Best Buys For Breads, Grains & Starches
For this section I focus primarily on processed grains, not whole grains. Whole grains such as whole wheat flour and brown rice are superior nutritionally but they usually cost more than processed grains such as all-purpose flour and white rice. Since this section of the website is specifically about getting the most food for the lowest price, low-cost foods take precedence over higher-cost foods. With that said, I do sprinkle in a few tips about increasing your intake of whole grains for as low a cost as possible.
All-Purpose Bleached White Flour is the first item you need. It’s used for everything from pancakes and muffins to homemade tortillas, pasta, and bread. Did you know you can make all these things yourself in your own kitchen? You can; all you need is the recipe which you’ll find in the section Rock Bottom Broke, and the willingness to get your hands a little dirty. Most hands are wash and wear, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
All-purpose flour is called all-purpose because it is designed to be used for many different types of baking. Specialty flours for bread, cake and biscuits all cost more than all-purpose flour. Hard or winter wheat is higher in protein than soft, or spring wheat. Hard wheat, with its extra protein in the form of gluten, is best for baking yeast breads, which rely upon gluten for their rise and structure. Hard wheat flour is called Bread Flour at the supermarket. Soft wheat or spring wheat is lower in protein. With less gluten, soft wheat is better for delicate baking such as cake or biscuits. At the supermarket you can find it in bags of biscuit flour and boxes of cake flour. All-purpose flour is made from a combination of both hard and soft wheat. It works well in yeast bread, cakes and biscuits. It’s designed to be used for all purposes, thus its name–all-purpose flour.
All white flour sold in America is enriched. When the whole wheat berries have the outer bran and the germ rubbed off to make white flour, a great deal of nutrition is removed along them. All-purpose flour has a few nutrients, such as B vitamins, added back into the flour. This is the enrichment. Enriched flour is not as nutritious as whole wheat flour, but it is more nutritious than unenriched flour.
The cheapest all-purpose flour is bleached. The bleaching process makes flour bright white and accelerates the aging or ripening process of the flour so it’s ready to sell in a few weeks, rather than a few months like unbleached flour. Time is money, so bleached flour costs less than unbleached flour. If you have unbleached flour, you should know that it can replace bleached flour in any recipe without problem.
Another common type of flour is self-rising flour. This is made from all-purpose flour with the addition of baking powder and salt. Some people use it a lot; others don’t find much use for it. If you use self-rising flour to replace all-purpose flour in baking then you will need to leave out any salt, baking powder or baking soda. Since self-rising flour already has these added to the flour itself, there’s no need to add them to your recipe. I don’t use a lot of self-rising flour because I find it to be less versatile than all-purpose flour.
When you’re at the market you may be dismayed to find an overwhelming variety of flour from which to choose. Take a deep breath and put your thinking cap on. You’re looking for all-purpose flour in a 5-pound bag, or larger, if you do a lot of baking. All-purpose flour is the cheapest, most affordable type of flour you can buy. It’s also the standard flour that most recipes are tested with. Keep looking until you can zero in on a store brand or value brand of all-purpose flour. Compare its price with other types of flour on the shelves. It should the be the cheapest one.
If you do a lot of baking, it pays to buy your flour in a large bag. Twenty-five pound bags of flour cost significantly less per pound than 5-pound bags. If you don’t do much of your own baking, or if you are baking for a small family, then a 5-pound bag may be a more reasonable choice.
All-purpose flour is the foundation of your rock-bottom broke kitchen. With a little baking powder, salt, oil and eggs you can make scores of hot breads and other items like tortillas, pasta and crackers. Add sugar and you can bake cookies, pies, cakes and cobblers. You can even make your own mixes such as biscuit mix. If you are pinching every penny until it squeaks, then you need all-purpose flour in your pantry and you need to learn how to use it.
If you’re trying to eat a more nutritious diet then you can also buy whole wheat flour, which costs about twice as much as all-purpose flour. Combine equal parts of whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour and use it in most of your baking. Pie crusts, cakes and some cookies are better when made with only white flour. Breads, muffins and bar cookies work well with the combination flour.
