Help me have a well-managed pantry.
June 18, 2008 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Help me have a well-managed pantry.

Not a well-stocked pantry. A well-managed pantry. Stocking is not a problem for me: I need something, I buy it. I've got all sorts of crap stocked in my fridge and on my shelves.

But "stocking" leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest fundamental problem is that I have no clue (well, not enough of a clue) about things like how long stuff keeps good, or how to help keep stuff longer. I also don't have enough of a clue on planning how much to buy so that I'd be reasonably sure that little or none of it would go to waste, but that problem would be significantly helped by solving the first problem.

So I buy something, and use part of it, and stick the rest in the fridge (or a cabinet). Should I wrap this particular thing in saran wrap? Cover it with wax paper? Stick it in Tupperware? Leave it open to the air? I dunno. Does the crisper drawer actually do anything special? The dairy shelf? Meat bin? I have no idea. How long does it keep after I open it? Beats me. How long would it keep if I didn't open it? I only know if it happens to have an expiration date. How long would it keep if I froze it? Is it even something that's good to freeze in the first place? No idea. And so forth. (To be clear, these are not really my question - I'm just giving some background in leadup.)

So say I need some foodstuff, let's call it "blerk". I use a little blerk in what I'm making. I stick the rest in the fridge (or cabinet).

Maybe I'll use some more blerk the next day, or within a few days or a week or so if it's something that will obviously last for a long time. But I soon get suspicious of it. So I throw out a lot of blerk.

And a lot of everything else.

For obviously longer-lived things, it's even worse: I buy in bulk, since it will last for quite some time, but I lose track of when it was bought, and when it was opened, and even if I knew those things I still wouldn't really know what they meant with respect to whether it's still good or not.

I have read various things about pantries, but they all seem to be just big stocking lists, "here's stuff to make sure you have", for people who must cook a lot more than me. If I stocked based on the lists I've seen, I'm certain that I'd waste even more food than I currently do.

And of course some of these stocking lists do have information about how long certain items keep, but it's always in an offhand kind of way about some specific item, whereas I'd be better served by an exhaustive reference.

I really, really want to stop this, and get more organized about it. I'm theoretically concerned about the financial aspect of this wastefulness, but I am much more concerned with the fact that I feel very guilty about wasting food in the first place (I'm actually guiltily embarrassed by posting this question). Plus, this issue also is a mental block for me with respect to cooking more, because I know if I buy something to cook something with it, a lot of it will go to waste. So I order out a lot more often than I would really like to.

So, my question is, are there any books or websites or anything that would help with this? Any programs to keep track of this stuff? Anything to help with the fundamental problems of "how long does that keep" and "how do I keep it appropriately", but also with the related problem of "how can I plan to use what I buy"?

I have the kind of personality where if I had a clear, detailed, and broad-scoped reference of such information, I would actually be happy about making and using spreadsheets of when stuff was bought, opened, due to expire, and so forth.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Flunkie to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Mason jars for the larder. Buy lots. Portable labeller: stick labels on yer jars, and while dry goods have long, wide windows of usefulness, you want to be able to tell basmati from medium-grain from jasmine rice (if you keep all in stock) without too much trouble. Freeze herbs rather than letting them rot in the crisper. Freezer bags and Sharpies to write the contents and date them. Dry-erase board on the freezer door to keep track of the contents so that you don't put stuff in the freezer to die a crystallised death. 'PORK CHOPS' on that board will nudge you to cook them.

It's more labour-intensive, but many of the items that go bad in the fridge drawer can be substituted for shelf-stable components: spice mixes, mustard, salad dressings, even mayo. That way, you can make only the amount you need for a few servings.

As for menu planning, use the weekend for making components that can be recombined in different ways for the week. (Real Simple, I think, has a monthly 'for tonight, for tomorrow, for the day after' recipe plan.)
posted by holgate at 6:35 PM on June 18, 2008

My wife kind of has this problem of laying in more stuff than we can really use before it spoils, so i know what you mean.

