Personal Finance

10 Food Staples That Are Cheap and Easy to Make at Home

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Women cooking at home
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Most people would agree that cooking from scratch tastes better than cooking with premixed ingredients — or ordering fast food. And magazines, books, TV channels and Pinterest are dying to make Martha Stewarts of us all.

Few people have the time or inclination to craft every meal from the ground up. But it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Making even a few key staples yourself will improve not just your meals but also your budget — and possibly even your health.

We suggest starting with some of the following staples. We omitted things that tend to be time-consuming, such as bread and soup stock, instead highlighting recipes that are super-easy and can save you some decent coin.

Beans

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Tons of protein and zero fat: Beans are nature’s most perfect food. Always keep a couple of cans on the pantry shelf for emergency meals.

But during nonemergency times, cook your own from scratch for reasons that we detail in “Beans 101: A Guide to Enjoying the Stockpile Staple“:

  • A serving of canned beans can cost more than twice as much as a serving of home-cooked dried beans.
  • You can reduce or omit the salt and otherwise tailor the seasonings to your liking.

Bean cooking is pretty simple. Our article offers directions, tips and recipe sources. A slow cooker makes things foolproof.

To save time, I cook a triple or quadruple batch of beans in advance, then drain and freeze them flat in Ziploc bags. I save the broth drained from the beans and use it as an ingredient for soup, stew and curry.

Yogurt

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Making this healthy probiotic is pretty simple. Here’s the process I use:

  1. Heat 2 quarts of milk to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, then cool it to between 105 and 110 degrees. You can use the half-price “manager’s special” (close-dated) milk.
  2. Put half a cup of plain, active-culture yogurt into a ceramic or glass dish, then gently stir in a couple of cups of the cooled milk.
  3. Set the dish on a heating pad set on “low” or some other heat source. (I use an electric warming tray.)
  4. Carefully stir in the rest of the milk, put a lid on the dish and cover it with a heavy towel. Let it sit there on the heat source for eight to 13 hours.
  5. For a Greek-style product, put it into a colander lined with a cloth napkin to drain while in the fridge. Then, when it has reached the consistency you prefer, transfer it to a container with a tight-fitting lid.

That’s it. You’re done.

Depending on what you pay for milk, regular homemade yogurt will likely run anywhere from $1 to $1.75 for 2 quarts. If you luck out with manager’s-special milk, you might pay as little as 50 cents.

In the supermarket you’ll pay $4 or more for that much ready-made yogurt — and at least $5 to $6 for ready-made Greek yogurt.

Oh, and set aside a half-cup of the undrained yogurt to use as a starter next time. Once you start making yogurt, you’re unlikely to stop.

Iced tea

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Even the plainest store-brand teas generally cost at least several bucks a gallon. When you want lemon or other varieties, you’ll often pay even more — but you don’t have to.

Black tea is one of the cheapest cold drinks out there, and it’s so easy to make.

I pour almost-boiling water over eight tea bags and let them steep for 17 minutes. Then I add enough water to make a gallon.

If you want sweet tea, stir in sugar while the water is still piping hot.

Use store-brand tagless tea bags and, in my experience, you wind up paying anywhere from 8 to 24 cents per gallon for a basic brew.

Use a higher-end blend to make a fancier, schmancier tea, if you like. But the cheap stuff tastes pretty refreshing on a hot day. And if you’re adding lemon or other flavorings, you probably won’t notice any difference.

Pizza dough

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For a bit more than a buck, Jennifer Schreiner can make enough pizza crust to feed her whole family. By comparison, store-bought options can cost $3 to $5, if not more.

The dough needs to rise for just one hour, and it freezes well. Homemade pizza is a good way to use up leftover spaghetti sauce — not that the dish is limited to a marinara base.

Homemade pizza night happens at least once a week for Schreiner, who runs the blog Inspiring Savings. Her kids look forward to creating their own personal pizzas, with no arguments about too much cheese or not liking pepperoni. In fact, she tells Money Talks News that pizza night is “joyous.”

