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Cooking at home? Starting out on a tight budget? I recommend the following basic pantry staples to keep in stock for a pinch!
Yes, Soapy, I’m looking at you. If you are new here – you can read part of Soapy’s briefing…
Soap is one of my best friends although we have very little in common. Soap is the daughter of a very affluent multi-millionaire family. Her childhood was what one would call pure opulence. Today, she is in her 30s with a drinking problem. She has terrible health and cannot hold down a job.
Soapy is on a tight budget and has just started taking steps to cooking at home instead of going out. Although chances of survival are slim, small increments of change are in the works and these newly learned life skills will compound into bigger ones. A slow cooker would be a good investment for someone like Soapy – beginner, easy, and full-proof.
As for me, I’m a meat and potatoes kind of girl.
Our family was poor so eating out always sounded like it would be followed up by a punchline. I grew up with 3 basic types of food on my dinner plate: carb, protein and green stuff.
When I started seriously cooking for myself post-college, I went to the local grocer and hit the meat section first. In order to narrowly plan out your budget and meals, meat should be the centerfold because of the higher cost and nutrition it provides.
Frugal Grocery Staples
Cost effective at less than $1 per pack. All kinds of pasta (regular, whole grain, egg, spinach flavored?!) should be in everyone’s pantry.
I learned in a history lecture that there are 3 billion Chinese people because we discovered this crop called “rice” that was easy to grow and economical to pull through famines better than anything else in the world. So that answers that! 😆
3. Potato / Sweet Potato
The natural shelf life of potato makes them one of the best pantry staples ever. They can be boiled, baked, fried, mashed or microwaved.
4. (Canned) Beans
We keep a lot of canned goods in our cabinets. They last practically forever and go for less than $1 per can on sale. Canned beans are great in a pinch for time with cowboy chili or Tex-Mex nights. Although dry beans are frugal grocery staples as well, I admit it, I can’t be bothered to soak dry beans for 24 hours and then cook them! Canned it is!
5. Olive Oil
Although the priciest item on the list, a good quality olive oil makes a difference to both taste and health. Buy olive oil stored in thick, dark-colored glass bottles. A manufacturer knows the quality of their oils, a true quality olive oil should be stored in dark glass. Look at the country of origins at the back of the olive oil bottle, try to steer away from “blends” or olives from areas out of Italy or Spain.
6. Kosher Salt
Bigger flavor molecules! Kosher salt is a healthier alternative to table salt without the additives that regular salt have.
7. Peppercorns + Grinder
Pre-ground pepper starts losing it’s flavor and aroma immediately after being exposed to air. Freshly ground pepper is better in flavor and aroma which is important for a staple ingredient in so many recipes.
8. Soy Sauce
The most magical salty elixir in all of the world.
9. Canned Tomato Paste
Tomato paste is super concentrated and inexpensive. During my SNAP challenge week, the first thing on my list was a small can of tomato paste. It can be made into pasta sauce or substitute anything that calls for tomatoes.
10. Ground Cumin / Tex-Mex Seasoning Mix
Popular in Mexican dishes, cumin pairs with well with chicken and ground meat for a quick and easy meal.
11. Chicken Bouillon Cubes
Any soup, stew, casserole recipes that call for a splash of stock can be easily substituted using bouillon cubes which are small and do not need to be refrigerated.
12. Curry Powder
Curry powder is a popular, all-purpose Indian staple. It can be used to make soups, stews or to enhance meat, and vegetables.
13. Cheese Powder
I love Kraft. But Kraft mac n’ cheese is essentially elbow macaroni and cheese powder in a blue box. Our household buys a tub of cheese powder and elbow macaroni separately which shaves a few dollars off to make mac n’ cheese.
14. BBQ Sauce
Although high fructose corn syrup is often the #2 ingredient, I put BBQ on anything and in everything, it’s almost embarrassing. A delicious BBQ sauce can rescue many protein laden dishes that call for tang and flavor.
15. Canned Tuna
It’s the poor man’s protein! Canned tuna is versatile and can be eaten straight from the can or made into tuna salad instantly.
16. Peanut Butter
Another poor man’s protein. Peanut butter is filling and quick. It is also economical.
Best bang for your buck is a carton of jumbo eggs. Eggs may expire but it will take up to 30 days in the fridge which makes them great protein staples.
18. Ground Meat
Ground meat of any animal tends to be the cheapest “cut” for that animal. Freshly ground meat is also the easiest to cook and can be frozen for later. Make chili, tacos, rice bowls, hamburger patties, meatballs etc.
19. Frozen Vegetables (spinach, broccoli florets, corn, medley)
I love the thought of fresh but not everyone can make consistent grocery runs. Frozen corn and broccoli make quick and healthy sides.
20. Whole Garlic
The shelf life of whole garlic bulbs lasts up to 6 months! Unpeeled cloves will last up to 10 days. Garlic is expensive and adds a lot of flavors, a lot of recipes calls for garlic. Garlic powder can be purchased as a lazy substitute.
Onion has a 1-2 month shelf life if left in a cool, dark and dry place. They also pack a lot of flavor to each dish. It is the queen bee in our kitchen, along with garlic cloves.
Mayonnaise, mustard, milk powder, brown sugar, oats (yuck), cereal, applesauce, ginger powder, butter, and jelly/jam. I skipped fruit as they’re not cheap nor pantry friendly. However, fruits are easy to prep and filling so it’s not a bad deal.
For small time cooks, instead of buying individual spices in bulk, Amazon and Costco sell sets of pre-filled spices for around $30 to get you started. We have 2 spice carousels, one was a gift and the other one we bought second hand from a garage sale. And seriously, buy a Rosler cart (don’t waste your money on any other half rate cart) if you are living car-free like us. Rosler makes hauling back groceries less back-breaking.
Soapy will be reading this so feel free to leave comments on your own favorite pantry items for a frugal pantry stock! She shops at Costco (Canadian Costco) and has very novice cooking skills.
Quirks: she has a phobia of ovens. She has a phobia of bananas.