Call me a little excited, but I am GLAD you want to learn to stock your pantry long-term. Maybe it’s your first apartment or you’re finally tired of of living life day-to-day (AKA carry-outs, drive-throughs, and maybe stealing other people’s lunches).
We don’t want you to go to pantry jail, so listen up and get your pantry stockin’ game on!
Reasons to stock a pantry
There are multiple reasons why someone would stock a pantry, and some of them may overlap. Stocking a pantry for 3 months or 6 months has these benefits:
- save money through less impulse buys
- save money by stocking up when food is on sale
- less trips to the grocery store (saving on gas)
- ready for food shortages
- prepared for emergencies (disaster, weather, illness, loss of employment)
- prepared for unexpected guests
To really add icing to the cake, you get more time back in your pocket. By becoming very familiar with your eating habits, you will hardly ever have to run to the store for last minute ingredients.
What about dairy and fresh vegetables, you say? My favorite milk source is through the local convenience store (Kwik Trip here in Iowa) where I am already stopping to get gas. I had a friend who would freeze milk (it can be done) if you want to go that route to extend your stockpile.
Convenience stores such as Kwik Trip have realized the market for these frequent purchases (especially bread and potatoes) and are able to offer them at lower prices than grocery stores. The benefit is that I don’t have to waste time going into a football-size stadium store to get to the milk on the back wall.
Vegetables can be had within season at the local farmer’s markets or your own back door. Don’t discount the mental health aspect – you get to interact with friendly food vendors, feel a happiness boost that you are supporting small businesses, or experience the personal satisfaction (and being in nature) by tending your garden.
Stocking a pantry helps families save money and prepare for emergencies.
Are you committed to stocking a pantry long term?
Stocking a pantry for many months means you have an idea of meals to be eaten over a long stretch of time, or some loose meal plans (find out how to meal plan in “Simple Meal Planning for Beginners”).
First of all, it’s confession time. I would categorize myself as a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of cook. Honestly, it’s my husband who’s looking at the meat sales in the grocery fliers (and my mother-in-law who elevated it to a whole new art form).
I hate meal planning. Then I realized, I must not be doing too bad, because I can whip out a last minute meal with the best of them. Somewhere along the line, one single brain cell revolted and said “you’d better have a little more food in your pantry, you know, for those last minute guests.”
For so many years, it was just too much doing the grocery shopping, keeping up with kids’ schedules, and having a full time job to commit to any sort of plan or stocking the pantry longer than a month. I would fly through the store (and I mean fly!) and rake in armloads of generic stuff into the cart (because I hate math, coupons, and trying to figure out the best deal).
I was in a different situation than most, in that I had chest freezers at home filled with beef, pork, and chicken (we are Iowa farmers). I don’t spend too much time at the meat counter, but to my husband, standing in front of the delectable and varied cuts of meat is equal to a date night.
Then, something happened. I liked the feeling of being prepared. I suddenly realized the irritation of missing an ingredient when I most needed it. Slowly, and even naturally, I started thinking ahead.
Begin in the beginning
If you have the slightest interest in learning about a 3-month or 6-month food supply strategy, I suspect you are a parent. Sorry if I’m wrong here, but as a young, single person, there was no way I was interested in stocking a pantry. Older folks would certainly have their systems in place by now. If I’m dead wrong, I apologize. But if I’m right, let’s have some fun…
Do you remember the first meal you made as a couple? How well did that go? Don’t ask me why, but in terms of cooking, and to put it in the immortal words of Bart Simpson, “I just assumed I could.” I grew up frying eggs for family breakfasts on Sunday mornings, making scrumptious homemade pies, and the all-time favorite meal, Swiss steak.
You’d think that I was quite the marital catch, wouldn’t you? I’m not good at math, but that amounts to THREE meals. College experience doesn’t count, that consisted of mainly pancakes and toast (I was probably anemic AND poor). My first dish when I was first married was a stir fry… I thought it was easy, you just throw things together in a pot. It was so terrible, my newlywed husband and I threw it out.
The point is, very few of us start out by having our act together. Pantry stocking is a skill, one that can be strengthened (darn, I love talking about pantries…).
In the beginning, there was just myself and my husband. Even after the first child arrived, we could get by shopping once a month or even longer. I remember telling someone that and they couldn’t believe it, but it was true.
What a one-month food supply looks like.
