Transitioning Our Pantry from “Recipes First” to “Ingredients First”

Over the last several months, we’ve been gradually
transitioning from a “recipes first” methodology of cooking to
an “ingredients first” methodology. Our goal is to make our
home cooking much more flexible so we can rely even more on bulk
buying of key ingredients and just buying loss leaders from the
produce aisle of the grocery store. I’ve written a little about
this shift before and I thought a thorough update might be in

Let’s walk through what this is all about in detail.

How We’ve Done Things in the Past

In the past, our meal planning and grocery buying and cooking
strategy was simple. It was a five step process:

Step 1: Get the grocery store flyer
Step 2: Select recipes and plan meals for the week using our
calendar and the items on sale in the flyer
Step 3: Make a grocery list from those recipes, which is basically
a list of recipe ingredients minus what we have already on hand
Step 4: Go grocery shopping with the grocery list in hand
Step 5: Prep meals according to the plan

This system came into being over time for several reasons.

One, we were kind of tired of clipping coupons and we found we
could get much the same savings if we were careful about buying
stuff from the grocery flyer of a low-cost grocer and sticking
largely to store brand stuff.

Two, we knew that having a careful meal plan that took our
calendar into account made it much more likely that we would
prepare meals at home, which is far cheaper than eating out all the

Three, we knew that shopping from a grocery list was likely to
help us maintain focus on that list and thus were less likely to
put unplanned things in the cart.

Four, we weren’t incredibly confident in the kitchen as we
moved to this plan and thus having known recipes to follow was
pretty important.

This system was one that tolerated our relative inexperience in
the kitchen and our crazy schedule while still finding a lot of
ways to save money – cooking at home, using a low-cost grocer,
sticking to a grocery list, having a grocery list full of items on
sale, and so on.

There were still a few flaws with this system, though.

We often wound up with leftover ingredients in odd amounts and
we were often unsure what to do with them. Often, partial packages
would wind up back in the pantry or fridge or freezer and would
eventually be tossed.

There were many food bulk buys that we couldn’t take advantage
of because we were unsure how to use them.

Furthermore, as we became more comfortable in the kitchen, we
wanted to “ad lib” with the recipes a little more.

“Recipe First” Cooking

What I eventually came to realize is that our method of
meal planning and cooking is what’s known as “recipe first”
In other words, our system of designing a meal
plan around recipes, buying items to fulfill those recipes, and
sticking tightly to the meal plan required us to find recipes
before we went to the grocery store.

Basically, if you look at recipes before buying
groceries, you’re doing “recipe first” cooking.

Since I’m a huge believer in simply trusting one’s grocery
list to minimize impulse buys, I would often go to the store and
end up buying package sizes to specifically match our recipes, and
that was often a ballpark thing. Often, we’d need an awkward
amount, so I’d end up buying a little too much and the excess
would just wind up in the back of the fridge or the pantry.

This system also made it very hard to ad-lib. What if I wanted
to modify a recipe one night? What if one or two of the neighbor
kids was at our house for supper, which happens occasionally? What
if a last minute change of events changes the window of time to
prepare a specific recipe?

Over time, we came up with some “patches” for this, the big
one being that we always had ingredients on hand for a few specific
meals that we could quickly prepare any time. We always had
ingredients for a simple vegetarian chili. We always had
ingredients for spaghetti with sauce.

The perk of those meals was that I knew I could always buy beans
in bulk and canned diced tomatoes in bulk and chili seasonings in
bulk and dry spaghetti in bulk and pasta sauce in bulk (or, more
often these days, tomato sauce in bulk and a variety of spices in
bulk). If I saw boxes of whole wheat spaghetti for $0.50, I knew I
could just fill the cart up with them and we’d eventually use

“Ingredients First” Cooking

Eventually, I came to realize that I wanted that kind of freedom
with everything. Whenever I saw a really great sale on something I
knew we used more than once in a blue moon, I wanted to be able to
just stock up on it without thinking, knowing it would get used. I
wanted to be able to buy some frequently used items in huge bulk so
that it was incredibly cheap per pound.

