Sep 10, 2012

Food Wizardry on a Budget: How to Stock Your Shelves!

And now for something completely different... and unusually practical! School is starting up and many students are moving away from home, so I thought I would impart a little culinary wisdom.

So you've just moved into a new place... with an empty fridge and a thriving colony of dust-bunnies in the cupboards. You want to survive on more than Kraft Dinner while you're there, but what ingredients should you buy? The idea of stocking a pantry from scratch can be quite overwhelming, and the cost can be downright scary for a struggling student.

So what are your options?

You could plan all your meals in advance and buy only the ingredients needed for each recipe, but the cost (and time!) per meal at the outset can be discouraging, and extra ingredients might be left to sit unused until they spoil. Additionally, you lose the ability to create dinner on the spot from ingredients you have on hand.

A better idea is to acquire a pantry and fridge full of staples: basic ingredients that can be used to create most recipes, often without any unusual additions.

But what should you buy? If you get only a few general things, you might have difficulty finding recipes that work with the ingredients you have. If you try and get everything, it will be very expensive — and more likely than not, you’ll end up with many obscure ingredients you rarely or never use.

Never fear! I’ve compiled a list of 60 basic ingredients to jump-start your collection. These are the ones I use most frequently, and I can prepare an enormous selection of food using only what's listed below. While this list is not exhaustive or completely essential, it does provide a great starting point.

Herbs and Spices:

Garlic powder
Dill weed
Cayenne pepper
Chili powder

Herbs and spices are the crux of good cooking: they can easily make the difference between “edible” and “gourmet.” Although at several dollars for a tiny bottle they can seem expensive, remember that they last a long time. The best strategy is to select a few recipes to start with that use only a couple of spices. Buy only the ones you need, and add to your collection gradually. Soon you will have all of these and more, and you can start experimenting by adding new spices to your recipes! (One of my favourite pastimes.)

TIP: a little garlic powder, basil and oregano will make anything taste like pizza! Try adding them with tomato to a grilled cheese sandwich and see what you think.


All-purpose flour
White sugar
Powdered sugar
Brown sugar
Baking powder
Baking soda
Yeast (regular or instant)
Vanilla extract

Even if you don’t plan on “baking,” you’ll need to have most of these on hand anyway. Flour and cornstarch are frequently used as thickeners in soups and sauces, and I am a firm believer that a teaspoon of sugar makes any recipe three times better. Besides, developing your baking skills alongside cooking is never a bad idea — few things are as satisfying as making your own fresh buns or biscuits from scratch.

Pantry Items:

Rice (or alternative)
Dried pasta
White vinegar
Balsamic vinegar
Vegetable oil
Olive oil
Broth or soup stock

Rice or pasta is the base for many filling meals. When it comes to selecting pasta, don’t feel that you need a box of every type. (Has anyone ever died from eating spaghetti sauce with fettuccini noodles?) So if you’re trying to keep things inexpensive, start with one “long” noodle (spaghetti or fettuccini) and one “fancy” noodle (rotini, penne or bow-tie are all great choices).

There are also many vinegars to choose from — balsamic, red wine, cider, and rice, to name a few — but once again, start with one or two. Plain white vinegar is fine for baking where its only use is in chemical reactions, but be sure to use a flavoured vinegar for dressings and sauces.

Canned Goods:

Crushed tomatoes
Tomato paste
Diced tomatoes
Other canned fruit and vegetables

Canned goods are great pantry staples thanks to their long shelf life and potent flavours. You’ll notice that tomatoes are on this list three times — they have more culinary uses than I can count! Likewise, tuna is one of the best canned meats and can be used so many ways: straight out of the can in salads or wraps, broiled in sandwiches, cooked in casseroles, and more. Pick a few of your favourites to add to this list. I never go without canned pineapples, my all-time favourite pizza topping.

Perishables and Produce:

Parmesan cheese
Sour cream
Frozen fruit and vegetables

These ingredients are easy! You probably keep many of these on hand anyway, even if you don’t consider yourself a cook. The tricky part is ensuring they don’t spoil, but they’re actually very easy to use up. Leftover potatoes and eggs can become scrambled eggs and hash browns, and many more of these ingredients can be added to sandwiches.

Onion and garlic are essential for numerous dishes, but be sure to pick out a few more fruits and veggies during each shopping trip. Even if you don’t cook something with them, you’ll eat healthier if you reach for them as snacks instead of carb-filled foods. Frozen fruit and vegetables are wonderful to have on hand – the veggies can be steamed, fried, or added to soups, and the fruit can be eaten with yogurt or cereal or in smoothies.


Soy sauce
Teriyaki sauce
Peanut butter
Lemon juice

Many cooks keep fresh lemons on hand for their juice, but I find that buying bottled lemon juice works fine in most cases. You can also use it to make killer lemonade — who needs cheap drink crystals?

Finally, a word of advice regarding condiments (and all other food items on this list, for that matter): if you know you don’t like it, don’t buy it! Yes, sometimes a food you dislike can add a wonderful flavour when used as part of a larger dish. (I’m looking at you, mushrooms!) But when starting out, your best shot at success lies in making foods with simple, standard ingredients you already know you like.

Good luck and happy cooking!

Have any kitchen tips or tricks of your own? Share them in the comments! :)


  1. Nutritional yeast. You can add that to just about anything. And, yes, baking cookies is essential. Added bonus, they are easy. Also, you can save little containers (label them!) and use 'em to buy spices in bulk - much cheaper than the pre-bottled version.

    Great post. :)

    1. Great points! What works for me is buying a bottle the first time, then doing all my refils from bulk, you're right, it's wayyyy cheaper. And nutritional yeast hey? I'll have to look into that.

  2. Such a useful post! :D
    Totally keeping it bookmarked for when I go off to university.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...