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With the spread of the coronavirus causing Americans to spend time at home, you’re probably constantly wondering how best to grocery shop to limit your time outside. The best place to start? The kitchen pantry. Getting a pantry organized and ready to work is, frankly, a good kitchen practice (like washing hands!) we should all be observing, year-round. And once that pantry is whipped into shape, you won’t have to frequent the grocery store as often as before. 

Related Reading: The Best Places to Buy Pantry Staples Online

As cooks, the pantry is a space that’s as indispensable as a good chef’s knife. We keep our most beloved and fundamental utilities—from glass jars filled with chickpeas to cans of tomatoes and dried pasta—there, close enough to reach for when we’re busy in the kitchen. Sure, you might have a mystery can of tuna floating around in the back of your pantry, but at least you know you’ve got something stocked there in case of doomsday. And it’s worth figuring out what should join that lonesome can—especially right now.

Like many things in the kitchen, there’s a formula to a practical pantry—one that can as easily go awry as a pot of water that’s bubbled over. So in the interest of keeping your pantry plenty full and useful, here’s our top tips and suggestions on how to best stock and utilize a pantry.

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Always Have the Essentials on Hand

Every cook is different, but most cooks will want to keep the essentials on hand. Make sure to always have oils (extra virgin olive oil, a neutral oil), vinegars (we like white wine, red wine, balsamic, and rice wine), spices, dried herbs, grains (rice, pasta, quinoa), sweeteners (honey, sugar), condiments, and cans (tomatoes, tuna, beans) in stock. As long as you’ve got these in your kitchen, you’ll be able to figure out something to cook. 

Related Reading: The Best (& Worst) Canned Food to Buy, According to Nutritionists | 18 Pantry Staples That Guarantee Thrilling Quarantine Cooking

Don’t Overbuy Produce…

Produce is the first thing to go. And while it’s certainly easy to grab those plump peaches and crisp lettuces from the grocery store, it’s going to be the first thing to wilt and mold. 

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…Instead, Buy Produce a Little at a Time

Sure, you can buy some produce in bulk—we’re talking onions, shallots, potatoes (things that will last a while)—but the best way to avoid waste is to only buy enough fresh product that you really need. 

Related Reading: 9 Produce Subscriptions You Should Know About

Bulk Up on Cookable Items with Long Shelf Lives

The stuff you’re going to want to buy in bulk? Anything that’s shelf-stable. Keep your pantry loaded with essentials like canned tomatoes, boxed broth, rolled oats, rice, and pasta. 

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Buy Spices in Small Quantities

Dried spices should be replaced about every six months—which means the spices you bought last spring is ready to be replaced (even though you’ve only used half). While grocery stores tend to sell dried spices in large containers, you can have most spices shipped to you in smaller quantities. 

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Grab Sweet and Salty Snacks

After all, the pantry was made to house snacks. Clear some space for popcorn, tortilla chips, cookies, dried fruits and nuts, and candy. 

Harness the Power of the Freezer   

Have something that’s going bad in a few days? Throw it in the freezer. Not going to use that whole loaf of bread? Slice it up and stick it in the freezer. Winter got you down? Grab plenty of bags of frozen vegetables (they’re just as healthy and vitamin-packed as the unfrozen stuff). The freezer is just as powerful as the fridge, which means you can store everything from leftovers to frozen meats, ice cream, and waffles in there. (Just don’t forget about what you’ve tossed in there: Be sure to label and date everything clearly!)

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Store Dry Ingredients in Airtight Containers

Those dry ingredients you’ve got—flour, sugar, cornmeal, cocoa powder—will last so much longer when they’re stored in airtight containers. Keep them in clear jars with a label (so you always know what’s inside).

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Follow the Restaurant Rule, FIFO

FIFO stands for first in, first out. This is used as a way to guarantee you use up everything you have first—before just grabbing something that’s unopened. Place the ingredients or produce you need up in the front—where you can easily see it—so you’re bound to use it before it goes bad. 

Related Reading: Canned Tomatoes: A Comprehensive Guide to a Pantry Staple

Keep a Smattering of Baking Items Available

Even if you’re not the biggest baker, you’ll want to have the essentials on hand: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, butter, and eggs. Not only can these staples be used for making dinner (dredging chicken in flour, toasting nuts in butter), but you can combine all these ingredients into one dish. Have some bananas that are turning brown? Make banana bread. Somehow have a bulk supply of chocolate? Make cookies. The options are endless.

Related Reading: Pastry Chefs’ 7 Favorite Things to Buy at the Grocery Store

What to Do When You Run Out

An A-Z Ingredient Substitution Guide for When You're Out of Key Components

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Amy Schulman is an associate editor at Chowhound. She is decidedly pro-chocolate.
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