How Much Do You Need? - Pantry Management
(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.