Many busy parents these days plan out a week’s worth (or even a month’s worth) of meals at once. This is a great strategy to save money as well as time. However, it works best for families with predictable work schedules and one person handling the cooking. If this doesn’t sound like your family, then keeping your kitchen well-stocked with basic kitchen staples is a must for quick meals on busy weeknights.
We fall into the latter camp. Both my husband and I love to cook. But his workflow as a classroom educator is not always predictable. Some days he ends up staying later at work than he would like. Other days he has late-afternoon meetings. This means that who cooks on a given night is a that-morning decision more often than I would like.
This makes planning out a week’s worth of meals impossible.
Add in the fact that I work from home, and the roads near us are crazy-packed with traffic from noon on, and even getting to the grocery store can be a challenge that eats up more of my day than it’s worth.
This is why I like to keep our kitchen well-stocked with basic kitchen staples. Sometimes I need a fresh ingredient or two that I’ll have Dear Husband grab on his way home from work. Otherwise, though, I usually have what I need on hand to make a wide range of healthy dishes that my family loves.
As I learned when I was a student, stocking kitchen staples (and replenishing when things are on sale) also means saving money:
- When money is tight, you can go up to a month or more with few to no grocery purchases.
- And the rest of the time, keeping staples on hand will save you a ton, because you won’t be relying so much on takeout and “convenience” foods. Both of these can really add up in terms of dollars AND negative health consequences, compared to quick and simple meals you cook at home for yourself.
Ready to transform your approach to cooking? Here are some of our must-have kitchen staples:
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Kitchen Staples To Keep On Hand:
1. Chopped Garlic and Ginger
Garlic is a wonder ingredient. It’s full of both flavor and health benefits. I may have been guilty of throwing a bit more than the recipe calls for into my cooking, once or twice (er, pretty much all the time). Garlic can do everything from help keep your cholesterol in check, to help you fight a cold. Honestly, I throw some into most of the savory dishes I make, whether the recipe calls for it or not.
For those of you who don’t like the time and odor of chopping fresh garlic: Garlic comes pre-chopped in jars! I use garlic so often in my cooking that I always buy a large jar. No, it’s not quite the same as fresh-chopped garlic – but it IS a whole lot faster, and saves your hands from smelling like garlic for the next several days! And jarred garlic lasts a lot longer than fresh cloves anyway.
I also keep ginger on hand for quick Asian dishes. In addition to powdered ginger, I always have a small container of minced ginger in the refrigerator. Again, for me it’s a good compromise that allows me to always have fresh ginger on hand, without the time needed to peel and mince fresh ginger root (or the risk of its going bad before I can use it).
2. Hot Sauce
Hot sauce is extremely popular in many kitchens these days. You can use it in your cooking, or just simply drizzle it on your meals at the table. No matter how you use it, hot sauce will add a bit of zing to any dish.
My husband has an entire shelf of various hot sauces in the refrigerator. While I’m not necessarily advocating you stock as wide a variety as he does, this IS convenient for us because he likes his food spicier than the rest of us do. This means that he can always add a little extra kick to his food, even if I’ve toned down the heat for the sake of myself and the girls.
You can also do lots of other fun things with hot sauce. For example, mix a little sriracha into plain mayonnaise, and you’ve got a “secret sauce” that will give ordinary sandwiches a whole new flavor profile.
Now that you can buy speciality sauces, such as ghost pepper hot sauce, you’ll be able to find just the right level of heat for any dish. And in case one person’s “just right” is much too strong for the rest of the family, keep some milk, lime juice, light sour cream, plain low-fat Greek yogurt, or plain bread on hand. All of these can help take the “bite” out of spicy dishes for grownups and kids alike.
3. Olive Oil
Did you know that the Mediterranean diet is believed to be one of the healthiest in the whole world? One key reason the American Heart Association, among others, recommends following this healthy eating plan is because of its emphasis on olive oil. It’s one of the healthiest oils there is, and has tons of flavor.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the best you can buy, and is great for homemade salad dressings and drizzling over food. If you can afford to splurge, look for a cold-press variety, as this type is especially flavorful. In addition to extra-virgin, we keep lots of regular olive oil on hand, and use it as our main cooking oil.
As with any oil, you should store olive oils away from light and heat, and use them promptly so they don’t go rancid. This is why we buy fancier olive oils in smaller quantities, and only buy regular in bulk because we know we’ll use it faster.
4. Salt, Pepper, and your Favorite Spices
Every meal needs seasoning. Adding a little salt and pepper can really bring out a world of enhanced flavors. And different types of these staples can bring out different tastes. We most commonly use fine sea salt, coarse kosher salt, fresh-ground black pepper, and (for ease of measuring) pre-ground black pepper in our cooking. But there are also
- fancier “finishing” salts, such as Himalayan pink salt;
- garlic salt, with or without added ingredients like dried parsley flakes (my personal favorite for at-table use);
- white pepper;
- lemon pepper seasonings (which are actually blends of different spices – some with salt, some without);
- and of course various red peppers, from red pepper flakes to cayenne to ground chili pepper.
And of course there are so many other spices and spice blends that you can use to enhance your cooking. Except during winter, we harvest fresh herbs for cooking from our side garden and the girls’ front-yard tasting garden.
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Fo things we can’t grow, we have an entire drawer of spices, and empty/refill most jars regularly. For me, that’s especially true of the cumin, ginger, garlic powder, cinnamon, and Italian seasoning. Still, there’s nothing like fresh basil or fresh chives in a dish.
