13 People On The Affordable Pantry Staples They Always Keep On Hand

I’m coming in hot with some more #Grocery #Content this week, as a part of my ongoing journey to get better with food (the people I nanny for constantly joke that I never eat, and it was rightfully pointed out in the comments section of a recent post that my boy and I don’t seem to eat very much — we get lazy and cheap sometimes, and just shrug and skip dinner).

As much as I love cooking, it can be hard. Sometimes, even if I’ve written out a great grocery list and gotten everything I think I could need for the week, I still find myself opening (and closing, and opening again) my kitchen cabinets and wondering what actual meals I can make out of the food I own.

A little while back, it became obvious to me that even though I’m buying things like meat and fresh produce, I’m lacking the pantry staples needed to create good meals out of the weekly things I purchase.

More recently, I’ve been dedicating one of my grocery trips each month to restocking on those staples — for me, they tend to be things like chicken broth, canned tomatoes of various styles for my favorite Italian cooking, black and white beans, replacement spices and sauces for the ones I’ve run out of (we go through Frank’s Red Hot and crushed red pepper like maniacs over here), and bags of dried pasta and rice. These things stay pretty consistent, while the fresh fruit and veg or the type of meat I buy on a week-to-week basis changes with my mood, what’s in season, and what looks good at the store.

I decided to ask around and see if anyone could inspire me by telling me what their tried and true pantry (and fridge, and freezer) staples are. They actually all gave me totally different answers, which was somewhat surprising, and really telling about how different people really are when it comes to how they cook. (Just another observation in my quest to be the nosiest person ever about how people buy and eat food.)

I asked 13 people to tell me about the affordable pantry staples they always keep on-hand in their kitchen to make cooking quick, easy, and delicious. Here is what they had to say:

1. “I know it is basic money-saving food, but always rice and beans. Just because both are so inexpensive to buy in huge quantities, they last forever without going bad, and they create a really substantial meal without having to really add much else except spices.” — Rachel

2. “I am the #queen of keeping pasta and good jarred sauce on-hand just for like, ‘emergencies’ (i.e. me not wanting to cook). Also it is the easiest thing to cook up quickly and serve in large quantities for unexpected dinner guests. Boxes of a pound of pasta are usually under a dollar, too, which is insane for the amount of food it gives you.” — Jamie

3. “This isn’t always necessarily affordable, depending on what that means to you, but I’m not a fan of cooking (although I do it obviously sometimes to get by in life) and prefer to keep my freezer stocked with good frozen meals, or at least frozen foods that I can quickly and easily make into meals. Usually I’ll keep things like frozen steam-in-the-bag rice and vegetables, and sometimes even fully-cooked frozen chicken or chicken sausages that can just be heated in the pan or baked in the oven for 20 minutes. It is not gourmet or anything, but I always have these things in the house just to prevent me from running to takeaway when I don’t feel like cooking or don’t have time to cook.” — Elizabeth

4. “Boxed soups or even just boxes of broths/stocks. I always have a ton in my pantry. Easy enough to just make it into soup and eat it like that, or to use for cooking other meals to just make them more flavorful and moist.” — Lillian

5. “Trader Joe’s sells these prepackaged cold chicken pieces, like a lemon flavored one and a balsamic glazed one and they are so good. It is a staple for me to keep a bunch of those in the fridge with a bunch of lettuce to make quick salads or little wraps with tortillas.” — Michelle

6. “I don’t have a gigantic appetite but I obviously need to eat and get calories like a human, so I’m really big on keeping protein bars and meal replacement shakes/items on hand. I eat them for breakfast when I’m running late, or just for a meal during the day when I don’t necessarily want to cook or eat.” — Morgana

7. “Chips and salsa. It feels like a meal to me even if I can’t prepare a real meal. I refuse to not have it in my house at all times.” — Kat

8. “The real basics — eggs, bread, milk, butter. If all else fails on any night, scrambled eggs with a few slices of buttered toast is always a perfect meal. And obviously, those ingredients can be made into a ton of different things.” — Laney

9. “I think the thing I couldn’t survive without is ready-to-eat breakfast foods, like cereal, toaster waffles, instant oatmeal, bagels, etc. I only work standard 9-to-5 hours, but I’m not at all a morning person. I have never been one for breakfast because I have little desire to eat in the morning, but I started trying to choke something down in the morning when I got pregnant to help with sickness, and now I realize that I feel much better when I eat in the morning. That said, I still have no motivation to like, cook eggs at 7 AM, so anything carb-y that I can just warm a little bit and eat quickly is important. I keep a lot of things like that in my freezer and pantry just to make sure I always have something.” — Suzanne

10. “I can be a bit lazy when it comes to the vegetable-chopping portion of meal prep, so I buy pre-cut vegetables as often as I can. It isn’t the cheaper option, but it greatly reduces the chances of me sighing and saying ‘nah I don’t feeeel like it’ and a) not eating or b) ordering pizza.” — Ellie

11. “Bell peppers, onions, celery, sweet potatoes. I can use those few things mixed with different carbs or different proteins to make various meals, and they’re eternally on my shopping list.” — Claire

12. “Herbs and spices. It is absolutely essential to spice your food well no matter what you are making. In my house, everything gets a dash of this and that before getting cooked and consumed. My favorites are cayenne pepper and turmeric, but obviously it is dependent on personal taste. Also, I know they can seem expensive because they are sometimes $4-6 at the store, but if you’re sweating about prices you can honestly get them at Walmart or even the dollar store for less (although they might not be as high quality). Spicing and flavoring food differently makes the same boring chicken into a bunch of different meals, so you can buy in bulk and eat for cheap, and still have something that tastes flavorful and unique every night.” — Alissa

