The Frugal Pantry

 Posted by on October 10, 2008  Add comments  Tagged with: ,
Oct 102008

***Updated 5/2013***

This is my basement pantry. I also have a small pantry in my kitchen, but I use these shelves in my laundry room for storing stockpiled sale goods. I don’t plan meals far in advance, and I don’t shop to make specific meals. Instead, I shop to replenish my pantry.

I disagree with the idea of a predetermined, stick-to-your-list menu plan, for the following reasons:

1) I buy groceries according to what’s on sale that week.

2) I frequently see unadvertised or clearance sales on items that I wasn’t planning to buy. If, according to my price book, the deal is really phenomenal, I’ll stockpile that item whether it’s on my list or not.

3) I plan meals based on what I need to use up. To avoid waste, I’ve become a master at creative leftover cooking.

I’m fortunate to live in a small town which is only 20 minutes from a larger city. Aldi, Super Wal-Mart, Fareway, and HyVee are all within close proximity. Aldi and Wal-Mart (just for the record, I hate Wal-Mart) are consistently the cheapest, but occasionally the other stores will have good advertised sales. 3-4 times a year, I travel 45 minutes to an Amish community to shop at their bulk grocery and salvage stores. I buy all of my spices and many staples & baking supplies in bulk there. I always combine these trips with other errands, and I buy a lot of groceries. The back of my van is usually packed.

Here’s how I make my weekly grocery list:

1) I scan the sale flyers that come in my free weekly “Penny Pincher” type newspaper. I compare the sale prices to the lowest price recorded in my price book.

2) If the sale is really good, I inventory my supply of that item and make an educated guess as to how much to buy. After 10+ years of keeping a price book, I’ve learned when most items typically go on sale, so I buy enough to get us through until then.

3) I inventory my staples (flour, rice, pasta) to see if there’s something that I must purchase because the supply is low. These items don’t go on sale often, but I always need them. Therefore, I try to stockpile them when I do see good sales.

People sometimes ask me what they should keep in their “frugal pantry.” This is a difficult question to answer definitively, because dietary needs and preferences vary so widely. Rather than prescribing must-haves, I can offer a list of what we typically keep in our pantry, fridge, and freezer. Feel free to use it as a starting point, and alter it to fit your needs.

Note: We do occasionally buy other items – such as fruit leather and canned frosting – but only if we find really terrific sales.

You’ll notice a few things about this list:

1) We don’t buy a wide variety of meats. We try to eat “less meat” meals, using 1/2-3/4 pound of meat per meal for our family of four (now five!), and we usually have only one meal with meat per day. We eat a lot of chicken and turkey breasts, and ground beef. With the exception of occasional ham, we almost never eat pork.

2) We buy only a handful of convenience foods and no packaged dinners except macaroni and cheese.

3) In the summer and fall, we don’t buy many vegetables because we eat right from our garden. In the winter, we buy frozen vegetables when our garden surplus runs out (this year we have to buy a lot, because our garden was a bust!) We also grow and freeze sour cherries and plums.

4) We use unsalted butter, and Smart Balance spread instead of margarine. There is great debate right now about which is worse – saturated fats or trans fats, and Smart Balance has zero trans fat, and about half the saturated fat of butter. It’s also gluten and gelatin-free. I use either butter or extra-light olive oil for baking.

Pantry Items
Bay Leaf
Beef broth powder
Cayenne pepper
Chicken broth powder
Chili powder
Celery seed
Cream of Tartar
Dill weed
Dry ground mustard
Garlic powder
Lemon pepper
Middle Eastern Seven Spice
Onion flakes
Onion powder
Pepper (black)
Salt (sea, and kosher)
Seasoning salt

Baking Supplies
Baking soda
Baking powder (aluminum-free)
Brown sugar
Chocolate chips
Condensed milk (occasionally, for certain recipes)
Confectioner’s sugar
Cornmeal (not cornbread/muffin mix – I make cornbread from scratch)
Evaporated milk (I keep several cans of this on hand at all times. It’s a great substitute for heavy cream in recipes)
Flour-all purpose, unbleached
Flour-whole wheat
Instant pudding
Maple extract (for pancake syrup)
Non-stick cooking spray (usually olive oil)
Pie filling (occasionally)
Vanilla extract (pure – not imitation)
White sugar

