Stock These 20 Frugal Foods for Tough Financial Times

When my husband and I were newlyweds, we had to drastically cut our spending in order to come up with a down payment on a house. At the time, the goal was daunting, but we did it, largely by reining in our grocery budget. Unfortunately, I didn't know much about cooking at the time. This meant eating a lot of macaroni and cheese.

So, if you find yourself in a similar position, needing to save, what do you do? I sincerely do not recommend eating box upon box of mac and cheese. Instead, here are some pantry and fridge essentials to rely upon when money is tight. (See also: 9 Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Weekly Grocery Budget)

1. Beans

If you have the time to soak and cook dried beans (about $1.49 for a pound), you'll save a little more, but canned are also a good deal (usually less than a dollar a can).

2. Rice

White rice is very inexpensive (around $6 for 10 pounds), but do yourself a favor and get brown, or at least "half and half," which is not much more expensive but has greater nutritional value.

3. Bacon

Sorry, vegetarians, but adding even just a little bacon to so many foods elevates the meal. I buy it on sale (look for around $2.30 for a package) and freeze it. Add it to pasta, to an omelet, beans, the aforementioned rice, and things look more cheerful. Yes, I'm staying in and watching a movie tonight, but I had bacon.

4. Frozen Petite Peas

There aren't a lot of frozen vegetables I really like, but when petite peas go on sale (around $2.38 for a pound), I load up my freezer. I prefer petite peas, which are sweeter and less chalky, to regular peas. What can you do with them? They can go with leftover rice in the morning for fried rice. They are an easy dinner side dish. Defrost slightly and toss into salads. I like to add a cup into my pasta water to to cook, and then add to my pasta dish. You can also defrost them, throw into your food processor, and make a pea hummus.

5. Panko Crumbs

I buy panko crumbs (Japanese bread crumbs) at Costco in the 2.2-pound resealable packages, because they're so much cheaper that way. I use them to bread pounded chicken, salmon croquettes, top macaroni and cheese (we now eat it again, occasionally), and fry vegetables. They can also be used to "stretch" meatballs and meatloaf. Heck, try breading Spam. It's pretty good.

6. Canned Salmon

Canned salmon works nicely in a creamy chowder with potatoes, or fried, with panko crumbs, as a croquette. Of course, it's also good for you, as it's full of Omega-3's. Look for it to go on sale for about $2.50 or less, per can.

7. Canned Tuna

A little food snobbery here: I don't like super-cheap tuna. I buy it at Costco, in eight-packs for $14.99, and I have also had Trader Joe's — both are a higher quality, so I don't feel like I'm eating something the cat should be having. It, of course, makes great sandwiches, but you can also make a quick Tuna Nicoise or tuck it into a classic tuna-noodle casserole.

8. Eggs

At only around $2 for a dozen, eggs are an excellent source of protein and can be made for any meal. Add chopped herbs or parmesan for an omelette; hard-boil for sandwiches; or make huevos with beans for dinner.

9. Lentils

My daughter had a college friend who made a pot of lentils every Sunday, and then ate them all week. He was really broke. I like lentils, but there is no way I could do that, even at a little over a buck a pound. Try them in stews, chilis, or even tacos and salads.

10. Peanut Butter

At around $2.50 per jar, we've all had our share of PB&J's, right? Peanut butter has moved on, though, to fancier stuff. Try combining it with a little sesame oil and rice wine vinegar for an Asian-inspired coleslaw dressing. One of my breakfast favorites is to spread it on toast and slice bananas on top.

11. Bananas

For around a dollar or two a pound, this fruit is not only filling but also contain Vitamins B6 and C, manganese, and magnesium. If you overbuy, freeze some (defrost slightly, mash, and make banana ice cream), or make pancakes or banana bread.

12. Apples

At only about a dollar a pound, apples contain fiber and antioxidants. Add them to salads, slice onto peanut butter and toast, or pack a snack with sliced apples and a little cheese. You can bake them until tender and drizzle with honey.

