I asked about staples, ECAH answered.
Keeps forever and is also an enabler. Can be used to make anything from pancakes and muffins to biscuits, buns, and dumplings. If nutritional value is important to you even for this one staple, you can make your own with whole-grain or multi-grain flour and some variations of baking powder, baking soda, salt and fats from the enablers list.
Corn Muffin Mix
Often on sale for less than 40 cents a box. Can be used interchangeably with baking mixes for many of the uses listed above. Or mixed with cornmeal, some fat, and a little water to make tender tamales and arepas.
Brown rice is often the most nutrient dense rice you can get at a low price, but basmati and jasmine also have their benefits. Instant rice is a convenient enhancer for stretching soups and stews, but is basically straight raw carbs with little other nutrients.
Ahhh, Oatmeal the Omnipresent!
It's more versatile than most think, one could write a book just on cheap and healthy uses of good old rolled oats. Not to be overlooked for the dairy-averse is the ability to make oatmilk.
Cheap and easy crunch for snacking, soups, and salads.
Tamales, Tortillas, and Timbales. The nixtamalization process makes the nutrients in masa more bio-available than plain cornmeal, but does leave it with a distinctly earthy mineral flavor.
Versatile for use similar to masa and corn muffins, can also be used to thicken soups, make sausages and hashes, corn mush, polenta, and breading.
Keeps forever. Easy to prepare. Casseroles (Hotdish if you're from MN) for days! Don't overlook the ethnic grocer opportunities: I've gotten big quantities of long buckwheat noodles at the Asian food market for just a couple bucks.
Instant compact pasta. Delightful hot or cold. Can also be used as an ingredient in burger substitutes along with ground beans and vegetables.
Nutrient-dense and a meal in itself. All a potato needs to be delicious is heat and salt.
Sweet and Colored Potatoes
Take the humble potato up another level and increase the nutrient density and sweetness.
Instant Mashed Potatoes
More versatile than you think. Can be used to thicken cream soups and stews, make baked goods more tender, and make dumplings, pancakes, or lefse.
Admit it, you love ramen. Even expensive ramen can be a cheap meal. Go easy on the salt-heavy flavor packets and make your own sauces.
Whole Wheat Flour
A little extra fiber and nutrition over plain old all-purpose flour.
Multi - Grain Flour
Another step up in the nutrition game for a flour. I prefer to get one from the Indian/Asian grocery that has Wheat Flour, Soybean Flour, Oat Flour, Maize Flour, Finger Millet (Ragi) Flour, Barley Flour, Sorghum Flour, Chickpea Flour, and Psyllium Husk
A non-grain alternative to rice or couscous that also has a substantial amount of protein.
Good as a cereal, porridge, sausage extender, thickener for soups and stews, and lots of other applications.
So overlooked and so delicious. One thing to consider is cooking time.
Nice for making a bed of seasoned grain to go under a small cut of protein or make into a salad with parsley and acid/oil dressing.
Tortilla, Naan, Sandwich Bread, Rolls, Buns, whatever. It's often inexpensive, fast, and convenient.
Dried Beans, Peas, Lentils, Chickpeas, Splitpeas, etc.
As ubiquitous as oatmeal and for good reason. Fiber, protein, vitamins, and versatility.
Protein, healthy fats, good for snacking, enhancing cakes and baked goods, crunch on salads, and texture to sauces, soups, and stews.
Peanut, Sunflower, Almond. It's an ingredient, not just a spread for making sandwiches.
Textured Vegetable Protein is actually crumbles made from hydrating, cooking and then dehydrating soy flour. Add boiling water, let sit covered for a few minutes and it becomes a low-fat, high-protein substitute for ground meat in chili, pasta sauce, bbq sandwich, etc.
In addition to egg-specific preparations (boiled, fried, scrambled), they're a necessary component of many dishes and baked goods.
You can often but bacon ends for a fraction of the price of slab bacon. They have big flavor in small quantities, and are great for soups, stews, on salads, or anywhere else you'd use bacon. Of course you want to save those drippings for other stuff.
Always save bones for making soup, broth, or stock. Before the days of celebrity chefs on every TV channel, you could often get soup bones for free. Now you may have to pay a little for them, but it never hurts to ask at the butcher counter to see if you can get a deal.
Canned tuna in water or oil is cheap, clean protein. The large food club stores also often have packs of lower grade small tuna steaks that can't be sold at the premium that other tuna sells for. You can generally pick them up frozen for under $4 a pound.
