Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
May 1, 2007 07:13 PM

Budget Cooking

I love quality food and love cooking with quality ingredients. However, there are times when I'm on a very strict budget (like if I want to take a week-long vacation and splurge on food). So there are some things I do to save money that some Chowhounds might frown upon.

- I will buy the cheapest pasta and use it instead of rice vermicelli or bean threads for stir fries (SO doesn't like regular rice). That 50 cents vs. $2.50 makes a difference. I will also decrease the veg and meat amounts (or eliminate all together) and increase pasta in order to stretch it.

- I will buy the cheapest by-the-pound meats, or forego meats in general. However, I rarely buy ground beef and will usually pay more for ground chicken or turkey. I won't buy chicken breasts if they are more than $4.99/lb.

- I will buy frozen veggies as opposed to fresh. It's far cheaper and I don't have to clean or worry about spoilage. Same goes for fish. I know fresh is better. We're talking about a budget.

How do you deal with very strict budgetary concerns? I'm not looking for "Food is worth more of your budget" comments. I save at the grocery store in order to indulge when travelling. At times I have managed to eat from the grocery store on $20-30 a week. Luckily I have a good stash of spices and condiments as well as an herb garden to up the taste factor in these cheaper foods. But I want to know how other foodies do it.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. You are off to an excellent start. Whenever my friends ask me how I can spend only a little more on two as they they do on one, the discussion usually ends with the discovery that whereas they make a list of what they want to eat and then buy the items at the market, I go with a very loose idea of what I must have and then change the plan according to what's on sale at the market.

    I always look in the fridge and freezer before I leave, just to have fresh in my mind what's there, in case something at the market would go well.

    Before I check out I take one last look at what I have, sort of say "Monday I'll have this, Tuesday I'll have this, Wednesday there will be leftovers, etc." Usually I find that I have one or two items too many and am sure to remove them.

    Shopping at an Asian market other than 99 Ranch also helps. The other places tend to be even cheaper.

    For super saving mode, all the things you've said apply. One pot meals involving canned tomatoes, beans, rice, and/or pasta (pasta, chili, stew) last several meals and are cheap as heck.

    I don't like frozen vegetables at all, though, so I buy one or two leafy vegetables that I know we'll eat immediately and then try to get one or two that are sturdy and will last even over a week if necessary (cabbage, carrots, etc.)

    And if I make a pact with myself to eat meat once a day instead of at every meal, I can usually cut the grocery bill by a third if not a half. Yes, I eat a lot of meat and seafood when allowed. Not good for my body or the budget.

    We spent $40-50 on two this week, which is exactly where you're at. I don't see how we could cut much more without eating cabbage soup every day.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Pei

      I am so glad I am not the only Chowhound who cannot afford $200/week on groceries. I, too, go to the store with staples in mind and buy meat/veggies/specialty items according to what is on sale that week. Time has prevented me from visiting the local asian and mexican markets, but I realize I need to work that into my schedule. The deals I hear about are worth the extra hour of travel and shopping. I just need to make sure they are open when I get off work at 7pm or so.

      1. re: Pei

        About the only processed foods I use (grew up in a cooked from scratch, in the business family) are canned tomatoes. And I do shop hard, to get bargains. I cruise produce aisles for reduced items, for stews, stocks, and eat tonight things. I buy bulk and then self-process it down to store. I have bags of bulk to fine chopped veggies in my freezer, chops cut from full roasts, whole chickens into servings, etc. I shop the large Asian grocery about every 4-6 weeks, as well as a Costco. As I said I grew up in the business, so I have a huge personal store of recipes and ideas. You can read, read and read magazine and cookbooks to build same. Innovate, that works. Meat is an accent item. Try slicing your meats fro stews, soups and stirfries when frozen, you can slice them thinner and get more flavor and impact.

        Just remember the more you let someone else process your food for you, the more it costs you , money and flavor

        1. re: Quine

          That last paragraph's a great reminder.

          1. re: Quine

            I also buy a lot of bulk items and downsize them at home.
            In my area we have a lot of produce farms that open their fields to the public. You go out and pick your own veggies and pay a fraction of store prices.
            Another thing we do is several families who use the same veggies will ante up and by bulk from a local produce supplier at wholesale, not retail prices, then divvy it up at home.
            Asian markets generally sell produce and seafood at lower prices than supermarkets.

        2. I also love to eat well but need to stick to a budget as well. My advice involves the freezer and pantry. It takes a little extra to get going but pays off in the end. Whenever meat, chicken etc is on sale at a good loss leader price, I stock up. I will then prepare chilis, stews, spaghetti sauce etc and freeze. I will also take less tender cuts of meat and freeze in freezer bags in whatever marinade I like. This way it marinates as it defrosts. I do the same with the pantry. When canned goods and whatever else can be stored safely goes on sale I stock up.

