Every January, I like to do a cleanse of sorts. I want to call it The Great Pantry Challenge. It takes place after the holidays and offers me some time to decompress from the craziness.
Essentially, I give myself $100 for the month to spend on groceries, but most food comes from the refrigerator and the freezer. But before that can happen, you need to live with some essential frugal pantry staples. And you need to know how to build a frugal pantry.
Why Do You Need A Stocked Pantry?
So you can save time, money, and your hair (because you aren’t pulling it out at dinner time anymore). Having a stocked pantry of the items that you can throw together for a quick dinner will save you.
When you open up the cupboard, you can easily pull out a box of pasta and a jar of sauce and grab a pound of frozen ground beef or meatballs; it will save you time.
Instead of standing at the refrigerator with the door open in front of the flattering glow of the LED light bulb, wondering what you are going to feed these people AGAIN, you can confidently say (out loud) I got you, boo!!!
Also, my 18-year-old hates when I use somewhat modern slang.
It will allow you to pull out a few ingredients to make dinner instead of packing everyone into the car to go out to eat or ordering take-out.
Staying home and cooking will save money, and if you know that you can throw something together in 20 minutes, save your sanity. Let’s face it; we have all been there.
Cooking at home is also healthier. You know what you are cooking, so those preservatives can be lessened or even cut out completely.
Stocking your pantry will save you time after time.
It helps when you may have forgotten about that whole meal planning thing. Life happens.
But, it is OK to have Stauffers Lasagna in the freezer. Sometimes, ya just gotta.
How To Build A Frugal Pantry
Keep the basics on hand.
Keeping the basics on hand will give you what you need to whip up those family favorites in a quick minute if you need to. The basics will save you from ordering take-out.
Most of us will have the same basics on hand for a magic meal, but some differences will be relevant to each home. Having these things on hand will avoid the expensive alternatives to cooking at home.
Think back to when our grandmothers were doing the cooking. What would they have in their cupboards?
If you are a total nerd, to can keep a copy of your inventory in one great list!
Buy in bulk.
Buying in bulk will allow you to have many of your favorites ready when needed. It is one of my favorite ways to get back into stocking my pantry after it magically empties.
Use caution as sometimes buying from a big warehouse store will cost more than just getting those things on sale.
Check out this post about big warehouse stores. However, we buy Annie’s Mac and Cheese from BJ’s, and it’s cheaper than sales. Keep in mind that if you won’t use it before it goes bad and you have to toss it, it’s not a deal.
Warehouse stores are excellent choices for bulk purchases. Check out this write-up, all about warehouse stores.
Consider the cost of buying meat in bulk and separating it into family-sized portions. It might be worth supporting a local farmer and purchasing a part of a cow or pig if you have freezer space.
Shopping the sales is a perfect answer to saving money in any area of your life. But especially when it comes to food. Every week, there is a brand new sale published for every store.
When you are trying to build up your pantry staples, shop the flyers and travel to all the grocery stores. It is a temporary stock-up and not something you need to do every week. But when you are running low, keep an eye out for the next sale.
Consider using coupons at your regular grocery stores. Around the holidays, you will find baking products like flour and sugar on sale, and name brands will offer coupons. Here’s a good post about couponing for beginners.
Use discount stores.
Some stores exist to sell items close to expiration or are a buy-out from another store. They then sell them pretty inexpensively. We don’t have any near us, but I’ve traveled to Vermont to check out a few in the past.
Here is a list of some of these discount grocery stores. Just be sure to call them to see if they are still open.
I remember seeing (and buying) a LOT of organic snacks and nonperishables when I was there. It might be worth checking out if you have one close.
Cook from scratch.
If you are worried that money is too tight to spend the added money to build up a decent frugal food pantry, one of the first things I recommend is to stop purchasing pre-made stuff.
Skip the individual packages of chips, cookies, and goldfish. Make a batch of muffins or cookies from scratch to eat as snacks. Make your seasoned pasta instead of those envelopes or box mixes.
Cut back on instant oatmeal and make it from scratch. You will be able to stock up on the basics AND cook your healthy foods. You will be surprised at how much you can save and maybe even how better you feel without added preservatives and sugar.
Also, meal planning; goes right along with cooking from scratch and is super important.
Grow your own.
Do you know how easy it is to grow spinach on your window sill? If you have a big sunny room, you could grow all sorts of veggies. And if you are fortunate to have a decent backyard, you can raise a garden in better weather.
Growing your herbs, drying them, and then grinding them up is a way to save money. Adding fresh parsley to a dish completely changes the flavors.
My mom still has a fantastic garden. She will be 72 this year, and she cans her veggies and tomato sauce and makes the best pickles and relishes — some excellent grape jelly.
I did not inherit that green thumb. I am not very outdoorsy.
Instead, I freeze things. I do have blueberry bushes, so I do freeze those. And I will bake more than one of something and freeze the rest.
Freezing is my preservation of choice. We have a nice size freezer in the basement that I use out so much. And it saves me money.
