15 Tips for Stocking Your Pantry on a Budget

Interior of wooden pantry with products for cooking.
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As the pandemic taught us in a most brutal fashion, when the world gets scary, the world runs to the supermarket to stock up on everything they could ever possibly need. While this style of doomsday shopping isn’t recommended (it overwhelms grocers and contributes to supply chain chaos), keeping your pantry loaded with food essentials isn’t a bad idea — especially not if you’re looking to save money by buying in bulk.

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But how do you get started stocking up your pantry? And more importantly, amid bank-breaking inflation rates, how do you build up this arsenal of essentials without spending beyond the scope of your budget? GOBankingRates consulted a number of grocery and money experts to learn their favorite tips for stocking up one’s pantry on a budget. 

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Use Simple Items for Meal Prep

Half the battle of meal prep is getting the items needed to get up and running with whatever meals you’re making for the week. Some items you will need to buy fresh, but others — like spices, grains and pasta — you can keep in bulk so that you always have them on hand. Design your meals around these easy, cheap essentials. Think homemade macaroni and cheese (healthier than the boxed variety) and Instant Pot recipes that often revolve around savory spices.  

Buy What You’ll Use in Bulk 

“Buying from the bulk department is another great money-saving option,” said Kari Lorz, a certified financial education instructor and founder at MoneyfortheMamas.com. “But remember to compare the price per ounce to their boxed counterparts to see if it’s genuinely a saving. The shelf labels will almost always have this info on price per ounce.”

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Substitute Seasonings

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of spices and seasonings. There are just so many out there, and unfortunately, they tend to cost a pretty penny. Rather than buying 400 different spices and seasonings, do a little homework on what can be swapped out for more basic seasonings. For instance, if you don’t have rosemary on hand, use thyme instead. If you don’t have Italian seasoning in your cupboard, just use dried oregano and basil. 

Be Honest With Yourself About What You Want To Eat 

It’s one thing to know what you should be eating; it’s quite another to know what you’ll actually be eating. While it’s marvelous to stock up on frozen vegetables (and yes, they’re just as good as fresh produce), are you and your kids really going to be eating broccoli and green beans every night? Make room for the fun stuff that you’ll crave like fish sticks and veggie burgers. This is important because even frozen foods, eventually, go bad.

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Go Generic

“When possible, look for generic items for basic goods like canned vegetables, pasta noodles, canned fruit, beans, etc.,” Lorz said. “Generics are often made in the same facility as their brand-name counterparts; they just get a different label.”

Check Clearance Shelves 

“If you want to be a super savvy shopper, you should shop on the best clearance days,” Lorz said. “In addition to regular price changes, store’s put items on clearance to get rid of them.  So if your family eats a lot of meat, it would be helpful to know which day of the week they markdown items in the meat department.”

Do an Inventory Check

“Check the pantry and freezer for staple ingredients like oils, grains, beans, proteins, and frozen fruits and veggies,” said Kelsey Sackmann, MS, RD, a registered dietitian. “You might have enough to plan a full week’s worth of meals without having to spend much money at the store.” 

Get Picky About Where You Shop 

The greatest hack to stocking a pantry on a budget is knowing the prices of the items you want [at different retailers] so you can comparison shop,” said TJ Benedetti, the owner of Simple Grocery Deals. “Always check the sales flyers before you make a shopping list. While Aldi is considered the best bet for stocking a pantry, another store may be having a sale. For example, I would buy Reggano pasta sauce at Aldi when it was $0.87. The price recently went up to $1.39. Now, I buy pasta sauce at our local ShopRite when it is on sale for $0.99.” 

Order Groceries Online 

“Ordering your groceries online can be an amazing hack to stock up your pantry rather than buying everything in bulk,” said Melissa Collins, food scientist and chef. “It allows you to be more organized with your belongings and avail discounts that might not be available when shopping physically. Other than that, you should be looking at expiration dates as it would help you get rid of any items that would not hold any use.” 

Invest In a Big Freezer 

“If pulpy fruit is on sale such as peaches, pears, mangoes or oranges, consider taking extra home and pureeing it if possible,” said Amy Rose Herrick, aka, America’s Profit Building Specialist. “Save it in Ziplock bags you lay flat in the freezer. Why? Now you can make healthy, low cost, frozen treats like popsicles and sauces.”

Find Some Wiggle Room in Your Budget

“Set aside $10 – $20 a week for a couple of months, and put it in a ‘Pantry Savings’ envelope,” Lorz said. “This way, you’re not wiping out your regular food budget for a week/month. Then use this envelope for your stock-up purchases. Cashiers don’t mind splitting transactions, so keep these purchases separate from regular purchases to make tracking your money easier.” 

Make a List of the Top 10 Meals Your Family Loves

“[Write down] those tried and true recipes, then write down all the pantry items for these meals,” Lorz said. “Plan on getting enough to cover a meal five times over. So if you need one can of beans, one can of enchilada sauce, and one box of rice for enchilada night, get five each.”  

Sign Up for Newsletters From Brands 

“For the items on your pantry list, go to that brand’s website and see if they have a newsletter sign-up,” Lorz said. “Often they will give you a coupon (which you can print two times) as a perk. Make it easy on your brain space and set up a separate email address for this so as not to overwhelm your regular inbox.”

Download All the Money-Saving Apps

“Look at Coupons.com and add offers before you shop,” Lorz said. “Then after you shop, go to Ibotta and claim your cashback, and upload receipts to Fetch, ReceiptHog, and ReceiptPal to earn points that you can redeem for gift cards. I use these apps every time I shop to rack up points.”

Get the Right Storage Containers

“You’ll want to make sure that the items in your pantry stay fresh,” Lorz said. “That means grabbing a few large clear totes to store your bags of flour/sugar, etc. in. You don’t want pests getting into things and ruining your hard work.” 

Lorz recommends large clear jars to hold items you buy from the bulk bins. 

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About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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