One of the most transformative things you can do to alter your spending habits is to learn how to cook at home while using inexpensive staple foods as the backbone of your diet. In other articles – most of all, this one, which is one of my favorites I’ve ever written – I’ve identified six key staples that can make up the backbone of a healthy, tasty, and culinarily diverse diet: rice, beans, oatmeal, pasta, eggs, and on-sale fresh produce. Every single one of those items is incredibly inexpensive, at least reasonably healthy, and can be used in an absurd number of dishes in very different styles.
Still, you can’t just subsist on those items alone. While they’re the big leaders in terms of “bang for the buck” in the grocery store, there are many other items that I consider a tremendous bargain in terms of being healthy, tasty, and useful in a lot of different ways. I consider these items to be the “second tier” of value in the grocery store – if you’re filling your cart up with these items and the staples listed above, heading home, and making meals with all of this stuff, I’ll almost guarantee that you’re eating a healthy and low cost diet.
Let’s dig in!
You can easily find a pound of cottage cheese for $1 or $1.25 in my area, which is an amazing deal. I enjoy eating three or four ounces of cottage cheese (about a quarter of the container) with some pepper on top for a snack that costs about $0.30, or using it as a really easy side dish for a lot of meals, but that’s just the start.
For starters, cottage cheese is a pretty solid low-cost substitute for ricotta cheese in a lot of dishes that use ricotta, such as lasagna. You can puree it and add a few additional ingredients and it works as the foundation for a delicious and simple alternative to cheesecake (I’ve enjoyed these “cheesecake” bars and they’re tremendously tasty.). I love putting it on apple slices to make an apple have a little protein in it as a snack. You can puree it and use it as a spread for bagels or toast – it can be savory or sweet depending on what you add to it. You can use it to make a fantastic paneer, like this or this. You can even use cottage cheese to make scones!
It’s a really diverse ingredient in a lot of different dishes and different styles, it’s tasty on its own, and it can easily be remixed into sweet and savory items. Given that it’s also only a little more than a dollar a pound, it’s one of the better bargains on store shelves, and it’s a pretty healthy protein source to boot.
Whole carrots are almost always inexpensive in our area. I can typically find a pound of whole carrots for less than a dollar, which is far less expensive than buying baby carrots (which are basically cut up whole carrots. Not only that, whole carrots are actually easier to use for most purposes that aren’t centered around convenience snacking, and you can easily cut up whole carrots into discs that work well for a convenience snack like baby carrots.
Carrots, as with everything else on this list, have a ton of different uses. They’re pretty good just cooked on their own with a simple glaze, like these bourbon-glazed carrots. They shred really well and work in a lot of salads. You can puree carrots and basically use them alongside chickpeas in hummus. They’re amazing in all kinds of different soups, even as an unusual ingredient in things like chili. I loved mashed carrots with a bit of maple syrup for just a hint of sweet – you basically cook them and mash them like mashed potatoes. And then there’s carrot cake…
The best part is that carrots are extremely healthy. They’re one of the best foods you can eat and are a great source for beta-carotene. The fact that they’re tasty as a finger food, can be used in so many different ways, and don’t ding you at the cash register should make carrots a part of almost everyone’s shopping list.
Potatoes are incredibly inexpensive. You can easily get a pound of potatoes for less than $0.50, depending on variety, and they have such incredibly varied uses.
- You can bake them by simply wrapping them in foil, popping them in the oven, and then cutting them open and putting on some sour cream or butter.
- You can mash them by cutting them into cubes, boiling them, and then mashing those softened potatoes.
- You can cut them into strips and fry them in a deep fryer to get some delicious French fries.
- You can cut them into discs or wedges, wrap them in aluminum foil with a bit of olive oil and some herbs, and toss them on the grill for thirty minutes for amazing roasted potatoes.
- You can cut them into discs and cook them in a skillet with a bit of oil for fried potatoes. You can shred them, form them into discs, fry them in a skillet, and make amazing latkes.
- You can also just cook the shredded potatoes (or cut them into tiny cubes) for hash browns.
- You can take leftover mashed potatoes and make all kinds of things – I particularly love potato pancakes.
- You can cut them into thin discs and fry or bake them to make chips.
All of these things have infinite variations and infinite flavor possibilities. The fact that the humble potato can make a wonderful side dish for grilling, for a big family brunch, for a formal dinner, for a burger, for pretty much any meal and have it work in some variation is amazing, and the fact that you can pick pounds of them up for just a few bucks speaks to the value that potatoes can add to your diet. Naturally, you wouldn’t want a diet made entirely of potatoes, but they can definitely fill a role in a healthy, balanced diet.
