27 April 2011

Can you feed a family on a budget with just a few ingredients? Yes you can!

That was the question asked me yesterday and part of my answer. Of course you can feed a family on a budget - even a small, tight budget - and you can feed them well! And they won't have to go without treats or give up variety and flavour either.

The old joke about "101 ways to serve mince" might be clich├ęd, but there are so many delicious ways to prepare and serve mince and chicken and lamb and other beef cuts and fish and yes, even vegetables that won't cost a fortune, far more than just a 101.

Over the years I've learned that the trick to eating well and keeping the cost down is to keep meals, or rather the ingredients for meals, simple. Using pantry basics you can create thousands of different recipes. Think about it, they're not called "basics" because you use them once then shove them to the back of the cupboard to go stale.

These foods are called basics because they form the basis of every recipe.

When you have a pantry stocked with the basics you can leave so many compound ingredients on the shelves.

Take powdered milk for instance. Of course you can use it to make milk. But when it's combined with basic butter and sugar it becomes condensed milk. So you can leave that on the shelf. When you add 1 cup of powdered milk to 3/4 cup water you have the equivalent of a can of evaporated milk. So that's another can you can leave off your grocery list. Powdered milk, when combined with basic sugar, cornflour, vanilla and water becomes custard. Leave that packet behind too.

Can you see how basics work? You use them on their own or in combination with other basic ingredients to create the ingredients you need for your recipe.

Most of us use taco seasoning. The packets of taco/enchilada/burrito seasonings are almost $2 a packet and each packet weighs around 30g. When you combine basic herbs and spices that most of us have in our pantry, you not only have truly fresh taco or enchilada or burrito seasoning, but you've saved a bundle. Old El Paso taco seasoning sells for $1.95 a 30g packet. That equates to $65 a kilo! You can make the same quantity of taco seasoning for around 60 cents, less than a third the price! You can bet your bottom dollar that Mexican cooks don't buy packet seasonings, they mix their own to taste and save a fortune while doing it.

Ordinary white flour makes cakes, scones, biscuits and breads. But did you know it also makes great gravy? And can be used as a thickener in casseroles and stews? It also thickens pickles and chutneys.

So what are the bare bones pantry basics?

The absolute minimum in my pantry would be:

Flours - plain, self-raising, wholemeal, gluten cornflour
Sugar - just white. You can make castor and brown sugar very easily.
Rolled oats
Rice - white. Basmati as it's a lower GI and slightly better than other rices
Pasta - easy as it is to make, it's just as cheap and easy to buy. Spaghetti, lasagne, twists or shells.
Dried fruits - mixed fruit and sultanas, glace cherries and ginger
Dried beans and lentils
Nuts - peanuts for peanut butter, almonds, walnuts
Spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, turmeric, paprika, coriander, cumin, mixed spice, vanilla beans, vanilla extract
Herbs - mixed herbs, basil, oregano, rosemary, dill, dried onion, garlic powder, sage, thyme,
Powdered milk - skim and full cream
Vinegar - white, brown, balsamic
Sauces - soy, oyster,
Oils - olive, safflower, sesame
Tinned tomatoes
Tinned pineapple
Baked beans
Cheese - tasty, parmesan

I do have other foods in the pantry, but those above are the bare basics. With those ingredients and a little beef, chicken, lamb or fish I can feed the family for months before repeating a recipe.

As you stock your pantry, try to choose foods that will do double, triple, even quadruple duty. Your grocery bill will go down, you'll be stunned at how much money you save, your pantry will suddenly seem bigger and you won't be wasting nearly as much food and money.

The lass that asked the question was amazed and then really interested and then excited about learning how to prepare yummy meals for minimal cost. It was so much fun talking with her and sharing little titbits of information. We only had 45 minutes together and most of that time was spent filming but by the time she left I'm sure she at least knew she didn't have to spend half her wage on food each week.

I know she was confident that she could have just a few basic ingredients on hand and still eat delicious meals.

So what do you consider a pantry basic? What ingredients are must haves in your cupboard?


  1. your pantry is about the same as mine.When times are really tough so long as I have bread margarine,milk, fruit and vegetables I know that we can survive.

  2. knowing the basics has been a rule in my house for years Kath, I have been a reciever of your newsletter for some years, at prent, I am in brisbane, all due to the fact that I am a cheapskate. and proud of it. following cheapskates has allowed me to save. thankyou

  3. What a fantastic post Cath!

    I have the basics in my pantry and have to admit that I still buy taco mix (we don't use it often), but when you mentioned the price per kilo, that has made me wake up and make it myself! Same with condensed milk, I know it can be made but haven't done it yet!

    Thank you so much Cath for sharing your knowledge and common sense, something that I am lacking lol! Just needed this wake up call :)


    1. Hi Tania, once you've made taco seasoning you'll never go back to buying those stale, flavourless packets - well they are when you compare them to what you can make yourself. I use the basic MOO taco seasoning for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, even in chilli because it is so fragrant. I really love opening the jar and getting the aroma of the spices - makes your mouth water.

      And condensed milk - so much nicer to make your own - then you get to lick the bowl and the beater as well as sample the jars :) It's another thing I'll never buy again, costs less than half the price to make double the quantity and it freezes - can't ask for more.

      Sometimes we forget that we have the ingredients to make these so-called convenience foods, we all need a gentle reminder now and then that we can make our own food and it is better than anything we can buy.

      Hope it's not too hot for your garden, I'm sitting here waiting patiently for the cool change to come through to give my poor veggies a break.

      Have a nice week,

  4. This message just needs repeating over and over - we concur with your list above absolutely.

  5. Surprisingly i have about the same now to Cath And i just realised that i havent bought castor sugar in years because i just whip that up when i need it , im yet to make the taco mix but i'll be doing that shortly and that price per kilo is horrific lol so i know i wont be buying it again. Its funny when you think something isnt really expensive until you look at the big picture ( the price per kilo) amazing !!!! i know that i do make a lot more things now than i used to but the best thing is that i really enjoy doing it to, very satisfying xoxo

  6. When times were really tough for us, I bought the same ingredients every pay day and my family had wonderful different meals every night. I tried menu planning but found I spent more money that way as things always changed at the last minute as my husband would be working extra hours or extra people would arrive and need to be feed. With the staples in the pantry & freezer - meals for four or ten were easy to prepare.
    The butcher received a big shock one day, I went in and ordered 5 chops, 10 sausages and 500 gm mince. He nearly fell over as I normally bought them in kilo lots. We were about to move so I had to work to a strict menu until moving day. I did the same in the grocery store, but no one noticed there.
    Having the basics of the foods that my family loves is so much cheaper and delicious. Pat

  7. The tinned tomatoes and pineapples are something I've home canned in mason jars from my garden (the tomatoes) and bought when they are $1 each (the pineapples) . Btw- one nice size pineapple will make almost 3 pints jars of pineapple chunks! I just add hot water into the jars before canning them and it gets infused with the pineapple juice flavor! Cost saving is amazing and they taste much more like fresh pineapple!!!

    1. Do you pressure can them? Or hot water bath preserve them? I have a Fowlers Vacola that I use for hot water bath preserving. I'm saving up for a pressure canner, I would be able to safely preserve so much more, especially meat and meals.


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