You may have grown up in a home with cabinets full of random spice jars and multiple types of vinegar, oil and hot sauce; a freezer full of toaster pizzas and bison burgers; and a refrigerator groaning with fresh lettuce, five types of cheese and both yellow and brown mustard. But now that you’re going off to college, you have nothing. And you may have to share your kitchen with at least three other people, so you’ll need to focus on the essential items that can be mixed and matched to create new flavors with a minimum of ingredients.
Bottom line: You might not go grocery shopping very often, and it’s a waste of money to buy a lot of fresh dairy, meat and produce that ends up rotting in the back of the refrigerator, so shelf-stable and frozen foods can give you the most bang for your buck — if you know how to make them tasty.
Spices, sauces and more
Besides salt and pepper, stock up on ground cinnamon and ginger, then add curry powder, chili powder and a dried seasoning blend such as Penzeys Spices’ Fox Point seasoning. Vanilla extract, along with honey, agave syrup or maple syrup, brings a touch of sweetness to cookies, pancakes and yogurt. To add depth of flavor to soups, stews, casseroles and more, stock up on olive oil, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, canned tomatoes and chicken or vegetable broth, while canned coconut milk is a great shelf-stable substitute for dairy milk. Panko bread crumbs may seem like a nonessential item, but, when toasted in a pan with a little dried seasoning and salt, they make a delicious and crunchy topping for pasta when there’s no Parmesan in the fridge. Rather than keep flour and baking powder, buy a baking mix such as Bisquick.
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Beans are an essential part of the most healthful diets around the world, so stock up on cans of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans and cannellini beans, then add a bag of dried brown lentils, which can cook up to tender in just about 30 minutes. But the biggest secret weapon may be raw cashews, usually found in the natural-foods aisle of the grocery store. Not to be confused with roasted, salted cashews, which are found with peanuts and other snack foods, raw cashews can be boiled and then pureed with water in a blender to create a creamlike sauce, all in about 10 minutes flat. Because of its neutral flavor, cashew cream makes a great base for savory or sweet dishes, and a little goes a long way, so spending a little extra up front for the raw cashews will pay off in the end.
Stocking the freezer
Contrary to popular belief, frozen fruits and vegetables generally are quite nutritious: They are frozen shortly after harvesting, so they retain many of their nutrients. When buying frozen produce, avoid those that have added seasonings or sauces, which pack on extra sodium and fat, and load up on items such as frozen spinach, peas, broccoli, corn, blueberries and strawberries. Throw a handful of peas into pasta with olive oil and lemon zest, bake up a batch of blueberry scones, or make a comforting broccoli-cheese soup.
Meat, poultry and seafood all can be frozen successfully, if done properly. First, buy these proteins fresh, then divide larger amounts into smaller portions so you can defrost only what you need. Beef, pork and lamb steaks and chops can be frozen for up to 12 months, while frozen ground meat is best used within three or four months; fresh poultry pieces (thighs, breasts, etc.) freeze well for up to nine months, while fresh shrimp and lean fish (cod, flounder, sole) can be frozen for up to six months. For steaks, chops and poultry pieces, wrap each piece individually in plastic freezer wrap, then place the wrapped pieces in a heavy-duty plastic freezer storage bag. Measure ground meat into 1-cup portions, then wrap well in plastic freezer wrap and wrap again in aluminum foil. For fish and shrimp (buy the shrimp peeled and deveined), place each piece on a baking sheet and freeze, then place the individually frozen pieces in a plastic freezer storage bag. Be sure to write on the outside of every package what the contents are and when they were frozen, using a permanent marker.
Canned, jarred and frozen staples are awesome when you don’t have the time or inclination to go grocery shopping very often. But there are a few fresh go-to items that can have a big impact on recipes and that will have a decent shelf life — often at least a few weeks — if properly stored. Garlic, onions and potatoes are happiest when kept out of direct sunlight in a cool, dry place, but keep the potatoes stored separately, preferably in a paper bag, and don’t store any of them in plastic bags.
Apples and carrots like cold storage, so they’ll do well in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, as will lemons and limes. Put a dampened paper towel over the apples to help them stay fresh; carrots are happy when placed in a lidded container filled with cold water. Winter squash, such as spaghetti, butternut and acorn, can be stored for several weeks in a cool, dark place and then roasted quickly in a hot oven for a satisfying winter meal.