Top Ten Kitchen Staples for Your Wallet and Your Health

November 11th! It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Israel for almost three months.
israel desert
Actually, it's a bit harder to believe that I had been planning on staying for a full six months...
 It’s strange, but the more I travel and live abroad, the more I am reminded of the little saying “home is where you are,” which is not quite the same as “home as where your heart is.” I’m not even sure where my heart is...I have a feeling that it’s just running amok with the headless chickens, trying to somehow figure out where it wants to be. But I’ll content myself with the knowledge that in the world of reality, my heart is right here in my chest.

Of course, all this moving around wouldn’t be possible if I weren’t this food-obsessed ginger who develops as many money-saving methods as possible in order to prolong this state of travel and food-exploration. So while we’re holed up in Israel with John earning a little money instructing Scuba and me “working” at home, I have to think up some very cheap meals. This way we can occasionally spend on local food experiences and hopefully leave this country with a bit of extra earned money.

But the thing about making low-cost meals at home is that the Chowgypsy does not do .98 cent ramen noodles. I can’t sacrifice quality ingredients when I cook, and I don’t have to sacrifice simply to put good food on the table.
justin timberlake bleached hair
Just don't do it.
That is the amazing thing about many people today—they think that they save money by purchasing things like ramen noodles or fast foods to feed themselves. The 68 billion dollar rise of medical costs related to obesity estimated for the decade following 1998 only goes to show that fast, nutritionally-devoid foods are not cheaper in the long run. One way or another, we will pay for skipping those fruits and vegetables.

With more than one-third of today’s adult population cited as obese, who do you think is paying for all those related illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, etc.)? Considering insurance premiums, Medicare, and Medicaid, it's clear that we are all paying for society’s general lack of understanding when it comes to balanced diets.

So the moral of the story is this: use that .98 cents to buy a sweet potato. Buy onions, buy garlic, buy a can of tomatoes. Now for .98 cents plus a dollar or two, you can have a full pasta dinner. Use two dollars to buy four bananas or a head of cabbage. It really is so easy to eat a balanced diet when you’re on a budget. I should know—I’m the Chowgypsy.

Here are a few of my cost-efficient and healthy pantry and kitchen staples that I always have on-hand in order to maximize flavor, nutrition, and quality without feeling like my wallet is getting too light.
frozen pea salad
Peas are also wonderful by themselves! An easy pea salad
idea (might I say...easy peasy?): boil frozen peas and add
chopped ham, red onion, and some butter, salt, and pepper

1. Frozen Peas—I throw these little guys in everything I possibly can. Mashed or whole, they’re great in hummus, tomato sauce, soups, omelets ….you name it, and I’ve probably tried to hide peas in it (pesto is my favorite). They’re high in protein, fiber, and vitamins A and C, and low in fat and calories. Keep them in your freezer to add a green punch to whatever you’re cooking.

2. Hard-boiled eggs—these are nature’s little portable nutrition bombs. It’s like a multivitamin  that doesn’t taste horrible and make you nauseous on an empty stomach. Low-calorie and full of enough protein to keep you full, eggs are a great inexpensive snack. Plus, they’re extremely versatile: I like mine with soy sauce, salads, sandwiches, or just with salt and pepper. Contrary to popular belief, after hard-boiling eggs they need to be refrigerated!

3. Tapenade—whenever something needs a kick, there is always a jar of home-made tapenade in my fridge. A recipe of only olives and capers can get a little pricey, so I supplement some capers with crunchy cornichons, resulting in a flavor and texture that I prefer. Full of antioxidant-rich and cholesterol-lowering olives, it’s a great substitute for less-healthful condiments like mayonnaise. It can make a lunch like rice and beans exciting, something that's generally regarded as impossible.
tapenade recipe
sooo...if you like what you see, you can find my tapenade and green tea cracker recipes by clicking the links. Fancy that! (I'm shameless!)
4. Did somebody say beans? Oh beans, where to even beangin?! There is a whole world of beanage out there waiting to show you how cheap nutrition can be. They are versatile and packed with protein, fiber, and folic acid, so add to soups, pasta sauces, and salads, blend for a tasty spread, or try roasting them in the oven with spices until crispy. Canned beans often have too much sodium, so drain and rinse with water, or better yet, buy dry! They’re cheaper and more nutritious.

quinoa casserole recipe
One of my favorite and least expensive meals :
Eggplant and Quinoa Bake
5. Pasta—this is a no-brainer, but my deep-seated love for the stuff cannot go unmentioned. Lacking a bit on the nutritious angle, it’s important to use whole wheat pasta (or at least a mixture of whole wheat and regular) and always use a healthy sauce.

Speaking of carbs, we can’t forget about bulgur, quinoa, barley, and brown rice. I typically go for the first three because they’re more nutritious (and all you have to do with fine-grain bulgur is soak it in water!), but brown rice also has its merits as cheap crowd-pleaser.

6. Canned diced tomatoes—I won’t deny it: I buy these things by the case (grocery stores usually give you a discount when you do this). So much flavor! So much good! They’re great added to any grain-based dish (pasta, rice, bulgur, quinoa), and they can be added to salads or serve as a main ingredient in salads. They even have more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. For the record, Cook’s Illustrated cites Hunt’s or Muir Glen as their top-recommended diced tomato brands.

7. Sturdy vegetables—these could take up an entire post, but I’ll mention that I always have eggplant, cabbage, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and potatoes on hand. They’re all cheap, easy to make, and wonderful when added to a huge array of dishes.
baking eggplant
Eggplant: so cheap, so absurdly addictive.
8. Pesto—Like tapenade, having pesto on hand is an amazing way to boost a meal’s wow factor without spending much money. A little goes a long way, so while the ingredients may seem expensive, if you make a big batch and freeze it (I like to use ice cube trays), you have a full-flavored, healthy kick to add at will. I always have at least one thawed cube in the fridge to add to breakfast sandwiches, salad dressings, pasta sauce, or simply to put on a cracker with an aged cheese. Keep in mind, typically this is only cost-advantageous when homemade!
pesto ice cube tray
Freeze pesto in ice cube trays, then plop 'em all in a ziploc back once frozen. Photo cred: Cookie + Kate
9. Yogurt—No, I’m not talking about the four-ounce portions of Yoplait, I’m talking about big buckets of the plain stuff which are totally inexpensive when purchased in bulk. When done right (meaning made without artificial thickeners, color, or sweeteners), yogurt is full of protein, vitamins, and probiotics. Eating it actually helps you to lose weight! I often use it instead of cream in sauces (pasta with heated tapenade and yogurt is one of my favorites) and it’s great with fruit, cereal, oatmeal, or as a base for flavorful sauces and dips.

10. I could keep going; there's tahini, anchovies, matcha green tea crackers, dried mushrooms, frozen corn, homemade jams, etc...but I’d rather know what your favorite healthy and low-cost staples are??

Let me know in the comments section!

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  1. This is such a great post.... These staples make it possible to be so much more creative with possibilities! Love it!

  2. I might also add whole wheat tortillas. I use them to make roll ups, quesadillas, soups, etc.

  3. And they all equal a good healthy meal.

  4. I always make a huge batch of homemade marinara and freeze it. You can make so many different healthy meals with marinara as the base ingredient.

  5. Ah Jessica, that's genius. I agree it's the only way to do marinara (but of course you gotta eat it fresh the first night). I freeze it in batches so that I can have only the amount I need for that night's dinner.

  6. Excellent point about how fast, nutritionally-devoid foods only cost us more in the long run. Convenience now may not translate into convenience later. LR Bergeron

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