I come from that population of people who have pantries that can kill you if you do not open them carefully enough. I am interested in trying all kinds of foods; couple that with always wanting to have “x” on hand in case I want to make “y” and you have sliding shelf-drawers that will give out long before the warranty. Every so often I do a tidy-up and move things around so they are more easily seen, but mostly it is a delicious wreck in there. I am envious of people who have butler’s pantries, but I imagine I would easily (over)fill that space, too, and not with tableware.
There are many “build a pantry” guides out there. I read my first one in Cooking Light Magazine, and watching Rachael Ray’s “Thirty-Minute Meals” on Food Network gave me a visual, moving pantry-in-action. (True confessions: I totally miss that show.) Since then, I have seen countless other versions: vegetarian, clean eating, Paleo. There is a pantry for every eating style.
I have considered what my pantry might look like if I could curb my enthusiasm, and here is my addition to the conversation. Depending on your household size, using bulk bins to stock up means you can get smaller quantities, which you can use more quickly and will take up less space.
Why keep all of this on hand? Because sometimes you do not want to go to the store after work, or think too much about what you are going to eat. Your pantry (with a little help from regulars in the refrigerator and freezer) can keep you covered. At the end, there are some ideas for what to make if you are cooking from what you have. If you have time and the desire to pick up meat or fresh seafood, your possibilities increase even further. But you do not need it to still make flavorful, healthy, and filling meals.
Pasta (regular or gluten-free): 1 box each of linguine, spaghetti, elbows and a short cut (ziti, penne, rotini)
1 box rice noodles (I like a wider, flatter fettucine-style noodle for keeping around; get what you prefer)
Rice: brown, Basmati, and Arborio (If I had to ditch one, it would be the Basmati.)
Other Grains: quinoa, sorghum, millet, farro, barley (Keep two on hand, and rotate through them if you like variety. The first three are gluten-free.)
Beans: black, red kidney(I would drop this one if space was an issue), chickpeas, white (something like Navy or Cannellini)
To buy dried or canned depends on you. When I first switched from canned to dried, I found I used beans less often. Now that I have an Instant Pot and making beans is so fast, we eat them more often. But I will not make just enough for one meal, which means they take up space in the freezer. Pantry space or freezer space: your call.
Other Legumes: lentils, at least one kind
My favorite are French lentils, and I keep green lentils on hand, too. Right now there are also tiny Beluga lentils taking up space; I could not resist the cuteness. I like to keep red or yellow lentils around because they cook faster and have a different texture than the others.
Tomatoes: whole, diced, sauce, paste (I love the Amore brand tubes.)
Seafood: salmon, tuna in water and in oil
Broth: chicken and vegetable
Oil and Vinegar: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Canola or Grapeseed oil, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, Balsamic vinegar (If I had to drop a vinegar, it would be the red wine.)
Flours and Sweeteners: all-purpose flour (regular or a gluten-free blend), white-whole wheat flour, corn meal, cornstarch, baking powder, black pepper, baking soda, table salt, coarse salt, natural cane sugar, maple syrup, honey
Herbs and Spices (all dried): cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, bay leaves, thyme, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, fennel seed, chili powder, cumin, coriander, turmeric, curry powder
This list is based on the ones I reach for most often, but a wide variety of herbs and spices is the key to mixing up what I can make for dinner at any given moment.
Vegetables: potatoes (all-purpose yellow if you only have room for one, otherwise I would keep red, yellow, and baking on hand), onions, garlic
Freezer (an extension of the pantry): spinach, peas
Not the pantry, but good for building meals from what you have:
Refrigerator: butter, buttermilk, milk, (or the dairy-free substitutes) lemons, fresh ginger, (which can also go in the freezer and be grated when you need it) carrots, celery, leafy greens, (a rotation of collards, kale, escarole, spinach, Swiss Chard, beet greens) eggs, parmigiano reggiano, cheddar, feta, goat cheese (cheeses are optional…unless you live in my house)
Meals you can build from the above:
Bean Chili with Cornbread (beans–one of each, oil, onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, broth, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, flour, corn meal, baking powder and soda, salt, buttermilk, honey, egg)
Pasta with Beans and Greens (pasta, garlic, onion, olive oil, beans, a leafy green, red pepper flakes, parmigiano),
Grain Bowl: quinoa; black beans with garlic, diced tomatoes, chili powder, and cumin; flaked salmon; leafy green–cooked or not, depending on the green
Soup: onion, garlic, oil, broth, potatoes, carrots, celery, thyme, bay, peas, leafy green
Baked Potatoes, two ways: yellow or baking potato, oil, garlic, onion, (One: turmeric, spinach, coconut milk, fresh ginger, chickpeas, peas; Two: kale, white beans, fennel seed, broth, a spritz of lemon juice, feta or parmigiano)
Beans and Greens with Eggs: the beans and greens from above, minus the pasta and topped with a fried egg
Pasta with Tomato, Chickpeas, and Tuna: olive oil, red pepper flakes, oregano, onion, garlic, tomatoes, (any except paste, though you can add that, too) chickpeas, tuna in oil (drained; you can use this oil in place of the olive oil if desired)