Updated on 12.15.10

Out With The Old, In With The New: Clean Out Your Pantry and Restock It

Trent Hamm

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

17. Clean out your pantry and restock it.

One of the biggest money savers I’ve ever found is simply cooking at home. There was a time in my early adult life where I ate out for almost every meal. I’d eat out for breakfast, picking up a bagel and some coffee. I’d eat out for lunch with coworkers. I’d eat out for dinner with my wife or, sometimes, with friends. I rarely ate at home.

Over time, though, I slowly started moving towards making my own meals. At first, it wasn’t because of a financial benefit – it was simply due to a growing interest in food preparation, brought on by reading food magazines and the like.

It took some time to get skilled enough that I felt ready to prepare meals off the cuff in my kitchen. Early on, I burned everything and didn’t understand the need for slower cooking, but as I improved, I found myself making all kinds of things, from coq au vin to from-scratch lasagna (including the noodles).

What I discovered along the way is that the more conducive your cupboard contents are to cooking things from scratch at home, the easier it becomes and the more likely you are to do it. If all you have in the cupboard is random prepackaged foods that, frankly, don’t taste all that good or only some of the stuff you need to make things at home, then you’ll find that it’s much harder to convince yourself to just go home and throw something together for dinner.

So, how do you get from typical cupboards to this?

The first step is to clean out your cupboards and take stock of what you have. Pull everything out. Cover your floors and tables with boxes and bags and containers. Group them in whatever ways make sense to you.

As you go, throw out the outdated stuff. Trust me, you have stuff that’s old in your cupboards. Spices that have sat in there for more than a year. Canned and boxed foods past their expiration date. Flour that seems to have some sort of infestation. Get rid of all of it now.

Once you have all of this stuff out there, commit to eating some of the boxed foods and give away the rest. Yep, take it down to the food pantry and give it away if you have an abundance of it. Pass it on to someone who can actually use it before the expiration date.

For most people, this will eliminate a lot of the contents of their cupboards – a shocking amount, even. What you’re left with, though, are usable staples and just a small handful of prepackaged foods.

Now you can stock your pantry and cupboards with real ingredients, the types of things that make it possible for you to toss together meals of a wide variety quite easily. Here’s a great suggested pantry list from The Reluctant Gourmet:

* Anchovies: a must for many pasta sauces, flat filets in a can or anchovy paste.
* Artichokes: canned hearts packed in water.
* Beans: an assortment of canned (easier) or dry (more work but tastier). Bread crumbs
* Capers: great in salads and pasta dishes.
* Chutney: great for crackers and sauces.
* Clam juice: a good substitute for fish stock.
* Corn meal: great for dredging foods and a must for polenta.
* Coconut: either shredded in a can or coconut milk or better yet, both.Cornstarch: for thickening sauces
* Crackers: assorted types.
* Dried fruits: apples, apricots, currants, figs, and raisins.
* Dried herbs: basil, bay leaves, chili powder, cinnamon, dill, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, crushed red pepper, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme.
* Extracts: vanilla is the most important, but try orange and almond.
* Flour: unbleached all-purpose
* Jams, Jellies, Preserves, and Honey
* Ketchup: always have an extra bottle on hand.
* Mushrooms: an assortment of dried including shiitake, morels, and porcini.
* Mustard: Dried and Dijon in a jar
* Oils: Olive, pure for everyday cooking and virgin for drizzling, canola, and sesame.
* Olives: canned, pitted and non-pitted, nicoise and calamata and olive paste
* Pasta: an assortment of shapes and sizes; dried
* Peanut butter: I like the chunky style.
* Peas: canned petite style. Fresh is better, but these are good to have on hand
* Pepper: whole peppercorns, ground black and white pepper.
* Pesto, Tapenade, Salsa
* Rice: Arborio (for risotto), brown, white, wild (not really a rice but a long grain marsh grass).
* Salt: regular and sea salt.
* Salad Dressings: my favorite is Good Seasons
* Sauces: Soy or Tamari, Tabasco, Teriyaki, and Worcestershire
* Sugar: white and brown, granulated and confectioners
* Tomatoes: canned – whole plum, paste, and puree; sun-driedTuna: canned, packed in water.
* Vinegar: balsamic, white wine, red wine, rice wine.Wines: Marsala, Madeira, and Sherry

If you have all of this in your pantry, you’re in great shape for some wonderful cooking in your future. This list provides everything you need to make anything from simple spaghetti to very complex dishes.

