Shopping your pantry can be both fun and economical. We are currently trying to stay out of all public spaces, the grocery store included. So, my pantry has become ground zero for planning a variety of meals, without leaving the house.
Here’s a look at my tried and true method for meal-planning using primarily items from my pantry.
Know what you have on hand.
You must begin meal planning by knowing exactly what ingredients you have on hand. Organizing your pantry is actually easier and quicker than you might think.
I organize my pantry by category, just like a grocery store. Consequently, I can tell you in about five minutes exactly what I have on the shelves.
After I consult my pantry inventory list, I begin meal planning using this formula. It takes me about 30 minutes to plan an entire week’s worth of meals, using this system.
Combine at least 1 ingredient from each of these 4 categories:
I try to combine a starch, vegetables, protein, and a sauce in as many recipes as possible. This insures that I am meeting all of our basic nutritional needs. Since some recipes don’t lend themselves well to combining all four of these benchmarks, I strive to achieve an overall balance.
Starches fill you up and provide energy, since they break down to glucose in our system. In general, you should try to focus on the whole food version of starches.
For instance, brown rice, which has not been stripped of the nutrient-dense outer shell, contains more fiber than its white counterpart. Fiber allows you body to more slowly digest the sugars in a starch, helping you maintain more consistent blood sugar levels. However, white rice has a much longer and more stable shelf life.
Let’s look at oats. Whole oat groats, the entire oat kernel minus the husk, will fill you up and are an example of a whole grain. When the groat is steamed and pressed, it becomes old fashioned oats. Finally, when it is cut into small pieces, it is the quick oats version of the exact same grain.
I find it wise to keep many forms of starches on hand, dating the outside of the package to insure that I know how long it’s been on the shelf.
Here are some examples of starches that I keep in stock:
- bulgur wheat
Balancing starchy with non-starchy vegetables gives you a wider array of nutrients and also a greater variety of colors, tastes, and textures.
Non-starchy vegetables are lower in calories, while starchy vegetables provide more carbs, calories, and protein. Both are important to maintaining health.
The rule of thumb in our home is that we try to “eat the rainbow.” Our plates look colorful and contain a greater ratio of vegetables to grains.
Common pantry non-starchy vegetables include:
- green beans
- green chiles
- mushrooms (although they not classed as a vegetable).
Common pantry starchy vegetables include:
- sweet potatoes
Protein builds muscles, repairs cells, and balances hormones. As a long-time vegan, I can assure you that adequate protein is available in plant-based form, which is generally what we find in our pantries.
Not only does plant-based protein provide a boatload of fiber (keeping you full, longer) it’s also incredibly cost effective. You’ll spend less at the store, while gaining important nutrients, providing protection against a whole range of diseases.
Common sources of protein found in your pantry include:
- garbanzo bean flour
- chia seeds
The perfect sauce can begin with items from your pantry. This is the time to open your spice cabinet and explore the difference that they can make to your menus.
Simple, easy, tasty sauces can be made from:
- Peanut butter
- marinara sauce
- barbecue sauce
- soy sauce
- hot sauce
- flavored vinegars
- worcestershire sauce
- Cooked white beans, blended with liquid and spices
Take your dishes from a “3” to a “10”
Generate interest and excitement to your meals with some last-minute, flavor-popping, additions.
Your palate automatically gravitates to a balance of sweet with savory. A “zing” ingredient adds a tangy splash of flavor. Often, these are added at the last minute before serving.
Depending on how you’ve designed your meal thus far, consider adding:
- a handful of dried fruit
- roasted red peppers
- sun-dried tomatoes
Sweet and Sour
In terms of cooking, there are five basic flavor profiles: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). Each is important in its own right.
Our body associates sour food with the presence of an acid, an important precursor to the process of digestion, while sweet sensations indicate carbs, the source of energy. Scientists explain that balancing all five basic flavors not only gives our food variety, it’s important for our overall health.
Check these foods for sweet or sour flavors:
- pineapple (in natural juice)
- canned pears (in natural juice)
- lemon juice
- lime juice
- flavored vinegars
These trimmings should add not only flavor, but also texture. A little goes a long way. Crumble, crunch, smash, and add them to the top of the dish before placing it in the oven.
- bread crumbs
- cracker crumbs
- corn flakes
- corn or potato chips
- chow mein noodles
- French fried onions
On-Line Recipe Help
Here is a list of some of the most helpful websites that I have found to match recipes up with your available ingredients.
- Fridge to Table – allows you to search a huge recipe base by ingredients and dietary preference.
- All Recipes – It’s seriously hard to beat this site. Not only does it have a huge variety of recipes, they have also been extensively reviewed by real people who have tried the recipes. You’ll often find substitution and alternate suggestions in the review section.
- Tasty – This site is responsible for those really fun, short food videos that often show up in your Facebook feed.
- Forks over Knives – This website was spawned from the wildly popular documentary by the same name. It’s searchable by ingredient and offer a downloadable app. I’ve liked every single recipe I’ve ever made from the website.
- The Spruce Eats – It’s a cooking school, recipe repository, and guide to healthy eating and living all rolled into one website. It’s extensive and definitely worth a look.
Get the kids involved
The final step of the process is to look at your finished menu plan. Is it boring? Does it have enough color, variety, tastes, textures? No one wants to eat pasta, burgers, or rice 7 nights a week. Remember, by eating more colorful food, you insure that you have a greater variety of nutrients to fuel your body and your immune system. Have you over-planned or under-planned? This is the time that you can look at the pantry supplies, once again, and make any last minute changes before posting the weekly menu plan on your fridge.
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