Does this sound familiar? You stroll out of the grocery store after spending $100 and realize you’ve got nothing to put together for a good, healthy dinner. Batteries, cat food, laundry soap, sandwich bags and dried oregano — all necessary, yes. But not the building blocks of a good meal.
With the help of two experts, we’ve made a list of efficient edibles to keep in your pantry, fridge and freezer. These aren’t pantry superstars; they’re solid utility players that will keep you in the game. What’s more, they’re relatively inexpensive and readily available.
Here’s how they can serve you when eating at home — whether because of an unexpected situation or simply because it’s cheaper than eating out.
1. Rice and pasta
Rice and pasta are great staples. They can be added to a meal to extend it, served on their own or used as the center of an elegant meal.
With rice and pasta in your cupboard, whip up a simple pilaf, a casserole of mac and cheese or a more complex risotto or lasagna.
As a bonus, your stash of rice can last for up to 30 years if you store it properly, making it especially handy if there’s a shortage or you’re stuck at home. That’s why we included it in “20 Things That Are Actually Worth Stockpiling.”
2. Pizza dough
Most everything on this list can be purchased readymade, including pizza dough, which you can keep on hand in the freezer, ready for pizza, calzones, cheesy breadsticks and other treats. Making your own pizza saves big bucks over takeout or delivery.
But you can save even more by planning ahead and making your own easy, quick pizza dough. Use it fresh or freeze it for later.
You’ll find a link to a recipe for homemade pizza dough that costs less than $2 in “10 Food Staples That Are Easy and Cheap to Make Yourself.”
3. Rotisserie chicken
These prepared birds are lifesavers, says Lee Svitak Dean, former food editor of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.
In addition to serving it up as-is, you can drop the meat into chili or soup. Use it to top a pizza or bake it into a million kinds of casseroles. It can be the basis for chicken salad or add protein and flavor to nachos, enchiladas, tacos and curry.
Rotisserie chickens don’t have the shelf life of other items on this list, but after you’ve enjoyed the meat you can freeze the carcass and turn it into flavorful stock later.
Which came first? It doesn’t matter. What counts, Dean says, is that eggs are almost as versatile as the chicken.
You no doubt have your favorite preparation method: scrambled, baked, fried, poached or hard-cooked. Dean suggests broadening the familiar repertoire to include such elegant egg dishes as frittatas, quiches, omelets and souffles.
Eggs also let you whip up French toast, pancakes and Dutch baby pancakes. Use them, with breadcrumbs, to prepare breaded dishes such as fish fillets and chicken cutlets.
Tortillas may be a simple Mexican staple, but they are versatile beyond their origins.
“This wrapper of all things can be rolled, filled, baked or layered in exquisite glory,” Dean tells Money Talks News.
For example, use tortillas for:
- A sandwich wrap with chicken and veggies
- A breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs
- Tortilla soup
- Homemade chips
- Layered bean, chicken, tortilla and cheese casserole
- Tortas, enchiladas and tacos
- Tamale pie
- Individual tortilla pizzas
No matter which cheese is your favorite, cooking with cheese makes for “grate” meals.
A few cheesy ideas from Dean:
- Shred, grate or dice cheese into salads, rice or pasta dishes, vegetables, stuffings and gratins.
- Sprinkle grated cheese on vegetables.
- Finicky eaters may be convinced to enjoy vegetables if you serve them with cheesy sauce.
Cheese makes good desserts, too — cheesecake or coeur a la creme, to name just two.
7. Canned beans
“Canned beans are a secret weapon,” says Kate Washington, California-based author and former dining critic for the Sacramento Bee.
Use them to beef up a hearty salad or to assemble a quick vegetarian stew or soup. Make beans into a dip by mashing them with herbs and lemon, Washington tells Money Talks News.
For more ideas, check out “Beans 101: A Guide to Enjoying the Stockpile Staple.”
8. Whipping cream
Whipping cream is so useful, yet it’s a nuisance to run to the store to get the refrigerated stuff when a recipe calls for it.
Washington has a solution: Trader Joe’s shelf-stable whipping cream can be stored at room temperature and then refrigerated before using.
A little cream dresses up an ordinary meal. You can splash it into soup, whip it into scrambled eggs or create a perfect pan sauce for chicken or pork.
Like cream, shallots add pizazz to an ordinary meal.
Why does Washington love them? “They’re more versatile than onions and garlic, and they can stand in for either or both,” she says.
Add chopped shallots to stir-fries and souffles. Sprinkle them on pizza or bruschetta.
10. Chicken stock
Whether canned, in cartons or homemade, chicken stock should always be stocked at your house.
Cooks could make a chicken stock-based soup every day for a year and not run out of ideas.
What’s the difference between stock and broth? It’s subtle, says Campbell Soup Co., maker of Swanson broths and stocks. They are made in similar ways with slightly different ingredients. Campbell’s recommends using:
- Stock to make gravies and sauces
- Broth in soup and side dishes — mashed potatoes, rice and stuffing, for example — and substituting it for water when cooking pasta or vegetables