Can I see your staples?
September 18, 2013 6:15 PM   Subscribe

What are your grocery staples that get the most bang for your buck?

Now that we are on a serious budget I only shop 2x a month. What foods do you buy that can produce a variety of meals?
We have no food restrictions.
We don't mind leftovers.
Examples of what we currently buy: Pasta, rice, beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, eggs, cheese, flour, frozen veggies, any meat that is on sale...

What is your staple-always-have-on-hand list to whip up a good dinner?

I am a decent cook, but would appreciate any recipes you care to share as well.
posted by MayNicholas to Food & Drink (46 answers total) 124 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add: We have an oven, crock pot, pressure cooker and a vacuum seal food saver to work with.
posted by MayNicholas at 6:21 PM on September 18, 2013

Cabbage, the immortal vegetable that will sit at the back of your fridge and stare at you for as long as it has to until you eat it.
posted by XMLicious at 6:23 PM on September 18, 2013 [32 favorites]

You mentioned meat on sale. I specifically like to stock up on smoked sausages/kielbasa/etc. They add alot of flavor to soups, can be added to casseroles, can be grilled and served with breakfast or on a bun, etc. Plus they last forever.

Butter freezes well, I tend to stock up when it's on super sale.

Now's a good time to buy all the winter squash, too. You can roast them and freeze it diced, or pureed, for use in soups or other recipes.
posted by cabingirl at 6:31 PM on September 18, 2013

Canned tomatoes (always check to see if they're on sale, when they are, buy several cans, keep ten at a time on hand).

Canned coconut milk--you can make great curries with leftover or fresh vegetables, beans, and chicken and serve with rice.

Always check the meat selection after a major holiday, you'll be able to stock up cheap on whatever leftovers are appropriate for the season--grillable meats after summer holidays, turkey and ham after Thanksgiving and Christmas, brisket after St. Patrick's day, lamb after Easter, and even check after Valentine's Day--there are often fun fancy things like bacon wrapped filets or veal shanks. Dirt cheap, because they're priced to move.

Things in season that last a while around the house, like squashes in fall and winter. Squashes will last for weeks just sitting around, and if you're worried, just cook them and freeze them for later.
posted by padraigin at 6:31 PM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh yea, canned pumpkin tends to be cheap this time of year. Also diced tomatoes are a good staple, as well as tomato paste.
posted by cabingirl at 6:32 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yoghurt is cheaper than cheese per gram of protein. Plus it's probiotic and far less salty and fatty.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:32 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom is the king of meal planning and multiple use foods. I think her most amazing feat is performed with ham.

-She waits for ham to go deeply on sale and buys a ham.
-She roasts the ham.
-For a few days we have roast ham for dinner...
-...and ham sandwiches for lunch.
-Then she chops up the rest of the good meat into little cubes, which she freezes and pulls out to mix in with fried rice when we have fried rice.
-She cuts the odd-shaped ham remainders off the bone to use in soup.
-She mixes the trimmings and scraps in with the dog food.
-She uses the ham bone to start a soup stock, adds the ham bits she set aside earlier, adds white beans, and then we eat bean soup and cornbread for the next ten thousand years.

Nothing goes to waste, cost of ham (which was on sale to begin with) is divided over so many meals that it becomes tremendously cheap.
posted by phunniemee at 6:33 PM on September 18, 2013 [27 favorites]

Miso keeps for a long time (in the fridge) and makes a stellar soup. Grab some Bonito Flakes (Hon-Dashi) for the fish stock part.

Sriracha, fish sauce, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and enough different spices to do Italian, Indian, or Thai flavored stuff. Lentils. Canned pumpkin, which can go into a variety of things. Cranberries. We buy them by the buttload and freeze them until needed.

We buy a lot of baking supplies in bulk and keep them on hand - whole wheat flour, unbleached sugar, pastry flour, and so on. Mrs Q does all the baking. Honey (I harvest my own now but we used to buy it in bulk from the local co-op). Per-pound, you might look into buying meat in bulk, like a half- or quarter-side if you've got the storage for it and/or can find some other folks to split it.