Whole wheat flour is available in both ordinary whole wheat flour and a version called “white wheat” whole wheat flour. White whole wheat flour is a little lighter in color and texture than ordinary whole wheat flour. I choose whichever one is cheapest, but if they cost the same amount then I choose white whole wheat flour because it’s more family-friendly. Some people feel that baked goods made with whole wheat flour are more filling, and they are certainly more nutritious. This is a fact worth considering when balancing cost and nutrition. I feel the best compromise between the two is using a 50/50 blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour. Although, when cost is your highest priority, all-purpose flour is the clear winner.
After all-purpose flour there are a few other grains and starches that add nutrition and variety to one’s diet for very little cost. The most versatile and inexpensive are cornmeal, oatmeal or rolled oats, rice and potatoes.
Cornmeal is almost as versatile as all-purpose flour, and there are a few things it can do which flour cannot. The most basic cornmeal products are made by combining it with water. Cornmeal mush or polenta is made by boiling cornmeal in water until it makes a mush type cereal. It can be eaten as is or poured into a large pan, allowed to cool and then sliced into serving-size pieces. This is called polenta. If you fry the polenta in a little fat–so much the better. Corn pone and hoecakes are made by combining cornmeal and boiling water and then shaping the resulting dough into patties or cakes. These are baked or fried and served plain or as an accompaniment to a meal. If you ever find yourself with only cornmeal and water in the house, you still have plenty to eat. Native Americans and poor southerners have subsisted on little more than cornmeal for generations, so it has a long history of use.
Cornmeal can be found in yellow or white versions. Both work the same so choose whichever is least expensive. Be sure to look for plain cornmeal and not cornmeal mix. The mix has added ingredients for baking such as baking powder, salt and sometimes wheat flour or powdered milk. It is not as useful or as versatile as plain cornmeal. Usually it costs more too. Don’t buy it. Just look up and down the baking aisle until you find plain cornmeal. It may be in 2-pound bags, or if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find 5-pound bags. Choose whichever has the lowest unit price.
Rolled oats or oatmeal are another supermarket bargain, as well as a whole grain. Pound for pound they cost a little more than whole wheat flour. I prefer old-fashioned rolled oats but quick-cooking (not instant) are sometimes less expensive. Since both are made from wholegrain oat groats I use whichever is least expensive. Both are interchangeable in baking and main dishes. The only difference is when they are used as a breakfast cereal. Old-fashioned oats, which are a little bit thicker, must simmer for 5-minutes before they are ready to eat. Quick-cooking oats must simmer for 1-minute and then sit for 5-minutes, meaning they take 1-more minute of prep-time before they’re ready to eat. Old-fashioned oats are actually ready to eat in less time than quick-oats which makes no sense to me whatsoever. But such are the ways of modern marketing.
When you go looking for rolled oats be sure to seek out a store-brand. These can be half the price of name-brands. Also, since oats keep so well on the pantry shelf, larger sized containers are worth buying when they cost less per ounce.
Rolled Oats can be turned into a variety of dishes. We all know how they make good hot cereal, but they can also make cold cereal in the form of homemade granola, or they can be mixed raw with yogurt, fruit and honey for a fast, tasty and nutritious breakfast. Rolled oats can go into a variety of breads, from pancakes to sandwich bread to quick breads and muffins. They make good cakes, cookies and are used as a topping for apple or peach crisp. They make a great extender for ground meat in meat loaves and meat balls. They can even be turned into Golden Oats, a quick and easy side-dish or vegetarian main dish. Even in a rock bottom broke kitchen, rolled oats earn their keep.
Rice, along with wheat flour, is one of the world’s foundational grains. Great International cuisines have sprung up around rice from Chinese and Indian to Caribbean. At the market the cheapest rice is long-grain white rice. Usually large bags are less per pound. Quick-cooking or instant rice is the worst buy at the market. It doesn’t save much time either. Instant rice cooks in 5-minutes, regular rice cooks in as little as 12-minutes. Seven minutes cooking time does not justify its higher price. You still have to measure the rice and water. You still have to wait for it to come to a boil. You still have to wash the pot. Minute rice is simply not convenient enough to earn its higher price.
