Kitchen Matters: Stocking the Pantry

No matter how long or how short of a time you have been keeping house, stocking the pantry always seems to be a challenge.  After all, these are the items that can get expensive as you work to purchase spices, condiments, and a few extras to keep on hand for emergency.
While I buy groceries weekly, I always have enough necessities on hand that will allow me to change up dinner plans, adjust for unexpected (but always welcomed) guests, or if I’m running short on time, allow for me to wait a few days before I have to go to the grocery.  This is where you can really benefit from using coupons and price matching at the grocery store.  Your cabinet doesn’t have to be overflowing with staples, just the basics for creating quick and easy dishes.  The idea is to be prepared for anything that could happen.  If you have stocked up on some basics, you will be able to whip up a meal quickly.  I try to keep these items on hand at all times to use along side what I have planned on my menu.  You don’t purchase these every time you buy groceries, but gradually build your supply, then replace as necessary.
 

Here is a list of my pantry necessities:

*Pastas (all shapes, sizes and even grains), perfect for a quick dinner accompaniment or even main course

*Rice; brown, white and wild.  Couscous also fits into this category.

*Canned tomatoes, tomato sauce & paste, and tomato juice; for making pasta or pizza sauce

*Beans (Navy, Pinto, Black & Garbanzo); dried & canned. For soups or even a salad topper.

*Assorted stocks (Chicken, beef, vegetable); perfect for making soups or sauces

*Assorted nuts (Pecans, Walnuts, Almonds); can be toasted or eaten as a snack.

*Sugar (Brown, White & Powdered)

*Cornmeal (plain & self-rising)

*Flour (whole wheat, plain & self rising)

*Cornstarch

*Evaporated & Sweetened Condensed milk

*Baking chocolate or chocolate chips (white, milk, semi-sweet) for an easy dessert

*Baking powder & Baking Soda

*Panko (Japanese Bread Crumbs)

*Vanilla or other flavored extracts

*Peanut Butter/Nutella

*Assorted Crackers (a party pack from Costco is perfect to keep on hand)

*Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Truffle Oil (definitely a splurge, but so luscious!)


*Vinegars (Balsamic, Apple Cider, Red Wine, or Rice); perfect for making a salad dressing

*Dijon, Whole grain, & Spicy English Mustards

*Assorted salts (sea, kosher, maybe add a Hawaiian or Black sea salt)

*Section of peppercorns; try a colored mix, each has a different flavor.

*A good mix of herbs and spices.  I prefer using fresh, but dried spices will serve many needs.

*White & Red wine (good quality, but inexpensive for cooking)

*Tea & Coffee (decaf & regular)

Stocking the refrigerator is a little different.  You want to use your ingredients fresh, so keeping all of these always on hand can be a challenge.  I find myself using the following ingredients weekly in a variety of ways, so I always want them in my refrigerator..

Here are my necessities for the refrigerator:

*Salad ingredients (fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, etc..).

*Favorite condiments (soy sauce, hot sauce, jams or jellies)

*Fresh fruit; including lemons, limes & seasonal berries

*a dozen eggs

*Bacon

*Potatoes

*Onions (red, sweet, green, & shallots)

*Milk & Butter

*Assortment of drinks (bottled water, soda, tea)

*An assortment of cheeses, including cream cheese (cheddar, feta, blue, Parmesan, brie); some cheese  keeps better than others, so check out your family’s favorites and keep them fresh.

*Whipping cream

And for the Freezer:


*Packaged vegetables

*Whole chickens; from soup to salad to a main course you can do so much with a chicken.

*Homemade stocks (Beef, chicken, seafood)

*Puff pastry for quick and easy appetizers or an adventurous beef wellington.

*Rolls or other favorite bread

*Soups, Stews or chili; over make a recipe from time to time and put some up for a quick meal later on.

*Ice

*Frozen appetizers (sausage rolls, mini quiches, etc)

