Weeks of isolation and home cooking have taught us a lot about how to stock pantries, fridges, and freezers for better cooking and meal planning. Here, we share strategies for building a better larder for the everyday and the unexpected.
Asian female wearing a face mask shopping at the supermarket
Credit: Kilito Chan/Getty Images

From a food-focused perspective, there are numerous takeaways from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While it's hard to find much joy, inspiration, or even a bright side in a world that's decidedly bleak, this virus has offered us a useful, teachable moment in terms of how we should view our homes and larders as we move into the future.

Over the past few months of isolation and cooking at home, we've been faced with questions that help us survive day to day — and ones that also prepare us for down the road. How can we steel ourselves against whatever else may lie ahead? What is the best way to ready our homes and our shelves for food crises that we don't know are looming around the corner? Consider this moment an opportunity to look toward the future and the next unexpected demand. Building a better larder for that day isn't difficult, especially with these solution-based tips.

1. Stay Organized

In restaurant kitchens around the world, the adage "First in, first out" is adhered to as a matter of food safety. That's because it reminds you to use the food that's prone to spoilage first, saving the newest stuff for later.

The best way to ensure safe and effective usage of product is to organize your pantry. If you keep non-perishable products in reusable containers, mark them clearly on the outside, in multiple places, either with removable tape, permanent marker, or another kind of labeling system. Keep like items together and, when you shop, put items with the furthest expiration dates at the back. That way, when you head to the pantry to grab a snack or a box of pasta, your hand will automatically choose the one set to expire first, and you won't even have to think about it.

2. Keep a 'Par' Sheet

Not every family needs the same items. In my house, for instance, I place a heavy premium on boxed chicken stock, pasta, beans, and Kosher salt. But I don't run to the store when my supplies are at zero. Instead, I keep a sheet that helps me maintain a baseline in my pantry. That means that, at any given time, I have a certain amount of product on hand (four boxes of stock, say, or one unopened box of Kosher salt). If I fall below par, then that means it's time to replenish. Keeping a par sheet is an easy way to keep tabs on what you have on hand. It's also an easy way to streamline your grocery shopping for pantry needs.

3. Compile a Pantry Dream List

You aren't necessarily going to wake up tomorrow, look at your pantry and say, "Wow, this looks like the inside of a glossy magazine test kitchen." And that's perfectly OK! You have permission — and time — to build the kind of pantry you want.

See an ingredient you want in a recipe you like? Write it down. Make notes of ingredients you see, smell, and taste in the world. Think about dishes you have loved and what has made them flavorful and interesting.

A comprehensive pantry does not have to have every single ingredient to be great. But, over time, you can accumulate some great things that can keep well and do not need to be replaced often. That's how you build a broad, purposeful larder.

4. Buy the Best Foods for Cross-Purpose Cooking

If we've learned anything during the panicked shopping days of COVID-19, it's that the days of predictable grocery shopping may be behind us. Hopefully, we will one day be able to walk into stores again with intent and know exactly what we're getting. Until then, we'll have to work with what we have.

Looking forward, it's worth thinking about ingredients in terms of how many purposes they can fulfill. What are some of the most useful things on the market? Red wine vinegar is an excellent all-purpose ingredient that should be in any larder. Can't find flour? You can't necessarily bake with cornstarch, but you can use it as a thickener, or to remove excess moisture from some foods. You can even add it to granulated sugar to make your own confectioner's sugar in a pinch. There may not be any brown sugar in your baking aisle, but there's more than likely molasses, which means you can make your own (add it to white sugar for light or dark brown sugar).

Instead of gravitating toward specialty items with only one purpose, consider items with a broad spectrum of uses, which are more useful in challenging times.

5. Don't Be Afraid to Toss or Donate

Nothing lasts forever, not even dry goods. Make sure to go through your non-perishables every six months or so, and take a good, hard look at what you have. Check expiration dates; smell spices, flours, and oils (which are prone to rancidity); check for any sign of damage; and throw anything away that looks even remotely suspicious. If there are foods in your larder that you haven't eaten in a really long time, or that you know you won't eat, get rid of them. If you have foods that you think are edible but you can't make use of, donate them to your local food pantry.

With these tips, the larder of the future is bound to look better than the larder of the past. And you, your family, and anyone you cook for regularly will be better prepared for whatever comes around the corner.

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