Photo: Andrew Purcell; Carrie Purcell.
Cooking is my favorite thing to do, which means it’s easy to get carried away. For years, I’ve spent Sunday afternoons shopping and cooking for the week. I love the ritual of spending an hour or so at Fairway, browsing the produce aisles for whatever fruits and vegetables I find myself wanting that week, picking up a whole chicken at the meat counter, and then semi-frantically skimming the (very narrow, very crowded aisles) for any pantry staples I might have run out of during the week.
My cooking routine is on auto-pilot, and I rotate sheet pans in and out of the oven in between doing laundry and vacuuming the living room floor. These few hours are pretty much as close to nesting as this twenty-something New Yorker gets, and it’s…nice.
That said, I never really go in with much of a plan. Lately I’ve found that one of two things end up happening: Either I’m super bored with everything in my fridge by Wednesday, or I spend way too much money on fancy ingredients in hopes of shaking things up, only to let half of them spoil before I can figure out what to do with them.
I’ve also found that there’s a new voice in my almost-29-year-old head that’s starting to occasionally whisper things like, “You should start being more strategic about money!” and “I know those leggings fit you perfectly, but do you really need to buy them in a third color?” and “Maybe instead of making a cherry-fennel salad and roasting three different kinds of organic squash this week, you should just get lettuce, broccoli, and potatoes so that someday you might actually be able to buy a house.” The voice is new, scary, and not entirely out of line.
I already know the basic ways to save money at the grocery store, but I wondered if there was more I could be doing without making my food drastically less delicious and/or fun.
I went to culinary school. I cooked in a restaurant. I am a food editor. Basically, I like food a lot. It’s really important to me that even my packed lunches and thrown-together weeknight dinners are as satisfying as possible. I asked Jessica Beacom, R.D., blogger at The Real Food Dietitians, and Stephanie Middleberg, R.D., of Middleberg Nutrition for their best tips on building and executing a meal plan that’s budget-friendly, but also delicious, healthy, and convenient. Both of them understood exactly where I was coming from, and their advice is smart and totally realistic.
1. Before you make a plan, scour your fridge, freezer, and pantry for items you may have forgotten about.
“Take inventory of what you have on hand, throw out any foods that are no longer edible and then decide which recipes you’re going to make,” Beacom tells SELF. In doing this, I found a half-eaten container of Greek yogurt, some fresh parsley, two red onion halves (oops), and an almost-expired jar of salsa in my fridge. I made a mental note to plan on yogurt for breakfast at least twice in the upcoming week, and eggs and salsa on other mornings. This means buying only a half-dozen eggs, and skipping the cottage cheese that I would have bought if I hadn’t remembered the yogurt. In my freezer, I found a bag of frozen blueberries to eat with the yogurt, plus a single portion of salmon from a multipack that I’d bought months ago.
My pantry is where things really got exciting. As I mentioned, I love cooking, and browsing the grocery store is something that’s actually fun for me. This means that my pantry is pretty well stocked. While in theory I already knew this, actually digging through my cabinets made me realize that I have enough rice, quinoa, farro, and millet for at least a month of grain bowls, and plenty of oats, dried fruit, and nuts for breakfasts on slower mornings. I also realized that I have 30+ jars of spices, some of which are duplicates and many of which I probably only used once.
2. Shop from bulk bins, and only buy exactly as much as you need.
While my forgotten pantry items were kind of a nice surprise, it’s also crazy that I have a cabinet full of food that I wasn’t really using. “For pantry items like quinoa, rice, lentils, dried fruit, and nuts, checking out the bulk bin is a great way to save money by only buying what you need,” Middleberg tells SELF. This is especially helpful when it comes to less common ingredients like certain spices, ancient grains, nutritional yeast, or fancy dried fruit. Buying only enough for the week means never ending up with an almost-full container of something I end up not loving.
