According to the Consumer Price Index, at-home food costs rose more than 11 percent last year. Between inflation, supply chain problems, food safety issues, and other factors, there’s a perfect storm wreaking havoc on our grocery bills. And as someone whose work revolves around food and cooking, the surge has really hit home. I’ve seen almond butter top $12 a jar and have watched the cost of eggs and butter soar.
To keep my food costs in check, I’m a little more careful about where I shop these days (more Trader Joe’s, less specialty markets) and take my time to scour the shelves for sale items. Those “two-for-one” offers and “10 for $10” deals really make a difference.
One challenge is that I don’t have endless storage. There’s no chest freezer in my basement, nor do I have a walk-in pantry. Therefore, I have to be choosy when buying more than I need. Here are a few criteria for what makes the cart:
- Something I use a lot, say, canned beans. If I’m going to pack my pantry with multiples of anything, it’s got to be in heavy rotation.
- Expensive items. When pricier foods are discounted, that’s the time to strike. Good Irish butter, frozen wild seafood, and Parmigiano Reggiano are a few examples.
- Food that has longevity on its side. I’m not going to stock up on highly perishable foods that I know won’t get eaten before they go bad.
Here are nine of my go-to staples that I “add to cart” when I stumble upon them on sale.
1. Canned Beans
Nutrient dense and delicious, we go through a lot of beans in our house. They’re one of the healthiest and most convenient bangs for your budget. Plus, according to the USDA, canned foods last for years as long as the can itself is in good shape. Beans are a hearty addition to salads and soup, are excellent smashed onto tortillas with salsa or served under soft cooked eggs, and terrific for topping grain bowls. Need more inspo? Here are 18 easy recipes using canned beans.
2. Frozen Fruit
Berries and other fruits are a freezer staple that I’m rarely without. This is especially true during the cold weather months when many varieties are out of season and expensive to buy fresh. I use frozen fruit in myriad ways, such as adding frozen blueberries to pancakes and muffins, defrosting raspberries to spoon over yogurt, using frozen pineapple and other fruits in my smoothies, and topping almond butter toast with berries in place of jam.
3. Nut and Seed Butters
The price of nut butter can be, well, a little nutty. I almost always buy two when I see a favorite brand on sale, since they’re in my cooking rotation several days a week. I use them in sandwiches, snack bars, and smoothies (like this luscious Coffee Smoothie). For more ideas, here are eight ways to use up a jar of peanut butter. A tip: once you open a jar, store it in the fridge, adding a few months to its shelf life.
4. Tinned Fish
My pantry is rarely without some type of tinned fish, including tuna, salmon, sardines, and mussels. I find it a convenient way to add protein plus Omega-3s to my diet. In addition to tuna salad and salmon patties, I like to serve tinned seafood on snack boards (check out this beauty for inspiration), and add anchovies to salad dressing and this excellent anchovy toast.
Most of the cooking fat I use in my house is olive oil, but butter is a refrigerator essential. It’s become pretty pricey, though, particularly the creamy Irish kind I like to put on my toast. The good news is that butter freezes well, so it makes sense to buy more than you need. Keep one box in the fridge and the rest in the deep freezer. Unsalted butter will be good for up to five months and salted butter up to nine. To defrost, leave butter in the fridge overnight.
For recipes that call for cold butter, grate frozen butter straight into your baking bowl. This works well for biscuits and other baked goods.
Good-quality hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, aged cheddar, and gruyère are a worthy investment. They’re so darn tasty and a little goes a long way. Plus, hard cheeses last for several months (or longer) stored in the fridge. Even better? You can grate them and store in an air-tight bag in the freezer. Add grated cheese straight from the bag to dishes such as enchiladas, pizza, and breakfast casseroles.
You might be surprised to know that eggs have a pretty decent shelf life, somewhere between three to five weeks in the fridge. That’s why I often buy two cartons instead of one when I find them on discount. It’s an incredibly versatile food that can be the springboard of so many dishes. If you have eggs to use up, you can always boil a batch to turn into egg salad, deviled eggs, or whisk up a quick frittata.
Truth? We don’t eat a lot of cereal in our house these days. When my kids were younger, though, it was a pantry must—a meal they could blissfully assemble on their own! Since a box of cereal lasts about a year, there’s little downside to stocking up, particularly if you’re a big cereal household. Worst case? If your cereal is creeping towards stale, you can transform it into sunbutter Crispy treats or these sticky cereal bars.
9. Ground poultry and meat
A pound of ground poultry or beef is immensely useful for so many budget-friendly meals. Plus, ground meat holds up well in the freezer for three to four months. To get the ideas rolling, here are 15 recipes for ground turkey.
You can make a pound of ground meat stretch further by adding a can of black, pinto, or white beans to the mix.