Non-Doomsday Prepping Part 3: Staples and Beyond
Some years back, I started writing a cookbook because so many younger clients on my fertility website had no idea how to shop, store, and cook affordable food. A lot of families around the world are living on takeout and spending fortunes on food, having to dine at restaurants or hit the grocery store deli every day, and eating incredibly unhealthy diets. When they tried to eat healthy food, they failed because it was expensive and hard to prepare. In addition, it occurred to me that because they were living day by day, meal by meal, they were unprepared for any emergency (such as the coronavirus we’re looking at right now, job loss or family illness).
So I came up with this concept I called “non-doomsday prepping” – the notion of having a wide variety of shelf-stable food on hand so you can cook at home using ingredients purchased on sale, while also being somewhat prepared for emergencies as they arise. Prepping doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weird, it’s actually a great way to save money over the course of time, and it doesn’t even have to take up lots of space.
I’ve divided my cookbook up into smaller essays and I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.
Part 1 is here: The Case for Being Prepared
Part 2 is here: Shopping for Stocking Up
Finally, the boring part is over!! We’re ready to get to the food!
But first — the good news. Even though we are hearing about grocery stores sold out of some items due to coronavirus, most stores still have plenty of shelf-stable foods available. As I write this today, March 16, 2020, stores have been selling out of paper goods and fresh foods, while they still have ample supplies of canned and dry foods available. This works very well for our purposes as we’re going to base our non-doomsday pantry program around these shelf-stable foods that last a long time.
Don’t panic, experts say that the nation has plenty of food and producers are gearing up to make more and get it to grocery stores as quickly as possible. Let’s take this opportunity to thank the workers in grocery production and transportation who are often overlooked, and of course to treat the workers we encounter in grocery stores with kindness as they’re risking their health and sanity to keep those shelves stocked!
And remember — this is NOT doomsday. We aren’t hoarding, we’re stocking up. Be sensible, think of others, and don’t take more than you will be able to use in a reasonable time.
Get started with staples!
Let’s take a second to talk about staples and what this really means.
In many cookbooks I own, they have lists of “staples that no kitchen should be without” and then go on to include things like tamarind paste, beluga caviar, and truffle oil. These are not staples!! Staples are the things that you either HAVE to have to make most recipes, or foods that if you have them on hand (we’ll call these “have-on-hands” instead to differentiate the two), it’s super easy to make a dinner with the addition of a couple fresh ingredients. Staples and have-on-hands are either shelf-stable indefinitely or will last a month or two in the refrigerator properly stored.
With the exception of the true staples which most families likely have in their cupboard already, do NOT go to the store tomorrow and buy all these things. I repeat, DO NOT go out and buy all these things at once. We are doing this to save money first and foremost, so just wait till these things go on sale and gradually start accumulating them over the course of time, when they are AFFORDABLE!! If you hate something on this list, skip it. It’s always acceptable to substitute a similar product (such as butter for oil if you need some fat in a recipe, and remember, you can freeze butter for a longer shelf life).
The difference between staples and have-on-hands
Staples are things that you really pretty much need to have to prepare an average meal (like flour and sugar and salt). Even if you don’t necessarily use them every single time you cook, they’re pretty important in lots of different recipes. But have-on-hands are things that are valuable or important to keep around (like ketchup and mustard) but not necessities. You can make a meal without a have-on-hand but it makes life a lot better if you can have mustard on a hot dog!
The 10 foods that are TRUE staples:
These are things that you really need to make a wide variety of recipes.
Salt, sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, pepper, vegetable oil, eggs, rice (just good old long grain white rice, nothing fancy), pasta (I like to have macaroni, spaghetti, lasagna, and a cutesy shape for soups and pasta salads handy but get what YOU prefer)
If you like baking, you could add a large container of yeast to the above but since it’s not a necessity, I don’t include it in the ten. If you don’t bake with yeast regularly, you can always just pick up a few of the little sealed foil packets on the rare occasions you do plan to bake. Store opened large containers of yeast in the refrigerator so they last longer.
Special mention for shortening – yeah, it’s not good for you BUT it lasts forever and if you’re out of butter and out of oil and still have a couple days till payday, trust me, it’s a huge relief to look in the back of the cupboard and spot a tub of shortening. You can bake or fry something. If you don’t and won’t eat it ever, don’t buy it, but if you’re serious about “non-doomsday prepping” you will probably want to have some in case of emergencies. It goes on sale around the holidays and that is a good time to buy a couple cans to stash in the back of the cupboard. It can spoil over time once opened, so if you plan on using it only rarely, buy small sizes and keep sealed till ready to use.
