14 Musts for a Budget Pantry

Slash your grocery bill without driving yourself crazy, shopping sales or shuffling coupons with these versatile, easy-on-the-pocketbook staples, plus meal inspiration for when you get home!

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Eating on a Budget

Everyone has to eat. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune — we swear! This list of essentials, culled with the help of WiseBread.com bloggers Meg Favreau, Carrie Kirby and Ashley Marcin, will keep your grocery costs down so you can eat well no matter how tiny your budget is or how busy you are.

Brown Rice (or Other Whole Grains)

A 2-pound bag of brown rice (7 cents per ounce) offers a lot more nutritional bang for your buck compared with the white variety, which is typically only a few cents cheaper. Whole grains like bulgur (14 cents per ounce) and farro (25 cents per ounce) are a bit more expensive, but they still make for a relatively inexpensive side dish and offer even more fiber and nutrients. Plus, they freeze well. When the big bags go on sale, stock up and cook off large batches, then freeze 2-cup cooked portions in plastic bags. Defrost in the fridge and toss into salads, or take them out of the freezer and throw right in a hot pan for a quick stir-fry.

Canned Beans   

We've all heard it before: Beans are cheap! And they're good for you, with lots of protein and fiber, so they're a great money-saving alternative to meat. Canned (6 cents per ounce) are only a few cents more than dried, but they're way more convenient. There are many hearty bean-based dishes you can make, or you can add protein and heft to almost any recipe by stirring in a can of beans.

Dried Spices   

Dried spices can add a lot of flavor for very little money (about 6 cents per teaspoon for basics like cumin, cinnamon and chili powder), so keep your pantry stocked with at least five to 10 of your favorites. That said, it's not worth buying an entire bottle of a spice that you won't use regularly for one recipe, so don't be afraid to swap spices in recipes based on what you have — especially when it comes to expensive ones like saffron or vanilla.

Potatoes, Carrots, Cabbage and More

One of the keys to cooking on a budget is avoiding waste. Even if that bagged spinach is on a two-for-$5 special, that is still $5 wasted if it sits in your fridge for a few days and goes bad and you end up throwing it away. Hearty veggies like potatoes (6 cents per ounce), sweet potatoes (9 cents per ounce), carrots (13 cents per ounce for a bunch — baby carrots are much pricier) and cabbage (6 cents per ounce) are inexpensive and filling, and they can last for weeks (store potatoes in cool dry place, the others in the crisper). That means more flexibility and less chance that you're going to throw money away.

Frozen Fruits and Veggies   

Buying frozen is another great way to avoid waste. You can use just what you need, then toss the rest back in the freezer. Frozen spinach (10 cents per ounce) is a great staple that can be added to everything from smoothies to burritos to lasagna. Stock up on frozen broccoli (9 cents per ounce), green beans (8 cents per ounce), corn (8 cents per ounce) and peas (9 cents per ounce) when they're on sale, then use them in slow-cooker soups or stir-fries.

Oatmeal

Skip the expensive boxed cereal and granola (up to $1 per ounce!). Oatmeal (8 cents per ounce) is the perfect budget-friendly, filling breakfast on its own or in homemade granola. But its versatility doesn't stop there. Pulse it in the food processor until smooth for homemade oat flour, use it to bulk up veggie burgers or blend it into smoothies.

Peanut Butter

This is an easy protein that kids love — and they can serve themselves for a stress-free snack time. Layer with fruit (in-season fruit means on sale!) for an inexpensive, nutritious sandwich. Buying larger containers and sticking to store brands (13 cents per ounce for a 40-ounce jar) helps save.

Ground Beef and Chicken Thighs

Meat can be pricey, so going meat-free with at least half your meals can help maximize savings. When you do use meat, go for less-expensive cuts like ground beef in bulk packs (21 cents per ounce for a 3-pound pack compared to 44 cents per ounce for even the cheapest top round steak). Juicy, tender chicken thighs (9 cents per ounce for skin-on thighs) tend to cost less than chicken breasts unless you get a great sale on a bulk size (13 cents per ounce for a 4-pound family pack).

Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs add amazing flavor to even the simplest dishes, but they can be pricey at the supermarket (especially if you're spending $2 on sage when you need only a few leaves). Growing fresh herbs at home is inexpensive and easy, and it ensures that you always have them available.

Fresh Citrus

For only 50 cents each (when you buy in bulk) a squeeze of fresh lemon, lime or orange juice can illuminate everything from a simple lentil salad to roasted fish or chicken, and bottled citrus juice just isn't the same. Citrus is also great for flavoring water — you can skip buying juice and soda. Add a few slices to a pitcher of water and keep it in the fridge at all times.

Eggs

At only 13 cents per egg, these nutritional powerhouses are often the easiest way to add cheap protein to meals — far beyond breakfast. Keep a container of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for snacking or tossing into salads, stir-fry eggs with rice and veggies, or crack an egg on top of pizza before you bake it. You can whisk them into frittatas, which are great for using up a week's worth of leftovers on the weekends (rice, pasta, veggies — toss it all in). They also keep for a long time, up to five weeks in the fridge.

Flour

When you bake everything from pizza crust and bread to muffins and cookies yourself instead of buying pricey processed versions from the store, you’ll save at least 50 percent, if not more. And it tastes so much better!

Canned Tomatoes

For less than a dollar per can, you make delicious homemade pasta and pizza sauces, or use canned tomatoes in an endless variety of soups and stews.

Canned Tuna

Stock up on this staple when it's on sale (20 cents per ounce) and you'll always have an easy source of healthy fish protein on hand for tuna salad sandwiches, or olive oil-based Mediterranean-style salads filled with fresh veggies, grains and herbs.

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