46 Essential Foods for a Cheap Grocery List When You’re Broke!

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Today, I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to make a cheap grocery list that your family will love. And yes – healthy options are included!

If you’re tight on funds and trying to save money on your grocery bill, I can totally relate. I also know personally how hard it can be to stay creative with meals while figuring out how to keep the food budget low. I worked hard to keep our grocery expenses LOW for several years while living on student loans in grad school (with a baby) and while trying to payoff the debt from grad school!

First, I’ll share ingredients that will work whether you are making a cheap grocery list for college students, a budget grocery list for family, or just a cheap grocery list for one person. These are the essential foods for a relatively healthy grocery list on a budget.

Then, I’ll share several simple meal ideas for cheap meals that even our kiddos love.

Finally, all these grocery list ideas will be available as a printable grocery shopping list at the very end of the post!

Read on to see which foods made the cut for a basic grocery list for a tight budget.

Dry Foods

1. Canned or Dried Beans

Beans are a must-have because not only are they nutritious, but they can be used in so many ways! From vegetarian tacos to soups and salads, they’re not only healthy but budget-friendly. I prefer working with canned beans, and they’re not that much pricier. I love this slow cooker chicken enchilada soup with black beans.

2. Bread 

Bread is one of the cheapest foods to buy that can be incorporated into any meal of the day… from yummy PB&J sandwiches to savory garlic toast. Stick with whole wheat for a healthier option; it’s usually only a dollar or two more than white bread.

3. White Rice

White rice is a must-have budget food, especially if you’re vegetarian. You can use it as a side, or as part of a main dish such as a veggie stir fry. You can even get creative and incorporate it into a dessert like pudding.

4. All-purpose Seasoning 

You can give an extra kick to any dish with this kitchen staple. Goya all-purpose seasoning is one of the most versatile. Fresh seasonings are great–but when you’re on a budget, processed ones are a good alternative as they will last you much longer!

5. Flour 

If you really want to learn how to eat cheap, you will want to have some flour on hand in your pantry. Flour can be used for a variety of homemade dishes like pancakes, dumplings, or flatbread. It’s also a key ingredient if you plan on baking desserts! 

2 budget-friendly flour based recipes we love are: these easy pancakes & simple beer bread

6. Pasta 

Tasty, filling, and cheap–pasta is one of the easiest items to use for an easy-fix dinner. You can top it with your favorite ready-made pasta sauce or get creative and throw together a pasta salad with some veggies. 

7. Lentils

For less than two bucks, you can buy a bag of lentils to whip up a healthy meal for your family. Lentils pair great with veggies like green peppers, potatoes, cilantro, and onion.

8. Oats

There are so many ways to use dried oats! From breakfast oatmeal to oatmeal cookies, you just can’t go wrong. An enormous $7 bag of oats can last us months. My dairy-free friend told us she uses oats to make creamy oat milk using a blender. Who knew!?

9. Ramen

This list wouldn’t be complete without pre-packaged ramen noodles. It’s a super cheap option that you can spice up by adding veggies, meat, or your favorite seasonings. Channel your inner college student and buy your kids some ramen. They’ll probably think it’s hilarious!

Budget Bytes is an awesome food blog for cheap recipes & they have some fun “upgraded” Ramen recipes here!

source: Budget Bytes

Dairy

10. Eggs 

If you only eat eggs at breakfast time, you’re seriously missing out! Eggs are a perfect topping for salads and can be used for a variety of dishes like egg rolls or soup. 

11. Milk 

Milk is a great choice not only for drinking, but other uses as well such as baking or sweetening tea. For a tasty treat, have it with a side of home-made cookies. 

12. Yogurt

Most grocery stores will carry an affordable yogurt brand and it can be a great snack for you and your kids. You can add cereal or fruit to it for a breakfast option or mid-day snack. 

Fruits & Vegetables

13. Cabbage 

If you’re opting for healthy food on a tight budget, you want to make sure that cabbage is on your grocery list. It’s a great addition to soups or salads, and also tastes amazing when lightly fried. 

14. Lettuce

Lettuce can be used for salads, wraps, and a variety of other simple recipes. Try a classic caesar salad, or crunchy chicken lettuce wraps with some teriyaki sauce. Skip the pre-packaged lettuce to save money! If you wash and chop your own lettuce, you get way more bang for your buck.

15. Potatoes 

Potato salad, mashed potatoes, home-baked fries–the possibilities are endless with this budget-friendly food. Potatoes are one of the best cheapest foods to live on because of how filling and versatile they are. If you have a large family, you can buy a large sack of potatoes for a good price and use them throughout the week in a variety of dishes. 

IDEA: See if your kids want to scrub the potatoes to save yourself time! They might think it’s fun to be included in a legitimately helpful task for making dinner. Otherwise, I sometimes pay my kids $1.00 to help with stuff like that – outsourcing at it’s finest 🙂

16. Sweet Potato 

Not only are sweet potatoes super nutritious, but you can eat them as a side dish or stand-alone meal. For an easy lunch option, just top a baked or boiled sweet potato with a fried egg and yummy ranch sauce. 