We do a lot of soups during winter and Lent, and try to use seasonal ingredients for them, so minestrone for spring, root-vegetable stuff in the fall and winter. Our go-to cookbook is Twelve Months of Monastery Soups. Most of the recipes are vegetarian, or nearly so, and also tie to what's generally in season that month.
posted by jquinby at 6:33 PM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

esprit de l'escalier: "Yoghurt is cheaper than cheese per gram of protein. Plus it's probiotic and far less salty and fatty."

It is also dead simple to make, and the results are surprisingly good for a DIY item. You can buy some and stretch it out for a long time by using it as starter for your own stuff..
posted by jquinby at 6:35 PM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

The big advantage I see to making yoghurt is controlling sourness and thickness to how you like it. I don't know if you actually save money making it. One of the reasons that yoghurt is sometimes cheaper than milk (per gram of protein) is that doesn't expire for a month.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:38 PM on September 18, 2013

I have never wasted one frozen pea, ever.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:46 PM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, as a more general bang-for-your-buck staple suggestion, get familiar with the items that your nearby chain drugstore uses as a loss leader! For instance, my drugstore frequently has a pretty decent olive oil for $5 off, cans of garbanzo beans for 50 cents, etc. I'll usually swing through the drugstore before going to the adjacent grocery store, just to see what the good deal is this week.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:51 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another good one for me is whole chickens. Often the whole chicken costs only a little more than its breasts. Roast the salted chicken over a pan of water. Then put the carcass into your pressure cooker with the water full of drippings for 90 minutes. Sieve, let cool, refrigerate, skim the fat, and make soup with the most delicious chicken broth you've ever tried.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:54 PM on September 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm actually not sure making yogurt is a cost saving measure, unless you eat a lot of yogurt, and can get milk very cheaply, and if you can strain the whey off and drink it or use it to bake bread.

I make my own yogurt quite often, and we love it, but a half gallon of milk really only makes a quart of yogurt if you strain it to get it to a store-bought consistency.

I would second making broth out of whole chickens (or cheap loss-leader turkeys during the holidays), because good bone broth is a delicious and nutritious thing to just drink straight in the winter months, aside from using it as a soup base.

Also, check out ethnic markets--Mexican, Asian, African, what's available to you will depend on where you live, but they can have better deals on certain foods (rice, beans, fresh tomatoes and peppers and onions, noodles, etc) than regular grocers.
posted by padraigin at 7:10 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I buy large bags of rice. I'm only one person, and I don't eat much, so a 15 lb bag lasts me several months. I'm also a rice snob, so I tend to buy multiple kinds of really good rice; but 7 years ago my college apartment of 4 people lived on 25 lb bags of jasmine rice from Costco for $15-20. It helps a lot if you have a good rice cooker.

Frozen shrimp is often a go-to protein source for me, and if you're not too concerned with quality or size, you can find larger bags on sale for under $6/lb.

Tofu lasts a long time in the fridge, and forever in the freezer (if you're okay with the texture of previously-frozen tofu), and it's pretty cheap.

Fried rice can use all of the above, plus eggs and any frozen vegetables you have. Sesame oil is the secret ingredient.

Red lentils. Learn the wonders and the variety of dal.

Related: split pea soup, in the colder months. $2 of split peas, a $1.50 smoked pork hork (or $0 leftover ham bone), and optional $1-$3 of chicken broth, plus spices you have on hand.

If you have the time, you can make bread dough in less than an hour, let it ferment in the fridge overnight, then portion into rolls or loaves and freeze in freezer bags. When you want fresh bread, pull a ball of dough out of the freezer, let it warm up for an hour or two, shape it, rise another 30-60 minutes, and bake it.

If you look hard, you might be able to find cheap slab bacon. I can get "pork jowl bacon" in a whole piece cheaper than any other bacon I've found. That will lend itself to freezing in larger pieces, or slices, or tiny cubes for flavoring.

