The reality is, cooking can get expensive. When you’re starting in the kitchen, you choose recipes around and pay for ingredients you know are hard to mess up. When you are busy, you are willing to pay for premium ingredients that save time in prep. And if you are overwhelmed by cooking, just in general, you are more likely to avoid it altogether and pay to eat out.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum – even if it’s at a different place week to week or day to day – I’ve got some solid tricks for cutting down on kitchen expenses. In fact, here are my top five tips for getting the most out of your meal budget:
1. Buy produce when it is in season
Because it’s the freshest, yes. Because it supports your local farmers, totally. Because it’s the most plentiful when it’s in season, and the pricing principals of supply and demand apply to the fruit stand too…BINGO!
When you pick a piece of produce, you are paying for everything it took to grow, nurture, pick, and deliver it. So , when you buy tomatoes in season at the end of the summer, you aren’t paying for it to have traveled from Mexico to your kitchen in Minnesota; rather, you’re paying simply for the short trip from the farm down the road to the market where you shop.
2. Know what to freeze
The quickest way to waste money in the kitchen is to throw away food. Unfortunately, it’s easy to do too – a bunch of parsley is way past its prime before you can use every sprig, and the nuts you bought for happy hour will be rancid before you can host another one…
So, ask as you buy. Tap into the knowledge of the folks in each department at your grocery. Find out the best way to freeze leftover ingredients and how long you can keep them frozen. Then, select recipes based on what’s in your freezer. Frozen overripe berries make killer smoothies, blackened bananas thaw perfectly for homemade banana bread, and any variety of nut can be transformed into a to-die-for brittle.
And that bouquet of parsley that’s wilting before your eyes? Do what my mom has always done: clean and chop the whole bunch as soon as you get it home and freeze it right away. Mom keeps her stash in an old glass peanut butter jar and then pulls it out as needed. When a recipe calls for just a teaspoon of fresh parsley, then, it is at the ready, and not a bit has gone to waste.
3. Seek out cheaper cuts of meats
Familiarize yourself with the less popular – usually tougher – cuts of meat and learn how to cook them. When a pig is butchered, everyone wants the belly for bacon. Cooks at all levels of mastery know how to fry, apply, and serve bacon, so, bacon is in demand and the price reflects that. But there is still a whole pig available for purchase. Talk to your butcher about shoulders and stew meats and offal cuts of all different proteins. Ask about options that are unfamiliar to most folks and how to cook them too.
4. Invest in quality storage
Be willing to splurge on sturdy, reliable resealable bags and containers. The key to freezing the bruised berries and sale meat is to make sure they are tightly sealed. Air and moisture are the root causes of freezer burn and mold; quality storage makes all the difference.
5. Stock ingredients to stretch a meal
Long-lasting staples like rice, dried pasta, and tortillas are always in my pantry. They are my go-to ingredients for helping me stretch meals and reinvent leftovers. Roasted veggies from Tuesday’s dinner are blended into Friday’s pasta sauce. Scraps of Monday’s rotisserie chicken become the filling of Wednesday’s enchiladas. And any other bits and pieces from the week make for a brilliant weekend rice bowl with a fried egg on top. In one fell (carb-loaded) swoop, I make sure every morsel is eaten and the fridge is clear for the next week of meals.
Eating can be expensive, but cooking doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re responsible for three meals a day for five people, or just supper for yourself, there are creative ways to cut down on kitchen expenses. Make your dollar stretch further than it ever has before with strategic planning and a little homework.