Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.
I really love to cook, and I've been cooking for myself for a while now (check out the things I wish I knew before I started cooking for more on that). A few years ago, I made the switch from having a bunch of roommates to living alone. I totally love having my own space, but I will admit it's a lot different than having multiple roommates, especially when it comes to the kitchen.
There are a lot of things I have learned, and several mistakes I have learned to avoid. All that is to say, I've found a balance between what fits in my budget, what keeps me feeling my best and what meets my schedule. To make that possible, these are a few of the ingredients I use the most out of anything in my kitchen and always make a point to keep on hand.
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Yes, this is a dietitian telling you not to fear salt. And it's hands-down the most consistently used ingredient in my kitchen. Don't go crazy with it, but you don't need to omit it altogether in the name of health either. Your body needs sodium for maintaining fluid balance and keeping your cells functioning at their best. If you're worried about your salt intake, rather than relying (too much) on packaged foods, which tend to have more salt for flavor and also to extend the shelf life, focus on whole foods. Include a lot of potassium-rich foods like various vegetables, fruits, legumes, salmon and yogurt. Potassium and sodium work together, so getting enough potassium can help flush your body of excess sodium and keep your blood pressure in check.
Beyond nutrition, salt is an important part of the chemistry of cooking. First and foremost, salt quite literally seasons our food. That doesn't just mean it makes foods taste salty. When salt is used appropriately, it amplifies the natural flavors of the foods we cook. Salt also gives texture to foods, like dough, vegetables and meats, and can help lock in moisture to foods while allowing their exterior to crisp or brown. It also works as a binding agent for things like sausage or burgers. Not to mention, it's one of the earliest methods people used to preserve food.
All this is to say, learn how to use salt appropriately when cooking. Start with just a little and taste your food as you cook. You can always add more as you go but you can't always take it away! It's guaranteed to make your food taste better.
A close second to salt, olive oil is an ingredient I rarely cook a meal without. It's a staple food of the Mediterranean diet, which is the diet my eating pattern most aligns with. Olive oil is packed with anti-inflammatory healthy fats and antioxidants that keep your heart healthy, support healthy aging, protect against cancer and more. Plus, what would a caprese salad be without a drizzle of olive oil to finish it off? My go-to olive oil brand is California Olive Ranch (buy it: $9.99, ThriveMarket.com). I think it's tasty enough to use as a salad dressing or dip bread in, and is affordable enough to use for cooking, too.
I go through my olive oil pretty quickly, but it's super important to know how to buy it and store it correctly. Light can oxidize olive oil, which makes it go rancid quickly. To extend the life of your oil, always choose an opaque container and store it in a dark place, like a cabinet. I buy medium sized bottles versus a very large size—this way I can get through the whole bottle before it goes rancid.
I love cheese in all shapes, colors, textures and flavors. It could be my Midwestern roots showing a bit. I think the nutrition in cheese is often overlooked: it's full of protein, calcium, vitamin A and filling healthy fats. Plus, research has shown it can improve cholesterol levels and stave off chronic diseases, too. I often add cheese to plant-based dishes because it adds a level of satiety and is an affordable protein. A little bit goes a long way for a flavor and protein boost. On any given day, you can usually find cheddar, mozzarella, feta and parmesan in my fridge. It also makes a great snack with fruit slices or whole grain crackers in a pinch.
Eggs are the most affordable protein in the grocery store, and you'll always find them in my kitchen. The egg whites are packed with protein (about 7 grams per egg) and the egg yolks are full of nutrients (like choline, which our brain loves) and healthy fats. When I am really out of groceries, I turn to eggs to round out meals that rely on pantry staples, like Shakshuka. I also have been known to add a fried egg on top of leftovers and call it breakfast (or lunch). When I'm on-the-go, I'll make a batch of hard-boiled eggs in advance, so I can have one with breakfast or as a quick, filling snack.
Leafy greens are some of the most nutrient-dense foods around, meaning they pack in a lot of nutrients with very few calories. Adding a little bit of greens here and there throughout your day can add up to some impressive nutrition and health benefits. I always try to keep lettuce on hand. I make my own salad dressing using olive oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), honey and mustard, so it's super easy to add freshness and a serving of vegetables to any meal. I also try to keep some dark leafy green, usually spinach or kale, that I can sauté into egg scrambles, pasta and stews or even blend into smoothies. Having some on hand makes it easy for me to throw greens into dishes and up my intake.
Canned tuna will always have a place in my pantry, and my heart. It's super nutritious and budget-friendly, as well as super versatile. Tuna salad is my go-to lunch because it's refreshing, filling and comes together in five minutes (at this point, I could probably make it with my eyes closed). I'll also add canned tuna to pasta or grain salads for a healthy and quick dinner. I feel my best when I eat fish often and it's a pillar of the Mediterranean diet. Canned tuna helps me do so while also staying within my budget.
In a perfect world, I would eat fresh tomatoes from my garden all year long. But unfortunately, that's just not the case, especially since I live in Vermont. In the summer, I indulge and preserve what I can. For the rest of the year, canned tomatoes it is. They're just as healthy as fresh tomatoes, and in fact, cooked tomatoes deliver more iron and lycopene (the antioxidant responsible for eye, skin and heart health) than fresh. Keeping them on hand makes throwing dinner together super easy (check out these easy meals that start with a can of tomatoes for inspiration). From pasta sauce to soup to Shakshuka and several things in between, I turn to canned tomatoes. Plus, they are a pantry- and budget-friendly way to boost my veggies intake with ease.
Since I cook very often (every day, to be exact), there are a lot of honorable mentions that didn't make this list. Looking at you, wine, coffee and flour. But these are some ingredients that are easy for me to store and are super versatile, so I can make the most of my space. Anyone living in a small one-bedroom or studio apartment knows how crucial that is. These ingredients are budget-friendly as well, which helps me eat well without breaking the bank. To see these ingredients in action, check out what I eat in a day as a dietitian on a budget.