Transitioning Our Pantry from “Recipes First” to “Ingredients First”

Over the last several months, we’ve been gradually transitioning from a “recipes first” methodology of cooking to an “ingredients first” methodology. Our goal is to make our home cooking much more flexible so we can rely even more on bulk buying of key ingredients and just buying loss leaders from the produce aisle of the grocery store. I’ve written a little about this shift before and I thought a thorough update might be in order.

Let’s walk through what this is all about in detail.

How We’ve Done Things in the Past

In the past, our meal planning and grocery buying and cooking strategy was simple. It was a five step process:

Step 1: Get the grocery store flyer
Step 2: Select recipes and plan meals for the week using our calendar and the items on sale in the flyer
Step 3: Make a grocery list from those recipes, which is basically a list of recipe ingredients minus what we have already on hand
Step 4: Go grocery shopping with the grocery list in hand
Step 5: Prep meals according to the plan

This system came into being over time for several reasons.

One, we were kind of tired of clipping coupons and we found we could get much the same savings if we were careful about buying stuff from the grocery flyer of a low-cost grocer and sticking largely to store brand stuff.

Two, we knew that having a careful meal plan that took our calendar into account made it much more likely that we would prepare meals at home, which is far cheaper than eating out all the time.

Three, we knew that shopping from a grocery list was likely to help us maintain focus on that list and thus were less likely to put unplanned things in the cart.

Four, we weren’t incredibly confident in the kitchen as we moved to this plan and thus having known recipes to follow was pretty important.

This system was one that tolerated our relative inexperience in the kitchen and our crazy schedule while still finding a lot of ways to save money – cooking at home, using a low-cost grocer, sticking to a grocery list, having a grocery list full of items on sale, and so on.

There were still a few flaws with this system, though.

We often wound up with leftover ingredients in odd amounts and we were often unsure what to do with them. Often, partial packages would wind up back in the pantry or fridge or freezer and would eventually be tossed.

There were many food bulk buys that we couldn’t take advantage of because we were unsure how to use them.

Furthermore, as we became more comfortable in the kitchen, we wanted to “ad lib” with the recipes a little more.

“Recipe First” Cooking

What I eventually came to realize is that our method of meal planning and cooking is what’s known as “recipe first” cooking. In other words, our system of designing a meal plan around recipes, buying items to fulfill those recipes, and sticking tightly to the meal plan required us to find recipes before we went to the grocery store.

Basically, if you look at recipes before buying groceries, you’re doing “recipe first” cooking.

Since I’m a huge believer in simply trusting one’s grocery list to minimize impulse buys, I would often go to the store and end up buying package sizes to specifically match our recipes, and that was often a ballpark thing. Often, we’d need an awkward amount, so I’d end up buying a little too much and the excess would just wind up in the back of the fridge or the pantry.

This system also made it very hard to ad-lib. What if I wanted to modify a recipe one night? What if one or two of the neighbor kids was at our house for supper, which happens occasionally? What if a last minute change of events changes the window of time to prepare a specific recipe?

Over time, we came up with some “patches” for this, the big one being that we always had ingredients on hand for a few specific meals that we could quickly prepare any time. We always had ingredients for a simple vegetarian chili. We always had ingredients for spaghetti with sauce.

The perk of those meals was that I knew I could always buy beans in bulk and canned diced tomatoes in bulk and chili seasonings in bulk and dry spaghetti in bulk and pasta sauce in bulk (or, more often these days, tomato sauce in bulk and a variety of spices in bulk). If I saw boxes of whole wheat spaghetti for $0.50, I knew I could just fill the cart up with them and we’d eventually use them.

“Ingredients First” Cooking

Eventually, I came to realize that I wanted that kind of freedom with everything. Whenever I saw a really great sale on something I knew we used more than once in a blue moon, I wanted to be able to just stock up on it without thinking, knowing it would get used. I wanted to be able to buy some frequently used items in huge bulk so that it was incredibly cheap per pound.

