Long ago, before being the married stay at home mom and food blogger that I am today, I was a single mom of two working full time. I had a variety of jobs and spent much of my twenties working and trying to balance motherhood with the responsibility of doing it all on my own with two little ones. During that time I was also in college so needless to say, I had no time for cooking at the time. I would venture into my kitchen for the occasional weekend breakfast or some cupcakes of the packaged variety, but I really didn’t cook all that often. Not to say I wasn’t interested, but those years were busy and stressful!
When I met my husband, we combined our families and we both worked full time. It seemed life got even busier, we had pre-teens and grade schoolers that were in sports and a variety of activities. He worked long hours and I commuted. We got married, I got laid off, and we discovered we were expecting (all in the same month!). I’ve worked since I was 15, so this was the first time I didn’t have something keeping me busy every day. Since we’d gone from a two income family to a single income family, (and I was pregnant and hungry!), I started turning my attention towards that kitchen a bit more. We didn’t have the money anymore to pick up Chinese food after practice or a pizza after the football games. I learned how to make the most of what I could find in my pantry, and often times it wasn’t very much in there. Prior to this time in our lives, I never even kept flour in my kitchen! I quickly discovered there were quite a few key items that were necessary to always have on hand in order to whip up something out of nothing. Some of those items include (but are not limited to!):
- A well stocked spice rack. This is the most important key item, in my opinion! Now, we all have the normal seasonings; salt, pepper, maybe some seasoning salt or oregano, a BBQ blend or a roast rub. Those are all great to have, but try to pick up the not so common seasonings too. Cumin, curry, ginger, mustard, marjoram, basil, sage. All those spices may not be used every day, but they are essential in certain recipes and it’s great to have them on hand in order to play with different flavors. I’ve discovered along the way that I have a heavy seasoning hand. I love rich flavors and many seasonings can add so much depth to your dish. I started with one of those spice racks that come with all the seasonings and labels and went from there, continually adding to my collection.
- Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Find all the sales, pay attention to the weekly ads! Buy your favorites, these will be most of your go-to ingredients for meals. I always buy tomatoes, bell peppers of all colors, tons of onions and garlic, spinach and kale, carrots, cilantro, parsley, bananas, apples, oranges, lemons and limes. I usually try to buy more than that, but those are the essentials. There’s so many things you can make or enhance with just these items. Find what works for you and the things you like, you will find those are what you use as ingredients in your meals most often.
- Stock up on the cans. Some of my canned essentials are tomato paste, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, olives, plenty of broths, canned corn, kidney beans, black beans, white beans. Again, find what works for you and your favorite items. Many times I’ve been able to create a quick meal in twenty minutes flat when I felt like there was nothing to make, all because I make sure to keep my canned items stocked full.
- All those baking essentials. I always make sure I have the essentials. All purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, corn starch, corn meal, sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, bread crumbs, yeast. These are all essential to me because I do a lot of baking, I made a birthday cake at the very last minute once just out of what I had stocked in my pantry. It ended up being a three layer marble cake with caramel icing. True story!
- Extracts. Vanilla is number one, but I also use lemon and maple a lot. There’s so many flavors to choose from, but at least vanilla extract if you have to choose just one!
- Dry items are essential too. I always make sure I have plenty of noodles, rice, and dry beans around. When I’m in a pinch they can always come in handy. These are all very affordable items, perfect for those on a budget or families like mine that have a lot of hungry mouths to feed on a budget.
- The liquid essentials. Vegetable oil, olive oil, vinegar’s (white vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar), cooking wines like sherry are my favorite, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauces. The list could go on and on. The oils are essential, the rest are all flavor enhancers. I used to only buy vinegar to dye our Easter eggs, can you believe it?
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