How Much Do You Need? - Pantry Management

  • Posted on: 2 February 2022
  • By: Mary in Maryland

(This week we have a guest blog from Green Wizard Mary of Maryland.)

I’ve thought a lot about a common question people who get into preparing have about food, “How much do I need?”.

My answer to that question has two parts. The first is buying in bulk. The second is inventory management.

I’ll discuss bulk buying first. I am also a person who hates to shop and loves having the answer to “what’s for dinner?” in the basement. Or the freezer. Or the garden. I’m not setting myself up an expert telling you how to do things, but I’d hate to have all my mistakes wasted.

In 1978 I joined a Co-op that had food in bulk. The vibe was enough fun that I shopped voluntarily (that is to say, before it was absolutely necessary.) I was a plastic-averse baby vegetarian and swooned over the jar swap shelf. I brought in empty jars and took home many lovely half gallon glass juice bottles. Their squared shape fit my cupboard perfectly. Alerted to the perfect storage vessel I picked through my neighbors’ trash and figured out who were the big drinkers (of OJ.)

To avoid using plastic bags, I carried my jars to the co-op in cloth bags to refill them. Bad idea—each jar weighs a pound empty, one has to go through checkout twice (once for the tare and once for the purchase), and I had to carry a funnel to get food into the jars. I also tried to run out of many things at once because I didn’t have a car and transportation was hard to arrange. I would grovel for a slot in a car pool or do others’ shopping for the use of their car.

I learned that running out of everything at once leads to efficient shopping and/or to being out of everything. And despite what cookbook authors claim, I do not need to experience all four hundred varieties of heirloom beans. I am an adult, and I can choose not to eat favas or adukis.

Pro tip - Things that are said to have a bold earthy flavor taste like dirt.<.strong>

Several decades and three co-ops later I realized my current co-op offers a 10% discount if you buy a complete bag of bulk food (25 or 50 pounds depending on the item), I decided to bulk up. I looted their recycling vault for five gallon buckets which I washed and bleached.

Pro-tip - The honey lids are easier to get off and on than the ones from nut butters.

In January of 2009 I bought six 25# bags of grains and beans and a 50# bag of oatmeal. I filled the buckets and left them outside in sub-freezing temps for five days to kill any unwanted passengers. Then we ate from them for over two years. This system had major flaws. For most of the time the buckets were not completely full. (Being full is reputed to preserve quality better.) Also, I could (should) not lift a full 25#bucket. And—my old failing, I tried to run out of everything at once. Even more daunting, I tried to run out of everything in January, because things needed to be frozen to eliminate pests. (Although earlier in life I noticed that the larva in the millet didn’t affect taste.)

I moved to smaller containers. The tofu tubs from Asian stores hold 14 or 18 cups and were easily sourced from neighbors’ recycling bins. I can lift them even when they are full. They fit in the freezer for the decontamination process. They fit on my shelves in the basement. When I run low upstairs in the kitchen, each tub fills two or three of my glass jars.

I started with only a few things—oatmeal, rice, barley, garbanzos, pintos, lentils, and black beans. I have since added more kinds, but I test out 5-8# of a new prospect before going big. And we eat some things that would take us 15 years to finish a 25# bag—yellow spit peas, urad dal. I now buy 75# (three bags, or one bag plus 50# of oatmeal) at a time about three times a year. I can run all the way out of one bean if I have four other varieties available. I label containers with blue tape—name of item, number of cups in the container, and date of purchase.

Pro-tip - Blue tape is my friend.

I have blue tape on top of the chest freezer listing what and when items were placed therein. I have blue tape on the front door listing what needs to be done today. I have blue tape marking the pattern row I am knitting. I have blue tape on the alarm clock so I can tap the right button without opening my eyes. Blue tape is my very good friend.

These buckets and bins and jars are not my “emergency food supplies.” You don’t need emergency food supplies. You need food that you eat every day in quantities large enough to help you over bumps in the road—be it illness, awful weather, or disruptions of the supply chain.

My survivalist neighbor with huge bins of “emergency rations” relied on us neighborhood ladies for food during his last couple years. Near as we could tell cleaning out the house, he never ever cooked and ate any of the two years’ worth of high quality, expensive, freeze-dried packets of four course meals stored in his basement. He seemed not to have seen them as food, but as something to save for an emergency.

I initially decided that I should inventory my stock every month. That was way too often. Every three to four months is plenty. Now when I notice one thing getting low, I check out how much I have left of each thing in that category (bulk from the co-op, Indian spices, Korean condiments, home canned goods). Knowing that pintos are getting low (I pressure cook seven cups of presoaked beans at a time, so less than fourteen cups qualifies as “running out”) makes me look at what else might be getting low. If I have 18 cups of limas, I might choose to eat those down so I can buy two items at once. And I'm going to run out of oatmeal in April.

See images for copies of inventory in 6/21, 8/21, and 1/22.


Poking through all my stores also unearths things that have fallen off my radar and need attention soon. I’m looking at the beluga lentils. I was sure I was down to four cups but inspection turned up another two eight cup jars. They were a mistake from the Co-op. I’ve tried five recipes for them without finding a keeper. Perhaps the best I can do is freecycle them before they get any older.