This led to the overall realization that we should move toward
“ingredients first” cooking, meaning that we just have
a pantry and freezer full of staples and thus our meal planning is
just about utilizing what’s on sale in the produce section of the
grocery store while having the ability to ad-lib lots of

For many quick meals, we’d just always have everything on
hand. If I want to make a pot of chili, for example, I’d know
that every ingredient I’d need for it is ready to go in the
pantry or in the fridge or in the freezer at all times. If I want
to make spaghetti, the same is true. Basically, I want this
to be true for quite a few meals, and I want many other meals to be
similarly ready to go whenever the fresh ingredients are on

Basically, this means filling up our pantry with staples
purchased in bulk, buying loss leaders from the fresh items at the
grocery store, buying nonperishables in bulk particularly when on
sale, and then assembling meals out of what we have on

This changes the five step process above into this:

Step 1: Get the grocery store flyer
Step 2: Identify loss leaders that will make for interesting
Step 3: Make a grocery list from the loss leaders and from
whatever’s low in the pantry
Step 4: Go grocery shopping with the grocery list in hand
Step 5: Make a meal plan based on what I have on hand and what fits
our calendar

In other words, I buy the ingredients before even
deciding on recipes or a meal plan.
Instead, I just know I
have a lot of staples on hand and that I can assemble a lot of
meals from those ingredients.

The key to this is that the ingredients on hand become
the constraint on deciding what to make, not what I can buy at the
grocery store.
I keep my shopping to bulk staples and
on-sale ingredients and then use them to make something for each
meal which I can figure out after grocery shopping but before

What Changes in Our Food Buying and Prep Time?

So, what does that mean in terms of actual changes in our food
buying and food preparation?

Obviously, the focus changes to keeping a healthy pantry
full of staples and supplementing that with on-sale
When we fully transition (this is still ongoing,
for reasons I’ll note below), our grocery list will basically be
staple refills along with on-sale fresh produce.

We’re still figuring out what staples we need to have on hand,
but this
is a really good list
to work from that we’ve been using.
Obviously, some items are in larger quantity than others depending
on the types of food we make regularly. For example, we’ll always
have tons of diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and tomato paste on
hand, whereas we have very little need to have clams on hand.

The thing to notice is that almost everything on that
list is staple foods, not prepared foods.
Staple items are
almost universally cheaper to buy at the store than prepared items.
The more basic the item, the cheaper it is.

We still do meal plans, but meal plans can now be done
after the grocery shopping.
I can meal plan before or
after grocery shopping. It becomes much more of an issue to make
sure that the meals we plan fit our calendar rather than figuring
out what we need to buy.

Our “meal prepping” is more about preparing basic
ingredients for future meals and also about making duplicates of
the same meal when we’re making one for supper.
kind of moved away from just making lots of batches of the same
meal; instead, if we’re making one meal from scratch, we’ll
just make three or four of it (limited by what we have on hand) and
save the extra two or three for later, which usually triggers a
need to restock specific ingredients in the pantry.

For example, if I’m making lasagna, I’ll probably just go
and make several pans of it at once, and the number of pans is
usually limited by the ingredients we happen to have around. How
many pans can I make based on what’s on hand in the fridge and
pantry? This usually means we run out of something, and thus it’s
a staple that I can replenish by buying in bulk next time.

I’ll also spend some time straight-up prepping ingredients for
future use. For example, I’ve found that it’s a great idea to
store small batches of chopped onions and bell peppers in the
freezer in small containers. I can just pull them out when it’s
convenient and toss them right into the skillet or crock pot or
whatever. This means that every once in a while, I’ll spend an
hour just chopping onions – tons of them. There are also times
where I’ll just buy frozen diced onions and diced green peppers
at the store when they’re on sale and divide them into smaller
containers when I get home.

Lessons Learned

Ingredients-first cooking will save you a lot of money,
but transitioning to it has a number of challenges and some
unexpected expenses.
We’re still in transition –
we’re mostly doing it, but we often run into little problems and
make last-minute runs to the store to fix things. While I think
it’s already cheaper than our previous situation, it will get
even better when we shave off the rough edges.

Here are some things we’ve learned.

