If you’re like me, the shorter days and cooler temps bring on urges quite similar to those experienced by the wild critters this time of year. In the fall, wild creatures seek out a warm burrow or otherwise sheltered place that will protect them from the cold and snow, and some—like birds, squirrels, and chipmunks—stock up a winter larder of seeds and nuts as an emergency food supply.
Fortunately, we don’t have to forage for our food as the critters do, or even hunt as our predecessors did (although I love the venison my daughter gives me). Still, with the approach of winter, I do get the urge to stock my own pantry. I like knowing that my winter larder is fully stocked—no trips to the grocery store in bad weather for me—and with inflation, I’m saving money by buying ahead.
During the growing season, I patronize the farmer’s markets. I like supporting local farmers, but beyond that, the quality of the produce is far superior to what you get at the grocery store. Supermarkets buy huge quantities of produce, shipped from the farm to various distribution points, only to be shipped again to grocery stores, where the food is stocked on the shelves. From the farm to the grocer’s shelf could take weeks; whereas, the produce from the farmer’s market is most likely picked a day or two before you buy it.
Years ago, when I was raising a family, I spent many hours canning, but I don’t want to put that much effort into food prep now. I buy large cuts of meat, repackage it into smaller portions, and freeze it. I also buy large bags of rice, dried beans, and other non-perishables, taking advantage of sales when I can, and store them. It’s healthier and more economical than buying ready-to-eat foods, and I’m well stocked in case of bad weather or an emergency.
Here’s some food for thought (pardon the pun) about grocery stores: most stores only have enough food on hand to meet the needs of their community for a few days. As we learned from the run on household supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, if something happens to disrupt the supply chain, your local market could run out of food very quickly.
Buying food ahead can be hard on the budget in the short term, and you might have to get creative with finding the space to store large quantities of food, but once you give it a try, you’ll find that your family is eating better and you’re saving time and money in the process!
Getting Your Winter Larder Started
The first step in organizing your food storage is to develop a “map” of your food inventory, keeping in mind your available space. Do you have a large pantry, but a tiny freezer? Or maybe you have a chest freezer with plenty of room, but a crowded kitchen with little storage space. Or perhaps you have a basement. Putting up shelves against an outside wall where the temperature stays cool is another good option for long-term food storage.
Stocking the Pantry
In days of old, many homes had root cellars where the cool, moist environment (much like your refrigerator produce bin) kept vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods safe from spoilage for months. Later, food pantries, or larders as they were called then, were an essential space in every household. Unless you lived in town, weekly trips to the market were impractical or impossible, and families relied on their winter larders to get them through the cold months.
Typically, the pantry was located in the kitchen itself or right off the kitchen. My idea of a modern-day larder is a bit more metaphorical. Rather than a specific area or room, I refer to my larder as my collective supply of food stored in the pantry, the fridge, and the freezer.
Since I prefer to keep my countertops uncluttered, I use a wooden cupboard adjacent to the kitchen to store the bulk of my non-perishables. It has five shelves that I’ve loosely divided into storage for rice, cereal, pasta, canned goods, and baking supplies.
As you can see, it’s pretty full, which means it has to be well organized if I’m going to be able to put my hands on what I want without fumbling around searching. It also means I’m less likely to buy things I already have. All the items are in view, with labels facing outward. I don’t put dates on things because I will use them up within a year or so, and most non-perishables are good for at least that long.
I store other non-perishables that are either duplicates or items I don’t use that often in a cabinet in a spare bedroom right off the kitchen. I don’t heat that room in the winter so it provides the perfect dark, cool environment for food storage.
Stocking large quantities of items allows me to save money, have food in an emergency, such as a power outage, and allows me to dedicate my limited fridge and freezer space to perishables like meats and vegetables. Things that don’t keep long, like potatoes, avocados, winter squash, and bananas, I set on my kitchen window sill or countertop. I like to keep them in sight for two reasons: First, I’m less likely to forget to use them when I can see them; second, it helps me spot any item that’s starting to go bad. Anyone who’s found a bag of potatoes that went bad in the bottom of the fridge knows it’s not a fun experience.
Stocking the Freezer
What and how much you can freeze depends on the size of your freezer. If only limited space is available, focus on freezing foods that are high on your priority list based on what you or your family like to eat. Focus on foods you can purchase in bulk to save money and time. If you have a family to feed and a large upright freezer, to keep yourself sane, I suggest maintaining an inventory of what you have on hand. Sample pre-printed food inventory sheets are available online or you can create your own.
My fridge freezer is small. I stock a few different cuts of meat to make planning and cooking easier. Typical meats I keep on hand include beef chuck roast, ground beef, ground sausage, bacon, smoked pork chops, hot dogs, and chicken. I also buy frozen fillets of wild-caught haddock, salmon, and cod. I fill the leftover space with freezer rolls, muffins, bagels, cheese, vegetables, and desserts. I divide up desserts into individual portions so I’m not tempted to overindulge.
I label frozen foods. Most foods are wrapped in freezer paper or put in plastic freezer bags, making labeling essential to know what’s inside. I include dates to help me track how long an item has been in the freezer. If I use foods within six months, they taste almost as good as fresh. I try to organize by type of food (just as with the pantry) so I can find what I want faster and gauge what I have or don’t have.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the thought of buying a lot of extra food and the impact it will have on your budget, but keep in mind it doesn’t have to be a major project—you can start small and build up your winter larder over time. If you purchase one extra of what you’d buy anyway for the week, in a month you’ll have several weeks’ worth on hand.
Some Do’s and Don’ts of Stocking Up for Winter
- Don’t buy more than you have room to store.
- If you’re storing a lot of food long-term, label and date everything in your pantry and adhere to the FIFO (first-in, first-out) rule.
- Don’t buy foods that your family doesn’t normally eat—the tendency will be to pick other things first, which is a recipe for waste.
- Making a large batch of chili, spaghetti sauce, or the like, and freezing it into individual meals or servings will provide quick and easy meals when you’re short on time.
- Use glass jars with sealed lids or food-grade plastic containers and bags for foods like flour, sugar, rice, pasta, and nuts.
- Arrange like items together. For instance, a lazy Susan makes it easy to keep oils, snacks, or baking essentials in one place so you can quickly find what you need.
- Dispose of the foam trays and plastic wrap that meats come in and rewrap in freezer paper to keep the meat moist and retain flavor.
- If you have doors on your pantry, hang a door rack organizer on the inside to free up shelf space. Canned goods, spices, oils, and jars are good fits for these types of organizers.