So to the above 10 add yeast and shortening if the spirit moves you.
The 10 have-on-hand ingredients that “dress up” basic fare easily
They’re not quite staples because you can technically live without them, but keep quite a while and add versatility to your cooking options.
Butter (real!), vinegar (white and/or apple cider vinegar), garlic powder, onion flakes, cinnamon, tomato paste, basil, parsley, chili powder, soy sauce.
Note about margarine – it’s not good for you, doesn’t taste as good as butter does, and butter works in any recipe containing margarine (although some things, like cookies, are crisper with butter, sometimes unpleasantly so). But margarine is affordable and keeps a long time in the fridge, even longer in the freezer. Shortening can take the place of margarine for long term storage and it does not need to be kept inside your refrigerator, making room for other things. But if you plan on making a lot of baked goods, say, for a holiday, mixing half-butter and half-margarine can save a lot of money and can even improve the texture of many things. And some folks grew up eating margarine and prefer it for some things. Buying margarine when it’s affordable (and butter isn’t) fits in with the Layer Principle – having one particular cooking need (in this case, cooking fat) met in a variety of different ways depending on what product is affordable any given shopping trip. You may want to grab margarine in lieu of, or along with butter depending on its affordability.
Note about garlic powder and onion flakes — gourmets may protest at their inclusion, but remember, we want something that will keep on the shelf a long time.
10 handy sauces and condiments to have on hand
Condiments and sauces usually keep a long time and it’s very easy to buy an extra when they go on sale. You should always rotate oldest to newest, but they keep pretty much indefinitely before opening. Remember, if you don’t like them, don’t buy them!
Ketchup, mustard (buying more than one kind of mustard such as wholegrain and dijon adds versatility to your pantry, and store brand “fancy” mustards are quite affordable), mayonnaise, Italian vinaigrette-style salad dressing (I like Bernstein’s), barbeque sauce, peanut butter, hot sauce (Frank’s Red Hot is my favorite) salsa (the canned, bottled or jarred shelf-stable salsas, not the expensive fresh kind), cream-based soups (cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, cream of asparagus), sour cream (buy smaller packages and keep sealed till ready to use – sour cream is one area where bulk purchasing is not good, because larger containers spoil rapidly.)
10 more “advanced placement” have-on-hands
They’ll keep for ages open in the fridge, and an eternity sealed in your pantry. If you know you will never use these things, don’t buy them!
Jelly (orange marmalade, apricot, and pepper jellies add lots of variety – jelly is good for more than just toast), pickles (sweet and dill), honey, unsweetened cocoa, fish sauce, salad dressings of your choice (I like Thousand Island and Catalina dressing in terms of their versatility for recipes, Brianna’s for salads, and Miracle Whip for tuna salad), wine vinegar, lemon juice, curry powder, dill weed.
10 versatile packaged sauce mixes
I have found that foil packaged sauce mixes are incredibly handy for cooking. They’re not health foods to be sure, but they do not spoil, they’re cheap and convenient, and they can dress up lots of different dishes. I recommend having a variety on hand and I have found the following to be the most useful. If you’ve never used them, give them a try.
Au Jus mix, chicken gravy, country gravy, chili seasoning, fajita seasoning, enchilada mix, hollandaise sauce, ranch dip, taco seasoning, sloppy joe mix.
10 super useful foods in cans
They are cheap, last forever and are there in a pinch!
Corn, green beans, kidney or pinto beans, refried beans, garbanzo beans, baked beans (I like Bush’s), tuna, Spam, clams (get Chicken of the Sea brand, all others are gritty), canned tomatoes (I like crushed best, but a variety is more versatile)
6 helpful freezer staples
Foods in the freezer last for 3-6 months.
Peas (much better frozen than canned!), spinach (much better frozen than canned!), 100% grape juice (not grape cocktail, get 100% juice), old bananas – just put them into the freezer whole and still in their skin (you will usually just have these left over, but occasionally you can buy extra for pennies), Cool Whip, homemade broth (don’t waste money on canned broth, homemade is so easy and free! I have an article on making your own broth here: Broth and Stock: Truly Making Something From Nothing)
Note about Cool Whip — is this a health food? No. Is it as good as homemade or even canned whipped cream? No. But it keeps in the freezer a long time, and can be used in surprisingly versatile ways — everything from a dressing for fruit salad to cake frosting to replacement creamer in coffee if you run out of milk. Remember, our goal here is preparedness on a budget!