          I like this approach because once you are up and running, you can easily skip a weeks shopping and prepare meals from the freezer and pantry. Having things already prepared in the freezer makes it easy on a busy day. It eliminates that what's for dinner problem and keeps you from an expensive last minute trip to the store.

          I do love fresh produce but I will only buy what is on sale and I will plan around that. If nothing seems like a good enough deal, I have frozen and canned veggies to fall back on.

          I have found that this system works quite well and that my family of 5 eats better food for less with a little planning ahead.

          6 Replies
          1. re: baseballfan

            I'm starting to figure out what keeps well over long periods, and find those are good things to buy when the price is decent - potatoes, onions, etc., and dry salami, nuts (when and *where* reasonable), 'white bacon' (pork fat) for flavoring, etc.

            On another recent thread we discussed making certain 'staples' at home, such as mustard, mayo and all that. A bunch of things are not hard to do - even crackers - and they can turn out fabulously. That is, if you like to tinker and have extra time, you can make things like crackers for what you'd spend on a store brand box - or less - but it will taste far better than the gourmet crackers you could've bought.

            1. re: baseballfan

              Along these lines: if you have a stocked freezer and pantry, you just need to load up on $10 or so of fresh vegetables and fruit each week, which helps immensely. Once a month at $40 and then every week at $10 is fine for one person.

              1. re: baseballfan

                Baseballfan, I love your idea to freeze the meat with the marinade in the bag so it marinates as it thaws! Never thought of it but I will definitely do it now.

                Thanks for the great tip!

                1. re: xena

                  I did that once out of necessity - marinated something overnight and then wasn't able to cook it that night - froze it for a week with no ill effects - a v. tasty dish - boeuf a la Nicoise from this month's cookbook of the month.

                  1. re: MMRuth

                    Very good to know. I love the idea.

                  2. re: xena

                    Glad to be of help. It has worked well for me. FYI, I usually double bag the freezer bags as I have had them leak in the freezer. What a mess!

                2. I'm fortunate enough to have a kitchen aid stand mixer with a grinder attachment. So, buying whole chickens or turkeys and using the parts including grinding (usually thighs) for dishes that need ground meat is a good way to save bucks. It also expands the possibilities; stock from the carcass, the breasts to use for light dishes, the legs and thighs for braises etc etc.

                  Skipping dry cereal is another way to save some dollars. Rice or oatmeal as a base for a morning cereal is delicious and pretty cheap.

                  Produce from ethnic markets is also a money saver. Its usually more ripe and needs to be used right away in my experience but its excellent and much less expensive.

                  1. We have a 99 Cents Only 'dollar store' in L.A. that's very clean and has some great items (canned, even fresh fruits and veggies - fine ones, packaged, etc.). I tend to buy some things there and at a local produce market and am quite happy with that and a great selection of really cheap ethnic markets with great spices.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Cinnamon

                      I usually go to the 99 cents store when I want some junk food. They are the only ones that have one of my favorite candies, the Toffifay hazelnut, caramel deals. They had these extralarge family packs for 99 cents each! I only bought two because I'm on a budget and also I hve to stay healthy, but that was a great treat.

                      1. re: choctastic

                        And I think they have every test-marketed product ever. No counting the number of weirdly flavored/colored M&Ms and other name brands you never see elsewhere. Kind of a fun adventure, if you've got a clean store nearby. (Some dollar stores can be kind of gross. The 99 Cents Only store I go to is far cleaner/brighter than the local TJ's.)

                    2. Strict budgetary concerns are the rule in our house these days. We look for the good deals on good canned pantry items, and do use frozen veg, despite the naysayers out there ( it's often more nutritive than the "fresh" at the market). But do go for the fresh greens when you can get them.

                      I try to use meat for flavoring only (hard with my meat-loving Hub). Look for recipes where your meat element is almost like an herb - flavor, but not the main course.

                      Eggs are great for budget eating, and can be very elegant. My family never complains when we have omelet night. Your herb garden will be a boon if you go that route. NB fresh greens above.

                      Co-ops are great for bulk grains, legumes, pastas, etc. Make use of them.

                      Never, ever, let someone tell you that food is worth more than your budget. One can eat REALLY well on a truncated budget and a little creativity. I love CH, but get a little intimidated (as a home cook) by all those spendy meals that are lauded. Live within your means, and eat well doing so. It sounds like you're making the right decisions for your household.

                      Pei's suggestion to really look in the refrigerator and freezer before marketing is a good one. Stuff you have left over and will not use is money down the drain. Maximize what you have and don't waste.

                      If you have a farmers' market available, try to use it. You will save a lot on supermarket veg, and be very pleased with the freshness and quality you get.

                      There are a lot more of us on a shoestring out there than you may think. Even more incentive to eat well: money spent on bad food is truly wasted.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: cayjohan

                        A lot of Asian cooking uses meat almost as a flavoring. It was how mom cooked a lot--little meat, losts of vegs (o-cazu). Although she studied surgical nursing and nutrition at Berkeley before WWII, she cooked this way for us both health and budgetary reasons.