|Beauty tucked in among the pole beans|
Today I thought I'd share my priorities for deepening the pantry on a very tight budget. A Commenter asked about how much I spend a month. Most months there is less than $100 dollars to spend on food so I have to be a careful shopper. :)
My priorities have to be inexpensive but also healthy, although I have included items in the list which are pricier convenience foods that can be purchased on sale.
My Pantry Priorities
on a tight budget
on a tight budget
1. Old Fashioned, Quick, and Steel Cut Oats
It is interesting to me that many inexpensive foods are also considered Power Foods (foods that are nutrient rich and promote good health).
Oats are always in my pantry and they are considered a Power Food. Right now I have all three types of oatmeal on my shelves because I was given a couple bags of quick oats and I do use them for baking.
I don't use instant oatmeal, it only takes five minutes to cook old fashioned oats (one minute for quick oats) and they are highly nutritious, lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and add fiber to the diet.
I have a box of steel cut oats waiting on the shelf to try by cooking in a small Crock-Pot overnight. I'll let you know how it works.
My favorite way of serving oats in summer is baked oatmeal. I use a Mennonite Girls Can Cook recipe that is delicious and easy to change up a bit with other fruits, dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips, etc.
I slice it into squares and freeze part of it for us to pull out of the freezer for breakfast or a snack. That recipe is... here.
2. Pasta and Popcorn
I've said it before, even really good pasta is reasonably priced enough to purchase instead of the cheap stuff (that turns into glue). I keep spaghetti, thin spaghetti, fettuccine, rotini and similar shapes (for pasta salad), elbow macaroni, and orzo.
I also like good quality dried egg noodles, I find a great price for Amish egg noodles at Target.
There are so many other options in pastas and noodles at the grocery store such as Asian noodles, wonton wrappers, etc.
There is so much you can do with the various kinds of pasta whether they are being used to stretch the protein in a casserole, add to soup like orzo, or they act as the star of the show in pasta salad.
Popcorn is an excellent, healthy, and cheap snack. I have purchased popcorn in bulk when I was part of a food co-op. Now I purchase bags of popcorn at the store and pop it in my dutch oven. If I find a really, really good price on Orville Redenbacher's microwave popcorn, I've been known to put a couple boxes in my grocery cart. That's hubby's favorite popcorn.
3. Beans and Rice
Aha! You knew I'd get around to beans and rice... the epitome of pantry foods! Beans and brown rice are both considered a power food.
There is a reason cultures around the world have beans and rice as the basis of their diet. They are cheap, beans are an extremely good source of protein, and together they marry to form a perfect protein... or so I have been told.
I purchase beans in a bag as opposed to in bulk. I have pinto beans, northern beans, black beans, and those beautiful bags that contain lots of various legumes. I have dry beans and a few cans (especially good for a quick chili recipe).
I also like to have two types of lentils, regular brownish lentils for soups and the smaller French lentils for soups or salads. My preference is for the latter when I can get them at a good price. I don't keep split peas in my pantry these days but I have at one time.
Since I am a diabetic, I'm not suppose to eat white rice and while I do like brown rice, it tends to quickly go rancid, especially in this heat (you can store it in the freezer with other grains).
However, I have found that Uncle Ben's converted brown rice has a fairly long shelf life and it is good for people who don't normally like brown rice. I did a little research and it appears to have retained most of its' nutrition. I currently have both brown rice and Uncle Ben's brown (not the white) converted rice on my shelf. Sometimes I'll keep a package of the Original Uncle Ben's rice mix to make my mother-in-law's chicken casserole.
One of my friends buys large bags of rice (I think Jasmine rice) at the grocery store really cheap.
4. Flour, Sugar(s), and my opinion of storing Wheat
I prefer King Arthur flour for everyday use, even if it is a little more expensive. I always have their unbleached all purpose flour on my shelves and when possible, their bread flour.
King Arthur also sells a white whole wheat flour that I've heard is very good. When I can't afford King Arthur, I like Gold Medal unbleached flour.