This led to the overall realization that we should move toward “ingredients first” cooking, meaning that we just have a pantry and freezer full of staples and thus our meal planning is just about utilizing what’s on sale in the produce section of the grocery store while having the ability to ad-lib lots of meals.

For many quick meals, we’d just always have everything on hand. If I want to make a pot of chili, for example, I’d know that every ingredient I’d need for it is ready to go in the pantry or in the fridge or in the freezer at all times. If I want to make spaghetti, the same is true. Basically, I want this to be true for quite a few meals, and I want many other meals to be similarly ready to go whenever the fresh ingredients are on sale.

Basically, this means filling up our pantry with staples purchased in bulk, buying loss leaders from the fresh items at the grocery store, buying nonperishables in bulk particularly when on sale, and then assembling meals out of what we have on hand.

This changes the five step process above into this:

Step 1: Get the grocery store flyer
Step 2: Identify loss leaders that will make for interesting meals
Step 3: Make a grocery list from the loss leaders and from whatever’s low in the pantry
Step 4: Go grocery shopping with the grocery list in hand
Step 5: Make a meal plan based on what I have on hand and what fits our calendar

In other words, I buy the ingredients before even deciding on recipes or a meal plan. Instead, I just know I have a lot of staples on hand and that I can assemble a lot of meals from those ingredients.

The key to this is that the ingredients on hand become the constraint on deciding what to make, not what I can buy at the grocery store. I keep my shopping to bulk staples and on-sale ingredients and then use them to make something for each meal which I can figure out after grocery shopping but before cooking.

What Changes in Our Food Buying and Prep Time?

So, what does that mean in terms of actual changes in our food buying and food preparation?

Obviously, the focus changes to keeping a healthy pantry full of staples and supplementing that with on-sale produce. When we fully transition (this is still ongoing, for reasons I’ll note below), our grocery list will basically be staple refills along with on-sale fresh produce.

We’re still figuring out what staples we need to have on hand, but this is a really good list to work from that we’ve been using. Obviously, some items are in larger quantity than others depending on the types of food we make regularly. For example, we’ll always have tons of diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and tomato paste on hand, whereas we have very little need to have clams on hand.

The thing to notice is that almost everything on that list is staple foods, not prepared foods. Staple items are almost universally cheaper to buy at the store than prepared items. The more basic the item, the cheaper it is.

We still do meal plans, but meal plans can now be done after the grocery shopping. I can meal plan before or after grocery shopping. It becomes much more of an issue to make sure that the meals we plan fit our calendar rather than figuring out what we need to buy.

Our “meal prepping” is more about preparing basic ingredients for future meals and also about making duplicates of the same meal when we’re making one for supper. We’ve kind of moved away from just making lots of batches of the same meal; instead, if we’re making one meal from scratch, we’ll just make three or four of it (limited by what we have on hand) and save the extra two or three for later, which usually triggers a need to restock specific ingredients in the pantry.

For example, if I’m making lasagna, I’ll probably just go and make several pans of it at once, and the number of pans is usually limited by the ingredients we happen to have around. How many pans can I make based on what’s on hand in the fridge and pantry? This usually means we run out of something, and thus it’s a staple that I can replenish by buying in bulk next time.

I’ll also spend some time straight-up prepping ingredients for future use. For example, I’ve found that it’s a great idea to store small batches of chopped onions and bell peppers in the freezer in small containers. I can just pull them out when it’s convenient and toss them right into the skillet or crock pot or whatever. This means that every once in a while, I’ll spend an hour just chopping onions – tons of them. There are also times where I’ll just buy frozen diced onions and diced green peppers at the store when they’re on sale and divide them into smaller containers when I get home.

Lessons Learned

Ingredients-first cooking will save you a lot of money, but transitioning to it has a number of challenges and some unexpected expenses. We’re still in transition – we’re mostly doing it, but we often run into little problems and make last-minute runs to the store to fix things. While I think it’s already cheaper than our previous situation, it will get even better when we shave off the rough edges.

Here are some things we’ve learned.