Even better, you’ll quickly find that, if you have any initiative to cook at all, having an organized pantry entices you to prepare more food at home. Preparing more food at home means that your food bill each month goes down. That means you find yourself more in control of your financial life than ever.

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  1. Michelle says:

    I keep about 1/4 of those things on hand and still manage to make pretty good meals. Here’s a better idea than buying a bunch of stuff that may or may not make sense to you. Find a good all purpose cookbook (How To Cook Everything or a Betty Crocker), pick out 7 recipes that sound good to you. Buy the ingredients for those, minus the one’s you already have on hand. Repeat for about 6 weeks. By the end, you’ll a pantry well stocked with stuff you’ll actually use, instead of wasting your money on stuff that will sit until next year when you clean out your pantry.

  2. Kathryn Fenner says:

    Absolutely, Michelle. I have “stocked” my pantry with a list of items from Dr. Oz and from South Beach and perhaps others, and I end up chucking out a lot of it. I think it’s better to actually determine what you will use and buy only that.

    Now, if you really do use a lot of something nonperishable, check Amazon, especially their Subscribe and Save store–you save 15% off their often already low prices! I get cases of cans of organic beans and organic diced tomatoes for less than I would pay for generic conventional at Walmart, delivered to my door. I get awesome organic coffee beans that way, too (I like Cafe Altura).

  3. Gretchen says:

    Take everything you own, throw it out, and replace it with this list of things that will sit around all year.

    People who don’t know how to cook don’t use anchovies and coconut milk.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    I agree with the others that it’s best to stock your pantry as you become more confident about cooking & have figured out what you like to make. Or at least pick out the basics from this list as a start, adding on things like anchovies & pestos & different varieties of the same item as you go along. We cook a lot, and try new recipes at least once a week, & a number of these items are things that have aged out of my pantry in the past, or things we only buy if we have a specific use for them. This is not a frugal-friendy list!

  5. Debbie M says:

    I also agree with #1. Only ideally, you have an actual person you can turn to for your first recipes. If there’s anyone you watched cooking while growing up or any old roommates who cooked food you like, ask them about your favorite dishes.

    The things on this list that work for me are the beans, dried herbs, vanilla extract, pasta, peanut butter, salad dressing, and sugar.

    I sort of agree about the flour (mine’s whole-wheat pastry flour), mustard (mine’s yellow), oil (mine’s walnut), rice (I just have brown), salt (just regular), tomatoes (I like tomato paste and diced tomatoes), and vinegar (just regular).

    Gaping holes in that list for me are baking soda, baking powder, chocolate chips, cocoa, pumpkin (I make pumpkin butter instead of jelly), spices, and vegetable protein. And sometimes I go through a lot of canned pineapple, mandarin oranges, water chestnuts, or hominy.

  6. Cheryl says:

    I agree with Michelle #1. It’s better to buy ingredients for recipes on your menu plan. As you build a group of recipes that you use frequently, keep those ingredients on hand. If you live in an area far from a grocery store, think about what you would cook for a week while snowed in, flooded in, whole family ill.

  7. dave says:

    I have to protest the often seen advice to throw out spices more than a year old because of “spice fade.” In all but the most extreme examples, I can’t tell the difference between new spices and those sitting on a shelf for years. Perhaps many palates are more refined than mine. Spices are expensive (look at the cost per pound sometime!), and throwing them out is a waste. If you think they are providing less flavor than when they were new, use more, it’s still a better value than throwing them in the trash.

  8. marta says:

    True, dave — I have a lot of old spices around and, instead of tossing them in the trash, I simply use more. Never noticed a difference.

  9. I’ll second (or third) the case for not throwing out spices. If you can honestly tell the difference, fine, but most people can’t. If you keep your spices in airtight containers in a cool place, they can keep for much longer than a year.


  10. karishma says:

    Running old spices thru a coffee grinder can give them a fresh hit of flavor too.

