Want to eat great and spend less? Cook at home. Start by rejuvenating your pantry.

In December and January, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

Photo illustration / Emely / Cultura / Newscom / File
You can have a delicious, candle-lit dinner for two without dropping $100 – just cook it at home. To make home-cooking a more attractive option, stock your pantry with delicious ingredients. You can even pre-cook meals on the weekends and freeze them for an easy weeknight feast.

Clean out your pantry and restock it.

One of the biggest money savers I’ve ever found is simply cooking at home. There was a time in my early adult life where I ate out for almost every meal. I’d eat out for breakfast, picking up a bagel and some coffee. I’d eat out for lunch with coworkers. I’d eat out for dinner with my wife or, sometimes, with friends. I rarely ate at home.

Over time, though, I slowly started moving towards making my own meals. At first, it wasn’t because of a financial benefit – it was simply due to a growing interest in food preparation, brought on by reading food magazines and the like.

It took some time to get skilled enough that I felt ready to prepare meals off the cuff in my kitchen. Early on, I burned everything and didn’t understand the need for slower cooking, but as I improved, I found myself making all kinds of things, from coq au vin to from-scratch lasagna (including the noodles).

What I discovered along the way is that the more conducive your cupboard contents are to cooking things from scratch at home, the easier it becomes and the more likely you are to do it. If all you have in the cupboard is random prepackaged foods that, frankly, don’t taste all that good or only some of the stuff you need to make things at home, then you’ll find that it’s much harder to convince yourself to just go home and throw something together for dinner.

So, how do you get from typical cupboards to this?

The first step is to clean out your cupboards and take stock of what you have. Pull everything out. Cover your floors and tables with boxes and bags and containers. Group them in whatever ways make sense to you.

As you go, throw out the outdated stuff. Trust me, you have stuff that’s old in your cupboards. Spices that have sat in there for more than a year. Canned and boxed foods past their expiration date. Flour that seems to have some sort of infestation. Get rid of all of it now.

Once you have all of this stuff out there, commit to eating some of the boxed foods and give away the rest. Yep, take it down to the food pantry and give it away if you have an abundance of it. Pass it on to someone who can actually use it before the expiration date.

For most people, this will eliminate a lot of the contents of their cupboards – a shocking amount, even. What you’re left with, though, are usable staples and just a small handful of prepackaged foods.

Now you can stock your pantry and cupboards with real ingredients, the types of things that make it possible for you to toss together meals of a wide variety quite easily. Here’s a great suggested pantry list from The Reluctant Gourmet:

* Anchovies: a must for many pasta sauces, flat filets in a can or anchovy paste.
* Artichokes: canned hearts packed in water.
* Beans: an assortment of canned (easier) or dry (more work but tastier). Bread crumbs
* Capers: great in salads and pasta dishes.
* Chutney: great for crackers and sauces.
* Clam juice: a good substitute for fish stock.
* Corn meal: great for dredging foods and a must for polenta.
* Coconut: either shredded in a can or coconut milk or better yet, both.Cornstarch: for thickening sauces
* Crackers: assorted types.
* Dried fruits: apples, apricots, currants, figs, and raisins.
* Dried herbs: basil, bay leaves, chili powder, cinnamon, dill, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, crushed red pepper, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme.
* Extracts: vanilla is the most important, but try orange and almond.
* Flour: unbleached all-purpose
* Jams, Jellies, Preserves, and Honey
* Ketchup: always have an extra bottle on hand.
* Mushrooms: an assortment of dried including shiitake, morels, and porcini.
* Mustard: Dried and Dijon in a jar
* Oils: Olive, pure for everyday cooking and virgin for drizzling, canola, and sesame.
* Olives: canned, pitted and non-pitted, nicoise and calamata and olive paste
* Pasta: an assortment of shapes and sizes; dried
* Peanut butter: I like the chunky style.
* Peas: canned petite style. Fresh is better, but these are good to have on hand
* Pepper: whole peppercorns, ground black and white pepper.
* Pesto, Tapenade, Salsa
* Rice: Arborio (for risotto), brown, white, wild (not really a rice but a long grain marsh grass).
* Salt: regular and sea salt.
* Salad Dressings: my favorite is Good Seasons
* Sauces: Soy or Tamari, Tabasco, Teriyaki, and Worcestershire
* Sugar: white and brown, granulated and confectioners
* Tomatoes: canned – whole plum, paste, and puree; sun-driedTuna: canned, packed in water.
* Vinegar: balsamic, white wine, red wine, rice wine.Wines: Marsala, Madeira, and Sherry

If you have all of this in your pantry, you’re in great shape for some wonderful cooking in your future. This list provides everything you need to make anything from simple spaghetti to very complex dishes.

Even better, you’ll quickly find that, if you have any initiative to cook at all, having an organized pantry entices you to prepare more food at home. Preparing more food at home means that your food bill each month goes down. That means you find yourself more in control of your financial life than ever.

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