How to Create a Deep Pantry

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I live in the heart of Coronavirus (COVID-19) madness. It's been fascinating to see how people are reacting. Unfortunately, there's a lot of panic buying happening, and therefore it's impossible to buy bleach, hand sanitizer, Lysol, toilet paper, and many other common household and food items locally. At first, the majority of locals (at least publicly) mocked those panic buyers. "The Coronavirus doesn't include diarrhea!" many said in a local online group I belong to. "Why are these idiots buying up all the toilet paper?"

Now I'm starting to see more people realize the CDC recommends all citizens have two weeks of food and basic supplies on hand, in case they need to hunker down at home. (Actually, the federal government says this all year, every year, even when there's no looming pandemic - and yes, even during past administrations.) Now, many locals are saying, "I can't believe I'm doing this..." and filling their grocery carts up with whatever they can get their hands on.

Personally, I've been surprised that people don't have a little extra toilet paper on hand! But we live in an era where there are multiple grocery stores in most every town, not to mention big-box stores, health food stores, and so on. If we need it, we can just pick it up in a few moment's time, right? This is a very new way of thinking, though.

Our grandparents knew that:

* You could lose your job, in which case a deep pantry will come in awfully handy.

* Money could get tight, in which case "shopping" in your pantry will save the day.

* There may be a natural disaster where you're stuck at home and the only food you have is what's in your pantry.

* Store shelves quickly and easily go bare for a wide variety of reasons

* The less often you go to the store, the less money you're likely to spend. (How many times have you gone to the grocery store for X and come home with other stuff, too?)

* Having a deep pantry saves you money in other ways, too. For example, you can stock up when things go on sale, you're not always running to the store so you save on fuel, and you're less likely to waste money eating out or getting take out. (Plus, homemade food is a lot better for your health!)

"But I Don't Have Room!"

When faced with the idea of having a few basic supplies on hand, many folks say, "I don't have room!" And it's true; if you live in a small apartment or house, you often don't have obvious storage space. But the truth is, there are easy ways to find unused space in your home.

Back when we lived in a 1950s house in the suburbs, we didn't have any pantry at all. However, there was a linen closet and a coat closet. At first, those closets were stuffed with stuff I rarely used. Eventually, I sorted through all that, put my linens in space saver bags, had my hubby add shelves to the coat closet, and used those closets as my pantry. (Most people probably don't need two closets for a pantry, but I was canning a year's worth of certain foods - like applesauce - each summer.)

Other ways to find space:

* Go through every drawer and cupboard and get rid of anything you no longer use. Donate what's still good and throw the rest away. Consider quantity, as well as usefulness. For example, do you really need three sets of "everyday" dishes? Probably not, and you'll have more cupboard space if you get rid of at least one set.

* Look under your bed. If there's nothing but dust bunnies there, consider buying Rubbermaid-style containers that fit under the bed; fill them with canned food or extra rolls of toilet paper.
Courtesy Downtowngal and Wikipedia Commons.

* If you're fortunate enough to have a basement or garage, clean it up a bit, and place food either in plastic bins or on shelving units. Just be aware that boxed food isn't suitable for moist storage areas; jars or cans are best, though they may eventually rust. (But if you're using your pantry food, rust is rarely a problem.)

"But I Can't Afford It!"

Another common complaint is that buying "extra" food seems too expensive. However, there's no need to go out and buy everything at once (unless you're panicking due to current events). Instead, make yourself a budget for how much you'll spend on your deep pantry every time you go grocery shopping. I can be as little as a few dollars! Then, every time you shop, follow through and buy a few items you commonly use. It won't take very long to get a few week's supply on hand. And naturally, if you see something on sale, buy extra!

One very simple way to stock your pantry is to buy one extra every time you shop. For example, let's say you have a soup your family likes that is made with canned items like veggies and chicken or beef stock. Next time you buy ingredients for that soup, buy one can extra of every ingredient.

What to Add to Your Deep Pantry

What you choose to add to your pantry really depends on the likes and dislikes of your family. Just focus on things that are shelf-stable and that your family actually eats. (Having food in the freezer is great, too, but not very helpful if the power goes out for an extended period of time, as with some winter storms.) 

Once upon a time, my pantry always had an extra canister of flour and sugar, dried beans and rice, an extra box of baking ingredients (like baking powder and soda), extra salt and pepper and other favorite spices, extra canisters of baby food, and so on. Today, the grains are mostly gone (my kids still eat some) and my pantry contains mostly home-canned fruit, veggies, and meat, as well as some store-bought items in those categories, plus bottles of condiments, and home-dried herbs. I also have a small supply of keto and diabetic-friendly freeze-dried food that I made at home with my Harvest Right freeze dryer. (Freeze-dried food is not a necessity - but it is nice to have some on hand for easy-peasy meals.)

Do make sure to think a little about your pantry in terms of serving meals. Random ingredients don't always easily go together, so try to plan out ingredients that make up some of your family's favorite dishes.

Maintaining Your Deep Pantry

You may wonder how you can keep track of your pantry if it's here and there all over the house. I admit, that can be tricky. If you must have food in various locations in the house, I recommend you group like items together. For example, put canned veggies in one spot and canned meats in another.

Also, it's really necessary to always put the oldest food up front and the newest food in the back of your cupboard. This way, you can eat up the older stuff first and not waste money by forgetting certain items are tucked away.

Once a year, it's smart to go through your pantry and check for items that should be consumed right away. Please do note that expiration dates are NOT the same as "best by" dates! "Best by" means the food tastes best if eaten by a certain time. Expiration dates indicate the food is no longer safe to eat after a certain time. Canned foods don't have expiration dates; they only go bad if the seal has broken somehow. (After a year or so, canned foods - whether store-bought or home-canned - very slowly begin losing nutrients and flavor. For more on this topic, click here.)

Other Things to Consider

In addition to storing typical pantry items (food), it's smart to have some bottled water on hand (in case the power goes out or your city's water gets isn't safe to drink), in addition to a few basic toiletries (soap, toothpaste, deodorant, sanitary pads/tampons) and basic cleaning supplies (dish soap, vinegar, etc. Do not store bleach for more than 6 months, or it becomes diluted.)

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A version of this post originally appeared in October of 2009.

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