    But yeah, just using more works in most cases.

  11. beth says:

    I have to agree with everyone else about the list of options. We cook a pretty broad range of recipes at home, but I just threw out a jar of capers in the fridge that had probably 1 teaspoon of them used in the last five years. And chutney & mushrooms? Maybe it’s a regional thing…

    I may be nit-picking, but a lot of those jarred items (like mustard, ketchup, dressing, sauces) all go in the fridge once they’ve been opened, which is a whole different clean-out/re-stock project than the pantry.

    Also agree that the list is missing some basics: baking soda, baking powder, broth/boullion (who has time to always make it from scratch?), oats, the pantry veggies: onions, garlic, potatoes (in a different cabinet than the onions!), etc.

    The inspiration for getting my pantry started when I finally started cooking more came from Flylady and Saving Dinner. The original list doesn’t look like it’s there any more but you can search FL’s site for “perpetual pantry” to get the idea.

  12. Julia says:

    I don’t like this list. There seem to be a lot of what I consider specialty items (because I would only buy them for a special recipe).
    I found one of your old posts on this topic that had a much better list. The post was from 2006 and titled “The Well-Stocked Kitchen”

  13. Gretchen says:

    If you smell the open jar and it smells like spice, it’s good to go.

    If it smells like nothing, it won’t taste like anything either.

  14. Des says:

    Spices are only expensive if you buy them conveniently packaged in the little jars. If you get them from the bulk bins, most are hellacheap. That being said, I still agree that I can’t tell the difference between old spices and new in a recipe. If your palette is that refined, you should probably be drying your own spices anyway because who knows how long those things have been sitting on your grocers shelf/warehouse before they got to you.

  15. KC says:

    Good advice about spice and their flavor fade. I’d never thought of just using more – good advice. I have lots of old spices in my cabinet – some of them a decade old. OK, maybe those need to go :)

  16. wren says:

    I do cook (quite well and often, if I do say so), and I can’t remember the last time I used chutney, anchovies, ketchup, etc. I agree with the others about arbitrary lists not being useful. I understand the idea is to stock with ingredients rather than prepared foods, but we don’t all have the same tastes in ingredients any more than we have the same tastes in prepared foods. Buy what you will eat.

    I won’t get into the spice thing because I am a stickler for good spices and absolutely can and do taste the difference between good/low quality spices and fresher/old spices. The “good” spices don’t really cost much more than the colored dust on the grocery shelves because you don’t need to use as much of it.

  17. nate says:

    This list is fine and dandy if you live in North America. I don’t! I live in Asia where most of this stuff is impossible to find or so expensive that it would make frugality a laughing matter. Or my personal taste isn’t the same. Here’s what I mean:

    * Anchovies: NOT AVAIL.
    * Artichokes: NOT AVAIL.
    * Beans: an assortment of canned-IF YOU CONSIDER KIDNEY BEANS AN “ASSORTMENT”……WELL OK…
    or dry (more work but tastier) NOT AVAIL
    * Chutney: NOT AVAIL
    * Clam juice: NOT AVAIL
    * Corn meal: NOT AVAIL
    * Coconut: either shredded in a can-NOT AVAIL
    * Dried fruits-VERY EXPENSIVE
    * Dried herbs: VERY FEW AVAIL
    * Extracts: vanilla-ITS POWDER FLAVORING STUFF but try orange and almond-NOT AVAIL
    * Mustard: Dried NOT AVAIL
    * Peanut butter: EIWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW
    * Peas: NOT AVAIL.
    * Pesto, NOT AVAIL
    * Sauces: Tamari, NOT AVAIL
    Teriyaki,NOT AVIL
    and Worcestershire NOT AVAIL
    * Tomatoes: sun-dried NOT AVAIL
    * Vinegar: white wine, red wine,NOT AVAIL

    And I agree with others that things are missing. Where’s the baking powder? baking soda? yeast? spaghetti sauce? I feel if everyone cleaned out their pantry and bought everything on this list they’d be throwing alot of stuff out in 12 months.

