As I’ve described many times, our family’s normal meal-planning routine starts with the grocery store flyer. Each week, either Sarah or I will sit down with the flyer, look through the items on sale, and use those sale items as the basis for our meal plan.
Here’s a surprising truth, though: We gloss over the vast majority of items in the flyer. Most of the items that are on sale at the grocery store, from the boxed meals to the sweet cereals, are things that we simply don’t purchase, no matter the price.
That’s because part of our frugal values involve weighing the long-term cost to our health. The diseases and ailments brought about by unhealthy foods have a real financial cost and a real quality-of-life cost, too. It’s a cost that we want to avoid, even if those foods happen to have other appealing attributes.
Instead, we look for sales on a core list of foods that we rely on for our family meals. Those are food items that we’ll buy virtually every time that they’re on sale. We’ll often even stock up on them, filling up our pantry with extras.
Those foods really have to hit four criteria to make that list of core foods for our family.
First, they’re healthy. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, and so on make up most of the list. Those items provide the backbone of all of the meals that we eat as a family.
Second, they’re reasonably priced by default and very nicely priced on sale. These aren’t high-priced ingredients. They’re straightforward staples that you can get at a reasonable price at pretty much any grocery store. When they’re on sale, they become quite a bargain.
They work in lots of different dishes. The items on this list can be mixed and re-mixed in infinite ways. You can combine almost any pair of them together to make the basis for something interesting and tasty.
I can use them in some long-term fashion. Most of these items are dried goods, which means they have a long shelf life. Even the ones that are perishable can easily be frozen and used at a later date.
A final criteria: Our family has to like those foods. There are some items, such as button mushrooms, that I won’t buy because they’re disliked by a significant number of people in our home, to the point that they won’t eat meals with those ingredients.
Let’s take a look at 25 of the items on my “always” shopping list – the items I’ll always buy if they’re on sale.
My ‘Always’ Shopping List
Beans (including lentils) are something that I buy at the grocery store practically every week. I typically buy bags of dry beans and cook them myself because it’s far cheaper per pound and the beans end up much more flavorful.
Beans can be used in countless recipes: soups, stews, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and even mashed up to form patties for things like black bean burgers. We always have tons of dried beans on hand simply due to their versatility in so many recipes.
Rice is another “backbone” staple for many meals that has many of the same benefits as beans: you can store it dry and cook it when it’s convenient, it’s often very cheap per pound, and making it yourself makes it very flavorful.
I use rice as part of countless stir fry meals and within burritos, as well as a seasoned side dish for countless things that I make. Seasoned rice is such a common side dish in our family that it’s almost a running joke.
Quinoa is a grain-line fruit (it’s actually called a “pseudocereal”) that can be prepared in many of the same dishes that rice fits into, along with some other uses. It’s a very rich source of protein, fiber, and nutrients.
I’ve used quinoa as part of stir fry meals, for example, but I also use it in things like salads and even as part of the black bean burgers that I often make. It works in both sweet (fruit-based) and savory salads.
Popcorn is perhaps my favorite snack food in the world. I tend to buy it in large quantities and keep it around for popping at home. We have a popcorn popper, but sometimes I’ll just put some seeds in a brown paper bag with a bit of oil and pop it in the microwave – just turn it on high and wait until the kernels stop popping.
Popcorn is great because you can eat it plain or flavor it however you want. If you want a savory snack, it’s perfect for that – just sprinkle some salt or some garlic powder or some black pepper on it. If you want something sweet, toss it with a bit of sugar and cinnamon.
Unsweetened and unsalted nuts are another snack that I like quite a bit. They’re packed with fiber and protein, which makes for a really healthy snack. Plus, they serve a nice role in quite a few salads and other things (like cookies).
I prefer to buy them unsweetened and unsalted so that I can do that myself. It’s easy to just throw some nuts in a container, add just a bit of oil, shake them around, then add whatever seasonings you might want – sweet things for a sweet snack and savory things for a savory snack.
Apples, oranges, and bananas fill the same exact need for our family: They make a quick, healthy, and ultra-convenient snack for anyone who needs one. Having apples and bananas always available (and not having other unhealthy snacks around) makes it easy for everyone in our family to eat a little healthier while enjoying something tasty.
