Reader Q&A: I’m trying to cook more at home since I had my heart attack. Since it’s just me and my husband, I don’t want to be buying hundreds of ingredients that I’ll only use once. Do you have any tips on buying just what I need?
You’ve made the decision to skip the freezer meals and cook more often – good for you and good for your health! Cooking more for yourself means more control over what’s in your meal. You can cut back on salt, use heart-healthy fats and increase fruits and vegetables.
You’ve searched online and found a great recipe and you’re excited to try it out. But wait … do you really need to buy yet another new ingredient?
Or, you start cooking supper to find that you’re out of something important. And what if you can’t make it to the store for some reason? Perhaps you’re not feeling well or the weather is crumby or your trip to the city for groceries isn’t until next week.
Of course, meal planning is an important part of this. But even the best planned meals can’t happen if you’re not prepared. Having a simple, yet well-stocked pantry can make a world of difference for your eating!
What should be in my pantry?
Look through your favourite recipes and find common ingredients.
The ingredients you find yourself going back to time and again are a good idea to always have on hand! When you use items frequently, they’ll remain fresher and you won’t have to toss out large, unused portions.
This is also a great time to think about where you’re getting your recipes from. Before buying a new cookbook or trying new recipes you found online, take a quick look through and see how long the ingredient lists are. Some books or recipe sites are well-known for offering recipes with simple and common ingredients so you won’t have to buy extra stuff. When you find a recipe that’s different from your usual, try searching online for different versions of the same recipe. It’s sometimes surprising how many versions of 1 recipe there can be!
There might also be the option of substituting the missing ingredient with something more common. Here are some examples:
- 1 cup cake flour – 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour and 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 clove garlic – 1/8 tsp garlic powder or garlic flakes
- 1 Tbsp fresh parsley – 1 tsp dried parsley
- 1 tsp dry mustard – 1 Tbsp prepared mustard
- 1 cup buttermilk – mix 1 tsp of vinegar into 1 cup of milk, mix and let sit for a few minutes before using
Where to start with spices and herbs
Spices will keep for quite a long time in general – over time they will degrade for flavour and colour but in most cases they are still safe to use.
When it comes to heart health, spices and herbs are the way to go! Using different flavours can make your dishes more interesting without just heading straight for the salt shaker.
- go back to that list of your favourite recipes and find the flavourings you always use
- buying spices and herbs at a bulk goods store will let you buy small amounts at a time = more variety, lower overall cost and fresher ingredients. You’ll also have the chance to try out a recipe before knowing if it will become part of your regular recipe rotation
- partner with a friend or neighbour to share or swap ingredients you use less frequently
- storing them in airtight containers, in a cool dark place can help keep them fresher for longer
Having the basics on-hand means you won’t find yourself running to the grocery store every time you want to cook. This helps you save time and money … and makes cooking for yourself easier and more enjoyable.
Some tips about keeping your basic food shelf well-stocked:
- non-perishable foods do have a longer shelf life but be sure to use older items first and replace occasionally, especially for high-acid items like canned tomatoes
- bulk buying is cheaper, right? While smaller-sized packages seem to be more expensive, when you think about what you’ll end up throwing out, there is actually a cost savings in buying just what you’ll use. Of course, if it’s an ingredient you’ll definitely use, go bulk! And again, sharing or swapping ingredients with a friend can help you both save.
Download my Kitchen Pantry Must-Haves checklist here to simplify your cupboard and help you get organized. If you signed up for my free Spring Clean your Eating e-course, this is included in Week 4 so you don’t have to worry about downloading it here!
Take stock and refresh
Once you have an idea of what you’ll need in your kitchen, take a look at what you have already. Taking an inventory of your pantry doesn’t mean having to throw out bags and bags of food … unless it’s been a long time since you’ve taken stock!
When going through your current pantry stock
- make note of ingredients that you want to use up
- find a recipe or think of a meal where you can use it in the next week or two
- donate items that you no longer want to a local organization
- add it to your week’s meal plan or create a list of recipes you can make with all the things in your cupboards right now
This is also a great time to get rid of some of your pre-packaged foods that aren’t heart health friendly. Look at the food labels on things like crackers, chips, canned or dry soups/ mixes and any other ‘convenience’ foods you’ve stored. Pay extra attention to the amount of salt and unhealthy fats they have!
Of course, as you go through your pantry it’s a good idea to check for items that look like they’ve seen better days! Toss any cans or jars that are leaking, cracked, bulging or have large dents. Also pay attention when you open jars and cans – if you hear a hissing sound, notice spurting liquid or see any kind of mould around the seal or on top of the food, throw it out.
Want to know more about best before or expiry dates on food? Check more of my tips about what those dates mean here.
Starting anything new can feel really BIG sometimes. When you can break it down, make a plan and walk through the baby steps one-at-a-time, you can realize how do-able it really is.
Meal-planning is at the basis of knowing what you need on-hand, but the process doesn’t have to be a chore! You don’t need complicated charts or systems. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
At the end of the day, being prepared means being one step closer toward healthy options being the easy and convenient choice!
If this was helpful, you may also be interested in reading my article Small Kitchen Cooking about some of my favourite and practical kitchen pieces.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.