A couple of suggestions (that work well for me); if you choose to keep wine on hand for cooking, the small bottles that are usually sold in four-packs are perfect for recipes.  Also, don’t be afraid to keep pre-made sauces on hand for meal accents.
I love this foundation sauce for a meal accompaniment when I have fixed a London broil or chicken breast.  I found this at Fresh market, but I believe Publix might carry it.
Compared to some lists, this may seem rather sparse, but look at what you can create from just these ingredients:  a fabulous salad with homemade vinaigrette, any number soups or stews, a delightful pasta dish fit for company, breakfast sandwiches, and even homemade ice cream.  Always keeping your spices and baking products stocked will help with any meal you have planned.
Use a tiered storage system to help organize your spices (Bed, bath Beyond have several varieties that start at $10.  I keep my spices in alphabetical order, for easy access.  If you choose to do this, be sure to instruct your teenage daughters to replace them correctly or you might wind up with cinnamon in you spaghetti sauce instead of basil!
A note of importance in keeping your kitchen stocked; keep up with expiration dates.  If any of your dairy products or mayonnaise is expired, just throw it out.  As for spices,  if you can get a good strong smell of the spice you are using, it’s not even flavoring your meal.  If your baking soda or powder is expired, breads or cakes will not rise.  Using expired products or products that have not been properly stored after opening can really make you sick.  This is especially so for things like milk, cheese, mayo, etc… If you have purchased meats and cannot use them within two days of purchasing, freeze them.  They will keep two-three months (often longer) in the freezer.
I hope you find this list useful.  If you are prepared with your staples, preparing meals will go so much easier and can actually be fun!
Tell me, what is your one item you must have in your kitchen?

Kitchen Matters: What’s for Supper?

There is no worse feeling than to walk into the kitchen to cook supper, only to open and shut the cabinet or refrigerator door several times and not have any idea as to what to prepare.  Nothing turns my evenings into chaos quicker than to not have a clue what I am fixing for supper.

(manystars.com)
Preparing dinner shouldn’t be stressful.
Over the years I have tried several meal planning websites, menu planning for a month, and the always dangerous “fly by the seat of my pants” methods for getting supper on the table.  Between an enormous amount of food waste to dollars spent in restaurants with no plans, I knew something had to be done!  By no means have I perfected the dinner hour, but I have made progress in solving our own dilemma regarding “What’s for Supper?”  It’s nothing fancy, and it may not work for everyone, but when you are juggling four kids and their extra-curricular activities and a husband who travels for work 50% of the time, this solution has really helped my issues.What is it?

Simple enough, I buy groceries one week at a time.  Yep, it’s that simple.  For the most part I don’t grocery store hop to get all I need, I have a destination and off I go.  Occasionally I do pop into Whole Foods or Fresh Market to grab few few specials or fresh veggies.  This usually works well for us (unless the stupid Beagle decides to eat Friday’s dinner plans because I sat down to chill after shopping with my kids instead of putting up groceries.)

Honestly, this plan only works well if you are organized and good at scheduling.  I keep a planner/journal in my purse at all times.  In it is a complete schedule of family activities:  Audley’s business trips, extra-curricular activities, youth group activities, field trips, times, and locations of all that is going on in our lives.  I also keep my to-do list in the planner, and this is where my menu for each day is written as well.  You can invest in a good planner for about $20, although I have seen planners go as high as $150!  I try to be organized, but prefer to do it cheaply.  I purchase mine when the kiddos get their planners for school, so the year goes August to August and the entire family is lined up the same.

Mom Agenda from Swoozies.

Before you can menu plan and shop accordingly, do an inventory of your cabinets and refrigerator.  See what you have, write it down and make use of it!  If you garden and can, be sure to count these items as well.  I discovered before we moved that I had enough food stashed away that I didn’t have to make a trip to the store for the last two weeks we lived in our home!  And here I thought we were starving every week when I went to the store!

Four days before our move all of the ingredients were stashed away to make this delicious creamy tomato sauce to top  mushroom ravioli.
BBQ chicken (a combo of three nearly empty bottles of sauce) and veggies, just two days before we moved.

After you have completed your inventory, make a list of your family’s favorite meals.  Finally, make a list of recipe ideas you have collected from magazines, books or blogs.  This will be those things you have always wanted to try, but not really made the time for, like RuthAnn’s Hillbilly Spaghetti Pie, Pioneer Woman’s Braised Beef Brisket, or even my favorite Cornbread Salad. You want to hang onto all three of these lists; stick them in your planner for reference.

Menu planning one week at a time is a 30/45-minute project or less after you get started.  I like to do it on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning after the kiddos have gone to school.  Sales paper in hand, or internet ads pulled up (from multiple destinations), I jot down the items that are on sale that really appeal to my family.  I am by no means an extreme couponer, but I do use them and match adds.

Using those items, I check my lists and see what ingredients I already have, what appeals to the family, and what makes my own heart sing.  If it is something we had recently, I turn to my cookbooks or recent magazines where I might have marked a recipe or two for inspiration.  I keep a little notebook in the kitchen where I write down anything we keep in stock that I have run out of which I add a list of what I need creating my menu and grocery list for a week.  If there are several great sales and you can fit it into your budget, add a little extra to stock up on or plan a meal or two for the following week.