Cabbage is one of my favorite unsung cheap foods. Not only is cabbage absurdly cheap, with a large head available for pocket change almost all year round, it’s got a ton of different uses for such a wide variety of foods.
When I was growing up, cabbage rolls were a frequent meal, consisting of small individual meatloaves wrapped in a large cabbage leaf and baked. There are infinite varieties on this – you can wrap almost anything in a cabbage leaf and bake it. Cabbage is also the backbone of a lot of great salads and slaws – shredded cabbage, a bit of shredded carrot, and some mayonnaise makes for a great quick side dish, for example, or you can get a little funky with it. Cabbage also cooks well in vegetable soups and stews and is an essential part of corned beef and cabbage which is incredibly popular around St. Patrick’s Day. You can slice it up for stir fry, roast it in the oven, or even use it for one pot pasta.
My favorite use, though, is sauerkraut. My father and grandfather both made homemade sauerkraut in crocks in their garages and sheds, shredding several heads of cabbage, adding salt, weighing it down, and covering it for several weeks until it was perfect – gently sour and salty and wonderful to eat as a side dish or on top of mashed potatoes or on a hot dog or bratwurst. I make mine like this, in individual wide mouth quart Mason jars with rings, these fermentation lids, and these glass weights to keep the cabbage below the brine. All you need beyond those things is cabbage, salt, and a little water, or maybe a few other ingredients if you’re experimenting with sauerkraut variants. I love sauerkraut and would eat it every day; kimchi is a similar fermented cabbage food that I also quite enjoy.
Cabbage is an item that’s easy to overlook in the grocery store, but don’t. There are many delicious uses for this humble vegetable.
Most apple varieties can be found for $1 per pound or so, making them a pretty inexpensive food. There are a few varieties that are more expensive – honeycrisps come to mind – but I like Galas and Granny Smiths and those are usually easily found for about $1 a pound or about $0.20 to $0.25 per apple. That’s a pretty sweet deal.
Apples are wonderful for the obvious reason – you can just grab one and start eating it for a sweet but still pretty healthy treat, and the core can simply be tossed. They also work as ingredients in tons of other dishes, from simple things like smoothies (just toss in a sliced apple) and apple cider (just cook apples into near-oblivion and strain out the big pieces with a cheesecloth) and apple butter to dishes like apple crisp and apple pancakes and apple pie and apple-cranberry chicken… it goes on and on.
One of my favorite uses for apples is to make apple cider vinegar, which is basically the liquid from fermented apple scraps. You basically just fill a jar mostly full with apple scraps, add some sugar to a cup of water, add water until they’re submerged, put a fermenting lid on top, and wait for three weeks. Strain it, put the liquid back in the jar, and let it sit for another three weeks with the fermenting lid on, and you’ll have apple cider vinegar. It’s actually very similar to making sauerkraut, as described earlier. Here’s a detailed recipe if you’re interested.
All of that for a buck a pound or so? That’s a pretty good food bargain if you ask me.
I can buy bananas at the store for $0.20 a pound. Now, it’s worth noting that at least some of that weight is the skin itself, but that’s still an astoundingly low price for the deliciousness and versatility of bananas. Much like apples, their default use is wonderful – grab one, start eating, toss the peel when you’re done – but there are many, many more uses for them.
Bananas are quite sweet, so you’re usually limited to sweeter things with them, but their extremely low cost, ease with which they can be eaten raw, and the diversity of dishes that they can be used in is quite wide. (And you really should try banana ketchup.)
Peanut butter is one of my favorite foods to have around the house. Often, when I want just a tiny snack, I’ll pull out a spoon, get a big spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar, and pop it in my mouth, and from there the spoon goes right in the dishwasher and the jar right back in the cupboard. It’s such an easy and inexpensive little snack, since a one pound jar of peanut butter is just a little more than a dollar and it’s so filling.
Of course, peanut butter can be used in tons of other things, from the simple things like peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and banana sandwiches and as an ingredient in smoothies to other items like peanut butter cookies, peanut butter pancakes, and peanut butter and chocolate brownies. I like putting a spoonful of it right in my oatmeal or on top of waffles or French toast in the mornings.
Where it really stands out for me, though, is when it’s used with savory foods. I love making pad thai with peanut butter right in with the vegetables (often along with a few peanuts, too). One of my closest friends swears by the use of peanut butter as a burger topping. It actually makes a really good salad dressing. On top of that, one of my favorite condiments is Dutch peanut sauce, which makes for an amazing condiment and French fry dip.
