Here is my “everyday” short term pantry. This repurposed wardrobe holds the things I reach for while I cook. Making, stocking, and using this pantry has taught me a few things about food storage. My ten “mistakes” list is really a collection of “don’t do as I did” or “this is what I learned” by making mistakes. Food is just too expensive to play around with. Keeping a well thought out pantry can save you money. I know, I’ve lost food because of inexperience and I have learned from my mistakes. I know I save money. I have also spent some time looking through Google Images for pantry pictures. Oy!! I saw picture after picture of beautifully stocked pantries and proud owners. Unfortunately I also saw picture after picture of poorly stored food that will be lost in storage. What follows is a list of simple tips that will help your food store longer, make your storage flexible and usable and, in the long run, save you money. Mistake number one. . . . . . . .
1. Storing food in its original packaging. Boxes and bags can easily be chewed by rodents and infested by insects. Ask me how I learned that?! Everything in your pantry should be in glass jars or metal cans. I also have a few things in food safe plastic containers (PET, PETE, or HDPE are food safe) and have not had anything invade them. I collect glass jars with bail closures. I have never spent more than a few dollars – even for gallon jars. I shop at Goodwill and rummage sales and have managed to build a useful collection. I cut preparation directions from original packaging and tuck them inside each jar – notice the box part in the quick barley jar. It is also important to label each jar. You will not remember – again, ask me how I know that! – if the contents are dried milk or dried buttermilk or cornstarch. Notice the red rubber rings between the lid and jar rim. These necessary rubber rings are often missing on used jars. I buy boxes of these rings at Lehman’s Hardware and keep them with my stored jars. Every so often a jar needs two rubber rings to make a tight seal.
2. Storing pre-made foods instead of “ingredients”. Pancake mixes, rice mixes, and boxed macaroni and cheese are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prepared food most Americans have on their pantry shelves. Prepared foods drive up your food costs not to mention your blood pressure and cholesterol. When prepared and prepackaged foods aren’t used in a timely way they go stale or rancid and you lose a lot of money. Think ingredients. Shop at bulk food stores and stock up on “ingredients” such as herbs, spices, flours, wheat berries, pastas, rices, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, sugars, honey, oats, beans, powdered milk, and more. I bring all of these things home and vacuum pack them into canning jars for long term storage or bail jars for short term storage. I safely store – for years if necessary – everything I need to prepare healthy meals.
3. Chaos in the kitchen!! Plain old lack of organization will cost you lost food and lost time. Group foods by “families”. Put grains, pastas, and rice together. Keep baking things together – flour, sugars, baking spices, honey, chocolates, vanilla, cocoa, peanut butter, and dried fruits. Keep bouillon cubes, savory herbs, salt and pepper together. Vinegars and oils go together. Keep small containers collected in small bins for easy retrieval. LABEL and date LABEL and date LABEL and date!! I simply write out the jar contents on a piece of paper and tape it to the outside of the jar. I can say that it is certain that if things are not labeled they will get lost in the shuffle of your pantry. Lost food is lost money.
4. Not buying bulk. Find a bulk food store near you and get over there with your pantry list! Oh my gosh! Prices per pound at a bulk food store are less than at a traditional grocery store. I find the prices for bulk herb and spices one of my biggest savings. Bring home your bargains and repackage them in freezer bags and get them into the freezer, fill bail glass jars, or vacuum pack them into canning jars. It’s simple - buying bulk – for most things – will save you money.
5. Storing home canned food with the rings left on the jars. Canning rings should be removed when jars are completely cool. Jars can then be completely cleaned, labeled, and stored. Leaving the rings on the jars can hide poor seals – if your canned foods “need” the ring to stay sealed they are not sealed safely and should not be in dry storage. Leaving rings on in storage can also contribute to corrosion and rust and shorten their useful life. If the rings begin to corrode they can be very difficult to remove. If you home can a lot of food you would need a lot of rings in order to leave one on each and every jar. Rings are meant to be used, removed, cleaned, dried, stored carefully, and reused, over and over.
6. Inadequate shelving. Jars of food will be very heavy. Building your pantry from 1/2 inch shelving is asking for problems – especially for rows of home canned foods. Think thick – be safe. One inch shelving wood is good and anything thicker is better. Shelves should be anchored well. Just after we moved into this old farm house we stacked canned food on shelves in the basement. One evening we heard a crash – we went down stairs to find broken shelving, shards of glass, and splattered food. What a mess!! My suggestion is to over compensate with any shelving you build. Attach everything tightly and build strong.
7. Poorly spaced shelving. It is sooo frustrating to have jars or containers of food ready for storage and find your shelves are too closely spaced. Build big. Measure everything you will be storing and build to match. Tall bottles of vinegar, 5 gallon buckets, gallon jars, and gallons of olive oil will all need lots of vertical space. Plan for unexpected sizes. My shelves are 15 inches, 12 inches, 10 inches, and 81/2 inches. Always assume that something will need a bit more height between shelves and plan for that.
8. Not using what you store. You bought it, you stored it, now use it. Learn to cook with “ingredients” instead of relying on prepackaged foods. Ingredients cost less and that can be a strong factor in your food budget, more so as the cost of food goes up. Your families health will also be impacted in a positive way by “from scratch” cooking. Also remember that food security for your family will be a positive force in your daily life. Need ideas for your “ingredients”? Check out two helpful books –Pantry Cooking by Laura Robbins and I Can’t Believe It’s Food Storage by Crystal Godfrey.
9. Using turntables. Turntables seem to be a great solution for small bottles and packages – - but things fall off, jam up, and get lost in the back of the cupboard – always in hard to reach corners. I think the round footprint wastes valuable space. I can get much more organized with small rectangular bins that can be pulled completely out to find what I need, that line up edge to edge on the shelf and make use of every inch of space. I vote for bins and no turntables.
10. Think dark. Sure, all those foods lined up in jars look pretty. The truth is that foods stored in jars in your pantry will store better/last longer if they are stored in the dark. Keep things behind closed doors or curtains and you extend their useful life.
That’s about it. Hopefully, my list will help you avoid common mistakes . The idea is to begin. Just do it!