Weeknight Cooking

Stocking the Broke Kitchen for Under $100

June  4, 2013

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, you can make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety.

Today: Tips for stocking a broke kitchen, from pantry essentials to produce, all for under $100.

Your Best Cheap Feast

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In my dream culinary life, I'd spend entire mornings shopping at the greenmarket and afternoons cooking in a sprawling kitchen with unlimited counter space. My fridge would have two fully-stocked cheese drawers at all times. I'd also have an adorable, well-behaved dog that I adopted from Petfinder.

In the real world, I live in an old walkup in Brooklyn that hasn't been renovated since the '70s, with three roommates and a crazy super. My kitchen is only slightly larger than my body. If I shut my fridge door too quickly, the freezer door pops open, and vice versa. Checking my bank account balance online is an experience that ranges from slightly painful to full-blown-panic-attack-inducing. I don't have a dog. 

Living at the intersection of broke and busy can be a gastronomical challenge, but I am still able to eat well without sacrificing nutrition or burning through all of my income. I realized pretty quickly that cooking a meal from scratch will almost always cost less than buying dinner -- and that the first step to eating well on the cheap is having a well-stocked kitchen. If your pantry currently consists of a few boxes of cereal and a jar of peanut butter, fear not. You can stock everything you'll need for under $100.

More: Prepare a cheap feast with one of these recipes from our community.


Shelf-stable pantry items:
Grains: flour, oatmeal, rice, quinoa, pasta, polenta (or grits) 
Seasonings: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, mustard, sea salt, black pepper 
Canned goods: beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, tuna
Other: sugar, baking powder, vegetable stock, peanut butter, raw nuts, dark chocolate

Spices: Luckily we don't live in the Middle Ages, where these were luxury items. Here are 10 versatile essentials for every kitchen.  

Thinking outside the traditional grocery store is a quick way to keep costs down and get more for your money. If it's an option, look into a food cooperative -- I drank the (artisanal, small batch) Kool-Aid and have never looked back, especially now that I'm paying less for better quality. 

I always keep these basic perishables on hand: 
In the fridge: eggs, butter, Greek yogurt, and milk.
On your counter: lemons, onions, and good bread.


Fill in the gaps with a lot of produce -- the more the better. I like to buy kale and bananas every week as a starting point; from there, I eat seasonally. Not only is seasonal produce more affordable, but it will always taste better. (One exception: avocados. I eat them every day, year-round.) 

If it's possible, spring for a CSA share. And it's always, always worth swinging by a local farmer's market to look for deals. Don't be fooled by the myth that farmers market produce is always pricey; shop for the cheapest items, and don't be afraid to ask the farmers for "seconds" -- those are the discounted fruits and vegetables that may be a little bruised, but taste just as good.

Weekly splurges
I make sure to leave a little bit of my overall grocery budget (around $50, or just over $7 per day) on hand for the extras - strong cheese, a great piece of meat. Balancing basics with indulgences is what keeps a broke kitchen frugal without being austere. 

What do you stock in your pantry to keep your meals affordable but exciting? Tell us in the comments!

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sounding1972 May 8, 2015
I try to purchase maybe one small container of an extra spice or sauce each visit to the grocery store which helps when it comes to broadening my menu options. I also purchase various frozen veggies when on sale, provided they aren't the types that turn to mush after being cooked. Buying various types of rice in bulk also helps keep dishes different and exciting.
Nanda D. March 7, 2015
As a student it's hard to convince other students that buying in bulk, with a lot of preservable stuff is really cheaper than buying new stuff every night. And at the end of the month, you know there's got to be some pots and cans of stuff in the pantry that you bought for times likes this...
lizbeth December 6, 2013
Sorry but heres a sour note. I could not possibly buy tge items you suggest for 100. I live in oklahoma and while our food prices are not as high as in NY neither is the income. Farmers markets here charge very high prices, as much as one dollar per tomato! and as for allowing an extra 200 or so per month for extras, for annyone on a budget or fixed income, that is a joke. And not a nice one. I dont like what appears to be snobbery on your site.
walkie74 June 19, 2013
We're running low on food this month, so I'll be putting some of these suggestions to work. Thanks!
kaslavin9 June 14, 2013
Chorizo is a must
Reynaul June 6, 2013
Good post!
Monica @. June 5, 2013
Brown rice that I can add lots of flavor to, tuna for simple pasta dishes and salad, lentils for my hearty Tuscan lentil soup.
Pegeen June 5, 2013
Sam, loved your anecdote about onions in pantyhose. Just love stories like that.
mylene2k June 5, 2013
Eggs are a must for my budget cooking. I have an egg-based dinner at least once per week. Omelettes, baked eggs, hard-boiled, frittata. there are so many options. Recently I made my first cheese soufflé - delicious and sure to impress! I even made one for a budget dinner party.
wjjjww June 4, 2013
find a spot to grow fresh herbs. makes everything better. and wine.
Sam1148 June 4, 2013
The onions on the counter reminds me of the way my parents used to store onions. In panty hose. Put in a onion, tie a knot, repeat until both legs are full and hang up in a closet. Cut off one of the knots to get onion for use. Onions would last months and months stored like this.
diaday June 5, 2013
Sam...my parents did the same thing! They had a vegetable garden in the yard and when the onions grew faster than Mom could use them, it was the kids' job to tie the onions in the panty hose. We had onions hanging in the garage and they lasted a long time.
Angela @. June 4, 2013
Did you really get all those things for $100 dollars in NYC? I'd be hard pressed to keep a list like that below $100 here in my SF suburb.
Gabriella P. June 4, 2013
Hi Angela - The self-stable pantry items and the spices come in at under $100 and I don't need to replenish them often. I recently joined a cooperative where it's much cheaper, but before that I got by with store brand items, and shopping around at different grocery stores. (The perishables and treats I typically spend $50 per week on, though often I can get by on much less!) NYC is expensive, but thankfully much less so when you like to cook more than eating out.
Angela @. June 4, 2013
Thanks for the info. It's true that most of those things don't need to be replenished. At this stage of cooking I would never have to buy all those things at once but if I did I think it could easly go over $100 but with care I suppose I could keep it under. I'm probably spending too much for things like olive oil, mustard, and spices. I could go with smaller sizes and less fancy brands I'm sure.
AntoniaJames June 4, 2013
Onions on the counter? Hmmm. Cf http://food52.com/blog/3056-smart-storage-part-1 ;o)
Merrill S. June 4, 2013
Yes, in both posts we recommend keeping onions on the counter!
AntoniaJames June 4, 2013
Okay, I see now the heading there, but also I'd note that you recommend a cool, dry place. I suppose if your kitchen counter is cool that would make sense. I guess I just don't associate kitchen counters with cool. My kitchen is the warmest room in my house, and the counters tend to be one of the warmest spots in the kitchen. I've always heard that onions should be kept in a cool, dry, dark place. See, e.g., Russ Parsons' "How to Pick a Peach," at page 65. In my kitchen that would certainly not be the counter. I suppose however that every kitchen is different in this regard. Most people I know keep them on the floor of their pantries, which are the coolest (and darkest) places in their kitchens. There was a hotline thread (or perhaps it was a discussion at a Food52 potluck) in which someone with a tiny pantry-less kitchen said she kept her onions on the floor of her coat closet.;o)
Brette W. June 4, 2013
This came just in time for my first real-life grocery-shop. Thanks, Gabriella!