You finished another long day at work, and you’re ready to kick back with your beloved dog, Chester — who, as luck would have it, was also hard at work today using the leg of your dining table as a chew toy.
Now you’re hangry, and the last thing you want to do is stand over a hot stove and make dinner.
We’ve all been there. Saving money doesn’t mean becoming a superhuman who can ignore the stress of the day to create a three-course, budget-friendly meal.
Saving money on food comes down to working smarter, not harder. And that starts with keeping some basic pantry essentials on hand at all times, so you can whip up tasty meals with minimal effort (and thinking).
The Budget Cook’s Kitchen Pantry Essentials
If you’re trying to cut down on eating out and wanting to stock your cabinets on the cheap, grab these pantry essentials to build quick and easy low-cost meals.
Whole Grains and Breads
Quinoa and rice are standard bases for taco bowls, curries and fried rice. What you may not realize is that oatmeal is just as versatile. In addition to overnight oats and oatmeal cookies, you can create a savory breakfast bowl by adding some cheese and an egg.
Throw anything between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich, or add some cheese in a tortilla and call it a quesadilla. These vessels are a tasty way to mix up the delivery of leftovers to your mouth.
Reducing food waste for the win!
You don’t necessarily need these specific noodles, but a long noodle and a short noodle will do all the things you need noodles to do.
Say that 10 times fast.
Your short noodle can make mac and cheese or a great pasta primavera with leftover veggies. Long noodles are made for a good sauce like Alfredo, pesto or marinara.
Beans and Legumes
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
Beans and legumes cost a fraction of the price of meat, making them an affordable way to add protein to soups, chilis and tacos. Roasted chickpeas make a healthy salad topper, while lentils are great for a fantastic curry.
You can buy these canned, but buying them dry is even cheaper. Bonus: You can store them in decorative jars, and friends will think you know what you’re doing in the kitchen.
- All-purpose flour
- White sugar
All-purpose or whole-wheat flour is essential for more than just cakes and breads. You can use it to make your own pancake mix, biscuits or even fresh egg pasta. Flour is also used as a thickener in homemade sauces.
A little sugar can make a yummy sweet-and-savory sauce or quick fruit crisp in the microwave.
Sugar shouldn’t be a staple in your diet, but it’s necessary in your kitchen. You’re likely to consume less sugar when you make your sweets at home instead of buying them at the store or bakery.
Nuts and Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Basic nuts and seeds have a dual purpose: They’re a great snack on their own, and they give a nice crunchy texture to salads, oatmeal and baked goods.
They’re also ultra healthy. Pumpkin seeds are chock-full of nutrients — just 1 ounce has 7 grams of protein. Nuts also contain a hefty dose of healthy fats and nutrients, so skip the chips and keep these tiny gems on hand.
Oil and Vinegar
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- White vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
You can make some awesome marinades and salad dressings with this classic combo. Apple cider vinegar makes a tasty vinaigrette; add sesame oil to peanut butter and soy sauce to create your own peanut sauce.
If you want to expand your oil and vinegar inventory, balsamic and rice vinegars add a lot of options to your pantry arsenal.
Condiments and Sauces
- Dijon mustard
- Soy sauce
- Hot sauce
- Peanut butter
Much like oil and vinegar, condiments and sauces give new life to bland meats and veggies. Mix Dijon with a little oil and vinegar for a salad dressing. I’ve found a little hot sauce corrects all recipe mistakes.
Peanut butter toast makes a great snack — and we’ve found that, surprisingly, there are a lot of household uses for it, too.
If you’ve already got a lot of condiments to work with, don’t let them die in your fridge. There are several ways to put them to good use.
Herbs and Aromatics
- Italian seasoning
- Crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper are a given. But buying pre-minced garlic saves time — and allows you to add fresh garlic to anything. Cumin is a staple in Mexican dishes.
Italian seasoning is a frugal life hack. It includes all the seasonings you want in the ratio you want them, without having to buy seven different bottles.
And crushed red pepper is an easy one to have on hand, because you can always refill your container with the packets that come with your pizza.
- Pasta sauce
- Coconut milk
- Stock or bouillon
Coconut milk, stock and tomatoes are necessary bases for many soups, chilis and curries. You can also cook rice and quinoa in stock or coconut milk to add some flavor.
And it’s always nice to have a fancy pasta sauce on hand if you don’t have time to make your own — even though it’s real easy.
Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder and author of “Meal Planning on a Budget.” She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.
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