How to stock your pantry: Fridge & Freezer

October 22, 2013

OneHungryMama how to stock a refrigerator

Babies don’t come with a handbook, but motherhood certainly comes will a million competing ideas of how to “do it right,” especially when it comes to feeding. The good news is that you’re doing way better than you think you are. (That goes even if you think you’re doing an awesome job—because you are!) The even better news is that being a great family cook is simpler than you think, you just need to learn the ropes.

My “Family Cooking School” series is about helping you master a few basics across my 4’s P’s of family cooking—planning, pantry, prepping, and parenting—so that you can move from pre-baby cooking to family cooking. The difference between the two? Family cooking is big on flavor, but made short on time; meals are efficiently planned; and ingredients are healthy enough for everyone to share.

This is the third and final post in the “Family Cooking School” series on how to stock your pantry. Together with my pantry posts on rice, grains, and pasta and canned and jarred staples, this will help you get your pantry in tip top shape.

Check out my list of must-have fridge and freezer staples below, then chime in: What are your favorite family cooking pantry staples?

And if you’re looking for more help getting your pantry in order and making healthy mealtimes possible, email me at to schedule a free “No-Stress Family Kitchen Breakthrough” session. I’d love to give you personalized pantry tips and answers to your burning questions about how to make life as the family cook easier.

By nature, most things in your fridge will go bad within a week. I consider these “pantry” ingredients, though, since they tend to last a little longer and/or should be replenished as soon as they are done or go bad.

  • Eggs: Always on the top of my go-to list, eggs are essential. They are healthy, affordable, protein-rich, and can serve as a main for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Read more about the nutritional value of eggs here.
  • Milk: My preference is for 2% or whole, but choose yours depending on your diet and your child’s age (i.e., healthy children under 2 should drink whole milk). If your family is dairy-free, consider having more than one option on hand at all times. We like original, enriched rice milk (for cereal and baking) and original or vanilla almond milk (for oatmeal, pancakes, etc.)
  • Butter: I like having both salted and unsalted on hand. If choosing one, go for unsalted so that you can bake more easily and also control the level of salt in your cooking. Dairy free? We like Earth Balance.
  • Cream Cheese: Cream cheese is a school lunch savior in my house, especially with a child who doesn’t like peanut butter and regularly asks for buttered toast in his lunchbox. While not nearly as nutrient dense as nut butter, cream cheese has more protein that butter and can be paired with ingredients ranging from smoked salmon to jelly. If you’re dairy-free, try Tofutti “cream cheese.”
  • Nut or Seed Butter: This is another lunch lifesaver. I put it in the refrigerator section because all-natural peanut butter should be kept in the fridge. Look for a kind that doesn’t have added sugar (or at least not tons of it) and also for a butter that collects oil on top. I know: less convenient, but the super soft, never separates kind gets is velvety texture from hydrogenated oil.
  • Parmesan or Grana Padano: Grana Padano is an excellent substitute for Parmesan and usually way less expensive. Don’t believe me? This is a tip I learned straight from Lidia Bastianch. Believe it. If you are dairy free and can tolerate yeast, nutritional yeast can be used as a Parmesan substitute.
  • Other cheese: I also like to keep a flexible cheese on hand—something that can be sliced at snack time or for sandwiches, grated for quesadillas and other melty goodness. Monterey Jack, cheddar, and mozzarella are all nice options.
  • Yogurt: Yogurt is a wonder ingredient. It can be served as a healthy snack or used in baking. It’s breakfast and lunch. I can’t get enough—so long as you avoid brands with tons of added sugar and/or food coloring. I prefer Greek-style yogurt for its high protein content. The fat content will depend on your personal preference and also child’s age (i.e., healthy children under 2-years-old should eat full fat yogurt). If your family is diary-free, try almond milk yogurt. Soy yogurt is also an option, though be careful if you eat a lot of soy—too much has questionable health impact.
  • Miso paste (shiro/light): Fermented soy bean paste is great to have on hand for any family who enjoys Japanese flavors. It can be used in marinades, dressings, soups and more. It also lasts a long time in the fridge.
  • Tortillas: Tortillas serve as an all purpose bread when your fresh loaf runs out. It’s great for tacos, quesadillas and stuff like that, which you know already. It’s also great for packing school lunch surprises like sandwich “sushi” and roll ups.
  • Refrigerated pesto: Pesto is about as all purpose as a sauce can get. It’s great for basting simple roasts, tossing with pasta, making dressing, and more. I like making homemade pesto, but feel free to buy an all-natural brand (look in the refrigerator section of your market; avoid the shelf-stable pestos). Freeze whatever you don’t use right away.
  • Hummus: If your family likes hummus, have it on hand all the time. It’s not just a healthy snack, but also makes a great sandwich and even dinner. This hummus plate was a revelation.
  • Smoked Salmon: If you and/or your kids are a fan of smoked fish, keep smoked salmon around at all times. It’s great for breakfast or lunch, even dinner (tossed with eggs or into pasta) and stays fresh longer than cold cuts.
  • Fresh whole grain bread: Breads are tricky: most of the soft, shelf-stable loaves you find in the bread aisle of your supermarket are loaded with sugar and icky ingredients. If it’s easy, I suggest hitting a local bakery for your sandwich bread every week (they’ll slice it for you!). If doing that is most definitely not easy, then please read the ingredients label to make sure you’re okay with everything in your loaf.
  • Olives: They aren’t for everyone, but if your family enjoys olives, keep them around. Skip the kind that come in a can or jar and opt instead for a pitted variety that comes from the deli and needs to be stored in the fridge. I find that kalamata olives are the most flexible for my cooking, but black oil cured and meaty green olives can also be used across many cuisines.

