Cooking on a budget should feel great —- I feel empowered knowing that I spend my family’s resources wisely and still cook fantastic meals. What I hope you will take away from reading the blog is that you can serve exciting, fresh and tasty food without sacrifice.
Eating well on a budget is about saving money at the supermarket and using what you have at home to your best advantage. Here are ten ways to get started —- incorporate them into our shopping and meal planning and the will pay off handsomely!
The Dinners in 10 Dollars Top 10 List:
1. Try a clear-the-pantry week. This is a great plan for when you need a quick hit of major savings (such as after the holidays or an unexpected expense). When I do this, I easily uncover hundred of dollars I didn’t need to spend! Remember that you “pantry” includes your freezer so you can defrost frozen bags of soup, meatballs, or packages of chicken that you have stowed away for a rainy day. Take a tour of your kitchen pantry and write down the major ingredients lurking around. Use this list to create a menu for the week. It’s a fun challenge to see how long you can go without buying new food items (beyond the few necessary perishables, such as milk and eggs.
2. Incorporate bean night once a week. Dried beans are super cheap (and canned beans are inexpensive, too), incredibly healthy, and delicious! This frugal protein can easily be turned into dinner and will save you so much money compared to serving chicken or beef. By the way —“bean” night can mean any inexpensive protein such as whole-grain pasta, eggs, lentils, or other legumes.
3. When entertaining, fit inexpensive proteins into the first course. Buffets always tempt diners with delicious yet cheap-to-make items at the front with the pricey showstoppers, such as prime rib, at the end of the line. I follow their lead when entertaining. Starters like White Bean Tapenade Crostini or Lentil and Celery Salad are cheap to make, delicious and satiating so a pricier yet smaller second course like Shrimp Scampi Linguine will seem incredibly satisfying and plentiful.
4. Splurge smart in the produce aisle and make a fresh vegetable the star of a dish. Buying just a handful of a pricier vegetable is a smart way to add a touch of luxury to dinner without breaking the bank. Just a few ounces of expensive wild mushrooms is enough to make an impact. Buying a small portion of pricier fresh produce — perhaps a small amount of baby arugula or a beautifully bumpy heirloom tomato —-allows you to treat yourself without blowing your budget.
5. Stretch expensive ingredients alongside inexpensive ones. Bulking up pricey ingredients with less expensive ones is a great trick for serving shrimp (or other pricey proteins) while not overspending at the market. Beans rice, pasta and cheap vegetables such as cabbage are great for making a small amount of costly fennel or leeks seek plentiful and abundant.
6. Use the bulk aisle in surprising ways. Buying large quantities in the bulk aisle will save money, but it’s only half the story—-you can also buy small quantities in the bulk aisle. A handful of hazelnuts from that aisle will set you back only twenty or thirty cents—-toast, chop and sprinkle over green beans or in a cheap lettuce salad and you have a fancy restaurant-worthy dish.
7. Keep flavor enhances in the freezer. Bacon, fresh ginger, nuts, grated, cheese and even leftover wine (for cooking) keep exponentially longer in the freezer than in the fridge. Store in the resealable freezer bags so you can easily add just enough to brighten, deepen, or add a textural component to a recipe.
8. Take an expensive “standby” favorite dish and give it an ethnic makeover. Meatloaf, meatballs, chicken soup, and chili are all crowd-pleasing recipes that easily can take on a flavor boost from the nice ingredients. Cilantro, curry powder, chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, coconut milk, and salsa are all ingredients that are easy add-ins to change the taste of a dish just enough to regret it and give it new energy.
9. Never throw away a source of free flavor. Ingredients that give you double the mileage are pure gold for budget cooks. Lemon offers lemon juice and lemon zest. I make good use of squeezed lemon halves and freeze them in a resealable freezer bag to zest another time; I also often dry lemon zest in a low-temperature oven and store the dried zest in a glass jar or spice shaker. Buy shrimp with the shells on and make a quick shrimp stock from the shells. Buy celery with the leaves still attached— they’re a great substitute for parsley. Beets with beet tops, fennel and its fronds, Parmesan rinds (add to pasta sauce or broth for a rich, nutty taste), and even mushroom stems (they add tremendous depth to vegetable broths) are all great sources of flavor for which you don’t have to pay an extra dime.
10. Once a week quicky tally your perishables and create a five-minute menu plan. The most expensive ingredient is the one you throw away. So take a few seconds to check through your crisper drawers and see what’s lurking in the back of the fridge. Let your inventory review drive your week’s menu. If all you have are odds and ends, make an anything-goes soup or pasta sauce! your menu plan doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.