How to Build a Whole-Foods Pantry

As anyone who’s new to cooking knows, getting started can be quite an investment. You may have experienced this: You’re looking online for something to cook for dinner and find a recipe that looks delicious, but it calls for oils, vinegars and spices that you don’t just happen to have in the pantry. When you add those items to the shopping list, a simple home cooked meal is now more expensive than take out. Sound familiar?

Whether you’re just getting started in the kitchen or transitioning to a more whole-foods diet, building up to that point where a trip to the store is just for the fresh stuff can take a lot of time and money. Thinking about all the spices, oils, vinegars, grains, condiments can be quite overwhelming. But don’t let it intimidate you. To get started all you need are a few basics, and from there you can grow your pantry as you continue to experiment in the kitchen.

For sanity sake, stay away from recipes with more than handful of ingredients. Most of the time, the best dishes are the ones that only have a few. If something calls for umi boshi vinegar, novices: keep browsing. No need to get all exotic, when your pantry is still missing balsamic. That’s one you can build up to. But if curiosity gets the best of you, I’m the last person to stand in your way. I’d be lying if I said that my pantry grew out of practicality and a stick-to-the-essentials approach. I’m a sucker for new food stuffs. I always end up picking up a new spice or grain to add to the collection. That’s why my pantry looks like this….

Full disclosure: This is what our pantry used to look like. We're in the middle of moving so it got packed up last week and now sits in storage until we can move into our new house. We have about three weeks to go until we can unpack after a few renovations are complete -- one of which is the kitchen (eek!). As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about that one. For now though, let's get back to the pantry....

I actually took these photos months ago with the intention of doing this post, but it's taken me awhile to get around to it. Part of my delay has been the whole house hunting/buying/renovating/moving process (there hasn't been time for much else), and part is that for some reason posting pictures of our pantry feels like showing the Internet my underwear drawer. It may sound odd, but, there's a reason pantries have doors... I'm happy to put modesty aside though and expose my madness for the sake of helping others. I say madness because, well, I may be obsessed. I get excited when I have an excuse to pick up a new spice. I feel compelled to fill up the walnut container when it's only 1/4 full. And if we're out of quinoa, sound the alarm. OK... it's not that bad. But, if you understand my obsession, you must be a whole-foods cook too.

What I’ve learned is if you’re really going to cook, the pantry has to be approached as an evolving collection - and one that’s developed with joy. Once you get going with your own and you have a few of the basics on the shelves, you can just continue to add one or two items with each trip to the grocery store.

Here's my approach to organizing the panty and starting a collection of essentials for oils, vinegars, spices, grains, beans/lentils, produce, and packaged items. By all means, do with this what you will and feel free to start with what makes sense for you and what you like to cook and eat. Just always bear in mind, like nearly all processes, it's a journey. The only destination is your pure enjoyment in the kitchen. So have fun!

Organizing the Pantry
No two pantries are alike so what works in ours may not work for you. Take into account the number of shelves you have, door space, etc. as well as which items you use most frequently and which items you use the least.

I keep the items that I seldom or occasionally use at the very top, and the items that are used on a regular, or daily basis in the middle, or at eye level. For us that means the top is baking ingredients – different flours, sweeteners, etc. Since I do a lot of gluten-free baking, I store a variety of gluten-free flours in a big air-tight container way up there out of reach. And I keep some of the more delicate flours in the fridge. I use those flours every few months to make a flour blend which gets  stored in an air-tight container that's more easily accessible.

The shelf below that one holds coffee and tea, as well as cooking/storage items like plastic bags, aluminum foil and wax paper. And below that, just above eye-level (for me) are cooking essentials spices, oils and vinegars. Since we do a lot of cooking, I wanted these items to be easy to grab. Spices are on a turnstile, and oils, vinegars are organized with our favorites at the front.

The lower set of cabinets are organized the same way - with the most used items kept within reach.

I use nut butters in smoothies and put them on rice cakes for breakfast so they fall into our frequently used category. Nuts, seeds and food bars get snacked on. Nuts and seeds also end up in my usual lunch salad too so I like having those right there.

I store dried grains and beans in air-tight pop top containers. I keep them in the back and on the side of this shelf, just below eye level - accessible, but out of the way, along with oil containers that just happen to be too large to fit above (we make due with the space we have, right). Fresh cooking essentials like garlic, onions and root vegetables are kept in a glass bowl on this shelf too. I consider these types of produce to be pantry staples because they have a longer shelf life than other produce and can be kept in a cool, dark place for weeks and even up to a month. Onions and garlic are also the most basic of flavorings for every dish. Those are the real staples.

The last two shelves are mainly storage for things like baking dishes, bulk containers (that white vinegar in the back), hoarded shopping bags, and snacks not to be kept at eye-level – like those bags of M&Ms there.

The key to a well organized pantry is taking into consideration how you cook and eat. Your pantry should serve your needs in the kitchen and make cooking easier. It's all about setting the stage to save time, money, while also making the experience as enjoyable as possible for you, the cook.

Pantry Essential Checklist

Starting from scratch and not sure where to begin? Here is my list of pantry essentials. With these in stock, you can make a number of fantastic dishes by simply adding a few fresh ingredients like fresh herbs, dark leafy greens, other veggies, and meats, if you like.

extra-virgin olive oil
virgin coconut oil
sesame oil

balsamic vinegar
mirin (rice wine vinegar)
apple cider vinegar

sea salt
black pepper
crushed red pepper

dijon mustard
cocoa powder

almond butter
chia seeds

brown rice

black beans
garbanzo beans

packaged items:
teas (herbal, green)
whole-grain pasta
whole-grain crackers

root vegetables

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