One of the simplest ways I've found to make cheap staple eating more enjoyable is to find some strongly-flavored condiments you really like. I might have more condiments than actual food. They go on rice, bread, with chips, or combined to make sauces for stir-fries. Could be a bit expensive to experiment to find things that go well, though.
posted by WasabiFlux at 7:19 PM on September 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

-Eggs (they last longer than you'd think)
-Winter squashes
-Whole spices, Oils and Vinegars
posted by deinemutti at 7:20 PM on September 18, 2013

Eggs do really last a long time and then when you hard cook them, they last a long time more. The expiration dates/sell-by dates on eggs are almost random honestly.
posted by padraigin at 7:36 PM on September 18, 2013

If you are buying canned beans, learn to cook them from scratch. Lentils cook especially quickly.

Sweet potatos or yams are nice. Winter (hard) squashes are cheap now and will last for months.

Spices are much cheaper at the mexican grocery or bought in bulk at a co-op type store.

You can grow your own sprouts easily and cheaply, and they make a nice fresh vegetable.

Costco or Sam's Club is much cheaper for certain types of items. If you get a chance to go with a friend, look for huge sacks of rice, flour, pinto beans, sugar, etc.

This is a good time of year to put the word out that you'll come help harvest excess produce from friend's gardens. You can dry or freeze many vegetables.

Making your own bread and tortillas -- far cheaper, far better tasting.

Make and freeze soups, stews, and beans to thaw for quick dinners.

Some asian markets have cheap fresh tofu.
posted by yohko at 7:38 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Whole legs of ham are super flexible as are whole chickens and cheap per pound, yes you are paying for the bones, but the bones make great eats as well.

I like to stockpile chicken thighs on sale as they are tastier than chicken breasts IMO and go really cheap.

If you have the freezer space milk freezes with no problems, just shake it up when defrosted to mix it all together. I tend to buy a few gallons when it's on sale.

I always have certain herbs etc around as they can make a boring budget meal a banquet. Garlic is worth every cent, garlic powder is a great alternative and lasts forever and is often super cheap at the dollar store as is onion powder. Also soy sauce, basil, tinned tomatoes.

I like to buy some chorizo, usually only a sausage or 2. They are great to pop the skins off and throw in with a cheap cut of meat (chicken breast, sausage meat etc or just toss a little through some veggies) to add a big whallop of flavour.

Have flour around. You can make so many things. Pancakes, pies etc. It's hard to feel poor when you've used some cheap marge, flour, sugar (and spices if you have them) and apples on sale to make a $2 homemade apple pie.
posted by wwax at 7:43 PM on September 18, 2013

Here are our staples:

Large 25lbs bags of white or brown rice, whole wheat flour, different kinds of beans from ethnic stores etc.; similarly large sized sacks of different lentils, chickpeas, steel cut oats, cracked wheat, farro, quinoa, barley, couscous etc ensure there are always things for the most basic meals. These things store well with a little planning.

Frozen: I always have frozen peas, corn, cauliflower, spinach, fish... and anything else that is around. Frozen berries and fruits are always great to have on hand for smoothie breakfasts when I cannot shop twice a week.

Dairy creamers for coffee, tea on the rare occasion we run out of milk.

Like others mentioned: canned tomatoes, canned salsa, canned coconut milk, eggs

And then things like potatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, dried ginger and garlic powders, basic spices, pickles
posted by greta_01 at 7:52 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Eggs do really last a long time and then when you hard cook them, they last a long time more.

Hard boiled eggs (in the shell, in the fridge) are good for a week tops. Afterwards, sliminess and bad smell and...yeah. This is according to me and Cooking is not an egg preservation method. (They can be frozen, though, with the addition of sugar or salt.)

I am not much of a whip-up-dinner type -- I am a 'spend an exhausting two days a month cooking and fill the freezer' type. This is very, very economical if done with a little planning, even moreso if you can buy your ingredients from a non-profit co-op of some stripe. (Googling for US {?} stuff turns up "Gaballi Foods"...?) Or if you plan your freezing bender around the week's flyers.

