Replenishing Your Freezer and Pantry — What to Buy?

If you “ate down your freezer,” you probably found some interesting items in there.  Bits of this and that, a whole package of mystery something.  Vegs, meats, bread items, butter, cheese.  Since it’s time to refill, why not select the foodstuffs you won’t forget, that you’ll turn to for good, fast meals?  Having really low-cost items in your cupboard will allow you to “go shopping” in your home, for the foods that you know your family will eat.

Start with a clean freezer.  Defrost it.  Lost the manual?  Look for one online.  If you’re out of luck, empty the thing, unplug plugs, pull down drain tubes from underneath (and arrange for mess-less draining), turn off the temp or unplug it, and open the door.  Please put several layers of towel rags wherever it might leak, including in front of the unit.  When it’s thawed, wipe it down inside with a towel rag.  If necessary, clean with mild soap.  Now, put it back together, and plug it back in.  Until it’s full, use empty jugs filled halfway with water to take up space and keep the unit running efficiently.

Then take this opportunity to clear out, and scrub out, all of your cabinets and pantries.  In some cultures, this is done ritually every year — excellent practice.  In my house, this is a two-day project because I have extra food storage in the basement, and because the outside of the cabinet doors get pretty cruddy and require extra TLC.  Have a screwdriver handy to tighten up the hinges and handles, too.

Think about the foods you would like to have on-hand.  Do you like ready-to-reheat meals?  Dinner kits?  Plain ingredients?  Partially prepared or marinated foods?  I recommend a little of each.  But you know your family best, and how life works in your home, so adjust this advice accordingly.  As prices and budget allow, gather grocery deals and stash in freezer or pantry. 

Go for only the best frugal food deals.  Follow the loss leader trail (buying only the unbelievable deals), and in about a month you’ll have a well-filled pantry.  But don’t get something only because it’s a deal.  You have to be sure you and your family will eat it, for it to be of value.  Don’t get whole chickens if your family hates bones, just because someone on a discussion board said it was a good idea.  Know what you’ll eat, in what form, and get what you’ll use.

For example, in our family, the best chicken bargain is boneless, skinless chicken breasts at $1.67/pound or less.  Most everyone else online will *gasp* and drop their jaws at that.  But I know that this cut is best for my guys, and is most versatile and economical in the long run.  Sure, I buy bone-in breasts when they hit .99/pound, but I’ll Crock them, debone, and chunk for future boneless use.  So I look for the bl/sl chx deals for the best value for us.  If you love drumsticks and bone-in thighs, go for those deals, by all means!

There are some frugal basics to have in your kitchen:  brown rice, whole-grain pastas, beans, herbs and spices, tuna, sauces.  Don’t overload on them; find super sales a little at a time.  It does me no good to get 10 cans of tuna at one time, because we will eat only about 9 cans per year.  I’ll get 3, because I know there will be another sale in a few months, if we need it by then.

Just like when you were eating down your freezer, if you don’t have a particular item, you can make do.  When you rebuild your stash, to stay in your budget, you may have to make do.  This challenge should be easier than your earlier ordeal, because now you’re only getting what you like, and because you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing what a frugal meal you have created.

I must mention that there is a common suggestion on “frugal” discussion boards that is pretty useless.  “Make muffins and cookies from scratch,” they say.  I ask, “Why?!”  If you don’t normally eat muffins and cookies, why start making them from scratch?  If your budget is in trouble, maybe you should be cutting out those little luxury treats, huh?  For snacks (distinctively different from treats), try whole grain goodies, like two graham crackers and a half-glass of 100% juice.  Or that half apple that came home in the lunchbox uneaten! 

What is helpful is avoiding pre-marinated meats, frozen vegs in sauces, and pricey individual packages of anything.  Unless, of course, it’s cheapest this week!  You can marinate and cook your own meats, herb and season your own plain vegs, and portion your own foods.  Cheaper, healthier, and tastier.

For maximum nutrition (and that’s what eating is about — body fuel), you’ll need to have some protein, some carbohydrates, and vegs and fruits.  These are all ideal when they are fresh; however, in our world and with our finances, it makes sense to find the best deals and freeze/store these foods at their peak.  So look for them on sale, repackage or overpackage, and eat good food.

Some of our favorite foods to have in the freezer:  meats, chicken, or fish in meal-sized and individually quick frozen (IQF) packages.  Breads.  Shredded cheeses, either purchased that way for .99 or in block form and shredded at home.  Frozen vegs, all kinds, including blends and stir-fry mixes for cheap.  Tortillas.  Butter.  Frozen berries and fruits.

For the pantry, we like to keep canned vegs, canned beans, tuna, brown rice, whole grain pastas, pasta sauces, juices, sauces and marinades, refried beans, taco shells, olives, pickles, seasonings and spices, soups for recipes, whole grain cereals, oatmeal, olive oil, flour, crackers and graham crackers.

I do not normally buy seasoned noodle or rice mixes (although I did get several for about .25 each this summer, and mixed them with plain pasta and rice for tasty sides).  I do not normally buy prepackaged and uber-processed items, like “helpers,” baking mixes, cookies, chips, dips, and junk.  I can keep our grocery costs down by making meals with simple ingredients.

So what do I do with these?  Everything!  Maybe I got them on sale in dribs and drabs, but I have real usable food in my pantries and freezers.  Don’t save this food for “eating down your freezer,” when you can use it every day.

It’s not about having more food.  It’s about being properly prepared and preparing your food properly.  It’s about having what you can use, and using it wisely.  Know what you need.  Now let’s start refilling.

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