The most important things in your freezer should be leftovers that can be pulled out for a near-instant meal. No need to take your whole saturday to do mega batch cooking, but double the recipe the next time you make meat sauce and freeze it up. Same with plain rice and grains, other sauces, chilis, and so on. Other than that, these ingredients can help you put together a nutritious pantry meal in a pinch.

  • Frozen fruit, variety: Great for smoothies or defrost to mix into batters, yogurt, oatmeal, and so on.
  • Peas: Frozen vegetables have a bad reputation, but some are actually even better frozen that they are fresh most of the year. Peas are a great example: most peas are frozen at peak freshness and they freeze beautifully. These are my go-to veg for any meal made entirely of pantry ingredients.
  • Corn: Another example of a great frozen vegetable. Very useful to have around.
  • Chopped spinach: Ditto for chopped spinach. The only thing to keep in mind here is that you’re not going to use this the way you would fresh. Frozen spinach is not for a quick garlicky sauté. Instead, use if for recipes like spinach pie, spinach feta dip, or Indian-style spinach with chickpeas.
  • Animal protein: I’m not huge on freezing tons of raw animal protein myself since it can be hard to package up so that it doesn’t get freezer burn. There are a few things, though, that come frozen or freeze easily that are useful to have on hand if you eat meat and/or fish. These include:* sausage
    * ground turkey and/or beef
    * bacon
    * shrimpI tend to keep all of these on hand at all times, except for ground meat. I’ll cut frozen bacon into chunks to build quick flavor in short-cook soups or add to pasta. Shrimp freezing technology is, as far as I can tell, super advanced, they thaw under warm water in minutes, and cook in minutes. Sausage can go straight from the freezer into a roasting pan in the oven for a quick, easy dinner. Also, I have been known to appreciate frozen high-quality vacuum sealed fish for a quick, healthy meal. It used to be hard to find, but BumbleBee has recently launched SuperFresh, a line of premium fresh frozen fish that I love. Simple, all natural ingredients (think fish, lemon, pepper, oil) that come ready to pop into the oven for 20 minutes. It’s kind of genius.
  • Pizza dough: This may not be for everyone, but I love having a round of pizza dough in my freezer. All I have to do is remember to pull it out in the morning, and dinner is already 3/4 done, especially if you use a super high quality jarred marinara or my no-fuss pizza sauce
  • Puff pastry: I wasn’t always a fan, but I’ve come to believe that puff pastry is family kitchen gold. The link explains it all.

Did I miss a must-have from your pantry? Let me know what staples are essential in your refrigerator and freezer.

2 Responses

  1. Jamie says:

    I would add tofu and a variety of frozen mixed veggies. You can always whip up a quick stirfry this way!

  2. One Hungry Mama says:

    we keep tofu on hand, too – thanks for mentioning!

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