Non-Doomsday Prepping 6: What Do I DO With All This!?!
Some years back, I started writing a cookbook because I realized a lot of younger families had no idea how to shop, store, and cook affordable food. A lot of folks 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 that are 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 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
Part 3 is here: Staples and Beyond
Part 4 is here: Filling in the Gaps
Part 5 is here: Suppertime!
I remember once as a kid they made a cartoon where Wile E Coyote actually CAUGHT the Road Runner. But for reasons I don’t recall the Road Runner was huge, or maybe Wile E had been shrinkified by an Acme Shrink Ray or something. Wile E. was hanging on to this massive bird for dear life and he held up a sign reading “What Do I Do Now?”
And that may be where you’re at with your prepping supplies. You bought them, and now they’ve taken over your kitchen, your dining room, and your life. So how do you store these things, anyway?
Most of the food for a Non-Doomsday Prepping program should fit in the fridge and cupboard of the average person. Remember, most of us are doing this primarily to save money while still providing nutritious home-cooked meals for our families. Some of the foods I have listed in Parts 4 and 5 are optional things you won’t necessarily need to have a massive supply of on hand. A single bottle of curry paste, for example, would likely last you all through any crisis. If you had one open in the fridge and one sealed on the shelf, it undoubtedly would.
But what about those of us who are NDP for actual emergencies? What do we do with 12 cans of green beans, 50 pounds of flour, and all those packages of Top Ramen?
The answer to that is, It Depends.
If you have time right now (and some of us do, because we’re off work due to coronavirus quarantines, but a lot of folks are still working right now doing the hard work of our country — THANK YOU!) I want you to go into your kitchen and take everything out of your cupboards that’s already in there. I know I said the Non-Doomsday Prepping program took very little extra work, but this part is important. Don’t worry; we’ll only do it once. Take it all out and look in your cupboards. You (like me) probably have a TON of space in there that you use very inefficiently.
Now, take a look at the stuff you pulled out of the cupboard. Is it ALL necessary? Or is it half-taken up with springform pans and that Thermos you take on trips occasionally and walnut oil you bought on sale in 2005 and never used? Take the gadgets and gizmos you don’t use OFTEN and put them somewhere else, in the linen closet behind the towels or under the bed. Keep the gadgets and gizmos you DO use often and put them back wherever it is you keep them, because most likely you already have some system where you keep the gadgets and gizmos you use a lot handy (if not, now is the time!) Let’s put all that stuff away. Bye, gadgets. Adios, gizmos.
Once that’s done, take a good hard look at the food you got out of the cupboard.
If the food you use rarely is old and has been opened, it’s probably spoiled anyway, best to toss and replace it (or NOT replace it, if you really aren’t likely to use it) if there’s any doubt. Possible exceptions — herbs, spices, dry seasoning packets — anything sealed and long-storing. These types of things may not remain optimal in flavor as they age, but tend to last quite some time, and spices are expensive, so I tend to keep them even when they’re past their prime.
If a product is sealed and you will use it even though you haven’t yet, it’s ok to keep, but make a resolution to use it SOON especially if it’s been in the cupboard a while. If you will never use it, best to get rid of it (please only donate if it’s not near or over its expiration date). Try to be honest with yourself about this — I have kept things far too long sometimes that I got on sale because I felt sure I’d use them eventually (I just realized I had a container of poppy seeds I bought during Y2K and I am sadly not making this up). But food does spoil, even when it’s sealed, and even if not spoiled it will have lost quality if it’s been sitting there for many years. Worse, that stuff takes up room that could be used by things you will actually eat!
Once you’ve gotten rid of the detritus and cleaned out your cupboard (you can skip that step if you want, I don’t mind and I will not ever tell a soul I promise as I have not cleaned mine since 2017) get out your new food and set it alongside the old. Take a moment to appreciate the largesse. You done good. You will have some new stuff you’ve bought recently, and some old stuff that you know you’ll use. No Bundt cake pans or Jello molds, no candied yams that no one likes but were marked off after Thanksgiving. We’re down to just the foods, ma’am.
Let’s thin it out even more. Anything – particularly condiments — that will eventually end up in the fridge, put it in the fridge if you have the room for it (unless you already have an open version of the same thing in there). I find I sometimes forget about things I have tucked away still sealed in my cupboard, but when they’re in the fridge I see them and can use them for planning a meal based on what was on sale that week at the store.
Now let’s consider your cupboards. You probably find you use some of your cupboards more than others. Make the most convenient one of these your official Everyday Use Cupboard. From your stash, select out the things you know you use a LOT and put them there. This is beneficial not only for finding things you need quickly but also for putting them away quickly.
