Store cupboard essentials for cheap and easy meals

Keeping a few essential items in your cupboard can save serious money on your food budget. These favourite ingredients offer the best value for money because they’re versatile and long-lasting – and, most importantly, are guaranteed to produce really easy, hassle-free meals.

I regularly set myself the ‘Eat the kitchen’ challenge. This means I rummage through my cupboards, fridge and freezer, devising meals ideas which don’t involve buying extra ingredients.

Doing this has taught me which store cupboard essentials I regularly rely on to come up with meals requiring little preparation and hardly any spending.

 I’ve found I get the best bang for the buck from these handy ingredients.


It’s no coincidence that rice is at the core of so many world cuisines. Rice is adaptable – and very filling.

You can make meals for any time of day out of rice. Sweet, savoury, spicy and simple.

If you store rice somewhere dry and safe, it will keep forever. Well, not literally forever, but for a long time. This means that can you buy rice in bulk, and future meals will then cost you pennies. Literally.

Rice features heavily in my ‘Eat the Kitchen’ menus. Here’s one of the rice dishes that I have at least once a week.

Egg fried rice

“Fakeaways, not takeaways!” is a mantra we repeat a lot at MoneyAware! This takeaway favourite is (almost) cheaper than chips and I think it’s tastier too. The only downside is that when I cook this I think there’ll be enough left over for the next day’s lunch, but we always scoff the lot.

If you’ve got some boiled rice left over, don’t chuck it out. Turning it into egg fried rice is a brilliant way to use up leftovers and it’s an even better way to pad out a meal to make it more filling.

Egg fried rice is the easiest thing to rustle up, even on those evenings when you’re so tired that calling for a takeaway seems like too much of an effort.

  • Gently fry some sliced onions (or spring onions, whatever you have in) and when they’re getting a little bit of colour, add the boiled rice and stir around
  • Then add a good glug of soy sauce with a generous sprinkle of white pepper, stir around a bit again
  • Now add a whisked egg and leave it to sit on top of the rice and go a bit omelette-y before stirring it in
  • Last of all, add some frozen peas – you don’t even have to de-frost them first. When they’re cooked you’re ready to go
  • Add more soy sauce, to taste


Lovely, lovely eggs, they are so versatile.

As well as the aforementioned egg fried rice, they’re the go-to ingredient for ‘emergency teas’ when the cupboards are alarmingly bare. Eggs? Check. Bread? Check. That’s a meal alright.

Perfect poached eggs

I used to be scared of poaching eggs, it seemed far too difficult, but now I’ve cracked it (sorry), poached eggs are a regular breakfast or tea.

You don’t need a special poaching pan, just a wide pan that will allow you to boil about an inch of water. A wok will do.

I’ve come across a lot of recipes that recommend adding some salt to the water, but this just seemed to slow down the cooking time when I tried it, leaving me with cloudy water and rubbery eggs. Yuck.

This is what works for me:

  • Boil the water then turn it down to a gentle simmer – this means there should be some gentle bubbles, but not waves
  • Add a splash of vinegar, any kind of vinegar, it doesn’t matter
  • Then gently add the eggs one-by-one to the pan. I crack them into a bowl first. The whites should immediately start setting
  • Allow around five minutes for soft but set yolks – large eggs may take a little longer
  • You can test them by patting the yolks with the back of a serving spoon.
  • Remove them from the pan with a slatted spoon to drain the water away

Soy sauce

Soy sauce is the first ingredient I grab when I want to add a little bit of flavour.

Forget paying over the odds for stir-fry sauces! If you have some soy, ginger and garlic, you’ve got everything you need to make tasty ‘gravy’.

Stir-fries are the perfect left-over dish. Yes, they’re utterly delicious with baby sweetcorn, mange tout, oyster mushrooms etc. but most veg (accompanied with the protein of your choice), are great in stir-fries.

But it’s not just Chinese food soy sauce is useful for. Many old-school British dishes benefit from soy sauce’s almost magical ability to add an instant savoury mmmm-ness to a dish.

Meat stews, lentils, cottage pies – they all perk up immediately when you add some soy.

Tip #1: Buy large bottles from Chinese supermarkets if you can, you get much better value for money.

Tip #2: If you can get the golden or low sodium alternatives, they’re much better for you (less salt) and they have a more subtle flavour.


I’m waiting for the humble cabbage to be the latest trendy vegetable, as kale has been, because I think they’re great. Yes, I am seriously getting excited about cabbages!

If you buy one of the denser leaved varieties (such as savoy, Chinese leaf, or white cabbage) it’ll keep for much longer than loose-leaved veg in the fridge. Just lop off bits as you need them.

Use cabbage in…


You can add cabbage to minestrone and other brothy soups.

When the soup is nearly ready to serve, add some finely sliced cabbage and warm through until it’s softened. It adds a lot of flavour to the stock.

My top tip for minestrone is to cook off some fennel seeds with the onions – a cheap substitute for fennel chunks often used traditionally in this soup.


Coleslaw is another leftovers classic, because you can use pretty much any type of cabbage, root vegetable and onion combination you like.

Carrots can be substituted with sweet potato. Celeriac and fennel are great additions.

Just slice your chosen vegetables as finely as you can and mix them up with mayonnaise, a blob of mustard, a good splash of lemon juice and a bit of white pepper.

…bubble and squeak

How many of us had this every Monday when our thrifty mums were using up leftovers from the Sunday roast?

You mix yesterday’s mashed potato with yesterday’s boiled cabbage, frying it for about 10 minutes. You can add some onions, peas, bits of bacon and it goes well with a perfectly poached egg.

Buon appetito!

What ingredients have you found to offer you the best value for money? Pop a comment below to let us know.

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