At first glance it looks ridiculously over-crowded and thrown together, but on closer inspection it shows foods and ingredients that form the ABC of all my cooking. It also represents something else – the money that has been invested in the health and well-being of my family. There’s money on these shelves, even if I don’t always have disposable cash in my purse, and like any other investment, it pays to get the best dividend from your investment possible. Because I’m on a limited budget, it’s even more important to get a good return from the purchases I make.
Over the years, my store of food has steadily increased as time, budget and family circumstances have allowed. When I first moved out, back in the day when the average food bill was about $70 a week per household, my flat-mate and I spent a whopping $180 and filled two trolleys just to fill the food cupboard. These days it would probably be twice that.
So, if you are starting out, or indeed starting this Challenge, what do you need to fill your pantry with? What are wise investments in your food bank?
As a rule of thumb, food items can be placed into one of three different categories: Basics, Fillers and Flavours. In many households there is a fourth group of pantry items: The Add-Ons.
1. The Basics
The Basics are those items you will need to buy first. They often form the base ingredients of many a meal, or can change a meal from one type of meal to another, for example changing meat from a roast to a pie.
- Plain flour (I have white flour and wholemeal flour)
- Self-raising flour
- Sugar (white or raw, as well as caster sugar and soft brown sugar)
- Rolled Oats for a sustaining, low GI, low-cost breakfast cereal
- Cornflour or arrowroot (tapioca flour) for thickening sauces
- Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Baking powder can change plain flour to self-raising flour and bicarb of soda is a wonder ingredient all on its own
- Dried spaghetti or fettucine plus one other type of short pasta such as macaroni, penne or spirals
- Rice (Choose basmati rice for low GI everyday use, plus jasmine and arborio rice for risotto)
- Dried noodles, such as ramen or soba noodles or rice sticks
- Dried Fruit – sultanas, dates, dried apricots to begin with, followed by raisins and currants
- Salt and pepper – I use sea salt and hardly ever use pouring salt or add salt to cooking water. I also use black peppercorns that are in a grinder. It’s up to you.
- Vegetable oil – I have both canola oil and olive oil and use both in equal measure. You should consider peanut oil if you stir-fry a lot of asian food over high heat.
- Eggs – They can’t be kept out of the fridge, especially in summer, but eggs are a basic pantry staple. If you have an egg, you have a meal.
- Milk – also a Basic item, even if it is kept in the fridge
- Butter or margarine. It’s a personal preference each time. If you do a lot of baking, you will need a regular supply in the fridge.
2. The Fillers
As their name suggests, Fillers are those items that bulk out a meal or often become one of the main ingredients in a meal. Unlike the Basics, they are not always raw ingredients, but have perhaps been through one or two processes, for example tinned vegetables. They can make a small meal bigger and can change the basic ingredients by their flavours. They are usually replaced more often than the Basics and you will often find yourself buying the same Fillers each week depending on their popularity in your house.
- Legumes, wholegrains and pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, beans (cannellini, kidney beans and the like) and barley – you can buy them dried or canned depending on your budget
- Tinned tomatoes and tomato purée (passatta) or tomato paste. No Italian meal is complete without these core ingredients.
- Tinned tuna or tinned salmon. If you have a can of fish, you have a meal.
- Polenta and couscous – fabulous fillers, cheap and readily take on the flavour of whatever you cook them with.
- Tortillas, lasagne sheets, rice sheets. These don’t just fill people up, but they add variety by turning the everyday into something a little different.
- Tinned corn and other vegetables – I always have corn kernels on stand-by but you may prefer frozen vegetables or a different type altogether.
- Nuts – I have raw, unsalted varieties that can be used in both sweet (walnuts, slivered almonds) and savoury (pine nuts, cashews) items. A fantastic vegetarian option that always adds interest to a meal.
- Tinned fruit – a tin of pineapple can brighten up many a dessert or breakfast cereal as can peaches, apple or pears. Just don’t have too many in case they get lost at the back of the cupboard.
- Coconut – I always have a tin of coconut cream or milk as well as a supply of shredded coconut – with both these items I can make countless savoury (stir-fries, curries) and sweet (slices and biscuits) dishes.
- Chocolate – Chocolate is rightly in this category, not as a flavouring listed below. Use good couverture cooking chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids and not compound chocolate. You will not be surprised to know that I have several different types of chocolate including white, milk and dark chocolate. Start out with dark chocolate and build from there.
- Gelatine – a supply of gelatine powder will turn fruit into jelly, set custards, make pannacottas and hold up wobbly desserts. Don’t underestimate its value as a pantry favourite.
- Potatoes, onions, garlic, fresh ginger and eschallots – all of these items have a permanent residence in a large wicker basket at the bottom of the pantry. It’s rare for me to use a savoury recipe that doesn’t include any of these items.
