Over the years, I've written several different lists of inexpensive food staples with an eye towards looking for foods that are incredibly inexpensive and yet are flexible enough to go with lots of different meals and foods. I particularly like this one that focuses on foods sorted by cost per calorie.
However, I rarely go beyond that and actually talk about how to really use them at home to save money. Sure, you might know that it's cheap to buy some of the items on this list, but transforming that into anything tasty, convenient, and meaningful in your kitchen is another story entirely. Particularly for people new to home cooking, a big bag of uncooked rice or a pile of fresh produce seems intimidating. What do you do with it?
Today, I want to talk about six inexpensive staples I actually use all the time at home and some of the simplest ways I know of to prepare them. I hope this guide will help you get started with making foods at home in an inexpensive way.
Rice is the most important grain in the world in terms of caloric intake, making up one fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide. For many, many people, it forms the backbone of their diet. Yet it's often overlooked in America, which doesn't have a major agricultural or culinary tradition centering around rice.
Yet, rice is an incredibly inexpensive and incredibly flexible food that works so well in such a wide variety of dishes. It deserves to be a significant part of any frugal kitchen.
First, let's look at the cost. A pound of dry white rice can be found for $0.69, on average. It triples in size when cooked, so the actual cost of a pound of cooked white rice is somewhere around $0.25, including the cost of the water and the energy to cook it. That's astounding.
Of course, there are many variations on rice with different price points, but most of them trend toward the very inexpensive end of the spectrum.
The question is what do you do with dry rice once you get it in the home. You've bought a bunch of rice. Now what?
The easiest method I've found, in terms of pure convenience, is to use a rice cooker. Rice cookers can often be found at secondhand stores for just a dollar or two, so the expense isn't that great, and they're incredibly easy to use. Generally, you just add rice, add water up to the appropriate line for the amount and type of rice, turn on the rice cooker, choose the mode matching the type of rice in there, and hit "Start." At some point in the next thirty minutes to two hours, you'll have a bunch of cooked rice.
Once you have cooked rice, you can easily store it in the refrigerator for use in the next several days. In fact, I have a friend who just cooks rice as part of a routine three times a week, just putting it in the fridge when done, so that he always has rice on hand for any meal.
One great tip: cooking rice with broth instead of water imbues a lot of flavor into it. If you happen to have some broth on hand, just use that instead of the water and the rice will absorb that flavor like a sponge. (It's easy to make your own broth, too - just save scraps of a certain type, whether it's vegetables, chicken scraps and bones, beef scraps and bones, whatever - and put them in a slow cooker all day long when covered with water, then strain out the pieces when done.)
Now that you have cooked rice on hand, what do you do with it? The possibilities are truly endless.
One simple thing to do is to add it to a soup. Rice will bulk up any soup with ease without sacrificing the flavor one bit. Just make a simple vegetable or beef or chicken soup and add some of your cooked rice to it when it's almost done. Boom - instant heartiness.
You can fry rice really easily in a bit of oil. Just add whatever chopped vegetables or small pieces of meat you have on hand, or else scramble an egg or two before adding the rice. You can easily add any sort of flavorful sauce you wish to the mix before serving it - soy sauce is a good default, but don't be afraid to try others.
I personally like to make "monk bowls," which basically consist of putting some cooked rice in a bowl and topping it with my favorite proteins and veggies (or whatever I have on hand), adding a bit of sauce to the top, and warming it up.
Another nice trick is to make a casserole by mixing together 2 cups of cooked rice, 1 cup of a protein (cooked chicken pieces, cooked beef pieces, baby shrimp, tofu, tempeh - whatever), 1 cup of a chopped vegetable, 1 1/2 cups of a thick liquid (cream, a soup, something like that), and 1/4 cup of something flavorful like shredded cheese. Put it in a casserole dish or a 9" by 13" pan that can hold all of it, put a bit of flavoring on top (like a bit more shredded cheese), and bake it at 350 F for 30-45 min. In fact, I wrote about the greatness of this "flexible casserole" recipe years ago.
In short, if you have some sort of protein - chicken, beef, pork, eggs, tofu, tempeh, whatever - and some sort of vegetable - broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, whatever you like - you can probably make something tasty with rice. It's just that flexible.