13. “I’m sure someone already said spices or condiments, but in addition to those things, I always keep a good stockpile of cooking wines, vinegars, and oils to cook with just to change things up. Like, it is easy enough for me to salt and pepper a chicken breast and fry it in some butter or olive oil, but making quick chicken marsala is just as easy and looks and tastes so much more impressive. Also, balsamic vinegar on everything, but that may be just my Italian roots showing.” — Stephanie

Mary writes every day for TFD, and tweets every day for her own personal fulfillment. Talk to her about money and life at mary@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Unsplash

  • Caila Henderson

    Love this.
    Def agree with the last point. Three vinegars I replace immediately after I use them up:
    Balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, white wine vinegar
    Three spices I immediately replace:
    Cumin, garlic powder, chili powder

    Things that are perpetually on my grocery list:
    red onions, sweet potato, chick peas, garlic

  • Shirley Bo

    I’ve recently transitioned over to a mostly plant-based diet to kick start healthier habits. That being said, even before I went plant based some staples are berries which I buy in bulk, wash, cut (if needed) and freeze. Rice, beans and quinoa are also huge staples (raised in a culture where rice and beans are in almost every meal). I usually will purchase them dry and slow cook them over the weekend and use it throughout the week. In terms of veggies– bell peppers, portabella mushrooms and vine tomatoes are huge staples for me.

  • Anne-Marie

    Frozen veggies! You can get them for relatively cheap (I live in Canada – food ain’t cheap here) and they go great in stirfries, pasta sauces, as a side… you name it.
    I also always have rice, lentils, broth cubes, and canned beans and tomatoes on hand!

    • Ros

      As a fellow Canadian: WORD on the frozen veggies. (Also, every kid under 5 I’ve met has liked peas and broccoli, so that makes life easier in a pinch).

      Canned tomatoes are are life saver. And tofu – keeps a long time in the fridge, and makes a good base for a stir-fry (with frozen veg), butter tofu (with canned tomatoes and canned evaporated milk, in a pinch, it works), or just pan-fried. And most toddlers will eat it if the adults around them stfu about how they don’t like it.

  • Becks

    I’m really similar to you Mary – rice, beans, hot sauce, crushed pepper are definitely staples. My partner is vegetarian and I am trying to eat a pescatarian diet, so I cook a lot of Indian food so lentils ($10 for a bag that lasts me months of making a weekly pot of daal) and canned tomatoes are constants in my cupboard. Canned tomatoes especially because they can become pasta sauce, chili, or over baked veggies in a casserole dish.
    Also, I live in Canada too and I second the expensive food point.

  • Charlie

    My things are rice, frozen veggies, dry chickpeas, canned tomatoes and whatever pre-washed greens are cheap at the store. I make fried rice, falafels (if I’m feeling ambitious), pizza, pasta sauce, chickpeas in a tomato-y sauce. I’m also big on making double of a recipe and freezing half so I can just microwave and go on busy nights.

  • Jack

    My partner and I are both smoothie monsters so we will buy like 4 bunches of bananas at a time, and freeze them in chunks once they are ripe. But we go through them so quickly that we always have the ones in the freezer as well as some ripening. If we ever run out for some reason it’s a nightmare.

    • Kara

      I have been baking banana bread nonstop the past few weeks because it’s astroninshingly simple to make – and I had no idea!
      Bananas, the magic fruit.

  • Monica

    For me, it’s always frozen veggies, dry pasta, and cans of different pasta sauces. Always good for a quick meal, and also can stretch for the end of the month when there isn’t quite enough money to do real grocery shopping. I also keep a few of the $1 rice-a-roni type things around for a quick cheap meal.

  • Kara


    I always have all of the necessary ingredients on hand to make pizza (sauce, Naan, baby spinach, feta, olives, pepperoni, cheese, mushrooms for days) – bonus is that it takes 10 minutes and is frankly delicious.

    I meal plan all week but sometimes life happens. There’s always pizza. Emergency pizza supplies.

  • cat

    every 5 weeks or so, my fiancé and i go to BJ’s and always grab a pack of 5dozen eggs (we go through eggs quick lol), 2 bags of frozen organic grilled chicken strips, kelbasa (we freeze it), and a huge bag of rice when we need it. i always have a big jar of chopped garlic and plenty of different spices/sauces.
    rice, chicken, and eggs are the staple meal in our household, and as long as you keep different spice/sauces the possibilities are endless especially bc i try and go to the farmers market for cheap produce every other week or so

  • Nom

    Cheese, tortillas, bananas, pasta, sour cream (my favorite food), butter, frozen waffles, cereal, frozen tilapia, frozen chicken, yogurt, sauces and spices (namely olive oil, canola or vegetable oil, soy sauce, buffalo sauce, sriracha, garlic, red pepper, more i’m forgetting). Obviously i also eat vegetables and buy extra ingredients for my weekly meal plan, but these are the things i always replace when i am running out. I cook for one so I don’t keep a very stocked kitchen.

  • jdub

    Sweet potatoes! I’ve been in a real sweet potato kick for the past several months, so every shopping trip I’m buying at least 4 or 5 of them. Now I’m including regular potatoes, just for a little variety without breaking the bank. Brussels sprouts too! They’re super versatile, cheap and are a great way to get a lot of nutrients without a ton of effort. Eggs, I always get the carton of 18, because I tend to hard-boil 6 at a time to grab for lunches. Bananas, greek yogurt, cottage cheese and regular cheese; all quick little snacks that we can grab for lunches or munch on in the evenings.

    I’m a snacker, so usually I just try to grab stuff that we can eat on its own or else toss into a casserole dish to bake with a protein for dinner. Now that it’s soup season though I’m gonna stock up on broths/tentils/beans and canned veggies, so my slow cooker can get some good workouts!