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What you need for a 'can-do' kitchen

Keep these 7 basics on hand, and you'll always be able to whip up a quick, healthful meal.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 7, 2012 12:17PM
Logo: Home kitchen (Don Farrall/Photodisc/Getty Images)
A financial planner once told me of meeting with a couple of newlyweds who had more month than money. Housing was expensive, they both had student loans, and they still couldn't understand why their salaries weren’t stretching.

The planner had them track their spending. Guess what was eating into their paychecks? Restaurant meals.

Cooking at home is one of the easiest ways to shore up a sagging budget. Meals out can take a huge bite of your paycheck, a fact some people never seem to comprehend.

I know, I know: You're tired, you're hungry and there's nothing in the house. But don't automatically reach for the delivery menus. If you give your pantry the seven-can makeover, you'll always have something to eat.

Having these basics on hand will keep you from overdoing the takeout. They'll also help when there's a reason you can't go out to shop: late hour, sleeping child, truly crappy weather. 

Cans aren't ideal in the sense that fresh fruit and vegetables taste better than processed and dry beans are cheaper than precooked ones. But they're incredibly handy, they won't spoil and they're cheaper than out-of-season items (especially if you use manufacturers coupons).

Besides, how many of us can go fishing whenever we want a tuna sandwich?

The lineup
1. Beans.
So many varieties, so much protein. Drain and rinse to de-salt them a bit, or choose a low-sodium variety. Do a Bing search for bean recipes, or just warm them up with a bit of salsa and cheese and enjoy with a tortilla.

2. Tomatoes. Add these to the beans, throw in some seasonings (and meat, if you like), simmer 20 minutes and you'll have homemade chili. Put together a fast pasta sauce, if you have any tomato paste. Drain them (save the juice to add to your next pot of soup) and make a savory bruschetta with the aging Italian bread sitting on the counter.


3. Good-quality broth. Simmer this with spices, a handful of pasta or rice, and whatever frozen vegetables you have. That leftover broiled chicken breast? Dice it and throw it in, too. Stir up a pan of cornbread while it cooks, or open a tube of "whomp biscuits" from the fridge.

4. Good-quality canned soup.
This is for the nights when you really are bushed. Put bread or crackers on the table and dinner is served. Splurge on a fancy-schmancy variety if you like -- still way cheaper than pizza delivery.

5. Tuna.
For sandwiches. For casseroles. For eating out of the can with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper. (Caution: Opening a can of tuna will stimulate the "adoration" section of your cat's cerebral cortex. Be careful not to trip on a madly attentive feline.)

6. Fruit.
Fresh is better, of course, but sometimes you just don't have any. (Personally, I think canned pears are better than the fresh ones found in many supermarkets.) Canned fruit is always better chilled, so keep a can in the fridge at all times.

7. Corn.
It's the one vegetable that truly holds its own in a can. The others tend to get a little mushy, or look a little overcooked. Your mileage may vary; if you insist on eating canned peas or asparagus, then go right ahead. (Yuck.)

Got a favorite quick meal based on canned goods?

More on MSN Money:

Nov 7, 2012 2:14PM

I went to the store on Sunday and got $98 worth of food for $22 using coupons.  I basically only paid for milk, eggs, butter and fresh fruit and veggies.  That left me with $18 left over from my weekly grocery/food budget to enjoy a meal out if I choose to.  My pantry is now stocked with regular meal foods and what I like to call "emergency rations", that is food I can eat while everyone is out there trying to kill eachother for a can of spam.


and to the nasty lady behind me p'od that I was using coupons and she had to WAIT,  get over it lady, you are paying full price for stuff you don't have to and I am not using food stamps like 49 million Americans.  I pay my own way.

Crumble, brown & drain about a pound of ground beef (or less, or more).  Stir in a can of cream of mushroom, cream of celery, or cream of broccoli soup.  Add a can or two of whatever vegetable you prefer, or whatever fresh veggies you have on hand.  Season with whatever you like  -  I usually add soy sauce and garlic.  Serve over rice, potatoes, noodles/pasta, bread, buns  -  whatever's handy.  This will easily feed four  -  for more/hungrier people, just add more starch and/or veggies.  Keeps well in the fridge for a couple of days, and tastes almost as good cold the next day.
Jan 9, 2013 3:48PM
Donna is only giving suggestions here.  Just basics to have on hand so the urge to order out is refuted.  She's not telling you to eat like this every night.  Personally I choose grilled cheese and tomato soup for that 'I don't want to cook' night.
Nov 11, 2012 10:27AM

My husband was in the military.  We transferred and decided we would buy a home but it took some careful planning.  I decided to do what I could to save on our food.  This worked!  I planned a menu for the week first.  Then I took each item...i.e., meat loaf.  So, I wrote down 'meat' for example.  Then included everything that went into it.  I did the same for each item and when I finished I added a few 'goodies'.  Each time I had an item tnat inclued i.e. 'meat' I would check it.   When I finished  I had a complete list for our meals for an entire week. We had good wholesome food and 'no complaints'

To tell the truth, it was fun.....and challenging.  Back in those days, no coupons.    


Jan 7, 2013 6:26PM
This article first presumes that everyone in the house is able to eat the items that are in the cans. Next it presumes that you can find coupons for the canned goods to reduce the cost, and that you can combine the coupons with a sale price. Third you have to watch and get the ones made with the least added salt, which for some reason often cost extra.

Now I use canned Tomatoes, mushrooms,  olives, and tomato paste to make the base of my pasta sauce. I brown my ground beef/ sausage in the bottom of the pot first with onion and garlic, then add the rest and simmer, the longer a simmer the better, season to your taste.

Nov 24, 2012 2:49PM
I love pantry cooking.  Could you talk about using the freezer too?
Nov 8, 2012 9:41AM

Recommending canned food as a way to save money over restaurants is silly.  There are millions of meals that can be made with little prep and light cooking with fresh ingredients.  Lets face it - part of why we love going out to eat is the cuisine and the options.  Take some time to peruse a cooking magazine - and do some planning.  You can make awesome meals with FRESH ingredients without killing your pocketbook.  Buy seasonally, look for meat specials and stock your pantry with the types of items needed for basic cooking.  Trader Joe's has the best prices on the basics (dairy and produce).


Coupons generally only buy you processed foods, full of chemicals.  Yes its a way to save money, but not on nutrition.  What will save you more money in the future? Coupons or increased healthcare?

Jan 7, 2013 11:18PM
Chili topped with brown rice, nummy.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.