Taking Stock

Spices and grains on a modern rack

When cooler weather comes calling and we spend more time inside, we tend to lean more on items in the pantry rather than the garden or market, says Inside Columbia’s Food Editor Chef Brook Harlan. We also tend to turn to hearty, filling foods to help us warm up and “weather” the falling temps. Casseroles, soups and stews, and instant pot or slow cooker creations become mainstays in our regular rotations. Many of us also boost our baking, especially heading into the holidays.

In order to make the seasonal switch successfully, Harlan says there’s “no need to bring the whole supermarket to you.” Instead, you just need to properly prep. “By keeping a handful of items in the pantry and refrigerator, it could help you get meals from ideas in your head, to food on the plate at a much quicker rate,” he says. He suggests taking a look at the recipes you cook throughout the winter to see if there are any common items that store well for months, either shelf-stable or in the refrigerator/freezer. “Hopefully you can stock up now and cut down on those one- or two-item trips to the store and spend that extra time with the ones you love,” he says.

Below are a few sections with items to consider, “consider” being the operative word, Harlan says. “If no one in your household likes olives, you probably don’t need to keep them in your pantry.” The trick, he emphasizes, is to tailor the items to fit your family’s tastes and needs. 

Dry Items

Dry items ready for stocking in the pantryDo you have a pantry, cabinets devoted to food, or both? The last thing you want to do is have food overflowing to your countertop and taking over your workspace. Assess your space and your needs, Harlan says. “If you go through one small can of baking powder every three years, there’s no reason to buy multiple cans, even if they are on sale.”

Baking items: flour, sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, baking powder, baking soda, honey, vanilla extract, oats, cornstarch

Oils: olive, vegetable, peanut, sesame 

Canned or boxed stocks that you buy: chicken, beef, vegetable

Bottles of vinegar: apple cider, red wine, balsamic

Pickles, olives, capers

Dried or canned beans (black, kidney, pinto, etc.) 

Starches: rice (wild, basmati, brown, white, etc.), polenta, grits, pasta (shells, long, lasagna, couscous)

Peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, other spreads (some may need to be refrigerated after opening)

Crackers, cereals, snacks, tortilla strips and chips (tortilla soup’s a great cold weather option)

Canned staples: tomatoes (stewed, diced, etc.), tomato paste, corn, chipotles, coconut milk, condensed milk, etc., canned chicken (great if you’re in a pinch for protein) 

Refrigerated Items

Expiration dates will vary depending on the type of product, Harlan says. “As I’m buying things in the fall (especially when they’re on sale), I’ll take a look at the expiration date. Many times, some of the longer items expire after the holidays. I know I can purchase several quarts of cream, sour cream, or eggs that will not expire until the new year. Some things like hard vacuum-sealed cheeses may not expire until the spring.” He advises that you think hard about what you need. “If you go through two pounds of cheddar a year, there’s no need to purchase four pounds that will last you until spring.”

Essential vegetables and herbs: onions, peppers, carrots, celery, cilantro, Italian parsley 

Dairy: milk, sour cream, cream cheese, cheeses (Parmesan will keep months) 


Open pickles/canned items

Mayo/relish/mustard/ketchup/barbecue sauce (even though barbecue season is over, many items may be used in other recipes), hot sauce, Worchester and soy 

Salad dressing

Lemons and limes or juice



Maple Syrup

Frozen Items

Harlan says frozen items are another great way to stock up and not have to make as many trips to the store. Steaks, pork chops and chicken breasts that go on sale can easily be wrapped and labeled to store for six months to a year. “If you’re just feeding one or two, you can probably stock quite a bit in your kitchen freezer. Items can be stacked tightly to a side and used as needed. If you are feeding more, a deep freeze in a pantry, garage or basement may help.” 

He says that with minimal effort, you can work your skill up to purchasing whole pork loins and cutting them into chops yourself. Labeling, dating and rotating are key. “Make sure when you purchase new items you rotate them behind the older ones. The older items need to be used first,” he says, “so you don’t find them at the back of the freezer in five years.” 

If you roast chickens, turkey, or ever have any leftover meat scraps, it’s a great way to make your own stock/broth, Harlan says. “Stock/broth comes in handy every time you’re making soup, stews, rice, beans or sauces. Most places where you might normally use water could greatly benefit from using something more flavorful.”

Homemade stocks or broths (see utilize section below)

Meats (wrap with plastic wrap in portions you’ll need for a full meal, pull out and place on a tray to thaw in the refrigerator for 18 to 24 hours or quickly in the microwave, don’t thaw on the counter) 



Vegetables: mixed variety combos, as well as single-type bags (many come bagged, partially cooked and can be added to a dish in a flash. Either buy bagged from the store or trim, par-cook and freeze yourself)

Buns and bread (bagels freeze beautifully)


Hashbrowns  (perfect for “breakfast for dinner” nights)

Butter (particularly if you’ll be baking a lot)


Items To Utilize 

Often, Harlan says, we toss items that could be used at a later date. “Many items can be saved for a week or two in the fridge or for months in the freezer. Try keeping a freezer bag for scrap to make stock. You can put in scraps of meat, vegetables, bones, or chicken skin. Once the bag’s full you can make a large batch of stock and freeze it in smaller containers or into ice cubes to use a small amount at a time.”

Keep: frozen vegetable and meat scraps for stocks and broth 

Keep: refrigerated egg whites and egg yolks 

Keep: frozen breadcrumbs you’ve made from stale bread

Seasonings and spices

The right seasonings can transform the same ingredient into completely different meals. A little cumin can help turn your ground turkey into taco filling, while a combo of oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary can add an Italian accent and make it perfect for meatballs.

Onion, garlic and chili powders

Garlic salt

Cayenne pepper


Dried thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, basil and parsley


Red chili pepper flakes



Special Seasonal Items

Nuts for fudge, cookies and holiday treats

Cocoa powder

Pumpkin pie spice

Canned pie fillings

Cinnamon sticks for hot cider

Peppermint sticks for hot chocolate

Canned cranberry relish


Slow Cooker Hot Chocolate

Take one can of sweetened condensed milk and pour into the bottom of the slow cooker, mix in 1/3 of a cup of cocoa powder. When well combined, add in a gallon of whole milk, a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips, and two tablespoons vanilla extract. Turn on low and stir every half hour or so until fully mixed and heated through.

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