  18. Ashley says:

    There is a huge variation in spice prices across the country. I currently live in the DC area, and here the price of a small jar of typical spices (nutmeg, chili powder, garlic salt, etc) can easily be $4-5. The same name brand jar is often just 50 or 75 cents and a large jar of off-brand spices are about $1 in Iowa where I am originally from. I try to have my family send me spices when I’m running low. The shipping costs are easily recovered, especially when sending them with stuff that is being sent anyway.

  19. GayleRN says:

    Dried morels? Do you have any idea what those cost? If you can find them. Most people around here have to hunt the little critters in the wild. God help you if you poach them. I am speaking of hunting on someone else’s property not cooking. Everybody I know just keeps a couple of cans of mushrooms in the cupboard or buys fresh for a recipe.

  20. Laurel says:

    I did this out of necessity. I had some little black bugs that infested everything that contained flour. I pulled out EVERYTHING, including the 10-year old lasagne (who knew lasagne turned orange after 10 years? COOL!), the 7 bags of infested spaghetti (I kept forgetting I already had some), the boxes of Hambuger Helper (cringe), the OLD cake mixes, etc. I noticed that the things that weren’t infested were the items in screw-top containers, so I went to the dollar store and bought at least 20 plastic screw-top containers/canisters. Now EVERYTHING is in a container. I took things like mac & cheese out of the box and put each in a separate ziploc bag and then in the container. Each time I make mac & cheese, that ziploc goes back in the container. Now I KNOW what I have in the pantry and have a ‘mini/max’ system so that I know how many of each item I have and how many I need. My pantry is organized, clean, and most importantly PEACEFUL!

    I also realized that I don’t need to have things like lasagne on hand for the few times/year that I make lasagne. When I DO make it, there will be other ingredients that I need so I’ll just buy the lasagne noodles then.

    I kept the pretty old Spice Islands bottles, threw out the contents, and filled them with the dollar store spices. Now when they lose their strength, I don’t feel so guilty about throwing them out….AND I put a label on the bottom of the bottle with the date I opened the new container of spices.

    My goal for 2011 is to go through every drawer and closet and get rid of 75% of what I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years (and not buy more!) What I need now is a rational person who can tell me how many sets of sheets a NORMAL household has. How much Tupperware/plasticware a NORMAL kitchen needs. How many bottles of lotion, shampoo, and hair products a NORMAL woman has. If you know that person, let me know!

  21. Amy P says:

    “What I need now is a rational person who can tell me how many sets of sheets a NORMAL household has. How much Tupperware/plasticware a NORMAL kitchen needs. How many bottles of lotion, shampoo, and hair products a NORMAL woman has. If you know that person, let me know!”

    I’m not sure if I qualify as a “rational person”, but I’ve had a good long run of washing the sheets on my bed and then putting them back on the same night. Somewhere in my sheet collection, I may have more that are the right size, but I don’t need them right now. The extras are handy for school costuming.

    I believe the current count (at our household of four) is about five bottles of shampoo, two bottles of conditioner, one tub of Eucerin moisturizer, one bottle of Olay SPF15, one bottle of vitamin E oil, and one tube of Lansinoh (it’s lanolin for breastfeeding mothers, but we like it for overnight cold weather hand treatment). I’m trying to be a less adventurous shopper, so I don’t buy a lot of new (expensive!) skin products and cosmetics and then have them sit unused for a few years. I used to try a lot more products, but now these items are mostly on a one-in, one-out basis, which I think is generally a good idea.

    With regard to Tupperware and that sort of thing, have you ever noticed how rarely you use that stuff or how few actually get used at one time? Or how often the lids stop fitting on the containers after going through the dishwasher? Or what a number tomato sauce does on plastic containers? I’ve whittled my storage containers down to mostly a single shelf (!) in my kitchen. I hand out containers to the kids for their personal storage as needed, to my husband for garage storage, and I just gave away some cookies in an old metal fruitcake tin. Also, I’m storing the containers with their lids on. That takes up a lot of space, but since there’s no hunting for lids, we get more use out of them.

  22. deRuiter says:

    3 sets of sheets per bed would give you one set on the bed, one in laundry and a spare on the linen closet shelf.
    Like the ‘use more if they’re a little old<# comment, it's true. Also like the suggestion to make 5 or six recipes and buy only ingredients for those favorite recipes which will give you stuff in pantry and freidge which you will eat.