Basic Pantry Staples
Here is a list of frugal pantry staples that one should keep on hand. The critical thing to remember here is that if you and your family do not like Quinoa, please do not buy it.
If you are a vegetarian, beef meatballs won’t work for you. So make it your own. Make sure you are stocking the pantry items that your family will eat. Otherwise, it’s a waste of money.
Here is a great list to get you started!
Baking Supplies And Basic Ingredients
Flour. A perfect supply to have in the pantry to use or everything from dessert to bread to a thickening agent for gravy. Add an assortment if you use them. Otherwise, a basic flour will work just fine for most applications.
Out of cereal for breakfast on Saturday morning? Whip up a batch of quick cinnamon rolls!
How about a 5-minute pizza crust? Or biscuits to go with that tomato soup! The internet is full of great recipes.
Sugar. This staple would include regular sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, and any sugar substitutes you might use. We have stevia and monk fruit, suitable for baking and whipping up some snacks, especially when kids need something for their lunches or a tasty muffin for breakfast.
Yeast. I do not use this enough to buy a big canister, so that I will pick up a couple of those three packets. They are super cheap and can come in handy for said cinnamon rolls or pizza crust.
Cocoa Powder. We like chocolate, and this is a must. Cocoa powder is necessary for our house, from chocolate peanut butter treats to chocolate cake to hot cocoa.
Mixes. I am not a fan of muffin mixes or cake mixes, but if you are, add these to the pantry staples list. It’s always good if your sweet, beautiful baby comes to you after dinner and says they need 24 cupcakes for a school party the next day.
Dried Milk. Sometimes you are out of milk and need some. Powdered milk works great for baking and makes a lovely creamer for coffee in a pinch. Adding chocolate syrup helps. I would not suggest drinking it straight, although my oldest doesn’t mind.
Powdered Eggs. These are fantastic for baking. Remember that scenario from above about the child needing cupcakes for school? Powdered eggs when you have no real eggs. Nobody will know any different. That is all.
Baking Powder & Baking Soda. These are a must-have as far as frugal pantry staples. They are both instrumental in cooking. Baking soda is also perfect for cleaning. Double win!
Oils. Our favorite oils are olive, avocado, and coconut. The olive oil isn’t the best for baking, but the others work well. I also use butter for baking often. Also, oils are suitable for cooking and making a quick salad dressing.
Pasta. I only have two different kinds of pasta, generally in my cupboard. Elbow and spaghetti seem to be a universal stock-up pasta for us. I only buy something else if needed for a particular recipe – like lasagna. Or spirals for a pasta salad.
Macaroni and Cheese. I buy Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese in bulk from BJ’s. It is our favorite, and sometimes, you need a box of mac and cheese on hand.
Rice. A great side dish or a way to stretch some meat and vegetables out. Also, the perfect addition to a casserole. I used to love to warm up leftover rice and add some brown sugar and milk to eat for breakfast.
Beans. An excellent staple to any pantry. Beans can be added to many dishes to replace meat altogether and are the perfect addition to soups and stews.
Consider trying a plant-based diet to cut down your grocery budget substantially.
Stock. Boxed chicken stock or Better Thank Broth is a needed pantry staple. It’s good for soup or gravy and works to flavor rice or pasta.
Oatmeal. Old fashioned rolled oats can be used in baking, for breakfast, or to add to ground beef as a binder for meatloaf or meatballs. Oatmeal is also great for a quick fruit crisp using some frozen fruit mentioned below. And it is pretty versatile, and it’s an inexpensive addition to any and every food pantry.
Spices. Spices offer a frugal way to change the flavor of those chicken thighs. Add curry or a rotisserie chicken rub. Sprinkle with a lemon pepper mix to make a delicious lemon butter chicken. Try a little poultry seasoning to jazz up that poultry!! Ultimately you got a deal on and stocked the freezer.
Coffee And Tea. Honestly. I always have more than enough of these two beverages. Many times when you think you are hungry, you are just thirsty. And nothing helps me more or makes me happier than a sweet, warm beverage, regardless of the season. And really, this should have been number one.
Canned Food Staples
Soup. In a pinch and a hurry? Canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches to the rescue! My husband is not fond of just plain tomato soup but put some leftover elbow pasta in it and sprinkle some fresh grated parmesan or cheddar on top, and he is happy. Sometimes a can of soup is the answer.
Many people also stock some condensed cream soups for crockpot meals or casseroles. I’m not a fan, so I skip these.
Canned Meat. Tuna melts, chicken salad, or casseroles come together with a can of chicken or tuna. They both work for lunches and dinners. You could also add canned salmon or potted meat to the frugal pantry stockpile.
Diced Tomatoes. Diced tomatoes work well as an addition to pasta, soups, and a quick chili. They are always good to have on hand for a crockpot meal, too.
