I’m sure it is fair to say that for most people one of the biggest expenses in day to day life is food. Whether it be groceries or restaurant food we have to eat one way or another. Coinciding with this is always the concern of nutrition. Often people on a budget find it difficult to eat healthy while not spending a lot. So they fall back on things like instant noodles or fast food. Now don’t get me wrong I love both of those things and make sure to treat myself to them somewhat regularly, but they should not make up your entire diet. And the third thing which I find costs people a lot of money is simply not having the time or energy to make a meal. I’ve put together a few tips and tricks addressing all three of these concerns which I as a professional cook find useful. I hope they can help save you a few bucks and eat a bit better..
- Use your freezer space! I’m pretty sure everyone at the very least has a small freezer as part of their fridge. Fill it up. Freezers actually work more efficiently when they’re full so you might as well pack in as much as you can. Filling your freezer allows you to buy a lot of things when they’re on sale and use them up as you need them without the worry of them going bad. If it’s practical for you and you haven’t already, invest in a larger freezer. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices which can accommodate even somewhat small homes (I have one in a three bedroom basement apartment). I think freezers are largely under appreciated by a lot of people but as you keep reading I have a few other points which tie into using your freezer and I hope you’ll see how valuable they can be.
- Invest in a couple of specialty tools. Specifically I would suggest a vacuum packing machine and a crock pot if you don’t have those yet. Vac packing food will make it last longer both in the fridge and the freezer. These machines are not the cheapest things around and you have to buy more bags from time to time but I find they are well worth the investment. While meat won’t go rotten in the freezer, it can still be freezer burnt as the moisture in the air crystallizes onto the surface of the meat. It is of course still edible but the quality is severely damaged and most people end up throwing it out. Vac packing extends the freezer life of food by a very long time. It is also a good way to extend the fridge life of products by a few days. Have some left over chicken breasts going bad tomorrow but you know you aren’t going to use them? A quick vacuum will help them last two or three days longer. Now there is also another bonus which isn’t always advertised. They can help you cook. Try adding some flavorings to the bag when you pack vegetables or potatoes and throw the whole bag into some boiling water. They will cook quickly, absorb tons of flavor and nothing leeches out into the water! If you’re unsure about putting in the initial cost a good substitute is using some good quality freezer bags and sucking out as much air as you can with a straw.
A crock pot can be a great way to save some time trying to make a well rounded and delicious meal while also using up some left overs. Make a stew or braise some meat easily by prepping everything the night before, throwing it all into one pot and tossing it in the fridge overnight. The next morning dinner is simply a matter of putting it in the base and turning it on. When you get home in the evening you have a great meal ready to go for you! Braising is also a perfect way to tenderize and bring out the amazing flavor of cheaper cuts of meat. In most cases they’re only cheap because people want something naturally tender and lean they can just grill quickly and eat. Cheaper cuts take a little bit of extra effort but it is worth it because they have way more flavor waiting for those who know how to get the most out of it.
- Save your scraps. Peeling carrots? Cutting the tips off celery? Have half an onion going unused? What about those herb stems? Throw it all into a freezer bag and freeze it! Those scraps can be saved up and eventually simmered to make a delicious and nutritious vegetable stock. Have some meat you’re deboning? Save those bones too and turn that veg stock into a chicken or beef stock (try to get off as much meat and skin as you can though. The oils in those tend to make a cloudy and less pleasant stock). Tomatoes, green onions, leeks, fennel and bones from white fish can all also be used to make great stocks. You now have a fantastic base for soups and sauces or even just a splash of flavor for a dry dish. Plus, they freeze really well.
- Simple is okay. In the restaurant we use lots of cream, lots of butter, expensive products and all sorts of extra little garnishes and touches to send the dish to the next level. But that does not mean you can’t make something which tastes amazing without those thing. I used cream in a lot of my soups at work but they can also be made with that delicious stock you just made, or even water if you have nothing else around. The bulk of the flavor should come from your main ingredients anyways.
- There is nothing wrong with frozen and canned foods. They get a bad rep, especially the canned stuff for being low quality. And yes, some of it can be high in sodium and sugars but there is a lot which isn’t. And even for those products, once in a while it is okay. They’re convenient, cheap and still contain lots of nutrients. I always keep a few bags of various frozen vegetables around. They are great for quick stir fries, fried rice or even just a side to any other meal. If you’re a fan of Asian cuisine then canned good can be your best friend! Water chestnuts, bamboo and all sorts of other great ingredients which are hard to find fresh here come in convenient cheap cans.
- Use up your leftovers! Now obviously finishing the meals you make can save you money. That should go without saying but none the less leftovers often get thrown out. Finishing them means you don’t have to spend money on something else. However what I’m specifically referring to is left over ingredients. I’ve had people tell me many times they don’t want to make something because they have to go out a buy a whole head of celery for example and that is too expensive. Well ya, if you buy a head of celery for ONE meal it is a little pricey. But a head of celery can make a lot of meals! The more you use of it the less cost per meal you’re stuck with. So when you’re buying groceries or looking at recipes you want to make think about what else you could use them for. It’s also a great excuse to try another new recipe depending specifically which ingredients you’re working with! To add onto this remember that simply cooking something about to go bad, especially meat, gives it a few extra days before having to be thrown out. You can always cook something now and eat it later the avoid waste.
- Brand name is not always better. I will admit I have found a couple instances where I do prefer the brand name of something (and also a few where I very much prefer the off brands) but for the most part the differences are negligible especially if it’s something which will be coked and mixed with other flavors. While a dollar between brands may not seem like a lot consider how many different products you could save that dollar on and how many times each year you’re going to but all those products. As I said before in a four diamond restaurant the small things like brand can make a difference but for the cost it is not worth it in every day home cooking. If you try a cheaper brand and really don’t like it you can always go back to the more expensive one, but I’m sure for the large majority of things that will not be the case.
- Learn to pickle…or brine or ferment or any other type of preservation you like (including jams, jellies and other spread type preserves). A great way to save some fruits or vegetables about to go bad. You can also purposely buy in bulk, pickle some and cook some. Either way it saves you money it’s really not very difficult and can be a lot of fun. Look up some recipes, you’ll be surprised all the different veggies you can pickle (spoiler alert: virtually all of them).
- Overall, learn to cook and have more confidence in it. When you have a basic understanding of what you’re doing in the kitchen you can make meals for very little cost, especially when using some of the things I’ve suggested above. Maybe not as cheap as $1 per cup of noodles (but who only eats one of those anyways?) but close to it while much more satisfying and much healthier.
I hope this has helped give some of you ideas on how to save some money. I also hope it encourages you to try cooking more often. For more tips and ideas be sure to read my earlier post on cooking as well!