13. Herbs

Even a teaspoon of fresh, chopped herbs adds a lot of flavor to eggs, rice, chicken, etc. You can also make pesto out of just about any nuts you have around and fresh herbs (try parsley and walnuts, or cilantro and macadamia nuts). Top potatoes with herbs, stir into pasta, or add to tuna or egg salad.

14. Garlic and Onions

Stay away from garlic in jars, which is expensive, and smash your own. Onions keep well, too, in a dark, cool, place. Both add incredible flavor to everything.

15. Cabbage

Crazy about coleslaw? With cabbage at only about .25 per serving, it makes sense to have it around. It also contains Vitamins C and K. It's also great cooked. After you cook 2-3 strips of bacon, drain off most of the fat, but not all; and saute three cups of shredded cabbage in the pan until it is limp. It tastes great with rice.

16. Pasta

A box of pasta is inexpensive ($2.50 will buy you two pounds of a good brand). Toss it with a little bacon and chopped herbs; or top with a fried egg! If you make too much pasta, you can eat it later in the week, or freeze (don't forget to label).

17. Oatmeal

Not only is oatmeal really good for you, fiber-wise, but it's extremely inexpensive and easy to make. I like mine with brown sugar, raisins, and bananas. If that doesn't hold you until lunchtime, nothing will! An 18-oz carton should run you less than $3.

18. Plain Yogurt

I prefer Greek-style, but it tends to be more expensive. Watch for weekly sales at grocery stores. Target is also a good place to watch. If you buy plain, you can jazz it up with honey, fruit, or even chocolate syrup. It will also stand in as sour cream and you can incorporate it into salad dressings and smoothies.

19. Milk

Now that I'm paying more attention to getting enough Vitamin D, I have started having an 8-ounce glass of milk with my lunch. I had forgotten how much it fills me up. A gallon of 2% will run about $5.

20. Whole Chickens

I lurk in the shadows of the meat department until whole chickens are $1.29 a pound, or less, and then buy a few. One night is a roast chicken, and the meat becomes sandwiches the next day. I like to make broth with the carcass, which gives me ammo for future soups.

Did we miss any classic foods to nosh during tough times? Let us know in the comments!

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Want some frugal food items so you can make budget meals for large families? We’ve got the cheap food item essentials that you can call upon when you are saving money! Get to the grocery store to stock up your fridge and pantry with our tips! | #frugalfood #cheapfood #frugalliving

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Guest's picture

While I agree one should mix up the types of rice in the pantry, people should be aware that brown rice 'keeps' for a far shorter period than white rice at room temperature (something to do with the oils in it). So don't keep on hand more than you will use in a few months time so it doesn't go to waste! One I'd like to add to the list-barley. It costs me roughly $1.50 a pound and not only is a great 'stretcher' in soup, it can be turned into side dishes for dinner by adding some veggie bits and seasoning, or breakfast with some honey and cut up fruit bits. Cheap, healthy, and full of fiber to keep you full for quite a while.

Guest's picture

Great ideas. Here in L.A. things are a little higher. Went to get eggs the other day at the store, 1 dozen large eggs were $5.00 per. Still a pretty good deal but oh my!

Guest's picture

Bacon - $2.30 a package? Not around here ever. The other ideas are pretty good.

Guest's picture

Wonderful tips. I would add kale and green beans also which can be a main part of the meal. My Mom used to cook a pot of cabbage, kale, or green beans with a few potatoes and a ham slice and it made for a nutritious dinner for 4. Still one of my favorite meals :-D

Guest's picture
Erika M Rick

Bananas $1 to $2 per lb? I've always known bananas to be 69 cents per lb.
My parents immigrated to the US from Germany (and became naturalized US citizens) in 1954. They lived through the challenging years of WW II Germany. Frugality is so ingrained in them that to this day they will buy off-brand mac & cheese for 39 cents a box, split it, calling it a meal. Another meal is sharing a 99-cent pizza.
At age 19 I went out on my own and lived on ketchup spaghetti. I would splurge at times by adding ground beef. This was before ramen noodles. But today I love my fresh fruits and vegetables. I will even buy a relatively expensive fruit like passion fruit, papaya, mango, or guava just to experience the exotic. Thank goodness I can afford such gifts of nature.