Cooking well doesn't just take skill, time and effort, it takes money. Ingredients add up — especially if the recipe calls for something unique. This leaves most people making the same types of meals, week after week, month after month. Though no one's complaining, wouldn't it be fun to spice it up a bit? We're talking gourmet meals on a budget, restaurant-quality food at home and family members raving about your food. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
Never pay for convenience
We understand it's easy to want to pay for the tub of pre-sliced fruit or the thinly sliced chicken breasts, but these things add up in a big way. Next time you shop, purchase the less expensive whole fruit and whole chicken breast and slice it yourself. You'll get significantly more of both for less money.
Plan weekly meals with similar ingredients
Tip: A twist on this is to cook more than your family can eat each night and have the leftovers for lunch the next day. Just make sure you eat the leftovers!
The idea here is to get in the habit of buying in bulk and using all that food for various recipes. For example, if spinach happens to be on sale, stock up and make spinach chicken Alfredo French bread pizza one night, grilled chicken with cheesy spinach stuffing the next and shrimp and spinach pasta shells after that. Use this method when buying meat and produce.
Save on seasonings
Spices and seasonings can really add up when cooking. If a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of a unique seasoning or spice (caraway seeds, dill weed or harissa seasoning), instead of spending $5 (or more) on that spice and never using it again, buy only the amount you need. Typically, grocery stores sell smaller packets of seasonings for $1, and whole food stores or farmers markets allow you to purchase what you need and pay by weight.
Take inventory before meal planning
If you're like us, you probably have a pantry fully stocked with food, yet continue to grocery shop week after week. Before grocery shopping this week, take inventory of what you already have. Plan creative meals based on those ingredients which will minimize what you need at the store. By using some of what you have, you can also make three- and four-course meals without spending any extra money. Cooking well on a budget is all about being creative.
Have an "everything" night
If you find yourself with a variety of foods leftover at the end of the week, use as much of it up as possible in one meal before the products expire. Make everything burritos, everything pasta or a sauteed vegetable dish. Any produce, meat, cheese or grain can be used. This is your chance to shine creatively and show off your cooking skills!
What about expensive cheese?
If cheese is the main ingredient (think hosting a wine and cheese party), go ahead and splurge. Cheese is one of the items where you can taste the difference between quality and cheap if it stands alone. If you're using it on a salad or on top of a pasta dish, though, you can go with the inexpensive stuff!
More on cooking on a budget
Top 10 healthy — and budget-friendly — foods
In a pickle: How to cook a gourmet meal on a budget
How to shop for food and plan menus on a budget