Taking an Ingredients-First Approach to Cooking at Home

Most of the time, my process for acquiring food and cooking at home looks something like this:

I recognize that we’re at the end of our planned meals, so it’s time to go to the grocery store. I download a grocery store flyer from the website and then start to assemble a meal plan based on that flyer, choosing recipes that incorporate a lot of that on-sale stuff. I check the pantry to make sure what other ingredients I have for those recipes, then make a list to cover what I don’t already have. I head out to the store, buy the stuff on my list, and head home. Throughout the next week, I make meals based on that meal plan, until I hit the end of the meal plan.

But what if I took a different approach, an ingredients-first approach, one that looked more like this:

I recognize that I’m running low on fresh ingredients, so it’s time to go to the grocery store. I check the whiteboard by the pantry to see what we’re completely out of – things I have to buy ASAP – and what we’re running low on – things I should look for on sale – and then head to the store. I grab a flyer as I go in the door, buy all of the produce that’s on sale, and grab other interesting ingredients that are on sale, too, along with anything I need to buy ASAP and anything we’re running low on that’s on sale. During the next several days, I look at what we have on hand and figure out an interesting meal to make out of it, and repeat until we’re running low on fresh ingredients again.

There are some big differences between these two strategies.

First of all, the meal plan strategy requires more up-front work before even going to the store, while the ingredients-first approach requires more thought as you’re about to prepare a meal. In the first approach, I’m planning meals first and then getting the ingredients to make those meals. In the second approach, I’m getting ingredients first, and then figuring out later what I can make from those ingredients. An ingredients-first approach gets you to the grocery store much faster by effectively delaying the meal planning.

Second, the ingredients-first approach requires a bit more confidence in the kitchen, but rewards you with a wider variety of meals. The time you save with an ingredients-first approach by not planning meals is later reclaimed to some extent by having to figure out meals based on what you have on hand. If you’re confident in just tossing things together to make a meal of some kind, then this isn’t an obstacle; if you’re a careful planner and recipe follower, this can be a challenge.

Third, the ingredients-first approach tends to involve a wider variety of on-sale purchases as you’re not worried about what exactly you’ll make with them. With a meal-first approach, you don’t buy, say, a rutabaga on sale because you may not have a meal in place for it. On the other hand, an ingredients-first approach probably involves grabbing that on-sale rutabaga and figuring things out later.

An extension to that is that the ingredients-first approach is primed to take advantage of in-store specials that aren’t listed in the flyer. There are often in-store specials, particularly on fresh items that need to be sold quickly and used in the next few days before they go bad, and an ingredients-first approach just grabs them and trusts that something can be made with them. This often ends up saving money, because those in-store specials are particularly cheap.

It boils down to this: if you’re confident in the kitchen and willing to somewhat ad-lib your meals, ingredients-first cooking can be both convenient and cheap.

Let’s take a look at some of the principles of ingredients-first cooking.

The First Element – A Well-Stocked Pantry

For this to work, you need to have a well-stocked pantry of staple ingredients that can be used to make all kinds of different things. You need to be able to open up your pantry or refrigerator and pull out items you need for a wide variety of dishes.

I made a simple list of staple items several years ago, but here I’m going to expand on that list quite a bit and include things that we always have on hand for “spot meals” (situations where things don’t go according to plan and a meal has to be prepared quickly).

Here’s what I would recommend having in a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. This largely matches what we have in ours.

Meal staples
Dry beans, several varieties
Dry pasta, a couple of varieties
Dry rice
Peanut butter
Rolled oats
Steel-cut oats
Whole chickens, frozen

Baking powder
Baking soda
Brown sugar (actually useful in many things)
Corn meal
Corn starch
White sugar
Herbs and spices
Bay leaves
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper
Curry powder
Old Bay seasoning
Sea salt
Tarragon (maybe not essential, but my favorite spice)

Oils, Stocks, and Condiments
Beef stock
Chicken stock
Diced tomatoes
Lemon juice
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese
Red wine
Red wine vinegar
Soy sauce
Tomato paste
Tomato sauce
Vegetable oil
Vegetable stock (particularly if vegetarian)
White wine

You should have these on hand in sufficient quantities that you’ll always have enough for a meal or two. In general, whenever I notice a bottle that’s half-empty or more and we don’t have another full bottle on hand, I put it on my “replace it now” list, and the same is true whenever we get even close to a single meal’s worth of an item, like less than four cups of a particular type of dried bean.

By doing this, one can always be sure that they have all of these ingredients on hand, which means that the only things you’re really adding to the mix are fresh items like fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and other dairy products.

Your list will probably also vary according to the specific cuisines you enjoy the most. For example, some people may always want to have things like ras el haunt and tabil on hand if they frequently make African-style dishes. This is a rare thing for us (mostly because I can’t ever make it taste as good as my old coworker from the Ivory Coast, who used to make amazing things with ease), so I don’t keep those spices on hand all the time.

The Second Element – Confidence in the Kitchen and Some Well-Rounded Cooking Skills

One crucial element of an ingredients-first approach is that you need to feel confident in the kitchen in that you feel fine throwing together a meal out of whatever’s on hand at a moment’s notice. Without that confidence, it’s pretty hard to make this work.

Part of the advantage of an advance meal planning system is that it lets you ensure in advance that you have the ingredients on hand and the procedure on hand in order to make a specific meal. I make the meal plan first by choosing recipes and slotting them in, then verify that I have all the ingredients.

The disadvantage of that situation is that it’s not very flexible once you get to the store. You can’t really jump on board with in-store specials that aren’t listed in the flyer. You’re kind of locked into your grocery list.