5 must buys from the produce section
They are affordable, keep quite a while, and are useful in many recipes. Pick some up whenever affordable.
Potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, celery.
Store potatoes in the dark to prevent sprouting and greening of skin – but not in the fridge because the starch in them turns to sugar. Store onions away from apples and bananas, as they can release a gas that causes the onions to sprout and spoil. Yellow onions last longer than white or purple onions, but white/purple onions are much better for eating fresh, on sandwiches or in salad. Yellow onions are best reserved for cooking.
5 more handy choices from the produce section
While not must buys, they keep a while and are good for many recipes. It can be nice to have something fresh on hand when eating from the pantry for long periods. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them!!!
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, apples, bell peppers (if you take them out of the plastic produce bag, bell peppers can last longer than you might think.)
5 useful dairy foods
Milk, cream cheese, American cheese slices (I prefer deli-style), cheddar cheese, Velveeta (shelf stable and it keeps a long time, meaning you can get it on sale and have it in your pantry for 3-6 months as a backup for when you’re between paychecks and out of cheese)
Note about milk — rotate milk, which of course does spoil relatively quickly, to use oldest to newest first. Whole milk, despite its unhealthy reputation, is better for you than skim and makes recipes taste much better. (It is also imperative that kids under the age of 2 drink whole milk instead of skim for optimal brain development.) You can often find slightly older, but still fresh milk on sale for huge savings. If you rotate your milk faithfully you should never have a spoiled carton, even if you do buy nearer the expiration date.
Note about Velveeta — if you’ll never eat this, don’t buy it, but having a cheese-like product available that you can keep in your cupboard and lasts for many months is handy in case of emergency.
Note about American cheese — again, if you’ll never eat it, don’t buy it, but it’s versatile (particularly the deli-style) and stores unopened longer than many other cheeses do. Don’t freeze it though!
3 more dairy foods for good measure
Any other cheese besides cheddar (either brick or shredded depending on price), cottage cheese, evaporated milk (goes on sale around the holidays, buy several!)
Note about shredded cheese – you can often hit a sale where shredded cheese near its expiration date is just as cheap if not cheaper than cheese bricks. Compare prices! I find that cheese, even shredded, keeps for so long that it’s worth it to stock up. You can often save 2-3 dollars per pound buying cheese nearer its expiration date.
Note about cottage cheese – while cottage cheese may not be something you regularly buy, it’s quite versatile, try it! In addition to being eaten alone, it can be a stand in for ricotta cheese in Italian cooking and other soft cheeses like farmer cheese in dips, casseroles, and desserts (plus it’s cheaper). Store cottage cheese upside down in your fridge – it keeps longer.
Whipped cream in a can, while not a necessity to be sure, gets an honorable mention (especially if you cannot abide Cool Whip). It lasts a long time sealed in your fridge, and is handy to have in a pinch (if you can prevent yourself from eating it, that is!!)
Filling in the gaps
It’s grocery day. Let’s assume you have at least some of the above staples and have-on-hand ingredients listed. Because you have laid in a nice foundation of pantry foods, you are now able to make SOMETHING edible out of just about anything you come across. Make a list of any true staples you’ve run out of, and have-on-hands that you can’t live without, but don’t be too hung up on cooking a particular recipe.
Walk through the store and grab anything on sale that YOU like. Every week, stores will run sales on some of their items and not on others (some products may even have prices increased to make up for the sale goods). Stick to buying only what’s on sale unless you are out of something that is totally critical to survival. Even if you are out of something that is a true staple, if it is unusually expensive (eggs and butter in particular both go through wild price fluctuations) you will probably be able to make do without it by making recipes that do not require this particular ingredient.
There will be some deals in the produce department, some in the meat department, the dairy department, and the bakery department to capitalize upon. Of course, you shouldn’t just grab anything that claims to be marked down; only get it if firstly YOU like and will use it, and secondly if it’s actually on sale.
You see, grocery stores can be a little sneaky about their sales. Some of them are not above marking up, then marking down items and claiming they are on sale, or substituting products that are virtually the same size only not on sale (be especially aware of this when buying cereal!) Be sure to check the “unit pricing” which is written in tiny numbers on the price tag. If you aren’t sure where, ask the grocer. The occasional store does not have unit prices listed. In that case, unless it’s literally the only store in your area, don’t shop there, that is a sign of dishonest pricing.
