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How to Grocery Shop - build a pantry?

  • j

I need help. I love to cook, but find myself running to the market every night with recipe in hand to get what I need for that night's dinner. I can't keep doing that - the money is adding up and I just want to come right home after work. The problem is, I can't seem to shop for the week. I went to the market yesterday and was at loss at what to get to keep me in lunch and dinner for the week. How do you do this? Do you plan the meals for the week and shop? Or just pick up key ingredients and decide each night? What are the top 5 items you stock the pantry with?

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  1. Hmm - top 5 that is tough for a chowhound

    Hot sauce (LOTS of it)
    Rice
    Beans
    Olive Oil
    Pasta

    For fresh I usually make sure to have
    Onions
    Tomatoes
    Garlic
    Lettuce

    We also have two freezers with lots of staples and make double batches of certain dishes for quicker meals

    So we usually have:
    Bag of frozen shrimp
    Frozen Chicken
    Frozen pie crusts
    Frozen peas

    In the summer we have a fairly significant garden(for the two of us) So we also have a lot of homemade tomato sauce, frozen hot peppers and vegetable stocks

    It took me a while to get into the groove of not shopping everyday because I would decide I wanted Greek and had to go get dill and yogurt etc - I am better at sticking to what I have as always what I crave.

    We also have loads of dried spices and spice mixes to that can cut down on having to run out for ingredients every night

    3 Replies
    1. re: AimeeP

      That's a pretty good list.

      For produce, I would add garlic and lose the tomatoes. In these parts (NE), canned tomatoes trump fresh tomatoes all but two months a year. And since we get five, I'll add lemons. If I could add a few more, parsley, potatoes, scallions and a dark leafy green, probably kale, are usually the things I throw in the basket when I don't know what I'm making.

      I'm going to give a longer list for the pantry. I would say my most basic basics are:
      Rice
      Pasta
      Dried lentils
      Canned chickpeas
      Canned tomatoes
      Tomato paste
      Soy sauce
      Vinegars - balsamic, and I make my own red wine
      Olive oil
      A full array of spices
      Flour/sugar/other basic baking supplies

      My second-tier importance items are those that I don't necessarily use every day, but having them around makes cooking easier. I replace the basics the moment they run out, but the second-tier are replaced either as I plan to use them (buy two) or in a "big shop" every few months when stocks get depleted.
      Coconut milk
      Toasted sesame oil
      Fish sauce
      Oyster sauce
      Dried mushrooms
      Sun-dried tomatoes (in oil)
      Citrus oils (orange, lemon)
      Jars tuna
      Capers
      Olives
      Roasted red peppers, jarred
      Dried fruits
      Curry pastes
      Dried beans
      Horseradish (jarred)

      In my freezer, I normally keep
      All sorts of nuts
      Frozen peas
      Lots of meat (I buy from the farmer in large quantities)
      Lots of stock (mostly homemade)
      Homemade pesto cubes
      Ice cubes of lemon and lime juice, in case I run out of fresh. Juice fresh fruit when on sale.
      Ravioli, tortellini
      Filo dough, puff pastry
      Planned leftovers (single-serving chili and so on)
      Butter

      One thing that has helped me stay out of the grocery stores has been sticking to one cuisine for a week. I generally cook big meals Saturday and Sunday and plan to have simple meals during the week. (Easy for me, admittedly, since I live alone.) I plan to freeze some leftovers to have ready-to-go lunchs. But I also buy ingredients that are related to whatever major dish I'm making. So if I'm planning to make a Greek lamb dish, I'll also pick up lemons and olives and feta, even if the dish doesn't call for them, because I can probably integrate the bits and pieces of leftovers from the meal into another dish if the ingredients are traditionally used together. I get variety from using up the frozen lunches from other weeks.

      I freeze lots of little bits of things, too - chucks of fresh ginger, a few spoonsful of tomato paste, and find these things do come in handy.

      Those perforated produce bags have saved me a lot of shopping, too. My lettuce and things last a lot longer.

      Oh, and I always, always have eggs in the house.

      1. re: curiousbaker

        Ah, the well stocked pantry, a favorite subject of mine. I agree with other posters that the key to going to the grocery only once or twice a week is to menu plan for dinners/lunches and shop from there. This is what I do and if there is an ingredient or two that should be "day-of" fresh, I will pick those up on that day...otherwise once a week in addition to my stocked pantry is enough. What your staples are really depends on how you cook. My pantry/freezer/fridge always has:

        Herbs and spices
        evoo
        balsamic and sherry vinegar
        Sauces: Soy, fish, hot
        dijon mustard
        fresh: lemons, ginger, garlic, potatoes
        Canned: tomatoes, tomato paste, anchovies, tuna, curry paste, beans, chicken broth
        Dried: rice, pasta, cornmeal, beans
        capers and olives
        white and red wine
        honey
        natural peanut butter
        frozen puff pastry and spinach

        1. re: JB

          My only addition is white wine, eggs, and any assortment of fresh herbs. There are three dishes I must always be able to make in my kitchen at all times - pancakes, Thai curry, and spaghetti marinara.