Bread is truly the staff of life and by making my own (a variety of breads), I have a nutritious way of filling tummies at little cost... not to mention rolling dough out to make cinnamon rolls.
I remember one cold winter day when I decided to make Indian Fry Bread at the last minute and it turned a rather bleak, dark day into a celebration! My recipe (the original from The Feast of the Hunter's Moon) is... here.
After attending the cooking class with Stephanie at Colonial Williamsburg, I have really good cornmeal on the shelf (although it probably should be kept in the refrigerator) to make the delicious iron skillet cornbread.
I always have white sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners sugar on the shelves. With these three, I can make almost any dessert for a celebration. I try to keep raw local honey for making bread on hand, too. It can be expensive but it is highly nutritious and my bread is not the same without it. I buy it at the Farmer's Market where I get to chat with the beekeepers and it is far cheaper than the health food store.
I've written about storing wheat before but I want to repeat my feelings about it. It bothers me when I see that wheat should be a priority to store for an emergency even if it is never used on a daily basis. Should you suddenly stop using white flour and start using ground wheat, the texture and the taste of your bread will not be what you have been used to (unless you have been buying 100% ground whole wheat bread from someone) nor would your body easily digest it.
However, if you have a wheat grinder and regularly use it then it is one of the cheapest ways to add excellent nutrition and fiber to your diet. I made an investment in a wheat grinder in the 1990s when I found out freshly ground wheat would help my husband's illness.
I try to have an extra bucket of wheat although my friend who ordered it for me moved away. I have always used white wheat since it had just become available when I started grinding wheat at home.
I will add here that I also keep baking powder (non-aluminum), baking soda, salt, yeast, spices, herbs, cocoa, etc. for the purposes of baking. I store yeast in the refrigerator but I also know people who store it in the freezer.
5. Canned Tomato Products
Give me tomatoes and pasta and I will rule the world! Well, kinda', at least I can put dinner on the table. I always try to have canned whole tomatoes and canned stewed tomatoes on hand (I've mentioned before that stewed tomatoes were my mother's secret flavor ingredient!).
When possible, I also will stock Italian style tomatoes and tomatoes already seasoned for chili (or Mexican foods).
6. Dried Fruit and various other Power Foods
This may seem rather odd for a list of necessary items on a budget! However, dried cranberries and dried cherries are reasonably priced (especially at the Holidays) and they are power foods that pack a lot of nutrients.
I use both in salads as well as baked goods. It doesn't take a lot of them in a recipe to add color and nutrition.
Other dried fruits such as apricots, plums, dates, pineapple, etc. are also very nutritious (although diabetics must be careful with them). Some are expensive, others are cheap.
Speaking of cranberries... I buy packages when they are on sale and I watch for clearance prices after Thanksgiving and then after Christmas. I slip three packages in each gallon size ZipLock bag and throw them in the freezer to be used all year. They are loaded with nutrition.
Another power food I always stock up on during the Holidays is canned pumpkin. It is SO good for you! I use it to make pumpkin bread and pumpkin cookies but there are numerous ways to use pumpkin. Someday I may try growing my own small pumpkins but right now I depend on Libby's.
Another power food is salmon. I cannot afford fresh salmon but I do keep canned salmon on the shelf. Friends of ours have gifted us with canned salmon off and on to help my husband's osteoporosis. I make salmon patties, it's an inexpensive way to get salmon in the diet. Hubby said he didn't like salmon patties but he likes my recipe... here.
Nuts have a lot of protein and I've found ways to include them in my pantry at limited cost. For instance, I can't always afford whole almonds but I can add some sliced almonds to various recipes for added nutrients and flavor. I almost always have chopped walnuts in the refrigerator (or freezer) for baking.
Among the least expensive healthy foods I can afford are peanuts. There are brands of canned peanuts and mixed nuts that are very reasonable.