  23. Lauren says:

    We basically use one set of sheets per bed. We have some older ones in a closet for backups in case of emergency, but since when can’t you wash & dry a set of sheets during the day, and get them back on the bed by nightfall?

  24. Interested Reader says:

    Spices and herbs do not have to be expensive. Check out natural foods stores or other places they have them in bulk.

    At the local place I go to I can buy enough of 5 different herbs/spices to refill the glass jars I have for $2-3. Usually less.

    The last time I went to refill a single jar I spent about $0.12.

  25. Janis says:

    I always enjoy reading lists of “must have” pantry staples, but have to agree with the others who’ve said to stock what you will actually eat. I cook a lot and mostly “from scratch,” yet I’ve never in my life used canned artichokes hearts. We so rarely use ketchup, that I think our one and only bottle is from a cook-out a few summers ago. (Hmmm, guess I better chuck it!) I make my own salad dressings and don’t see the need to pay for commercial salad dressings. I make my own vegetable broth and bread crumbs, too.

    On the other hand, my pantry is stocked with items that didn’t make the official list, but which are no less essential to my cooking: ume plum vinegar, toasted sesame oil, various seeds (pumpkin, flax, and both black and white sesame seeds), dried cranberries, oatmeal, nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and cashews), curry spices, blackstrap molasses, and good ol’ popcorn.

    As for sheets, I’m with Lauren (#23): we wash our bedding and have the bed made up again before bed-time, so we only really need the one set per bed, plus emergency back-up sheets. We scored a deal on flannel sheet sets a few years ago, so we switch between smooth cotton and flannel depending on the season, with the other set serving as emergency reserve.

  26. I’m another one with very few sheets. I have one set of woven sheets and one set of flannel sheets for our bed. We use one set in the summer and one in the winter, and I just wash them and put them back on the bed.

    Big upside? I only have to fold sheets twice a year!

  27. 8sml says:

    In my house we have one bottle of hair products between the two of us (shampoo w/ conditioner) and no lotions/moisturizers, but our tupperware fills two giant drawers and still has to be stacked and arranged just so, or the drawers won’t close. And we use all our tupperware regularly (I won’t let it hang around if it’s not used, because of the aforementioned space issues).

    But I’m pretty sure those aren’t normal numbers.

  28. Trent – a better list of what to restock in your pantry can be done this way:
    What are the 10 to 15 menus your family actually eats and likes the best? Write down every ingredient for those dishes. That’s your pantry list.

  29. Kaz says:

    It’s certainly not a given for me to get sheets washed and dry within a day – I line dry all my laundry and have no dryer.

    I agree with many others here that you are better to work out some meals and shop for those. I have to say I don’t take too much notice of expiry dates on most things. I certainly don’t throw things out just because a date has been reached – will always check the contents first.

  30. Evita says:

    This list is a joke! who in middle America (or Canada) uses all this? do YOU, Trent?

    Thanks for the chuckle!!
    (and the rest of the article is good advice)

  31. Fawn says:

    Staples for our shopping list that last a reasonable amount of time:
    Spaghetti Sauce/Alfredo
    Boxed pasta and rices
    Canned veggies
    Beef, chicken, sometimes pork. Bought in bulk, seperated into ziploc bags and frozen.

    Then I have my usual spices and such that I buy in bulk, that last a while.
    We do get more fresh stuff when we need it, but this is stuff we have on hand regularly.

    Sheets, I have one set that I wash and put back on in the same day. I do have a couple other sets, but don’t use them, thinking of getting rid of most of them.
    Storage containers, I have more than I need, I should go through that drawer. I would say, we use up 5 at one time, not including the ones we have in the freezer.

  32. Laurel says:

    I see that those who have answered usually wash the sheets and put them back on the bed the same day, but I’m with deRuiter with the three sets. I have a grandson who visits and still occasionally pees or vomits in the bed. Therefore, I need one set on the bed, one set to change in the middle of the night, and one set as a spare. I hope the charitable organizations appreciate the 20-year-old sheet sets I’m giving them.

    BTW, there’s another expense. If you tend to hoard, you are paying to warehouse all that stuff!

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