The only convenience food we bought was dehydrated potato mixes, some vegetables, cereal, and milk. I had a job in town and my husband ate lunch with his parents on the farm, where the garden bounty was plentiful. The grocery store was a 30 minute drive away. It was inconvenient to tackle with a small child by myself, and even more inconvenient with three kids later.
We ate meat with vegetable sides, nothing fancy. If we were out of something, we borrowed it from the in-laws. It’s sort of humourous to see my oldest son going through the same steps – I am now the “grocery store down the road.” Over time, we built up a strong recipe base as we started experimenting with more advanced meals.
To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of money flowing back then, we watched our pennies very carefully. I am better equipped these days to hand out advice, especially watching my children leave the nest.
So here you are, ideas for stocking your pantry for 1 month, 3 months, and 6 months. I’ve been doing this for a few decades now, my approach may be different than others. I can’t get too specific on amounts since everyone’s situation and family size/number of roommates are different.
How to stock a pantry for 1 month
To stock a pantry for 1 month, consider the ingredients needed to make your favorite foods and recipes (don’t forget seasonal) and the quantity of people that you need to feed every day. Food choice depends on each person’s unique taste, cultural background, and dietary needs.
The simple way to stock a pantry: get the basics
It’s going to get pretty detailed pretty fast in the next paragraphs. But before I get into numbers, let’s walk through an easy way to stock a pantry for a month. Just stick to the basics.
Buy things like peanut butter, some loaves of bread, cereal, noodles, rice, canned food that is part of familiar recipes. For the freezer, add some ground meat and cuts of meat, bags of chicken, a few convenience foods, and frozen vegetables and potatoes. If you don’t have recipe ideas, start out making meals that include a protein and vegetable, and make sure to get dairy in for a source of calcium.
Through trial and error, you will get a feel for the quantity and variety of food items to purchase that will last one month.
Take the pantry stocking challenge
Take baby steps. I’ve often challenged myself to stay out of the grocery store for a month. Extra visits = extra purchases. Unfortunately, I have easy access to the store with employment nearby. I get regular phone calls to pick single ingredients up, which doesn’t help efficiency.
The only way to even begin to think about stocking a pantry for a month is support from your family and a meal plan.That will eliminate planning a meal daily. Meal plans should include a variety of meals: easy to prepare, comfort foods, casseroles, salad meals. I suggest that you take the time with your family to do two activities:
- write down all the meals that you already love or have made before
- write down all the food items in your pantry now, or plan to buy to make a master food list
As you open up your cupboards, it will be very revealing. You will find food that you bought and no one liked. There will be other food items that seem impossible to keep fully stocked (for me, it’s peanut butter).
If you don’t do so yet, there should be grouped meals in your pantry for fast preparation, like spaghetti noodles and a jar of spaghetti sauce (and ground beef in the freezer to go with it). Tucking in filler foods to round out a meal should be part of your pantry staples like rice or potato mixes.
What’s your pantry personality?
Let’s face it, there are number crunchers out there that breathe spreadsheets and planning. Then there are the spontaneous pantry keepers who are always up for going off script. Somewhere, your pantry planning will need to make peace with your personality type.
If a rigid food plan is what gives you joy, then go ahead and sharpen your pencil. If an overly complicated system gives you anxiety, then you have my permission to morph it into a more laid back approach that works for you.
If you fall into the latter group, here’s some things you can do:
- try new food products out that look fun or interesting that may not be on the shopping list
- always include meals that you are excited about
- be prepared to change the meal to a different one if you don’t feel like it
- it’s ok to have an impromptu restaurant night
The interest in stocking a pantry for lengths of times often has a great deal to do with a budget. Pennies really do matter for many people. If your pantry planning falls into this category, get support and help from family and friends or a state food extension service to manage monetary goals.
Pantry stocking math
When I was in home economics class (back when high schools still had it), Home Ec 101 had you crunching math. We had to figure out the exact cost of a meal based on breaking down the servings per container, or cost of items in a recipe divided by servings, and repeating that process for each item on the menu.
Today, there is still no way of getting around a little math, you still need to pay attention to servings per can, and then figure out the number of cans per meal or servings per recipe to make sure there is food for everyone.
You can skip the math lesson part below if you really are not interested or math scares you, but it’s good for everyone to look at one time. Recipes remove most of the tedious part of figuring quantities. They tell you how many servings and all you have to do is go out and buy the ingredients – double the recipe if you are serving more people.
