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How to stock your new apartment's pantry (redux)

Last September, I shared my ideas about where to start when you're stocking a new pantry, especially if space is limited, as in a dorm or apartment. It's hard to believe a year has passed, but the U-Hauls are everywhere, so it must be September again. I hope this post from the archives helps you get started on your new 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?

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I'm a sucker for smoked paprika and caraway seeds. And I think cinnamon is a must-have. And I'd be hard-pressed to get by for long without a little bottle of sesame oil, but I'm an Asian food fan.

Good post--and so useful this time of year. I'm moving into a much smaller kitchen and I'm curious to see how all my stuff will fit (or not). Thank goodness there's a charming little built in spice cupboard.

Hi Lydia, what a nice post. Very informative. I'm lucky enough to have enough storage space that I have a separate area just for spices - Penzeys of course. There is a Penzeys store just minutes from my house. I also have room for a variety of canned beans, canned tomatoes and Dreamfields pasta. Olive oil and a variety of vinegars, honey and agave, kosher salt, sea salt and pepper. Real vanilla from Penzeys and King Arthur flour AP as well as white whole wheat. Didn't realize how "stocked" I was until I read your post.

You don't have any herbs on your list and they are my go-to item most of the time. I would start with Oregano, Rosemary, and Thyme. Also, onion powder helps round out many flavors.

Great list, Lydia. I agree with everything you have on here. One ingredient I might add is rice, it is such a versatile grain in quick dishes like beans and rice.

funny you placed this post. We've been fighting our small apartment since we moved in April, ironically just before you posted the pantry from our house. We constantly run out of room and ended up buying a tall bookshelf for kitchen storage. So far works pretty well. I keep my spices in 4 shallow plastic storage bins.
So ready to build our house and have some space again :)

I love seeing this list! A friend of mine just helped her brother move to East Cambridge and reported back that, yes, everyone in Boston does move on Sept. 1, and that it was one crazy day.

Two things I'd add: baking soda and white vinegar. They're both useful in food, and they are also the base for a lot of good, cheap, toxin-free household cleaners. (There's such a cool chemical reaction when they're mixed!)

It looks everything is there. I'd add some
love, just in case.

Tea, it's so hard to think of what is fundamental, and of course the whole premise of The Perfect Pantry is that your pantry should be perfect for you, and not for anyone else. Cinnamon is great for both sweet and savory, and I wouldn't want to be without it, either.

Helen, it sounds like you have a terrific pantry!

Jane, you're right about herbs. When I use dried herbs, most often I reach for thyme, so that would probably squeeze into my pantry somewhere. I'm lucky to have a large herb garden and fresh herbs for five months of the year, and I do dry or freeze them for winter.

Nupur, rice would be an important addition to any pantry. I have at least four or five different rices at all times, but I'm lucky to have plenty of storage space.

Melody, I'm crossing my fingers that you get the pantry of your dreams!

Deena, interesting additions. I have both, of course, but they definitely wouldn't be on my short list. As I've said many times, everyone's pantry is perfect -- for them.

Angela, that's the best addition of all!

Lamp Lighter, so nice to have you here for your first blog comment. I'm honored. I don't use dried basil, but quinoa is a great addition, especially for those who can't or don't eat rice very often.

I think I would add potatoes to the list since they are so versatile. I'd also add oatmeal (old fashioned, not instant).

I'm w/ Tea; I would need a bottle of sesame oil and a tin of Hungarian hot paprika.

Having just moved to a tiny house in Los Angeles - WITHOUT my spices (what was I thinking?)

Yesterday I bough a few of my favorites - that were not on your list I see "thyme", "rosemary", and bay leaves.

but I splurged and got ONE tiny bag of smoked salt, and one of smoked paprika just because I've been sort of addicted to them ;-) I admit, absolutely superfluous...

I would add couscous to the list, it's something I always have in my pantry.

Powdered beef and chicken bouillon are a must.

Oregano, basil, thyme.

Excellent list. I wish I had available when I started cooking.

Do you have any suggestions for buying a cabinet or storage closet for a pantry? I don't have any space in my cupboards but I can't find anything that would be suitable. Anyone, anyone?

Carole, Sally, Tanya, Arania: All great additions!

Treehouse Chef, after you've been cooking for a while, it's hard to go back and think about what's absolutely essential for the way you cook. For me, the things I've listed here are fundamentals.

Jenna, pantry cabinets can turn up in the most interesting places: hardware stores, flea markets, etc. I've gone to unfinished furniture stores and bought bookcases and cupboards that I've decorated for my pantry. Places like The Container Store (online) or Target might have good options, too.

What a great post ! I have a lot of what is on your list and feel that the only things I could not be without or Worcestershire Sauce, Sriracha and Panko.

Baking powder, some canned salmon and canned tuna.Don;t forget that your freezer is also a pantry space, so some frozen fruit and vegetables can go a long way

Great list! For bakers, I would also add sugar (white and brown), baking powder (in addition to the baking soda mentioned above), semi-sweet chocolate chips, and butter. Also, peanut butter - for everyone except those who are allergic: good for sandwiches, of course, but also soups and stews.

Jemma, Debbie, Judy: Great additions! I think Sriracha would be on my must-have list, but as I'm not a baker, I could save a lot of room if I had to downsize to a minimal pantry.

Hot sauce - definitely some sort of hot sauce.

oh and yes "move in day" is just one of the MANY charming events that make living/working in Boston so "special"
(read: dripping sarcasm from this NH transplant!)

Lydia, thank you for this informative post! My daughter moved into her first apartment last May, and as we drove to Berkeley, I was able to bring a lot of stuff for her to get her started.
Making the list for the perfect beginner's pantry is not easy. She is used to having a lot of ingredients at hand, and I tried to get all the essentials in.
Now I can work on enlarging her pantry and the birthdays are covered:)
Greetings from California!

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