The best way to save money on groceries is to plan your meals.
But only if you’re planning frugal meals.
Serving Filet Mignon like a Master Chef will blow your grocery budget quicker than you can say “Would you like Bordelaise reduction with that?”
I may be getting carried away with my fantasies.
So a frugal menu plan starts with frugal meals. And the foundation of a frugal meal is a pantry stocked with frugal ingredients.
In this series of posts, I share some of the staples of a well-stocked frugal kitchen – from pantry staples to fruit and vegetables to meat and dairy (if you eat them) – these cheap ingredients form the foundation of a wide variety of frugal, healthy and tasty meals.
The secret recipe for frugal cooking is to take these cheap ingredients and combine them with different cooking techniques to get an endless number of delicious meals to suit any budget.
Frugal Pantry Staples
The paragraphs below give ideas on what frugal staples to keep in your pantry and ideas on how to use them. But if you just want the gist of the list without doing all the reading, here it is:
- Flour (wheat or non-wheat)
- Pasta or an alternate grain
- Beans and Legumes
- Cooking oil/fat
- Tinned Tomatoes
- Tinned Fish
- Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Powder
- Sugar or favourite sweetener
- Favourite Herbs, spice and condiments
Baking can save you money on snacks and to bake, you need flour.
I stick to plain wholemeal wheat flour because it is more nutritious than white. But if you’re gluten intolerant, then stock your favourite gluten-free alternative instead. Aldi is great for gluten-free pantry staples on a budget.
I used to stock a variety of flours, but too many choices usually mean waste (or in our case, pantry moths). So stick to one or two of your favourite flours.
You can’t beat oats when it comes to a frugal breakfast. Extremely cheap and high in fibre, oats will keep you fuller for longer, saving you money on snacks as well!
You can also use oats in baking, like these biscuits, these muesli bars, or this choc-chip slice, or you can grind the oats into flour to add to pancakes, smoothies or make oat milk, which is delicious warm with a little honey and cinnamon.
Rice is a basic pantry item in many cultures. It’s cheap, easy to cook and bulks up just about any meal.
Apart from eating as an accompaniment, rice can play the starring role in dishes like risotto, paella, pilaf, rice casserole, sushi, fried rice, rice pudding, rice salad, add to burritos, mince casserole, chilli beans and rice, tuna casserole and rice patties.
It’s ok to use different rice than what is stated in a recipe. If you only have long grain rice, you can still make risotto or sushi without buying extra varieties, saving you money. I make ‘risotto’ from long-grain rice all the time and while purists might cringe, it fills hungry bellies without breaking the budget or having a billion varieties of rice in the pantry.
4. Wholemeal Pasta or Grain Alternatives
Wholemeal pasta is a cheap, convenient staple for quick family meals like this veggie-loaded mac and cheese.
But if pasta isn’t your thing, there are a whole variety of grains that have become trendy again. Quinoa is the more expensive variety, but it’s worth stocking because it’s highly nutritious. Other alternatives to rice and pasta include couscous, polenta, rye, bulgur (my favourite), barley, millet and buckwheat. Serve as a side like you would rice or you can cook these up for a nourishing breakfast similar to how you would oats.
5. Beans, Chickpeas and Lentils
Beans and lentils are highly nutritious and cheap – the perfect frugal food!
High in both fibre and protein, they fill you up and leave you feeling fuller for longer, reducing snacking and giving you slow-burn energy. This, in turn, saves you money!
Some of my favourite ways to use beans include: refried beans in burritos, bean enchilada casserole, vegetarian nachos, sausage and bean stew, chilli beef, homemade baked beans or just plain and tossed through a salad.
While nuts can be expensive (except peanuts), seeds are much cheaper and are an excellent non-meat source of protein and healthy fat.
Linseeds, for example, are high in fibre and protein as well as Omega 3 fatty acids. We add ground linseeds to baked goods like muffins and pancakes to increase the nutrition, we sprinkle them over yoghurt and add them to smoothies.
