How to have a working pantry

If there is something that our grandparents before us knew, it was how to keep their pantries full on a small budget to feed their families. 

It’s a skill I believe is dying today. It’s just too “convenient” to run to the store when you want or need something. 

Today I’m going show you how you can have your own working pantry so that you can feed your family wholesome meals. 

So how do you get started? What is a working pantry? What’s the best to stock up on? How do you budget for getting started? 

Emergency food vs a working pantry 

Emergency food is basically food you have stored in case of an emergency. It isn’t food you grab to use. It’s there in case you need it. This food typically has a longer shelf life than the rest of the food in your home.

A working pantry is full of food that you and your family use daily. You’ll work it into your rotation, using what’s in your pantry so that the food you have won’t go bad. I also refer to this as my extended pantry. Some people think of it as their 3-month supply of food. Whatever it is for you, however much food you have in it, all depends on your and the needs of your family.

Your rotation system works like this: 

When you need something in your pantry, you’ll go “shopping” from your working pantry (a.k.a. extended pantry). Then when you go to the store next, you’ll purchase what you used and place it in your extended pantry. Newer items will go in the back while the older ones get pushed to the front. This makes it so nothing spoils.

A working pantry will only work if you stock the food that your family uses. If your family eats black beans multiple times a month, plan accordingly. If your family never eats black beans, don’t have them in your pantry. 

How to stock a working pantry for the first time 

Depending on your budget, one way to get started is to buy extra of what you’re already buying each week. 

For example, if your weekly grocery trip includes 2 cans of corn, buy 4. 2 for now and 2 for later. 

You can continue to do this until you have your working pantry where you want it to be. 

Another way to do this is to go through your pantry, fridge and freezer and write down the foods you have and what you use. 

Remember to include cleaning supplies, spices, medicines, drinks, paper products and hygiene products. 

As you do this, try to get food that can be shelf stable. If you cook with a lot of chicken, instead of having a freezer full of frozen chicken, try buying some canned chicken instead. Having some in the freezer is nice, but what happens if there’s a power outage? Keep some food in your freezer but try to keep some of your food shelf stable as well. 

Write down how much of each your family uses in a week. Then you’ll multiply that number by the number of weeks in a month. That will give you how much you’ll need for your family for a month’s supply. It’s up to you how many months you want to store. Keep expiration dates in mind when storing food.  

How to budget for a working pantry 

  • Take a portion of your grocery budget and put it towards your working pantry 
  • Watch sales and ads at local grocery stores. Buy accordingly.
  • Sometimes buying in bulk at big box stores like Sam’s Club or Costco is cheaper. 
  • Shop at discount stores
  • Use coupons 
  • Sell things around your house to help stock your pantry 
  • Garden and grow your own food 
  • Work with a farmer or neighbor and do trade work for food
  • Find a part-time job to help with the expense of getting your working pantry going

If you have the means, then you can get a good head start on your working pantry and buy things up front. However, if you’re like most of us, you will need to budget for it. Depending on your financial situation, how much you want and what you already have will play a part in your budget for this.

Take a few deep breaths and start small. It doesn’t need to be a stress in your life, in fact having a working pantry is supposed to help with your stress. Work at is slowly and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I love talking about things like this and while I’m no expert, it’s something that I’ve worked on for years. I’m happy to help how I can.

Also, I’d love to be friends! You can find me on Instagram and TikTok. Give me a follow and say Hi!

If you’re still looking for more inspiration, I have some food ideas for a 3-month food supply.

Shelf Stable Meals in Bags
Why I make my own bread and why you should too.

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