How to Cook on a Budget: The Definitive Guide to Eating Cheaply

How to Cook on a Budget: The Definitive Guide to Eating Cheaply

Cooking on a budget isn’t difficult.  Anyone who is prepared to plan, be creative, and be strict on food waste can eat delicious, healthy meals every day, whilst spending a minimal amount of money.  If you’re financially poor, you must make sure you’re a little richer in terms of time, and inventiveness.

Typically, a food budget is increased by unplanned food shopping, a large base of specific, small-quantity ingredients, short shelf-life food items, a lack of time or inclination to prepare meals with more than one serving, and a habit of wasting food.

[alert type=”green”]To succeed in eating well for less, all of these bad habits must go.  We’re going to target scale, longevity, and nutrition to get you the maximum bang for your buck.[/alert]

1.  Budget Ingredients

So, let’s start with ingredients.  You’re in the shop, with a minimal amount of money.  What do you buy?  You buy the ingredients that:

  • Have most universal culinary applications;
  • Can be bought at scale if possible;
  • Last the longest; and
  • Have the most nutritional value.
Let’s start with The Holy Trinity:
  • Garlic
  • Onion (red or white, but white is typically better value)
  • Oil or butter

These three ingredients are the basis of thousands and thousands of recipes.  They can be used in almost anything you want to cook, and add fundamental flavours to any dish.  If budgeting on meat or fish, they can make the the tiniest amount in a dish stand out.  And, they keep for a comparatively long while, although you’ll likely be using them a lot!

Garlic and onion are also incredibly good for you.  As well as being excellent sources of nutrition, they are also known to lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol, are good for gastrointestinal health, good for bones, and are natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflamatory and immune system boosters.

To cook almost anything you’ll need oil or butter, or lard, or fat that you’ve used previously.  Let’s stick to the first two for now.  Oil and butter will likely be the first ingredient in the pan, pot or tray.  Typically you’d want to spend a bit more on these ingredients, but you haven’t got that luxury, so it’s fine to go for the cheapest.  As far as oils go; olive oil will taste the most distinctive, and can be used cold in dressings and sauces, sesame oil is excellent in asian dishes, though is quite strong in its taste and other, less disruptive oils include vegetable, groundnut, and sunflower.  Arguably the healthier oils are sunflower and olive oils.  Butter-wise, none of it will be massively healthy, but you can have salted or unsalted.  Both are frankly brilliant on their own with brown toast, which should never be dismissed as a super-quick, cheap and easy breakfast item.  Avoid anything like margarine, if it even still exists in the country you’re shopping in (margarine was banned in the UK).

Unless you’re allergic or have a serious aversion to those three ingredients, they’re pretty much immovable on your shopping list.  What about the rest?  Based on the four criteria we set at the beginning, our advice is to:

Massively cut down the quantity of meat

We eat far too much meat.  We don’t need it, and it is invariably expensive and getting ever more so.  You can do a lot with a small quantity of meat.  If you have the opportunity to visit a butcher rather than a supermarket, ask for offcuts or cheaper cuts that you can stew, casserole, or braise.  They may have seasonal meats or game that are cheaper or on offer, too.  Sausages from a butcher will be twice as good and still cheaper than the nearest supermarket alternative.  Typically, they’ll know more than anyone that supermarkets can rip you off for very average quality, and if you explain that you’re on a budget, they will usually be pretty sympathetic.  Tip: a good, friendly relationship with a food supplier is a huge asset.  You know where the food is coming from, they’ll want to give you a deal, and you can set things aside, and plan ahead even better.

Remember fish

Fish often gets sidelined on a food shop as some people find fish a little intimidating.  It needn’t be.  It also needn’t be expensive.  The cheaper fish, like herring, sardines and mackerel are rich in all the good oils (think Omega 3 oils for your brain, and liver oils for your joints), can be bought in bulk for a very cheap price, and often can be bought in tins, meaning they’re even cheaper and can last out the apocalypse.  Hell, even smoked salmon if sourced properly will be tastier, more impressive (if you’re looking to impress) and cheaper than even rubbish supermarket ham.  Compare the prices next time!

