Whether it's the day before payday, the day before shopping day, or a public holiday that you'd forgotten about, there will always be times when you're stuck trying to pull a meal together from what's left in the cupboard.
To save you from having to settle for dry crackers with tomato sauce, we've compiled a list of staples you should always keep in your pantry. They're cheap, nutritious and filling, so they're perfect for back-up meals or snacks when the cupboard is (almost) bare.
We reveal which cheap products are the best tasting so you won't have to skimp on flavour, even if you're trying to stretch your dollar further
We'll also reveal which cheap products are the best tasting so you won't have to skimp on flavour, even if you're trying to stretch your dollar further.
Plus, our resident nutritionist and food expert shares some meal ideas to turn these pantry basics into culinary superstars and explains why they're good for you.
Baked beans are a no-brainer pantry item. Full of fibre (to keep you fuller for longer), protein and deliciousness, they're a quick and easy meal for days you can't be bothered cooking.
Here's some inspo for cheap and cheerful dinners:
- Pair them with a cheesy jacket potato
- Add fried eggs for protein and spices to create huevos rancheros
- Use them in jaffles
- Combine them with a tin of corn, some beef mince and spices to use on top of corn chips for easy nachos.
Just bear in mind that some baked beans can be high in salt. To find lower salt options, look for a sodium level lower than 300mg per 100g.
"On balance, they're a relatively healthy option, as they provide plenty of fibre and count as one serving of vegetables," says accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist and CHOICE food expert Shadia Djakovic.
"They're good to serve occasionally as part of a balanced diet if you need a quick and tasty meal – especially if you're trying to increase your kids' vegie intake."
All but one of the baked bean products in our test were vegan-friendly, so they're great to have on hand for vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian households alike.
These bargain beans scored better than Heinz for taste.
The great baked bean taste-off
We put 16 different baked bean products to the test, assessing them for taste, nutrition and price.
The great news for budget-conscious shoppers? The cheapest beans on the market are some of the best tasting.
Scoring 79% for taste, Black & Gold baked beans cost just 65 cents per tin and our experts ranked them higher than big name bean brands like Wattie's and Heinz.
Black & Gold baked beans cost just 65 cents per tin and our experts ranked them higher than big name bean brands like Wattie's and Heinz
Don't have an IGA near you to stock up on Black & Gold? Head to Coles instead: their house brand baked beans were also top contenders in our taste test.
The cheaper of Coles' two baked bean products – Smart Buy Baked Beans – actually scored better for taste than their (slightly) more expensive product, Coles Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce. At just $1.10 for the Smart Buy version, you can feed the whole family on the cheap.
Coles comfort: Smart Buy beans are the next best beans on the block for your money.
The cheapest and best baked beans from our review
These beans are triple threats, ticking the boxes for taste, nutrition and price.
- Black & Gold Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce (CHOICE Expert Rating: 79%, Price: 15c/100g)
- Coles Smart Buy Baked Beans (77%, 26c/100g)
- Coles Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce (76%, 35c/100g)
Check the full results of our baked beans review to see how your favourite brand scored.
Oats are another winner for your pantry and your health. Cheap as chips (actually, much cheaper!) they're low GI, so they keep delivering energy for hours after you've eaten. That's great value. Plus they contain beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that helps keep blood cholesterol down.
And the nutritional benefits just keep coming. They're a good source of fibre; they contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals; and they're rich in Vitamin E and protein.
"Eating oats is associated with heart health benefits in adults and promotes a wealth of gut bacteria growth, which research is increasingly showing may help prevent obesity and metabolic disease, so oats are a great choice for kids and adults alike," says Shadia.
For as little as 17 cents per 100g, they certainly give you great nutritional bang for your buck.
While you may only associate oats with porridge and Anzac biccies, there's actually a lot more you can do with them.
Here are some ideas that'll help you stretch your food budget:
- Add oats to your morning smoothie to help you feel fuller for longer (also perfect for sending the kids off to school with full tummies).
- Use oats as a base for protein balls, oat slices or muesli bars – a much cheaper alternative to buying pre-made versions from the supermarket.
