How to Stock a Pantry for the First Time

Are you overwhelmed by empty kitchen cabinets and don’t know how to stock a pantry for the first time? 

Having essential ingredients available in the house makes it easy to whip up a quick meal when you don’t have time to cook. Plus, stocking your pantry will help you to save money on groceries in the long run.

According to the latest Consumer Price Index, the cost of food increased over the last 12 months. Cereal and bakery products are up 16.4%, fruits and vegetables rose 9.4%, and dairy foods increased 16.2%. Stocking up on sales and buying in bulk are some of the best strategies to cut your grocery bill

But if you’re new to cooking or you recently decided you want to keep your pantry full, the process of stocking a pantry might seem daunting. 

Where do you start?

How much do you need?

Keep reading for strategies to fill an empty pantry without getting overwhelmed and get a list of ingredients every pantry needs.

Benefits of a Stocked Pantry

In addition to being able to meal plan without running to the store for last-minute ingredients, there are other benefits of keeping a stocked pantry.

  • You’ll save money. When you have all the ingredients on hand, there’s no temptation to order takeout or go out to eat because you don’t have what you need to make something at home. And you’ll spend even less on groceries if you stock up on sales to fill your pantry. Over time, this can add up to big savings. 
  • You’ll eat healthier. Home-cooked meals are typically healthier than takeout since you can control the ingredients and how they’re prepared. In addition, stocking your pantry with healthy options will help you make better choices when it comes time to eat. 
  • You’ll reduce food waste. If you have a well-stocked pantry, you’re less likely to let fresh ingredients go to waste. When you know you have everything you need to make a meal, there’s no excuse not to use up those perishables before they go bad. 
  • You’ll be prepared for emergencies. If there’s a power outage or weather emergency, you’ll still be able to make meals if you have a stocked pantry.
  • You’ll have more options for meals. If you’re bored with your usual recipes, a stocked pantry can give you the opportunity to try new things or make ingredient swaps. Don’t be afraid to try a new combination or substitute ingredients.

3 Methods to Stock a Pantry

When stocking your pantry for the first time, it’s important to think about what you will need on a regular basis and what you can afford to store. It’s also helpful to have an idea of the types of foods you like to eat and how long they will last. 

Here are a few methods to stock an empty pantry, so you’re always ready to come up with quick meals.

1. Buy ingredients for recipes. One of the easiest ways to stock your pantry is to buy ingredients as you need them for recipes. This method works especially well if you have a good handle on what you like to eat and what you don’t. 

2. Wait for sales. It can be pricey if you’re trying to stock your pantry on a budget. So, another option is to wait for sales. By keeping an eye on your local grocery store’s flyer, you can stock up on pantry staples whenever they go on sale.

3. Make a list. Start with a list of all the ingredients you regularly use for cooking and baking. This is the quickest method to buy food to keep on hand, but spending a lot of money upfront to stock up may not be the best method for everyone. 

If you’re not in a rush to have a pantry full of food, use a combination of these methods. For example, when I first started cooking, I bought ingredients as I needed them for new recipes. Then, once I knew what I used regularly, I waited for sales to stock up. And, during certain times of the year, I stocked up on what I’d need for that season.

Pantry Tips 

Before you shop for food to keep on hand in the house, here are a few tips to help you figure out what and how much food you need and how to maintain a full pantry.

Make a list of the things you use regularly

This could include items like flour, sugar, coffee, tea, cereal, bread, pasta, rice, canned goods, etc.

Decide how much of each item you need to have on hand. 

Do you bake often?

If so, you may want more flour and sugar on hand, especially during the fall and winter holidays when you do a lot more baking. As the holidays approach, do a quick inventory of your baking ingredients so you can make last-minute bread, pies, and cookies.

How Often Do You Cook?

If you cook every day, you’ll need more pantry staples than someone who only cooks a few times a week. 

A well-stocked pantry will make it easier to whip up a meal without running to the store whenever you’re missing an ingredient. However, if your pantry is always overflowing with food you never end up using, it may be time to scale back on your stock. Try making meals only from your pantry for a few days. You’ll use up extra ingredients and save money on groceries that week.

Do You Eat Out A Lot?

If you eat out frequently, you won’t need as many pantry staples as someone who rarely dines out. However, some items are essential regardless of how often you eat at home. For example, everyone should have salt, pepper, and olive oil on hand. These items can come in handy even if you’re ordering takeout most nights of the week. 

Consider the season

While it’s convenient always to have a fully stocked pantry of the basics, buying extras you’ll need for the current season is a good idea. 