Eggs

Eggs are cheap, uncomplicated, incredibly versatile, and they last for ages.  They make a great protein supplement in the place of meat, and even though science seemingly can never make up its mind on whether they’re actually good for us or terrible for us (in terms of things like cholesterol), keeping eggs in the cupboard is a great budget choice, and I’d argue that a steak will likely kill you quicker.

Completely cut out any ready meal or fast food item

Ready meals and fast food are rich in convenience, but poor in nutrition.  They also suck valuable cash you need to feed yourself properly, and invariably make you fat and hate yourself (you’re a disgrace).  Divert any cash you’d spend on ready meals or McDonald’s/Burger King/Pizza Hut/KFC/Domino’s/a greasy doner kebab to ingredients and improve your own self worth at the same time.  And hell, if you’re addicted to your personal fast-food classics, why not cook your own KFC chicken, or make your own Big Mac – we’ve got a load of fast food recipes you could make yourself.

[alert type=”yellow”]Try and avoid anything “processed” if at all possible. Even with “healthy” labels, they almost always represent a false economy; both for your health and for your wallet. Naturally occurring fats, salts and sugars are not nearly as harmful as their processed counterparts.[/alert]

Pulses/legumes/beans/lentils

Beans and lentils (any kind of pulse or legume) are incredibly useful.  They’re packed with nutrition (they’re high in protein, and have a low glycemic index and so make a great meat-substitute), they’re cheap, and they can bulk out a dish like nothing else can.  Plus, they’re in a can (a tin).  Avoid buying dry beans and lentils as it all gets rather complicated, and canned or tinned beans and lentils are perfectly good, and you can throw them straight in a pot or pan.  They’ll suck up quite a lot of flavour (beans can be very bland), so seasoning and big flavours are required to balance them out.

Carbohydrates (i.e. Rice, bread, noodles and pasta – the “wedge”)

Lots of people on a budget scrap everything but rice or pasta.  This is not a good idea.  The cliche of students who just eat Ramen noodles to save money at college or school is pretty well founded.  If you don’t want scurvy, knock this idea on the head.

You’ll want to stock up on rice, pasta or noodles, but even on a budget, you can easily make this “wedge” element of your meal constitute around 50%, rather than 100%.  You can even reduce it entirely by using vegetables, beans and lentils.

If possible, whole wheat pasta and noodles are much better for you (more good stuff, lower glycemic index – or to use a phrase – fewer “empty calories”).  Similarly, brown rice or mixed rice will be much healthier than regular white rice.  Both of these options will be more expensive, but if you can buy and use less, it’s a worthwhile option.

Vegetables

Stock up on vegetables that keep for a long time, as it’s costly (and a little heartbreaking) to throw out vegetables you haven’t even used.  Vegetables that come, or can be frozen are great.  You can throw them straight in a pot, they’re typically much cheaper, and they’ll be just as good – they’re picked, washed and frozen, and will often have spent less time sitting around in a box or on a lorry than their fresh equivalents.  Two great vegetables to buy frozen are peas and spinach.  Keep them in your freezer at all times!  In terms of fresh vegetables, tubers (i.e. potatoes) and root vegetables like parsnips and carrots are big, very tasty, cheap and can last.

Herbs/spices/stock

Dried herbs and spices are very useful indeed to spice up and enliven otherwise bland dishes.  Fresh herbs are great, and can transform a dish, but you’ll find yourself using them all the time, and thus re-buying them constantly (unless, of course, you can grow them).  From a vegetable market they can be cheap, from supermarkets they can be a total rip-off and should be avoided.  Buying a big hit of spices and dried herbs in one go can constitute a bit of an expense, but it’ll be a one-off cost that will last you for a long while.  A few typical spices that are cheap and good to stock up on include paprika (or, even better: smoked paprika), a chilli (like Cayenne pepper), ginger, cumin and tumeric.  Herbs-wise: basil, rosemary, sage, thyme and corriander (leaf) should cover you.

Don’t forget to pick up some stocks (meat/fish/vegetable).  They’re as cheap as spices when dried in cubes, and they’re great for adding meatiness or fishiness to a dish when you’re economising on the ingredient itself.  They also add instant seasoning as they’re typically enormously salty (something to watch out for, as it’s very easy to over-season with lots of stock).