With an ingredients-first approach, those advantages and disadvantages are flipped on their head. In-store specials become an advantage – a way to get some super-cheap ingredients. At the same time, there really is no meal plan in this structure, so you have to be willing to make it up as you go.

Thus, to make an ingredients-first approach work, you have to simply be willing to be creative in the kitchen. You have to be willing to appreciate a diversity of foods and ingredients, because most of your meals are going to be ad-libbed around whatever’s on sale.

The Third Element – Useful and Familiar Mixes

This might seem like a surprising element, but I think it’s a very important one for people considering this approach. You should have a handful of spice and seasoning mixes that you really like so that you can season almost anything in a way that’s pleasing to your palate.

I have a particular barbecue sauce I love. I have a particular stir fry sauce I love. I have some condiments that I really like (the usual things, plus horseradish mustard, sriracha, and Momofuku Ssam sauce). I love Old Bay seasoning. I love our “Italian” seasoning mix (3 parts dried oregano, 2 parts dried marjoram, 2 parts dried thyme, 1 part dried basil, 1 part dried rosemary, 1 part dried sage, 1 part garlic powder in a shaker). I love pretty much any variety of salsa. I love Trader Joe’s Chili Lime seasoning and their Everything but the Bagel seasoning.

Between all of those seasonings and sauces and condiments, there’s almost always something that will work to complement the flavor of things that I buy. From toast (buttered toast with that bagel seasoning is amazing) to root vegetables (just stir fry random vegetables with stir fry sauce and serve it with rice), from tomatoes (dice them and use the “Italian” mix) to fish (Old Bay seasoning or chili lime seasoning), I have something to add a complementary flavor I like for almost anything that comes into our house.

This makes ingredients-first cooking a lot easier. When I’m unsure about what to do with something, I just find a sauce or spice mix that I think will complement it, cook the item, and add the sauce or spice mix to taste. It’s almost always good enough for dinner, and sometimes it’s really good, good enough that I remember that these things go together really well and I try to repeat them going forward. (Like, for example, Old Bay seasoning on potatoes.)

A Hybrid Approach

Lately, we’ve been using something of a hybrid approach to this system. We’re leaning more towards shopping as though we’re using a full ingredients-first approach, but after we get home from the store, we make a meal plan based on what we have on hand.

Here’s how this system has been working for us.

1. Our meal plan is empty, so it’s time to go to the store.
2. We check the pantry and fridge to see if we’re low on any staples. We’re starting to use a “pantry list” to keep track of things that are low.
3. We head to the store.
4. Right as we go into the store, we pick up a flyer and, with a pen, circle everything we might be interested in on the flyer. This is effectively our grocery list – the flyer plus the list of things we’re low on in our pantry and fridge.
5. We shop using this makeshift “list,” buying reasonable amounts of the fresh things on sale and stocking up on our pantry items, particularly if they’re on sale. If we happen to notice an in-store special, particularly in the produce area, we grab it.
6. We head home.
7. We immediately make a meal plan for the week, assessing what we have on hand and what meals we can make out of them. This meal plan goes on our whiteboard.
8. We follow the meal plan for the week.

This system combines many of the advantages of both strategies. It minimizes the time needed to prepare before heading to the store and allows us to take advantage of in-store specials (like dirt-cheap overripe bananas). At the same time, we do wind up with a meal plan, usually one with a bit more variety than we might otherwise have. Usually, we end up with three or four meals that are really esoteric that use ingredients we don’t normally use, then two or three routine meals that might be complemented with fresh items we bought at the store.

Which Approach Is Best for Me?

First of all, if you don’t cook at home consistently and mostly rely on restaurants, take out, delivery, and convenience meals, cooking at home, no matter what system you use, will be an enormous money saver. It will drastically cut into your food costs, likely saving you hundreds of dollars a month.

If that describes you, I would focus on getting familiar with preparing a handful of simple meals you really like. What are your favorite simple meals? Learn how to prepare them at home and focus on getting skilled at preparing those specific meals first. Don’t worry about planning meals around grocery store flyers or anything like that – you want to be able to consistently prepare meals at home that you like and build up the skills necessary to do that quickly and efficiently with minimal mess.

Once you have those skills down and are very confident in preparing those meals and similar variations at the drop of a hat, then move on to either a meal-first or ingredients-first system.

My recommendation is that if you have a highly structured personal schedule with a lot of things on your calendar, stick with a meal-first system or something like the hybrid system I mentioned above. Often, you’ll have to know that a meal can be prepared in a twenty minute time frame, or you’ll have to do some of the meal preparation the evening before, or something like that. That kind of cooking takes a little planning to be able to consistently pull off at home, so you’re going to want to plan your meals out in advance and know when you’re going to prepare things.

If that doesn’t really describe you, then give an ingredients-first approach a try. It works well for people who have some degree of schedule flexibility, people who like a lot of variety to their foods, and people who are really aiming to minimize their average meal cost even lower (this approach is often a hair cheaper because you are much more primed to take advantage of in-store specials).

Over the last several months, we’ve moved back and forth between a hybrid approach and a full meal planning approach, depending on how intense our schedule happens to be for the coming week. If things are really tight, we stick with full meal planning in advance, making a full meal plan and list before we go to the store. If things are a bit more flexible, we go to the store first and figure out the meals when we get home.

Final Thoughts

The key take-home message from all of this is that cooking your own meals at home will save you a ton of money over restaurant meals, but there’s not just one system that’s best. There are different approaches to making meals at home that minimize costs while still ensuring that you have something delicious to eat when it comes to meal time.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.