Writing it down in my planner just as if I were writing down an appointment, allows me to see what I have prepared in the past few weeks so that I am not meal repeating.  It also allows me to coordinate meals to fit activities.  For example, if Madeline has a home track meet on Tuesday, it means we may not eat until 8:30.  For that night we will have something that I can make in the crock-pot, it might be a good night for bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, or I might pack a picnic basket for us to enjoy while sitting at the stadium.  By already knowing the plans for the day, I can plan my meal accordingly.

But, plans do change.  You may get stuck in traffic, something may not thaw out properly, or you may have simply run out of hours in your day.  You can still be prepared for this.  Allow for one to two extra meals in your budget a couple of times a month.  This might include ingredients for homemade pizzas, jarlsburg or brie cheese for a totally amazing grilled cheese sandwich, or fresh vegetables for a filling salad.  I also try to keep a few extra’s on-hand for the days when we have unexpected company, but I’ll get into that more with a stock the pantry list my next post.

If you need inspiration for meals, check out your favorite magazines or the internet for resources.  Pampered Chef offers many quick recipes on their site.  One of my favorite places to find inspiration is the Williams-Sonoma website.  Not only can you find a menu planner here, but ideas for quick and easy recipes.  And seriously, you would be amazed at how inspired you can get reading the latest issue of Southern Living while waiting on track practice to end!  Step out of your box and be creative.  It’ll make everyone look forward to mealtime!Like I mentioned earlier, different things work for different people.  I just find it so much easier and less stressful to shop one week at a time.

What works for you?

 

Kitchen Matters: Get Back to the Table!

 I do love to set a pretty table.
It may not be a page from an interior design magazine, but it is a tabletop that welcomes my family and guests.  It makes them feel comfortable and special.  That is what setting or dining at the table is all about; making your loved ones feel special.  It is also an act that we have let slip away as we feed our families in the car running to one activity or another.

simple summer supper – hydrangea’s from Audley’s grandmother.
Valentine’s Dinner for the family

{So, Let’s get back to the table!}


Think to yourself, how often do I set the table for dinner with the family.  Once or twice a week?  A month? A year?

It’s not that difficult of a task, and no matter what your pay scale, or what your schedule is packed with, anyone can sit down to eat at their own kitchen table.  I am a firm believe that magical things happen around a dinner table.  Relationships are grown and laughter is shared in an atmosphere that you can be comfortable in.  You can freely talk about your day, dream for tomorrow and live in the moment.  When you take the world away and create your own intimate environment, moods can be changed and for the better!  It takes five minutes to set a simple table and just a very few more to clean it up.

Setting the table does not require fine china and crystal glasses.  But, you don’t want to use paper or plastic either!

China is expensive, and unless you have been fortunate enough to inherit Grandmother’s antique set, most of us probably do not have fine china.  But, paper plates are not cost effective, either!  First, even if you buy the .99 package of plates each week when you buy groceries, you are still spending $52 a year at the very least on throw away plates.  For that price you could purchase eight place settings of simple, white Corelle dinnerware that you can use over and over.  Second, paper/plastic plates are not good for the environment.  Do you seriously want to add to an issue that is already out of control?
 
Are you attracted to the appearance of this dish?

The extra ten – fifteen minutes a day it takes to wash dishes or load the dishwasher isn’t going to take up all of your spare time.
 When Audley and I married, we didn’t have a lot.  There was no china or expensive silverware, just eight place settings of teddy bear dishes and a value pack of Oneida silverware to put on my table.
{Don’t you know my new husband loved that?!}
As I was torn between the cuteness of my single years and falling into the sophistication of married life, we quickly outgrew the teddy bears.  But, they had to last as a young married couple, Audley and I didn’t have the money to just go buy more.
I adored my dishes, and I entertained on them like they were the most expensive items you could buy.  Yes, guys chuckled when they ate at our table, but they did not complain when the dinner I prepared was served!  In fact seconds generally topped those plates as well.
It took several years, but eventually, I was able to get rid of the Teddy Bear plates and move on to everyday dishes a little more practical for our lifestyle.  For these I chose simple, white dishes which have served us well for many years.  I will talk more about dishes in another post, but my point is you don’t have to have the latest in style or most expensive plates to set a nice table!
Pottery Barn’s Great White Coupe
People often say it is difficult to find time to eat at the table with busy schedules.  Let me share these real scenarios and see if any of them sound like your life.
For years I had a friend whose husband would call mine and ask if I was cooking nearly every Saturday.  When Audley would say yes, he would invite himself and family over for the evening to “play cards” just so he could sit down to a home cooked meal.  The sad thing was he owned a small town grocery store, yet ate out every night.
 