A few times a year I go to Costco for massive sacks of onions and peppers, loads of boxes of mushrooms, and some celery and maybe a little this and that, garlic, and a flat of canned tomatoes and a case of tomato paste, and this is a chunky veg spaghetti sauce and it freezes perfectly.

I agree making yoghurt is not very cost-effective. If you like a lot of flavour options, is cost-effective to buy big tubs of plain, and buy fruit preserves and jams and stir a dollop of that in. I think we currently have nine options for yoghurt flavours, many that you can't buy pre-mixed. Jars of sugary fruit of various stripes are a good staple if you can make them or find a good kind on sale; not just a toast topping, but also a dessert ingredient, flavouring, cake middle, etc etc.
posted by kmennie at 8:10 PM on September 18, 2013

I'd also like to add if you buy bacon, save the drippings! You can add lots of flavor to your pancakes, quesadillas, eggs and home fries when you use it as a cooking fat.
posted by deinemutti at 8:31 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Canned light tuna in water is a food that is generally on the WIC lists, and therefore, especially in store brands, a pretty good deal. It has a long shelf life, consistent flavor over time, and is highly nutritious for its cost per ounce. Depending on who you believe about mercury levels, etc., you may have to limit yourself to one or two servings a week, but it is a versatile, low fat source of protein, that can stretch a package of egg noodles to a couple of meals, or make sandwiches, or serve as protein garnish in a Niçoise salad.
posted by paulsc at 8:34 PM on September 18, 2013

A big bag of carrots is one thing I don't see yet. They're cheap, keep a long time, and are great in the crockpot. Carrots, potatoes, onions, and a hunk of meat is a crockpot meal we do about once a week in the winter.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:46 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

For me, what helps is keeping from having to make multiple runs to the store for stuff. So the things I think of that save money aren't always because I get them any cheaper by buying in bulk, but just by having them on hand it saves me time and trouble and aggravation.

I keep a few cans of cooked chicken around. I keep ground turkey in the freezer, always. I can always whip up meatballs or a casserole or spaghetti, you name it. I've recently figured out how great tofu is - and it's actually BETTER if you freeze it and then thaw it, so now i keep a few packs of it in the freezer to always have some on hand. (What I never knew before is that you need to press out all the liquid so it will absorb whatever sauce you put on it. Awesome!).

As jquinby said, yogurt is dead easy to make - and if you make the plain kind you can pop it in the freezer in cup or two sized servings, and then you've got a sour cream substitute for a lot of recipes right on hand.

It's not really cheaper than regular milk, but having a box of dry milk around is really handy for cooking and for if you run out. (and it's great to have to thicken up your yogurt; I used a gallon of milk and a cup of dry milk and ended up with more than a gallon of yogurt when I made it this weekend.)
posted by lemniskate at 8:49 PM on September 18, 2013

I make my own yogurt quite often, and we love it, but a half gallon of milk really only makes a quart of yogurt if you strain it to get it to a store-bought consistency.

Have you tried putting like a quarter cup of dry milk in when you're heating the milk? The higher protein content makes it set up thicker without the need to strain.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:13 PM on September 18, 2013

Canned light tuna in water is a food that is generally on the WIC lists, and therefore, especially in store brands, a pretty good deal. It has a long shelf life, consistent flavor over time, and is highly nutritious for its cost per ounce. Depending on who you believe about mercury levels, etc., you may have to limit yourself to one or two servings a week, but it is a versatile, low fat source of protein, that can stretch a package of egg noodles to a couple of meals, or make sandwiches, or serve as protein garnish in a Niçoise salad.

