So, you want to get started saving money on your food budget? It can be complicated trying to figure out how to start. So here’s my top 10 practical and (mostly) easy ways to jump into thrifty cooking action.
Cook your own grains.
Nearly every cuisine has a cereal grain for a backbone (though on occasion tubers will take on this starchy role). Western Europe has wheat; Eastern Europe, rye. Most of Asia depends on rice (though millet has even older roots in Asia). South America has corn. It matters little, in terms of saving money, what grain you’re cooking. What does make a difference is that you are cooking your own grains. The basic product that you buy (flour, milled grains) is almost always pretty cheap. What costs more money is processing. When you invest the time to cook your own rice or bake your own bread, your food budget is directly converted to the staple of your diet. No matter if it is bread, millet, quinoa, rice, cous cous or dried pasta, when you cook your own grains, your money is efficiently spent.
I know. There really isn’t anything sexy about dried beans. I don’t know what has done the most harm to the reputation of beans, their propensity to induce flatulence or the very long-standing, rather snobbish verdict that beans are lower-class food. But I adore them. I really think that our little friends in the pulse family are about as close to a superfood as anyone could ask for. Impossibly cheap. Nutritious. Capable of being stored just about indefinitely. Oh, and they are also delicious. Ok, so now the bad news. They do require specific (though not difficult) preparation (properly preparing dried beans can also minimize their wind-generating properties). It’s true that canned cooked beans are a pretty cheap source of protein too, but I think beans are so much better when you cook them yourself. It’s more than just my queasiness about the disturbingly viscous liquid canned beans are suspended in. When you cook your own beans you can add other ingredients to punch up the flavor (garlic, broth, bay leaves, spices). But there is real wisdom behind the trope; grains and beans are cheap and nutritious. Making them the center of your everyday meals is an easy, effective way to trim down your food budget.
Buy & Store Produce Thoughtfully
Produce is really important. And not just to achieve the right balance of foods for a healthy diet (which does need a lot of plant foods). Produce is also essential in making your daily meals satisfying, varied, and interesting. But produce can also be tricky. It is often expensive. It’s unpredictable. It goes bad. Sometimes maintaining produce feels impossibly complicated. Bananas, pears, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, avocados somehow make their way into your fruit bowl or vegetable drawer, looking so innocent and promising. But then they unexpectedly turn on you. The avocados and bananas are not ripe when you need them, and overnight they turn into something brown and sticky. Kale turns yellow and bitter while spinach dissolves into a slimy green sludge. It is really, really hard (even for experienced professionals) to gauge exactly when fruits and vegetables will be ripe, and for exactly how long they will last. I think that the easiest thing you can do is to simplify the equation for yourself. Do not buy a lot of produce that has a narrow window of time when it is palatable (fresh greens, avocados, bananas, pears, berries, stone fruits). All of these foods make their own schedule; you have to be ready to act when they are in their prime. If you’re buying too many types of demanding produce at once, you are setting yourself an unpredictable culinary obstacle course. The solution? Buy less, (particularly less types at once). You can also simplify your tasks by buying fruits and vegetables with longer hold times (apples, citrus fruits, root vegetables, onions, winter squash). Buying in this manner does mean that you might have to go to the store a bit more frequently to supplement your fruit or salad greens, but the trade off is that less of your plant foods end up in the waste bin.
Seasonality is in vogue right now– you’ll even find it used as a cuisine descriptor in restaurant fare. Seasonal availability is an age old reality of cooking. It is only the modern innovations in food distribution that make getting food that is not local and not seasonal possible at all. Again, it is one of those tips that makes some rational sense — when less of your dollar is spent on shipping costs (and all of the involved processes to grow and transport produce out of season) your dollar is converted more directly into food. And there is no question that food tastes much better when it is in season.