Chicken Thighs / Chicken Breast
Bone-in chicken thighs often go on sale for super cheap. There's cooking fat to render from the skins, broth to be made with the bones, and a lot of tasty meat. Chicken breasts are a ubiquitous ingredient of lean protein eating.
Ham and Turkey ham have an incredible shelf life, strong flavor that goes a long way in casseroles and soups, and it makes good sammiches.
Canned Tomatoes, Sauce, Paste, Diced, and Stewed
Foundational ingredients for pasta dishes, curries, soups, stews, condiments, and sauces.
Canned Mixed Veg / Veg-All
Corn, Beans, Peas, Potatoes, Lima Beans - It's a complete meal in a can… but it's also great for adding to soups, making pot pies, adding to flour gravy to pour over biscuits, etc.
Frozen Vegetable Mixes
Gone are the days of only having a few frozen vegetable mixes available. Now you can get affordable frozen vegetables specifically for recipes, like grilled onions and peppers, mirepoix mix, stir fry blends, or bell peppers and mushrooms,
Cheap, filling, loads of fiber. Raw, steamed, skillet fried, boiled and made into stuffed rolls, used for noodles in soups, pickled.
Great for salads, stir fry, soups, and sauces.
Great for salads, stir fry, soups, and sauces.
Make sure to re-pot those roots for ever-growing onion tops
Too much to be said about the flavor and value of onions. Utterly indispensable.
Carrots keep a long time, and are a snack by themselves. Preparations are too numerous to list.
Essential ingredient for making stocks, broths, and many dishes. Can't have Mirepoix or Cajun Trinity without it.
Cheap, filling, and incredibly versatile.
Cheap, filling, and incredibly versatile.
Pumpkins are cheap after Halloween and Thanksgiving. Seeds are edible. Use the insides interchangeably with squash, bake the whole pumpkin and use the puree for soups, stews, curries, dessert puddings, breads and rolls. I even use baked pumpkin puree and masa to make tamale dough.
Often overlooked and exceptional flavor enhancers. Buy them at the Mexican/Latin American grocery for pennies. Rehydrate them for use in bigger pieces in recipes or powder them up for seasoning.
Use to make condiments, eat plain, add to baking mix to make muffins and cakes.
Lemons and Limes
Acids add life to food. Use to make salad dressings, zest for sweets. One lemon or lime can enhance dozens of servings of food.
Whatever's On Sale
Fruit tends to be more seasonal than most other foodstuffs, keep an eye on what's in season, and buy bruised and uglies at a discount.
Smoothies, pancake toppings, filling for handpies and biscuits. You can often find deals at a fraction of the price of fresh produce.
Good for snacking, packed with fiber, and an excellent enhancer for cereals and porridge, baked goods, and savory sauces.
Dairy and Substitutes:
Yoghurt and Kefir
Make parfaits, use interchangeably with sour cream, crema, and other cultured dairy. Also an essential ingredient in many international cuisines.
I don't see it often on these lists, but it can be blended to make sour cream substitute, seasoned and eaten as salad dressing, used in pasta dishes, and baked into pastries and fruit desserts.
Hard cheeses keep well and have stronger flavors in smaller quantities. Parmesan and Sharp Cheddar can add a great deal of flavor in small quantites.
American Cheese Singles
Grilled cheese sandwiches are a cheap comfort sometimes. One 40 calorie slice with some grated parm or shredded cheddar can elevate the hell outta some bread. Also a good enhancer for base white sauce for homemade mac, rarebit, etc.
Nonfat dry milk
Needed for some baked good recipes, adds flavor to dumplings, instant potatoes, gravies and sauces. A little goes a long way.
Essential for making some curries, soups, and stews.
Recipe Enablers: (things that make your ingredients into food)
Active Dry Yeast or Sourdough Starter
Light Cooking Oil
Malt, Cider, or Wine Vinegar
Distilled White Vinegar
Lemon or lime juice concentrates
Browning Sauce (Maggi, Kitchen Bouquet)
Starch (arrowroot, corn, Wondra)
Cookware and Storage (especially if you've got limited space):
(side note: I've been able to buy every one of the appliances, except a microwave, at a thrift store for less than $15)
Single Burner or Hot Plate
Electric Skillet or Griddle
Bullet Mixer/Blender/Food Procesor
Freezer bags (1 gal, 1 qt, and Snack Size)
Canning Jars and Lids
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