Rice is good simply cooked and eaten as is, maybe with a little margarine or soy sauce. It goes into a variety of main dishes and casseroles and works as a base that can be topped with all kinds of stews and stir-frys. For breakfast simply cover leftover rice with a bit of milk and maybe some raisins. You can heat it up or serve it cold. Fried rice is made simply by frying leftover rice with a few onions and maybe some other vegetables or meat. Leftover rice is useful and easy to use up, so I always make more rice than I need when I cook it. Leftovers go into the fridge and then can be used later in the week for quick meals.
Brown rice is available from WIC and is a whole grain. It’s a healthier, more nutritious choice than white rice. The only drawbacks are increased cost and longer cooking time. If you are buying your own rice, long-grain white rice is definitely a better buy. It costs about half as much as brown rice. If you get brown rice for free then it’s almost as easy to use as white rice. Simply use brown rice, measure for measure, to replace white rice in almost any recipe. Increase the cooking time to about 45-minutes, or until the brown rice is tender.
Pasta is next on the list. Plain spaghetti and macaroni are usually the least expensive forms of pasta. They are versatile too. Spaghetti can replace capellini, fusilli, fettuccini, linguine, rice noodles, soba (buckwheat noodles) and ziti. If you take the time to break it into small bits it can even replace small pastas like fine egg noodles, orzo and ditalini. Macaroni is just as handy. Use it to replace bow-ties, cavatelli, fusilli, gemelli, medium egg noodles, penne, rigatonni, rotini, seashells, and wagon wheels–any bite-sized or chunky pasta.
One of the best qualities of pasta is its quick cooking time. Spaghetti and macaroni both cook in 10-minutes or less. Many sauces can be prepared in less that the time it takes for the water to come to a boil and the pasta to cook. Most of us can find 20-minutes in our day to prepare a hearty, filling meal.
On the topic of pasta I should mention egg noodles. They cost more than spaghetti or macaroni but are just as versatile, and have a special flavor all their own. We love egg noodles at my house, but we don’t serve them as often because of their added expense. When I find them on sale I snatch them up and stash them in my cupboard for later use.
Egg noodles can be made successfully at home if you have some flour, eggs and water. The only real skill required is rolling the dough extra thin, and, to tell the truth, it’s more a matter of patience than skill.
Egg noodle dough can be cut into many shapes from skinny to wide, and short to long. It makes excellent homemade lasagna noodles. Ever since I realized this I was able to cross lasagna noodles off my grocery list. I don’t have to buy it from the store, I can make it at home. I get a pleasant little thrill every time I discover something I can make myself instead of having to buy it from the store and homemade lasagna was no exception.
Potatoes are a vegetables, but in practice and nutritional content, they are another starch. Seventy-five years ago Americans ate them twice a day, every day. Both economical and nutritious, we could do with eating more potatoes these days than we do.
Large bags of all-purpose potatoes are usually the lowest price per pound. Red potatoes, yellow potatoes and baking potatoes are usually more expensive. All-purpose potatoes work just as well as other varieties for most recipes. Ten-pound bags are usually less per pound than 5-pound bags. Sometimes 15-pound bags are available too, but if you’re only feeding 2 or 3, you may not want to buy this many at once.
At home, potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place. You can keep them in the refrigerator if you have the space, or in a cool place in your kitchen cupboard. If your potatoes start to sprout, then try to use them up quickly. They don’t keep very well after they sprout. If your potatoes are sprouted, simply pluck off the sprouts and continue to use them as desired in your meals. The sprouts don’t hurt anything, they just make the potatoes soften more quickly, until they’re too floppy to use.
The main drawback of potatoes is that they require preparation before they can be eaten. They have to be washed, sometimes peeled, often cubed or sliced and then they have to be cooked. This is not exactly a convenience food. On the plus side, fresh potatoes are extremely nutritious and especially filling. High in both Vitamin C and potassium, potatoes with the skin are a good source of fiber besides.
Potatoes are versatile too, from mashed to baked, fried to roasted, soup to chowder, potatoes can be prepared in a variety of ways. My family doesn’t get tired of them, even if they wind up eating them several days in a row. I consider potatoes a foundational food in the rock bottom broke kitchen.