- Cheese – yes it’s in the fridge, but it’s an essential filler item in most households. I always have tasty or cheddar cheese and a wedge of parmesan on hand and most weeks I have a soft cheese such as a cream cheese or ricotta as well. Stick to two or three favourites and try not to buy too much at any one time.
- Olives – either in a jar or bought from the deli, try to have some on hand.
- Nutritionally sound breakfast cereals – by this I mean Weetbix, rice bubbles or cornflakes, not cocoa pops or frosty fruits. Just buy one at a time, rather than lots of boxes that take up room and go soft if not used up quickly.
- Golden syrup, maple syrup, condensed milk and honey – They add sweetness to your baking and moisture to your biscuits and cakes, as well as doing duty on your porridge or toast. You don’t have to stock all of these items, though most households have at least two.
If you have a good close-up look at the middle two shelves in my pantry you will see they are brim-full of different flavouring agents. As their descriptor implies, these are the items that you use a dash of, or a pinch of, or just a spoonful of, to make your meal go from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Buy small amounts and use them regularly so that they don’t get lost up the back. You don’t have to buy all these items – Start with those items that suits your food preferences first and build it up one item at a time to spread the costs.
- Flavoured Oils - Sesame Oil and perhaps an olive oil flavoured with a few herbs, but that’s it. Don’t go overboard.
- Vinegars – balsamic and white vinegar should be on your list first, and when you get the chance, add a wine vinegar, such as red or white wine vinegar. Cider or sherry vinegar is useful but only if you are confident about using them regularly.
- Mustards – Dijon and perhaps wholegrain (seeded) mustards are useful and mild.
- Sauces – Soy sauce, Tomato, Sweet Chilli and a brown sauce such as barbecue or Worcestershire sauce have a home in most pantries. If you want to, add oyster and hoisin sauces or kecap manis for stir-fries.
- Curry paste – I have green curry paste, a laksa paste and tandoori paste in my pantry or fridge. Start with one favourite and don’t buy more unless you are confident you can use them up by their use-by dates. They do keep very well in the fridge once opened.
- Sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies and capers – a little goes a long way and doesn’t always make everything taste awful just by their addition. Try it and see.
- Vanilla – Buy vanilla extract rather than essence. It is more concentrated, has less additives and adds greater depth of flavour meaning a little goes a long way. Vanilla pods are beautiful and versatile but more expensive.
- Cocoa powder and icing sugar – icing mixture is mixed with cornflour and makes a softer icing or frosting. Pure icing sugar makes a hard icing.
- Chilli paste and whole chillis in freezer – Whole chillies keep very well in the freezer and I never de-frost them, but simply de-seed and slice them up as the recipe requires.
- Herbs – Ideally, we would all love to have a ready supply of fresh herbs on hand. Do try to grow some in a pot, they are very easy to manage even for the brown thumbs amongst us. Fresh herbs also store very well in the fridge or the freezer. If buying dried herbs, store them in a dark place, and not on a spice rack near your stove – it turns them stale very quickly. As a suggestion, start your collection with parsley, coriander leaf, rosemary, thyme, basil, followed by bay leaf, kaffir lime leaf, oregano and dill.
- Spices – Savoury – paprika, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom, cayenne pepper or chilli flakes
- Spices – Sweet – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon sticks, ginger powder, and galangal if you enjoy cooking thai food
- Jams and spreads – Jam, peanut butter, tahini, vegemite, choc hazelnut, lemon butter, marmalade. The temptation (for me at least) is to buy homemade jams and lemon butter from the Ladies Auxilliary stall – if you are guilty of this, try to buy only when you have run out.
- Good tea and coffee – Buy the best you can afford and avoid lots of small packets of many varieties. I have Earl Grey, English Breakfast and green tea in my house and only ever coffee beans, not instant. It’s a personal choice.
- Lemons. Of course.
4. The Add-Ons
Not every Add-On is a bad choice and some can be downright convenient but not surprisingly, these are highly priced foods that add considerably to your food bill. Choose wisely when your budget is tight.
- Frozen pastry
- Frozen berries
- Frozen vegetables
- savoury crackers and crispbreads suitable for lunchboxes as a bread substitute
- Flatbreads, pizza bases and bread rolls (keep them in your freezer in individual packs ready to grab for lunch)
- Simmer sauces – one or two is useful. Eight is not.
- A good vanilla ice-cream
- Cream and sour cream
- Soft drinks and cordials
- Milo and other milk additives
- Pre-packaged dinners and dinner kits including 2 minute noodles and macaroni cheese type meals
- Frozen pizzas
- Frozen chips, and other deep-fried pre-packaged foods
- Tinned meat such as tinned chicken, spam or canned stews, frankfurts and highly processed, highly coloured, high additive foods
- Sweet biscuits, chips, snack foods including microwave popcorn
What items do you have in your pantry? Do you have an over-supply of one item? Share your pantry confessions …