Another thing to be aware of is stores using trick pricing gimmicks. Examples of trick pricing are the “buy 3, get 2 free” schemes requiring you to do a complex math problem to find the price per unit, while trying to keep your 2 year old from climbing out of the shopping cart; the “buy cereal, get free milk” gambit where you have to remember to get the free milk you’re owed and then finding out at the register it had to be a certain brand or size; or posting prices in huge numbers that are by pound but making it look like it’s the price of the item so you get to the register and realize you’re about to pay $20 for a 4 lb. block of cheese you thought was $5. And of course, the many stores that require you show your club card or enter your phone number to get the sale price and don’t remind you at the checkstand, so you end up paying way more than the advertised price.
Cashiers often “forget” to deduct the sale price on in-store coupons, prices are sometimes mismarked, or the register may not be correctly programmed, especially the first day of a sale. If you find a particular store seems to be consistently playing crooked, quit going there. Even if they have great bargains, it’s like dealing with terrorists – just not worth it. There are honest stores out there, seek them out and over time the money you save by not getting cheated will more than make up for the few times you benefit.
This is usually a relatively straightforward department. Prices are usually by pound, so it’s very easy to know what you’re getting. However, keep in mind that when buying, produce can spoil very quickly so don’t buy more than you and your family will eat within 3-5 days, 7 maximum, unless it keeps well. Eat the stuff that spoils fastest, first. I have found some stores’ produce spoils much faster than others and depending on how much produce I plan to buy, it can be worth a longer trip to seek those stores out.
Don’t forget, many fruits and vegetables are also available in the freezer section, so it may be worth forgoing the fresh products and buying frozen instead, particularly things you like to have available but can’t eat up before they spoil (berries) or things that take a massive amount of work to prepare fresh (peas).
Most versatile vegetables: bell peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes
Most versatile fruits: apples, bananas, lemons, strawberries
Berries are often sold in plastic clamshells, bigger packages for less per pound. They can be a good deal in the summertime, but use them up fast! On occasion only the top layer of berries in a container is good, the bottom ones are moldy (sneaky grocery store) so doublecheck before buying. You can sometimes find pre-bagged produce in larger quantities — apples, oranges, grapefruit, onions — but I have found these to often be of poor quality and you’re usually better off buying them per pound and picking them out yourself. The exception is potatoes, which are cheap in 10-20 lb bags, keep for quite a while, and while not as high quality as the baking potatoes sold on their own, they are usable in recipes.
Yellow onions last much longer than white or red, but are stronger tasting and better for cooking, while white or red onions are better for fresh recipes like salads and sandwiches.
Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, and bell peppers last quite a while in the fridge. (I have kept carrots and celery going for months in the fridge because I use just a bit here and there in recipes.) I find soft veggies like peppers, zucchini, and eggplant last longer out of the bag but harder veg like broccoli and carrots tend to shrivel unless they’re bagged.
Iceberg lettuce in a head lasts much longer than the “shreds” sold in a bag. You can just cut a bit off when you want some for a sandwich, and if the edge turns brown, just cut off that part and discard before using the fresh part. There is not a lot of nutrition in iceberg lettuce, but it does add some crunch to sandwiches and Mexican foods.
I do like the large plastic clamshells of spinach and lettuces for salads – it’s much easier than buying and preparing your own and far too often I’ve bought lettuce heads planning to make a salad but then it’s so much work to clean and cut it up that it spoils before I do. The clamshells often go on sale as they approach their expiration date, and I never buy them unless they’re drastically marked down. They’re usually still perfectly fresh, just give them a quick inspection before purchase to make certain. Spinach and romaine lettuce last quite a while, but leaf lettuce spoils more quickly. Do be aware if you’re immunocompromised, they are often linked to outbreaks of food poisoning, so you may want to avoid premade salads in that case.
Mushrooms often go on sale because they’re perishable, so if you like them, wait till they’re marked off. You can saute them for a couple minutes, and then freeze them so if you get a great deal, go for it (this also works with peppers too).
This is the department that makes or breaks a shopping trip. It’s possible to spend a hundred dollars in the meat department and not even have enough meat to last for 2 weeks. For reasons no one really understands, recently beef prices have skyrocketed while chicken and especially pork prices are low. This can of course change in time, and hopefully will at some point in the future.
When meat shopping you have to strike a balance between your enjoyment and price. A lot of meat entrees you can make vegetarian such as spaghetti or burritos and this can equate to big money saved. But if your family just LOVES pepperoni on their pizza then it may be something that you are willing to pay for sometimes when pepperoni is on sale. Strike the balance between savings and enjoyment.
