This post is all about my tips on making the most of my pantry and fridge, showing a couple simple things I do, and encouraging you to look at your food in a transformative way.
Homesteading is a very personal thing. It can mean so many things to so many people. There are the people who live fully off the grid and who hunt and grow all of their own food, and there are those who put out some vegetable plants on their city porch. To me, these are both aspects of homesteading on opposite ends of the scale. To me, no matter where you are on the spectrum of homesteading, there is a common thread of trying to be more self-sustainable and making the most of what you can, even if it might be easier to buy it at the store. One of the things I consciously try to make sure of more and more is how to make the best use of my pantry and fridge. This means keeping it stocked. It means putting less food into the compost and transforming foods that are about to go bad either into a dinner, or into another product we can preserve and use at another time.
Over the years I have become more and more aware of my own pantry and fridge. More and more I see the potential in the old bread to become breadcrumbs or panzanella, and for the kale that is a day or two away from not being good anymore to become a delicious pesto that will hold up in the freezer for months.
I’ve learned that making the most of your pantry and fridge isn’t as scary as it seems. If you keep a few basic items around, you can make just about anything with a little forethought, and a lot of the time without any forethought.
Keep It Simple
Breadcrumbs are one of the simplest things you can make from something you would otherwise throw away. If your fresh loaf of bread is too hard a few days later, or your loaf of sliced bread from the store is about to turn (but hasn’t molded) and you know you can’t use it all in time you have a couple options. For the sliced bread, throw it in the freezer and only thaw the bread you need. This will help elongate the life of your loaf. For bread that is already somewhat stale breadcrumbs are the way to go in our household. The key to a good crumb is to make sure you get out all of the moisture. I simply dice up the bread, throw the dices on a dry (no oil) cookie sheet and toast them for 15 to 20 minutes or so in a 400* oven. I make sure they are nice and toasted, and then let them sit out over night (or in the turned off oven) to harden up some more. Then, I throw them into either the food processor or vitamix and voila, breadcrumbs. If you want flavored bread crumbs you can toss some spices in your jar, though I prefer plain so I can dress them up for each dish as needed.
A Well Stocked Pantry Goes A Long Way
I keep a variety of canned and dried beans around. If I’m not sure what to do for dinner that night, I’ll throw some beans in water to soak before I head to work and then not worry about it. By the time I get home something will come to mind, whether it’s burritos, black bean burgers, black bean dip to top a rice dish with, cooking them down and turning them into a black bean soup—you get the idea.
The following is a list of what I consider pantry and fridge staples which help to make just about any meal:
- Beans (variety of dried and canned) typically vegetarian re fried, black bean, pinto and garbanzo at a minimum.
- Tomatoes (crushes and diced)
- Oatmeal (works as a great binder for bean burgers)
- Grains like quinoa
- Dried pasta
- Soft tortilla shells
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower, etc.)
- Nut and rice milks that are shelf stable
- Olive Oil
- Nutritional yeast (it’s a nutty tasting powder very high in vitamin B which is great for you and is good dusted on lots of things or made into a sauce, I highly recommend it).
- Coconut Milk
- Raisins (they can help impart a nice sweetness on an acidic meal)
- SPICES. I capitalize this because with a well stocked spice shelf you can turn just about any of the above items into anything else.
I try to keep other veggies around when we aren’t growing them in our garden, but the above list is a good start.
The Ever Faithful Freezer
When you think of preservation you might think about hours of prepping, standing above a vat of boiling vinegar, figuring out your pressure canner, and then feeling stressed at the thought of it all. Fear not, this has nothing to do with canning. While I love canning, sometimes the freezer is your best friend.
We love keeping kale around. It’s great for sauteeing, it’s great for raw salads, it’s great for green smoothies—you get the idea. The issue is that some weeks are kale heavy, and some weeks we don’t use it all before it gets to the critical “use it or lose it” stage. Combined with a few pantry staples from above, you can turn that kale into a beautiful, affordable pesto which stays well in the freezer for months. While I use a vacuum sealer, plastic or glass containers work well too.
Freezer (And Wallet) Friendly Kale Pesto
Kale pesto is ridiculously tasty. It’s made with staples right from the pantry, and it’s dairy free (vegan) if you want it to be.
First, I try to keep around a nutritional yeast & sunflower mix which works great in place of the parm for this recipe. In your food processor throw a 1/2 cup of sunflower seeds or walnuts, 1 cup or so of nutritional yeast and a pinch of salt and blend together until uniform in size more or less. This also works well with walnuts. It keeps well in the fridge in a sealed container like Pyrex for quite a long time.
