It's easier to save money on groceries if you plan your meals in advance, cook from scratch, and keep a well-stocked pantry. The idea of coming home, hungry kids in tow, and having to prep and cook a complicated dinner is enough to make even Super Mom wilt, but if you have certain essentials at home, dinner can be made quickly (in about 20 minutes), easily (little to no tedious prep work required), and with a minimum of stress.
The details will vary depending on your family's tastes and needs -- vegetarians don't need to worry about having meat in the freezer, for instance, and if your kid buys lunch at school then deli meats might not be high on your list. And, of course, there are plenty of non-essentials that you probably like to have on hand. But here's a rundown on what super-versatile ingredients you should try to keep in your pantry, and why. (No time to keep reading? Check out "How to stock your pantry to save time and money" for a handy, printable checklist of pantry essentials right here at Work It, Mom!)
1.) Grains. Pasta is a busy working parent's go-to meal for many reasons: it cooks up quickly, you can top it with nearly anything, and kids rarely turn their noses up at it. Whether you prefer whole-wheat, rice-based, or traditional pasta, stock up when it's on sale and keep a variety of shapes in the pantry (tube-shapes work well with chunky sauces, open shapes like shells or bowties are great when baked, and strands like spaghetti are perfect for tossing with butter and cheese).
Other grain-based items to have: rice (long grain for general use and Arborio for risottos), bread (for toast, sandwiches, or serving at the table), old-fashioned rolled oats (for oatmeal at breakfast, topping apple crisp for dessert, or bulking up meatballs), all-purpose flour (for baking or for coating meat before pan frying) and cornstarch (for thickening sauces and stews or for making your own instant pudding).
2.) Dairy products. Powdered milk is great for baking -- you can add it to make-your-own mixes or reconstitute it with half as much water to make a mock cream -- but also have on hand regular milk (or milk substitute, like soy). Plain yogurt is amazingly versatile -- you can add fruit and sweetener for eating, thin it and use it as buttermilk when making pancakes, or stir in spices and serve it as a dip. You should also keep some cheese on hand -- try something melty (like Monterey jack or cheddar), American (great in an easy macaroni and cheese dish), cream cheese, and a hard cheese for snacking or sandwiches. And no pantry would be complete without a dozen or two of eggs -- for baking, for breakfast, for dinnertime frittatas, for a late-night protein boost.