Pantry Stocking For Frugal Living, Part One

A while back, I had a lengthy email exchange with a friend of mine. Like many of us, she was concerned about rising food costs and our troubled economy. Because I'd successfully done an experiment during the summer to see if I could eat for $9/week (with a previously well-stocked pantry), she was interested to know how my pantry was stocked and how I was able to eat so cheaply.

This is pretty long email exchange, and since I am busy with lots of homework, I've decided to leave it in its original form (just my emails, her responses are not included for privacy reasons) with only minimal editing. I thought despite its length, that the information might be useful to some of you by introducing some new ways of reducing food cost, or just reminding you of some things you may have forgotten. In this email series, it first outlines how to stock the pantry well for minimal cost, how to stock your freezer, how to minimise food waste and then finally, the $9/week part (which is, admittedly, the shortest part).

Since I don't know how to do one of those cool "read this little snippet, then click on the link for the rest" things (being a Luddite and all), I decided to break this up into one post per day, each one containing one of the letters in the series.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful to some people!

Letter One:

Ok. Here's part one of your staples list. This is going to cost a bit of money, but in the long run it will save you ... well, thousands, potentially. Particularly given how much you eat out it'll definitely save you thousands. You can get a good start on this list for 20-30 dollars, though it will cost you 50-70 to complete the list. Don't complete it now - buy the most important stuff (which I'll mark as most important) and get 1 other item on the list, as you can afford it, when you do your weekly shopping.


10 pound bag white, long-grain rice (don't pay more than 10-12 dollars for this. Buy the cheapest white rice available that is not parboiled)
2 pounds brown rice
2-5 pounds jasmine rice, if you like it (don't spend more than 5 bucks on this)
1-2 pounds medium grain rice (for risottos and such)

The white, long-grain rice is the most important. Get that first, and when you have an extra few bucks, get the others as you can afford them. With rice, it's very important that you keep it in a food-grade plastic container. Pantry moths are a serious problem and can quickly contaminate your grains if you don't keep it in sealed plastic containers. They eat through plastic bags so those don't work. I actually just lost 7 pounds of rice (glutinous and medium grain) because I forgot to transfer them to appropriate containers and I discovered bugs eating them and had to throw them all away.


Cornmeal - 1 bag/box of whatever brand you like. Store this in the freezer.

One small container of cornstarch. This is not crucial, but it's really good to have, since you will be doing some baking as part of your "cheap living" experiment.


2 pounds minimum of lentils. Store these in the freezer. ALL lentils come with eggs of some sort of grain-eating bugs in the bag. Keeping them in the freezer stops them from hatching and allows you to store lentils for years at a time. Same with split peas, should you choose to add them in as well. This is on the "important" list.

4 pound bag pinto beans (in Texas, pinto beans are the least costly. A 4-pound bag costs approximately 3 dollars. However, if you see them in bulk for 50 cents/pound, but them that way. This is the most important bean, though)
1-2 pounds kidney beans
1-2 pounds great northern or navy beans
2 pounds garbanzo beans (hummus, salads, etc)
1-2 pounds of any other bean you really like

Do not buy canned beans. While it is true that they're very convenient, you will spend 10-20x as much buying them in cans, for the quantity you get. Beans are very easy to cook, very nutritious, and filling. My rule, with the exception of canellini (I think I'm misspelling it) beans is to never pay more than 1 dollar per pound. I keep track of the cost of beans. In some stores, you will pay less if you get the beans out of the ethnic aisle. In other stores you will pay more. Look at not only the prices, but at the per ounce price - this is a good general rule of thumb. If it'll help you to remember things, you can keep a pricebook. I'll explain that in a separate email, but keep it in mind. Generally, I only buy staples when they're on sale, but when you're first starting out, get as much as you can for the smallest amount of money. You want to think about total nutrition when you do this, as well as cost. Canellini beans, which are white kidney beans, average 1.50/pound. That's just the way it is, so I rarely buy them. But they are tasty.


1-2 pounds whole wheat berries. You can get these in bulk usually for 50 cents to a dollar per pound. Buy spring wheat, not hard winter wheat. This is mainly to use for salads and such.

1 small bag (Fiesta carries these cheaply; in fact, Fiesta carries most of this cheaply - I once spent $200 dollars on staples at Fiesta for a very, very poor friend and she was able to eat for 6 or 8 months on just what I bought, supplementing in a little meat and fresh produce here and there) bulghur wheat. You can use this for pilafs, tabouleh, etc.

Flour - 5 pounds of all-purpose flour (most important)
1 box cake or pastry flour (this is nice for making things like homemade biscotti and other such treats, but it is also not a necessity)
1 bag of bread flour (again, nice, but not necessary)
1 small can of Wondra flour (optional also - many people find it's easier to use this when making roux and such)

Bread - buy a loaf of whatever you like best, regardless of cost. If you do not eat bread quickly, buy it anway and store it in the freezer. A loaf of bread has lasted me as long as a year stored in the freezer. I don't eat it often but sometimes I like to make french toast, or have a sandwich.


10-15 pounds of assorted shapes. Please be sure to get a variety of shapes, as eating the same pasta over and over gets boring. Appetite fatigue is a very real problem, and varying the shape is one way to circumvent it. In general, I buy pasta when it's on sale, and usually a lot of it at one time. I try to get pasta for $1/pound, though I will go as high as 1.29/pound. The ethnic section will also have 3-4 bags of little pastas for one dollar.

Couscous. This is actually pasta. Buy this in bulk and put it in a container (plastic or glass). Buying it in the normal grocery store is very, very expensive and not worth the cost.


1 can Old-Fashioned oats. Buy the cheapest brand there is. Often, you can get a can for 1-2 dollars if you buy the generic.

Any other assorted grains you might like: spelt, rye, whatever.

Ok... tomorrow I'll explain the price book, and I'll also do spices and baking supplies that are important to have. And probably some other stuff too. Expect a lot of reading from me. :)




  1. I'll be reading along with interest!

  2. Very interesting here - I wonder if I can do that for 9 bucks?!?!

  3. Mary,

    Thanks! I hope it provides some useful information!


    I think you can, if you budget carefully and stock your pantry well!

  4. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Where do you buy wheat berries for 35 cents/lb. near Katie, TX?

  5. I have no idea, Anonymous. Although I don't live near Katy, my guess is no where. When I wrote this post, I was buying them at Whole Foods, Fiesta or Phoenicia (and I was getting them ~2lb/$1). Since then, food costs have increased but you can sometimes find them on sale for that cost. I wouldn't have any clue where could find them for less than that, but perhaps if you buy them in large quantities (50+ pounds at a time) online or somewhere near you, you might be able to find them in your price range.


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