Besides being a super protein source that’s also inexpensive, eggs are perfect for a quick meal or snack any time:
- With a few minutes, you can pan-fry them, scramble them, or poach them and serve over toast.
- With a few other ingredients on hand, you can make avocado egg cups for a well-balanced meal-in-a-bowl.
- Or you can soft-boil them or cook them sunny-side-up (don’t overcook) and add them to a simple salad for a protein boost.
- If you take a few minutes to hard-boil them, they make great additions to all sorts of dishes, as well as an easy and portable snack.
- And with a little more time still, you can prepare a quiche or strata.
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And one of the best thing about eggs is they are so easy to cook, so many different ways. Even the girls know how to prepare several types of eggs (with grownup supervision, of course!) on the stovetop now.
Frozen Vegetables and “Stable” Fresh Vegetables
If you’re trying to eat healthily when money is tight, it’s hard to beat frozen vegetables for nutrition and flavor. They’re a better choice than canned vegetables, which generally contain lots of hidden sodium. And it’s easier to keep a bag in the freezer for impromptu meals than it is to always have tons of fresh produce on hand.
(The exception to my general avoidance of canned vegetables is canned tomatoes. A can of no- or low-salt-added diced tomatoes plus a can of tomato purée or paste, mixed together in a saucepan over low heat, will make a quick and easy pasta sauce with less sugar and salt than a commercial jarred sauce.)
On the other hand, if you have a relatively cool, dark place in which to store them, the fresh vegetables we always keep plenty of include onions and carrots. These are packed with nutrients, and last longer than most other fresh vegetables you’d buy from the store. (For what it’s worth, you can always chop raw onions and/or celery ahead of time, portion into one-cup containers, and pop them into the freezer for later use in casseroles, soups, and stews.)
If baby carrots are on sale, I will always get these because it saves peeling time, and it makes a quick snack for the girls or an easy pan-roasted addition to dinner. And I use onions like I use garlic in my cooking: often and liberally, as a healthy flavor boost for cooked dishes.
Frozen and Canned Protein
I try to buy meat (and protein substitutes like veggie burgers) on sale in bulk, or else from the clearance pile at the store. If there’s a good price on something I use in cooking, like chicken breasts/thighs or pork loins or ground meat, I’ll bring it home and either cook it that night, or repackage into smaller (1/4-1/2 lb) portions and freeze. That way, whenever it’s my turn to cook, I can grab some protein out of the freezer the night before or that morning, let it thaw in the refrigerator, and then toss it into the slow-cooker or into whatever recipe I’m making for dinner.
And there are so many inexpensive sources of canned protein, from tuna packed in water (which I sometimes have on a bed of lettuce for a quick lunch) to canned beans. If I need to stretch the protein in a dish, I will often add a can or two of beans. With a can of kidney or black beans and some instant rice, you can make a quick meal of beans and rice. (This was one of my frugal-student quick-lunch staples.) Or you can use beans as the protein in taco salads or a quick bowl of hearty, comforting soup.
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My husband grew up in a family where the starch/grain was as important to the meal as the meat. I grew up on a more veggie-based diet, but in deference to his taste buds, I try to include something along these lines at most meals.
Pasta is a quick and easy base to so many dishes, and a fast side dish for many others. Some frozen meatballs (preferably homemade), some spaghetti, a jar of pasta sauce (or a quick DIY sauce as I mentioned above), and a salad or some cooked carrots, and you’ve got a fast kid-pleasing meal.
To make things more interesting, you can mix up the sauce and cooked pasta with some cooked frozen veggies and either cubes of leftover meat, or a can of beans. Boom! – instant one-pot casserole.
But you don’t need to limit yourself to plain pasta. There are various blends with more whole grains now, as well as gluten-free pastas. And then there are noodles: rice/glass noodles, soba (buckwheat) noodles, even brown-rice-based ramen now (which is healthier than the cubes of noodle plus high-sodium seasoning that sustained me and many of my friends through school).
There’s also couscous, a pasta that is more grain-like in consistency than your average pasta. As such, it’s an easy swap for menus that call for rice as a side or base. It cooks a lot faster than regular rice, but is tastier than instant rices. (Though I confess, I keep both white and brown Minute-Rice on hand to use in a pinch.)
Assorted Whole Grains
There are tons of whole grains that most Americans don’t eat often, which are so much healthier for you than white rice or basic pasta. Brown rice, the healthier alternative to white rice, is perhaps most common to Americans. Short-grain brown rice has a chewy, nutty texture/taste that we especially like. And toasting rice in a hot pan before cooking can give it different flavor notes than just cooking it straight up. So can cooking it in broth instead of plain water.
Then there are the more “exotic” (to Americans’ palates) whole grains. If you’ve never tasted amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet, or “wild rice,” it’s worth trying them. They each have unique health benefits and flavor profiles, so it’s worth getting small quantities and experimenting (as a side dish, in soups, in casseroles) to see which your family likes best.
My favorite whole grain of all is quinoa. If you’ve never tried it: Quinoa is native to South America, and is the only whole grain that contains all the enzymes of a “complete” protein. AND it cooks in only 15-20 minutes! As such, it’s my go-to source of vegan protein if I want something that’s not bean- or soy-based. Quinoa can be pricey in the grocery store, so I always look for it on sale. Or I buy it in bulk at Costco (where it costs a fraction of the price per pound that it sells for in the grocery store).
And the best part is, it’s organized by ingredient – so you can hunt for inspiration based on those noodles you’ve been craving, or whatever type of meat you found on clearance that morning.
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