This month’s blog post features a guest writer, Nutrition Access Manager, Courtney. Keep reading for 22 budget-friendly items to keep the pantry stocked at home.

COVID-19 has greatly impacted East Tennessee. People are focused on keeping their families safe and fed, maybe even without a steady income. Because of these challenges, it’s a great time to make the most of every dollar.

This list highlights food items that are budget-friendly and support a healthy diet. Better yet, all these food items stay good for at least three weeks, and some can last longer than one year. Best of all, Second Harvest distributes many of the nutritious shelf-stable items on this list to food pantries across the 18 counties it serves. Try stocking your home pantry with these items to help you create tasty, affordable and nutritious meals.


(If you need food assistance, click here to find a food pantry near you. If you want to donate to help feed your community, click here.)

Fruits and Vegetables
  1. Potatoes/sweet potatoes. Potatoes are the most popular vegetable in the United States. They are filling, can be cooked in many ways, and stay fresh for three to five weeks in a cool, dark place. Both potatoes and sweet potatoes have nutrients that support heart and skin health. Additionally, sweet potatoes have vitamins that are good for your eyes. Pro tip: Save time and skip peeling the potatoes. The peels are edible and add more fiber and nutrients to the meal.
  2. Carrots. Carrots can be used in many meals, cooked or raw. They can keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator and have nutrients that are very good for eye health. Pro tip: Like potatoes, you do not have to peel carrots before eating them. The peel adds more nutrients and lowers food waste.
  3. Onions. A staple vegetable in recipes all over the world, onions can be eaten raw or cooked. Onions keep for about four weeks in a cool, dark place. They have nutrients that support good skin and gut health.
  4. Garlic. Garlic is another staple vegetable found in many recipes all over the world. A bulb of garlic is made of 10-20 smaller pieces called cloves. A little bit of garlic goes a long way, so one bulb can last a while. When stored in a cool, dark place, garlic can be kept for many weeks before going bad.
  5. Canned tomatoes (and other canned vegetables and fruits). Canned tomatoes are used in so many types of dishes, like stews, soups, and pasta and pizza sauces. Other canned vegetables and fruits are also nutritious and versatile, so pick some of your favorites and keep them in your pantry at home. Pro tip: To lower the sodium and make your meal more heart-healthy, choose canned vegetables labeled “no added salt” when possible and drain or rinse your vegetables. When buying canned fruit, look for fruit packed in juice or light syrup to lower the amount of added sugar.
  6. Frozen fruits and vegetables. Another option to fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, frozen fruits and veggies offer different textures. Frozen fruits can be easily used in smoothies or fruit desserts. Add frozen vegetables to soups, pasta dishes, stir-fries and more.
  1. Brown rice/other whole grains. Though brown rice and other whole grains might take a bit longer to cook than white rice, the nutritional benefits can be worth it. Brown rice has more fiber, vitamins, and flavor than white rice. Add brown rice to soups, stir-fries, and creamy rice dishes (like risotto or pilaf). Pro tip: Because the outer hull is still there on brown rice and whole grains, they take longer to cook. Try cooking your whole grains ahead of time in bulk so you do not have to spend as much time cooking throughout the week.
  2. Oatmeal. Oats are so good for you and can be used for more than a sweet breakfast porridge. They can be ground into oat flour, added to other baked goods, and used to make homemade granola bars. Oats can also be used as a filler with ground meats to help you stretch your dollar. They are whole grains and have lots of fiber and vitamins and minerals to support a healthy lifestyle.
  3. Flour/cornmeal. Flour is a staple in the kitchen because you can find in nearly every baked good. Wheat flour and cornmeal or corn flour are common flours used in the South to make bread products or porridges and to thicken sauces, gravies or soups.
  4. Dry pasta. Cook dry pasta according to package directions and mix with dressing or sauce and vegetables for pasta salad or a classic pasta dish. You can also add pasta to soups and stews. Pro tip: Choosing whole wheat pasta will add extra fiber and vitamins to your meal.


