Stocking a Pantry to Save Money, Time, and Your Health – Part 1

We had another great healthy group meeting at my house this week and we discussed storing lots of healthy food in our pantries.

We covered the following topics:

- Why do I store food?

- What food do I store?

- Where do I buy it?

- How do I store it?

At the meeting, my little apartment was packed with other women interested in feeding their families a healthy diet. Several had babies in arms and it was a full house! To see the energy and interest on this topic was so gratifying and encouraging. After we covered the above topics, most women stayed an extra hour for an informal Q&A session and a half dozen stayed an hour after that (3 hours total). We covered so many great topics that I’ll need some time to blog about them.

Why do I store food?

Storing lots of healthy food simplifies my shopping lists and streamlines my experience at the grocery store. It is economical, and it brings me peace of mind. I also store food because the leaders of my church counsel members to do so.

Convenience
When I go to the grocery store or farmer’s market (every ~5 days in the summer, every ~8-10 days in the winter) I usually go straight to the produce section and then I go to the checkout. That’s it.

Everything else we care to eat is generally already at our house, in a large enough quantity that we don’t have to shop for it weekly.

When I am making dinner, I send my 5 year old downstairs to “shop” in our basement. She’ll bring back all the lentils, canned tomatoes, whole grain pasta, etc. that I need to pull together the meal. Having these things on hand also means we can extend the time between making trips to the grocery store when needed, saving money on gas and reducing impulse buys.

Peace of mind

Because we are moving soon, during the past few months we’ve been focusing on eating from our storage without replenishing it at all. With just ~$30 of fresh produce a week, we’re able to eat really well just by shopping our own basement. This allows us to save some extra money for the period of time this summer when we won’t have a paycheck. While we’d miss fresh stuff, we could certainly eat exclusively from our basement if needed.

Having plenty of healthy staples on hand has also helped during the times Columbus has been without power or been snowed in since we’ve lived here. Power has been off for up to a week at a time, and so many people are flooding the few fast food stores and grocery stores that do have power and clearing the shelves. We stay home and don’t have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from. (Important note: We’ve learned the hard way that it also helps to have a way to cook when the power is out! :) )

Finally, along with storing food I’ve slowly increased my skill set so now if I want to have tortillas for dinner, I can just make ‘em. I don’t have to, but that option is there because the ingredients are always on hand. I could make tortillas for the whole neighborhood! (In theory. They are a bit labor-intensive to scale up.)

Economics

When people say they can’t afford to eat healthfully, it sure seems like a weak excuse to me. Most healthy staples are downright cheap (lentils!) and others often just take a bit of creativity to bring the cost down.


A beautiful pan of veggies ready to roast and toss with herbs and chickpeas.

I made the above dish inexpensively by taking advantage of a sale on cherry tomatoes, stocking up on frozen corn at a good price, using dried chickpeas bought at a great price, using basil stored in my freezer from our garden last summer, etc.

This same dish would have cost many times more if I had made a special trip to the store and just paid the going rate for fresh basil, corn, cherry tomatoes, and canned chickpeas. If economics are truly an issue for you, you may need to get creative but please don’t assume you have to compromise health.

Because healthy food staples (aside from produce) rarely go on sale or have a coupon, if I take the time to find the best price available in my area or online and then stock up at that price, I save lots of money over just picking it up as needed at whatever store I happen to be in. I’ll detail how I do this in the next post.

Example: My favorite grocery store sells dried garbanzo beans (chickpeas) for $2 / lb in the Mediterranean section, and they’re even pricier in the Mexican section. But the Indian market a block further away sells big bags of chickpeas for $1.25 / lb. I don’t want to be running to the Indian store all the time, but with a little planning I can just go there every six or eight months or so and while I’m there I stock up half dozen products at great prices.

A second example: Raw cashews are $11 / lb in the bulk bins at one grocery store, but $5 / lb at Trader Joe’s and $4.25 / lb if I buy them from my favorite healthy food source online.

Knowing what a good price is also helps when I flip through the grocery store ads and see they’re running a sale on something I buy (peanuts, unsweetened applesauce, canned beans, canned tomatoes). Most of the things on sale outside the produce department aren’t things I’d ever want to feed my family, but I can tell at a glance if the sale is a good one on applesauce and stock up for many months.

Two more notes about the economics of healthy eating:

- Comparing the cost of cashews and kale to the cost of medicine and doctor visits and heart surgery… I’d pick the real food any day of the week. 1 in 3 children born today are predicted to have diabetes due to poor diet and inactivity. That is a disease we “manage” for life and it’s a money sink and saps vitality. It can be completely reversed by cashew and kale! If that’s not a steal of a deal, I don’t know what is.

- Our grocery budget did NOT go up when we changed our diet. It went down. Well, for a while… and then creeped back to its former level when we started overdosing on local peaches, berries, melons, arugula, etc. :)

And one note about food culture:

- In nearly every other developed country in the world, food takes up a greater percentage of income and time. The preparation of food from scratch is part of the culture. We’ve left that behind in America and we now feel entitled to have instant, no-effort, cheap food. That comes with a very high cost and we’re paying it in poor health and widespread fatness.

