As someone who’s spent most of my adult life living in expensive cities, I’ve inadvertently become kind of an expert on budget-friendly cooking. While I’m able to spring for fancy farmers’ market finds and gourmet oils and salts every now and then, my grocery shopping is usually restricted to whatever tastes the best and costs the least. That means I end up relying on a lot of freezer and pantry staples, namely canned food, frozen fruits and veggies, and lots of different dried goods.
While canned, frozen, and dried foods might not sound like they’d make the most delicious meals, they totally can as long as you know how to be creative with them, Beth Moncel, owner of Budget Bytes, tells SELF. As the creator of a popular budget food blog, she knows a thing or two about cooking great food without spending a lot. Here you’ll find all the affordable pantry staples she and I both love, plus ingenious, healthy, and delicious ways to incorporate them into your food.
Canned tomatoes, beans, pumpkin, fish, and chicken.
Moncel doesn’t love all canned foods, because many of them aren’t very fresh or as good as their frozen alternatives (like canned peas or carrots), or they have their flavor compromised by a lot of added sugar or sodium. That being said, there are a couple canned products she always has on hand.
Canned tomatoes are one of those products. “Fresh tomatoes have their place, but for quick and easy weeknight dinners, canned tomatoes can’t be beat,” says Moncel. “They’re perfect for making quick sauces, bases for soups, or adding to rice dishes.” In fact, canned tomatoes are actually preferable to fresh tomatoes when they’re not in season, because they’re typically made with tomatoes that are harvested at peak season, meaning they’re usually more flavorful. At the store, whole canned tomatoes with no added sodium are your best option, because preservatives are often added to diced canned tomatoes to keep them from clumping. While these preservatives don’t necessarily affect the nutrient content, they do affect the flavor, sometimes giving the tomatoes a weird, metallic tang. If you want diced tomatoes, you can cut whole canned tomatoes yourself—that’s what I do, anyway.
Moncel also loves canned beans of all different shapes, colors, and sizes, whether they be black beans, kidney beans, or chickpeas. “Cooking beans from dry is great if you have time, but canned beans are a great for last minute meals,” she explains. “You can add them to pasta, soup, salads, casseroles, rice dishes, or just about anything,” she adds, “[and] not only are they incredibly inexpensive, but they’re packed with nutrition, and there is an endless variety of flavors, colors, and textures to choose from.”
Canned pumpkin is one canned ingredient that I love, because it makes cooking with pumpkin that much more accessible. Rather than having to roast a whole pumpkin every time I want to make something with it, I can simply pop open a can instead. And they’re available all year-round, so I don’t have to wait to satisfy my cravings until they’re in season.
Canned seafood, like tuna or salmon, are great because they’re already ready to eat when you pop them open. They’re also great ways to add protein to whatever you’re eating on a moment’s notice. Just be sure to reach for cans with little to no added sodium—that way you can season it yourself and know exactly what you’re eating. Same goes for canned chicken, which is the best kind of chicken to make chicken salad sandwiches with, IMHO.
Frozen spinach, peas, broccoli, and corn.
Even though frozen vegetables can’t technically be stored in the pantry, Moncel still considers them pantry staples because of how often she uses them. The nice thing about frozen fruits and vegetables is that they’re just as fresh and healthy as fresh vegetables, because they’re always flash frozen right after they’ve been harvested. That means all the nutrients they have from the moment they’ve been picked will still be there when you finally decide to defrost them.
Frozen spinach is one of her favorite frozen products, because it’s way cheaper than fresh spinach. Plus, you get more bang for your buck, because frozen spinach is already shrunken, so you know exactly how much you’re getting, unlike with fresh spinach, which can go from being a lot to a little in no time.
Unlike their canned counterparts, frozen corn and peas both maintain that satisfying crunch that make those veggies delicious. Moncel adds them to everything from casseroles to soups.
Moncel also loves frozen broccoli, which she says you can roast and it will taste virtually the same as fresh roasted broccoli. (You can find her recipe for that here.)
Dry goods like rice, quinoa, lentils, and pasta.
“Dry goods are usually the inexpensive base ingredient that I build my meals on,” Moncel explains, “and because they don’t require refrigeration or special packaging, they’re always going to be super inexpensive.”
Some of Moncel’s favorites are quick-cooking ingredients like rice, quinoa, and lentils. “You can use these as inexpensive bases for bowl meals, to bulk up salads, make casseroles, or add to soups,” she explains.
And of course, Moncel loves pasta, especially now that there are so many different kinds available on the market. “Today there are so many varieties of pasta available for specific needs,” she says, “and even though these specialty pastas may be more expensive than normal pasta, they are still far less expensive per pound than dairy or meat, so they will help bulk up a meal without costing you a fortune.”
If you were to buy all of these ingredients at the same time, odds are it would last you for quite some time and everything would probably cost less than $20. So head to the store and stock up on them if you haven’t already, so you always have excellent building blocks to make affordable and delicious meals.