11 Pantry Essentials for Whipping Up Easy Low-Cost Meals
Saving money on food comes down to one thing: working smarter, not harder.
And that starts with keeping some basic pantry (and freezer) essentials on hand at all times, so you can whip up tasty meals with minimal effort.
Saving money in the kitchen is always important, but even more so in 2023 as food prices rise. According to the USDA, food prices increased by 9.9% in 2022. Food-at-home prices (grocery store purchases) increased by 11.4%, while food-away-from-home prices (restaurant purchases) increased by 7.7%.
There are a number of factors driving up prices: rising energy and transportation costs plus higher labor costs. Also, a widespread outbreak of avian flu has affected chicken and egg prices. Consumers are also seeing rising costs for meat in various forms, including both raw and cured like bacon.
Why Is It a Good Idea to Have a Well-Stocked Pantry?
If you have a well-stocked pantry it makes it easier and cheaper to cook at home and not resort to takeout. A stocked pantry allows you to smartly take advantage of store sales to make meals for your family because you don’t have to buy every ingredient for something you may want to prepare.
For example, if there’s a good deal on ground beef at the grocery store and you already have dried breadcrumbs, jarred red sauce and dried spaghetti in your pantry, you’ve got most of what you need for easy spaghetti and meatballs. Pick up a few fresh veggies and make black bean soup with the canned beans and broth you’ve got in the pantry. And how lucky that you have a loaf of French bread in the freezer.
The Budget Cook’s 11 Kitchen Pantry Essentials
- Whole grains and breads
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils and vinegars
- Condiments and sauces
- Dried herbs and spices
- Shelf-stable foods
- Frozen fruits and veggies
- In the fridge
If you’re trying to cut down on takeout and looking to stock your cabinets on the cheap, grab these healthy pantry essentials to build quick and easy low-cost meals. Keep an eye out for sales.
Also, there is a lot on this list, and you don’t need it all. If your family won’t eat peas, no need to buy that frozen bag of them. Same with pickles and olives, though for some folks, these items are the perfect flavor boosts for salads and sandwiches.
1. Grains and Breads
- Rolled oats
- Rice (long grain, short grain, brown)
- Corn and flour tortillas
Quinoa and rice are standard bases for veggie bowls, taco bowls and fried rice. They also make it easy to whip up your very own quinoa curry.
Rolled oats are also versatile and worthy of a place in your pantry. In addition to overnight oats and baked goods, you can toss oats into a smoothie or even make your own granola.
A variety of bread is another great staple to have on hand. You can put just about anything between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich, or add some cheese and veggies in a tortilla to make a quesadilla. You’ve got tuna and bagels? Think about an open-face tuna melt sandwich.
By having some standard whole grains around as a base, you can also cut down on food waste and reheat your leftovers or use up produce to create entirely new dishes.
If you see bread on sale, grab a few loaves and stash them in the freezer.
- Rice noodles
- Egg noodles
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 (elbows, shells) can make mac and cheese or a great pasta primavera with leftover veggies. Long noodles (spaghetti, fettuccine, angel hair) are made for sauces like Alfredo, pesto or marinara. You can make your pantry even more versatile by stocking it with rice noodles or egg noodles to whip up a homemade pad thai or ramen.
3. Beans and Legumes
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Refried beans
- Lima beans
- Black-eyed peas
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 curry.
You can buy these canned, but buying them dry is even cheaper. Bonus: Ditch the bag and store them in decorative jars for a whimsical kitchen counter storage solution. Another perk to buying dried beans? Dried chickpeas make it super easy to blend your own delicious hummus.
It is hard to beat the convenience of canned beans, and store brands are usually cheaper than big-name brands. Consider rinsing them before using to get rid of excess sodium.
- All-purpose flour
- Granulated sugar
- Brown sugar
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Powdered sugar
- Vanilla extract
All-purpose or whole-wheat flour is essential for more than just cakes and breads. You can use it to make your own pancakes, biscuits or even fresh egg pasta. Flour is also used as a thickener in homemade sauces and soups.
