Essential Foods That Every Home Cook Should Have Stocked

If you’ve never done much cooking, the idea of it might make you feel overwhelmed. And while sampling pig head tacos or uni pizza at a favorite restaurant might be a fun culinary adventure, too many of those meals will leave your wallet hurting. Cooking at home is definitely more budget friendly, but 20-somethings new to the kitchen might find themselves confused about where to begin. Loading your cart with fresh produce and lean proteins is a good way to go, but those items don’t really make an entire meal. And when you’re getting near the end of your fresh stuff, you still need to be able to eat something more substantial than a handful of stale crackers and a mushy banana.

That’s where your pantry comes in. Keeping shelf-stable food on hand means you’re always ready to whip up a fast, easy meal. And there’s no need to spend hours scouring grocery store shelves trying to figure out what to pick. We’ve singled out some of the best supermarket scores to keep you well-fed and perfectly within your budget. You’ll be making drool-worthy dishes in no time.

1. Canned beans

Canned beans | iStock.com

Filled with fiber and protein, beans are one of the best budget-cooking options out there. While dried legumes are the less expensive choice, it takes planning to soak them in advance and more than a bit of time to cook them. Thankfully, canned beans are still a bargain and come in just about every variety you could hope to find.

While beans are a great choice for vegetarians, they also work really well with dishes featuring a little bit of meat. The key to keeping the price low is using just a bit of something like bacon or chorizo to add loads of flavor. Food Network has a bunch of great recipes to give you ideas.

2. Frozen peas

Frozen peas | iStock.com

While fresh vegetables offer great nutrition and taste, they aren’t always the better choice. ABC News explains that frozen veggies get the cold treatment soon after harvesting, which means they often retain more nutrients than the fresh versions you’ll find in regular supermarkets. It’s especially true for peas. Eating Well states that the little green gems lose their trademark sweetness about 24 hours after they’ve been picked. Unless they’re coming out of your own backyard, a bag of the frozen ones can’t be beat.

While some things like green beans and broccoli might lose points for getting a little mushy, peas retain their pop. They’re also really versatile. Let them star in a green pea soup with ham or have them fill a supporting role in a simple paella. Of course, they also taste great simply heated with a pat of butter.

3. Canned tuna

Canned tuna | iStock.com

While it’s nowhere near as glamorous as some ahi sashimi, canned tuna wins for value. Men’s Health featured the fish as one of the best sources of protein for small budgets. Depending on the quality, a 5-ounce can will cost little more than a dollar and serve up 30 grams of satisfying protein. If you’re concerned about mercury, The San Francisco Chronicle offers guidelines for both men and women to make the best choices.

Before you automatically break out the bread, keep in mind that tuna is good for a lot more than a mayo-laden sandwiches. Real Simple has plenty of tasty choices that will give new life to that can. But if you’re dead set on a sandwich, this avocado version is a seriously delicious choice.

4. Dried pasta

Pasta | iStock.com

When it comes to speedy meals, pasta reigns supreme. It’s a cinch to whip up a quick sauce in the amount of time it takes the pasta to reach al dente perfection. When you see a sale of the boxed stuff, load up, because you’ll use it long before it goes bad. It’s also a good idea to keep a couple of different shapes on hand, because different cuts work better with different toppings.

Up your spaghetti game even more by doing it the way restaurant chefs do. Cook the pasta most of the way through, then let it finish cooking in the sauce. It’ll have the best texture and create a silky finish. Bon Appétit explains how to do it and offers up some dishes that will change everything you thought you knew about the starch.

5. Packaged stock

Chicken stock is perfect for making quick soups | iStock.com

Unless you’re regularly accumulating chicken bones and veggie scraps, boxed stock is a must-have item. Why stock? Water works just fine for many soups, stews, and sauces, but they’ll be pretty light on flavor. Using a stock adds way more complex flavor for absolutely no work.

Keep in mind that many stocks and broths are already seasoned. You’ll want to look for low-sodium options to make sure you don’t end up with a total salt bomb by the time your liquids have reduced.

For those who want to give homemade stock a shot, it’s actually really easy. You can even make it in a slow cooker. No muss, no fuss.

6. Garlic and Onions

Garlic and onions are cooking staples | iStock.com

While most produce needs to be used in a week or it starts to get a little sad, these alliums are shelf-stable goods. And that’s great news, because they’re both easy ways to add tons of flavor to nearly any dish for bargain prices. They’re also surprisingly healthy. Perfect in an easy side of sautéed green beans or as part of a mirepoix for a stew, garlic and onions can also be starring ingredients.

A classic French onion soup turns a pile of sliced onions into something that’s impressive and delicious. Roasting whole heads of garlic renders them sweet and unbelievably tender, perfect for spreading on toasted bread for crostini. Make sure you get the longest shelf life buy purchasing garlic heads that are tight, and onions free of soft spots.

7. Potatoes

Potatoes | iStock.com

Unfairly blamed for being nutrition-less starch, potatoes actually offer plenty of vitamin C and fiber. And with so much versatility at basement prices, spuds are complete superstars. Though Russets are great for fries and mashers, consider keeping baby potatoes on hand. They cook faster and work great in everything from a vinegary potato salad to an herbed frittata.

To make sure your spuds last as long as possible, keep them in a cool, dry area. A little bit of green or sprouting can be cut away before cooking, but if they’re starting to look like chia pets, toss them.