And if you are worried about mercury levels but canned, shelf-stable fish is your thing: sardines and mackerel are your friend. Mackerel's a little tricker - North Atlantic, Jack and Chub Mackerel are of very little concern, but Spanish, Gulf and King Mackerel are really high in mercury so read the labels.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:19 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Haven't seen anyone mention polenta yet.
posted by oceano at 9:28 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many of my staples are the same as yours and others suggested. I don't think these have been mentioned yet: frozen dumplings from an asian grocery store, porridge (aka oatmeal), muesli bars, couscous, TVP (textured vegetable protein, goes by different names), taco shells and tortillas, mexican seasoning sachets, dried fruit, nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, peanuts), stock cubes, salted capers, sundried tomatoes in oil, a few different types of condiments like lemon juice, different kinds of vinegar (balsamic, apple cider, rice wine) and oil (olive, vegetable, sesame) and soy (cheapo regular in big bottle, smaller bottle of nicer quality normal, tamari) as well as spices like coriander seed, cumin seed, chilli flakes, dill, cinnamon, vanilla bean paste and pre-prepared asian sauces like hoisin, oyster, etc. Also pesto and tomato paste. The advantage of the staple flavourings and spices is that you can take otherwise bland things and make them taste more interesting or whip up a quick sauce/dressing. Different kinds add variety and can be used for different things.

Staple foods for me that can be created from my pantry/staple stuff:
- pasta e fagioli (onion, garlic, carrot, 1 tin each of tomatoes, cannelini, kidney beans and borlotti beans, ditalini pasta, stock cubes, water)
- tacos and burritos (mexibeans or kidney beans with mexican seasoning, cheese, jarred salsa if I don't have fresh ingredients to make my own, sour cream/yogurt, taco shells, tortillas)
- chilli con TVP (onion, garlic, carrot, tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, mexican seasoning, extra chilli flakes, TVP, tomato paste) (can also be used in tacos and burritos, above, or have with rice)
- pesto pasta (pasta, pesto from jar, sliced sundried tomatoes, fresh parmesan on top, toasted pine nuts optional) (better made with fresh pesto of course but not always possible)
- chickpea salad (tinned chickpeas, squeeze of lemon juice, dash of olive oil, cumin, coriander and chilli freshly ground in the mortar and pestle; can add toasted pine nuts, feta/goats cheese and couscous for a pilaf-type thing; add finely chopped tomato for a fresh salad)
- spaghetti bolognaise (onion, garlic, tinned tomatoes, chilli, TVP, tomato paste at a minimum; can also add carrot, mushroom, whatever veggies on hand; add to spaghetti/penne/whatever and top with fresh parmesan)
- mushroom barley soup (garlic, onion, carrot, mushrooms, barley, stock cubes)
- tomatoey tuna sauce (garlic, onion, tinned tomatoes, tinned tuna, chilli, salted capers (rinsed), green olives - have on top of couscous (my favourite) or pasta or rice)
- pancakes, spinach pancakes for a savoury variation
- steamed dumplings with dipping sauces
- porridge with flaked almonds, honey and cinnamon
- stewed fruit (cut up almost any fruit which is a bit too wrinkled/old to want to eat raw, add some frozen berries, honey/sugar, cinnamon, water, simmer for an hour or so) on yogurt or ice cream or porridge

Perhaps I will stop. I do a lot of staple cooking. :)
posted by Athanassiel at 10:17 PM on September 18, 2013 [12 favorites]

Nthing chickpeas because they are super, super versatile. On a salad or as the base for a salad. Good old reliable hummus (roast, peel and seed a red pepper or two and toss that in the blender with it, best hummus evah). Chickpea pancakes. Desserts, even! And roasted chickpeas are my crunchy snack jam. Also, chickpea flour yields you lovely stuff like this.

Parsnips! Hardy winter root veggie of champions, and roast parsnips beat the pants off roast carrots any day.

Eggplants are cheap and big enough to feed a few people. Ditto heads of cauliflower - try cauliflower steaks and buffalo cauliflower "wings".

And cauliflower, root veggies, squash - these are the basis for some of the cheapest, most delicious, HUGE pots of soup ever. Roast a sheet pan chock full of these things. Put 'em in a pot with a bit of stock (chicken is always good, veggie stock is a great way to stretch your dollar). Season, add any other ingredients you want (this is where parmesan rinds go to retire) and zap with an immersion blender. Which is another helpful thing, certain tools really help you stretch your food and whip up interesting stuff from the simplest ingredients. The immersion blender is one, a mandolin slicer is another - gratins are amazing and cheap and welcome all sorts of random ingredients you want to use up.