17. Zucchini 

Zucchini is pretty mild and very flexible in recipes. My kids were skeptical at first but they’ve grown to like it in most dishes I make. Here are several ways we use zucchini:

  • As “zoodles” in place of noodles if trying to eat healthy
  • Chopped in half slices and sauteed in oil, salt & pepper as a side veggie.
  • Food processed and added to any homemade sauce or soup. (A good food processor has been an AWESOME addition to our kitchen. If you’re making most of your food at home, I highly recommend getting a high quality food processor. It goes a long way in food prep!! This Hamilton Beach one has over 12,500 5-star reviews and is under $60! Worth it!!)

18. Chickpeas 

With the right seasoning, chickpeas are a delicious and flavorful dish. They can be used in soups and salads, as well as a variety of international dishes. This is the homemade hummus recipe I use 🙂

19. Spinach

Spinach is a must-have if you want to keep a healthy diet while eating cheap. Highly nutritious, you can serve it raw or cooked. Spinach is rich in vitamin A,C, and K, as well as magnesium, iron, and manganese. It has a slew of other health benefits and is a great add to fruit smoothies. 

I make a green smoothie several days a week that all 4 of our kids LOVE! It’s water + green grapes + banana + pineapple + ice + spinach. I buy frozen pineapple in a huge bag and just thaw it for this recipe. We were gifted a Vitamix one year for Christmas that I love, but if that’s not in your budget, any high quality blender will do.

20. Carrots 

Carrot sticks and ranch sauce are a great healthy snack for kids. You can also roast or saute carrots with garlic and onion powder and serve them with rice or chicken on the side. 

21. Onions 

Packed with flavor, onions are a kitchen staple! Not only are they low-cost, but you can use onions to bring any dull-tasting dish to life. I hate cutting onions, but my “tricks” are to only breathe through my mouth while handling them and then toss big pieces in my Ninja chopper as fast as possible. (That thing is awesome!! It’s like a mini food processor, and I use it all the time for onions, nuts, fresh herbs, veggies, etc.)

I try to do 1-2 large onions at a time and refrigerate the amount I don’t need for the current recipe. That way, I always have onions ready to toss in something quickly.

22. Bell Peppers 

This vitamin-C rich veggie adds amazing flavor to your dishes, but can also be eaten as a healthy snack. Look for them in 3-6 packs to save money.

23. Canned Tomatoes

Buying fresh tomatoes can get a bit pricey, so if you’re on a budget canned tomatoes are a great alternative. You can get a larger quantity than what you normally get for the same price! 

24. Cucumbers

Pair this refreshing veggie with some tomatoes and cilantro for an easy salad option, or slice them up and eat it with your favorite dip! Sometimes I grab a bag of the mini cocktail cucumbers and my kids gobble them as a healthy snack!

25. Mushrooms 

Mushrooms are uber delicious and can be cooked with chicken, pasta, or your favorite stir fry combo. So rich in flavor–you won’t want to leave them out of your grocery list! 

26. Oranges

Oranges are a perfect budget-friendly option if you want to add some fruit and vitamin C to your diet. We love the mandarins or clementines through fall and winter, when they’re in season. Buying fruit that’s in season is cheaper and it tastes better!

27. Banana 

Bananas are probably one of the cheapest fruits you can buy–and they are very filling. Use them to satisfy your sweet tooth by cutting them up and mixing with some almond butter, or freeze and blend them to make homemade “ice-cream.” 

28. Apples 

Apples are THE staple fruit in our house. You can buy whatever variety is on sale. When I shopped at Aldi more regularly, I always sprung for the Honeycrisp apples because they had amazing flavor and Aldi carries them at a relatively low price compared to other stores.

Sliced apples and peanut butter is a go-to snack for kids. You can also use apple bits as a tasty topping for your salad. 

snack ideas for a cheap grocery list
Peanut butter & apples is a super cheap & healthy staple at our house!

Foods For Quick Meals

29. Frozen Fries

Frozen french fries are fast & easy and can make basic grilled/ baked chicken extra fun! You can toss them in your oven with some oil and pair with your kids favorite veggies. Lately, we’ve enjoyed sweet potato fries too!

30. Frozen Vegetables 

Fresh vegetables are great, but when you’re on a budget buying frozen veggies can help you save even more. They will also last longer, so you don’t have to worry about them going bad in the fridge if you didn’t get to cook much that week. 

31. Mac and Cheese

The number of ways you can use Mac & Cheese are endless. Spice up this classic american dish with veggies, sriracha, tuna or nearly any topping. If you have a large family, you can buy the family size box or a few extra boxes to eat leftovers throughout the week. 

32. Frozen Pizza

I try to always have a couple frozen pizzas on hand for the nights I don’t like cooking. Our favorite cheap ones are the Sam’s brand (at Walmart) rising crust pizzas. They are under $3 where we live, and actually really good! Way cheaper than last minute takeout.

Meat

33. Ground Beef

Ground beef isn’t the cheapest item on this list, but it’s easy to work with and it can be frozen or cooked ahead of time to make for easy meal planning & prep. Plus, a $3 pound of ground beef can be stretched a long way in sauce.

