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The Pantry Principle is a phrase I first discovered in The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. According to Amy, the basic principle is to stockpile your pantry with food purchased at the lowest possible price. Every time you shop, your only purpose is to replenish the pantry. You’re not buying specific ingredients to prepare specific meals.
Keeping a well-stocked pantry is truly the key to having meals available in minutes at the lowest possible prices. With the cost of nearly everything increasing, it’s more important than ever to make your pantry work for you. Keep reading to see if the pantry principle might work for you!
With a properly stocked pantry, and shopping smart for seasonal produce (or growing my own), I have everything I need on hand for great meals. Not only are they quick and nutritious meals but also budget-friendly.
By replenishing the pantry first, I’m able to keep a tight rein on our food budget. It’s also a great way to stock the pantry for long-term storage. While I’m a fan of bulk buying, I’m also a fan of purchasing extra everyday items. Learning sales cycles and using “best by” dates to build a pantry with normal, day-to-day foods will result in less waste.
When first getting serious about using the pantry principle or stocking your pantry for preparedness reasons, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. In my case, I wanted everything immediately! To go from a modest pantry (okay, it was really on the sparse side) to something I could be comfortable with took time.
Personally, I think emptying your pantry and cleaning everything out while taking stock of what you have is the perfect place to start. Even if you feel overwhelmed with the cost of food and other items, cleaning and organizing are inexpensive. Once everything is neat and clean, put your items back in place, doing your best to organize as you go.
If you have several opened bags of spaghetti, consider combining them all into one bag or (even better) an air-tight container. My favorite containers for daily use are jars. You can buy pretty glass jars for holding and displaying spaghetti or you can use mason jars.
I have a collection of gallon-size jars for dry goods but also use quart or half-quart jars. I like to keep spices in jelly-sized jars. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many jars! I always find a use for them and know I’ll have them for canning if needed.
Pro tip: Spaghetti broken in half fits well in a quart jar and tastes exactly the same as unbroken spaghetti.
We also use a variety of buckets in 1-gallon, 3-gallon, and 5-gallon sizes. The buckets are often combined with mylar bags and oxygen absorbers. When I purchase bulk bags of beans or grains to stock my pantry, I repackage from the large bags into the mylar and buckets for longer-term storage and to help with pests.
I’m a big believer in the motto “store what you eat, eat what you store” and also the food rotation principle of “first in, first out,” or FIFO. Eating what you store makes food rotation much easier! Even so, I’ve been guilty of having something slip through the cracks.
Organization is helpful in making the most of the pantry principle. To ensure we know what we have and to keep things neat and tidy, we completely empty out our pantry and cabinets one time per year. I’ve found this is the best way for us to cut down on food waste and reduce our costs.
We set up folding tables in the living room and move everything there. We then sort all the items and check the best-by dates. Most of the time, as purchases come into the house, I write the purchase month and year on the package with a Sharpie. This gives me information at a glance and is very helpful when I’m rushing to grab a fresh container of something.
While this labeling method works well for me, sometimes other people in the household, who don’t have the same Sharpie fondness as me, put groceries away. For those items, I’ll check the best-by date and add a purchase date that corresponds with other items with a similar best-by stamp. Sometimes the stamped date is soonish. For those, instead of marking a date, I write—in my trusty Sharpie—USE. Once marked, they are put in a special section in my kitchen and worked into the menu in the next week or two.
While the pantry and cabinets are empty, everything gets wiped down with vinegar water. I also keep cotton balls with tea tree oil in the corners of the pantry as a deterrent to weevils. I replenish the oil on the cotton balls as needed throughout the year and place freshly oiled cotton balls during our annual cleanup time. Here’s an article on how to check for and prevent weevils in your pantry grains.
After everything is cleaned, it’s a great time to update spreadsheets or lists (if this is a method you use for organizing your pantry/food storage). We do have a good-sized pantry, but it’s not quite large enough to completely meet our needs.
We utilize alternative areas, including lidded storage totes stored in an alternate closet. Since these totes don’t have the contents available at a glance, I handwrite a contents sheet and put it on top of the tote plus keep a Word doc listing each tote and what’s inside.