If you want to stretch a cheap round roast, turn it into the best roast beef sandwiches ever with this slow roast technique. When cooked that way and sliced thin across the grain it's insanely good, the perfect level of rare, and more tender than you'd ever think a cheap roast could be.

Another good use for a whole chicken: let Jacques Pépin show you how to debone a whole bird to stuff. You get the whole carcass right away for stock, you'll have plenty of leftover incredibly delicious chicken ballotine and it's way easier than you'd think even if, like me, Pépin's knife skills leave you feeling like an ape with a club. Probably the most fun, showy way to stretch a whole chicken over multiple meals.

If you don't want to deal with whole chickens, chicken leg quarters are dirt cheap and the best part of the chicken anyways.

They're fatty, but if that doesn't bother you, pork steaks have like the single best cost/delicious porky flavor ratio of any pork cut. Grilled pork steak is bliss.

If you've got a place that prices them fairly and not like specialty items, beef short ribs and oxtail will make memorable winter braises.

Big bags of frozen kale. Everybody could use more leafy greens! Saute with garlic, red pepper flakes and salt in a bit of olive oil.

A pantry staple that's easy to forget about until you need it: instant coffee. Easiest way to add coffee flavor to anything that needs it, whether it's baked goods, ice cream, chili or homemade Irish cream.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:31 PM on September 18, 2013 [10 favorites]

Oh yeah, and tilapia! Sustainable and cheap and it tastes like whatever you season it with, it is the blank slate of the fish world. I've always got some frozen tilapia on hand.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:37 PM on September 18, 2013

"Oh yeah, and tilapia! ..."

Eh, a 2011 NYT article might change your mind about farmed tilapia as a dietary staple. And a 2009 study of tilapia sourced from 13 countries indicated issues with various sub-species of Streptococcosis bacteria, that seem endemic to farmed tilapia. A weekly serving of tilapia may still be better for you than a Big Mac and fries, but it may not cost much less, and as nearly all the tilapia available in the U.S. are farmed fish from Central and South America, you're pretty dependent on foreign grower and processor standards for feed content, processing, and post-processing handling.

Similar concerns apply for basa, an inexpensive and increasingly available kind of farmed catfish, imported into the U.S. mainly from Vietnam and Thailand. Cheap seafood is usually cheap for a reason. If that/those reasons concern the feed, processing or transportation of the product, you have to be ware, as a consumer, to get only that product where your safety hasn't been compromised.
posted by paulsc at 12:03 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there a Cash and Carry near you? Because cash and carry changed my bulk-purchasing life. 25 pounds of black beans for $14, 50 pounds of potatoes for $6!
posted by KathrynT at 12:07 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Shelf-stable milk in those little tetra packs that are meant to go in kids' lunches. It lasts for months, and since it's in roughly cup-sized portions, it's great for baking. I never drink it so I have no idea if it'd be useful that purpose as well.

Egg replacer is another thing I keep on hand. I use it for baking (everything except brownies, sadness). Stuff like cornbread or pancakes. That way you can make a lot of quick bread type things without having to worry about whether the eggs or milk have gone off.

I only shop once a month. I pretty much buy only immortal vegetables fresh (carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, &c) and everything else canned, dried or frozen.
posted by ZeroDivides at 3:16 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buy sliced bread when it's reduced at the end of the supermarket day and freeze it. I do this and we always have some to hand if we want toast (our toaster has a cook from frozen setting).
posted by mippy at 3:28 AM on September 19, 2013

One-pound tubes ("chubs") of frozen ground turkey. It's usually at least $0.50/lb cheaper than ground beef and I use it for most of the things I'd use ground beef in--spaghetti, chili, turkey burgers, etc. etc.

30-ct stacks of corn tortillas for tacos, fajitas, tortilla casserole, fried up for tortilla soup...

When I was on a stricter budget my go-to fish was frozen whiting. If it's skin-on I peel the skin off when it's still frozen and it's less fishy tasting.