Sunflower seeds are also a cheap and delicious snack and they can also be added to baked goods instead of nuts.
If you’re not allergic, peanuts and peanut butter are cheap and filling vegetarian protein. Apple slices spread with peanut butter is a snack made in heaven.
7. Cooking Fat
It’s good to have at least one cooking fat in the pantry for frying and roasting.
While vegetable oil is extremely cheap, it’s not very healthy so it’s better to stick to olive oil for things like salads and low temp cooking and something like rice bran oil for high temp cooking.
You can also cook with traditional fats like pan drippings, which are practically free. Just pour the fat into a container after cooking and store it in the fridge. Or you can render your own fat for cooking – here’s how to render lard and here’s how to render schmaltz or chicken fat.
8. Homemade Stock
While this is more a freezer staple, homemade stock is light-years better than the powdered variety although the powdered variety is cheap and easy so it can be good to have on hand as a flavour enhancer. What’s more, if you make stock from scraps, it’s practically free and healthy as well. You can make soups, stews and sauces extremely cheaply when they are based on your own homemade stock.
As an alternative to powdered stock, instant miso can make a great flavour addition or soup base.
9. Tinned Tomatoes / Passata
Tinned tomatoes or passata, which is a tomato puree, are great to have on hand for tomato-based sauces, soups, pasta dishes and other tomato-based dishes.
10. Tinned Fish
Tinned fish is a cheap and convenient way to get your healthy Omega 3 fish oils.
If you have a tin or two in the cupboard, you always have a meal ready to go. Toss with pasta or salad for a quick, healthy and frugal meal.
A splash of vinegar lifts the flavour of many dishes. An earthy curry can be taken to new heights with a little vinegar, some plain boiled potatoes get a life with a splash of vinegar and olive oil. When a dish calls for wine, you can substitute it with a tiny bit of vinegar.
Not to mention that vinegar is the basis of your own salad dressings, pickles and preserves.
There are a whole variety of vinegar available, but if I could only choose one, I would choose apple cider vinegar, which I use in just about everything.
You can make your own apple vinegar using apple peelings and scraps.
To round out its usefulness, you can also clean your house with vinegar, saving you money on cleaning supplies.
12. Bicarbonate of Soda
In cooking, bicarb is mostly used as a raising agent (see baking powder below) by mixing it with something acidic (like buttermilk or vinegar) and liquid. To make baking easier though, you can keep baking powder on hand.
Baking powder is simply bicarb soda with the acidic ingredient added (usually Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate). It means you don’t have to worry about adding something acidic to your baking. However, some baking powders (not all) include aluminium so I like to make my own from bicarb and cream of tartar.
If you do your own baking, you will want to stock your pantry with sugar (or your sweetener of choice). I like to use raw sugar and brown for their caramel taste.
I like to also stock unsweetened cocoa which can be used to add a healthy chocolate flavour to baking, porridge, smoothies and of course, hot chocolate.
14. Herbs Spices and Sauces
Herbs, spices and condiments are the secrets to delicious meals.
Apart from salt and pepper, the exact ones you stock in your pantry will depend on the meals you like to cook.
Do you like Indian dishes? You’ll probably want cumin, turmeric, coriander, and curry powder on hand. Like Asian dishes? Soy sauce will be one of your pantry essentials.
Use a meal master list to decide which herbs and spices are worth stocking. Because if you buy a spice for a single dish, never to use it again, it’s not value for money. Frugal meals avoid exotic ingredients that won’t ever be used again.
Save by buying single spices and making your own homemade spice blends – these make great frugal gifts as well! Here’s a great post on homemade spice blends and ideas on how to use them.
By having these frugal pantry staples, you’ve got the foundation of a variety of meals. But they’re not a meal in themselves. For that, you need fresh produce. In the next article, we’ll look at the cheapest and healthiest fruit and vegetables you can buy and what to cook with them.