Enjoy Food

Pantry Items to Stock up on to Stretch Your Food Budget

Aly Walansky  |  October 7, 2021

Ready to whip up a cheap meal on a moment’s notice? Keep these pantry staples on hand at all times. We’ve got the complete list.

We’ve all been there. We feel like we’ve just gone grocery shopping, yet when we check the fridge, there’s nothing to make for dinner. Takeout is expensive, and constantly going to the store for small items that aren’t on sale can be a budget buster. It’s in these moments that we often turn to our pantries — and if right now yours is nothing more than a dusty cabinet full of random canned goods, never fear — we’ve got a rundown on everything you need to buy to turn your pantry into a one-stop shop for cheap, healthy and super quick meals. 

Our pantries typically hold myriad versatile shelf-stable ingredients and canned goods that can be stored for long periods of time — items that are essential in stretching your food budget and filling your stomach at the same time. But what should we really be keeping in our pantries? Part of the answer to that question hinges on your individual tastes — mine is filled with canned tomatoes, stock, beans, rice, and pasta. Yours may focus on other items you’re more likely to need in the long term. 

“When I suggest canned items to stock a pantry, I first ask some basic questions,” said Terah Barrios, Community Nutrition Educator at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. “What do you and your family like to eat? Are there any allergies or health concerns? Are there storage limitations?” Once you’ve got your answers to those questions, you can start shopping. Here are a few of our favorite suggestions. 

Fruits and Veggies

While we may love to have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables on hand, it’s not always a viable option. Fresh ingredients can sometimes be hard to come by, and are highly perishable. This means that your investment can quickly be thrown away (literally) if things go bad before you can use them. This is a big reason why fresh isn’t always best. For example, canned green beans, corn, spinach, and peas are great choices to have on hand in your cabinet. “These vegetables are flexible and can be served in various ways, both hot and cold,” says Barrios.

Canned Tomatoes

In my own pantry, I always have a variety of canned tomatoes. Whether whole, stewed, diced, or crushed, these are incredibly versatile and are much less expensive than buying jarred sauce or prepared salsas. But that’s not the end of their value. Canned tomatoes of all varieties are high in vitamin C, and are perfect as a cheap + easy base in soups or chilis, Barrios says.

Canned Meat and Fish

Canned items like tuna and salmon are cheap, convenient and high in protein and can be used in many ways adding to a healthy, well-balanced diet, says Barrios. A simple can of tuna on a salad, or salmon made into burgers or cakes can elevate any meal, and who doesn’t love a simple tuna salad sandwich on fresh bread?

Beans and Legumes

Whether you’re making a soup or a bean salad, beans and legumes are incredibly healthy and can be used in tons of dishes. They are also very inexpensive. “Legumes, such as black beans, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas, offer a time-saving convenience and add plant-based protein, nutrients, and fiber to many recipes,” said Barrios.


Oats aren’t just for oatmeal, though that’s always a great option for a nutritious meal. “This is often the only grain in my pantry because it’s the one I find to be most digestible by most people — so we’re not compromising our gut health by budget-cutting,” said clinical herbalist Rachelle Robinett.  Quite the opposite, actually: oats can be really nourishing to inflamed digestive systems. “They’re just endlessly versatile. Sweet of course, or savory — dry, soaked, blended into porridges and beyond. They’re also great topically, in baths, and as masks, and scrubs when dry or inflamed skin is in need,” said Robinett.

Stocks and Broth 

Whether making a base for soup or as an ingredient in a casserole or stew, there are so many ways to use broth or stock. “It’s a very quick way to get gut-healing, high-protein nourishment that requires as much time to ‘make’ as tea,” says Robinett. Using it as a base to cook vegetables (or those oats!) is also a great way to bulk up your meals at a very low cost. If it’s within your budget, try to aim for organic, especially in the case of bone broth.

The Real Key To Maintaining Your Food Budget, Year-Round  

It always pains me to throw out food past its due date that I just didn’t get around to enjoying. Thankfully, buying items that are readily available, last a long time, and are versatile will eliminate that waste. “Studies have shown household food waste is nearly 40%, with much of that coming from fresh produce,” says Barrios.

Buying canned food items is a great option to reduce this waste. “Canned food items are packaged approximately four hours after harvesting to keep the nutrient values at their peak. In addition, they retain their flavor and nutrition for more than two years, making canned items an obvious choice for those on a budget and who want to eat healthily,” says Barrios.  

What To Store, What Not To Store 

While canned food items have a long shelf life, food safety still applies. Practice a ‘first-in, first-out’ approach to use older items first. “After you go shopping, bring the older items forward in your pantry and place the newer items in the back,” says Barrios.

Food manufacturers usually suggest storing canned foods for no longer than a year. However, tomato products can last for around 18 months and low-acid foods such as canned vegetables are storable for over two years.  And use your eyes as a guide, too. “Do not use a can that is dented at the seam, leaking, or has signs of bulging no matter the age of the can,” said Barrios.

So, get to stocking up that pantry. Limitless affordable menu-planning opportunities await!


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