How to make grocery lists from recipes for one month of meal plans
- assemble the recipes you will use for the month
- make a matrix on a piece of paper of all the ingredients needed (or just those other than basic cooking supplies that are always on hand)
- tally in each cell the cups or quantity needed where recipe ingredients intersect
- total the quantities to come up with the number of food items to buy
Below I demonstrate one way to estimate food needed for a grocery list (the way I am laying it out would be best in landscape form on the paper). The headings are kept very general on purpose, the list can get quite unwieldy if you get too detailed. The headings are based on the section of the grocery store the items are found in (I often divide my grocery store list up based on food aisles).
Totaling quantities for a final grocery list is not too hard to do. Knowing how many cups of cheese you can get out of bag helps with estimating totals. I would suggest that knowing amounts (cups) in a package is the best knowledge to have acquired when totalling grocery lists.
|Dry foods||Meat||Vegetable||Canned food|
|Lasagna||2 cups mozzarella, 1 cup cottage cheese||1 box of lasagna noodles||1 lb gr. beef||side salad||spaghetti sauce, 1 jar|
|Chicken Kiev||1 cup Swiss slices, sour cream||NA||6 chicken breasts, ham slices||steamed vegetables||cream of chicken soup|
|Broccoli Cheese Soup||1 cup shredded cheddar||NA||NA||broccoli head, 1||1 box chicken broth|
TOTALS for Grocery Shopping List
DAIRYmozzarella, shredded (1 bag)cottage cheese (1 carton)Swiss cheese (1 brick)cheddar, shredded (1 bag)sour cream (1 pt)
DRY FOODlasagna noodles (1 box)
VEGETABLESsalad (head of lettuce)steamed vegetables (1 bag of frozen vegetables)broccoli (1 head)
MEATbeef, ground (1 lb)chicken breasts (6 breasts)CANNEDspaghetti sauce (1 jar)cr. chicken soup (1 can)chicken broth (1 box)
Again, this is a very simple example, but I think you can get the idea of how to build a shopping list based on a food plan.
Knowing amounts (cups) in a package is the best knowledge to have acquired when totalling grocery lists.
How to figure out how much food to buy per meal
To figure out how much food to buy PER MEAL, do this simple math:
Look at the quantity of people to serve compared with the servings per container.
So if you need to feed 4 people, but the can only has 3 servings, you will need TWO cans, the rest is just leftover foods (or bigger portion sizes). A good host always plans on a little extra food, you’ll have to make that call if you do or don’t with your own family.
Estimating food takes experience and its different for every situation. I hosted a graduation party and was trying to figure out servings for a 9″ x 13″ cake pan. My pro mother-in-law told me the portion sizes should be smaller than I was planning – and she was right.
In my small community, it’s common to receive multiple graduation party invitations on the same day. People end up being full from “grazing” party spreads and tending to “sample.”
With pantry math, I can’t help but thinking of school room lunch ladies – what an appreciation I have for them! These talented staff (both women and men included) have to figure this out on a much larger scale!
To figure out servings required per meal, read the food label of each menu item to find the servings per container; buy enough additional containers/bags that will cover the servings needed to feed everyone at the table.
Below I demonstrate how to do this. There are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Appetites differ by person and age, serving size on labels is only a guide.
- No one is going to eat the same vegetable 30 days in a row, variety needs to factor into food plans.
- Most canned food needs to be consumed after opening it. In the example below, an average size can of vegetable doesn’t feed 4 people, you need to open a second can which results in buying more canned food than needed.
- This chart is only factoring in 1 meal a day for 30 days. You may not be including 2 additional meals a day and breakfast cuisine varies from main dinner and lunch meals.
- Seasonal items affect food stocking, such as summer gardens and farmer’s markets – adjust accordingly.