    2. I usually only cook for myself and a friend... or go visit family and cook in large quantities. Cooking in large quantities is easier and more fulfilling.

      I try not to impulse shop anymore and don't go to the store without a list. I try and decide upon a few large batch recipes each week. I then cook up a few big batches of food on weekends and then put two meals worth into a bunch of one quart labelled and dated freezer bags and freeze them laid out flat. Then store upright in a small wire holder that is the perfect size. I can flip through the meals and pull out what I want. Things like from scratch pasta/meat sauce, sweet and sour European saurkraut with pork, beef stew, chicken soup, chicken marsala, etc.

      I usually have around a dozen different choices in the freezer to pick from. Since I started doing this I eat out less often, have more quality cooking time when I want and fast meals the rest of the time. I am spending less money and am eating tastier and healthier. When I eat out I am seeking out new and unusual instead of quick food.

      I buy the family packages of meats, and most especially boneless chicken thighs. I then repackage them into freezer ziplocs in one meal portions. They defrost fast in cold water and I cut into pieces for stir fries and sautees while they are still partially frozen and cook them this way. I can get them brown outside and still juicy inside.

      I keep certain frozen veggies in the freezer in the large bags. Usually corn and peas. Frozen loaves of good quality sliced bread and burger buns. Also a quality ice cream. I always have celery, carrots, garlic, hot peppers, and sweet onions in the fridge. I then buy lettuce when I need it and try to use it all up right away.

      I have a fully stocked pantry with boxes of pasta, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, several soy and fish sauces, every spice there is, assorted bread crumbs, some canned fruit like pear and peach halves for poaching for desert (for serving over ice cream or fresh whipped real cream). Preserves, pickles, mayo, ketchup, mustards, hot sauces, honey, maple syrup, vinegars, oils, etc.

      I also can some homemade pickles, preserves, hot sauces, preserved citrus, ginger syrup, etc. and have them in the pantry as well. My pantry is an extra closet in my entranceway that I put shelves in. I can change the shelf heights as needed for different items.

      I managed to start every paragraph in this post with "I". Hmmm...

      4 Replies
      1. re: The Rogue

        What brands of "family pack" meats do you buy? I'm been looking for a higher quality option of frozen chicken, in particular. Any advice would be appreciated.

        1. re: wmk

          I don't and wouldn't buy the pre-frozen, but the packages my local market butcher puts together can be good. I only buy when it looks good and the price is great.

          1. re: The Rogue

            Why don't you buy the pre-frozen? I buy the Costco skinless, boneless frozen chicken breast and find them just fine. I figured if I buy in bulk from the local market, I still have to process and free them for future uses, why not just get the pre-frozen ones?

            1. re: Wendy Lai

              I don't know about CostCo, but most pre-frozen chicken breasts are "ice-glazed" which means they have water with a sodium solution added to them. I think that affects both the flavor and the texture. I'd rather buy them on sale and freeze them myself.

      2. With two kids at home the last thing I want to do is run to the grocery store every day so I have learned to grocery shop like my mother did and I laugh about it everytime I think I'm turning into my her!!! I check my supermarkets website early in the week, usually Sunday or Monday, and use my recipes for the meat/poultry/fish on sale and build on that. I plan my meals for the week and go. I try to buy only from the outer loop of the store (produce, meats/fish, dairy) weekly and get the staples, which are in the interior isles, monthly. This usually works so I only have to step into the grocery store once a week, unless we decide to entertain over the weekend and then I may have to go again. Also, since it is almost time for the farmer's market, I will buy less produce at the grocery store and run to the farmer's market to pick up some stuff, but I make this a fun outing for the kids so I don't consider it a chore. As far as building a pantry, I think every pantry is different based on your taste. If you cook italian a lot, stock up on cans of tomatos, if you cook mexician, make sure you have a lot of rice and beans, etc. I find we have about 15 dinners that I seem to rotate, or make slight variations to, so I try to buy what we use when it is on sale and I find I do more of my "staple shopping" at Target or Walmart since their prices are usually better that the supermarket. Hope this helps...