Potato convenience foods such as instant mashed potatoes and frozen french fries can be reasonable choices if you look for the lowest price store-brands. Instant mashed potatoes are actually cheaper than fresh potatoes, although they are not as nutritious. Even when I’m rock bottom broke, I make instant mashed potatoes a part of my budget. They’re quick, convenient and almost everyone likes them. Frozen french fries are fine if you have a little bit extra cash to spend, but if you’re pinching every penny, there are other foods that are more worthwhile to keep on hand, such as fresh potatoes. Buy french fries by the unit price. Store-brands and value brands usually offer the most savings.
Boxes of au gratin potatoes and scalloped potatoes are often available from food banks. They taste pretty good, although in my experience they usually need to cook a bit longer than directed on the package instructions. I do not buy them myself because they are not nutritious enough to justify their cost. I’ve noticed that the size of the package has shrunk quite a bit over the years. A single box, weighing 4 to 5-ounces only makes 2 or 3-servings. I’d rather save my money and make them from scratch. I get more servings, more nutrition and spend less money too.
The final staples in this category are more expensive than the others, perhaps less versatile too, but still earn a place in my cupboard. They are grits, barley, corn tortillas, taco shells and store-bought bread.
Grits aren’t quite as versatile as cornmeal. They aren’t much good for baking, but they taste good, have a delightful texture and my family loves them. We only buy Quick-Grits, usually in 5-pound bags. Smaller containers are usually more readily available. We use grits for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, casseroles, hot cereal, and everything in between. They make excellent polenta, which is our favorite way of using them for main dishes. If you don’t like grits or if they aren’t available in your area then feel free to use cornmeal instead. The finished product will have a slightly finer texture, but quantities, cooking times and methods remain the same. Instant grits are a huge ripoff, so don’t even give them a second glance. Grits are not a necessity, unless you live in the south. So if you’re not interested in learning how to use them you can leave them off of your list.
Barley is usually available in 2-forms at the supermarket: quick-cooking and pearl barley. Pearl Barley is cheaper but takes about 45 minutes of simmering to become tender. Quick barley is shaped somewhat like old-fashioned oatmeal, and cooks in about 10-minutes. It costs quite a bit more per ounce than pearl barley, so I don’t use it very often. Plain, leftover pearl barley makes a delicious breakfast when reheated in milk and sprinkled with a spoonful of brown sugar. Quick barley can be used as a quick-cooking hot cereal for breakfast, or it can go into soups just like pearl barley. Sometimes barley is found with the dry beans and other times it’s in the soup section. Keep an eye out for it as you do your shopping and pick up a bag (or box) if you find it for a good price. Barley is not a necessity. If you’re watching every dime, then feel free to leave barley out of your grocery cart.
Corn Tortillas are much cheaper per pound than flour tortillas. They make breakfast burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas and taquitos. They’re also good fried in a little margarine until soft and served as a hot bread with any spicy main dish. Drizzle them with honey or pancake syrup after frying or sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon and you’ve got a tasty, sweet snack or dessert. I don’t consider corn tortillas a necessity, but they are an affordable convenience food.
Hard Taco Shells cost more per pound than corn tortillas, but they are very handy for homemade tacos. Store-brands are reasonably priced. Be sure to buy taco shells and not a “taco-kit.” You can make your own taco filling without mixes or packets, so there’s no need to spend more for a kit, when all you really need are the shells. Tacos can be made from refried beans, black beans, ground meat, tuna, chicken and white fish. You can use your own homemade flour tortillas as wraps, but if you want crunchy tacos, store-bought taco shells are pretty convenient and don’t cost too awful much.
Store-bought bread is a convenience food of the highest order. It saves all of the time and work of making your own bread from scratch. It also costs at least twice as much as your own homemade yeast bread, and doesn’t taste half as good. If you have no interest in making your own homemade bread, I’m not going to try to talk you into it. It’s one of those things that you either want to learn how to do, or you don’t. And if you don’t that’s okay.