- Replace half the quantity of flour in your baked goods with oat flour. You can make it yourself by whizzing up oats in your food processor.
- Sneak oat flour or finely ground oats into meatballs or burger patties as a binder to boost your kids' fibre intake without them knowing.
- Use coarsely ground oats as a replacement for breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.
- Mix ground oats with cheese as a topping for gratins or mac and cheese.
- Make your own muesli from scratch – it's far cheaper than buying pre-made mueslis from the shops, which can cost as much as $4.28 per 100g.
- Mix up a Bircher muesli with some Greek yoghurt and grated apple the night before as a quick grab-and-go breakfast.
- Make your own oat milk by blitzing oats with water and strain to release the 'milk'. You can add the leftover oats to smoothies, or give them to your chooks, worms or compost.
Aldi's Goldenvale rolled oats: the oats with the most, for the least.
The cheapest and best rolled oats from our review
These rolled oats all tick the boxes for price and nutrition. They all scored a perfect 100% for nutrition and are recommended by our nutrition expert.
- Goldenvale (Aldi) Australian Rolled Oats (17c/100g)
- Goldenvale (Aldi) Quick Oats (17c/100g)
- Woolworths Australian Rolled Oats (19c/100g)
- Woolworths Australian Quick Oats (19c/100g)
- Black & Gold Quick Oats (35c/100g)
- Lowan Quick Oats (35c/100g)
- Lowan Rolled Wholegrain Oats (35c/100g)
From Weet-bix families to Vita Brits households and supermarket own-brand buyers, wheat biscuit cereals are a staple in many pantries. And for good reason – they'll set you back as little as 36 cents per 100g, have plenty of fibre to keep you feeling full, and they're generally low in sugar.
But they're not just for breakfast. You can add them to smoothies to make them more substantial, whizz them up into pastry for a quiche, or use them as a base for cheap and sweet lunchbox treats like the famous Weet-Bix slice. These are all great ways to use up the crumbs at the bottom of the box so they don't go to waste.
Bargain bix: Aldi's Goldenvale wheat biscuits.
If you're currently buying branded bix but you're looking to trim back your food budget, you could try switching to supermarket-brand bix. Aldi's Goldenvale Wheat Biscuits stumped many people in a blind taste teste, with a number of our panel members questioning whether they could be the OG Weet-Bix.
At just 36 cents per 100g, they're a lot cheaper than Weet-Bix, which cost 87 cents per 100g, and Vita Brits, which cost 88 cents per 100g. It might not be a huge difference, but in the cost of living crisis, every little bit helps.
The cheapest and best wheat biscuit cereals from our review
Costing less than 45c per 100g, these supermarket-brand wheat biscuit cereals all scored 90% and above for nutrition – so they're good for your body and your budget. They're worth considering if you're trying to reduce your grocery bills.
- Goldenvale (Aldi) Wheat Biscuits (36c/100g)
- Woolworths Wheat Biscuits (37c/100g)
- Coles Wheat Biscuits (41c/100g)
If you have pasta in the cupboard, you'll always have a meal. Whether it's as simple as a drizzle of olive oil with a grating of parmesan or as involved as a made-from-scratch, slow-cooked ragu, pasta is the basis of many delicious meals.
It lends itself perfectly to batch-cooked meals like bolognaise, chicken cacciatore, slow-cooked beef ragu and more, which can save you money if you buy the ingredients in bulk. Plus batch cooking can fill your freezer with delicious, ready-to-go dinners, which will make it easier to resist the urge to order takeaway on nights you can't be bothered cooking.
But think beyond spag bol. Recipes abound for pasta salads and pasta bakes, and you can even add pasta to soups to make them more substantial.
Tasty, healthy and thrifty: what's not to like about Coles' organic wholemeal spaghetti?
The cheapest and best dried spaghetti from our review
These products performed well in our boil test and they're reasonably priced. Pop some on your shopping list as staple pantry items that'll give you plenty of meal options.