Resist the temptation to arrange things by category. Due to some quirk of the human brain, when we organize, we (by which I mean ME) often group things by their common features even when it makes using those things much harder. For example, thinking, “well, salt is a spice so it should go with the other spices” and putting your salt in some out of the way place that’s less easy to access just because of that silly brain quirk. Don’t do this. Put the things you regularly use into the cupboard you find the most accessible and convenient because otherwise you’ll leave the salt out on the counter or end up putting it away in that Everyday Use Cupboard anyway!
Of course, if you have lots of things you use every day you may want to have more than one Everyday Use Cupboard and divvy them up by type of thing. I have two EUC’s, one I keep bread in, and the other is where I keep my most commonly used seasonings and things like oil and peanut butter. But you don’t have to do it that way. Maybe you have a bread box. Maybe you’re gluten-free. I want you to really think about what will work best for you, and go from there.
In addition to my two Everyday Use Cupboards, I also have that spot we all fondly know — Top of the Fridge. I keep bulky but light things like chips, cereal, and crackers (on the rare occasions I have crackers, LOL) up there. It’s a great place for those large economy size boxes of ramen. Nothing heavy up top, nothing that could fall down and break or hurt anyone, just lightweight stuff that would take up a huge amount of space if I had it in the cupboard. Don’t put your bread up there as it molds faster (heat rises).
If you find you often keep (or accidentally leave) things on the counter, like sugar and coffee (I do!) please consider getting some pretty canisters you love and putting those things into them. While I generally consider taking things from one container and putting them into another, more attractive container to be a waste of time, if it’s something you’re going to invariably end up leaving out regardless of your best intentions, just take that into consideration going in and put the stuff in the canisters. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little beauty and joy to your world rather than staring at a paper sack of sugar and a giant red Folgers container. Canisters are also easier to keep clean and to clean around than commercial containers. I leave coffee, sugar, flour, and rice on the counter since I use them a lot, but you may have a totally different set of things you keep out, and they may as well look cute, IMO. This is also a helpful solution if you’ve bought a massive quantity of something you use a lot of, like rice or sugar, so you don’t have to lug a 50 lb. sack around when you want to use an ingredient (actually now that I think about it, this is the real reason I leave the rice on the counter).
In addition to your Everyday Use Cupboard and your Pretty Canisters of Joy, you will need some Secondary Cupboards and then Places That Are All But Inaccessible. Let’s talk about the PTAABI’s first because they kind of define the limits of the Secondary Cupboards.
Places That Are All But Inaccessible are not necessarily individual cupboards (although they can be, like that irritating very high cupboard or the one you have to crawl around on the floor to get to). They’re more likely to be the backs of OTHER cupboards. In my Everyday Use and my Secondary Cupboards, I find that I mostly use the front third/half and then the other ½- ⅔ just kind of gets wasted. This mostly unused space is a great place you can put food you’re storing.
How, pray tell? Well, you remember that game Tetris? It works kind of like that. I can’t give you a specific set of directions because everyone’s cupboards are different, but let’s say you have a couple flats of 6-12 cans (these often come in a half-box) and you can stack them one atop another, or not, if the cans are taller or your cupboards are shorter. Before you put them away, take a couple cans of whatever-it-is out and reserve them for the Secondary Cupboards (and put a couple of other similarly-sized cans in the place of the cans you removed so your stack isn’t all tippy).
Then you can put a row (or two) of jars or boxes or bags of dried beans on top. For obvious reasons, start off with your heaviest cans, then put your most crushable breakable stuff on top. While companies have gotten way better about making their cans stackable, I still find the most stable way is to keep the cans in a half-box and stack box upon box. Plus it makes it easier to pick up a whole flat of cans and move it easily rather than having to move those buggers one at a time. You can get these half-boxes at your grocery store (even THEY stack their cans in boxes!)
You may be thinking that this is a heck of a lot of work to get something out, and it is. But as they say in the best book every written on household management Confessions of a Happily Organized Family, you want to err on the side of things being harder to get out than they are to put away. This is because you’re willing to shell out some extra work to get that can of ravioli you’re craving, but when you’re putting away tons of groceries, you’re more likely to run out of steam and say “oh screw it” and shove your storage foods any old place just to finish the job quicker. Make it easy to put things away even at the expense of making it harder to get them out.