I love pecans but can only purchase them when I have extra funds and then I usually get the bags titled pecan chips as they are just fine for baking and sprinkling on salads. They also get stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
Then there is the ubiquitous pantry item... peanut butter. I keep it on the shelves as it is highly recommended by my nutritionist. I also purchase Nutella from time to time... it is a party in a jar. I have... during more prosperous times... kept other nut butters on the shelf for variety.
8. Oils, Butter, and other fats
Did you know one of the causes of death during wartime was a lack of fat in the diet? We don't think of such a thing in Western Society where diet books are bestsellers.
I have a couple extra bottles of vegetable oil and one bottle of olive oil on my shelf right now. I prefer canola oil and purchase it when possible (the vegetable oil was given to us).
I never use margarine since I can still purchase butter at a decent price at a few stores. I'm sure most of you know by now that the old myth that margarine is healthier than butter was that... a myth. It's basically eating plastic and I have enough health problems without doing that. Butter is a natural food and eaten in moderation... is not unhealthy (moderation being the key).
I always have one can of spray oil in the cabinet that my husband uses when he fixes his eggs each morning. Getting hubby to cook anything at all is worth the price of a can of Pam (although we buy the Kroger brand usually).
I also have... and I'm not ashamed to admit it... sticks of Crisco on my shelves. They are an important part of two favorite cookie recipes. I have stopped using Butter Flavored Crisco, I thought it was just a change in my taste buds but Stephanie also thought it now has an aftertaste.
I also always try to have butter in the freezer, milk in the frig, aseptic packages of milk (used mostly for cooking), evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk in the pantry. I have, in the past, had dry milk on the shelves for cooking.
9. Comfort Foods
Sometimes comfort foods can be inexpensive such as a cake made from scratch or a pie with fruit we picked ourselves. Other times it can be expensive but if I find a great sale, I'll purchase family favorites.
For instance, we love potato chips but they cannot be a priority (popcorn purchased in a bag is much cheaper, healthier, and lasts longer in this family). However, we have tried a few store brands that are good and cheap so I will purchase a bag as a treat. Since they are not on my approved list of foods, I have to put about eight or ten (according to size) in a small bowl rather than eating from the bag. ;)
Here's a list of food I have kept on hand off and on. I never have everything on this list, often just a few. But I wanted to give as exhaustive a list of convenient comfort foods as I could think of and I'm certain you have others in your pantry.
Remember, most of these are listed for comfort and served rarely. :)
Chocolate (I love milk chocolate but dark chocolate IS a power food)
Instant mashed potatoes (instant carbs but fabulous for stretching a meal)
Macaroni and Cheese (usually Kraft but I prefer Amy's when the budget allows)
Cake mixes (for cakes, cupcakes, and to mix with canned fruit or canned pie filling for recipes)
Brownie mixes (Christopher prefers these to my homemade!)
Pancake mix (so easy to make from scratch but I keep at least one add-water-only on the shelf, too)
Syrup (sugar free for me, regular syrup for hubby, real maple syrup for both of us when there is extra grocery money)
Jiffy cornbread mix (can be poured over chili to make a casserole)
Canned soups (a variety, I always try to have chicken and noodle soup for when we are ill)
Cereal (usually Cheerios for me or Raisin Bran for hubby)
Instant pudding (Mom often added layers of sliced bananas and vanilla wafers for a quick dessert )
Cookies (homemade in the freezer or a high quality package)
Crackers (saltines, Triscuits, graham crackers, and sometimes Ritz)
Granola Bars (Good quality with nuts for protein if there are no nut allergies in your home)
Trail Mix (purchased or mixed up at home)
Candy (M & Ms can be used to make the above trail mix, just don't tell me where you hid them)
Coffee (hard for me to store as it is expensive but without it I will experience Tribulation with a capital "T")
Hot Chocolate (and mini marshmallows)
Powdered Coffee Creamer (hydrogenated but useful when the real thing is not in the house)
Splenda (for my coffee and tea)
Apple Cider K-cups (a personal addiction in cold weather)
Lemon Lime type soda pop (regular or sugar free for illness)
Powdered Lemonade and Ice Tea mixes (or condensed lemonade or juice in the freezer)
Spam (believe it or not, I love thinly sliced Spam, fried until it is crispy)
Summer Sausage (available cheap around Christmas, not bad sliced on crackers... not a long shelf life but reasonable when kept cool)
Precooked Bacon (I'm not sure of the shelf life but it does not have to be refrigerated)
The above is definitely not an extensive list, I know I'm forgetting many items but hopefully it will inspire you to start your own list.