Somebody will probably stop by with a book that might help. But basically, it's discipline, you don't need spreadsheets. You need to get in the habit of using the stuff rather than building up supplies.

Lots of stuff will keep in your fridge or pantry for a Long Time, like anything canned or bottled. We're talking years. Don't worry too much about those things. Everything else spoils, sooner rather than later. And everybody ends up throwing out some stuff, it's pretty unavoidable without severe discipline. But the basic principle should be to stop buying bulk and start buying in small quantities -- small meaning enough for one meal, in the case of veggies and other very short-term fridge things, and a week or two for things like cereal, crackers, etc. in your pantry. Shop two to three times a week rather than weekly or less often. Your food will be fresher and you'll be healthier.

Stuff in the fridge like jars of jam, mustard, chutney, whatever, will actually last quite a while, but challenge yourself frequently to make a meal out of whatever is in the fridge. Hunt through, find interesting ingredients, spread them on the counter and go to work. As you do this you'll notice other things in there that won't fit today's meal, but you'll make a mental note to use them tomorrow with something else.
posted by beagle at 6:36 PM on June 18, 2008

"years" if not opened, is what I mean.
posted by beagle at 6:37 PM on June 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks beagle, but no, I'm pretty confident that I need spreadsheets.

Not exactly, of course. But I mean, "discipline", given my personality type, is very much supported by things like spreadsheets, and definitive, exhaustive references. "Discipline" is not supported (for my personality type) by (no offense) vague things like "some stuff keeps a long time" and "other stuff spoils".
posted by Flunkie at 6:55 PM on June 18, 2008

Cook's Illustrated is a great resource for kitchen management. The newest issue has an article about how to keep produce fresher for a longer period of time. This included specifying what should be kept where, how to wrap it, how long certain items keep, etc.

Spices and dried herbs are something that people keep for waaaaaaaaaay too long. If it's been around for a year or two (or longer), it's probably lost a lot of its flavor.

Also, make sure that the cool, dark parts of your pantry are really cool. This will add to the lifespan of your dried goods, and things like flour, rice, oils.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:56 PM on June 18, 2008

I think if you get in the habit of religiously labeling everything with date bought & date opened, you will have 90% of the problem taken care of. That can be a handwritten note on a sticker, a computerized spreadsheet, or something else -- the key is actually keeping that information current.

You will want to also make a periodic inventory, once or twice a year, to update your spreadsheet, get rid of anything that has been there too long or that you don't like, etc.

Basically, act like your pantry is part of a commercial operation, not a regular home pantry.
posted by Forktine at 7:46 PM on June 18, 2008

Response by poster: Forktine, thanks, but labeling, organizing, and inventor... uh... inventorying (?) is definitely not the problem. I would have no problem doing all that stuff - in fact, I'd probably do it to a degree that most people would find bizarre - if the information that I was recording were useful to me.

The problem is that that information - e.g. "Opened on June 18, 2008" - is not currently useful to me. So I (currently) have no incentive to bring all of my awesome anal retentive powers to bear on the situation.
posted by Flunkie at 7:57 PM on June 18, 2008

I'm not sure I have a handle on what your problem is. To use one of your analogies: is your problem that you keep buying full boxes of blerk, only using a little of it, and then throwing it out because it looks funky later? Or is your problem more that you buy a full box of blerk, but don't know how to keep it?

If it's the former, then it's a matter of knowing exactly how much blerk you use on a regular basis -- and how much sneck, fizzip, and zipf as well. That's a trial-and-error thing -- only you know exactly how much sneck is too much for you, how often you'd use fizzip, and whether or not you can just do without zipf. And the only way to know that for sure is figuring out through your own observations over time. The only way to know that is to start paying attention to your own habits -- what you do, what recipes you go to again and again, and watch yourself and watch what you do. After a while you'll begin to notice "huh, I do tend to get a lot of fizzip, don't I?" And you'll know it's more of a priority.