Do NOT, and I repeat DO NOT, go out and sink a bunch of money into shelf organizers. I’ve tried them and found with few exceptions they are unwieldy, flimsy, and end up causing more work in the long run than just stacking the grocery items one on top of the other. If you or someone you know is handy, there are all sorts of nifty built-in systems for storing cans, but PLEASE do not let a lack of a complicated, expensive system that you’d like to have someday, deter you from prepping today. I promise that this low-tech method is really very easy and you can store as much if not more food this way with a lot less effort.
Anyhoo, once you have those Places That Are All But Inaccessible (these are also a great place to stash roasting pans or brownie pans – whatever you use often enough to not want to go get it from the garage, but not THAT often) full, then you can arrange the more useful parts of your shelves accordingly. In the Secondary Cupboards you’ll put whatever did not go in your Everyday Use Cupboards because it’s not something you use constantly, but that you will use more often or sooner than what is in the PTAABI. Like I mentioned before, if you have something like 12 cans of green beans in your PTAABI, you’ll want to take a couple of those out and put them in the Secondary Cupboards so you can use them more easily. You want the Secondary Cupboards to have a wide variety of choices available instead of having to burrow into the PTAABI regularly. The PTAABI is your storage area; the other areas are the parts of the cupboards you actually USE.
If you wanted to get cray you could even make Tertiary Cupboards for things you use sometimes but not that often, but I’ve only ever needed Everyday Use Cupboards, Secondary Cupboards, Top of the Fridge, and the PTAABI. (with a shout out for Canisters of Joy, but they’re more of a convenience than a necessity) I have one Very Special Secondary Cupboard I have designated for baking stuff since I tend to use those things simultaneously, and you may want to divvy yours up like that too if it makes life easier for you.
If you still have spillover, that’s when you move on to the even less-accessible areas like under beds, in closets, in a garage (beware of freezing temps and possible animal infestation, though). But I can fit a shocking amount of food in my smaller-than-average cupboards (think – apartment-size) by using this method. Anyone with an average house-size set of American cupboards (let’s be honest, the cupboards of our nation tend towards the ridiculously huge) can almost certainly fit in 3 months of emergency food easily, if not more like 6 months with a little creative stacking.
Do not put food under the sink, in the bathroom, or in the laundry room. It’s humid in those areas and that really increases the chances of spoilage. Plus there is a higher rate of accidents happening – one time I stuck a huge box of Miracle Gro under the sink, and then the pipe sprang a leak and ruined it. Under the sink is a great place to store cleaning chemicals and watering cans and rubber gloves and things like that, stuff that doesn’t tend to spoil, but you still like to have available. Bathrooms and laundry rooms can be used to store paper goods and backups of the things you use in those rooms like shampoo or detergents. Just not food.
Should you keep everything all written down by location, so you know what you have, where it is, when it expires, etc? Probably, but we’re not going to. I am 1000% convinced that designing overly complicated systems that take too much work to maintain sets people up for failure and I know, KNOW that trying to have you guys write this all down will simply mean that probably not-small percentage of you will give up. It’s not necessary, don’t do it. Maybe, sometime in the far distant future, IF you find you’re having spoilage or trouble finding things and decide you need to write it all down, you can, but to start with please err on the side of doing the doable.
That’s ok because I have a better way anyway. To recap, we’re going to tuck a bunch of storage foods in cans/boxes/jars at the back of the cupboard in the Places That Are All But Inaccessible, and reserve the front of our cupboards for day to day use. And before we do that tucking, we’re going to get out a representative sample from everything we bought and keep it in the parts of the kitchen that are easy to get to – the fridge (mostly condiments), on top of the fridge (lightweight things like chips that don’t stack easily), or in the front sections of the cupboards you can reach easily (cans, boxes, jars). You will always have access to whatever you want that way, while still having lots more of it stored if you run out.
Let’s say what we need Monday is green beans. You bought a 12-can flat of green beans which you got on sale for a nice savings, and as a result you now have 10 cans of green beans in your PTAABI, and 2 in the Secondary Cupboards. You open up those 2 cans of green beans and have them for dinner alongside whatever main entree was on sale that week. Now what? Do you think you should immediately grab 2 cans of beans from the PTAABI to replace the ones you used, or run to the store to get 2 more cans of green beans so you can still have 12 cans on hand?
The answer to both is NO! If we’re just gonna grab stuff from storage every time we use it, we may as well just make EVERYTHING storage! And every time you go to the store, you not only spend gas money and wear and tear on your car (not to mention potential exposure to corona), you risk spending money! Don’t get so OCD about having X number of things on hand that you feel nervous if you have fewer temporarily. It’s ok to have a couple fewer cans of green beans, I promise!