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. And some homemade sauces actually call for a bit of sugar to offset the spiciness (like this teriyaki sauce).
5. Nuts and Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- Shelled sunflower seeds
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 also work really well with certain meat dishes — like this cashew chicken.
Watch for them on sale because they can be pricy.
Nuts are also just super 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. Save money on your nuts and seeds by ordering them in bulk from companies like Nutstop.
6. Oils and Vinegars
- Olive oil
- Vegetable oil
- Sesame oil
- White vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- Coconut oil
You can make some awesome marinades and salad dressings with this classic combo. Apple cider vinegar makes a tasty vinaigrette, while adding sesame oil to peanut butter and soy sauce creates an amazing 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. Plus if you end up with more vinegar than you know what to do with, you can always try your hand at canning garden vegetables.
And we found plenty of uses for coconut oil beyond cooking to make this a pantry superstar.
7. Condiments and Sauces
- Dijon mustard
- Soy sauce
- Hot sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- BBQ sauce
Much like oil and vinegar, condiments and sauces give new life to bland meats and veggies. They can also be the glue that holds creative dishes together — like this easy egg salad recipe. A little hot sauce corrects all recipe mistakes.
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.
8. Dried Herbs and Spices
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Ground cumin
- Italian seasoning
- Crushed red pepper
- Cinnamon powder
Salt and pepper are a given. But buying pre-minced garlic saves time — and allows you to add fresh garlic to anything. It also brings you one step closer to this delicious homemade garlic bread.
Cumin is another good spice to have since it’s a staple in many 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.
9. Shelf-Stable Foods
- Tomatoes (whole peeled, crushed, diced, pureed)
- Peanut butter
- Nut butters
- Pasta sauces
- Coconut milk
- Stock or broth
- Canned tuna
- Canned chicken
- Salsa (red and green)
- Raisins/dried cranberries
We often think of this category as canned goods, but some of these foods will come in jars, resealable bags or cartons. Watch labels because some items may need to be refrigerated after opening.
Coconut milk, stock and tomatoes are necessary bases for many soups, chilis and curries (coconut curry, anyone?). You can also cook rice and quinoa in stock or coconut milk to add some extra flavor.
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 really easy.
Peanut butter toast makes a great snack — in fact, we’ve found that there are a lot of household uses for peanut butter.
And if you’re embarking on a pantry challenge by eating what’s on hand before buying additional groceries, having ample canned goods will help you tie together some delicious meals.
10. Frozen Fruits and Veggies
- Mixed veggies
- Mixed fruits
- Veggie patties or nuggets
While it’s not exactly your “pantry,” having a stocked freezer is one of the easiest ways to ensure you always have prepped veggies, vegetarian protein alternatives and a variety of fruits on hand. Toss frozen veggies into the oven for an easy baked veggie side, or add frozen berries to your favorite baked goods, like these blueberry muffins. (Plus, you’ve got the baking essentials in your pantry so you may not have to buy anything!)
If you have a hankering for more of the “junk food” frozen items like dumplings or frozen pizza, don’t go crazy trying to deprive yourself. Remember, satisfying your food needs (even those sneaky cravings) at home will always be cheaper than paying for takeout.
11. In the Fridge
- Nut “milks”
- Cheeses (cream cheese, Parmesan, cheddar)
Just like the freezer, you might not think of the refrigerator as your pantry, but some essentials there will make cooking from scratch so much easier.
Take eggs. Even though the price is higher for a dozen than it’s been for a while, eggs can still be the basis of an economical meal. Look for store brands, which continue to be a better buy than bigger name brands.
Check out these 24 ideas for affordable ways to serve eggs for dinner. We especially like this huevos rancheros recipe, and since you already have beans, salsa and tortillas in your pantry, dinner will not only be a snap, it will be cheap.
Contributor Larissa Runkle frequently writes on finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder. Jen Smith is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.
Assigning Editor Karen Grigsby updated this post.