 2, I wrote about how to shop for the staples to maximize your money and minimize inconvenience. This is key to keeping most of your grocery store trips produce-only and painless.
In this post, I’ll tell you how I store my healthy staples and share how I tell if something has gone bad.
I have noticed since moving to Oregon that local climate can make a big difference in how long food keeps. It is so damp here, for example, that our winter squash don’t store for as long as I’m used to. Nevertheless, for the most part I think the principles are probably the same anywhere:
It is easiest to store extra food if you eat it regularly
I wrote previously about how important it is to store what you eat. If you want to store thousands of pounds of wheat for future years, you will absolutely need to worry about de-oxygenating it and having an airtight seal. However, I recommend starting with storing what you actually eat, and build up your supply until it covers six months to a year. If you’ve done that, then you can dive more into long-term oxygen-free storage.
(Of course, this all is operating under the assumption that you actually EAT dried beans and lentils, etc. so start there first… though canned beans are fine, too. But if cheese and chicken take up a large part of your diet, my system is not going to work for you. And neither are your arteries or your knees in the long run. Just sayin’. You may be interested in reading why our family eats mostly whole, plant food.)
Your enemies when it comes to storing food
Moisture – I now live in a very damp area, so maybe I will need to make some changes. In the past, though, I’ve just made sure containers were dry before I filled them, and watertight so a water spill in the storage area wouldn’t ruin things.
Oxygen – This is only an issue for long-term storage.
Heat – Everything keeps better at cooler temperatures. Some people store nuts in their freezer, whole wheat flour in their fridge, etc. For me, my freezer and fridge space are at a premium. Cool is unquestionably better, but it isn’t always practical. I would definitely recommend thinking this through if you live in an area that gets very hot. Can you store food in your house or basement rather than in a hot garage? Is there sun shining on your racks of food at certain times of day?
Bugs – Get things from a reputable supplier. Check the expiration date on pre-ground whole wheat flour, for instance, and make sure if you’re using the bulk bins that they seem to get a lot of use and rotation. You don’t want to buy old food to begin with! I’ve never had a bug problem either, but I’ve seen others get it from old flour or nuts.
Rodents – We’ve never had a problem, but I try to keep everything in at least sturdy plastic (rather than paper or just a plastic bag)
Poor rotation – You might eat plenty of a certain food, but if you don’t consistently eat the oldest stuff first, you may still run into spoilage. You need to have some kind of system to determine what to grab off the shelf and where to put newly purchased food.
The Good News
It’s pretty darn easy. If you just dump your lentils in a big tupperware container, they will last a year.
I’ve had enough people ask me for details, though, that I’ll go ahead and outline what I do:
Containers I Use
Pet Food Containers
We bought a few of these at the Container Store, and use them for wheat and black beans. The second picture shows a 2 year old to show scale.
I keep a big scoop in there and I use up the whole container, wash and dry it and then fill it back up. Pet food containers are always required to be food-safe and they are usually designed for long-term storage and scooping. They are definitely worth checking out.
I keep my extra 25 lb bags of wheat and beans unopened and piled up in big rubbermaid bins, and in our cooler.
I use a bunch of five gallon buckets, all fitted with awesome Gamma Lids. The lids screw on and off easily, so I have a nice wide mouth to scoop out of, and they’re watertight.
I find that going in with friends to buy buckets and lids in bulk online results in the best prices. I have ordered lids from FreckleFace.com in the past, and buckets from U-Line or US Plastics. Currently I have the following in buckets: Rolled oats, steel cut oats, lentils, split peas, garbanzo beans, white beans, pinto beans, and muesli rolled grain blend.
Snapware upright containers
I love these for keeping in my kitchen. The lid lifts up to give a wide enough opening for measuring cups, but they also pour pretty well and are easy to grab, even when full. They are not airtight so they aren’t a good choice for anything that could go stale, but I have red lentils, popcorn, quinoa, couscous, whole wheat pasta, etc. in them. I also keep steel cut oats and muesli rolled grains in these so I don’t have to trek out to the garage every morning for breakfast.
(The containers in the pictures are filled with other stuff, because I took the photos before the move.)
Here again, I use a container up completely, wash it and dry it and then fill it all the way up. The refill bags of food are kept in the pantry or are in rubbermaid bins in the garage.
Here’s a shot of a mostly-empty popcorn container. I keep the refill bag sealed and then I use it to refill the clean, empty popcorn container:
I bought these several years ago at the Container Store and I absolutely love them for flour and rolled oats. Anything that needs a “scoop and level” works great in these, because they are airtight and sturdy with a nice wide opening.
However, I recently looked to buy more and couldn’t find them carried anymore. I bought something that looked similar on Amazon made by Snapware and the quality is not nearly as high. The lids are flimsy and the gasket doesn’t seal as well. Bummer. I am still keeping them and using them, but I don’t expect them to last as long.
Sometimes it seems that people don’t make the leap to storing healthy staples because they think they can’t afford buckets, matching containers, etc. That’s a terrible reason! As long as you eat what you store, you will probably be fine.
I still keep plenty of stuff in “whatever works” and have done so for the past 7+ years with zero problems with spoilage, etc.
