It seems that the topic of pantry building keeps coming up in one way or another in both personal and online conversations. It would seem that the rising costs are affecting many families. Sadly, many are so used to the idea of buying packaged, convenience foods that they are lost at the thought of having to cook from scratch. Unless you are willing to learn to cook, this blog post will likely be of little value to you.
I think back to stories I heard from people who had clear memories of the Depression years. For some reason, even as a child, I have always had a passion for learning what I could about that time. How did the families work through the hardships of that time? What did they do to get the things that they needed when money was scarce? Back then, rural families especially were large. How did they manage to feed a large family with little to now finances to spend at the grocery stores? As the title of this post implies, this post is about the pantry. It is based on the stories told to me through the years by those who lived through that time period known as the Depression Era. Due to our being a rural family, I am writing from that perspective. There are many aspects of what rural families did that you can easily implement even if you live in the city.
Families did not eat fancy. Their meals were simple foods that were very wholesome and nutritious. It was good ol’ basic farm cookin’. Simple meals prepared using the vegetables and fruits that were in season. Much of the produce was home grown. Some families would barter with a neighbor for produce that they needed. One example would be if a neighbor had a large crop of sweet corn and you had a surplus of green beans. These neighbors may get together and trade some of their surplus for the vegetable that they lack. Typically, however, a rural family would buy very little of their foods at a store. They learned to eat according to what they grew.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, a frugal family garden had very few varieties in it, but had larger amounts of what they did plant. Consider the vegetables that you eat the most often. In our home, it would be things like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, squash, green beans, carrots, beets, onions, and corn. Added to that would be a couple of summer vegetables that are not able to be canned. These are summer squash (zucchini & yellow squash), leafy greens, radishes, and eggplant. These round out the typical garden that we would have growing. This list varies depending on your family’s tastes. Now, should I find that it is cheaper to buy a bushel of the green beans, in example, at a Farmer’s Market than it is to grown them, I will buy them instead. I can then bring them home and put them up in the canning jars. The same goes for any of the other vegetables. If you are a member of a Sam’s Club or similar warehouse store, you can buy in the #10 cans things like ketchup, diced tomatoes, and various other foods for far cheaper than to grow them. The garden list is only a reference tool for what to stock. It is up to you to decide which are cheaper to grow in your area.
In the earlier generations, the bulk of their food purchases were those items that they did not have the ability to grow. Basic pantry staples such as flour, sugar, honey, molasses, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, culinary herbs & spices, cornmeal, oatmeal, maple syrup, and yeast are such items. Buying milk, eggs, cheese, and meat were the only perishables that they might purchase. Can you imagine only buying those items at a store? Likely, many people wouldn’t be buying all of those. In some households, they used molasses in place of maple syrup on pancakes or waffles as well as using it to sweeten or add flavoring to their cooking.
Have you noticed that in the lists of foods that would be in the pantry, there is no mention of frozen dinners, boxed foods, or any of the convenience foods so common today? They didn’t use them! Some foods that most would not consider a convenience item that are not mentioned in the above lists are: noodles, breads, snacks, and desserts. They made their own. Pasta is a very easy recipe to make. It is simply eggs, flour, and a little bit of water to make the most simple recipes. If you want to get fancy you add a bit of pureed beets, spinach, or carrots to the recipe to make your red, green, and orange vegetable pasta. The point is, these were simple foods that were made at home as they were needed.
The pantry items listed are ones that require that you know how to cook or be willing to learn. As with anything, the more work you are willing to do, the lower your costs will be in the end. A large loaf of bread costs about $1.29 for the cheapest brand at the local store. To make it at home, I am able to make 2 loaves for just under that cost. Pasta from the store is a rip-off. My dear husband was surprised when I made homemade pasta for the first time. He got himself a large helping of spaghetti. He served himself the same amount he would have done if the pasta were the store bought variety. He was caught off guard by the fact that he couldn’t eat it all. The homemade was far more satisfying than the boxed stuff from the store. He ate far less, but was full. It stuck with him longer also. He wasn’t feeling the need to snack later in the evening. When using homemade pasta, I can cook half the quantity and feed the family well. Using this method of pantry stocking, we are able to feed a family of 4 for under $450 per month. The more we grow ourselves, the lower that cost is. That cost is based on what it is if we did not have a garden.
So, where do you begin? You start with a menu as I mentioned in the previous post. Choose meals that your family enjoys, yet does not take a lot of fancy ingredients. You can do an occasional fancy meal, but most are farm cooking style. Plan well the meals and what is needed to make them. Wherever you can, find recipes for the ingredients. Pasta is a good example. Instead of buying it, make it yourself at home. Each time you make the pasta, you are saving money. Breads are another money saving option. I use one basic recipe for my breads. Shaped into loaves, it is our basic bread. Rolled out 3/4 inch thick and cut out with a 3″ diameter cutter (a clean large tuna can with both top & bottom removed works great) and you have burger buns. If you cut the rolled out bread dough into 2″x 6″ long strips, you have hot dog buns.
Like the toaster pastries? Try making a pie crust dough. Roll it out and cut into an 8″x 6″ rectangle. Spread a favorite flavor of jam thinly on one half of the dough. Fold over to make a 4″x 6″ rectangle and press the edges closed. Bake in your oven at 350*F until lightly golden. Voila’! You have homemade toaster pastries! Similarly, you can cut the pie crust into 5″ square pieces. Add a spoon of pie filling and fold into a triangle to make a turnover or fruit pie. These little pies were popular as they could be tucked into lunches easily.
If you are willing to do the work of cooking from scratch, you can feed your family very well for far less than you pay now.