        2 Replies
        1. re: ctmom

          What are the 15 meals you tend to serve over and over? I'm running out of ideas for relatively quick, healthy meals.

          1. re: Flour Child

            pasta with a variation of protein, say chicken/shrimp/ham with veggies usually in a cream or wine/broth sauce; different quiches; grilled steak, salmon, chicken, pork; stir fry and depending on the protein, with different veggies; I make meatballs close to once every week or two, but sometimes I put them in a red sauce over pasta and sometimes in brown gravy over egg noodles; every so often I make "breakfast for dinner" and we pretend we are at the diner with pancakes or waffles, eggs, toast, ham and fruit salad (my four year old loves when we do this) I use kraft deluxe mac and cheese and mix in either chop meat or cut up cooked chicken breast and chopped tomatoes; boneless chicken with either a can of cream of mushroom soup or flavored diced tomatoes covered and baked; breaded, baked chicken or fish...for sides we always have a salad, some carb, although I'm trying really hard lately to make it either brown rice (we go through a lot of boxes of Minute brown rice) whole wheat pasta or egg noodles, or something else "higher in fiber" and a veggie if it is not already part of the meal...it is funny, as I'm writing this, I realize nothing much is gourmet!! You would think, as a stay at home mom, I would be slaving in the kitchen all day whipping up gourmet meals for my family!! I usually save those meals for the weekends when my husband is around to entertain the kids while I'm in the kitchen..hope this helps

        2. j
          Jennie Sheeks

          When I was single and lived alone I had the same problem. I was at the store way too much, couldn't think ahead and was subject to the food-whim-of-the-day. But when I got married last year and gained two stepkids I rigidly forced myself to plan meals and grocery shop once a week.

          I take into account the household schedules (ball games, meetings, part-time jobs etc.) for the coming week, survey the pantry and freezer and then glean inspiration from magazines or cookbooks. I plan for leftovers to use as brown bag lunches the following day. This rigid system has helped me survive the chaos of a new stepfamily. I did expect to have my whim-of-the-day come into conflict with the planned meals, but surprisingly it hasn't happened. I find myself looking forward to what I've already planned, and I like not having to plan a meal after a hard day at work.

          Occasionally, I'll pick up some key ingredients (for example: mushrooms, spinach and cheese) and give myself two options to use these ingredients with based on staples in the pantry (pasta or pizza). I also always keep on hand the ingredients for a quick no-brain dinner, either a pre-made meal in the freezer or pasta, a jar of sauce and frozen garlic bread.

          Basics in my pantry or fridge include a large variety of herbs and spices, evoo, nuts, garlic, onions, lemons, dried pasta, canned and dried beans, vinegars, hard cheese of some kind, a can of tomatoes and a can of tomato paste.

          1. I think part of it depends on where you live. I live in NYC and cook only for myself, and I go to the store and buy one dinner recipe and one lunch recipe at a time (which will feed me for about 4 days), because that's all I can carry. Also, if I shopped once a week, things would be rotting before I could use them up all by myself. Either way, I definitely plan ahead what I am going to make/buy. Also, I need to visit maybe 3 stores to get all my ingredients, so I am at the shops pretty much every day.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Adrian

              I also live in NYC so I find it fairly easy to stop by the grocery store or butcher shop each day. I used to buy bigger packages of meat/chicken, but since my schedule (work hours, going out for drinks, dinner at the spur of the moment etc) changes so often, I wound up throwing out alot of food if i bought in bulk or for the week, etc.

              I am also notoriously bad at using things once I put them in my freezer, so I'd rather spend a more money for small quantities rather than buying a family pack of chicken at a lower price per lb, when I'll probably find the rest of the chicken sitting in the back of my freezer in 2 years.

              I still keep the staples on hand, including spices, pastas, canned corn, tons of hot sauce, flour, eggs, etc on hand. I typically have enough on hand to let me cook what I feel like and let me to quickly stop by a grocery store or butcher shop on the way home, pick up a piece of steak and some fresh veggies and be ready to make dinner.

              1. re: Evan

                I am the same way about the frozen stuff. During the blackout my house-sitting friend was throwing away the stuff in my freezer and was horrified by how old some stuff in there was. And whenever I do manage to defrost something, I end up going out to dinner last minute and can't use it anway. I really find shopping day-to-day so much easier.

                1. re: Adrian

                  The best part about having a freezer full of leftovers that I never eat was during the blackout my freezer stayed cold alot longer. I was able to keep the Brita pitcher cooler longer and managed to save a few ice cubes too. Definintely needed after hoofing it up 24 flights to my apartment.