I spend more time preparing food now, no question, but it’s satisfying to feed my family well and I enjoy sharing the experience with my children. I would not say I love to cook, and food preparation can certainly become mundane and menial (much like doing the laundry, dusting, etc.) but I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to feed my family healthy, delicious food. If it’s a priority, you can make it work. Some families make a big pot of soup on the weekend and eat it for lunch all week long. It doesn’t have to be glamorous.

What food do I store?

The food you keep in your pantry in large part determines the food you feed your family. Especially when life gets hectic, I often find myself making do with what I have on hand. The fact is: If there’s junk in my pantry then either I’ll end up feeding that to my family right away or I’ll feed it to my family after a period of time of wrestling with guilt and/or cravings. That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t enjoy less-than-healthy food sometimes! It just means we need to acknowledge that our choice at the grocery store ends up in our stomachs. I remember when my sweet grandma told me she was trying to cut back on cheese… as she was putting a truly monstrous package of it in her cart at Costco. “You see,” she said, “There isn’t much to each slice!” That may be true, but 4 pounds of cheese in the cart = 4 pounds of cheese in your stomach unless you plan on throwing some out.

Personally, I don’t like expending my daily allotment of willpower on resisting cookies and cheese, so I usually choose not to engage in the battle. I just don’t buy junk at the store so it’s a non-issue at home.

Even if you’ve decided to store healthy food, you still have to tackle the question of what to store and in what quantities. Some things keep better than others. There are two approaches:

The first is to just pay attention to what you cook with and buy more of that. If you make a dish with lentils that you like, store 10+ lbs of lentils. Eat lentils nearly weekly? Store 30+ pounds of lentils. If you love black bean soup made from canned beans, next time you buy black beans clear off the shelf. (My great neighbor always leaves a can or two just in case the next person absolutely needs that item for dinner that night. :) )

That is the way I’ve built up our storage, so I know everything we have is in regular rotation and would be easy to fix in case we were forced to live only off our food storage for whatever reason. I shoot for right around 6 months worth of nuts, sunflower seeds, and brown rice because they don’t keep as long.

For everything else I’d love 12 months but with our apartment size I still end up with 6 months to a year’s worth, depending on what it is. Note that for us so far, it does not mean I have the amount I would need if we were to eat ONLY those foods for a year, but rather the amount I know our family eats regularly in about that amount of time. That is easier to predict and makes rotation a very natural process. I highly recommend starting there and then, if/when you’re ready, scale up.

Another approach is to use a food storage calculator online, like this one and adjust it to fit your diet. Remember these calculators and recommendations were designed with a standard American diet in mind, so you will need to adjust it to be a diet that promotes long-term health. For a family of five, for instance, it calls for the following (to live exclusively off of for a year). I’ve noted the adjustment I would make for each:

GRAINS

Wheat: 525 pounds – sounds reasonable. We haven’t stored more than 250 in this apartment, but since we use whole wheat nearly every day to make our own bread, tortillas, etc. and wheat lasts forever this would be a good goal.
Flour: 86 pounds – I have no desire to store white flour so I’m ok with the ~5lb we usually have on hand. I’d much rather have something with better nutrition. Whole wheat flour is not shelf-stable for more than a few months so I don’t have any flour for long-term storage.
Cornmeal: 86 pounds – Here again, the shelf-stable cornmeal is degerminated and not a whole, healthy flour. I grind my own cornmeal from popcorn kernels so I store those instead.
Oats: 86 pounds – We love oats and have them several mornings every week in addition to using them in pancakes, so 86 pounds would not last us a year. I like to have at least 50 on hand of rolled and 50 of steel cut, and again, that doesn’t last nearly a whole year around here. :)
Rice: 175 pounds – White rice is not very nutritious and brown rice is so nutritious that it doesn’t store well longer-term, so we store about as much brown rice as we typically eat in six months.
Pasta: 86 pounds – Whole wheat pasta will keep a year just fine, so ideally I’d have as much on hand as we typically eat in a year.

FATS AND OILS

When you’re eating whole food (brown rice as opposed to white, popcorn as opposed to degerminated cornmeal, whole wheat as opposed to white flour, etc.) there is enough fat to live on without adding any extra. Nearly all whole plants, including ones you don’t think of first for being fatty, have a decent percent of their calories coming from fat. Especially with our ~6 months of nuts and seeds, and the amount of oil we usually use in a year on hand (2 qts each of olive oil and canola oil), I’m ok with skipping all the rest. I understand that fat is very high in calories, which could come in handy in a true and lengthy emergency, but they are empty calories and I’d rather get my calories from storing more legumes.
Shortening: 14 pounds – nope
Oil: 7 gallons – ~1 gallon
Mayonnaise: 7 qts – nope
Salad dressing: 5 qts – nope
Peanut butter: 14 lbs – We make our own peanut butter, usually, but we shoot for more than 14 pounds of peanuts and we store lots of other nuts as well (pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews).