Addendum-- someone clued me onto a good recipe for these—Rosa’s Lentil Salad. I mentioned having found a decent recipe to a friend who promptly left an additional twenty cups of belugas on my porch.
Pro-tip—beluga lentils could be the next Zucchini. Be very, very careful. (I am putting this out under an assumed name.)

In my inventory notebook I list how many cups I have left of each bean and grain. Next to that I put the purchase date. (Time to dig into the quinoa.) When I make a big purchase I note cost, cups, and date. I get the cup count as I pick through for dirt and stones before putting things into containers. Containers are labeled with contents, amount, and purchase date on blue tape.

Pro tip - Put the label on the surface you see whether that’s the top of a jar in the freezer or the side of a tub on the shelves.

I also make a note in my food book when I finish a bulk bag. Which brings us back to “How much do I need?” That depends solely on how much you use. I’ve found other people’s lists to be useless or laughable, or both. Our four pound bag of sugar is well into its third year, but the 156 packets of microwave popcorn are less than a year’s worth. Also, no ketchup for us—but we have six 30 oz jars of mustard, three kilos of black bean paste, and a couple gallons of vinegar.

You’ll notice that I shopped big last summer. And that I haven’t done any bulk shopping since then. The fifty pound bag of oatmeal lasts us eight months—data over time. Oatmeal, kasha, and lentils are breakfast every day which simplifies cooking and inventory. But I have enough quinoa, millet, and rice to fill in if I need to. I could dive into my data and figure out how many cups of grains and beans the two of us eat per month or year. But I’m not quite that nerdy.

What I have noticed are general trends. We eat brown rice in the winter and quinoa in the summer. Black-eyed peas only between October and April --Kathy Hester’s Black-Eyed Peas Jambalaya. Due to my geekly data collection I know that we eat 50-60 jars of canned tomatoes per year. In 2021 I canned 85 jars, mostly because canning lessens my anxieties about having enough food. Canning--cheaper than Xanax, available without a prescription, and more to the point for worries about food security.

My biggest challenge this past year has been handling windfalls of food. I’ve cleaned out a couple of houses including that of a late friend who did not manage inventory at all. Cases and cases of pasta, beans, flours, sugar, beer, and any ready to eat freezable that Trader Joe’s had sold in the past decade. Dozens of cans of randomness. An astonishing fifteen kinds of vinegar and ten kinds of exotic oils.

Pro-tip - A single man does not need three refrigerators.

It was exciting bringing home whole cars full of free food. I love inventory! However, much as I enjoy having extras I realized that we couldn’t use all this before it got old(er). Triage--I gave what was good and unexpired to the Shepherd’s Table where they feed those who need it every day. I gave the expired but still good things to families in the hood who need more food (and know others who need more food.) And the stuff that had damaged packaging or smelled funny or outdated before the Obama’s inauguration? We ate it if it seemed safe. We are still working on the beer.

Looking over my data suggests that I have enough staples for about 16 months. I believe it makes sense for everyone to have stores of food to get them through the hard times whether that be a blizzard, a pandemic, the zombie apocalypse, or a bad growing season.

Remember - What one needs is adequate inventory. And then one needs to manage it effectively.


Ken's picture

Thank you, Mary! This is a great example, especially for me; I have 20 lbs. bags of rice and beans in a couple of locations (to spread risk of spoilage or loss) as well as a large storage pantry, BUT I don't have any inventory and rely upon my memory, which may or may not be as reliable as I think! Also makes it difficult for anyone else to pick up the slack if I'm not doing the cooking. I'm always frustrated when my wife brings home a little bag of potatoes for soup, when there is a big bag of them that needs to be eaten in storage!

You make another good point about keeping items in your "deep pantry" fresh, or as fresh as possible. I grow my own corn and it keeps fine for years as does rice, but beans seem to get harder and harder over time. I always wait until at least Christmas to purchase bags of beans in order to get the most recent crop. Sad but true that sellers of beans move last year's remaining beans before shipping the new ones. One item I am super particular about being fresh are oils. Rancid oils are really not healthy and they start oxidizing as soon as they are pressed. Even lard, vacuum sealed and in the freezer, will only stay good for a couple years. An open bottle of olive oil in the cupboard really should be used within a month or so.

One notion I'd like to add to your list: having "some to spare" for less diligent family, friends and neighbors is probably wise. We all know good, kind people that just don't take being prepared seriously and in an emergency they'd be down to eating weird flavored old popsicles in about 3 days.

A piece on water might be a good companion to this article. Tips on coooking when the electric and/or propane/gas are out would be useful too!

Thanks Ken, I'm working up an article on cooking that includes my experiences of the weeks without fossil fuels.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Very organized! This definitely gets the STM seal of approval. Things are a bit less organized here in Sweet Tatorland. I've never needed to inventory the beer around here as it never has to chance of getting past it's best by date.
And, welcome aboard Mary.

I have seen Youtube videos about pressure canning butter. It was something of a process but you would have shelf stable butter when you were done. I would imagine that lard could be done the same way and wouldn't have so many steps, but I haven't tried it. Oils are trickier, and I have started to use smaller bottles to get them used up before they go bad.

