Building a "Pennywise" Pantry

Every month, I lead a Pennywise Pantry tour around the Co-op to highlight cost effective food shopping strategies. (If you haven’t done one yet, you can check our event schedule here.) Cooking from home and cooking from scratch are the most cost-effective (and nutritious!) ways to eat. Planning and prepping meals can be the most time intensive, so keeping a stocked pantry makes eating from home even faster than ordering take-out. Here are a few of my tips for building up a pantry without breaking the bank.

  1. Stock up on the staples—and buy them in Bulk!

I sent a poll around the office to see what kinds of items people had on hand all the time.

  • Grains—Think rice, quinoa, oats, and other grains you use frequently.
  • Beans—Chickpeas and Black Beans are the most versatile. Keep them both on hand for high protein, high fiber meals!
  • Lentils – Totally underrated, lentils are so easy to cook with and really absorb flavor.
  • Flour – Keep it basic with all-purpose flour if you don’t make from scratch too often. For the gluten-free crowd, having some 1:1 gluten free flour mixes on hand is nice, but keeping cornmeal and buckwheat flour on hand is really useful.
  • Chicken or Vegetable Stock
  • Cooking Oil—I recommend sunflower oil for versatility. It’s great for everything from salad dressing to grilling.
  1. Keep “transformative” items on hand.

Transformative items are still staples but may be less substantive than your everyday basics. These items take you from eating rice and oatmeal all day to a complete dish. It may be as simple as adding one thing, but these items fill out your meals and let you have some variety. Keep non-perishable transformative items like crushed tomatoes on hand for when you’re whipping up dinner in a pinch. Here are some  “must-have” items that our office recommends:

  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Tahini
  • Chiles in adobo sauce
  • Hot sauce
  • Minced ginger (in a jar)
  • Dijon mustard
  • Maple syrup and/or honey
  • Spices

These items are versatile and flavorful; they can really transform a dish! Sarah says, “Honestly, at my house we probably eat canned tomatoes in our meals at least 4 times per week. They’re great for so many recipes!” Lisbaette says tahini is her number 1 go-to. Why? It’s a thoughtful ingredient that “I never have to think about” but can use  all of the time—sweet or savory for meals or snacks. Chilies in adobo sauce are crucial for Allison’s favorite meals that take less than 20 minutes to whip up. Keep your must-haves on hand to make those easy dishes taste like they came from a 5-star restaurant.

  1. Replenish 1 & 2 before you run out. It can be incredibly frustrating after a long day to realize you’re missing a crucial ingredient for the meal you were about to make. Instead of making an unnecessary trip to the store or resorting to a delivery pizza, stay ahead of it. Add staple items to your shopping list when you are halfway through it in order to always have a back-up. Crisis averted.


  1. Focus on nutritionally dense items. Choose a variety of staples with high nutritional value to maximize your dollar. They will be the base of many dishes, and it’s important to focus on items that are high in protein, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Some good options are beans, lentils, whole grains, and brown rice. Plant-based proteins are usually the most cost-effective, but animal products are great, especially if you can find a good deal. Whole chickens are great dollar payoff options and we often have reduced price cuts when the store purchases too much of an item. Store items in the freezer if you won’t use them right away.


You can find really great deals at the Co-op, especially if you know what to look for. Check out our Co-op Deals and Weekly Winners flyers at the front of the store and read our Bulk How-To Guide for additional tips on getting the dry goods essentials. Keep an eye out for upcoming Pennywise Pantry tours here. Happy shopping!