Half or whole boneless pork loins (esp. on sale) are one of the least expensive lean meats you can get. I usually will divide up a half-loin (5 lbs or so) into 1/3rds: 1/3 for pork chops sliced 1" thick, 1/3 for a small pork roast (which you can then slice the leftovers for Cuban sandwiches oh my god I want one right now so tasty), and 1/3 goes in the slow cooker to make into shredded pork, which can go in either a Mexican/Latin direction for taco meat or similar with the addition of half a jar of salsa and some lime juice, or in a pulled pork barbeque direction by the addition of barbeque sauce and vinegar.

3-lb bags of smoked sausage, which I use to make jambalaya, Chicago-style sausage-n-peppers, with lentil soup, as an add-in in spaghetti sauce instead of fresh sausage, thin-sliced onto homemade pizza, with baked beans, etc.
posted by drlith at 3:50 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the awesome suggestions so far!

On a side note... Yogurt vs cheese. I love cheese. Never met a cheese I didn't like. No care for yogurt making. But cheese making... I could be down with that if it's cost effective.
posted by MayNicholas at 5:09 AM on September 19, 2013

I will tell you about couponing. I save an average of 35% on my groceries.

First of all, you can use coupons in conjunction with Buy One, Get One offers, loss leaders, etc.

Being mindful of what's on sale, and combining that with a coupon is a great way to save lots of money.

On food items, you have to be careful, you don't want to buy a lot of processed garbage, but on cleaning supplies, paper goods and toiletries, you can save a shit-ton. I typically get toothpaste, deodorant, soap, detergent and such for under a dollar. Name brand stuff that doesn't make me itch.

Most grocery stores will double coupons, up to $.50. So if you have a coupon for $.50 on Ketchup, and it's on Buy One, Get One, you can buy 1 ketchup at the BOGO price of $2.00, and your coupon will double to $1.00, and suddenly a $4.00 bottle of ketchup is $1.00. (This is in areas where you don't have to buy two items to take advantage of the BOGO. Basically the thing it 50% off.)

I subscribed to The Grocery Game, and I did it for Publix, Kroger and CVS. I saved a TON of dough, and I didn't have to think too hard. Now I just do it on my own.

Also, CVS is expensive on the surface, but once you sign up for their programs, and use coupons in the store...geez it's cheap. CVS and Walgreens allow you to use the manufacturers coupon AND the store coupon together. CVS has a loyalty program that gives you money back on what you buy, that you can then use on items you're buying on sale, with coupons. I got 4 jugs of All detergent for $3.00 once.

Also, check for close outs and the dented can rack at your market. You can use coupons on discounted stuff, and you can get it for free! Once a Rite-Aid was going out of business and everything was 90% off. I got hair color for $.90 and they let me use my $2.00 coupon. I know! Think about that.

Some food staples that are cheap and good:

Canned Tomatoes
Dried Beans and other Legumes (cook in the crock pot!)
Flour (to make bread and pancakes.)
Spinach (frozen or fresh)
Tortillas (corn are the cheapest)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a food that I recently found out about: chickpea flour! You can get it in bulk at an Indian grocery store or a pan-South-Asian market or maybe a co-op, but you can also get a smaller bag of Bob's Red Mill chickpea flour to try first. You can make a kind of "tofu" (don't be fooled even if you don't like tofu) out of it - a technique most common among the Shan people from Burma. It's pretty easy - basically boil, cook and set. I generally mix the chickpea flour with a little water and let it soak for an hour or so beforehand. Also, add some spices - garlic, cumin, turmeric, chili; garlic, oregano; etc.

The resulting "tofu" is great with various sauces - you can make a marinade with rice vinegar, soy and related ingredients; you can top it with tomato sauce; etc. Think of it sort of like polenta. You can chop it up and mix it in with bean and vegetable dishes. It's comparatively protein-rich, high in fiber and very filling.

Also, I've made variants on
socca about a billion times. You need to heat your oven high (to about 500) or use a broiler as described in the linked recipe. But it's really good and really easy once you get the technique down. I also bake socca with grated zucchini it in - again, very filling and tasty.

