I started typing a response to a friend on facebook and decided it was going to be too long and complicated for that format. (Having re-read this before posting, please do not panic when you start reading this. It should take you several months to a year to build a useable pantry and freezer, not one shopping trip....although if you have several hundred dollars laying around with nothing to do, you certainly COULD go on a bender at Wegmans, but please invite me because I think it'd be fun!)
The question was, basically, "say someone has never really developed pantry staples, how would they go about doing that"?
Here's my answer, although I'm sure there's a few ways to do it.
Step 1- Decide if you're going to shop with or without coupons. Coupons can save you an insane amount of money, but they do require time and organization. Then, decide what your stock-up price is on various items. It's important to have standards. Each week when you shop, make part of your grocery budget be for "stocking up" on an item that is on a good sale. Keep in mind where you have storage available. I have a regular fridge/freezer in my kitchen, LIMITED cabinet space, and a full size freezer in my laundry room. That means I prefer to have freezer-friendly items! You might rather have shelf-stable. Some examples of stock up prices (without coupons, so it's fair for everyone):
Pasta Sauce, $1 a jar or less. Giant runs 10/$10 sales on a very regular basis. I usually get marinara (because I can use it in a pinch on pizza or pasta) and "doctor" it with veggies, herbs, and spices. It's a great go-to back up meal, too.
Butter, $1.75 or less per pound. When butter is on a good sale, I'll buy a few pounds and freeze it.
In-season Fruit, $1 or less per pound for in-season fruit. Packages of berries I am really happy to get at $2 each, but usually once a summer they'll do them for around $1, too. This is another that I'll freeze like crazy. We love fresh fruit, too, but if it's a good price, I'll buy extra to wash and freeze. (Apples get peeled and sliced in 2 cup increments to use in applesauce, crumbles, and pies. Berries get washed, dried, and frozen on a cookie sheet before being put into ziplock baggies so they aren't stuck together. They're awesome in smoothies, breads, pancakes, jellies, etc)
Frozen or Canned Veggies- I consider the Wegmans brand prices on these items to be stock-up every day. Their corn, peas and green beans are consistently under 50 cents canned and their frozen veggies tend to be around the $1 a bag mark.
Meats- here's one where you need to know what you like to eat. I think that buying whole chickens is genius and I love to do a roast chicken on Sunday that becomes enchiladas mid-week and soup or chicken and dumplings on the weekend. Whole chickens go on sale for under 50 cents a pound and freeze well :) Around $2 per pound for chicken breast is pretty good, and $3 or under per pound for most steak items (lean ground beef, stew meat, etc). The meat with the "Save $2 now!" on it is usually 2 days from its sell-by date, but if you're going to freeze it before the "use or freeze by date" it doesn't matter :)
Tuna- 50 cents or less per can
Pasta- 50 cents or less with a coupon, I've never bought it without one....but I'd guess $1 without.
Some items that I like to have in my pantry are always stock-up price, and I buy them in rotation with my "stock up money". I like to have beans, lentils, rice (rice is another one worth printing off a coupon for because you can get it for FREE) and there's always some baking item that's on a great sale, like flour, sugar, cake mixes, etc.
Step 2: Figure out what you like to eat and ignore anything I'm suggesting that you won't. I (in the words of a dear friend) "cook some seriously weird shit". In any given week we might have tofu tikka masala, homemade mac and cheese, vegetable pad thai, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken fatteh. If you do not like ethnic foods, spicy foods, vegetarian proteins, etc, then ignore me and buy what you'll eat.
As for a "What do I need in my pantry", here's where I've built to. Note that we are a family of 5 and love to feed other people.
Shredded Cheddar and Mozarella Cheese (I buy them in ENORMOUS bags and then repack them into usable amounts. Cheese freezes very well) We have 5 people in our family, I like there to be at least a pound of each.
Chicken of some kind (whole or breasts) I usually have 2-3 whole and 2-3 packs of white meat
Ground meat (beef or soy crumbles, we'll eat either) 2 pounds
Ham or ham steaks (mostly for soup, but if spiral ham goes on sale it makes great sammies!)
Hash brown potatoes
Bread (when bread goes on sale I buy several loaves since my family goes through about 1/week)
Frozen green beans, corn, mixed veggies, and stir-fry mix, 2 bags of each
Frozen chopped onion and bell pepper (this is where my veggies go to live when they're getting close to not being good but I don't need them)
Frozen apples (about 3 pounds), frozen berries (about 3 pounds)
Butter 2 pounds
Flour and Sugar usually around 20 pounds of each depending on if it's baking season :) and yes, I keep them in the freezer. We got flour beevils once and that crap is never going down in my house again. EVER. Period.
Stock. If you are ever cooking something with bones in it and you're not making stock you don't love yourself.
Casseroles or soups- I was better about this when we were a 2 person family, but I have only ever known how to cook for "family" size meals. When it was just us and a non-eating baby, I'd make chili and instantly put half in the freezer. Now I usually only do this for spaghetti sauce or stew or lasagne, but making double of something and tucking it away for a night you don't want to cook is smart.
Canned beans- chickpeas (for Indian and Lebanese), kidney beans (for chili) and black beans (for Mexican). 3 cans of each is my happy number. One to use, one to know I have and one as a backup for when I forget I used the other 2.
Dried beans/peas- navy bean, peas, various colors of lentils (red for Indian, brown for Italian) Usually a bag or two of each. They keep forever and they're cheap. My grandmother used to tell me if you bought a ham bone and a bag of beans, you could feed your family for a week for under $2. She's still right.