If it's the later problem, that you get blerk but you don't know how to store it, that's a simple Google search for "food storage advice." I cant find the link right now, but I once found a comprehensive chart that listed how much each foodstuff stayed good, and how to store it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:29 PM on June 18, 2008

For the first part of your question ("are there any books or websites or anything that would help with this? Any programs to keep track of this stuff? Anything to help with the fundamental problems of "how long does that keep" and "how do I keep it appropriately""), I recommend what researching what the restaurants do by looking at their standards. Research HACCP and food safety.

Forktine says: Basically, act like your pantry is part of a commercial operation, not a regular home pantry.

Forktine has a good point; from working in kitchens I'd say the three most important tools to a chef is a thermometer, a roll of masking tape, and a sharpie. Before taste and texture and presentation, a chef has to be sure that they are not going to send anyone to the hospital. Along those lines, go to a good restaurant and look at the specials. They fall into two categories, 1) a seasonal item that they can't make for you later, and 2) something we have too much of that we have to sell before it spoils. Similarly, you're trying to make use of your foodstuffs to make appealing meals without risking any foodborne illness.

The second part of your question ("how can I plan to use what I buy") is even more difficult. Not too long ago, this was an almost-full-time occupation for one member of the household to utilize resources and plan meals. Nowadays, most cookbooks assume that you have infinite resources and do not help you reduce your food expenses. It takes a lot of practice and knowledge to turn your leftovers and inventory-on-hand into a respectable meal.

These skills for managing your menu and pantry come with time. If you are willing to do some grunt work in exchange for some good experience, approach the chef at a restaurant you enjoy eating at and ask if you can work some kitchen shifts in exchange for the opportunity to observe and learn. A good chef is a good teacher and you can pickup skills in a week in the kitchen that a lifetime with cookbooks can't give you.
posted by peeedro at 9:40 PM on June 18, 2008

This is the first result from googling "food storage chart", and there are many other possibilities.

Of course, things get a bit more complicated -- there is the time something can be stored before it goes bad, and the time something can be stored before it isn't quite so great anymore. You can eat some pretty grey disgusting meat and it probably won't kill you, but a nice freshly-bought steak will taste a lot better. (Well, and then you complicate this again with the things, like meat and cheese and so on, that people like to age at home beyond the point where you could ever sell such a disgusting decaying mess, but the flavors from aging food in a controlled process are really attractive to some people.)

So your spreadsheet needs some adaptability and, uh, "multilayeredness" -- for example, a carrot from the farmers' market is great eaten fresh that first day. After a week in the fridge, it is getting soft but is still fine. A few days later, it isn't really for eating raw anymore, but you can still use it for soup and cooking. Bread is the same -- great fresh, then when slightly stale it makes good french toast, and then when it is really stale it can become croutons, soup thickener, or bread pudding.

That is, when something is "too old" and should be moved on really depends on what you are making, and a real key to kitchen management that minimizes waste is in buying and using food so as to take advantage of those layered uses -- most food (milk aside, assuming you are not making your own cheese and other cultured products) is not binary -- it's usually not "bad" or "good", but instead in some inbetween stage. Too old for one use, too new for another, but just right for something.

And that doesn't usually come from a rigid attention to dates -- it comes from an organic sense of how something is aging, which will depend on temperature, humidity, original quality, and so on.

What am I suggesting? I'm saying that you need to layer the food safety charts, like I linked to, with a sense of how to use food all the way from when it comes into your house to when the scraps go into the compost bin (or down the garbage disposal). You do that partly by keeping an inventory (in your head or in a spreadsheet) and partly by planning your cooking around what is in the kitchen that is really good and needs to be eaten right now (those perfect farmers' market carrots) and what is in the kitchen and is getting old and needs to be eaten right now (that bread that can make croutons tonight but will be rock hard tomorrow), and everything in between.