Also, consider the spoilage factor. Fresh meat does spoil. If you have a freezer, this is not necessarily a huge issue, but if you are without one or you have it filled up with other things (or you are a non-doomsday prepper and just like to be prepared in case of an emergency where you may not be able to get to the store for a few weeks) it is a good idea to get a blend of fresh meats and preserved meats. This way you can use up the fresh meats first and then still have the preserved meat for later. I have been living without a freezer for the past five years and it is absolutely possible to stretch a shopping trip over 2 weeks by combining fresh meat with vegetarian options and preserved meats.
Preserved meats are things that are factory sealed like hot dogs, sealed lunch meats, ham, Surimi crab meat, bacon, smoked and summer sausage; frozen meats like premade meatballs, chicken nuggets, and fish filets; and things in cans like tuna, salmon, shrimp, Spam. They aren’t health foods to be sure but if you buy on sale and alternate serving them with vegetarian meals and meat from your freezer, you can definitely extend the time between shopping trips significantly while adding variety to your diet. They also tend to be affordable, so if you have one of those trips to the grocery store where literally NO fresh meat is on sale and you’re burned out on vegetarian dishes, it’s something to consider.
Note about bacon: Bacon has gotten exorbitant. My best tip when it comes to bacon is to look for irregular ends of bacon. For a huge savings you can get these massive packets of bacon that have some very small tidbits you can use as bacon bits or flavoring for soups and stews, some big thick hamlike pieces that can be chopped and used in bean dishes and casseroles, and even some usable strips if you’re lucky.
If it’s a possibility for you or you live far from a grocery store, you may even want to run a backup fridge for these types of foods. Secondhand refrigerators are cheap and widely available and you double your cold storage (and freezer space) if you have one. Running two refrigerators may even remove the need for you to have a freezer all together. You can store preserved meats, sealed dairy foods like yogurt, sour cream, and cheese, and fruits and vegetables that keep a long time without spoiling such as cabbage and celery in your spare refrigerator. It also provides more room for storing cold drinks – if you’re making your own iced tea or lemonade it can really help to have more space to store them. But keep in mind that in case of emergency, if your power goes out, you will now have TWO fridges full of food to contend with.
Another product to consider is texturized vegetable protein or TVP. This is a soy-based meat replacer that is shelf stable and keeps a long time. Again, it’s very processed and soy in excess is probably not a health food, but it can be used in a pinch as a replacer for ground meat in things like chili, Mexican foods, sloppy joes – anything you’d use hamburger in, you can sub in TVP, and there are flavored versions TVP as well (like bacon, taco, and barbeque). There are also some kinds of tofu that are shelf stable if you, like me, prefer your soy protein in a more traditional form, and lots of tofu/soy foods that can be kept in the refrigerator.
Cheap cuts of fresh meat: pork roasts, pork ribs, boneless pork chops, whole chickens, chicken thighs (both boneless and bone in). I occasionally find affordable beef roasts, round or cube steak, stew meat, chicken breasts, and hamburger. I try to never pay more than $3 a pound for meat and paying $1-2 dollars is more desirable. (the price structure in your area may vary from mine, but over time you will learn which products are consistently priced lower than others.)
Occasionally you can get a very good deal on whole chickens. Buy as many as you can fit in your freezer. You can even cut off the breasts with a sharp knife before freezing (if the birds have not already been frozen) and reserve them for a different use. Around the holidays you can get whole turkeys affordably and if you have room, get a couple. You can also get turkey breasts (not sure where the rest of it goes!) on sale sometimes year-round. Whole poultry can be less of a deal then it seems, though, because there are a lot of bones, but you can make loads of broth and soup with the leftovers.
Cuts I tend to avoid: Steak, hamburger and other beef when not on sale, chicken wings (if you love them, by all means, but I consider them just this side of garbage), chicken legs (you’re paying for the bone and as chicken breasts have become more popular, farmers have bred for increased breastmeat at the expense of legs and they have barely any meat on them), bone-in pork chops (it was explained to me that as pigs have become leaner, the old school pork chop with the bone in it has become impossible to cook properly and they no longer taste the same – I tend to agree because every time I’ve bought them the last decade or so, they are junk, full of gristle, gamey, and just not tasty.)
I rarely buy fresh fish. Even though I like it, it’s too expensive for too little food value. If you live in an area where it’s cheaper or fresher or you can catch your own, great. Otherwise stick to canned or frozen. Breaded frozen fish, in stick or filet form, are not a lot of food value for quite a bit of money although I do sometimes get them as a change of pace.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Non-Doomsday Preppers where we’ll move beyond the basics!!