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How do you stock your pantry, and shop, to not run out or have things that expire?

It's just me and my husband and we cook 'sometimes' ... still trying to find a strategy for shopping that doesn't result in us throwing out items that aren't fresh any longer. Am now contemplating buying fresh items only when I know they'll be for a specific meal. (Planning/shopping a day in advance or day-of for freshest ingredients.)

Anyone have an actual shopping strategy that works for them? (With similar household size/cooking frequency.)

(Edited to add this companion thread about what stays fresh: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... )

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  1. I hear you -- as a singleton who loves to cook, I am always disheartened at how much food I can't use up before it turns to sludge in the fridge. A few tips that have helped me not be so wasteful:

    - love your freezer. Make a full recipe and then freeze half (I usually do single servings in heavy duty ziploc bags. They freeze flat and don't take up a lot of room.)
    - similarly, portion up fresh meat and poultry when you get home from the store, and put what you know you wont be eating right into the freezer.
    - concentrate on stocking the pantry with shelf-stable items that you can throw together with only a few other fresh ingredients. Good quality Italian tuna and cans of white beans immediately come to mind.
    - invite people over a lot. I have the most fun trying a new recipe if I can have a few friends over to try the result. They are always game and that way I don't have a million leftovers.
    - I haven't conquered the bag of salad thing yet, and usually end up throwing the last bit away, but if you don't dress the whole bowl of salad, opting to dress it on your plate, it will keep for at least another day in the fridge.
    - wrap cheeses properly so they last longer, never use saran wrap. I learned to wrap big hunks in a paper towel before putting in a baggie to keep the condensation down.

    1. Thanks, good advice. :)

      1. I do just about everything yumyum mentions. I am single but have 1-2 people over for dinner 1-2 times a week, order in once a week for dinner; and eat out 1-2 times a week, almost always for late lunch on weekends. I used to shop once a week and had a full fridge and was wasting food like crazy, throwing it out because it was going bad. I now shop almost every day, mostly for that nights dinner. Since I am buying only a few specific items I am in the store usually only five minutes, which added up over the week is less time spent than when I did one big shop a week. I find I am spending less money overall, with less waste and healthier meals. On weekends I do some big cookups and put portions in ziplocks and multi-use disposable storage containers which I freeze, half of this I end up giving to friends because I always cook more than I can eat.

        1. It seems to me that the salad in the plastic tubs keeps better than the salad in bags, so if you don't eat it all at once, you can put the lid on the tub, and it keeps for several days.

          I am trying to clean the fridge out every week just before I go shopping so that I notice anything that needs to be used up right away, but that might have gotten pushed to the back.

          I'm having a lot of trouble with loaves of bread right now. My husband and I eat whole grain bread, my son eats something less heavy, so we need to have two loaves available, but we don't go through two loaves before it goes bad. I guess the solution is freezing half a loaf, but that seems cumbersome.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Anne H

            I slice it into toaster-friendly pieces and freeze them in zip loc baggies - when we want fresh bread, I just put them straight into the toaster from the freezer. (just have to dial the toaster down a bit to make sure it doesn't burn)

            1. re: Anne H

              I freeze sliced bread, bagels, rolls, etc. and they stay pretty fresh. Since there are just two of us in the house, I am able to have a few types of bread at home at all times.

            2. Jars, jars, jars. My SO goes to a bulk place once a month or when needed to fill up on rice, flour, basic pasta, sugar, etc. We stick it all into jars. We have an assortment of plastic containers in which to freeze.

              We clean and cut lettuce immediately, and store it in a paper-towel lined Tupperware container.

              As far as bread goes, we buy fresh dinner rolls from the bakery and freeze what we don't use. To defrost, wrap a roll in foil and bake at 400 for about 15 minutes, and all is well.

              1. So far these are all great suggestions. I love to cook at home, but with just me and the SO we were ending up throwing a lot out, too. I don't want to repeat some of the previous suggestions, so these are ones that haven't been mentioned yet.

                I have a "par" list--things that are always in the pantry or fridge. I have it on my computer, print it out weekly and stick it on the side of the fridge. If I notice something on the list is low as I'm cooking during the week, I'l highlight it and that becomes my shopping list. Things on this list include staples like eggs, flour, sugar, coffee, and other things that we just like to have around like oj, ice cream, and peanut butter.

                I have an official "deep clean" day in the kitchen on Sunday, since our trash pick up is on Monday. I'll throw out anything in the fridge that hasn't been touched in a while (that bottle of BBQ sauce we used last month at a cook out, leftover chinese take out from last weekend, etc), and any other bits of produce, bread, stale crakers that really just need to go.

                I try to go to the farmers market or a produce stand once or twice a week and only get enough to eat for the next few days. I do the same thing with bread, getting small loaves of sandwich bread, only a few bagels or sandwich rolls/dinner rolls or a baguette. Meat I'll only buy on the day we need it (or the day before) or sometimes I'll keep chicken parts or stew meat in the freezer (always dated).