I often talk about my love of beans on The Simple Dollar. They come in such varied sizes and flavors and culinary uses that you can almost always find at least some beans that you like. The best part? They're really cheap and really easy to prepare.
Beans can be found for $1 to $2 per pound for most common types of beans, according to the Bean Institute. Beans also double or triple in weight after soaking and cooking, which reduces the cost to $0.33 to $1 per pound for cooked beans, depending on the type, with many beans on the lower end of that range. That's cheap eating, my friends.
Preparing dry beans is really easy. Just put a sufficient quantity of dry beans in your slow cooker - whatever kind you like - and cover them with water so that there's about a pinky finger of depth over the top of the beans and let them soak overnight. The beans will swallow up the moisture like a sponge. After that, pour off the water and replace it, then look up how long you need to cook that bean type in a slow cooker to cook it, as cooking times vary. You can find this with a Google search, like "black beans slow cooker time." You'll just turn it on low for however long you're supposed to, drain off the remaining liquid if you so wish, and then you have a big batch of cooked beans!
As with rice, cooked beans can easily store in the refrigerator for a while in a closed container. Cook them now and use them later when you need them.
What do you do with those beans? You can do all kinds of things. Make black bean tacos or bean burritos. Mash them and cook them into refried beans. Mix them in with scrambled eggs and a bit of salsa. Puree them with a bit of olive oil and other flavorful things to make hummus or a bean dip. My favorite? Soups. All kinds of soups, from a thirteen bean soup to a bean-y chili, use beans to great effect.
As with the above items, pasta is something that's incredibly inexpensive, incredibly easy to prepare, and incredibly flexible on the table. It's super cheap to buy in the store and, believe it or not, even cheaper and tastier to make yourself, though it takes some time.
In the store, dried pasta can be found for about $1 to $2 per pound and it increases slightly in weight while cooked depending on the variety. On the other hand, a pound of fresh pasta can be made for about $0.50 at home as it requires just eggs, salt, and flour.
Making it yourself takes some time but the process is very simple - you just mix two cups of flour, three eggs, and half a teaspoon of salt until it forms a yellowish dough, then knead it for about ten minutes. Let it sit for thirty minutes, then roll it out flat on a very well floured area. Fold it in thirds, roll it out super flat again, then flour both sides well and roll it up and thinly slice it. Take the individual noodles and toss them in flour and you're ready to go. (A manual pasta machine makes this easier but costs $20 or so; a fully automatic one makes this way easier but is quite expensive.) The best part is that you can easily sneak in more flavor by adding a bit of very finely chopped herbs or finely minced garlic right into the dough.
Cooking pasta is easy. Boil some water in a pot on the stove, toss the pasta in there, check it every minute or two to see if it's done how you like it. If it is, drain the water (or just scoop all the pasta out of the water) and serve it as you wish. That's it. It can't get much easier than that.
What can you do with it? You can add olive oil. You can add almost any herb you can imagine. You can add minced garlic. You can add chopped cooked meats. You can add all kinds of cheeses. You can add butter. You can add chopped vegetables. You can add chopped mushrooms. You can add any kind of pasta sauce. It's just so flexible. Just add things that seem tasty to you and you'll be fine.
Eggs are very inexpensive for the amount of protein and flavor they pack into those thin shells. They're also incredibly flexible in terms of their uses in foods.
The cost of an egg is really low - about $0.15 per grade A egg is the current national average. Naturally, you pay more for specific kinds of eggs - organic, free range, and so forth.
How do you cook eggs, then? It depends on how you like them, but it's usually quite easy. Whole eggs can be quickly boiled to make hard-boiled eggs. They can be scrambled by simply cracking a few eggs into a bowl and stirring them vigorously with a fork and a pinch of salt, then cooking them in a skillet with a bit of butter. You can also just crack them right in the skillet and fry them - again, just have a bit of melted butter in there and flip them over when you can get a spatula under them. It takes a little bit of work to learn how to fry an egg or cook scrambled eggs, but even when you mess up, the result is still usually edible and if you mess up too bad you've only wasted $0.50 in food or so.