If you hear “preserving” and instantly think of a huge boiling pot full of peaches and many sweaty hours spent putting them into jars; I’ll tell you right now this is not the type of preserves that I’m talking about. I use the term preserves much more loosely. I would include freezing extra vegetables and simply cooking fruits or vegetables to store in the refrigerator — anything that extends the life of your produce is some type of preservation. And some of these techniques are phenomenally easy. Tossing cooked or raw vegetables in a simple brine at least triples how long they will last in your fridge (you don’t have to sterilize jars if you’re just making pickles in your fridge!) And if you cook fruit with sugar you can similarly extend its life span. Of course, I’m not arguing against canning your own peaches, but making preserves doesn’t have to be a complicated, intimidating project. And some of the simple means of making preserves can save you a lot of money by avoiding spoiled produce.
Save useful scraps.
A lot of the trimmings of vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy are useful ingredients in their own right. It is surprising how much goodness you can wring out of leftover trimmings. The calculation on this one is obvious: turning scraps that you would normally throw away into delicious food is as close as you can get to making something from nothing. This is such a rich topic, that I’ve dedicated a whole section of recipes to Salvaged Scraps.
Consume luxury foods sparingly.
I would term “luxury” anything that has to either travel from a long distance, or is a highly concentrated product. Wine, beer, liquor, cheese, cream, chocolate, coffee: these are all goods with truly unique qualities. They are made precious by either the great amount of care (and sometimes a lot of raw food matter) that goes into their production, or their unique origin. So far, though, cutting back on the expensive foods hasn’t really bothered me. I know this one can be a hard sell, but I think consuming these items sparingly can actually made them a bit more enjoyable. The good news is that since many of these items have always been expensive, there are often lots of ways to get the very most out of these items. I’m collecting recipes that use these special, precious ingredients under the category Stretch & Savor.
Avoid Processed Food.
This is a tough one. The food industry spends a whole lot of effort trying to make processed foods appealing and trying to convince customers not to cook or make things ourselves. When keeping up with a busy schedule is a challenge; adding extra culinary tasks seems like an impossibility. I don’t have any easy solution. The calculation is simple though: if you turn basic ingredients into food yourself, you pay for the ingredients. If you buy a food that is processed, you pay for the ingredients plus the processing plus the packaging and marketing. Making food in your own kitchen is just more economical. The DIY category can be tricky, though. Sometimes the equipment needed to make something at home more than offsets any cost savings (just ask anyone who knits). And, of course, the time that you spend has to be factored in, too. I try to focus on DIY projects that don’t require tons of expensive equipment and that do provide a real cost savings. But I usually wouldn’t recommend a DIY approach just on the grounds of cost saving. If the product is one you love, and the process is one that is enjoyable, then you’ll save money, get a high-quality product and have fun.
Yes, that means your fridge. And your pantry. So often foods go bad because they weren’t stored properly, or were pushed aside and forgotten. When I write about Storage and Organization, I try to offer practical tips to make sure that all of the food you buy makes its way onto your plate. But organization also means making allowances for yourself. Perhaps you need to always have a soup or pasta in the freezer for when you are just too tired to cook what you had planned. Or maybe (like me) you need to plan snacks ahead and package them up, so you don’t accidentally eat them all at once. If you’re having a tough time keeping up with your cooking, then it is worth taking a good hard look at where and when you turn to prepared foods or take-out. Anticipating this ahead of time can keep you from needing to turn to these more expensive options.
I think the truest measure of a good cook is how they react when something goes awry. And there will always be unpredictability in a kitchen. Ingredients will be missing. Unexpected bushels of zucchini and eggplant will materialize on your doorstep. Guests will show up unannounced. To cook well and efficiently, you need to be nimble. I find that flexibility comes from equal parts expertise and gusto. It is hugely important to have a solid backbone of culinary skills. With a good basic knowledge of cooking techniques, you will be well prepared to take on unexpected culinary challenges. And I can’t overstate how important it is to experiment. Be a little reckless. For lots of people, the biggest barrier to improvising in the kitchen is a lack of confidence, not a lack of culinary ability. So bone up on your skills and then just dive in. Take on bigger, more involved projects, you’ll definitely learn something in the process. Cooking at home is likely the best single move you can make to get good food for less money. Cook at home to save money. Cook for sustenance. Cook for pleasure. Cook unapologetically. But do, do cook.