Build a Pantry Pyramid

Aside from space, the biggest obstacles to stocking up is not knowing what and how much to stock.

To get those answers all you need is pencil, paper, and a little detective work.

Too often experts give you a laundry list of must-haves, but if it’s not part of your normal diet why add it?

There are no hard and fast rules, but there are guidelines.

  • Try to choose shelf stable foods over quickly expiring food. For example white rice is more shelf stable than brown rice.
  • Plan meals with at least one protein.
  • Store what your family will eat.

I have two caveats.

Think of alternatives for little-used ingredients. For example, I dislike peanut butter. Greg loves it. I can store peanut butter knowing that if he doesn’t finish it in a timely manner, I can make cookies, muffins, even dog treats. Peanut butter will not go to waste. Someone in this house will eat it.

Dehydrated food: I stock vacuum sealed, dehydrated foundation ingredients (like cheese, butter, wheat, and TVP (textured vegetable protein). Will I ever use them? Maybe not, but these are base ingredients that will remain viable should I lose my regular fresh source of food.

By the way, TVP is very common in many fast food restaurants. You might’ve eaten it without knowing it. In a sauce or nicely seasoned, I couldn’t tell that it wasn't beef. TVP is generally made of soy flour and processed into crumbles.

One last note: If you haven't already invested in a vacuum sealer, I would get one, especially if you have a small family. I find we don't use up food as quickly as big families. Vacuum sealing an open product will extend the shelf life.


Now let’s build a pantry pyramid.  For my pantry, I first concentrate on the raw ingredients I use for most meals. Call this the base of your pyramid.

The Base: The average base will consist of a grain (wheat, rice, oats), beans and legumes (dry or canned), canned vegetables (like tomatoes, corn, and peppers). If you home-can, this list can be quite extensive. Fats, salt, seasonings, flour, canned or dry milk, honey and/or sugar should round it out. 

Add your freeze-dried and dehydrated food items here. These are ingredients with the longest shelf life, or items easily replenished. Don’t forget the most important item: WATER.

The Middle:  From here, you can build on your base. This is where you add the nice extras like canned chicken, ham, or fish, and canned soup (see below). Jellies, puddings, or other shelf stable sweets should be added here too. Coffee, teas, and water enhancers might be considered a base need, but for us, it’s second tier. Nice to have, but not essential. (Your mileage may vary.)

About soups: I loathe canned soup. Once you’ve tried homemade, the other stuff is awful by comparison. But I do keep a few soups, mostly mushroom, tomato, and celery. These are bases for other dishes.

Again, store only what your family will eat. I have a friend who loves canned soups. She calls it her “stock portfolio”.  Who am I to judge? Buy what you’ll eat. That’s all that matters if you’re out of a job or sick in bed.

Which brings to the forefront on why you should stock up. People have lots of reasons for building a pantry. Below are mine.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived through hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, terrible sickness, hospitalization, and being poor. Nothing gives you a greater sense of security during tragedy than knowing you can feed whoever lives under your roof. There have been many times we couldn’t leave home because of natural disasters or sickness—and we didn’t have to leave home because everything we needed was here.

One of the most gratifying things about this pandemic was realizing we could shut the front gate for four solid months and never miss a beat. It was empowering to be self sufficient. I think it's important for all of us to feel that way.

The tip of the pyramid: All of us have certain food loves. You might have a kid who loves cereal, a spouse who loves chocolate. Me? I love sweetened condensed milk. It’s my guilty pleasure. (Here’s the recipe to my guilty pleasure.)

At the top of this pyramid I would add all the comfort foods for those times when you really do need a comfort food. These are generally not shelf-stable foods, but if they’re foods you love, it’s likely you’ll replace those foods more often than a can of tuna. Allow yourself to splurge here if you can.

Important Addendum

Pet Food and Baby Food: Because pets are family, I include pet food in my pantry planning. If you have family members who have special dietary needs, give them priority. You might be able to fudge on your diet, but you can't fudge on theirs.

For my pets, I like to keep at least four months of food at all times. I have a special needs cat so my pantry requirements for my pets are particularly critical.

If you’re starting from scratch, take your pencil and paper and write down the meals you like to eat. What ingredients do you need to make those meals?

If you have a pantry but struggling to figure out how much or what you need, start by taking everything out of your cupboards. Check the expiration dates. What didn’t get eaten in time? What do you continually buy on every shopping trip? These are your clues.

