Having a well-stocked pantry makes all the difference when planning meals, and also on your budget. I’ve seen tons of pins on Pinterest encouraging people to create meal calendars and plan out every detail. I think that’s great if it works for you but to me, it seems like that’s making it way more difficult than it has to be. I wasn’t that great at shooting from the hip in meal planning before culinary school. I over-thought it and I’m sure some of you can relate. When we get going through the lessons, you’ll be amazed at how much better you get at meal planning. And with a well-stocked pantry it’s a lot easier than you think.  

I like to buy food that’s on sale then plan my meals around it. I rarely go to the grocery store with any lunches or dinners planned. I may have a few ideas in my head and I usually have a list of my basics that are running low but as far as meals go, I shop around. I usually check grocery store circulars before leaving the house because if I see something I want on sale, I’ll shop at that store for the day. I don’t drive all over town for groceries unless there are items at really good prices at different stores. That doesn’t happen often. 

I start by perusing the meat section, paying special attention to what’s on sale. I almost always buy meats in the largest cuts possible. For example, I buy a whole pork loin instead of buying pork chops. When I get home (or the next day), I’ll slice the loin into chops. One meal’s worth goes into the fridge and the rest gets frozen for later. It saves a lot of money and I can cut the pork chops into the size I want. You can’t do that with bone-in pork chops, unless you have a bone saw and I’m betting you don’t, so those have to be purchased already sliced. When they’re on sale, of course. 

Once I make it through the meat section, I have a pretty good idea of what my meals will look like for the week so I move on to the middle aisles. I don’t buy much here, only what I need for meals and to replenish my stock, but I also pay attention to sales. If a jar of artichoke hearts is on sale, I snatch it up. I may not make anything with it this week but maybe I’ll add it to a pizza in a couple weeks or maybe I’ll make some spinach artichoke dip in a couple months (btw, both of those are dishes I can make solely relying on my staple items). Buying it on sale now means I’ll have it when I’m ready for it, I won’t have to make a special trip to the grocery store when I need it, and I got it at a discount. Those three things all make me happy. Just make sure you aren’t loading up on things you won’t ever use. 

The dairy section is usually pretty consistent as far as prices go. What I normally look for on sale here is butter. When butter is sold cheap, I stock up. Since it keeps in the freezer for at least 6 months, I’ll buy about 6 pounds at a time. My goal is to eventually make my own butter from cream from a local dairy farm but sadly, I haven’t done that yet. It may sound crazy but it’s so easy and tastes unbelievably better than the mass-produced stuff. My ultimate goal is to have a milk cow but that is crazy.

I finish my shopping with produce. I get plenty of fruits and veggies for the week, along with supplementary items needed for my meals like mushrooms or jalapeños. I always make my fruit and veggie selections based on prices. It’s hard to keep track of produce prices from week to week but there are grocery shopping apps for your smart phone that can help. My favorite on the iPhone is Shopping List by Skript. I have no idea what’s available for Android, sorry. Here’s a practical example: I planned on making asparagus with dinner last week… until I noticed it was $5.99 a bundle. That’s crazy. There were some Brussels sprouts on sale right next to the asparagus so I bought those instead. And roasted them. I’m not normally a huge Brussels sprouts fan but they are unbelievably delicious when roasted. My taste buds thanked me later. And so did my feet when I used my total grocery store savings for a pedicure. (Not really but I could have.) 

Always, always, always stay away from pre-sliced fruits in the produce section. They are ridiculously overpriced, spoil faster, and it’s the easiest way to increase your grocery bill. The grocery store doesn’t hire someone to slice fruit because they’re nice and they want to do you a favor. They do it because people pay insane prices to save the 6 minutes it takes to peel and slice a cantaloupe. Shameful. 

The same thing happens in restaurants; owners pay way more for food items because they don’t pay attention to prices. Take lemons, for example. When building my order guide for the new restaurant, I noticed that 40lbs of lemons cost $.20 less than a 15lb bag. You read that right (unless you missed that decimal point). That’s because the lemon processors only ship 40lb boxes. The warehouse has someone on staff that breaks the bags down into smaller quantities. That manpower costs money and the customer is the one who pays it. I could save money by throwing away 25lbs of lemons every week. Of course, I didn’t do that… I found new ways to use lemons. The lime sauce on the bread pudding became a lemon sauce. Then we featured a lemon-ginger mojito at the bar. And I could always make lemonade (insert over-used inspirational phrase *here*). Most people will buy the 15lb bag because they figure they’re only losing $.20 but in reality, I’m saving more than that by utilizing the essentially free lemons in place of other items. This mentality can be applied in your home cooking, too. 

Bigger quantities don’t always translate to savings anymore. Make sure you cost out items if it’s not done for you on the price tag. Most chain grocery stores now include a “cost per ounce” or similar feature next to item price tags and you should use them. I was shopping with my grandmother recently and she needed some cheddar cheese. We were at the dreaded Walmart (not my choice) and I decided to compare blocks of cheese with pre-shredded bags. I found that they don’t keep blocks of cheese next to the pre-shredded bags, they’re at least 10-20 yards apart, which is a good indicator that they don’t want you to compare pricing. An 8oz block of Kraft cheddar was the exact same price as “around 2 cups” of pre-shredded. But when I checked the weight of the pre-shredded, it was only 7oz. That ounce comes out to about a $.62 difference. It may not sound like a lot but an extreme couponer will tell you just how quickly that adds up. Especially when you’re buying for a family of four or more. Not to mention how much better it is to shred your own cheese than buying it pre-shredded but we’ll get to that later. 

All these things I’m talking about may sound small but it saves an incredible amount of money over the course of a year. Like Christian Louboutin money. Or Macbook money. Don’t be that guy who buys pre-cut cantaloupe and claims it’s less expensive to eat out than to cook at home. Or worse, that guy who doesn’t eat fruit because “it’s too expensive” but stops at Starbucks daily for a venti latte. 

And before you ask… I don’t shop at wholesale grocery stores for extra savings. Not only do I not need 5lbs of peanut butter at a time but Sam’s is the only option in my area. The only thing worse than shopping at an ethically irresponsible company is paying a membership fee to shop at an ethically irresponsible company. But I won’t judge you for shopping at Walmart or Sam’s. I promise. The discounts are tempting, I get it. It just so happens that I made a decision a while ago and I’m über stubborn. 

I planned on giving you an inventory of my pantry today but my introduction is longer than expected. I’ll try to whip out that list for you tomorrow so we can move this part along and get into the kitchen already!

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