Here’s another joy: Not paying upwards of $10 for takeout pizza. Even factoring in the cost of sauce and toppings, you’ll save a bundle by making it yourself.

Taco seasoning

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Amanda Brackney’s family loves tacos and taco salads. The flavor is so beloved in her household that she uses the spicy blend for other dishes, such as Beef and Black Bean Tortilla Stack, Turkey Taco Penne and Slow Cooker Taco Soup.

Brackney says it isn’t just about saving money. She tells Money Talks News:

“It helps me limit the amount of processed food items in my pantry, saves money … and allows me to adjust each spice according to my family’s tastes.”

It’s a bonehead-simple process: Stir together 10 common spices. You’ll find the recipe on Brackney’s blog, Stewardship at Home.

Brackney uses spices that she buys at a warehouse club or on sale at Amazon, which brings the price down to as little as 17 cents for the equivalent of a store-bought package that can cost 99 cents or more.

Baking mix

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Products like Bisquick and Jiffy Mix are undeniably handy, as they let you quickly put together biscuits, cobblers, pancakes and the like. But they often contain some ingredients that most of us wouldn’t recognize or can’t pronounce.

By comparison, Kristie Sawicki’s copycat Bisquick recipe requires just five items: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and shortening.

She’s never done the math, so she can’t say for sure whether she saves a ton over buying the premixed stuff. What she can say is that she can “make a lot for just a few dollars.”

Sawicki, who runs the blog Saving Dollars & Sense, stores the result in the fridge and is ready to make pancakes, waffles or strawberry shortcake at a moment’s notice. She tells Money Talks News:

“You’ll never want to go back to store-bought again.”

Enchilada sauce

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An essential ingredient for so many Mexican-themed recipes, this stuff can be pricey: as much as about 25 cents per ounce.

Luckily, the blog Budget Bytes has a ridiculously cheap and easy alternative.

In 10 minutes, I can turn out 4 cups of this addictive sauce for the cost of a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, a little oil and flour, and a few basic spices. It gripes me to pay so much for the canned stuff, and the homemade version lets me eliminate salt.

Even accounting for the spices, oil and flour, we’re probably talking no more than a few cents per ounce for homemade enchilada sauce.

Bonus: It freezes well. Make a double batch.

Peanut butter

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Generally, it isn’t cheaper to make your own peanut butter. That is, unless you use so little that a store-bought jar would become rancid before you could finish it.

If that’s the case, then Kristie Sawicki’s recipe couldn’t be simpler: Pulse some peanuts — and salt, if you like — in a food processor until you get the consistency you want. She sometimes adds honey to make a sweet, super-spreadable version.

There you have it: a supremely fresh product in a quantity you’ll use up.

Making your own also lets you control the sodium and avoid ingredients like hydrogenated vegetable oils that are included in some commercial peanut butters.

Cake

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What do you mean, cake isn’t a staple? In our house it is!

Why bake from scratch when cake mixes make it so easy and cheap, you ask? Well, for starters, they aren’t necessarily simpler: You have to go out and buy a mix, and you wind up needing to measure oil and water and crack eggs anyway.

My partner and his granddaughter favor the Lightning Cake recipe from the blog Choosing Voluntary Simplicity. It takes mere minutes to stir up and uses things most households have on hand.

Note: We use cooking spray on the pan and don’t bother sifting the dry ingredients — and it’s still delicious.

Overnight oats

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Some people call this foodie fad “soaked oats,” because that’s what you get: oats marinated in some kind of liquid for at least five or six hours, usually augmented with flavorings, protein powder or yogurt.

The commercial version can cost $1.50 or more for each 2.29-ounce cup, but you can make your own version for far less.

Rolled oats generally go for about 99 cents a pound, or about 6 cents per ounce. The supermarket’s bulk-foods section might have them even cheaper than that. I’ve bought them for as little as 68 cents a pound.

Overnight oats are ridiculously simple to make: Put twice as much liquid as oats into a jar in the fridge before you go to bed. In the morning, it’s ready to eat right then or as a grab-and-go item.

Many food blogs offer recipes and tips.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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