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If it seems like you’re leaving the grocery store with a lighter cart and a lighter wallet these days, you’re not alone. Food prices and other major budget items like gasoline and electricity are on the rise. Luckily, so are savings strategies.

One of the easiest ways to keep your food costs from taking too big a bite out of your monthly budget is to cut back on eating out. A Nielson study found that in 2006, 49 cents of every American food dollar was spent on food consumed away from the home. Restaurant and fast food are far more expensive than home-prepared foods, and usually contain more calories, sodium and fat. So your health, as well as your wallet, benefits from more meals eaten around the kitchen table.

Stock these five affordable foods to make quick, simple and satisfying dishes, even after a day of meetings, soccer practice and piano lessons.

Chicken Thighs
We’ve become a boneless, skinless chicken breast nation, and that leaves a lot of chicken thighs available at a lower price. You can replace breasts with thighs in any recipe, from stir-fry to chicken cordon bleu. For calorie counters, boneless, skinless thighs are also available, and they’re nearly as lean and pack a lot more flavor than chicken breasts. Buy family packs of thighs for the biggest savings and then either make large batches of your favorite chicken dish and take leftovers for lunch, (another meal that will spare your wallet from restaurant prices) or separate the Styrofoam packs into freezer bags with just two or three thighs apiece.

Pasta is a great vehicle for other ingredients, it’s very inexpensive, and it makes great leftovers. Buying a mixed pack of different shapes at BJ’s (Stock Quote: BJ) or  Costco (Stock Quote: COST)  - which usually come in nine-box packs - is a smart way to stock up on the cheap. And whether you go for homemade sauce, a veggie, garlic and olive oil combo, or ultra quick and easy straight from a jar, you’ll rest assured that you’re saving money. Pasta is one of highest margin items on restaurant menus.

Canned Whole or Crushed Tomatoes

The biggest obstacle when planning dinner comes when you have no main course to organize side dishes around. As Americans, we’re used to seeing meat play a starring role at the dinner table, but it’s also the most expensive component. Trade in that T-bone and opt for pasta dishes and hearty vegetable and legume loaded soups. A quality base for both dishes is canned tomatoes. Pomi is a particularly good brand, and available at many grocery stores, as well as on (Stock Quote: AMZN).

Not sure what to do with those tomatoes? Sauté a chopped onion in olive oil until tender (toss in garlic, celery and carrots, if they’re around), then add your favorite herbs and stir for a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and twice as much water. Cook together for 30-40 minutes and then add frozen or fresh veggies, canned beans, cooked sausage or ground beef, or cooked pasta. Add salt and pepper to taste, and let the ingredients heat through as the flavors blend (about 20 minutes). 

Frozen Veggies

Yes, it’s important to buy fresh, local veggies whenever possible. But don’t let that prevent you from getting more vegetables onto your plate. While canned veggies tend to have added sodium and lower vitamin content, flash freezing preserves their nutritional value. Frozen peas, corn, cauliflower and broccoli all reanimate nicely and can be tossed into nearly any soup or casserole to up the vitamin and fiber factor. They also make a quick and easy side dish with the help of a microwave. One word of caution: Frozen spinach is great in recipes – like mixed with ricotta cheese for veggie lasagna - but less so as a stand alone side dish. It’s just too soggy.

Need a quick weeknight dinner for four? Grab a dozen eggs, crack them into a bowl and whisk together, adding salt and pepper to taste. Throw in frozen veggies and whatever else looks good from your fridge - cheese, mushrooms and sausage all make tasty additions. Mix all the ingredients, pour into a round buttered baking dish and bake at 350 degrees. After 30 minutes you’ll have a delicious frittata.

If you keep a stock of onions, garlic, dried herbs and spices, rice and a good grating cheese like cheddar around, you’ll never be at a loss for dinner plans again.