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Is the 'manage my pantry' system the secret to better grocery shopping?

The method sounds almost too simple — but to my astonishment, it worked.
Photo illustration of pantry with items missing
Before you hit the grocery store, always check your pantry first — and only shop for the basics you need. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

The world is … the world right now, and as hard as I’ve tried to be disciplined and make menus for the week and shop accordingly, it’s just too much sometimes. I mean when we work to even get out of bed some days, how are we really supposed to know what we want to eat five days from now? Even when I manage to plot out a week’s worth of food, what happens when Tuesday comes and nobody has it in them to cook and it’s $10 night at our take-and-bake pizza place? Or I forgot to eat lunch till 3:00 p.m. and don’t want dinner? Ingredients for that night languish till I throw them out with an extra dose of guilt that nobody needs right now.

So it came as a relief I didn’t even know I needed when a food-loving friend mentioned his shopping habit — a system he calls manage your pantry. I call it the end of the tyranny of the meal plan.

It sounded both too good to be true, and like delirious freedom. I had to try it.

Karter Louis is a San Francisco-based restaurateur and avid home chef. And he doesn’t believe in picking recipes for a week and shopping around them. You end up with so much waste that way, he told me. Instead he works from a principle that’s so simple, it’s brilliant.

How the 'manage my pantry' method works

Before he goes shopping he scopes what’s in his fridge and pantry. Then he buys whatever looks good in season at the market, or is on the shelves at Trader Joe’s in his six key categories:

  1. Greens: These are your green veggies, so anything from Brussels to collards.
  2. Colors: He also gets a couple vegetables in any color other than green, from carrots to radishes, sweet potatoes to avocado.
  3. Grain: Karter experiments with fun new finds like Fonio, or grabs a standby like rice.
  4. Staples: Here’s why he checks his pantry and fridge first, because he just gets what he needs on the basics front. Think seasonings, sugar or flour, olive oil, and the like.
  5. Herbs: Something fresh!
  6. Protein: He doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so this could be eggs, fish, tofu, even beans.

That’s it. No wandering through the store with 74 things on a list. Certainly no vexing session ahead of time hopping from cookbook to meal app to website. Just grab whatever appeals in the moment, because here’s the thing, he said, “you’ll buy what speaks to you.”

Then? Come mealtime he checks to see what needs to be used first. If something is about to wilt, that stars in the next meal. But how does he know what to cook? I thought maybe being a restaurant owner he had some magic store of knowledge. But no, not necessarily. He peruses cookbooks, flips through magazines, and like the rest of us, Googles his ingredients.

It sounded both too good to be true, and like delirious freedom. I had to try it.

So for the last three weeks I’ve thrown out any attempt at planning ahead — except for a couple special Sunday suppers — and freewheeled it, shopping for our family of three at our local bodega as much as possible, and just for kicks, at a different grocery each week for whatever I can’t get there. I’ve bought things I wouldn’t normally, just to see what we can come up with — red cabbage here, bok choy there. And to my utter astonishment, it’s actually worked.

Grocery list and produce
McMahan's grocery haul after using manage my pantry method at her local market. Dana McMahan

In fact it’s become like a game. My husband, our teen niece and I take turns coming up with what we make each night with what we have, and the further we go into the week and the more random our remaining ingredients become, the more fun the challenge.

Cooked dish
Coconut rice with baby bok choy and a fried duck egg topped with scallion ginger sauceDana McMahan

It’s an outlet for creativity, which we can all use right now and oddly enough, it’s even made us more disciplined, our niece observed over our shrimp tacos (her creation) last night. We’ve also had a lot of interesting new dishes. Would I have planned to make coconut rice with baby bok choy and a fried duck egg topped with scallion ginger sauce if I didn’t need to use up four of those ingredients? It was delicious, and perfect for the frigid, cold day, not something I could have necessarily known four or five days earlier. And the extra rice, combined with leftovers from the lentil cauliflower dish we had the previous night, made a surprisingly tasty lunch the next day.

Will I go back to menu planning when the world gets easier? Honestly, I don’t know why I would. If this can work in the dead of winter, imagine what’s in store when we can shop the summer farmer’s market!

Now then, off to see what can be made with Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, farro, and avocado.