Familiarity with the kitchen is absolutely essential if
you’re trying to do this with time constraints.
you’re a single person or you’re retired and you don’t have a
whole lot of time constraints on meal preparation, it’s not
nearly as big of a deal. The reality is that we often have to get
meals made in a pretty narrow timeframe, and that means that we
need to be pretty adept in the kitchen at a wide variety of

The reason is that quite often, you’re not following
an exact recipe.
You certainly can follow recipes with
this strategy, but it almost nudges you not to do so and to trust
your own instincts in the kitchen. If you’re leafing through
Serious Eats or
AllRecipes or something like that and come up with a recipe,
you’ll often not have exactly what it calls for, which means you
need to be knowledgable and comfortable enough to make reasonable
substitutions if you want to make it. In other words,
almost everything you make becomes a slight variation on a
basic recipe.
You’ll almost never make the exact same
pasta meal twice – it’ll slightly vary based on what
ingredients you happen to have and, as you become more experienced,
what flavors you want to accentuate.

A complete pantry reboot is often necessary. If
you’re accustomed to just following recipes or instructions on
the backs of boxes for everything that you make, it’s very likely
that you’ve accumulated a lot of partial containers of things
that have gradually shifted to the back of your pantry, filling it
up with a bunch of junk that you’ve forgotten about.

In order to switch to ingredient-based cooking, you need to pull
all of that nonsense out of your pantry and either use it up or
toss it.

One good way of doing this is to get several large boxes and put
everything that’s currently in your pantry that isn’t a staple
in there. All of the half-used containers, all of the strange
ingredients you bought to follow one specific recipe, all of that
stuff – put it in a box or two or seven that’s outside of your
pantry. Then, you can restock your pantry with actual staples while
also trying to get through and use up all of the stuff in

Storage containers become very, very useful when you
switch to this strategy.
Many of the staples you buy at
the store will actually just serve to refill a storage container in
your pantry. We have lots of containers for different kinds of
flours, different kinds of pasta, and so on.

The reason for this is that it keeps you from having a pantry
full of half-empty bags and containers of various kinds. When you
buy oatmeal, for example, at the store, you just bring it home,
dump it in the oatmeal container, and toss the package.

Even better, this system makes it really easy to move to
using the bulk bins at the grocery store.
Almost always,
the stuff that comes out of those bulk bins is cheaper and higher
quality than the packages on the shelves. It’s definitely fresher
most of the time, too.

The drawback, of course, is the startup cost of having so many
food storage containers. Our solution is to go cheap at first,
using cheap flimsy containers from the grocery store, and then
buying better sets as holiday gifts (my wife and I have become
absurdly practical with most of our gift-giving to each other,
where it becomes mostly an excuse to upgrade things around the
house that we use a lot). Basically, go cheap, then gradually
upgrade your frequently used containers to better stuff like

OXO Good Grips POP containers
(my favorite for things like
flour and pasta, but expensive) and
these airtight spice containers

Another thing that will happen is that you’ll
constantly be learning what should and shouldn’t be in your
You’ll have ingredients in there that you
scarcely use and will sit for years, while you completely missed
the boat on other staples. That’s why we have been often running
to the store for last minute items as we make this transition.

Final Thoughts

Most Americans approach home food preparation from a “recipe
first” perspective. They buy items to fulfill a specific recipe,
whether it’s one found online or in a book or magazine or a
recipe card or even the back of a package. While this is certainly
less expensive than eating out constantly and it does require less
creativity and skill in the kitchen, it does create the problem of
having extra ingredients left over and you’ll also find it’s
harder to always stick to the on-sale items when grocery

Ingredients-first cooking solves both of those problems, which
further reduces long term food costs, but it comes with some
challenges, too. It requires some skill and creativity in the
kitchen, for starters, and there’s a hefty startup cost.
There’s also the challenge of dealing with a pantry full of items
that you need to use up as you’re “rebooting” your

In the long run, it can definitely save you a lot of money as it
means that further food buying is either bulk purchasing or loss
leaders from the grocery flyer, but it requires some transition if
you currently have an overstuffed pantry and refrigerator.

Whether you think that “ingredients first” cooking is a good
choice for you or not, it’s a worthwhile approach to understand
and keep in your back pocket for times when your food costs are
about to become tighter or when you want a bit more freedom in your
home food preparation and want to stretch your cooking skills and
creativity a little.

Good luck!

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Transitioning Our Pantry from “Recipes First” to “Ingredients
appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Source: FS – All-News2-Economy
Transitioning Our Pantry from “Recipes First” to “Ingredients First”