It's a weird mix of being analytical -- because ages and dates matter -- and being all hippy-dippy and getting in sense with the rhythms of your cooking and eating, so that what you buy has a clear relation to what and how you eat.
posted by Forktine at 9:44 PM on June 18, 2008

Learning to cook to use up stuff is the best way to deal with this. If you buy too big a jar of something or others for some meal, if you realize a couple days later that you're not going to ever use it again, look up some recipes that use it. Or just toss stuff in. If, a few days later, you think, "damn, I should have saved that" then you know it's something you should keep stocked. If you never think of it again, the next time you're at the store with your shopping list, you should think, "hm. I bought this last time and had to find a use for it. Maybe I can do without it this time."

As for spoilage, it's definitely a continuum. It isn't really bad until you know it's really bad (unless it's meat, which I'm beyond paranoid about).
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:28 PM on June 18, 2008

Actually, I think the bulk section of your grocery store would be the perfect place for you to shop - you can buy as much or as little as you want. I buy things like flour and sugar from the bulk section of my store, as I know I'll only need a couple cups of flour, as opposed to an entire bag of flour. This way I don't have a ton of it sitting around for a long time, and I'm not wasting. If the store you normally go to doesn't have a bulk section, try finding one that does. I think in general health food stores and food coops have nice bulk food sections.
posted by at 5:40 AM on June 19, 2008

Flunkie, good for you for keeping a pantry and trying to keep it efficiently.

Please buy or borrow Cheryl Mendelson's "Home Comforts" and read "Cold Comfort," the chapters about refrigerating/freezing foods and pantry management (short sample here). These chapters includes information on which foods belong where, effective refrigeration, storage time for leftovers, good freezing practices, pantry storage guidelines, shelf life, etc.

Find a list of how long foods keep unopened, print it and post it in your pantry area next to a calendar. As you unpack your bulk supplies, take a Sharpie and write that day's date on the container (or, if you repackage into smaller lots, do the same thing with freezer tape and a Sharpie). Then when you have questions, you look at the date on the container, look at the list and then count off on the calendar.

Write things down for a month or two -- your Blerk List. What are you throwing away? Any repeaters? Now take this list and sit down with a reverse look-up recipe website -- that is, you plug in the ingredients you have and it spits out recipes (the name escapes me, but it exists). Make a list of a) the blerk; b) the blerk's shelf life (go look it up), and c) these recipes. Post it with your pantry lists.

Managing a pantry used to be an art. We've lost it with the advent of on-demand food and dinner that comes to the door. Good for you in your efforts to revive this important skill. And good luck!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:57 AM on June 19, 2008

Sorry, that should have read "Cold Comfort" and the following chapter.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:05 AM on June 19, 2008

Seconding the Cheryl Mendelson advice, and the white-board. For example, my refrigerator whiteboard carries an inventory of all the vegetables in the fridge and the date they went in. I know that I want to use greens within a few days, root vegetables within two weeks, and peeled garlic within a week, so I don't write the end date down.

If I understand your question correctly, you are interested in knowing how long you can store blerk [opened|unopened|refrigerated|frozen|thawed], yes? I'd tinker with MonkeyToes's advice slightly; on the container, write both the date you bought the item and the use-by date that you derived from whatever food storage site you find. You will have to change the label when blerk's state changes: from shelf to opened jar in fridge, or from freezer to fridge for thawing to completely thawed. You can do all this in a spreadsheet, of course, but I find that the labels are more useful because they're right THERE when I'm standing in front of the pantry.

Print out the food storage chart you decide to use (your state's extension office might also be of help) and put it in your pantry. Get in the habit of labeling in/out dates when you unpack your groceries, and file stuff so that the oldest items are at the front of the pantry shelf. A well-managed pantry does save money, and I take a lot of pleasure in looking at mine when it's organized and pretty (but I'm weird and vaguely OCD like that).
posted by catlet at 1:20 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Catlet, nice improvement! Makes total sense to write purchase/expiration on the container and to update status from there.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2008

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