Our pantry wouldn’t be complete without a big jar of peanut butter in there, and as soon as we run even a little low, it’s instantly added to our grocery list.
While I absolutely love fresh tomatoes, they can be somewhat expensive when they’re not in season. On the other hand, canned tomatoes in all of their varieties (diced, crushed, tomato sauce, tomato paste) are all incredibly inexpensive, incredibly useful, and quite tasty, too. They’re really the only canned vegetable we use, and we use them quite often.
I can’t even begin to list the uses of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. I use them in all kinds of things, from making my own quick pasta sauce to making any number of different soups, from making salsa to producing a quick pizza topping or sauce, from making sloppy Joe sandwiches to making a delicious liquid for cooking grains (I’ll often use tomato sauce right in the liquid when cooking rice to imbue the rice with extra flavor and color, for example). We’ll use them in goulash and as a taco topping and in lasagna and as a topping on margherita pizza. I love mixing diced tomatoes with macaroni and a little salt for an excellent side dish or a quick lunch, or just simmer tomatoes with beans and cheese for an easy and quick dinner.
The uses for canned tomatoes in all forms – whole, diced, crushed, sauce, paste – are nearly infinite. I pretty much always have a few cans of each type in the pantry and I will stock up hard every time they go on sale.
Sweet potatoes might just be Sarah’s favorite food on the entire planet. She eats them constantly and in all kinds of different ways, and they’re generally not much more expensive than regular potatoes.
For the most part, Sarah likes to mimic the use of normal potatoes with them. She’ll bake them just like baked potatoes. She’ll make fries with them. She’ll mash them (except that she’ll often add a bit of maple syrup for just a bit of sweet). She’ll even grill them. She’ll also use them in things like stir fry, cutting them into little pieces and tossing them right in with the other vegetables.
However, what really makes sweet potatoes stand out is their use in sweeter dishes, things that don’t really click with normal potatoes. She’ll toss cooked sweet potatoes into smoothies. She’ll make sweet potato pie. She’ll put them in salads. I swear she’d sneak sweet potatoes into every meal we eat.
I’ll be the first to admit that sweet potatoes would not be my number one choice on this list, but given the low price and the love my wife has for them and the number of uses that they have, I have to give sweet potatoes a big mention.
- Read more: 10 Smart Ways to Use Leftover Sweet Potatoes
With this last entry, it’s worth noting that I am on a pretty strict plant-based diet for health reasons, so this isn’t something I actually eat myself lately. Having said that, whole chickens are, in my opinion, the absolute best meat bargain in the grocery store and would be on my list constantly if I were eating them. To be clear, when I refer to whole chickens, I mean both raw whole chickens from the store as well as the somewhat more expensive precooked rotisserie chickens. They’re both bargains.
With a rotisserie chicken, you have a ton of meat that’s ready to eat almost immediately. At the prices for which they usually sell, that’s enough food for several meals if accompanied by other items.
It’s easy to cook a whole chicken at home on the grill or in a slow cooker. If you prefer, you can also cut it up into pieces and cook them separately in any number of ways – grilling, frying, roasting, whatever works. You can remove the meat – cooked or otherwise – from the bone and use it in countless dishes, from chicken noodle soup to chicken salad, from white chili to chicken sandwiches, from chicken pot pie to fettuccine alfredo with chicken. The uses are nearly infinite, and the dark meat is often just as useful as the white.
In any case, when you are left with the carcass and any unwanted meat and skin, it’s wonderful for making chicken stock. Just put the carcass in a slow cooker, cover it with water, add a few peppercorns and some salt, and let it cook on high for many hours. Strain it and save the liquid – it makes for the backbone of many wonderful soups that use other ingredients in this article.
Whole chickens are a tremendous bargain, not only in the meat they provide, but in the delicious broth that you can get out of the carcass.
If your grocery list looks something like this…
Produce that’s on sale
Seasonings and spices
… you’re probably eating a pretty healthy and pretty low cost diet with a lot of day-to-day variety. It wouldn’t be hard to take the items on that list and make a pretty varied diet with just those items alone, nothing else. If you add a few items here and there for a few meals, you’ve got yourself a splendid low cost, nutritious, and healthy diet with a ton of variety.
Make yourself a meal plan and a grocery list with these essentials in mind and head out the door. You might just find the path to cheaper and healthier food is easier and tastier than you thought.