Stock Up on These Essential Pantry Staples for Cheap, Healthful Meals

A smart grocery trip today can keep the pizza deliveryman away. A well-stocked refrigerator and pantry are essential for cooking quick, cheap meals (see our earlier blog post for ideas). However, it's important to strike a balance between having choices and having to throw out expired food. Here's a shopping list of long-storing, cheap foods to buy (especially if they're on sale).

Rice, pasta, and grains.

Rice or pasta makes an excellent basis for a go-to dish when you're in a hurry. These grains can serve as a main course or a side dish and provide an inexpensive way to stretch a meal. Pasta and rice cost just pennies per dish and can last for years if stored in cool, dry conditions. With a cheap rice cooker, you can prepare entire batches in advance and freeze them for even quicker meals. Get creative: Pasta need not be a tomato-sauce-only affair. Toss it with leftovers and olive oil or garlic and Parmesan cheese for a fast yet elegant dinner.

Canned tomatoes.

This is a cheap food to buy as a base for soups, stews, sauces, and salsa. Canned tomatoes can last up to a year and a half -- but probably won't, given all their different uses. Make a long-simmering pasta sauce from scratch, or spread tomatoes on focaccia and bake for a rustic pizza. Chili uses cheap ingredients to make ground beef or turkey go farther. Make a hearty soup or stew by combining canned tomatoes and broth with whatever leftover meats and veggies you have in the refrigerator.


What they lack in longevity compared with non-perishables, potatoes make up for in ease and versatility. They are a cheap food to buy as an ingredient, side dish, or main course. Chop some up to throw into casseroles and soups, or bake and heap with toppings for a full meal. Potatoes can last for weeks if kept cool and moist.

Frozen vegetables.

Avoid throwing out spoiled vegetables and making runs to the supermarket for missing ingredients by filling your freezer with a selection of frozen vegetables. They keep their texture and flavor relatively well when frozen, rather than canned, so stock up during sales. Sautee a variety of vegetables for a quick side dish, or add to any meal to up its nutritional value. Having vegetables on hand may encourage you to eat more of them.

Garlic and onion.

These are must-have components of many recipes, and both last for weeks when kept in a dry location. Chop or dice them to add flavor to any stir-fry, sauce, soup, pasta, or salad. Garlic and olive oil are the main flavors of spaghetti aglio et olio, and caramelized onions make a delicious addition to meats and burgers.

Herbs and spices.

Bring more flavor to your cooking with a selection of herbs and spices. It's not always practical to have fresh herbs on hand, so buy a variety of different dried herbs and seasonings. Some essentials are basil, oregano, chili flakes, cumin, and thyme. Using different combinations with the same ingredients can turn a dish Italian one day and Asian-influenced the next. Try adding curry powder to tuna salad or sprucing up soup with a bouquet garni (a mixture of herbs).

Parmesan cheese.

Whole, ungrated Parmesan cheese can last a long time if wrapped tightly. It may not be the cheapest food to buy, but with its strong flavor, a little goes a long way. Grate Parmesan onto a salad or pasta dish such as spaghetti carbonara. Leftover parmesan rinds can be thrown into soup to boost flavor and then discarded.

Stock and broth.

These essential ingredients have myriad uses. Cook rice in chicken broth for added flavor or use it to make risotto. Liven up mashed potatoes or sauteed vegetables with broth and simmer a rustic stew with a good-quality stock. Stock and broth can also be used in sauces, so chicken pot pie, gravy, and shepherd's pie are just a few steps away. Cheap tip: To make the most of a roast chicken, save the carcass, bones, and giblets to make homemade stock.

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