Nice system Mary.

lathechuck's picture

Peanut butter has long been a staple of my diet, and I've bought it in the biggest jars on the shelves. These plastic jars are rugged and have wide mouths that make them easy to fill (they fit nicely under the bulk-food hoppers at the store). They're easy to clean (because nobody wants navy beans that smell like peanut butter). The tare weight is always the same (0.14 pounds), so I can refresh the markings myself without bothering store employees. They're light weight and unbreakable, so I'm not worried about knocking one off of a high shelf. Each jar holds about 2 lbs., so addressing food insecurity is pretty easy: each full jar is enough food for the two of us for a day. (Of course, we're not going to eat a full jar of oatmeal on one day, then a full jar of kidney beans the next, but the end result is the same whether eat them sequentially

BTW: I like your writing style, Mary.

We eat a lot of mustard--six 30 ounce jars a year for the past decade or so. They are perfect for holding exactly two meals worth of leftovers and have that wide mouth convenience for filling, emptying, and cleaning. I'm attracted to empty containers and have difficulty disposing of any when I accumulate more than one.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Laughing at myself because I am imagining a nice orderly collection of (straight sided?) mustard jars, filled and awaiting fill, sitting properly on your open shelves, a beam of sun slicing through the kitchen to make them glint and sparkle. A thing of beauty....Of course, that glint and sparkle depends on not letting jars accumulate greasy dust the way things on my open kitchen shelves do.

I store all kinds of things in well-washed 40 oz. peanut butter jars, including my vast button collection, sorted by type and color.

They're great, they're free, they're lightweight, and they don't shatter when you drop the jar and spread broken glass and the jar's contents all over the floor.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Our PB comes in glass jars and we reuse those. They also are good for refrigerator storage of seed packets. I think air penetrates plastic over time.

Now maybe some day we'll find a way to fit some upper shelves in the kitchen for more storage.

My buttons are stored in a cloth bag just like Grandma's were. When the aunts were cleaning out her house, I asked for the button bag--remembering her telling me what item of clothing each button had graced. I was told. "We tossed it." I admit to bitterness about my lack of inherited button wealth.

I have 22 40-oz peanut butter jars of buttons.
I do a lot of sewing and mending.

I pick buttons off the floor when I find them.
I cut them off garments destined for the rag box.
If the price is right, I buy jars of mixed buttons at thrift shops.
Craft stores often offer mixed containers of buttons for use in crafts. They're perfectly acceptable for garments as long as you're willing to sort through, looking for a matching set.
When someone discards a relative's sewing stash, I'm first in line.

I sort buttons by color and by whether or not it's got a shank or a holes.

The more mending you do, the more buttons you want to keep on hand. It's surprising how varied men's white shirt buttons are and that's just the beginning of the variety.

A huge button stash means you shop your stash before buying buttons for a project.

The uniform, clear jars let me sort through only the type of button I need: shades of blue with a shank.

This isn't food storage, but it's similar. If you need it and can't find it, you don't have it.

David Trammel's picture

Being in a two adult household, only one of us is a peanut butter eater of any measure, we don't buy it in large enough jars to get them for storage. We do eat a lot of pickles, which do come in glass. One of my hopes with the new garden is to finally figure out how to grow cucumbers and try my hand at making pickles.

Thanks for this.

I'm another person who doesn't have a vehicle and tries to eat out of a pantry - though I haven't gone nearly as far as you. I don't buy the 20+lb sacks of stuff because there are very few things I would actually finish in a reasonable time frame, as a single person, and I don't want to carry a 22lb or 50lb sack of anything home in my backpack if it would even it, or find space to store it once I've gotten it home. I usually go for 5.5 or 11lb bags of things like rice, oats, flour, potatoes, carrots, which I can buy when I go in to shop every 1.5-2weeks and buy along with the milk, fruit, veggies etc I need to get at the same time.

I am finding that now I've started baking my own bread I go through flour a lot faster than I used to, I may need to go for the 11lb bags now... when I can find them. They had no wholewheat in that size last time, so I bought a 5.5lb instead. It was on sale, and at least it meant I wouldn't run out before the next shop.

I do keep a few specific emergency foods in my earthquake kit, since I live in an earthquake zone, and there's the possibility the house might be damaged/wrecked and my kitchen impossible to get into. I really need to go through them more often - I went through the kit a few weeks ago and found a lot of things were expired. Most of them were fine and have now been eaten, but a few things weren't, and wound up in the compost bin. I think I need to go through this every 6 months or so.

My husband is the family bread maven. I've found that the North Dakota State Mill (where my Grandpa worked for thirty years) sells bread flour in 25 pound bags. With shipping the last bag ran us 24.13. It sounds like you could use one before it aged out.

... so that's a bit of a jaunt. Yes, I might be able to find a local source that would deliver to my landlady's address, which would fix the issue of getting it home. Thus far, there really hasn't been reason for me to try this. There'd probably be a delivery charge that would eat up much of the savings, and I'd still have to find a place to store all that flour once I had it. My kitchen is pretty small, and my food storage space is limited.