Believe it or not, people crave the intimacy of the dinner table!
I know another family who eats out at the very least four nights a week, plus lunch and generally breakfast out of a drive-thru.  The three nights not in a restaurant are usually spent eating off of a paper plate in front of the TV at his mother’s house.
Where is the family connection?  The bond?  Where are the relationships that should be growing in this simple downtime each day?
With four kids who have participated in extra-curricular activities over the years (marching band, soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, track, youth group..) we have had plenty of our own moments of eating out.  Not only do one of us usually wind up feeling sick to our stomachs after dining out, we are usually short on money for our budget for the week.  For example, two full weeks of groceries (what I purchase at one time) for our now family of five is around $350.  This includes breakfast foods, lunch for the kids to take to school, and supper, as well as two full meals for Saturday and Sunday.
That sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at it the way I do, I am saving a whole lot more.  For Audley, the kids and I to eat out at Chick-fil-a, it costs right at $40 dollars.  Sound expensive?  If we ate at McDonalds, it would still cost $30.  When we eat at Olive Garden, it is usually $70.  My kids are too old for the children’s menu.  So just eating out three times in two weeks is $140, just over a quarter of our grocery budget!
But, more than saving money I love the intimacy created with a meal at the table.  Audley comes home for lunch most days, and we sit down at the table to enjoy time together.  We may only have a sandwich, but my husband really appreciates the time I took to sit at the table and eat with him. Even when it is just me for lunch, I sit down at the table and enjoy it. It makes me feel important to sit at the table and eat, even if I am alone!
I know, often it is more practical for a couple or a single person to grab take-out.  If you chose to do so at least take an extra two or three minutes to transfer your food to a plate, light a candle, and sit down to enjoy your meal at the table.
It’s not always about the food that you are serving, but more how you are treating yourself and family.  We all deserve to feel special.  You may not get to eat until 9:00 PM when everything is done for the day, but set the table tonight and see how you feel!

Kitchen Matters

When you love to cook and entertain, having a well organized kitchen is so important.  It was fun unpacking our kitchen when we moved in because it gave me an opportunity to organize my dishes as well my pantry and refrigerator.  Nothing like a clean slate to start with!
“A place for everything and everything in its place”
Mrs Beeton (The Book of Household Management)
With our oldest daughter engaged to be married and looking to set up her own home, she often comes to me for advice and ideas.  As trivial as it may seem, I love spending time with her talking about these things, because quite honestly it is important.
When you look around at all the restaurant popping up, the freezer section in the grocery store getting larger, and nights getting later for so many, kitchens are becoming more of a showpiece and less of a gathering space.  I also know Home ec is no longer taught in schools like it was when my mom was growing up.  In one generation we have lost the art of homemaking, more specifically, lost the art of cooking for the family.  People are scared of the kitchen, or unwilling to make the time to make it a special place to be. And let’s face it, eating out is expensive!
It’s really time we all got back to the kitchen!
The kitchen is an important part of our home, the busiest room in the house without a doubt!  Not only do we gather with the family for meals, but it is also a place where my kids have a snack and do their homework each day, where we entertain our friends, where I spend a little extra time with my children talking about their days. Relationships are built here and love is shared.
 {It is the epicenter of our home.}
 
You don’t have to have the most modern and expensive kitchen to make it a special place.  Your kitchen is a reflection of you and your life.  Mine is a casual and comfortable galley style kitchen.  Not modern by any means, but practical for our needs without a doubt.
I want to be in my kitchen.  I want to cook, even after a late night with sports.
Over the next few weeks, I want to share with you a few ways I have made my kitchen a practical place to work and spend time.  If you are setting up your own kitchen for the first time, I hope to share with you some advice to help you get started.  If you are established in your kitchen, but not quite organized, I hope to offer you suggestions for getting it together and make your time spent in the kitchen even more fun.
Isn’t this more intimate and welcoming than dining with 100 strangers?
A few things I would like to cover include a little about decor, what you do and don’t need, stocking the refrigerator and pantry, casual entertaining, menus, and clever storage ideas.
If you have something you would like for me to cover, by all means, share it!  I would love to cover topics that you would find beneficial. 
 
What role does the kitchen play in your life?