15 Kitchen Essentials When You’re on a Budget

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Having a pantry of basics can help you be more creative with the fresh produce you buy.

Based on the price per serving, we recommend you stock your kitchen with these basic ingredients (with suggestions from the Gillings School’s Dr. Alice Ammerman).

Download a PDF version of these kitchen essentials (PDF, 190kb)


Milk (Fresh, Fortified): 18 cents per serving
Consider buying low-fat or skim milk, which provide similar amounts of calcium and vitamin D without the added saturated fat found in whole milk.

Cheddar Cheese: 34 cents per serving
Sharper cheese has more flavor so you use less.


Brown Rice: 23 cents per serving
Brown rice costs slightly more and takes longer to cook than white rice, but it has more flavor and nutritional value.

Grits: 19 cents per serving
Whole grain grits are higher in fiber, which can help improve digestion.

Quinoa: 54 cents per serving
To cut quinoa’s bitter taste, rinse with a mesh strainer. Also, try adding a spoonful of coconut oil or lime juice to cooked quinoa as it cools.

Canned and Frozen Produce


Frozen Plantains: 39 cents per serving
Frozen produce, usually less expensive than fresh, is often picked at peak ripeness to preserve its nutrient value.


Canned Corn: 50 cents per serving
Canned vegetables, such as corn and tomatoes, are good options if low in sodium.


Eggs: 14 cents per serving (for Grade-A)
Eggs are a good source of protein with about six grams per serving. Add a poached or fried egg over vegetables for taste and protein.

Peanut Butter: 19 cents per serving
Peanut butter is easy to work into meals and snacks: Spread on apple slices in the fall, or mix with soy sauce and sriracha for a peanut noodle sauce.

Beans: 38 cents per serving (dried, any type)
Pinto and black beans can be very affordable if you cook them yourself — soaking, boiling, then simmering until tender — but this takes time. Canned beans can be cooked quickly and are less expensive than other protein sources.


Chicken Stock: 72 cents per serving
Cook rice, quinoa, and grits with chicken stock instead of water for a richer flavor. You also can use beef or vegetable stock.

Garlic: 2 cents per serving
A head of garlic is less expensive than minced garlic that comes in a jar but has a shorter shelf life.


Cayenne Pepper: 3 cents per serving

Cumin: 3 cents per serving

Curry Powder: 6 cents per serving

Having a few basics on hand such as cayenne pepper, ground cumin, and curry powder, or a mixture can help spice up plain dishes. Though herbs and spices can be pricey, the seeds are inexpensive and easy to grow — and gardening is a good outdoor activity for families.


Lemon Juice: 4 cents per serving

Lime Juice: 4 cents per serving

These juices can mimic the taste of salt, without the added sodium.


Canola Oil: 5 cents per serving

Olive Oil: 10 cents per serving

Vegetable Oil: 6 cents per serving

Which oil to use depends on what you’re cooking. For baked goods, a neutral-tasting vegetable oil is best. For savory dishes, the earthy flavor of olive oil could enhance your meal. 

Note: Price per serving is estimated using data from the 2017-2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Food & Drug Administration, AmazonFresh Grocery, Giant Food #0378 in Washington, D.C., and Harris Teeter at Carolina Colours Towne Center in New Bern, N.C., and is therefore subject to change.


“AmazonFresh,” External link  Amazon. Accessed October 30, 2018.

“Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. and Midwest Region,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed October 30, 2018.

“CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21,”  U.S. Food & Drug Administration, April 1, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. 

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