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How to stock your new apartment's pantry

Spice rack

In Boston, everyone moves on September 1.

With the streets littered with orange U-Haul vans and trucks in all sizes, parked willy-nilly to the curb, maneuvering around town requires the skill of an obstacle course test driver.

Miraculously, by the end of the day, or by the end of the day before or after September 1, everyone has settled where they are supposed to be. And then every new apartment dweller heads for the nearest supermarket, to stock up.

If your cupboards are bare -- whether your pantry is a closet, a shelf, or a tiny space on the counter -- and your budget is limited, where do you start?

Start with kosher salt, and use it for everything. Not liberally, but don't be afraid to season your food. Kosher salt is inexpensive, usually less than $2 for a three-pound box.

Then, add black pepper. You have to, for balance. Trust me. Buy whole peppercorns if you have a pepper mill; if not, buy good quality ground pepper (I like this coarse-ground pepper from Penzeys).

Olive oil. If you have room for only one bottle of oil, skip the extra-virgin, and look for one that's a bit less fruity in flavor; you can tell by the color, which will be less green, and the label will say "virgin" or "regular", not extra-virgin. Don't buy light or lite oil. A less fruity oil can pass for a neutral oil like canola, in dishes with Spanish or Asian flavorings.

Balsamic vinegar, the best you can afford. It will probably be a condimento, not a pure balsamic, and that's perfectly fine. Use it for salad dressings and sauces, or drizzled over a piece of fruit or cheese for a quick dessert.

A few pantry items can, on their own, change the entire character of a dish. Cumin (seeds are best, so you can grind as you go, but good-quality ground cumin is fine), soy sauce, Dijon mustard, Tabasco or red pepper flakes. Buy one of each.

Canned whole tomatoes can be sliced, diced, pureed, or baked, turned into tomato sauce or tomato paste.

Canned beans, black and white and red all over, can be mashed, or tossed in salads or soups.

Pasta. Keep a couple of sizes and shapes on hand to stretch any meal, or toss it with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, to stand on its own.

If you love to bake, be sure to get some all-purpose or white whole wheat flour, and pure vanilla extract. If your nearest market only carries imitation vanilla, skip it.

Honey or agave will satisfy your sweet tooth and help smooth out acidic sauces and salad dressings.

Don't forget the fundamental fresh foods: eggs, lemons, onions, garlic.

What would you add to this list if you had limited space, a limited budget, and you just moved into an empty apartment? What would you have to have?

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Hope you have a wonderful vacation in Brazil -- I'm sure you're going to have fun cooking and eating there. Can't wait to read about it.

Don't forget cinnamon! If Mr Chiots had to choose only one spice/herb for the rest of his life it would be cinnamon. I'd choose black pepper, of course peppercorns and a good grinder, you just can't beat salt/pepper in food.

If you can find a bulk food store in your area staples are much cheaper there (spices, flour, salt, sugar, etc).

That's a great start! Thank you for opening this topic. I have a few suggestions to add.

Bakers will probably still need regular sugar (and probably brown sugar), plus baking powder & soda. A jar of yeast if you bake bread. Unsalted butter in bulk when it's on sale (chuck it in the freezer.)

For cooking, I would add cornstarch for thickening sauces when flour. Besides cumin, I can't do without parsley, oregano, basil, dill, and thyme. Also garlic powder for when I don't feel like cutting up fresh. I also keep a couple of bottles of inexpensive wine around for cooking. (Nothing I wouldn't drink, but no need to break the bank. One red + one white minimum. If the budget allows, add in a bottle of dry vermouth. Half a cup in a batch of soup, stew, spaghetti sauce works wonders.) I highly recommend buying infrequently used spices from bulk bins if they are available in your area. You can control your costs by only buying what you need. Why buy a $5 bottle when you only need $.75 worth?

For cheap staple foods, you left out rice! Under beans, I would specifically mention lentils and garbanzo beans in addition to the black/red/white beans. Lentils don't need to be soaked, and it's incredibly simple to turn into hummus. Note that dried beans cost about 1/4 what canned beans cost.

Have a great time, and come back ready to share!

Oh, I am so jealous about your trip to Brazil. I'll be excited to hear stories and see pictures, I'm sure you'll have an amazing time.

I second adding rice to the list of pantry items. If it must only be one variety, I'd choose jasmine. (of course, I have like 6-7 varieties of rice in my pantry!)

Also, as someone else mentioned, buy spices in bulk. Indian and Asian groceries are also great for larger quantities of certain spices - they're super-fresh and much cheaper. If the bags they sell are too big, you could always find a friend and split them!

Have a wonderful time!
My daughter is going into 2nd year university in the city and tired of commuting. She is (hopefully) moving into a student apartment for the beginning of October. We are planning on giving her a box of starter essentials, this list is very helpful!

I remember that, in Montreal, everyone moves on May 1. I wonder, why?? Nevertheless, pantry essentials would be the same.

Hmm, timing! - I've been getting *rid* of things, going through every shelf and drawer in the kitchen to give up on lots of ingredients I'll never use (mostly things with hot peppers - can't digest them any more - a friend is taking all of them). Kind of nice to see all the things at the back of the pantry, though...

Enjoy Brasil, it should be fabulous.

Sounds like a wonderful vacation! I can't wait to hear about the stories!!!

Really all the credit for the printer-friendly pages goes to Karina, who worked it out for me so I could encourage you to do it. That woman is brilliant, no doubt about it.

I hope you have a wonderful vacation and get so busy having fun you forget entirely about the blog!

don't forget the rice! brown or white - it is good "stretcher" for dishes. which is good for a student on a budget!