Finally: salt and pepper.  Do not forget these.  You will need them.

This is not an exhaustive list, and we haven’t mentioned anything to do with dessert or pudding.  If you’re really on a budget, these things won’t likely be top of the priority list – you won’t die from chocolate cake deficiency.  But, the same approach should apply: buy raw ingredients at scale and make them last.  You’ll be shocked at how cheap you can make things if you’re prepared to get bored watching an oven.  Key ingredients to stock up on include flour, sugar, and eggs.  With these three things, you can make a whole lot.

2.  Plan your meals (and don’t skip them)

Planning your weekly meals can sound at best boring, or at worst obsessive.  But spontaneity can be very expensive.  Plus, if you plan your meals, you’re less likely to skip them.

[alert type=”red”]Do not skip meals – this is not a sensible strategy for budgeting on food.[/alert]

3 good meals are what you’re going to need, and after all, you’re a growing boy.

For simplicity, efficiency, and value, plan out a 5 day week with 3 meals.  To maximise time, the energy it takes to cook and the value of the ingredients you’ll want to batch-cook or cook in bulk, then apportion servings based on the giant meal you’ve cooked.  Stews, cassoulets, casseroles and soups are great for making on Sunday, dividing up in tupperware and freezing or refrigerating.  Whilst we could spend hours mapping out what you could cook, here’s a very quick example based on cooking for 5 days.  Quantities will vary based on your consumption and how much you make in one go, so these examples are very rough – but they’ve been used extensively in times of personal food budgeting, so hopefully they’ll inspire a little bit.

For Monday to Friday:

Breakfast:

Porridge with dried raisins/other dried fruit/any fruit you have to throw in

These can be made to taste every morning.  Whilst this isn’t batch/bulk cooking at all, it’s so incredibly simple that it’ll take you about 3 minutes every morning.  It’s packed with slow-release energy, and hasn’t got any weird stuff in it, and is low in fat and salt (unless you prefer salt in your porridge, which is perfectly acceptable).

Ingredients:

  • Rolled Oats
  • Milk (water can be used)
  • Whatever fruit (dried or otherwise) you have

Heat the oats in a pan with milk, or water if preferred, and stir until it reaches your desired consistency.  You can easily do this in a microwave by heating a bowl of oats and milk.  Add salt if it’s to your taste, otherwise sprinkle on some raisins or other fruit to sweeten.  Simple as that.

Lunch:

Italian Fish Stew with rice/bread

Italian fish stew can be as easy or complicated as you want to make it.  Similarly it can be as as cheap or expensive as you want to make it.  If you’re feeling decandent, you can put scallops, mussels, and a variety of lovely fish in there with a good glug of white wine and an assortment of fresh herbs, but if you’re on a budget, this can be made extremely easily with the following example ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 tins of chopped tomatoes
  • Fresh or frozen (just as good, and cheaper) fish.  Can be any.  Cheap white fish (pollock, hoki etc) work well.  As much or as little as you want (you really don’t need that much)
  • 1 large white onion
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • Oil (olive if possible)
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • Any kind of green vegetable (frozen spinach works well)
  • Chilli powder to taste
  • Paprika to taste (regular or smoked)
  • Salt and pepper

Optional:

  • Left over white wine if available
  • Green herbs (dried or fresh): parsley, basil, coriander
  • Fish stock cube
  • Cream
  • Lemon

The good thing about stews, casseroles and cassoulets is that any idiot can cook them.  There’s almost no technique required.  Dice the onion, shred or crush the garlic, and place in a large, deep pot (the biggest you have).  Let the onion sweat, and make sure the garlic doesn’t burn (although some like the taste of “toasted” garlic).  Throw in the two tins of tomatoes, follows by… everything else, to the dimensions you desire.  Make sure the stew is seasoned well, which means plenty of salt and pepper (it can take it), and you can throw in chilli and paprika at very little cost which will liven up the dish at very little cost.  You’ll want it to bubble away for a good 45 minutes, so the fish is soft and flaky, and the root vegetables have boiled through.  If you’ve got left over cream, you can drizzle that over a spicy stew, or squeeze some lemon over if available.