I just use my #10 cans of gluten right out of the can:
My flaxseed was bought in bulk and split with a friend. My portion is just in freezer quart-sized ziploc bags. I use one at a time and keep the rest in a box in my basement:
I don’t use black-eyed peas often enough to devote a nice container to them. A binder clip and cardboard box works:
I blogged previously about the way we store spices now.
We still LOVE this, and I keep an easy inventory stuck to the inside of my cabinet door to tell me if I have any refills for a spice on hand. Those containers work great for everything but cloves and ginger (they seemed to react with the tin and stick to the container some).
I use that setup because it makes cooking much easier and more pleasant, NOT because those pretty containers extend the lifetime of my spices.
Spices do not “go bad”, but they do lose their potency over time. You can keep your spices fresher longer by:
- Buying fresh spices to begin with. Penzey’s spices are often less expensive than what you buy in the store because you can buy them in “refill bags” and not pay for the jars every time. The quality is fantastic. If you are able to buy spices from bulk bins at a store, definitely smell them and make sure the aroma is still strong.
- Buy whole spices. You can buy ground rosemary or whole rosemary, for instance. Whole rosemary can just be crumbled a bit and tossed into whatever you’re cooking, and it will last a whole lot longer than pre-ground rosemary. The same works for thyme. For things like cumin or coriander that can’t be crumbled with your fingers, you can buy the whole spices in bulk, then use a coffee grinder and grind them yourself (we use our grinder for our flaxseed grinding as well).
(I actually keep both whole and ground coriander and cumin on hand. Unless I’m doing fancy cooking, I usually prefer the convenience of pre-ground spices, even though whole lasts much longer. For fancy cooking, I toast the whole spice and then grind it. The flavor is outstanding.)
- Keep spices in your freezer. I don’t do this, but it would certainly make them last longer.
- Keep spices in a cool, dark place. This is what I do.
I bought a few of these because they looked pretty and I wanted to avoid a “plasticky” taste with my sugar and oats. It turns out they are a pain to use. The lids bounce around when you try to pour and the neck is too narrow to effectively scoop things out.
How I Rotate My Healthy Staples
I tried at various points in time to keep a running inventory of all our pantry stuff. I found that inevitably I’d forget to mark it after a grocery run, or forget to mark it off as I used up cans in the pre-dinner rush. Also, it didn’t make as much sense to keep track of lentil usage (for example) because I would just be using a few cups at a time out of a big bucket.
Now I do something much simpler:
- After I shop in bulk, I take a sharpie and I write the month and year on every package and can that I don’t intend to open that day. Then, I add them to my shelves, trying to work the new ones in the back right if possible, and shuffling older stuff forward. But ONLY if it’s easy to do.
- When I grab cans for dinner, I try to reach for an older can.
- When I refill containers, I use the oldest bag of food I have.
- Twice a year or so, I dig out anything older than a year and make sure it gets put front and center. All “special” stuff that we wouldn’t regularly use, gets put on a “use it up list” and we get creative with meals to work around those items.
- If there’s anything after a year that we don’t intend to use, I give it away.
That’s it! I know there are fancy can rotating shelves you can buy, but this works really well for us.
(I have been doing one other thing since our move, and that is to track on a spreadsheet how much of each bulk thing I buy and when I bought it. My thought was that after a year, I’d have a pretty good idea of how much our family eats and that would help me go to the store even LESS. )
(One fun tangent: We can our own applesauce most years, and we often have help from friends or family who are visiting. I ask whoever helped to write the date on the jars they helped with so that throughout the year, we think of that person and smile when we open our applesauce.
Here’s a Grandma Bean jar: )
How to tell if food has gone bad
If we’re going to talk about leftovers in the fridge, you’d get very different opinions from me and Scott. For me, if it’s been in there longer than a few days… “Ack! It might be bad!” For Scott, as long as he eats it and doesn’t get sick… it wasn’t bad.
Fortunately, for storing healthy food long-term, there is less of a gray area and the timeline is much longer.
Here are some guidelines, which come straight from my personal experience:
Spices – Always safe to use. If they are older, you might need to use more to get the same flavor.
Anything with significant fat in it – This includes oils, nuts, seeds, brown rice and processed grains like whole wheat flour, rolled oats, etc. It will smell rancid or “off” and may start to look cloudy (oil). Keep them away from heat and you shouldn’t see this happen in less than 6 months, often more like 12. This past summer we had some nuts in our hot car that were unopened and went bad in just a few weeks. I’ve had rolled grains start to smell a bit musty (like over the summer in our car) and they were still edible. You’ll learn that some things in this category keep longer than others: flaxseed, for example, will keep for a few years just fine, but sunflower seeds need to be eaten sooner. Anything RAW will keep much longer than that same item ROASTED.
Dried beans and lentils – These don’t go “bad”, they just take longer to cook when they’re old. Soak ‘em and cook them and be patient and they’ll be fine. My beans haven’t ever become noticeably tougher… but I eat them within a year or two.
Whole grains – Aside from brown rice, these rarely go bad as far as I’ve seen. Unless they have bugs or smell funky, they’re probably fine! How’s that for helpful?
Canned beans, vegetables, and fruit – They’re usually stamped with a date but we try and eat them up within a few years. Scott swears they never go bad, but I try not to test that theory. I don’t have a desire to store more than we would eat in a year or two anyway!
Questions? Tips to share? Leave a comment!