*I first published this on Rhythm of the Days, and I have updated the list to reflect that my son and I can't eat cow dairy currently, and we have added a lot more fish and toddler snacks to our diet*
There are many ways at which I have failed at budget meal planning over the last decade. My most often repeated mistake is picking a bunch of recipes that sound good, making a little schedule for the week, buying all the ingredients and diving in. The major downside to this approach is that if you are just choosing random recipes that sound good, you are probably going to be buying a lot of ingredients every trip to keep up with the novelty, and it gets really expensive. Another option I’ve tried is using a pre-written meal plan and grocery list from some book or website. That comes along with the same spendy problem, as well as the potential that we won’t like some of the recipes. Another fail was when I tried to keep our food budget super lean, and centered my planning around a very small budget. Before the end of the first week we were so sick of beans and lentils that we ordered take out; budget blown. I have gone nuts spending whole weekends prepping meals for the week and freezer meals. The problem with this approach is I don’t actually like to spend my weekend prepping meals. Baking a loaf of bread? Sure. Making a big pot of chilli for lunches; why not? But the “You can make 40 meals in 6 hours for $150” approach is too tedious for me, and unless you’re using recipes you have made a lot of times before, it’s really hard to get them exactly right for bulk production. Then you’re stuck with six crock pot ready frozen quart bags of beef stroganoff that are not great, and you grimace every time you pull one out of the freezer, until eventually they are repurposed as cold packs because you just can’t bring yourself to eat another one.
The approach that genuinely works for me, and keeps our food budget manageable and on track, is a capsule pantry. Like the popular capsule wardrobe, a capsule pantry is a collection of essentials you can mix and match into a delicious meal, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, without requiring so much prep that you will give up and just order phở. While we buy other foods sometimes for variety, 90% of what we eat can be made with 50-60 ingredients, many of which are pantry basics you probably already have. But here’s the catch; unless you like to eat exactly like us, your capsule pantry will be different from ours. I am sharing mine as a jumping off point to get you thinking about what yours might look like.
Having a capsule pantry saves you a lot of time and money because you can plan recipes around the staples you always have at home, and other than replenishing those same items (which rarely run out at the same time), you will likely only need a couple of things for each trip to the store. We buy about 75% of our food at Costco, so we get 75% of our grocery shopping done all at once in a monthly trip. I have put an asterisk next to all the items we get at Costco just to give you an idea. The rest of our groceries we buy at our local co-op, mostly from the bulk section, and at Trader Joe's for specialty items like canned jackfruit. Having foods that work for your family on hand eliminates the excuse for last-minute take out, fast food, or an unplanned dinner out, which is where a majority of people (ourselves included!) go astray in their monthly food costs.
Baby Portobella (Crimini) Mushrooms*
Frozen Kale* (we actually buy fresh and freeze in smaller portions)
Sundried Tomatoes packed in olive oil*
(Affiliate link: If you struggle with produce going bad before you can use it, these reusable green bags are amazing at keeping things fresh longer!)
Some other fresh fruit like apples, watermelon, or peaches
Frozen Mixed Berries*
Toddler Fruit & Veggie Pouches*
Puffed Green Peas*
White (Cannellini) Beans
Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers
Steel Cut Oats*
Whole Wheat Flour
Kodiak Cakes Power High Protein Mix*
Ground Flax Meal
Unbleached Wheat Flour*
Organic Chicken Thighs*
Grass Fed Ground Beef*
Wild Alaskan Salmon Burgers*
Beer Battered Wild Cod Filets*
Sustainably Caught Sardines*
Free Range Eggs*
Grass Fed Butter*
Coconut Coffee Creamer*
Organic Cane Sugar*
Condiments, Spices, & Sauces:
Braggs Liquid Aminos
Grinder of Mixed Peppercorns
Do you keep a capsule pantry? What are some of your staples that didn’t make this list?