If you buy the family size (5lbs or more), the price goes down. You can divide it up into 1-2lb portions and freeze the extra for another night.

34. Chicken Breasts (Cheaper in bulk) 

My biggest grocery budget tip for using chicken breasts is to buy them in bulk. You can trim the fat off all of them in one 15-minute session and freeze them in packs of 2. Then you have the convenience of pre-portioned out chicken at a low cost. AND you’re not paying for all the things they add to the ones you can buy frozen at the store.

You can defrost the chicken in the morning, lather in your favorite sauce, and bake in the oven. Here are some other ideas for prepping dinner in the morning.

35. Canned Tuna

Canned tuna is perfect for lunch sandwiches or tossing in your favorite salad mix. You can also use it as a dip with some whole grain crackers. Since fish can be a bit pricey, it’s a great alternative to get your seafood fix for the week.

36. Ground Turkey

If you want an easy, protein-packed dinner, marinate your ground turkey in your favorite sauce and serve over freshly boiled pasta. You can also use ground turkey to make delicious tacos and wraps. 

37. Pork

My new favorite thing to make is shredded pork in our Instapot. (You can buy them for under $100 now… or check Facebook marketplace/ craigslist. I scored mine brand new secondhand!) You can search for something like “easy Instapot pulled pork” and get a bunch of good ideas. Typically this is easiest with a pork butt roast cut of meat. For $6-12, you can get a pretty big size. The result is super flavorful meat for very little work.

Plus, it reheats really well so you can even plan to make enough for 2 different meals or leftovers.

Or if you’re cooking for only 1 or 2 people, you can freeze the cooked meat (always label your bag) and thaw it for an easy ready-made dinner another time.

SHREDDING MEAT TIP– at the recommendation of a friend, we bought Bear Paws Meat Shredders. They make the dreaded meat pulling task tolerable! It’s such a random kitchen item, but we use them weekly & I gift them to people too 🙂 So worth the $13.

image source: walmart

Drinks & Snacks

38. Cookies 

If you’re craving sweets, you can find a package of cookies for under $2 at almost any grocery store. My kids love the generic brand of vanilla wafers! Not as good as homemade, but hey, 1-2 packages of store bought cookies could last a family of 4 a week for only $2-4.

39. Homemade Popcorn in the Microwave

If you’re looking for cheap treats that your kids will love, this popcorn popper is so cool! If you have one of these, you can have amazing homemade popcorn any time. You can buy a jar of kernels for around $3.00, and it’ll last way longer than a box of microwaveable popcorn. Plus it’s way healthier & tastier, especially if you grab some special popcorn seasoning.

I love gifting this popcorn popper with a jar of kernels and this 4 pack of seasoning.

40. Water

I know this sounds silly and obvious, but if you’re on a tight budget, stick to tap water. Juice, soda, flavored water, bottled water, etc are all unnecessary expenses. Juice & soda in particular are full of sugar and get expensive quickly! We bought all our kids a stainless steel refillable water bottle and they use it at all meals, bedtimes, & outings.

41. Generic Brand Snacks

Store brand “corn chips” are like half the price of Fritos. And Aldi is by far the cheapest place to buy snack food! (Or Costco if you only buy the snacks that are on sale. But I typically don’t recommend the big membership grocery stores for people on an extremely tight budget. It’s too easy to overspend at those stores.)

Seasonings & Condiments

42. Salad dressing

Dressing is great not only for salads, but marinating meat or using as a veggie dip. You can even make your own from oil + vinegar. I started out making homemade dressing for convenience & to save money. But now, we’re kinda homemade dressing snobs. It tastes so much better than store-bought alternatives. Plus, homemade dressing usually has less sugar too!

Here are our favorite homemade dressings:

43. Chicken Broth (Large Size)

I keep several 32 oz containers of chicken broth on hand for homemade sauces & soups. Sauce and soup are both good ways to stretch your meat.

44. Peanut Butter

You can use peanut butter for a classic PB&J, or use it as a dip for healthy snacks like apple slices or bananas.

45. BBQ Sauce

We keep BBQ on hand at all times because we grill meat a lot. Our kids love to dip the meat in BBQ sauce, especially the kids who don’t like meat as much. Haha!

46. Pantry Staple Seasonings

The basics I always have on hand are: salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, season salt, and a multipurpose seasoning. I usually also have some of the other staples like dried oregano, dried parsley, and dried basil. You can buy most of those (except a multipurpose seasoning) for $1.00 and they’re great for making your own sauces or seasoning a basic recipe.

Printable Cheap Grocery List PDF

I put all these items on a free printable grocery shopping checklist if that’s helpful to you! You can download it by clicking right here.

There you have it friends. I hope you find my list of cheap groceries helpful! I believe with a bit of discipline and creativity, you’ll find that it is possible to go grocery shopping on a budget and still make meals that your family will love! 

Now that you know what cheap foods to focus on at the grocery store, there are 2 other keys to saving money on groceries:

  1. A quick & easy meal planning system
  2. Tracking your grocery spending in a way that makes sense to you.

Hope these posts help you cut down that grocery budget!!

cheap grocery list
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