LEGUMES

Beans, dry: 105 pounds – Yes please, except that estimate would be low for our family. We store more white beans, pinto and black beans… at least 50 pounds each and then also garbanzo, kidney, and black-eyed peas.
Lima beans: 13 pounds – No, not my preferred bean.
Soy beans: 35 pounds – I’d love to get a soymilk maker some day and stock up on soy beans but otherwise I don’t use them. I do keep lots of shelf-stable soymilk on hand, though.
Split peas: 13 pounds – That’s not enough! And we store yellow split peas as well.
Lentils: 13 pounds – That is really not enough and we store red lentils as well.
Dry Soup Mix: 13 – Nope, we just make soup by combining the above. :)

SUGARS

We actually aren’t that far off from the calculator on sugar storage, especially considering our family’s consumption is far, far below average. I store ~25-50 pounds of honey because we use it to make bread and we also put it on bread as a treat. I also have blackstrap molasses on hand, a few jars of homemade jam for Scott, and that’s it for sugar and I’m ok with that. The vast majority of sweetness in our food comes from fruit so the dried fruit we store should really overlap with this category.
Honey: 9 pounds – More!
Sugar: 40 pounds – Far less.
Brown Sugar: 9 pounds – Far less.
Molasses: 5 pounds – Yes, blackstrap.
Corn Syrup: 9 pounds – Ew.
Jam: 9 pounds – A bit less.
Fruit drink, powdered: 21 pounds – If this is used to flavor water, I’m glad I have some bottles of lemon juice around instead.
Flavored Gelatin: 5 pounds – Nope.

MILK

No breastfeeding pictures here, though I am a big advocate. :)
The only member of our family who currently needs milk is Daniel (7 months) and he gets it from me. I have thought about storing some baby formula in case something happened to me in an emergency and I wasn’t able to provide that for him. So far, though, I’m feeling ok with just being his source of milk.
Dry Milk: 210 pounds - nope.
Evaporated Milk: 42 cans – nope.
Other: 44 pounds – I suppose soymilk falls under this, and we do keep a couple dozen quarts of soymilk on hand.

COOKING ESSENTIALS

Baking Powder: 5 pounds - Yep, we get Rumsford aluminum -free in a big tub
Baking Soda: 5 lbs - I store even more because I use it for cleaning
Yeast: 2.5 lbs – Yep
Salt: 19 lbs – Wow that’s a lot! It’s cheap and easy to store and we do use it, but I definitely haven’t felt the need to store that much. I can’t think of a food that we buy pre-salted other than the occasional can of beans or tomatoes or box of cold cereal. And I know we aren’t plowing through a carton and a half of salt a month!
Vinegar: 2.5 gal – We store plain white vinegar and I use it for laundry and cleaning as well, but we also keep plenty of extra apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar on hand as well.

ANNE’S BONUS HEALTHY STORAGE STUFF
This obviously isn’t in the calculator, but we store:
- 1 liter glass bottles of lemon juice we buy at Costco
- seeds so we can grow fresh vegetables
- extra spices (especially whole ones, which keep longer)
- whole, unground flaxseeds and chia seeds (which both store well for a year or more)
- sunflower seeds, brown sesame seeds (~6 months worth)
- quinoa (which stores well for over a year)
- maple syrup
- wheat gluten (I use this in breads and also in bean burger and bean balls)
- canned pumpkin
- home-canned and store-bought unsweetened applesauce
- canned tomatoes, paste, and sauce – lots of these!
- salsa, lots of this!
- canned beans for convenience
- canned peaches in pear juice (we blend these up and warm with cinnamon to top pancakes)
- dried fruit including plenty of raisins, cranberries, mangoes, apples, and dates
- canned chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce (what, we can’t have flavor in an emergency?)
- canned diced green chili peppers
- dried mushrooms, from Costco
- rolled grain blend (barley, rye, oats, sunflower seeds, wheat… we use it for homemade muesli)
- canned coconut milk (another source of concentrated calories, many of which come from fat)

Again, we store what we use. We just buy lots of each thing to fill our pantry.

The typical food storage calculator operates on the basis that you’re looking for exclusively long-term storage that you’ll need to deliberately rotate. Certainly there is a place for that approach once you’re storing what your family actually eats in terms of healthy staples for a year. At that point you could venture into de-oxygenated wheat buckets, etc. but for most of us I would imagine getting a usable and USEFUL supply and gradually extending it is a more palatable approach.

Next up: Where we buy our healthy pantry staples and how I store them.

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About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to two beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Healthy Eating, Healthy Group, Life as we know it. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Stocking a Pantry to Save Money, Time, and Your Health – Part 1

  1. Lisa Robison says:

    Thanks for posting this! I was referred to your blog from Katie Lewis, my sister-in-law. I was actually just thinking the other day about food storage and how to have a working supply. So informative and I love your cookbook too by the way. Thank you! – Lisa Robison

  2. Pingback: Stocking a Pantry to Save Time, Money, and Your Health – Part 2 | Adventures in Beanland

  3. Pingback: Stocking a Pantry to Save Time, Money, and Your Health – Part 3 | Adventures in Beanland

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