Pasta Sauce. Pasta sauce is one of my top 5 frugal pantry staples. We use it for so many things – and not only for pasta. We pour it over meats like chicken and meatloaf. We make soup and chili with it, too. I always have quite a few jars in my pantry stockpile.
Nut Butters. Peanut, almond, or cashew. You can turn any dinner into Thai food with a bit of peanut butter. Make muffins, toast, and cookies with any of these. Or, grab a spoonful for a quick dose of protein in the afternoon! Whatever your preference is, have some in the cupboard.
Hot Sauce. Hot sauce is my favorite condiment. I love hot sauce on so many things. On eggs with feta cheese or macaroni and cheese. I like it on steak and chicken. I also want to add a dash to my soups, stews, and chilis. Like spices, it adds a little something extra.
Vinegar. Chose your vinegar flavor; white vinegar is excellent for cleaning, and apple cider vinegar has so many health benefits. You can use it for salad dressings, marinades, and many other recipes. It is also a great meat tenderizer.
Mustard. Not only the perfect pairing for your hot dog, but mustard is also used in so many other recipes. I like it in potato salad and macaroni and cheese. Of course, make honey mustard salad dressing and an excellent topping for pork roast.
Honey. Honey is also used in many recipes, dressings, and marinades. It can make a boring piece of meat into something tasty and exciting. Also, local honey has some excellent health benefits and is delicious in a cup of tea.
Lemon Juice. Did you know that you can whiten your teeth with lemon juice and baking soda? You can also lighten your hair. But, adding lemon juice to foods like fish, rice, chicken, and pasta also give your taste buds a little zing!
BBQ Sauce. Great to hide the dried-out pork chops or make the overcooked chicken into something editable (not that I have ever done that before). An excellent marinade and dipping sauce. Kids seem to like BBQ sauce for dipping.
Now, I know that these are not basic pantry staples. I understand these are freezer and refrigerator items, but I think they are an excellent addition to this list of things to keep on hand to save money in the kitchen. Consider this a BONUS SECTION! So forgive me for throwing a surprise in here.
Frozen Meatballs. Whether these are your own that you made a double batch and froze or a bag of frozen ones from Aldi, they are a great staple to have on hand. A jar of sauce and a box of pasta, and in 15 minutes, you have a meal. Or toast some rolls, add cheese and enjoy some sliders.
Cream Cheese. A delight to pair with bagels for breakfast and an excellent ingredient in alfredo sauce or cheesecake bites. Cream cheese works for soups and sauces and especially buffalo chicken dip. It’s my favorite.
Onions. I need to be honest with this staple. We don’t like onions and rarely use them in our cooking. When we do, the essence has been cooked well out of them. But many people enjoy them in soups, stews, and many other dishes. So, add them to your pantry if you like them. But if you are like us, it might not be worth the money.
Garlic. Fresh garlic is nice. It suits the same purpose without the sticky paper-like peel. But you know what I like better — a jar of minced garlic or a tube of garlic paste. Much more convenient and easier to use.
Carrots. These are the best filler in so many dishes. And versatile. Raw, cooked, mashed, shredded, in meatloaf, soups, on the side with a honey glaze. And they will last so very long in your refrigerator.
Celery. Celery is another vegetable that will last a very long time. It adds a special flavoring to many dishes, and it is an excellent pairing with the cream cheese mentioned above (or even better – buffalo chicken dip)!
Potatoes. We can make an entire meal out of potatoes. Add some sour cream, cheese, leftover chicken, and broccoli, put it all in a nine by thirteen pan, and have a casserole. I have a link to a flexible casserole (that I love) from this blog post.
Eggs. Great for every meal and every recipe. Baking, hard boiling for deviled eggs, french toast, and scrambled. Super cheap and super versatile. We eat a lot of eggs and always seem to have them handy.
Butter. Much healthier than margarine yet not as cheap. My husband says he only eats bread as a way to get the butter into his mouth. It is always good to have it on hand when you need cookies or a butter chicken recipe in the Instant Pot.
Sour Cream. Perfect for making a quick cream soup or, of course, to top that baked potato. It’s a must for my Flexible Casserole or a veggie dip.
Cheese. Cheese is life. It makes everything better. That is all.
Final Thoughts On Frugal Pantry Staples On A Small Budget
Having a pantry stockpile will give you options when you are on the cusp of ordering take-out. Knowing that there is plenty of food to make your family a quick dinner at any time will save you money and rid your brain of anxiety.
I dream of having a walk-in pantry, but I have shelves in my basement for now. I stockpile where I can.
Do you eat from a stocked pantry or buy as you need? Leave a comment below!
We love to do the pantry cleanse in January, too. I find I need to rotate stuff on my shelves at least 4 times a year. I totall agree, getting creative is a money-saver
Hi Nancy! I agree…creativity during the month of January is a must. Sometimes the meal combos get super interesting!
I am a mother of 5 boys and i have epilepsy and need to find a way to work from home that actually pays the bills. Everyone is feeling the economic blow to the household budget and it is hurting all of us. Please help.