My list isn’t super detailed. One of my totes holds assorted pasta, rice, and beans, and that’s as far as my spreadsheet breaks it down. For my needs, pasta is pasta, and I’m usually just as happy grabbing elbow as penne. But…that may not work for you! Make your system work for you. And keep in mind, if the system you set up doesn’t work, you can always change it.
While I’m organizing and updating my lists, we’re also taking stock. During our recent pantry clean, we determined we were low on fats. In the past, we’d buy coconut oil 5 gallons at a time and olive oil 1 gallon at a time.
Long ago, we made a decision to focus our budget on quality, traditional, fats as opposed to industrial fats and oils. Unfortunately, my sources for these had major price increases. While I loved the quality, I couldn’t warrant the more than double increase. We switched to ordering coconut oil by the gallon about a year ago. And I recently found a new brand of olive oil with decent reviews that I’m going to try. Upping these fat stores, along with the animal fat we keep “on the hoof” will move us closer to the recommended levels of 25 to 30 pounds of fat per person per year.
To calculate food storage amounts, I utilize a few different online calculators and take an average of them. I like the simplicity of this calculator from Provident Living and the detail of this one from The Food Guys. I would caution if you choose to use a food calculator, realize it’s a guide. Also realize building your food storage is a marathon, not a sprint. The pantry principle doesn’t rely on a perfectly stocked pantry in a matter of days. Build it as you go.
When stocking your pantry, the easiest way to start is to buy two of an item instead of one. If you are low on peanut butter, buy two jars instead of just one. If peanut butter is on sale, consider buying three, four, or more. Use this method for all items that are a regular part of your grocery list.
Buying food at rock-bottom prices used to seem easier than it does today. And while it’s true we’re seeing many hikes in our costs, there are still deals to be had. I’ll admit, I’m not one to go running from store to store looking for the best deal. That doesn’t really work in my rural area when there are only two grocery stores in the nearest town. That said, I do still check the sales and loss-leader items for things I can’t pass up and know we’ll use.
Quite often you’ll find those deals when buying the most basic ingredients. Large bags of rice instead of small boxes with seasoning added. Big bags of beans instead of cans. I’m even still finding locally grown whole wheat grains at a reasonable price but do wonder how long that will continue.
With my rural location, I utilize online ordering. Azure Standard is one of my favorite options. I order online and one time per month a truck delivers my order at a local drop. They have bulk items (wheat, beans, and other grains), seasonal produce, canned goods, and more. Definitely check them out and see if they have a drop near you. I also order from Amazon and select items from Walmart for home delivery.
A trip to the big city a few times a year is also helpful for filling my pantry. Winco is a store I used to shop on the West Coast that is expanding to other areas. Their sales prices are still often amazing and their regular prices are lower than what I pay locally for many items, making them well worth the drive even at the higher gas prices. Of course, making the two-hour journey, we combine as many errands and stops as possible and fill our little car to the brim.
When you’re looking for rock-bottom deals, it’s best not to rely on your memory of what you paid last time. Online ordering is helpful for keeping track of prices. Looking back at my online history, on March 12, the 5-pound bag Bronze Chief whole wheat flour I ordered was $4.42. Today’s price is $4.96. Brown rice was $3.42 then. Today it’s $3.52. I paid $30.20 for coconut oil in March. Today it’s $37.99. Sigh. Online receipts can be printed or they can be saved to a folder on your computer.
For in-person shopping, a price book is excellent for determining if you’re paying what you want to pay for items. This book can help you become aware of prices in your area and which stores have the best prices. It also lets you easily see when there’s a sale. You can make a price book, a simple record of items you regularly buy with the prices you find, out of a notebook. Or you can buy a premade book to help you get started and format your own moving forward.
Don’t forget about alternative sources to build your pantry. Canning, dehydrating, fermenting, and other food preservation methods can help you get the most bang for your food dollars when you grow your own, buy local, or glean. Be sure to keep records on the costs associated with these methods also and add the necessary supplies to your pantry so if a friend calls and offers you all the apples you can pick, you are ready to preserve them.