For example, you might want to keep extra BBQ sauce, pickles, salad dressings, marinades, ketchup, and salad toppings during the summer. And in the winter, you’ll probably need extra flour, sugar, broths (for homemade soups), canned soups, and ingredients for your favorite one-pot oven dishes.

Consider the shelf life 

Some foods last longer than others. So before stocking up, check the expiration date.

Don’t foods out if the expiration date has passed. The expiration date represents the peak freshness date determined by food manufacturers. Shelf-stable foods have a long shelf life. According to the USDA, many foods might be safe to eat past the expiration date.

So before you throw away food, consider the shelf-life!

Here are the USDA’s shelf stable storage guidelines:

  • Dried rice and pasta: two years (store in an airtight container to keep food fresh and pest-free)
  • Low-acid canned foods (meat and vegetables): two to five years. 
  • High-acid canned foods (fruit, picked foods like sauerkraut and pickles): 12-18 months
  • Home canned foods: 12 months
  • Canned ham: two to five years
  • Tuna in a pouch: 18 months
  • Meat or poultry products in a pouch: go by the manufacturer’s recommendation on the package
Food stored in air tight containers.

Use airtight containers 

Investing in airtight containers for dry beans, legumes, nuts, cereals, and rice will help keep your food fresher for longer and prevent things from getting stale. Containers also protect grains from pests. 

You can find these containers at most home goods stores or online. Just be sure to label the containers, so you know what’s inside.

Tip: for rice and other staples with cooking instructions on the box, cut out directions and tape them to the container.

Check your pantry regularly

Once your pantry is fully stocked, it’s important to keep everything organized so ingredients are easy to find.

Group similar items together so you don’t lose beans behind the pasta sauce. That way, you can get a general idea of how much is left with just a quick glance.

Try using clear storage containers. That way, you can easily see when something is running low and needs to be replaced. You can also use chalkboard labels to easily change up your containers’ contents as needed. 

Lastly, keep an inventory list on hand at all times so that you know exactly what needs to be restocked. If maintaining an inventory list doesn’t work for your family, keep a master grocery list available and add ingredients you’re running low on.

Basic foods to keep in the pantry.

What Should Be in a Fully Stocked Pantry?

A well-stocked pantry contains all the staples necessary for making simple meals. 

At the very minimum, you should always have eggs, oil, rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, vegetables and beans, and flour. If you want to make more complex dishes, you can also stock your pantry with items like herbs, spices, jarred pesto, olives, and olives.

Keep your pantry stocked with these essentials, and you’ll be able to cook just about anything—no matter how last-minute the craving may be.

Dried and Canned Foods

These are the items that you’ll use on a regular basis for cooking and baking. Keep them stocked in your pantry, so you’re never caught without them when you need them.

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Coffee, tea, herbal teas
  • Cereals
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Canned foods: fruit, vegetables, beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, low-sodium vegetables, fruit packed in water, tuna, broth
  • Spices and Condiments: Salt, Pepper, Olive Oil, Vinegar, Ketchup, Mustard, soy sauce
  • Fresh pantry ingredients: potatoes, onions, and garlic
  • Cooking oils and vinegar (red wine and balsamic)
Ingredients for baking.

Baking essentials

If you enjoy baking, then these are the items that you’ll need to have on hand. They’ll help ensure that your baked goods turn out perfectly every time.

  • Baking Soda
  • Baking Powder
  • Chocolate Chips
  • Coconut flakes
  • Baking spray (for pans)
  • Extracts: Vanilla Extract and others you might often use (lemon, almond)
  • Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon sugar (it’s easy to make your own)

Freezer essentials

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Homemade sauces, soups, and stocks

Refrigerator essentials

  • Eggs
  • Butter or margarine
  • Milk or non-dairy milk alternatives
  • Shredded cheeses

Cooking & baking essentials

Of course, you’ll need pots and pans and other cooking tools. These are other essential items to keep stocked that you may not think about until you need them. They come in handy more often than you think.

  • Aluminum Foil
  • Parchment paper
  • Cupcake liners 
  • Freezer safe containers
  • Microwave-safe glass storage containers
  • Cheesecloth

Wrap It Up

Stocking a pantry for the first time doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Once your pantry has the basics, it will be easy to maintain. Just add food you’re about to run out of to your shopping list.

You’ll get to know what foods your family goes through quickly and which foods you don’t need more than one or two on hand.

The key is to strike a balance between having enough food on hand so that you can cook without having to make a trip to the store every time and avoiding waste by not stockpiling more food than you’ll actually use.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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