Tea bags (for iced tea)

Flour tortillas
Pita bread
100% whole wheat bread
(I make other breads)

Dried Beans, Pasta and Grains
Basmati rice
Brown rice
Bulgur wheat
Egg noodles
Elbow macaroni
Popcorn (not microwave)
Quick oats
Pasta shells (small-for pasta salads)
Thin spaghetti
White rice (mainly for rice pudding and other desserts)
Wild and brown rice blend

Canned or Bottled/Jarred Goods
Baked beans (mainly in summer)
Black beans
Butter beans
Creamed corn (I keep canned corn products on hand to make cornbread pudding – a favorite of my husband)
Green chiles
Hormel chili with beans
Juices (100%, no sugar added – apple, cranberry, grape)
Kidney beans
Mandarin oranges
Olives (black and green)
Pineapple (chunks & crushed)
Salsa (rarely)
Sauerkraut (Frank’s)
Sun-dried tomatoes in oil
Tomato paste
Tomato sauce
Tomatoes (crushed, diced & stewed)
Tuna (water-packed, not albacore)
White beans (ex: Great Northern or Cannelini)

57 sauce
Apple cider vinegar
Chocolate syrup
Coffee creamer (International Delight brand is trans fat-free)
Dorothy Lynch salad dressing (occasionally, for taco salads)
Dry milk
Garlic, minced
Hot sauce
Hoisin sauce
Jam/Jelly (grape, raspberry, & apricot)
Lemon juice
Miracle Whip
Mustard (yellow & dijon)
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese
Ranch dressing (for the kids to dip raw veggies)
Soy sauce
Taco sauce
Tahini (for hummus)
White vinegar
Worcestershire sauce

American slices (we buy only the Kirkland premium slices from Costco for $2/pound – no generics)
Shredded (sharp cheddar & mozzarella)

Dairy (With the exception of 1% milk, which we prefer, I buy all dairy products full-fat)
Crescent rolls/refrigerator biscuits (when I can buy them for $1.00 or less)
Orange juice
1% milk
Smart Balance
Sour cream

Meat (though we understand that we’re free to eat any and all foods, we choose to eat only clean meats, as per God’s Levitical food laws in the Holy Bible)
Beef – we get a variety of cuts when we purchase our quarter each fall, including ground beef, stew meat and soup bones, chuck, rump and arm roasts, round steak, and sirloin, ribeye, and New York strip steaks. We do not eat organ meats, because we find them disgusting and repulsive.
Chicken breasts, bone-in, with skin
Whole chicken
Hot dogs (uncured beef or turkey only, and not often)
Lean turkey ham
Pepperoni (I buy turkey pepperoni, for homemade pizza)
Sliced turkey
Turkey bacon
Turkey sausage
Whole breast of turkey

Nuts and Seeds
Brazil nuts
Flax seed
Pine nuts
Sunflower seeds

Berries (in season)
Green bell peppers
Kiwi fruit
Oranges (mandarins, or “Cuties”)
Romaine lettuce

Packaged Goods
Breakfast cereal (mainly for my husband – the kids aren’t big cereal fans)
Graham crackers
Granola bars
Kraft macaroni and cheese
Raisins and other dried fruit
Snack crackers
Stuffing mix
Taco shells

Green beans
Hash browns
Mixed vegetables
Stir fry veggies
Tater tots


Breakfast items
French toast sticks
Pancakes (my kids don’t like frozen scratch pancakes. I don’t know why).
Toaster waffles

Cool Whip (sometimes, for specific recipes)
Ice Cream


  6 Responses to “The Frugal Pantry”

  1. Heather,
    Thank you for the wonderful list of usefull and pratical staples for cooking and baking. You solved a problem; I am working on a list staples to stock my sister’s new place. She was sharing a home with our parents prior to getting her own place. My plan is to gift her items to start her pantry and your lists is going to make the choices easier for me to do that well.
    again thank you,

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