Note: this is a mess. Currently working/thinking on it.
the Big Idea
Part of my approach to pantry/menu planning goes back to the Boy Scouts where we boys would (at the patrol level) plan meals for the upcoming campout, make shopping lists, pool funds, shop frugally, then execute the meal plans in the field. Cooking skills are required in the rank structure.
Later in the Army there was no formal individual cooking; you either ate
MREs (no heating packet in those days) or what the skilled cooks made. Some of
us them did bend the rules and bring small stoves into the field to heat
personal food, make coffee, etc. In that kind of scenario you learn to cook
quickly and discreetly.
“Store what you eat and eat what you store”. Made famous by Jack Spirko, this sounds like a Russian Reversal but contains practical wisdom:
- Stock only stuff you will actually eat. Nothing gets a pass no matter how cheap or tacticool.’
- Rotate your stock and eat everything you buy. Nothing gets hidden in the back of the pantry. This is especially important for the vandweller community.
I think it’s fun to make things from scratch: homebrewed beer, baked bread, etc.
All other things being equal, I tend to buy by unit price (cents/gram, dollars/pound, etc). Bigger packages do not always guarantee lower unit price; walmart is infamous for larger containers actually being more expensive per ounce. Check the labels! If the unit price isn’t shown fly your geek flag and whip out the calculator.
With perishable goods lower unit price tends to align with what’s in season. There are very few exceptions where I prefer a particular brand: Dawn dishwashing soap, Sriracha vietnamese hot sauce. Even then I tend to buy them when I find them on sale.
It may not be rational, but I try to avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup.
buying what where
- discount food stores where available - overstock, torn labels, expired dates, etc. Limited, unpredictable stock, but some things can be had for pennies on the dollar. I consistently find granola/protein bars, jerky, whole bean coffee, etc at steep discounts. many of these are mom & pop low budget affairs, but chains like Grocery Outlet exist. There are also various directories. You’ll probably have to look for these in advance. For some reason Quartzsite, AZ is particularly well-blessed with grocery salvage sellers.
- discount chains like Aldi (highly recommended). Some items at Trader Joe’s can be in this category.
- ethnic markets for their local staples -
- Mexican markets for fruits, vegetables, tortillas
- Asian markets for short-grain rices and tofu
- Indian markets for long grain rices, bulgur, spices, steel cookware.
- Arabic markets for olives, olive oil, spices.
- stores with bulk foods - Sprouts, Winco, etc for getting small amounts of stuff you don’t want to buy a pound of
- big box stores - walmart, etc. The deli can be a good source of inexpensive read meals (watch for manager’s specials)
- supermarkets - expensive, but somtimes ya gotta do
- take out - if I am in a city I might buy a huge batch of fried rice and have it for three meals
eating what when
- refrigerated before non-refrigerated. My fridge space is limited so I eat out of the frige first. This make room for leftovers later, reducing food waste.
- perishable before non-perishable. Potatoes in a bag get made before canned potatoes, for example.
- when it’s cold outside I tend to cook more inside for the “free” heat.
- when it’s hot outside I tend to cook outdoors, or use no-heat / low-heat methods in the camper
- long-duration crockpot cooking when the forecast suggest many hours of clear skies
- higher-power electric cooking (hotplate, rice cooker) when the batteries are filled and sunlight is strong.
- if trash cans are available I tend to cook more with canned goods since the cans can be easily disposed of. I have been known to eat canned itmes whose cans stack inside each other for easier trash storage.
- when water is plentiful (spring, spigot in a park) I tend to cook more dry staples that require a lot of water (beans, rice, pasta) or require water for cleanup.
- when water is scarce I tend to heat canned goods that do not require added water
Crockpot cooking requires forethought: can I get the meal prepped and in the crock with plenty of cooking time before sunpower fades for the day? Baking no-knead bread requires a solid day of lead time for the long rise.
Finally. I thought he’d never shut up.
- pasta - macaroni, spaghetti, linguine, rotini, lasagna, etc. Shorter versions are easier to fit into camper-sized cookware.
- dried beans - red, kidney, pinto, black, other intersting stuff I find
- rice - long grain for normal stuff, short-grain for sushi rice
- flour - white and wheat for baking
- corn meal - the coarser the better! I love cornbread.
- brown sugar - I don’t like the taste much so it keeps me from overusing
- potatoes - for baking in the crockpot
- tortillas - Tortillas make easy work of leftovers; I’ve made meat loaf burritos, egg burritos, bean burritos, etc. I carry flour tortillas because they last longer in the van. I prefer corn for various reasons but they get crumbly rather quickly.
- bread - I normally don’t buy bread, preferring to bake my own. But if I find cold cuts on sale or something I might buy a loaf of wheat for easy sandwich action.
- eggs - Muffin gets an egg in her kibble 1x/day. I use eggs for baking, for “hard boiling”, and sometimes for scrambled eggs (hard to clean up).
Quart jugs of milk will fit in the fridge and I sometimes buy a jug if I am going to use a lot of it (rice pudding, etc). Otherwise I can’t use it before it starts to turn. I’ve largely replaced fresh milk with evaporated milk (see liquid staples section below).
- mustard and ketchup
- cheeses - I usually have a smoked cheese for snacking, mozz for baking, and cheddar or similar for sandwiches.
- ricotta or cottage cheese for lasagna
- can of evaporated milk (after opening)
- beer - preferably local microbrew (weizen, sour, brown, amber, pale). Schlitz when I can find it.
- sausage/bacon - occasionally
- deli meats and cheeses for sammiches in the first week after reprovisioning
- relatively little raw meat, unless I am making a meat loaf, lasagna, brats, etc. Every once in a while I will make bacon or sausage for breakfast. I like pork and beef steaks but they are usually out of my price range.
- sour cream in a squeeze bag to extend usable life. Daisy is usually the only brand I see in a bag.
- evaporated milk - for reconsituting into milk (50/50 with water). Lasts forever opened/covered in the fridge.
- canola oil
- sweetened condensed milk - for coffee in the winter
- canned meats: pork, chicken, beef. Not only are they shelf-stable, but they are pre-cooked and can be found in sizes appropriate for single dwellers.
- various veggies
- olives, pickles, etc for snacking
- yeast for baking
I typically rotate between:
- cream of wheat / malt o meal
- toast with butter, cream cheese, or similar. Maybe bagels or english muffins if they are on sale.
- dried green peas
- mung beans
- soy beans
chickpeas- slimey! chia- gelatinous! flax- gelatinous!
- black pepper - whole, milled on demand because I am not an animal
- kosher salt - I like the texture and tend to use less of it
- parm - yes, in the green shaker
- packaged condiments I get with to-go food: ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, etc
- ketchup - for beans
- sriracha - for beans and other stuff
- horseradish, stone-ground, or other hearty mustard
- macaroni and cheese boxes
- knorr rice mixes and similar
- couscous mixes
chips and snacks
- crackers for holding cheese and salami - I like triscuit-style crackers. My favorite is matzoh crackers, which are $$ except before some religious holidays when I stock up.
- pig skins