PASTA! Listen people, if you have Jesus and some pasta, you can be saved from most dinner emergencies. You can generally put anything on Pasta and people will eat it. Have pasta. I like to keep angel hair or spaghetti, rotini or spirals (casseroles, mac and cheese or pasta salad), and a soup shape like ditalini.
Cream Soups. Don't hate. They're totally horrible for you, and yes you could make your own, but I have limits. 3 cans each of cream of celery, cream of mushroom, and cream of chicken will get you through a lot.
CANNED TOMATO PRODUCTS- I don't think you can have enough of these. Sauce, spicy rotel brand, paste, diced, crushed, whatever is on sale, I'll buy and keep around. Tomatoes are a great base for so many things. Also, jars of pasta sauce, as previously mentioned.
Cereal. Lots. :)
Oatmeal, whether because you like to eat it or because it makes meatballs, cookies, and meatloaf.
Peanut Butter and Jelly. I have small children.
When ramen and tomato soup in a can go on sale, love yourself and buy some. I have some great ramen noodle recipes and sometimes, there's nothing like tomato soup from a can. Don't hate.
Vinegar (I buy the gallon containers of both white and apple cider but also like to have balsamic at a minimum)
Vegetable oil (frying) and olive oil (everything ever)
Rice (white medium grain will do you just fine, but for me I need jasmine and sushi rice, too.....and nori)
A box of nice crackers and a jar of olive tapenade. Trust me on this.
If you don't have stock in your freezer, have bullion cubes or broth in your pantry
Also, build yourself a spice collection. Start with garlic powder, salt, pepper, baking powder, baking soda, flour, white and brown sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, parsley, bay leaf and an Italian Seasoning Blend. Next get poultry seasoning, cumin, chili powder, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper. Ginger, dill, season salt, onion powder or flakes, allspice and nutmeg. Then you can move on to others- I like tumeric, fenugreek, sumac...this post is making me hungry.
Yogurt (both vanilla for eating and plain greek as a base for ethnic sauces and/or a sour cream substitute)
Mayo/Mustard/Ketchup/Worcestershire Sauce and Soy Sauce (side note- buy tamari, it'll change your life). If you cook "weird shit" like me, you'll probably also like to have hoisin sauce, chili paste, tahini, wasabi, etc.
And then whatever veggies you've bought for the week. We tend to keep bell peppers, cucumbers, baby carrots, and celery for the kids to nosh on, but broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and tomatoes are also popular.
Now- this is obviously what an "ideal" pantry looks like for me. For example, right now, I'm out of beef/soy crumbles, all beans except kidney and dried navy, and I'm running copiously low on both cheese and yogurt. However, with any combination of these items, you can make a million things. If you literally have nothing in your pantry, I'd start with this list:
-Onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, garlic
-Canned tomatoes, jars of pasta sauce
-The first spice set
-A good olive oil
-Apple cider vinegar
If you've already got most of these things, then when you shop for next week's dinner, add one stock up item to your list (for example, oh look! pasta sauce is on sale 10 for $10! I'm going to buy 5. Also, pasta is on the same sale! I'll get 6 boxes).
If this was your pantry, here's just a few things that you could make:
Chicken and Dumplings (only I use a leftover chicken from roasting one)
Spaghetti and Meat Sauce (using a jar of sauce you add to sauteed onions, garlic, and beef with extra seasoning)
Breakfast for dinner
Chili (Rotel tomatoes, spices, onions, beef, chili powder.....and a bud light)
Macaroni and Cheese using yellow mustard in a MUCH SMALLER AMOUNT
Navy bean soup (ham steak, onions, carrots, dried beans)
Split pea soup (ham steak, onions, carrots, bay leaf, dried peas)
Roast Chicken (whole chicken, salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, butter) with mixed veg and mashed potatoes
Tuna Noodle Casserole with peas (pasta, tuna, cream of mushroom, frozen peas, greek yogurt)
Stew (crockpot! beef, carrots, onions, potatoes, flour, peas, stock, salt, pepper, bay leaf, bonus points for red wine)
Cheddar Garlic Biscuits to go with anything listed above (you don't need bisquick- just flour, baking powder and salt)
Spicy Red Lentil Dahl with Naan
Chicken Pot Pie
Chicken Tenders with Garlic-butter noodles and green beans
Schechuan Noodle Salad
Hoisin Glazed Chicken with mixed veggies and fried rice
Chili stuffed potatoes
Grilled steak with baked potatoes and green beans (fine, you'd have to shop for the green beans but it's so worth it)
Vegetarian Burrito Bowls (rice, black beans, sauteed bell pepper and onion, drained canned corn, rotel tomatoes, cheese and greek yogurt)
Chicken Salad (I don't put raisins in mine because re-hydrated raisins make me want to die)
Plus, you could make 8,000 other things just by picking up one or two ingredients, which is the ultimate goal. The goal is to get to a point where you can say "Oh! I want to make THIS for dinner! I have everything except the sundried tomatoes!" and instead of buying 17 ingredients that aren't on sale, you use the stuff you bought at home when it was a good price, and just buy the sundried tomatoes that aren't on sale.
This looks way more intimidating than it is. Another way of doing it is to buy double of the ingredients of foods you know you like to make (ex: "I'm making lasagne this week. I know we love that, so I'll buy two boxes of noodles and two jars of sauce and two pounds of cheese") and then store one set of ingredients so over time you at least have the stuff you need to make what you know you like.