It’s certainly not news that eating out is more expensive than rolling up your sleeves and cooking your own meal, but you might be surprised to learn that the price of a restaurant meal is officially growing faster than inflation. Couple that with the fact that the price of food has actually dropped a bit, and you’ll want to put down that takeout menu and step away from the fancy eateries right now if your goal is to save money.
Cooking at home will definitely save you money, but it needs to be delicious as well as inexpensive if you’re going to stick with playing chef for the long haul. Fortunately, you can stock up on cheap but tasty ingredients that are really versatile to get the absolute most out of your grocery budget. Try these ten super-smart foods to make a variety of delicious meals at home — you won’t be bored any time soon!
- Peanut Butter
It’s not just for sandwiches anymore. This is one of the easiest proteins to add to a meal, and you can use it for a lot of different recipes. Spread it on crackers or toast for a quick snack, or use it for thickener in a homemade vegetable soup. You can also make an Asian peanut sauce for stir-fry or chicken fingers. And of course, it’s great in cookies and as a sundae topping as well!
Average Price: $2.59 for a 16 oz. jar
Think of rice as the blank canvas onto which you’ll paint your culinary masterpiece. You can enjoy it plain as a side dish, of course, or spice it up by adding a bit of butter and some herbs. It’s perfect as a base for a stir-fry, or you can make it into a rich risotto if you feel like Italian food. Hungry for Mexican? Just change the seasoning. You can even make rice pudding for dessert.
Average Price: $.69 per pound
Eggs are about the least expensive proteins around, and they’re a magical ingredient. In addition to making your standard breakfast eggs in your favorite style, you can always add a hardboiled egg to a green salad to make it a hearty meal. Stir in some mayo for classic egg salad, or slice a hardboiled egg to top a steaming bowl of ramen. You can also whip up a quick custard for dessert if you’re running low on baking supplies.
Average Price: $1.40 per dozen
The trouble with fresh fruit is that it often goes bad before you can finish it. The beauty of bananas is that they are cheap and abundant, and they come in a handy carrying case so you can easily pop one in a brown bag lunch. You can also save then when they start to turn. Once your banana is brown on the outside, you have a choice: mash it up for banana bread or muffins, or freeze it for future smoothies. This couldn’t be easier — just peel it and pop it in a freezer bag. Put in the freezer until you’re ready to toss it into a blender later.
Average Price: $.57 per pound
To avoid the spoilage problem with vegetables, it pays to invest in root vegetables, which generally hold up to prolonged storage. Carrots are particularly good choices, since they’ll last for weeks in your crisper drawer if you trim off the leaves. Regular carrots are far cheaper than baby carrots, and you can cut them up for snacks or cook them as a side dish. It’s also easy to add carrots to a variety of soups, salads and stir-fry dishes. If you’re ever stuck without much in your pantry, carrot soup is easy and delicious.
Average Price: $.76 per pound
- Chicken Thighs
If you were worried there wasn’t going to be any meat on this list, you can relax! Though meat is almost always more expensive than plant-based foods, some cuts are cheaper than others. Chicken thighs are a winner because they have lots of flavor and can be used in a variety of ways. They’re perfect for soups and stews, and since every culture in the world eats chicken, there’s no shortage of recipes to choose from. If you get them bone-in, save your scraps to make your own chicken stock for the ultimate in delicious frugality.
Average Price: $1.48 per pound
- Rolled Oats
If you can’t live without your breakfast cereal, skip the Cheerios and get into old-fashioned oatmeal instead. It’s much cheaper, and it’s better for you. Buying plain rolled oats lets you flavor it any way you like — add sugar, cinnamon or your favorite fresh berries. You can also use the oats as a topping for fruit cobblers, ice cream and yogurt, or bake them into breads and cookies for some crunch. They’re even good mixed in with homemade granola or trail mix!
Average Price: $1.58 per pound
If you’ve ever opened your loaf of bread only to discover green mold, tortillas could be your answer. These keep for much longer than a leavened loaf, making them a much better buy. Use them for any kind of sandwich you like — just turn it into a wrap. You can also use them for tacos or burritos, of course, but there plenty of creative recipes out there to put a new twist on this old staple. You can even use them for dessert!
Average Price: $.73 per tortilla
When you shop for deals at the grocery store, it’s still important to keep in mind how many ways you can use your ingredients. If you’re stuck eating spaghetti five nights a week, the cheapest pasta in the world isn’t going to feel like much of a bargain. Try stocking up on these eight great ingredients, then hit the internet for fresh recipe ideas to use them. You’re sure to get many unique meals out of your grocery budget with these items at the top of your list!