Going out to eat is awesome. You don't have to grocery shop, spend hours cooking, clean up, and it's (usually) a social time. However, it can really take a bite out of your finances. According to a Mint.com study of their users' behaviors, the average person spends $29 per transaction at restaurants (not including fast food chains) and eats out 6 times a month. That adds up pretty quickly, especially when you can cook at home for less than $2 a meal in most cases. Here are 10 cheap staples I keep in my kitchen to whip up quick, easy, healthy meals that don't break the bank:
*Tuna - canned tuna is a great thing to have on hand. You can make the old lunch sack fave tuna sandwiches (or go gourmet with tuna melts by adding a slice of cheese and sticking it under the broiler), or add it to salads or pasta. This is one of my favorite fish cake recipes (it calls for salmon, but tuna's great with it as well). Plus, it's a great way to get servings of Omega 3 fatty acids. You can usually find cans for less than a dollar, making tuna a pretty good bang for your buck. Just don't overdo it - have less than 6 ounces a week due to mercury concerns. Also, look for tuna that's dolphin safe.
*Beans - I always have a couple of cans of beans in my pantry. They are a great source of healthy, vegetarian protein and they are really versatile. They can be added to soups, they can be blended into a dip or spread. And for usually around $1 a can, you can stretch your dollars with this pantry staple.
*Eggs - I feel like eggs get a bad rap sometimes because of their cholesterol. Sure, maybe you shouldn't have fried eggs for breakfast most days of the week, but adding a few servings of this healthy protein into your diet is good for your body and your wallet. Eggs can be more than scrambled for breakfast - they can be hardboiled (makes a great snack or chopped up in a salad), mixed with leftover rice and veggies for fried rice...endless possibilities. Most markets have a dozen eggs for around $2 (or less than 20 cents per serving!) - great value.
*Baby Carrots - baby carrots are my favorite all-purpose vegetable. You can usually find a 1 pound bag for a few bucks. Not only are they cheap, but they are already washed and peeled, saving you a few minutes for other things. I usually grab a handful for a snack, chop up a few for salads, or roast them with a little bit of olive oil and herbs.
*Mixed Greens - another staple in my fridge is a container of mixed greens. Obviously, they are super easy for salads, but add greens into your sandwiches or wraps for a great crunch and extra fiber. If you plan to eat a lot of greens, warehouse stores like Costco can't be beat (usually finding a 32 oz tub for $4 - makes 4-5 good sized salads).
*Onions - they might be tear-inducing, but I consider onions a pantry must-have. For one, they usually take 2-3 weeks to go bad. They can add great flavor to just about any dish and you can usually get a large onion for under $1. Most of the time, I don't even use a whole onion - I just stick it in the refrigerator and don't peel the part of the onion I'm saving to preserve the freshness.
*Potatoes - potatoes are to me what shrimp was to Bubba in "Forrest Gump". You can do anything with them - bake them, mash them, fry them, roast them, add them to soups...and it doesn't get much cheaper than getting a sack of potatoes. Plus, much like onions, they take quite awhile to go bad.
*Pasta - noodles are a great thing to always have on hand. It's cheap, quick and easy to cook, and it's the blank canvas of cooking - you can add just about anything to it and it tastes awesome! I usually stock up on pasta when it's on sale because the expiration date is usually years away. And when does spaghetti not sound good?
*Rice - I. love. rice. I do. It's cheap, versatile and easy to cook (if you have a rice cooker, it's practically impossible to screw up). Not only is it a great side or good in burritos, but you can have it for breakfast (microwave with a little bit of milk, raisins and brown sugar) or dessert (rice pudding!).
*Oatmeal - I know most of you are thinking that oatmeal can't be anything other than breakfast. Well, it is awesome with some maple syrup, but I also add it to smoothies for some extra fiber. Oatmeal can also give your lunch and dinner entrees some crunch and texture - sub them in for breadcrumbs. I haven't even mentioned oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or any fruit crumble for dessert! I get a container of plain oats for $2 that lasts me for a good month or so.
Obviously, this is not a completely stocked pantry. But with a few condiments, some salt and pepper, and a little creativity, I bet my Top 10 could make some pretty interesting (and inexpensive!) meals.
What's something you always have in your kitchen?