The cheapest bread is plain white sandwich bread, usually in a generic, value-brand or store-brand. Sometimes value-brand or store-brand hot dog and hamburger buns only cost a little bit more than regular sliced bread. Sometimes they’re a lot more. Usually English muffins, whole wheat bread, and any other type of specialty bread costs a lot more than plain sandwich bread. Compare unit prices (the cost per ounce or pound) to determine the best buy.
Don’t be a bread-snob. Hamburgers can be eaten on sandwich bread just as easily as on hamburger buns. Submarine sandwiches can be made on sandwich bread just as easily as on french bread. Hot dogs rolled up in a slice of bread are just as nourishing as those served on a bun. It’s only in the last 20-years that people have begun to think that the shape of their bread has to “match” the food that they’re eating. Before then folks all across the nation, of every different type of income, used whatever bread they had available to make sandwiches or serve with dinner.
When we’re rock bottom broke sliced white bread will give us the most value and versatility for our money. If you have a little more money to spend, it may be worth it to you to seek out a low-cost wholegrain bread. Make sure that whole-wheat flour is the first item on the ingredient list. If you’re paying more for your bread you might as well be sure that you are getting what you pay for. Sometimes “wheat” breads are simply colored with caramel coloring, but their main ingredient is still white flour. They are not worth the extra cost. If the first ingredient is whole wheat flour, then it may be worth paying a little extra for wholegrain bread.
Day-old bread stores are a goldmine of bargain priced bread. If you have one in your area, plan to visit it at least once a month. Day-old bread can be frozen to keep it fresh until you are able to visit the store again. Wholegrain breads and specialty breads are often very affordable. If you want the most variety and the highest quality and the most nutrition for the lowest cost, then you can learn to bake your own bread. It’s a life skill you will never regret having.
A few convenience foods that are often a part of rock-bottom budgets are ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese, the kind with a packet of powdered cheese sauce. These are reasonably priced and both are good foundations that you can add vegetables and beans or meat to, to make your own convenience meals. They are certainly cheaper than boxes of hamburger helper or tuna helper.
If you have the money, there are lots of other grains and flours and packaged convenience foods to consider. Probably most of them, if not all, have no place in a rock-bottom budget. We all have favorite, so-called “pet” foods, that we like to use. When there is enough cash, feel free to indulge. Otherwise, if you have to make do, the items listed on this page will make it easier.
If you do not drive, or have mobility issues, then you may find it convenient to order as much as you can through mail order. Walmart.com is very affordable. They even offer free shipping if your order is over a certain amount. The following list will help you determine which items are the best buys for you.
- Great Value All-Purpose Flour; 25-pounds
- Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flour; 5-pounds
- Gold Medal White Whole Wheat Flour; 5-pounds
- Great Value Cornmeal; 5-pounds
- Great Value Old-Fashioned Oats; 42-ounces
- Great Value Long Grain White Rice; 20-pounds
- Great Value Brown Rice; 5-pounds
- Great Value Elbow Macaroni or Spaghetti: 3 or 4-pounds
- Great Value Macaroni & Cheese; 6-pack
- Great Value Instant Mashed Potatoes; 26-ounce
The other items in this article are not available through mail order or, if they are, cost significantly more than they would if you purchased them from your local supermarket.
Starches and grains are one of the best ways to keep our food budgets in check. The can provide the foundation of our diet, like they do for poor folks and peasants all over the world. If we add beans, milk and eggs, and seasonal fruits and vegetables, we have a varied and nutritious diet that can keep us going when we need it the most. Take the time to look for recipes and dishes that use these low cost basics to their fullest advantage.
Wow! This is a fantastic article with lots of information. I am going to start using the egg noodles for lasagna. Do you boil them first or just use them fresh after cutting? Maggie, thank you for your blog.
Thanks Pat 🙂 I boil the noodles first, but have often wondered if that was strictly necessary since they are cooked in the liquid from the lasagna while it bakes. I haven’t done this in several years, since we don’t eat wheat any longer, so I haven’t experimented with it as much as I would have otherwise. I do remember that I didn’t boil the homemade lasagna for very long since I knew they would be further cooked in the lasagna. If you try it without boiling the lasagna first, please let me know your results. One day I will buy some white Spelt flour (which doesn’t make me sick) and give this a try.