If you’ve got left over white wine (no problem if it’s a week old), fish stock and fresh herbs like parsley, basil or coriander, throw those in at any stage.  If your stock is a dried cube, do make sure to pre-disolve it in hot water first and stir, to prevent it not properly dissolving in your stew (a mouthful of incredibly salty, pure, undissolved stock is rather unpleasant).

Allow to cool and separate out your servings into tupperware (can’t afford tupperware?  Make sure you cover bowls well with sellophane, though your food won’t last as long), and refrigerate or freeze as necessary.  Eat with your choice of “wedge”  – my choice being rice or bread, as it soaks up the lovely sauce.

Dinner:

Ghetto Cassoulet (or, “literally anything with beans or lentils in it”)

After having cooked lunch, and separated out your servings, don’t wash that pot up.  You’re probably lazy, like me.  It’s perfectly ready to accept the bulk cooking of the week’s dinner.  We’re going to cook a “Ghetto Cassoulet” – basically a bean stew, that will accept pretty much anything you throw at it.  Provided you’ve got tomatoes, onion, garlic and something bean-shaped: you’re golden.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 4-5 tins in any combination of beans (kidney, butter, black eye, chick peas, broad, lentils, cannellini, lima, mung, etc)
  • A small amount of meat (a couple of rashers of bacon, lardons/panchetta, sausage, piece of braising steak, anything)
  • 1 large white onion
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • Oil (olive if possible)
  • Chilli powder to taste
  • Paprika to taste (regular or smoked)
  • Any herbs you have
  • Salt and pepper

Optional:

  • Any root or green vegetable
  • Left over white wine or red wine
  • Left over beer or cider (can’t be too old)
  • Left over dark spirits
  • Meat stock
  • Pasta to pad it out
  • Pretty much anything you can throw at it

The cooking procedure is almost identical, after all, this is just a stew by another name.  This however will need more seasoning than the fish stew, as beans absolutely suck up flavours, and on their own are horribly bland.  So stocks and salt and pepper are great.  Provided there’s some stock and a good amount of garlic, this will often taste meaty enough on it’s own, but a little bit of meat goes a long way.  Favourites to throw in a cassoulet include chorizo (the fat and paprika flavour it very well), lardons or a small amount of braising steak, cut into strips.  This thing will also accept booze.  Wines, beers, ciders and some darker spirits can go well with it, and you’ll be evaporating off the alcohol anyway.  Just a note: don’t throw really old beer and cider into a dish – if it smells old, you won’t want to eat it.

The beans are the centrepiece of the dish, giving both the carbs, protein and all the good stuff.  But they’ll need flavour!

As before, allow to cool a bit and separate out your dishes.

3.  Make small changes to your buying and cooking habits

If you don’t need to buy, don’t buy.  If you don’t need to throw away, reuse.  Here are a few more tips to send you on your way.

Make soup and stock from leftover meat, bones or carcass

Boil down bones and meats to give the basis of soups or stocks.  A great tip is to boil your stock, filter it and remove anything solid, and pour into an ice tray.  Keep that ice tray in your freezer and when necessary, you can pop out a freshly frozen, real, stock cube.

Make stale bread into croutons

Fresh bread can go stale after a couple of days.  Make croutons for your soups by roughly cubing the bread, and either toasting on a dry pan or frying with olive oil, some herbs (rosemary works well for this), garlic, and salt and pepper.

Cook with left over wine/other alcohol

It’s too easy to throw away the morning after, but can transform a dish or at worst degrease a pan.

Use leftover fat/oil/butter to cook

Just don’t leave it sitting there forever.

Cut out Soda or soft drinks

Save your wallet and your arteries.

Brew your own coffee

Save your wallet and drink something about 1000x better than Starbucks.

Make your own beer, cider or wine

Save your wallet and drink something probably 1000x worse than you might find at a bar, but, it can be tremendous fun, and a learning experience.  At the very least, if you bring the booze, then your friends can cook!

Good luck!  If this guide has been useful, make sure you:

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