One thing that we can probably all agree on is that food is one of the biggest variable costs your family will have on any given month. When it comes to being ready to throw something together on the fly or go out to eat, you'd better be ready with something in the house that can actually make a meal your family will eat. Ideally, it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg.
Budget-friendly pantry staple ingredients
When it comes to stocking your pantry for cheap family dinners, it's important to focus on versatile ingredients that can be used in a variety of recipes. Here are some pantry must-haves that can help you prepare affordable - and even healthy - meals. I've got every one of these things in my kitchen:
Rice is an inexpensive staple that can serve as a base for many dishes, such as stir-fries, casseroles, or rice bowls. o
Pasta is another affordable and versatile ingredient that can be used in a wide range of recipes, from simple pasta dishes to hearty soups and bakes.
Canned beans, such as black beans, kidney beans, or chickpeas, are excellent sources of protein and fiber. They can be used in chili, stews, burritos, salads, or even to make bean burgers. I've even made my own version of "Santa Fe fRice & Beans," very similar to what you get in the single-serve frozen lunches. Bonus - refried beans can be heated for a chips + bean dip snack, too.
Canned tomatoes, whether whole, diced, or crushed, are a pantry essential for packing flavor into sauces, soups, casseroles, and lots of other dishes. They can go into a TON of recipes, such as the Santa Fe Rice & Beans, stuffed peppers, and more. Want a great-tasting and inexpensive homemade pasta sauce? Start with some crushed canned tomatoes!
Stock, broth or bouillon, no matter if it's homemade or store-bought, adds loads of flavor to soups, stews, and sauces. We've used dry bouillon cubes and even the "Better than..." pastes, too - if you don't have a can or carton of the liquid stuff, the cubes are inexpensive and keep well. Pro tip, grab a permanent marker and write the date that you opened the carton on the top if you don't use it all, so you're not staring at it three weeks later wondering if it's safe to use. (It's not!)
Onions and garlic form the base of many dishes and are key, inexpensive ingredients to keep on hand. They keep for a long time if stored properly.
Dried spices and herbs, such as cumin, paprika, oregano, thyme, and chili powder, can transform simple ingredients into delicious meals. You can throw together some amazing tacos without needing a store-bought seasoning packet. Home-cooked food shouldn't be bland.
Canned tuna or canned chicken are affordable and can be used in sandwiches, salads, or casseroles. We've dressed up canned chicken and used it in a variety of wraps for school lunches and lunches for the adults, too.
Peanut butter is probably on everyone's list, as it's a budget-friendly source of protein that can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. From a topping on your morning waffles to sandwiches at lunch and healthy fruit/veggie snacks to dressings and sauces at dinner, it's more versatile than you might think.
Eggs are an affordable source of protein and can be used in various ways, such as scrambled, poached, or in baked dishes. Hard-boiled eggs travel well in lunches and on road trips for simple snacks.
All-purpose flour is a pantry staple that can be used to make bread, pizza dough, pancakes, waffles, or as a thickening agent for sauces like our homemade macaroni & cheese that only takes about 20 minutes to get on the table. Speaking of pasta...
Dried salad dressing mixes and seasoning packets can add flavor to your dishes without the need for fresh ingredients. Think Italian pasta dish in your skillet or ranch potato wedges in the oven.
Frozen vegetables like peas, corn, and mixed vegetables mean you always have some veggies on hand to add to your meals. They've got frozen stir fry mixes, fajita veggies, and lots of combinations if you want more than just a single kind. I've even used frozen chopped onions to speed the dinner process and reduce tears from the chopping process.
Tortillas are always in our pantry, and can be used for wraps, tacos and burritos, fajitas and quesadillas. From breakfast burritos to wrapping a banana with some peanut butter or hazelnut spread, they're versatile and tasty substitutes for bread.
Remember, with these pantry staples, you can create a variety of meals while keeping the costs down. Combine them with fresh produce and proteins when available to throw together some affordable, yet delicious family dinners.