Not only that, both apples and bananas have lots of other uses, from salads to apple crisps and banana bread. We also often freeze them for uses in baked goods and smoothies later on.
Sweet potatoes are another staple of our diet around here. Sweet potatoes are pretty much just as flexible as ordinary potatoes, but substantially better for you.
Again, as with many of the other items on this list, sweet potatoes have the advantage of being able to work in sweet dishes – baked, with brown sugar, for example – or in savory dishes – sliced into fries and dipped into curry mayonnaise… mmmm.
Dates can be bought in bulk at a very inexpensive price at most grocery stores, and when there’s a sale on them, I buy them by the truckload. They last a long time, add a special little punch of sweetness to anything that needs it, and are pretty healthy to boot.
I absolutely love putting dates in my oatmeal for breakfast, tossing some into any cookies I make, mixing them into breads, using them in fruit salads… like everything else on this list, they work in so many situations.
Speaking of oats, our family buys both steel cut oats and rolled oats all the time, often in the biggest containers we can find. Oats are a very healthy grain and, as with many items on this list, they can work in both sweet and savory contexts.
Obviously, they make for a great breakfast centerpiece. Just cook ’em up with whatever you want to add (like apples, dates, bananas… all from this list) and you’re good to go with some amazing oatmeal. They also work very well in cookies. On the savory side, rolled oats work well as a “filler” in dishes as different as meatloaf and black bean balls.
Cabbage is a vegetable that I seem to always be able to find for a pittance, and I almost always pick some up if it’s on sale. Not only are there a lot of uses for it fresh, almost all of the best uses work just fine if you freeze the cabbage or the finished product, too.
My favorite use for cabbage is to ferment it and turn it into sauerkraut or kimchi. I would actually eat sauerkraut with every single meal, I so love the stuff. I often freeze the sauerkraut, too. You can also use cabbage in salads and soups and many other things to boot.
Sunflower seeds aren’t things you would eat as a main course for any meal, but having said that, they mix in with all kinds of things to provide a real nutritious boost. Their price per ounce is perhaps a bit high, but when I find them on sale, I’m all over them.
I’ll sprinkle them on salads, mix them into breads, or even eat them as a straight-up snack with a bit of salt and black pepper sprinkled in with them.
Carrots are another vegetable that can be prepared in a sweet way and in a savory way, depending on what you need. Carrots are a nutritional powerhouse and can be had for cheap if you keep your eyes open.
I love making a mean carrot cake with fresh carrots or cooking them in brown sugar for a side dish, but they’re also a powerful addition to any savory soup or stew that you might be making. They can also be grated and added to all kinds of salads, even sweet ones.
Spinach is easily my favorite leafy vegetable, but I’ll usually buy any leafy green that’s on sale and use them all in much the same way. That’s because leafy greens are super healthy and also super flexible.
You can put leafy greens on sandwiches, make salads out of them, bake them in casseroles, cook them as a side dish, “wilt” them with hot oil or fats… there are so many things you can do with whatever greens you happen to have available to you.
Honey is a delicious addition to many, many sweet dishes – and even some savory ones. If I can get a container of honey on sale, I’m buying it.
You can put honey into almost anything that needs a hint of sweetness, from cookies to iced tea and from oatmeal to pizza dough. It works in everything. Not only that, it can be used to heighten many savory dishes as well, such as baked ham.
Black peppercorns are something that we keep in abundance around our house. We like to buy them whole and then grind them ourselves.
Whole black peppercorns are a great thing to put in soups and stews for flavoring. I usually throw a big handful into any sort of stock that I make as well. Grinding up the peppercorns, however, provides a wonderful topping and flavor addition to almost any savory dish you can think of.
Garlic cloves are a fundamental part of so many different savory dishes that I can’t possibly count. There’s nothing that says “something delicious is cooking” than the smell of fresh garlic sizzling in a pan.
I use garlic cloves in practically everything, from tomato sauces to soups and from breads to salads. Garlic makes practically everything delicious!
Tomatoes, whether fresh (if they’re in season) or canned, form the backbone of countless healthy sauces and casseroles and salads. I even love to eat them sliced, with just a hint of black pepper and salt.
What can you use tomatoes for? I love using diced tomatoes to make a thick pasta sauce or to form the basis for salsa. I use tomatoes for toppings on tacos and burgers. I use tomatoes in chili as well as other soups and stews. I use them for countless delicious things!
