Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Pantry Principle

The name "Pantry Principle" dates back (as far as I can tell) to a 1982 book by Barbara Salisbury, Cut your Grocery Bills in Half.  But it was popularized by the Frugal Zealot herself, Amy Dacyzyn, author of the Tightwad Gazette.  (Can you tell I love that book?  I am such a Dacyzyn fan!)

The basic idea behind the Pantry Principle is to keep a well-stocked pantry of food that you buy at low prices.  Salisbury suggested that when you decide what to cook for dinner, you should start by looking at the staples in the pantry and use that to come up with a menu.  Sounds simple, but it's actually counter-intuitive; most people do it the other way around.

The standard, supposedly-saving-money advice, is to come up with a menu, make a shopping list, go to the grocery store, and stick to that list.  As somebody who loves making lists (as I've described here, and here, and here, . . . and here . . . oh yeah, and here . . . maybe I should make a list of all my lists?) you'd think that's what I'd do.  And it's true I make grocery shopping lists.

But what I do NOT do is say, "hmm, what shall I eat this week?  I know, let's have pasta!" and then go buy a bunch of pasta makings.  My shopping list is usually a list of fill-in-around-the-edges stuff:  we're low on eggs.  The boys want potato bread for sandwiches.  Little things go on the list.  But the main ingredients are already at home, just waiting to be eaten.

The main part our meals are things that I try to anticipate far in advance, and that I try to buy at lower prices -- either because I buy them in bulk or because I get them when they're cheap.  Amy Dacyzyn writes, "Unlike many families, we'll buy flour even if we have 20 pounds left--if the price is right."  Similarly, I try to stock up on things that our family considers staples.

Here's one example.  Left to my own devices, I'd be perfectly happy as a vegetarian.  But when my husband came home from the grocery store for the Nth time saying, "but this meat was on sale!", I gave in and decided that hamburger and sausage had to be part of our pantry.  So I asked around and found a local dairy that sells pasture-raised beef.  Last summer I bought 40 pounds of hamburger at $2.75/lb.  I went to the Turkey Lady at our market and negotiated a good price for 30 pounds of turkey kielbasa.  Now when my men-folks get their meat hankering, we go the freezer, not the grocery store.

Adopting the pantry principle has had a few bumps in our road.  The Non-consumer advocate describes one of them well:
I look at a cupboard full of ingredients and see meals, complete with side dishes and the like. My husband, on the other hand looks at a cupboard full of ingredients and sees cans, jars and dry goods. 
It's true that the grocery store makes food look more like ready-to-eat meals than the boxes and jars in my cupboards.  That's part of the reason that our pantry contains a LOT of soup -- quick easy meals for my always very hungry, not always very patient, teenage boys.

Another issue is the storage itself.  Earlier this fall we had a 50-pound bag of potatoes rot before we ate the first one.  Finding cheap, airtight containers to store large large bags of flour has been a small challenge (my old cat litter containers came to the rescue on that one!)  Taking advantage of cheap summer-time tomatoes has meant learning to can.   And storing lots of meat cost a bunch of up-front money for the freezer we now store it in.  The process of converting from a "what will we eat this week?" family to a "what will we eat this year?" family has taken several years of practice, and there are still things I need to learn about it.

My own advice with buying in bulk is (ironically) to start small.  If you usually buy 5 pounds of flour at a time, try buying 20 pounds and see how that works for a while, before you go up to 50 pounds.    For long-term storage of dry goods, you'll need a cool, dry, bug-free area of your home, and you won't know how well that area works for storage until you actually try it.  We've learned that our best storage space changes from the basement (summer) to the closed in porch (winter), but that was after quite a bit of experimenting.  But the closed in porch has so much light that it destroyed the potatoes -- darn.

Still, when it works, it works like a charm.  Fewer shopping trips.  Cheaper food overall.  As the Frugal Zealot herself says, "The pantry principle is one of the many frugal practices that saves both money and time."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the reminder that I am on track and just keep tweaking what I am doing.