- Coles Organic Wholemeal Spaghetti (33c/100g)
- Woolworths Macro Certified Organic Wholemeal Spaghetti (33c/100g)
- Coles Spaghetti (24c/100g)
- Woolworths Essentials Spaghetti (16c/100g)
- Aldi Just Organic Spaghetti (32c/100g)
- IGA Community Co Spaghetti No. 5 (24c/100g)
- Woolworths Macro Certified Organic Spaghetti (33c/100g)
Is wholemeal pasta better for you?
"Wholemeal pasta is higher in fibre as it is made from all parts of the grain – bran, endosperm and germ – so it contains more nutrients than grains that have had the bran and germ removed," says Shadia.
Wholegrains are better than refined grains for heart health, and consuming wholegrains reduces type 2 diabetes risk and total cancer mortalityShadia Djakovic, CHOICE food expert
"Wholegrains contain 26 different nutrients including carbohydrates, protein and minerals, and a variety of phytonutrients.
"Research has shown that wholegrains are better than refined grains for heart health and consuming wholegrains reduces type 2 diabetes risk and total cancer mortality."
If you're looking for a healthy, satisfying snack, hummus is a good way to go. It has two main ingredients – chickpeas and tahini – both of which are extremely nutritious.
Chickpeas are full of protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins, including iron and folate. Tahini (sesame seed paste) is also a source of protein and fibre, contains a decent amount of magnesium and calcium, and is rich in unsaturated fats.
And not only is it good for you, it also tastes great! You can serve it with veggie sticks for a nutrient boost, with toasted Lebanese bread chips or warm Turkish bread for a delicious starter or snack, or use it to add flavour and goodness to sandwiches and wraps.
While its ingredients are very simple, store-bought hummus prices are far higher than the cost of its components. When we tested hummus, some products cost as much as $2.63 per 100g. If you have the time and bench space, you can save quite a bit by making it yourself.
CHOICE tip: If you're going to DIY hummus, save the liquid from the can of chickpeas. It's called aquafaba and can be used as an egg replacement in recipes for vegans, those with egg allergies or just for times when you've run out of eggs.
Homemade hummus recipe
Here's CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair's recipe for delicious, smooth and creamy hummus.
- 1 x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ garlic clove, peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice (the juice of one lemon)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons ice-cold water
- 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup tahini, mixed well
- Paprika, pinch
- Place chickpeas and baking soda into a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce to low heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, until chickpeas are soft.
- Drain chickpeas in a sieve, place in a bowl and fill with cold water. Use your hands to gently rub and stir the chickpeas around the water. This will help release the skins and they will float to the top. Scoop out the skins and discard. Repeat this a few times.
- Place garlic, lemon juice and salt into a small bowl and let the flavours infuse for 10 minutes.
- Drain the chickpeas and place into the food processor bowl with the iced water.
- Blend for 10 seconds, scrape the sides, then, while the motor is running, pour in the garlic, lemon juice and salt mixture, extra virgin olive oil and tahini.
- Blend for roughly one minute until the hummus is smooth and creamy. Scrape down the sides halfway through.
- Pour hummus into a serving bowl. Flatten with a spoon, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with paprika.
Aldi's Deli Original Hommus wasn't just the highest scoring supermarket brand; it was the highest scoring hummus overall and also the cheapest.
The cheapest and best hummus from our review
If you just don't have the time to make your own (and let's face it, most of us don't), the best hummus we found was also the cheapest: Aldi Deli Originals Fresh Traditional Style Hommus.
It beat every other product we tested, including well-known brands like Black Swan, Obela, Yumi's, Chris' and Copperpot. It scored 78% (two percentage points higher than the next highest scorer) and costs just 80 cents per 100g.
Unfortunately, other supermarket products couldn't hold a candle to Aldi's hummus, with Coles scoring just 60% and Harris Farm scoring 47% for its plain hummus and 52% for the salt-reduced version.
If you're feeding a large family (or if you're just a serious hummus fiend!) Aldi also sells a 1kg tub of the good stuff, which costs even less per 100g.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.