It's actually July 1 that everyone moves in Montreal, and it's nuts! Scrambling for movers, for space in front of apartments to load and unload.... if you're not moving it's a great time to look for free stuff set out on the curb.

Lydia, your list of essentials is great. If there is a spot left in the shelf, have one sack of dried fruit on hand. It helps if you are so hungry your "hair is on fire" as my sister-in-law Kate says! Keeps you away from the bad-for-you stuff. And it adds a necessary component to Moroccan fish dishes as well as a twist to salads and stews.

Have a great time in Brazil!

Trader Joe's sells salt and pepper in jars with built-in grinders. I keep those jars and refill them with salt and peppercorns from the local bulk food store/ food co-op.

Was wondering about the roasted chicken recipe linked from Olive Oil--that recipe doesn't call for oil at all.

Agreed with the person who mentioned chickpeas & lentils--those are two staples in my pantry.

I also like to keep these around ASAP when moving: steel-cut oats, a box of non-dairy (soy/ almond/ oat/ hemp) milk, peanut butter, dried & frozen fruit, a pitcher of filtered water, and nuts (pecans/ cashews/ almonds).

This is a great list - thank you so much. And for those of you who know students moving into their own apartments for the first time, consider giving them a "pounding". It's a good luck party where everyone brings a pound of something (rice, beans, butter, etc.) for their cupboard. I've done this for newlyweds too.


I am a new reader, but absolutely love your blog. I have learned a lot about different pantry items and have added some items that are in your pantry in mine. You also one of the bloggers that inspired me to start my own.

For me pantry items that need to be in my pantry are tea and milk. My boyfriend is an englishman and would be really unhappy in the netherlands. Also a little cheese goes a long way here.

Thanks for reminding me about September 1st, the craziest day of the year in Boston! I'm sure it will be hectic this week-end too!
Have a great vacation!

I would add peanut butter and tuna fish - not elegant, but vital for students and people who don't always want to cook. Also hoisin sauce - great for stir fry (a low-cost, easy meal), since it adds flavor and acts as a thickener. A bottle of marinara sauce comes in handy when you want to make pasta fast.

Have a fabulous time in Brazil, Lydia!

Thanks, everyone, for great additions to the "new apartment" pantry. Of course, coffee and tea are a must. Rice. Peanut butter (I use it for sauces). Hoisin. Lentils. Yeast.

I'm puzzled at the choice of balsamic and no other type of vinegar. A less highly-flavored choice might be more versatile. Say, white-wine v.

I find myself using red wine vinegar an awful lot, and I do reach for my thyme plant quite a bit, so investing $3 there wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. Have an amazing trip!

Have a GREAT time in Brazil!! Can't wait to hear stories.

Oh have fun! I'm in the midst of planning my own Brazilian getaway. I would love recommendations when you return!

Have a wonderful trip!!

Here in Montreal everyone moves on July 1st. Funny how that is different.

PS. Making your slow roasted tomatoes tonight. They already smell good!

Have fun on your trip!

Mae, balsamic is a personal preference; I love that it can work with desserts as well as savory dishes.

Laura, two great suggestions. Thanks.

Everyone: will give you a food's-eye view of Brazil in a few weeks.

Have fun in Brazil! One thing I was left wondering is, why September 1st? Is it because of the colleges? Or a weather thing? I'm curious now!

Lydia, this post brought me right back to my brother's college and grad school days in Boston. I vividly remember, my mom and dad courageously tackling those tiny, pot-hole ridden streets looking desperately for a parking space (which was never to be found). I hope you and Ted have a fabulous trip in Brazil! I'll be looking forward to hearing about it at BlogHer!

Why does everyone move on Sept 1st in Boston?

Also hoisin sauce great for stir fry a low-cost easy meal since it adds flavor and acts as a thickener.

Boston is college central, and most of them start classes in early September. What about pasta?

so many mention rice. I would take this opportunity to mention Pearl barley as a good alternative to rice, it is not wholegrain but has a high fibercount - more expensive than rice, but keeps you full longer and you need to eat less.
As a student myself trying to live healthier and still cheap i find wholegrain pasta to be a good use of money, again a bit more expensive, but you need less to get you full
Last essential for any student: rolled oats for breakfast, comfortfood, cakes, bread, meatballs/loaf Super cheap, healthy and good :)

Re. pasta: stock one "long" (spaghetti, fettuccine, etc) and one noodle (elbow macaroni, rigatoni, penne, etc.) for a well balanced pantry. Consider adding one "asian" noodle.

To your list I would add some combination of stock, broth, soup base or bullion cubes (good! quality, low sodium) or miso.

I maintain a list like this for my "camping" supplies. Camping here is a highly inclusive term, referring to any time I am preparing, serving, a/o consuming food "rough": picnics, tailgating, road trips (on the roadside or in a motel), etc.. I keep a Rubbermaid tub "stocked" the way most people stock their kitchen. No room for non-essential or specialty items. This is probably very close to the approach many students take to food prep. In these instances, simple spice mixes are appropriate: italian, "curry" or garam masal, chinese five psice, Montreal Seasoning (or other steak seasoning), Sazon (Spanish seasoned salt -- if you have never tried this, do yourself the favor). Add: onion powder, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, s&p.

Add: Roasted red peppers in a jar. So very many uses. In a salad or stew or over crostini. Pureed in a dip or lasagna (in lieu of totmato sauce, grilled eggplant in lieu of pasta or purred and mixed with the ricotta).

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