  1. Canned or dry beans. Beans are not only budget-friendly but are flavorful, versatile, and support a healthy lifestyle. You can add canned/dry beans to soups, stews and pasta dishes. They can even mash them to make bean dip. They add protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals to meals. Canned beans cost slightly more than dry beans, but they may be more convenient for your lifestyle. Stock your pantry with the type of bean that works best for your household. Pro tip: Choose cans labeled “no added salt” and rinse and drain your beans before adding them to your dish. Lowering the amount of sodium in your meal will make it more heart-healthy.
  2. Peanut butter/nut butter. Peanut and other nut butters are great shelf-stable sources of plant protein and heart-healthy fats. You can spread nut butters on toast and sandwiches or add to baked goods, smoothies, noodle dishes and some types of soup.
  3. Eggs. packed with protein, eggs go way beyond a breakfast and baking ingredient. Add a boiled egg to a salad, stir-fry them with rice and vegetables, and even add to homemade ramen or pizza. You can also whisk them with leftover vegetables to make a frittata or omelet. Eggs also keep for about 3 weeks in the refrigerator.
  4. Canned tuna/chicken. You can combine canned tuna/chicken with other ingredients to make lots of meals. They can be made into tuna or chicken salad and served on bread as a sandwich or crackers as a snack or appetizer. You can add them to pasta dishes, salads, soups and casseroles. Tuna and chicken are both good sources of lean protein. Tuna also has heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
  5. Lentils. Lentils are a very affordable way to add plant protein to your diet. Unlike dry beans, lentils do not have to soak before cooking and are ready to eat in about 20 minutes. They also have a long shelf-life and are filling. You can add lentils to soups, stews, curries, and more. Like beans, lentils add a lot of protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals to your meals. Pro tip: Try substituting lentils for ground beef in pasta sauces and sloppy joe sandwiches for a more heart-healthy version of these classic dishes.

Condiments, Flavorings, Oils, Baking Supplies
  1. Pasta sauce. Cook some onion and carrot in a little bit of oil, add sauce to the skillet and serve over pasta, and there you have it – a classic Italian dish in less than 30 minutes. You can also add pasta sauce to soups, stews, casseroles, and even spread it on pizza.
  2. Condiments. Condiments can take your cooking to another level. You can use condiments as they come or mix them into sauces, dressings and marinades. The types of condiments you keep on hand can depend on the types of meals you like to eat. Some of our budget-friendly favorites are:
    1. Ketchup – use to make cocktail sauce, BBQ sauce, sloppy joe sandwiches
    2. Mustard (yellow and Dijon) – use in salad dressings and meat glazes
    3. Mayonnaise – use as a base for other condiments, like aioli, tartar sauce, and creamy dressings
    4. Low-sodium soy sauce – use in sauces and marinades
    5. Hot sauce – use in sauces like sriracha and Buffalo sauce
    6. Vinegar – use in marinades and dressings or sprinkle on vegetables and fish
  3. Low-sodium stock or broth. Whether you use stock or broth to cook grains or you add it as a base for soup, they can add extra flavor and liquids to your recipes. Pro tip: Look for low-sodium versions at the store to support a more heart-healthy diet. Better yet, to lower food waste and to be more budget-friendly, save onions, carrots, celery tops, and maybe even bones from leftover meat or poultry and make your own stock at home.
  4. Dried herbs, spices, and seasonings. Herbs and spices are important in helping your food taste the best that it can. There is no need to go out and buy all the spices on the spice aisle. Instead, buy spices that go well with the kinds of foods you normally like to eat. If your budget is extra tight, spend your money on spice blends, like Italian seasoning, low-sodium taco seasoning, poultry seasoning, or even Mrs. Dash spice blends.
  5. Oil. Vegetable oils – like canola, olive, or a vegetable blend – are part of a heart-healthy diet. Keeping oils on hand will give you more options of things to make. Not only can you use a couple of tablespoons of oil when sautéing vegetables in a skillet, but you can use oil in baking as the fat source instead of butter. You can also combine the oil with an acid ( like vinegar or lemon juice) and spices to make dressings for salads.
  6. Sugar. Sugar is an important ingredient in baking and cooking. Believe it or not, a bit of table sugar (or other sources of sweetness like honey) helps balance bitter and sour flavors and bring out fatty, spicy, and salty flavors. Pro tip: If you have a health condition in which your doctor and/or medical team recommends you lower the amount of sugar in your diet, follow your medical team’s recommendations.
  7. Baking soda and baking powder. Baked goods, like pancakes and cornbread, need these ingredients. Both baking soda and baking powder help make baked goods rise. Though they have the same role, they are not the same thing, so do not get them mixed up.