Fresh herbs are great when you can find them for the right price; if not, dry herbs will do. During the right seasons, you can find fresh herbs for shockingly low prices and in those situations, I’ll buy a lot, use them when fresh, and dry what’s left.
Fresh (or dry, if I must) herbs go into almost every savory dish that I make. If it’s the centerpiece of an evening meal, chances are that I put some herbs in it of some kind. Basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon… they’re all wonderful things.
Eggs are sometimes maligned for their health benefits, but it entirely depends on how you prepare them. A hard-boiled egg, for instance, is a reasonably healthy and nutritious item. Not only that, eggs can be quite inexpensive, especially when you pick them up on sale.
I love eating an egg or two for breakfast, but they have other uses, too. They serve as a pretty good binder for all kinds of dishes and casseroles and even in things like black bean burgers. They’re also quite tasty as a snack if you hard-boil them.
Bell peppers are a flavorful component of all kinds of dishes around our home. As with some of the items on this list, the price of bell peppers varies widely, particularly with the season, but when I can find them cheaply, I buy a lot. I’ll even sometimes dice them along with onions and save containers of that in the freezer if I can’t use them all.
What can bell peppers go into? What can’t they go into! I put bell peppers in things as different as chili and scrambled eggs, into enchiladas and on baked potatoes, in tacos and in vegetable soups. It adds a wonderful flavor to everything – plus, they smell tremendous when you cook them with some diced onions and a bit of garlic. That aroma is pretty close to heaven.
Hot peppers, on the other hand, have a bit more limited use around our home as not everyone is on board with heat in their food. I use them in many of the same contexts as bell peppers, but the quantity I use is much smaller.
If I have extra hot peppers, I’ll often make some hot pepper sauce, taking the hottest peppers and cooking them down along with some tomato sauce and a few other ingredients (garlic, onions) until everything is a thick paste. Delicious!
Speaking of onions, these root vegetables are another staple of many, many dishes at our home. I consider the sauteed onion to be a flavor miracle, as there’s almost nothing better for jazzing up practically any savory dish than a well-cooked onion.
It’s so easy, too. Just put a bit of oil into a pan over medium-high heat, wait until the oil is shimmering, then toss in some diced onions and maybe a bit of minced garlic cloves and diced bell pepper. Cook them, stirring frequently, until the onions are just starting to brown and are at least somewhat translucent. Take the vegetables out of the pan, then splash a bit of white wine into the pan to remove anything that’s stuck to the bottom. Pour the white wine in with the vegetables. That mix of white wine, onions, peppers, and garlic is absolute magic and works in countless savory dishes.
Flaxseed might be the most surprising item on this list, but they’re incredibly healthy and they mix quietly into all kinds of dishes. They can be tricky to find at a great price, but twice in the last six months I’ve found discounted flaxseed and brought home quite a lot of it.
I mix flaxseed into breads, breakfast cereals, salads, cookies, and even into things like black bean burgers. It fits quietly into almost anything, never overpowering with flavor but adding just a bit of crunch and a lot of nutrition.
The items on this list are things that constantly find their way into my shopping cart. They form the backbone of most of the meals that my family regularly eats, so I’m sure to use them. Furthermore, these items tend to show up as complements in other recipes that I find, usually because there’s something more unusual in the grocery flyer.
Many of these items are dry items, meaning that they can last and last in our pantry. Some are fresh, but the fresh ones can easily be frozen or dried for later use; I often take old bell peppers and dice them up with onions, for example, and keep those in small containers in the freezer for the next time a recipe calls for them.
Because I know of so many uses for those items and I also know that they fit so well into things that my family likes, I almost always buy them when I see them on sale. That kind of familiarity also breeds a sense of deep understanding of the prices of those items, so I can quickly figure out how good the sale is based on recent prices in the area.
Of course, sometimes we don’t pay for these things at all. Many of these items are found in our vegetable garden. It’s a great time of the year when those items come in fresh from the garden, bearing no additional cost for us. Many of them are used immediately; when the abundance grows too great, we trade them and freeze them, too.
In short, these are the inexpensive things that make up the backbone of our family diet. They’re all healthy. They’re all tasty. They’re all very flexible. Thus, they’re all things that find their way into my cart and onto my dinner table.