“There’s nothing to eat in this entire house!” Raise your hand if you’ve ever uttered these emphatic (and probably untrue) words. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re hungry. In fact, I get more questions about remaining on budget in the category of food (grocery shopping, dining out, and meal planning) than any other area. It seems like feeding our faces and saving money run counterproductive to one another. But I have good news and hope for you, friends.
You don’t have to live like that.
You can prepare meals at home, saving time and money, while even preparing healthier foods. You don’t have to feel overwhelmed at dinnertime. You don’t have to resort to quick fixes or frozen foods, even. And you can definitely avoid the drive-through trap. Your pantry is your first and mightiest weapon of defense when it comes to defeating your panicked hangry state of being and helping you stay on budget. But what should you purchase and how can you keep it stocked? I’m so glad you asked.
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I strongly believe every family should have a “Pantry Top Ten.” While you don’t have to make David Letterman styled witty cracks about each item on your list, you do need to identify the foods you eat most frequently and staples that assist in making quick and easy meals. Depending on their tastes and budget, every family’s top ten will look a little bit different. But the mere practice of defining ingredients you can maximize in your kitchen for multiple meals will help you recognize to save money, time, and your sanity when it comes to feeding your family.
With that being said, I’d love to share our family’s Top Ten. Perhaps some of these items will land on your list, too.
In the Pantry
Does it get any more classic than a PBJ? Peanut butter (or another nut butter if your household has an allergy) can be a quick and filling food when you need to get your hunger under control. Even if it just fills the gap as a snack before you prepare a meal, it will satiate quickly. Use it in sandwich form or mix into oatmeal for a breakfast that packs a punch.
Rice is a suitable side and can even function on its own as a main dish. Used in a number of world cuisines, whether you fry it, serve it with a curry, or build a burrito bowl with rice as a base, you’ll be a kitchen hero if you keep plenty on hand. You can even purchase rice in a 25 lb. bag to save per ounce and rarely run out. Depending on your family’s flavor and nutritional choices, you can choose from a wide palate of rice varieties. Our family loves Jasmine rice because of its sweet flavor and ability to cook quickly.
Of course you can’t mention rice without following it with its fellow frugal food friend, beans. Canned or dried, beans are one of the most economical foods certain to fill you up and provide a protein wallop. I try to keep both dried and canned black beans on hand. When I have time, I soak the beans overnight in my crockpot; rinse, drain, refill with water and then cook all day long on low. Then I freeze them in individual bags. However, there are some nights when I use a can in chili or as a side dish.
Gluten free, whole wheat or plain ‘ole pasta, you can choose your favorite shape or even flavor. No matter your preference, you need to keep a box or two of pasta on hand. Its versatility allows you to use it in salads, in soups, as a main dish, or on the side of your main course. Quick and filling, pasta allows you to fill your family at a low price.
It’s always a good idea to have a loaf or two of bread on hand. Whether you’re building your favorite sandwich or whipping up some French toast, bread is affordable. When you find a good deal on your favorite brand, purchase a couple of extra loaves and keep them in your freezer until you’re ready to use them.
It’s not exactly a fancy side dish but especially if you have kids, this fruit source fits the bill. Both incredibly economic and with a long shelf life, applesauce helps keep your costs down and bellies full.
It’s rare that there’s not an extra jar of salsa on our on our shelves. It’s just one of those foods that you don’t realize you need until it’s all gone. Add it to a mashed avocado for a delish dip for chips and veggies. Top that those beans and rice with it. Use it on soups or on top of baked potatoes. Salsa has a low price tag and high flavor.
In the Fridge/Freezer
I realize cheese isn’t shelf stable and so technically it’s stored in your fridge or freezer, not the pantry, but everything is better with cheese. Top eggs or sandwiches or pasta. Melt on chips or serve on a salad. Make homemade pizza or a yummy casserole. Cheese flexes its meal (and snack) muscles in a number of directions and almost everyone loves it.
Whether whipping up some famous chocolate chip cookies or making a quick sandwich, eggs are a staple we always keep on hand. Fried rice, French toast, or a simple egg noodle can all be made with few other ingredients and eggs. Once again, you’ll need to store them in the refrigerator, not the pantry. If someone in your family has an allergy to egg, look for an egg replacer that might fill the same role.
Peppers, Onions, & Mushrooms
I grouped these three veggies together for a reason. For our family, these three veggies can work in a number of foods. We use them as pizza toppings and in fajitas. We top salads and sometimes sandwiches with them. They’re easy to whip up in an omelet or add to pasta. When you get home from the grocery store, go ahead and chop them and store in separate airtight containers. Already prepared and at your finger tips, you’ll easily prepare meals without having to spend extra time chopping or thinking about what to fix.
I’d love to know what’s on your top ten list! What items would meet your family’s unique needs and tastes? What sorts of dishes do you regularly prepare that would benefit from a supporting cast of ingredient characters like these staples? Why not crack out a pencil and paper and begin drafting your Pantry Top Ten today!