I know, the math proves laborious. It’s much easier to get a feel for what yourself or a family situation requires and make guesstimation purchases. Doing the math at least once is an excellent experience to go through. Actually tracking food quantities for one month can be very eye opening.
|Food||# of Servings||1 meal, 4 people||1 meal, 4 people, 30 days (120 meals)|
|14.5 oz can vegetables||3.5||2 cans will need to be opened at each meal||2 x 30 cans = 60 cans (the rest is leftover every meal)|
|20 oz frozen vegetables||6 servings||20 oz / 6 servings = 3.33 per serving or 13.32 per meal||13.32 oz x 30 = 399.6 oz / 20 oz = 19.98 bags, round up to 20 bags.|
|26 oz bag of frozen hasbrowns||9 servings||26 oz / 9 servings = 2.88 oz per serving or 11.52 oz per meal||11.52 oz x 30 = 345.60 oz / 26 oz = 13.30 bags|
|1 lb. of raw hamburger||4 servings||1 lb per meal||30 lbs of hamburger|
How to stock a pantry for 3 months
All of us have heard amazing tales of coupon clippers saving hundreds of dollars a month playing the coupon game. They know food stocking like a science.
I wager this is an athletic event fueled by the absence of a second income (stay at home moms unite – and dads!). No worries if you are full-time employed, you can get in on the action, too.
To stock a pantry for 3 months or more, one can multiply the food amounts used for 1 month pantry stocking by a factor of 3 to arrive at a total. In addition, it’s wise to plan additional food for special events or unexpected guests.
If I heard groans out there, I get it. The answer does seem a bit obvious, but I need to cover all my bases. Let’s throw a sample grocery cart at you.
What does a 3 month supply of food look like?
This is what MY 3 month food supply looks like:
- cooking oil
- flour, sugar, salt
- cream of chicken soups
- peanut butter
- tomato sauce, paste, spaghetti sauce
If done right and you have been meal planning, you won’t have to duplicate a meal for those 3 months. What happens for the next 3 months? You do it all over again! So many people ask about the 3 month food stocking, but if 2 months is a better cycle, go for it!
Is all of this looking doable? It’s easy to see that when 1-month or 3-month pantry stocking is mastered, it’s not hard to make the leap to 6 months.
“For long term food stocking, keep a good record of what you started with and what was used, what food was liked, and what wasn’t.”
How to stock a pantry for 6 months
To stock a pantry for 6 months, create a grocery list based on what you anticipate to eat. Plan a mix of canned food, dried food, basic ingredients, meal kits, and frozen food. Anticipate extra shopping trips to accumulate all of the food items and arrange for extra storage space in the home for the additional food storage.
The 6-month lazy pantry stocking approach
This is what stocking a pantry for 6 months looks like for me. I focus on getting the most basic staples to last me several months and continue to shop for fresh items during bi-weekly shopping trips. My husband and I go to Aldi’s and buy flats of canned food like cream of chicken, flour, sugar, and canned vegetables and fruits, cooking oil, peanut butter, and Dinty Moore stew – staples that we know we will use.
Walmart sells large boxes/bags of rice, so we get that from there. We only have one case of bottled water, but many people make it a priority to buy more (we have our own well, but it’s no excuse).
Shopping with a buddy is almost mandatory and may take multiple trips. It doesn’t take long to fill a cart when you’re only putting in flats of food. We’re lucky to have basement storage where we can store the extra food – almost all homes in Iowa have basements. It isn’t hard to keep one basement room cooler for long-term food storage. This isn’t the same as a root cellar and won’t be ideal for the colder storage that root vegetables need.
I’ve gone through several cycles of canning and freezing my own food. Most of our garden is eaten fresh, but we prefer things like homemade tomato juice for chili and our own green beans and sweet corn in the winter. Vegetables perfect for root cellars like butternut squash require no food preservation at all. We don’t have a root cellar, but butternut squash can last several months in a cooler, dark room.
Special considerations when stocking a pantry for 6 months
Stocking a pantry for longer than one month involves a lot of food. If you are ready to attempt a 6-month food stock, there are special points to keep in mind.
If you can food from your own garden, you know how much food will get you through the winter. If this is your first attempt to push the 6-month goal, it will be an experiment. Keep a good record of what you started with and what was used, what food was liked, and what wasn’t.
Keep this in mind when planning for 6 months of food storage:
- additional trips to the grocery store, one trip won’t be enough
- needed extra space to store the food
- good rotation system to avoid expired food
- arsenal of food recipes to keep meals interesting, especially for freeze-dried food
- if home canning, extra canning supplies and the right canning equipment
- always look to the future and what foods are in season.
Whew! That was a lot of information! If I can leave you with one message, it takes experience to stock a pantry and all beginners have to start somewhere. Start paying close attention to your food consumption amounts and, overtime, you will improve your pantry stocking skills.
I wish you the best in your food stocking adventures!