When you are trying to live on a graduate's budget, a well stocked kitchen is the best way to make quick, inexpensive meals any time during the week. Personally, I try to keep my kitchen stocked by shopping weekly for fresh items, and monthly for those items with a longer shelf life.
If your kitchen is not well stocked, it can lead to some expensive decisions. This happened to me just last evening...
I knew that the only fresh item I had in the fridge was a chicken breast (Trader Joe's was very understocked this past Sunday after being closed on New Year's Day). I was craving something Asian, and since I knew I was out of rice, I thought of making a chicken noodle stir-fry. I came home with this intent until my search for spaghetti came up empty. Since I did not want to eat just chicken for dinner, I proceeded to the fridge to see what I could throw together. I saw some stale bread and deli turkey, so I thought I would suffer through a stale sandwich until I could get to the grocery.
I toasted the bread in an attempt to reduce the stale taste, but to no avail. I happened to be chatting with my mom during this endeavor, and she suggested I try making a cheese sauce to put on top (similar to a KY hot brown). I proceeded to make two "bechamel" sauces, which is basically a mixture of milk and flour that are cooked until thickened. The first did not have enough flour to thicken the sauce so I started over and melted in cheese once the second had thickened. Unfortunately, when I went to build the sandwich, I saw/smelled that my turkey was expired and the sauce tasted like paste...obviously too much flour this time. At this point I gave up and ordered a pizza.
What would have solved this entire predicament? A well stocked kitchen! Below is what I suggest (and usually have) on hand in my pantry. Obviously it is high time that I did my monthly pantry stock-up! You can modify the list based on the types of cuisine you like, but these are fairly standard. With this basic list you can avoid my predicament from last night and keep your budget in check!
Pasta (spaghetti, rotini, penne, lasagna, etc)
Canned Diced Tomatoes (plain or with chilies/seasonings)
Low Sodium Chicken Stock
Canned or Dry Beans (black, chickpea, kidney, pinto)
Oil (olive, canola/vegetable)
Sugar (brown & white)
Fully-Cooked Shrimp (great for throwing into pastas or salads)
Fully-Cooked Brown Rice (3 minutes prep vs 40)
Nuts ("nuts have oil and oil will spoil", so keep in the freezer!)