Familiarity with the kitchen is absolutely essential if you’re trying to do this with time constraints. If you’re a single person or you’re retired and you don’t have a whole lot of time constraints on meal preparation, it’s not nearly as big of a deal. The reality is that we often have to get meals made in a pretty narrow timeframe, and that means that we need to be pretty adept in the kitchen at a wide variety of tasks.

The reason is that quite often, you’re not following an exact recipe. You certainly can follow recipes with this strategy, but it almost nudges you not to do so and to trust your own instincts in the kitchen. If you’re leafing through Serious Eats or AllRecipes or something like that and come up with a recipe, you’ll often not have exactly what it calls for, which means you need to be knowledgable and comfortable enough to make reasonable substitutions if you want to make it. In other words, almost everything you make becomes a slight variation on a basic recipe. You’ll almost never make the exact same pasta meal twice – it’ll slightly vary based on what ingredients you happen to have and, as you become more experienced, what flavors you want to accentuate.

A complete pantry reboot is often necessary. If you’re accustomed to just following recipes or instructions on the backs of boxes for everything that you make, it’s very likely that you’ve accumulated a lot of partial containers of things that have gradually shifted to the back of your pantry, filling it up with a bunch of junk that you’ve forgotten about.

In order to switch to ingredient-based cooking, you need to pull all of that nonsense out of your pantry and either use it up or toss it.

One good way of doing this is to get several large boxes and put everything that’s currently in your pantry that isn’t a staple in there. All of the half-used containers, all of the strange ingredients you bought to follow one specific recipe, all of that stuff – put it in a box or two or seven that’s outside of your pantry. Then, you can restock your pantry with actual staples while also trying to get through and use up all of the stuff in boxes.

Storage containers become very, very useful when you switch to this strategy. Many of the staples you buy at the store will actually just serve to refill a storage container in your pantry. We have lots of containers for different kinds of flours, different kinds of pasta, and so on.

The reason for this is that it keeps you from having a pantry full of half-empty bags and containers of various kinds. When you buy oatmeal, for example, at the store, you just bring it home, dump it in the oatmeal container, and toss the package.

Even better, this system makes it really easy to move to using the bulk bins at the grocery store. Almost always, the stuff that comes out of those bulk bins is cheaper and higher quality than the packages on the shelves. It’s definitely fresher most of the time, too.

The drawback, of course, is the startup cost of having so many food storage containers. Our solution is to go cheap at first, using cheap flimsy containers from the grocery store, and then buying better sets as holiday gifts (my wife and I have become absurdly practical with most of our gift-giving to each other, where it becomes mostly an excuse to upgrade things around the house that we use a lot). Basically, go cheap, then gradually upgrade your frequently used containers to better stuff like OXO Good Grips POP containers (my favorite for things like flour and pasta, but expensive) and these airtight spice containers.

Another thing that will happen is that you’ll constantly be learning what should and shouldn’t be in your pantry. You’ll have ingredients in there that you scarcely use and will sit for years, while you completely missed the boat on other staples. That’s why we have been often running to the store for last minute items as we make this transition.

Final Thoughts

Most Americans approach home food preparation from a “recipe first” perspective. They buy items to fulfill a specific recipe, whether it’s one found online or in a book or magazine or a recipe card or even the back of a package. While this is certainly less expensive than eating out constantly and it does require less creativity and skill in the kitchen, it does create the problem of having extra ingredients left over and you’ll also find it’s harder to always stick to the on-sale items when grocery shopping.

Ingredients-first cooking solves both of those problems, which further reduces long term food costs, but it comes with some challenges, too. It requires some skill and creativity in the kitchen, for starters, and there’s a hefty startup cost. There’s also the challenge of dealing with a pantry full of items that you need to use up as you’re “rebooting” your pantry.

In the long run, it can definitely save you a lot of money as it means that further food buying is either bulk purchasing or loss leaders from the grocery flyer, but it requires some transition if you currently have an overstuffed pantry and refrigerator.

Whether you think that “ingredients first” cooking is a good choice for you or not, it’s a worthwhile approach to understand and keep in your back pocket for times when your food costs are about to become tighter or when you want a bit more freedom in your home food preparation and want to stretch your cooking skills and creativity a little.

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.