What can you do with eggs, though? The possibilities are almost endless. I dearly love hard boiled eggs and will often boil and peel a dozen to keep in the fridge in a bowl for quick snacks or meals. We often have scrambled eggs for dinner, and we occasionally will have a fried egg for breakfast. Scrambled eggs are fantastic on their own, or as a component in a breakfast burrito (wrap scrambled eggs in a tortilla with cheese, salsa, and/or other things you like). You can chop hard boiled eggs up and make egg salad quite easily. You can also simply cook them in chicken broth and have simple egg drop soup.
My favorite? I fry a couple of eggs in a skillet and then chop them up and mix them in with fried rice and a bit of soy sauce to make a delicious dish by just adding all the rice to the skillet after chopping up the egg with the spatula, then cooking the rice just a bit, then adding sauce and serving it.
Fresh produce is a key part of our weekly diet; we usually make meal plans with whatever fresh produce happens to be on sale that week. If you simply follow the sales, you'll find yourself trying out a wide variety of vegetables and fruits over time, and that gives you a good reason to try them all and figure out what you like.
The cost is obviously variable because of what's on sale, but you can often find a pound of the produce on special for as low as $0.25. At that price, if you don't like it, it's not a big deal.
How do you cook that produce? It really depends on what you have. A lot of vegetables and fruit can simply be eaten raw in a salad or just on their own. Many other types of vegetables can easily be steamed in the microwave using a simple water bath technique, as described in this great article over at the Food Lab.
What can you do with them? Again, it depends so much on the type of produce you have. Vegetables work well as a side dish with basic seasoning or as a salad. Depending on the vegetable, it can be a key ingredient in all kinds of dishes. Some vegetables are delicious if fried; others are great when you bake them; still others are boiled and mashed. The key is to research the type of produce you have and find some interesting way to prepare it. Most preparations are really easy, however. Google, as always, is your friend when looking for basic directions.
My final key kitchen staple is oatmeal, either in the "rolled oats" variety or in the "steel cut" variety. Oatmeal is my morning breakfast most days, simply because it's so easy to quickly cook in the microwave or prepare the night before in the slow cooker.
How expensive is it? Not much. Plain oatmeal costs about $0.50 a pound dry, depending on the type. Typically, steel cut oats are a bit more expensive per pound, but not overly so. I usually just buy oatmeal from the bulk bins at my local grocer, filling up a bag with the oatmeal of my choosing.
Since oatmeal can double or triple in weight when cooked in water, the cost actually goes down to about $0.25 a pound cooked.
How does one cook it, then? Oatmeal can easily be mixed with water and cooked in a microwave. You can take half a cup of steel cut oats, add two cups of water, cover the bowl with a large plate, and microwave it for five minutes. Stir it, remove the plate, and microwave it again for five minutes. You're good to go! Rolled oats are similar - just combine half a cup of rolled oats and a cup of water and microwave in a covered bowl for three minutes. That's it.
Another technique is to just add fruit juice to dry oatmeal and leave it in the fridge overnight, just heating it up in the morning if you like. You can also mix it with yogurt and fruit the night before and leave it all night in the fridge for a "parfait" style breakfast.
However, my favorite preparation is steel cut oats in a slow cooker. You just put the oatmeal in there the night before with some water and perhaps a few other ingredients then leave it on low overnight. Here are the details.
What can you do with oatmeal? Add sweet flavorings to your heart's content - sugar, honey, and molasses all work. Add spices like cinnamon or nutmeg. You can toss in diced fruits or dried fruits or whatever nuts you like. You can also take it in a savory direction by adding salt or hot sauce or vegetables or scrambled eggs, even. You can also cook it with broth or stock to make a really savory oatmeal that works well for almost any meal.
These strategies are the backbone of a healthy and super inexpensive diet - and none of it is hard to prepare. Most of these items can be prepared in a slow cooker while you sleep or are at work. Most of these things can have infinite flavors, depending on what other things you mix with it - sauces, herbs, stocks, other vegetables, and so on.
Because of their low cost and enormous flexibility and easy preparation, these six items form the backbone of our diet. You'll find at least one of these items - and often more than one - at our table for most meals.