Don’t fret if your sister-in-law buys a dozen cans of crushed tomatoes a month and you barely use one can a year. This is your pantry and you know what your family will eat.

Dieticians will tell you to store only healthy foods, and maybe they’re right. But I also know that when the chips are down, psychologically, you need that piece of chocolate more than you need a box of tofu.

I will end this post with a story Greg told me after Hurricane Rita hit our home. He had gone back first to check out the damage and make repairs. I followed a few days later. During those early days he worked tirelessly repairing busted water lines and cutting dangerous trees. Despite his exhaustion and hunger, he often preferred to skip meals than eat another can of food. (There was no electricity or water.)

On the third day, he went out to get gas when he noticed someone at the local Waffle House dragging out a sheet of plywood with one giant word painted on it that said: "OPEN". 

He swerved that truck into the parking lot like Mario Andretti and seated himself at the counter between two big linemen from Mississippi. All the waitress could offer was a cheeseburger with a pickle and a bun, and a Coke with no ice. That was it. It was all they had, but it was freshly grilled and hot. After three days of canned food, that burger was heavenly.

To this day, he claims it was the best burger he ever had.

The moral of that story is to inspire you to create a pantry to make real food. Eat out of a can if you must, but remember that gets old very quickly.

PS  I arrived the next day with a tabletop grill and steak.  🎇 🎊 🎉  It was three more weeks before we got power back.


NEXT WEEK: The Supply Pantry



Jenny Schwartz said…
That's a really approachable method.

My great-aunt lived in the house her father had built. The cowshed and smokehouse were long gone by the time I was born, but the lean-to off the kitchen still held her canned fruit and vegetables and jams, while the shed behind the summerhouse (which was covered by THE most massive bougainvillea) stored the raw produce: apples, potatoes, etc. By the later years, it was mostly pecans since they were the easiest trees to grow, and replaced the old ones in the orchard. Having grown up during the Great Depression being frugal was a way of life.
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: I LOVE hearing stories on how people used to live--especially stories from the Depression. Not everyone managed, but it's inspiring to hear the success stories. I would've loved to have known your great aunt.

One of my pet wants has always been a cellar. That's next to impossible to create in this part of Texas, though a few millionaire homes do have basements. It's just something that always appealed to me.
Lynn said…
This is such a great post. Thanks for the very helpful and valuable pantry-keeping ideas, Maria.

I have whittled down our food supply over the years to what we like, but still keep enough on hand to enable us to live on non-perishables if we must for two months and share with the neighbors if they run low on food. I also store the makings of things like bread on hand, as it tends to vanish off the store shelves right before a bad storm hits.

After Irma we had to go driving around to hunt for gas for the generator, and stopped at a MacDonald's that was only selling hamburgers, fries and bottled water -- and one per customer. By then we'd been living for a week off what we had prepped at home. That truly was the best hamburger I'd had in years. :)

Maria Zannini said…
I am a terrible bread maker. I say that because it's never as light as I'd like it to be. I confine myself to flat breads. Not as pretty, but when they're hot and fresh, it melts in your mouth.

re: McDonald's
Isn't it funny how our perceptions change with our circumstances. It goes the other way too.

When we moved to Texas we couldn't find an apartment. We had to live in a hotel for six weeks before an apartment became available. I was so sick and tired of eating out. All I wanted to do was set up my own kitchen and eat homemade food.
Jackie said…
Maria your tips are always appreciated and as usual have clued me into to things I never knew about like TVP, never heard of it till this post.
Maria Zannini said…
Jackie: I became curious about TVP a few years ago when I read an article about people accusing Taco Bell about not using real meat, so I did some research.

TVP is an excellent substitute without some of the negatives of real meat. It's low in calories and fat. And if you're a vegetarian it's a great alternative when you want to make "meaty" dishes.
Mike Keyton said…
Great article, Maria. I learn't something without understanding why ie:

Try to choose shelf stable foods over quickly expiring food. For example white rice is more shelf stable than brown rice.

In Liverpool, when I was a kid, condensed milk was called 'conny-onny'. Dont ask me why, scousers like to play with words. A favourite then was the simple 'conny-onny butty' ie sandwich. We'e since moved on to Banoffee pie ie your recipe with bananas.
Anyway, all this is making me hungry
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: That's the way my mother liked it. She'd smear that caramel over fresh bread. I was never that civilized. :)