There are also lots of recipes for pan-fried chickpea pancakes, ranging from really thin crepes (that are great served with the kind of kludge-y semi-curry that I make) to substantial ones where the chickpea flour batter is a binder for vegetables.
posted by Frowner at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Unless you want ricotta, cheese making, in my experience, isn't even close to cost-effective. I make yoghurt without batting an eye (and guys, use full-fat milk, and you'll get a solid two quarts of thicker-than-storebought Greek-style yoghurt from a gallon of milk), but have given up cheesemaking almost entirely.

I keep sauerkraut around, in quantity, all the time. A half a cup of it will add bulk and tastiness to many autumn and winter dishes (last night was stuffed winter squash with sausage and kraut, and it was amazing), and, maybe more importantly, if you buy a jar or decant from the bag into a jar, it lasts forever.

Smoked meats are big, too--kielbasa, smoked sausage, bacon, and ham hocks are staples here, because you don't need a lot of them to flavor the whole dish with meat-flavor.

Beans, of all sorts. I usually have dried white beans, various lentils pintos, green and yellow peas, black beans, and a soup mix, and then tinned chickpea, butter beans, black beans, pintos, kidney beans, and some sort of small white bean. If you have an Aldi near you, their beans are good quality (at least, in my opinion, on par with the midrange supermarket brands) and cost 59c a tin.

Rosemary, lemon, garlic, and dried thyme are the spices/flavors I couldn't cook without. As a bonus, they all last quite a while--even fresh rosemary will last several weeks, if you store it carefully, and it's delicious. I also vote for keeping capers around--they do well with a lot of pastas and salads, and add a salty pop. (And here, at least, I can buy a one-pound jar of them for $5 from an import store, and it lasts forever.)

Oatmeal, cornmeal, and cornstarch. I assume that flour is sort of a given, but, frankly, I rarely use flour in savory cooking--cornstarch usually gives a better texture for breadings and batters, and when it doesn't, cornmeal adds fantastic flavor and a pleasing nubbly texture. Oatmeal and cornmeal both make delicious porridges on their own, too, so there's that.

Also, obviously, cheese. Cheddar, monterey jack, mozzarella, feta, and cream cheese are must-haves, in my opinion.
posted by MeghanC at 7:55 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tons of good suggestions so far, so I'll add a money-saver that's not about staples, but about herbs and spices. Because you have to season all those great staples... and herbs and spices are some of the most marked-up food items on the market.

My trick: go to the Asian grocery for these (whether we're talking fresh herbs or dried spices). You'll be amazed at the both the price and the variety. Kicks the crap out of those $4 small flat plastic containers of fresh herbs.
posted by Rykey at 5:18 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Canned tomatoes (always check to see if they're on sale, when they are, buy several cans, keep ten at a time on hand).

Canned tomatoes and paste, keep a bunch in and you'll always have a stew base or a pasta base or a sauce base on hand, which can be used to liven up any number of things.
posted by The Whelk at 10:19 AM on September 20, 2013

dried beans/lentils - I even looks for the sales on these at my health food store
dried chili/other spices from ethnic markets or penzeys(worth it imo to get better quality)
butter - I like the european style butter so I tend to spend more on this one
olive oil
popcorn - I make it on the stove/buy instead of chips and other salty snacks
dark chocolate - I buy this instead of other sweets and bonus points for actually being healthy
whole chickens
seasonal veggies/fruit
tomato paste - last time I checked trader joe's had a big tube of it for like .99. I like the tube b/c you don't have to worry about using it up
posted by fromageball at 10:29 AM on September 21, 2013

Another one...I also buy blocks of parmesan cheese instead of other kinds because it goes much farther. I even buy pretty nice parmigiano reggiano and ends up cheaper than when I used to buy other types of cheese since a little chunk goes a pretty long way.
posted by fromageball at 10:32 AM on September 21, 2013

Great suggestions all around. My contribution will be a super-duper flowchart, "How to Cook Real Good Cheap Easy Food".

There's also a standalone jpg for printing.
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:18 PM on September 23, 2013

Cans of crushed tomatoes, and cans of kidney beans.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:27 PM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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