Sidebar: I generally don’t like referring to vegan things as “meat”or “dairy” alternatives only because they taste nothing like their meat or dairy counterpart. As a non-vegan who loves vegan type foods, let me say this: expectations are the crux of all disappointments. If one expects a vegan alternative to taste like their meat or cheese counterpart you will generally be disappointed. Let’s just get this out there – there is no alternative to a parmesan that really tastes like parmesan. There is no alternative to beef that really tastes like beef. That doesn’t mean that the generally vegan counterparts are less tasty in their own right though. If you let them shine for what they really are, and not what you expect them to be like, you’ll find delight in them. The same could go for how we view people, but we’re just talking food today.
For the pesto throw the kale you need to use, a few spoons of the parm mix, some more nuts/seeds of your choice (I like sunflower for this recipe) in your food processor. Start up and keep drizzling olive oil in until you reach a nice smooth consistency. I prefer mine with a little bit of bite to it versus totally smooth, but it’s entirely preference.
To freeze we simply put about 1/2 cup of pesto into foodsaver bags, partially froze them open to make it easier to vacuum seal (maybe 15-20 minutes or so?) and then vacuum sealed them. In previous years we didn’t vacuum seal them. We bought this FoodSaver on discount at Marden’s a while back though and looking back it was a great buy. We use it a lot and the food always retains great flavor. This can easily be frozen in containers, it’s all preference.
What else can I do?
There are so many other things you can do.
- Chicken stock. Once you’re done roasting a chicken don’t throw away the carcass! There are some great recipes for chicken stock out there using the bones. While some cooks will swear it’s not as rich tasting as using a whole bird, I’ve never tasted much of a difference. Chicken stock can either be pressure canned (NOT water bathed) or it can be frozen in Tupperware. This is a great way to also use up the leafy parts of the celery and any slightly rubbery carrots you might be ready to toss.
- Quick dinners: Quick dinners are the name of the game around here. Sometimes it’s burritos, sometimes it’s baked chicken and homemade potato wedges, a protein style burger, or macaroni and nutritional yeast. I’ve even been known to toss kale in a bowl with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes and thinly sliced sweet onion to make a hearty tasty salad. One of the go to quick dinners around here is a lazy man’s dahl. To make cook get some rice started. In another pot start boiling a bag of split peas to cook them down. Add in a few tablespoons of your favorite indian spice. I like rogan josh, garam masala, or a vindaloo spice. Sometimes I’ll fry up some onion, garlic, and cardamom on the side but not always. The split peas will become a kind of green thick sauce. Just top your rice with your tasty split peas, stir in your aromatics if you’re using them, and enjoy your full belly.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. You have to try to be able to get the hang of pantry cooking. I’ve made some incredible meals, and some never make again meals. It happens.
- Don’t be afraid of preserving your food. Stick with the freezer if you need to, but getting the hang of water bathing is rewarding. A batch of pickles mid winter, from your garden mid summer, is both a treat and relieving after so many root vegetables—and they taste way better than store bought!
- Think outside the box. Who knew that oregano was actually really good in an herbed tea with lavender, hyssop and winter savory? I didn’t. I had the herbs on my deck and said “why not?”. Turned out pretty tasty.
- Don’t be afraid of trying new things. It might seem weird to eat nutritional yeast if you aren’t a vegan, but just don’t think of it as a vegan only item. It’s not, and I’m convinced too many people are missing out on how good it is. I actually prefer it over cheese in burritos and I love cheese.
- Keep track of what’s in your pantry. This is pretty key to making the most of your pantry and fridge. If you don’t know what’s in there things might get bad beyond the point of use, or transforming into something else. Tossing a brand new head of swiss chard you spent your money on, because it got shoved to the back of the fridge and you forgot about it, is frustrating. Trust me.
- HAVE FUN! Making the most of your pantry and fridge is fun. It’s like a new challenge every time.
Homesteading isn’t about doing it all. It’s about doing what you can and making a conscious decision to do it. It might be easier to rely on someone else, or a store, to give you all of your food but it doesn’t come close to being as satisfying as a loaf of homemade bread, or apple sauce, or using a can of tomatoes preserved from your own garden in January.
Whether you homestead for the satisfaction, or help the budget (or both, like us) there’s really no wrong answer on how to do it. Homesteading comes in all shapes and sizes, just figure out what fits you. Making the most of your pantry and fridge is a great place to start.
I challenge you to challenge yourself when it comes to utilizing your pantry and fridge, and trying to be creative in the kitchen.
If I can go from barely being able to make an egg, to doing what I can do now, I have faith you can too.
Trust me, I was a hot mess.
What is your favorite homesteading tip? How do you utilize your pantry/fridge/freezer? Do you have a favorite quick meal? Leave a comment below! Don’t be shy, I love hearing from you guys!