                I put the date on all of the my spices and dried herbs when I buy them, and the baking soda/baking powder and boxed tea bags when I open them so they don't live in the back of the cupboard forever and ever.

                I used to do a "lunch swap" with a friend at work. She and I both made big batches of stuff on the weekend so we could have lunches/dinners during the week. We each brought an extra portion and swapped so we could have a little more variety.

                1. As far as bread, you can leave bread that's staling out on the counter to dry, or dry it in the oven. Then instead of moldy bread, you have dry bread for stuffings, dry breadcrumb coatings, or dumplings.

                  1. One huge way you can make fresh produce last longer is buying really, really fresh produce. Seems obvious, but wasn't to me until I started buying my produce at farmers' markets and the local coop. Salad greens in particular last so much longer than any of the bagged stuff you usually find in supermarkets.

                    1. These are all great ideas... I have found we have the same problem and it is frustrating. My husband and I are just expecting our first baby and so for at least the immediate future, our circumstances will remain the same, just us.

                      I was constantly throwing out fruit that has gone bad, veggies that went unused, bread that we haven't finished.

                      I will try the dry bread/crumbs thing, always meant to...

                      As for overripe furit - bananas, peaches, etc. I now bake healthy muffins and breads. It is pretty easy to do, even from scratch and most of the time is in the baking. Some of the pre packaged mixes are excellent and my husband loves the smell when he walks in the door, I always start the baking process just a bit before he is due to get home - gotta keep the romance alive. :-)

                      And for the veggies, for those with a grill (indoor or out), we now throw all veggies that look like they are about to be on their way out onto the grill with a little salt, pepper and olive oil and they are delicious, whether for that night or lunch the next day. Always great to have grilled veggies in the fridge and it extends their life...

                      BTW: The other day I noticed how empty our freezer seems. We keep very little in there, mostly ice and ice cream, veggie burgers, frozen veggies/edemame (just in case) and sometimes bagels. We try to buy fresh for dinner but cannot always do this. Anyone else find this to be the case?

                      Lastyly, we keep our fridge on a very cold setting, I find this helps - not sure if this is true or it is me. :-)

                      1. All of this advice has been great. I'm pretty neurotic about using the food you have and not having things go rotten and having to throw them out.

                        My solution is tight storage for grains so they don't get too buggy, buying only what I need for one or 2 given dinners - things like fish & vegetables, and like yumyum, freezing half a recipe (like chili) and eating it at some other time.

                        My pantry is really poorly stocked - liquor, coffee, tea, flour, sugar, baking powder/soda, grains, oils, vinegars, chips & spices. Basically, I can make bread, but that's about it. I only have 3 shelves to store things, so it goes:).

                        1. Unlike Michele, my freezer is the most full... in fact, you're likely to receive a blow on your toe from a Haagen Dazs container if you open it too fast! Part of the problem is that we made a huge batch of chicken stock right before summer, and I didn't really use much of it in the warm months. Hopefully, with the cooler weather, that will change. And the other part of the problem... I just need to clean it out, but there's so many other things I'd rather be doing!

                          When I'm doing a good job about cooking at home, which lately hasn't been very often, I have a routine that if I stick to, we really don't waste too much. I usually sit down on Friday night or Saturday morning and go through all my cookbooks, the internet, and my magazines and I make a menu for the week. Then, I translate the menu into a grocery list. If I'm buying something like, for instance, a whole red cabbage or whatever, I'll try to pick out two recipes to use that week that have red cabbage or hamburger or whatever in them. On my grocery list, I make sure that all of the produce is at the top of the list and I try to get most of it at the Farmer's Market first and then move on to a grocery store. Sometimes, I will plan a meal for every night, sometimes I will plan four meals that can be on any night I choose. If it's something where I want fresh meat or whatever, I'll have my husband pick that up on his way home from work because I absolutely hate going to the grocery store after work and he doesn't mind! That being said, this summer I have not been very disciplined and have only made it to the Farmer's Market a couple of times... last summer I did much better. Sometimes I'm a good girl, sometimes I'm not! :-)

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Katie Nell

                            I wish my freezer was full LOL

                            I miss my frozen soups and stocks...Being pregnant though, most of my meals tend to be eggs and toast (easiest right now for comfort) or bbq...both my wonderful husband is happy to make for me. Plus being summer, as you mention, you tend not to spend hours over the stove. Baby is due very early December so I am prepping for a run to the store to stock up on soup essentials. I cannot wait to make some homemade split pea and lentil, my two faves. I also make a mean chili which I keep stored in the freezer for the cold months and easily heated for a quick meal. These are in my usual cycle, though I like to throw in something new in the mix.

                            I do keep a running up-to-date shopping list on the computer and print out sections as I need them. I find that this has helped with the dilemma currently being discussed.

                            "Sometimes I'm a good girl, sometimes I'm not! :-)"

                            My sentiments exactly!

