When you’re on a tight budget, the thought of preparing tasty, healthy meals on a regular basis can seem daunting. Not only is it easy to get sucked in by grocery merchandising tricks, but it’s also normal for most of us to fall into a mealtime rut, eating the same foods over and over. But you’re in control of your kitchen—and if you cook smart, you can enjoy the first-class meals you deserve.
You can save money and still have quality. If you’ve been using cost as an excuse to eat junk, you can kiss that excuse goodbye! With a little organization and creativity, you can have the proverbial champagne when cooking on a beer budget. To start, here’s a quick review of basic tips of healthy eating:
- Limit your intake of junk food and alcohol
- Drink lots of water (at least 8 cups a day)
- Limit salty and sugary foods
- Avoid eating many foods that are high in saturated fats
- Make “variety” the watchword of your eating
Next, set aside regular blocks of time for planning meals, making your grocery list, and shopping—tasks that are most often shortchanged in food prep. Include healthy snack ideas, as well as main menu items. Think about the time of day, day of week, and even week in the month that you shop. Generally, the grocery is the least busy early in the morning, in the middle of the week, and on any day but the first day or two of the month (when many people receive pension or paychecks).
Don’t be afraid to surf the internet for recipes that use specific ingredients (plug the ingredient in as a keyword of your search), since you can often get good buys on breads, meats, and other items marked for quick sale before they go bad.
Stock your fridge and cupboards with items that are quick and easy to cook (yet kind to your wallet):
- Beans and lentils, whether canned or dried, make nutritious, hearty soups, and can be a main course with the addition of fresh vegetables or rice.
- Brown Rice is a great addition to leftover meat and veggies. Although brown rice is slightly more expensive than white, the nutritional payoff is well worth it. Another inexpensive, easy-to-fix grain, millet, is best when bought fresh. Simply rinse and toast before using it in recipes.
- Pasta, likewise, is quick and easy to prepare, and can be paired with veggies, meat, or a fresh salad. Have fun adding your own embellishments (mushrooms, spices, and herbs.) Choose whole-wheat pasta whenever available.
- Soups can’t be beat for nutrition and convenience, especially since you can use canned or packet soups as your base, then add your own veggies and leftover meat. Again, try to experiment, adding your own herbs and spices.
- Fresh vegetables and fruit should be bought at least once or twice each week, preferably in season, to ensure optimal taste and nutrition. You can also rely on canned/frozen varieties as handy additions to last-minute meals. Veggies make great stir-fries and vegetable patties, while fruit is good for a quick nutritious snack.
- Meat and fish can be kept on hand also for last-minute meals— try the newer tuna and salmon pouches, and shop for inexpensive cuts of meat that work well in stews and casseroles.
- Condiments add flavor and interest to your dishes. Keep a selection of dried herbs, spices, curry powder, marinades, vinegars, tomato and soy sauces, along with stock cubes, in your cupboard. Experiment with the new, such as Japanese miso, an aged salty condiment made from soybeans and various other ingredients (found in the natural foods section, usually refrigerated).
Finally, a few more hints that can help you save a little green:
- When cooking a big meal, make extra to freeze, or use later in the week for lunches or quick suppers. Double recipes, then freeze half.
- Save your vegetable trimmings to make your own vegetable stock. Not only do you save money, but vegetable stock also makes a nutritious base for casseroles, soups, and Crockpot cooking.
- Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper; you can freeze perishable items (such as meat, milk, and even bread) in smaller portions to use as needed. It’s always a good idea to buy non-perishable items in bulk (canned foods, dried beans and grains, etc.).
- Use less expensive cuts of meat for casseroles that you slow cook; add extra vegetables and beans to make the meal go further.
- Capitalize on one-pot dishes, which generally save prep time, money, and dishwashing, and often make great leftovers.
- Look high and low (literally) to find the less expensive generic or store brands on grocery shelves, often very similar to higher-priced brand names though packaged under different labels. Stores deliberately place the highest-priced brand-name items at eye level, but if you compare the cost per unit, you’ll be able to figure out the most cost-effective purchase. You can even try your own taste tests— blind, of course— to see where you can save money without sacrificing flavor.
- Take advantage of specials on staples—broth, soups, pasta, rice, canned veggies, even bread and meat. Many of these items have a long shelf life or can be frozen for short periods of time.
- Limit your dining out, especially when it comes to fast food, since you’ll find yourself spending unnecessarily on items that are high in fat, salt, and calories, which short-change you in the nutrition department.
There’s no magic formula to cooking on a budget. Like anything else worthwhile in life, it takes a little planning, creativity, and work. But if you think of the rewards—better health and more money—you’ll find it’s worth the effort. No doubt you’ll still have days when you fall back on that quick-fix packaged food or the local burger drive-thru. But if you look at cooking as an adventure, you’ll also have days when you find yourself pleased at what you’ve accomplished—as you serve dinner to rave reviews from family and friends!
About Rebecca Pratt
A freelance writer who contributes to various newspapers and magazines, Becky loves covering ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
SparkPeople.com is a free weight loss and fitness website that helps people transition from dieting to living a healthy lifestyle. This article has been reprinted with the permission of SparkPeople, Inc.