How many times have you stared at the overflowing shelves of your pantry and concluded that there was "nothing to eat"? Or bought oats to make oatmeal cookies only to discover you had stale flour, no baking powder, and a pound of oats left over from the last time you had this idea? A pantry chaotic with stale grains and old spices or bags of processed, refined foods is hardly an inspiration to cook. We can help you correct that problem with our step-by-step approach to transforming your shelves into a source of tasty, nutritious meals.
Step 1: Clean Up
Get rid of cans, bottles, and boxes of processed foods whose labels are dominated by chemical preservatives like sulfur dioxide and sodium benzoate or high levels of saturated fat and salt (your daily limits should be 20 grams and 2,300 milligrams, respectively). Throw away anything that is stale or expired. "The expiration date can be the main indicator of food quality," says Ben Atkinson, M.S., R.D., research dietitian at the University of Washington Medical Center. "Flour, grains, and even some baking supplies all lose their flavor and nutritional potency over time." And pull out any items lurking in the recesses. Be honest with yourself: If you're never going to use that perfectly good scone mix you've held on to for six months, donate it to your local food bank.
Step 2: Shop Smart
Once you've de-cluttered your shelves, you're ready to stock up on staples that will make it easy to cook imaginative, satisfying meals even on hectic days. Look for the organic versions of these items whenever possible; in addition to being free of chemical additives and pesticides, organic versions are almost always more flavorful.
Whole grains such as brown rice, multigrain flour, and organic steelcut or rolled oats are rich in fiber, which can promote digestion and intestinal health in its insoluble form and maintain healthy cholesterol levels in its soluble form. Other tasty grains that are great sources of fiber include durum and whole wheat pastas and versatile (and super quick) couscous.
Legumes such as cannellini, chickpeas, and lentils have an abundance of viscous fibers (which can regulate blood sugar) and are a great source of protein for those cutting back on their meat intake. Legumes, also known as pulses, include the lesser-known East Asian adzuki bean and the Central American scarlet runner bean.
Extra-virgin olive oil, rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and disease-fighting phytochemicals, is the preferred cooking oil of the best chefs, and extra-virgin is the most flavorful grade because it comes from the first pressing of the olives and has low acidity.
Fresh spices, great sources of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, should be bought in bulk to avoid filling your pantry (and emptying your wallet) with jars of spices you'll use only sparingly. In the bulk section of most grocery stores, you can buy just the amount you need—whether that's an ounce or two pounds.
Canned fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and corn can keep summer's bounty on your shelf year-round. And while some vitamins such as thiamin don't make it through the canning process, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and most minerals are retained. Look for organic brands like John Cope's and Muir Glen, or, for optimal freshness, can your own produce.
Step 3: Use Clear Containers
Keep your dry ingredients fresh by storing them in transparent jars and boxes. "Once you've stocked up on natural foods, remember that they may not last as long as processed ones," cautions Atkinson. With clear containers, you'll be able to see, at a glance, the quantity and condition of your food—what you're low on, what you have plenty of, and what should be thrown out and replaced. Choose glass over plastic, as certain kinds of plastic containers are thought to leach chemicals into their contents. Airtight canisters are best, and for foods with shorter shelf lives, label your containers with the estimated expiration dates. Rectangular jars are not only easier to pick up than round ones, they're more space efficient as well.
Step 4: Get Organized
The organization of your pantry can have a significant impact on the way you eat. Lea Schneider, professional organizer and owner of Organize Right Now (organizerightnow.com) in Pensacola, Fla., emphasizes the importance of grouping related foods together. "Think about the different categories of meal preparation. For instance, it helps to have all of your breakfast items in one area—it makes mornings faster. You want to have all of your baking ingredients together. If you put them in a basket, you can just pull it out when you're baking and have everything you need."
Create additional vertical space with organization tools such as turntables, tiered wire racks, and rolling baskets on tracks to maximize the space within each shelf. Label the edges of the shelves to help maintain your organization and to make unloading grocery bags more efficient. Finally, attach a battery-operated light to one of the pantry's walls. If you can actually see everything your shelves hold, you may realize you have plenty of options for dinner.
"By keeping track of what you have, you save time by not making emergency trips to the store," observes Schneider. "You save money because you're not buying multiples of ingredients you already have on hand. You can spend these extra food dollars on fresh vegetables and lean meats." As for where those veggies and meats should go in your refrigerator, that's another story.