Now it’s Tuesday. You go to the Secondary Cupboard and see what’s there. No green beans, but yay, there’s some corn! Grab that! And let’s make this box of brownies for dessert! Woohoo! But DO NOT get back up in the PTAABI to replace them, and DO NOT run out to the store to replace them, either. The numbers of things you will have are going to change over time, so please do not get so superstitiously attached to a magic number you end up violating the endlessly flexible spirit of Non-Doomsday Prepping.
When Wednesday rolls around, you got a good deal on ground beef, and you want to make chili. To do that, you need either a couple cans of beans, or a sack of dry beans, and some canned tomatoes. And let’s toss a can of green chilis in there too. Wowzers, we just burned through 5 whole cans at once! But that’s ok. Don’t get out more from storage, don’t buy more, just keep using what is easily accessible.
Thursday?? Oh no, we’re out of meat! But wait…what’s this? A carton of shelf-stable tofu in my Secondary Cupboard?? Curried Tofu it is. Grab some frozen spinach, an onion, brew up a pot of rice and crack a container of curry paste, and you have a healthy and delish meal from stuff that was in your pantry.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. By the time you’ve gone through a week or two or three depending on how big your cupboard is, you will have used up most of the stuff in your Secondary Cupboard (and hooray, you’ll never have to eat the same meal twice! Begone food fatigue!). THEN and ONLY THEN, on some rainy weekend where you have plenty of time, bring out your stored food from the PTAABI and set up your Secondary Cupboard again. Since most cans, boxes, jars, and bags have an expiration date printed on them, just check your dates and use the oldest products first. In the rare case you find something that doesn’t have a date printed on it, you can always mark it in Sharpie and remember not ever to buy that brand again because why make things harder than they need to be?
Because you have only bought the things your family will actually eat, you’re never going to end up getting a dud meal that no one wants. Everything in there will be stuff people like, want, and that you know how to cook.
Voila, you’re always rotating, always using your stored foods, and you never have to write down a single solitary thing. You never have to make a calendar or a schedule or plan recipes weeks in advance. You never have to really give dinner much more than a passing thought. Use the food you can reach first, then replace it with the oldest stuff in your storage (perhaps obviously, you do the same with the food in your fridge and freezer too, rotate through it by eating the older stuff or whatever’s quickest to spoil first…but since most people already do this as a matter of course, I kinda figured we didn’t need an explainer.) And because the foods are always right in front of your very eyes instead of being squirreled away somewhere every time you open the cupboard you get a subtle reminder of what is available for the next night and the next night.
But wait, you may ask, how do I replace the foods in the Places That Are All But Inaccessible? And WHEN? The answer to both is, buy your replacements whenever the things you like and will eat go on sale. Remember, the main goal of the Non-Doomsday Prepping idea is to help families save money on groceries, stop eating out and buying super expensive convenience foods. The prepping aspect is secondary to that, like a very nice side effect. So resist the temptation to have that pretty, perfect, fully stocked pantry all the time (it’s so tempting!) and ONLY BUY WHAT IS ON SALE when you go to the store.
For example, we go to the store after our first rotation and lo and behold, green beans are on sale. We buy another flat of them. And this week, chickpeas are on sale, cool, we didn’t have any of those yet. Snag em – but maybe only 6 of them, we don’t eat them so much and probably can’t use them all in a timely fashion. Oh no, corn and tomatoes are not on sale this time. But who cares?? Spin that money you would have spent on them over into a couple of cans of baked beans (you do not need to buy whole flats of food every time!) or a few packages of muffin mixes. There’s no problem passing things by when you still have plenty of other stuff on hand to use if one thing is too expensive. Pick up some other thing on sale instead and head home.
Once you’ve put away your temperature-sensitive groceries, make sure you have a variety of food in your Secondary Cupboard by selecting a sampling of your storable foods, and then stick the rest of your cans in the PTAABI. You don’t need to sort them or arrange them (except of course by size since they’re more stackable that way) because by rotating them regularly via using what is in the Secondary Cupboard first, and selecting replacements by expiration date, you’ll always be cycling through everything you have. No need to write anything down, no need for shopping schedules or calendars, just opening up the cupboard and choosing something for dinner, and then rearranging your cupboard once every couple weeks.
If it comes down to it and you realize that one of your PTAABI is ENTIRELY inaccessible, like you constantly forget what’s in there, or it’s murder to get foods in and out, that’s fine, just take another look at your kitchen gadgets and gizmos and see what else you may want to keep in the long term but is mostly getting in your way day to day, and put them there.
OR save that space for storing non-food necessities like paper towels you also need to have on hand…more about those non-food items in the next edition of Non-Doomsday Prepping, coming soon!