10. Putting it all Together
I have learned through the years that it doesn't do any good to have items in the pantry and not be able to use them to put dinner on the table.
So when I think of priority items for my very small budget, I need to think of those which will work together. It's the same when I shop for refrigerator and freezer items.
I purchase meat on sale and the priority is to buy a cut of meat I know I can use to stretch the food budget. I can make quite a few different meals with ground beef, various pastas, tomatoes, and different seasonings.
Whole chickens, turkeys, and ham are all great for multiple meals (turkeys and ham are the cheapest at various Holidays and all three freeze well).
Since there are just two of us at home now, I love having a bag of frozen tilapia in the freezer. With it I can defrost just enough for our dinner, add veggies... and dinner is served. I know... it is probably from another far away country but I have to purchase what I can afford and say grace over my food. :)
I look for frozen vegetables and fruit on sale, too. The frozen vegetables are on the 10 for $10 sale once in awhile at two of my grocery stores.
I always make milk and eggs a priority. When eggs are on sale, I'll buy as many as four dozen as they last FAR beyond their sale-by date. I've already mentioned buying butter on sale and storing it in the freezer.
Cheese is always a priority to make a meal and for recipes. I almost always only purchase it on sale. I like of blocks of cheese to serve with crackers, packages of shredded cheeses for cooking (or I shred blocks of cheese), and when I have the money... string cheese for my snacks (suggested by my nutritionist).
I always try to have cream cheese in the refrigerator (although I used all my supply for the wedding reception... it was a good cause). I wait until I see a really, really good sale and then buy as many as ten... they have a long shelf life in the frig.
Stephanie left behind blue cheese from their visit and I've been sprinkling it on my salads along with dried cranberries... yum. Such cheeses (blue cheese, Parmesan cheese, feta, etc.) are not a priority but are nice to have.
I don't use a lot of processed meats but two items I purchase (on sale) are bacon and thinly sliced ham (the kind in the plastic containers that can be reused). I cut the package of bacon in half (up the middle of the package) and fry it this way instead of serving it whole (the other half goes in the frig for another meal).
Other than a few half slices on a BLT sandwich, I like to serve bacon crumbled to add flavor to scrambled eggs, on homemade pizza, in a quiche... many ways to just add a little flavor. I always keep the bacon fat to use later, often to fry sliced potatoes and onion in the fat to add flavor. (I could just see the look on my mother's face if I threw it away.)
I slice the thinly sliced ham into strips or chop it finely to use in scrambled eggs, quiche, or even on a homemade pizza. By adding meat like this just for flavor, it stretches money and cuts down on our fat content we eat (not to mention preservatives). I have a package in the refrigerator right now, purchased for $2.99 that I plan to finely chop for a homemade pizza and for a quiche... two meals and a container left over to use in the pantry.
Some other ideas to have on hand to make a meal are: taco and burrito shells (I prefer the soft kind of tortillas, either corn or wheat) stored in the frig or freezer, Boboli (or other brand) pizza crust, biscuits in the tube (I actually like refrigerator biscuits better than my homemade recipe), Pillsbury pie crust (good for more than just pies), English muffins, pita bread, hamburger and hot dog buns, etc.
Obviously many of the items listed above can all be homemade and frozen, too. Some items like Boboli pizza shells are very expensive if not purchased on sale but I have found the other brands to be fine. Since I deal with intense fatigue at times, products like premade pizza shells help put a quick dinner on the table.
Lest I forget the obvious, I can't imagine life without potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and other seasonal root veggies like cabbage.
Feel free to add your ideas in the Comments.