                            1. re: Katie Nell

                              The planning two meals with one fresh food thing is a great idea. This smacks of way more organization that I may be up to however!

                              1. re: Cinnamon

                                Yeah, like I said, sometimes I'm good at it, sometimes not! Planning a meal, though, is often times what I enjoy most, so I do love sitting down, looking through my cookbooks, planning a menu, and making the grocery list.

                            2. As a long time single cook and diner these are all great suggestions. The only one I might add is to seek out a source for bulk spices where you can buy only what you think you'll need rather than a standard sized spice bottle. I don't need a whole bottle of cardamom if the recipe only calls for 1/2 tsp. I've had good luck finding bulk spices at local health food stores and upscale markets. They'll usually provide either small plastic souffle cups and lids or small bags.

                              I shop on Saturday for perishables for the week based on what I know I'll eat (such as the apple a day) and what I'm planning on preparing during the week. And I shop specialty stores (such as a green grocer, butcher shop, fish monger) where I can get smaller quantities without too much problem. I also second the recommendation to shop at farmer's markets, not only for the quality of the produce, but also for the social interaction :-). Menu planning in advance, breaking down larger pieces into smaller pieces and freezing are all part of my regime too.

                              My personal downfall are the local Mexican markets where everything looks so appealing, or there are so many strange and exotic items that I just have to try them. Then, of course, they end up sitting too long because I get too busy.

                              1. One trick I've found that's very helpful in making sure you get the most out of fresh vegetables is to make salad in advance of dinner, especially on weeknights. How often do you come home, and get dinner started and forget to make a salad? Once its done, you're too jammed or too hungry to deal with it, and you think "I'll just have it tomorrow." If you come home and the salad is already made, you just dump it in a bowl and put it on the table.

                                Another trick is to set aside a night where you try to use up leftovers. One thing I find works well is to take any fresh vegetables you have, sautee them with some white wine, and just add them to your pasta. Even better if you have some chicken or shrimp or whatever (did I hear BACON?) to go with it as well.

                                As for stuff to keep, I think the essentials are starches like rice/couscous/pasta, white and red cooking wine, canned beans of various types (I prefer dried but they can be a big help) and as many spices as you can keep track of. With some chicken stock in the freezer and these in your cupboard, there's nothing you can't whip up with the addition of a few fresh items like meats and vegetables.

                                All in all, its not hard to do, but you really have to keep at it. Really try to limit your buying of fresh vegetables to stuff you know you will need in the next two or three days. I find that being careful and realistic about your future cooking plans lets you avoid much of the problem to begin with.

                                1. Cheapskate, I was just about to say "leftovers, leftovers, leftovers!" My SO taught me well in the ways of using leftovers--I always bring some for lunch, and nearly everything, especially meat, can be reinvented in a tomato sauce or sandwich. And my favorite leftover dish: chili! Anytime we roast a chicken, roast beef, meatloaf, anything that has a good deal of leftover meat, we end up using all of our vegetables, leftover tomato sauces, etc., and tossing it in to a crockpot chili. Virtually guarantees that our chili is different every time.

                                  1. Stock up more than you think you need on items that are not perishable, are from stores difficult to get to, and things you use a lot of. I ALWAYS have a backup for anything I use with any degree of regularity. Over-stocking gives me a feeling of security sadly lacking in the outside world.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: niki rothman

                                      I agree with that - never run out of non-perishables.beans and corn tortillas, cheese don't really go bad. also
                                      -keep sliced bread in the fridge and freezer.
                                      -all but one stick of butter in the freezer.
                                      -2% milk lasts longer than whole.
                                      -bone-in, skin on chicken takes for ever to defrost. instead cook right away by searing then simmering in chicken broth. then you can re-simmer it in whatever sauce you make later.
                                      -have herb pots if possible!

                                    2. Oh, I love this. I am getting so much better at it. We belong to a CSA, where we pick up a week's worth of veggies every Thursday. I cook from cookbooks that are arranged by ingredient, e.g. Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian and Chez Panisse Vegetables. So if I have an old bag of carrots, I just find a simple recipe.
                                      My pantry (actually a small shelf in my NYC apt) has beans, roasted peppers, coconut milk, tiny cans of Thai curries (just mix with coconut milk and any meat/veggie combo), canned tomatoes, pasta, rice.
                                      My freezer usually has ground turkey and some nice bacon. My fridge always has Parmesean.
                                      Any leftover perishable food can be made into curry, pasta, or burrito. Beautiful!
                                      Also, I use Better Than Bullion paste, since I rarely keep fresh chicken stock on hand.

                                      1. I like the idea of the Thai curries, I will check them out...

                                        As for chicken stock (or veggie), I always have plenty of chicken stock on hand, even if it is just the boxes (which are terrific for the pantry - low sodium is necessary). Along with cous cous, rice, and canned corn, beans, etc.

                                        I find the stock adds something to most dishes... if you cook rice and cous cous in it instead of water, add some veggies and spices from your pantry or fridge you have a terrific meal, with or without adding meat...