PUBLISHED: 5:08 PM on Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The pantry: Foundation for good meal

Jennifer Bushman would gasp if she saw my pantry. Bushman, who bills herself as "The Kitchen Coach," sees an orderly and well-stocked pantry as the foundation to good home cooking.

Mine is a hodgepodge of stuff - so many boxes and cans that I can't find a single thing that I am looking for.

Do I have corn in the pantry? I have no idea.

There are too many other things in front of the canned goods.

I have three different boxes of brown sugar open. And my gosh, there are seven boxes of almost-finished cereal taking up most of the space on the top shelf.

Bushman's definition of "the pantry" includes not only the food in the cupboard, but also the refrigerator and the freezer.

Having them stocked with whole foods, rather than prepared, ready-to-heat foods, will make your family healthier.

To start you off, Bushman offers a sample pantry shopping list in the back of her latest book, Family Meals (Wiley, $19.95).

At first glance it is a daunting list of dried herbs and spices, seasonings and flavorings, pasta and grains, fresh basics, freezer basics and some pre-made mixes.

But she told me there's no need to buy everything in her pantry shopping list.

"You use only what you want and what you would need," she said during a telephone interview.

She advises that people begin by cleaning out the pantry. Throw out those 5-year-old dried spices.

That mystery package in the freezer gets tossed. That bottle of salad dressing you tried a year ago and haven't touched since? Chuck it.

Then take inventory of what you have and make a list of what you need.

I live a short bike ride away from a grocery store, and I don't have kids, so I pretty much shop every day.

As Bushman and everybody else who has jobs and children have told me, I'm the exception to the rule. Few people have the time to shop every day. And while I may be the quirky guy who finds it enjoyable most times, the majority see grocery shopping as a chore to be avoided.

"People are running late from work or something comes up. They decide to go to the drive-thru or say, 'Let's go out to dinner.'?" She tells people to make one major shopping trip a month, going up and down every aisle and buying what you need for the pantry. Then, once a week, go in and only shop the perimeter of the store where the fresh stuff is - meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables. This habit alone will save you money and help you eat in a more healthful way.

"You want to eat whole foods, not processed foods. Please, don't make a recipe that starts with a can of soup," she said.

Processed foods, like the soup, contain preservatives and often are high in salt. Pre-shredded cheese is convenient but it also has preservatives, as does the bagged lettuce.

She added that the whole fruits and vegetables are often less expensive than the convenience foods.

Once in the habit of having a "stocked" pantry, cooks will also get in the habit of thinking about meals ahead of time. You'll want to use what is in the pantry. Besides using recipes from her books, the newly invigorated cook can explore other books to use ingredients that are already in the house.

OK, Coach. I'll get my pantry organized. And I'll start my pantry cleaning chore with a big bowl of Cheerios, Special K, Grape Nuts and Captain Crunch.