3. View Meatless Monday as a chance to get extra creative.
Middleberg is a fan of Meatless Monday, where (as the name implies) you go vegetarian for one day of the week. “It not only helps support sustainable agriculture and the environment but helps keep your wallet a little more full, since plant-based meals tend to be lower in cost,” she says. I’ve known this for years, and yet have never been able to fully commit. As a vow to give it a real try, I planned a quinoa salad made entirely from things in my pantry (quinoa, vinegar, olive oil, raisins, almonds, and canned chickpeas) for next Monday’s lunch. Looking it as a chance to experiment with recipes I normally wouldn’t try makes Meatless Monday actually seem really fun.
4. When you feel like experimenting or making something a little more complicated, try some freezer-friendly recipes.
I use my freezer often, but usually for uncooked ingredients like frozen fruits and veggies, fish, and meat. Beacom suggested trying some freezer-friendly recipes for things like burgers, sausage patties, soups, stews, and muffins. This way, I can make some new, more interesting recipes that I’m actually excited about and eat them whenever I feel like it instead of having to commit to eating the exact same meal all week. Daniel Boulud’s Chicken Tagine is something I’m dying to make, but not necessarily something I’d want for lunch five days in a row. It’s also got some pricey ingredients, like saffron and preserved lemon, so it would be a real waste to throw away servings that I didn’t get around to eating.
5. Challenge yourself to cook as seasonally as possible.
Beacom loves recipes that use seasonal ingredients. “The longer a vegetable or fruit sits on the shelves waiting to go home with you, the lower its nutritional value,” she explains, since it starts to slowly lose vitamins and minerals after it’s been harvested. In-season, local produce is usually cheaper, too, since it’s more abundant and hasn’t been brought in from somewhere far away. As someone who’s guilty of cooking winter squash well into spring and buying tomatoes year-round, I love the idea of forcing myself to focus on cooking what’s in season, and am already dreaming of every possible way to cook asparagus. Other fun things that are in season right now: artichokes, green beans, berries, fennel, mangoes, peas, ramps (!!!), and rhubarb. Here are 15 spring recipes to cook right now, if you need more inspiration.
6. If you’re up for it, get into pickling, preserving, and making big batches of things you can freeze.
The best way to eat your favorite produce all year is to buy it in-season, then prepare it in a way that’ll let you enjoy it for months. You can pickle most vegetables (here’s how), and doing so makes for a pretty fun afternoon project. Use the pickles in salads instead of buying raw vegetables when you’re sick of winter soups and stews. Or, making a big batch of tomato sauce is a good way to eat peak-season tomatoes all year. Properly canning the sauce can be tricky if you’ve never tried it before—I usually just freeze single portions in resealable bags. If you're a fruit lover, making jam that you'll later spread on toast or stir into oatmeal is a fun idea. It's also great because you can control the sweetness, and add any extra spices of flavors that you want. Here's how to make jam.
7. Really explore the frozen fruit and vegetable section.
“Purchasing frozen produce is not only cheaper but takes the pressure off eating items right away,” says Middleberg. “Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh because they are picked at the peak of their season (when nutrients are most dense), and freezing preserves these nutrients.” When I hear “frozen produce,” I think peas, carrots, corn, and broccoli. What I forget is that there’s actually some pretty cool stuff over there, like tart cherries, mango, and papaya for smoothies, and okra, pearl onions, and parsnips for soups or stews.
8. Cook veggies and grains in bone broth or stock.
“Cook vegetables, rice, or quinoa with bone broth to add more protein,” says Beacom. “This allows you to use less meat or poultry in a dish while still getting protein and flavor.” Look for brands of chicken stock or broth that have more protein, like this one that has 4 grams per cup, and only 20 calories. I cooked yesterday’s rice in the rice cooker with chicken stock instead of water, and can vouch for the fact that it’s significantly more delicious.
9. Oh, and always make your own stock.
The above tip isn’t exactly money-saving if you have to buy stock. It’s also a little annoying to buy just bones. As a rule, I always buy bone-in meat. Whether I cut the meat off the bones before or after cooking, I save them in a resealable, gallon-sized bag in the freezer (it’s OK to mix chicken, beef, and pork bones!). When the bag is full, I empty it into a slow cooker, fill the slow cooker with water, season with salt and pepper, and let it cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. It’s not fancy, and there are no aromatics or vegetables involved, but it’s totally free and absolutely gets the job done.
10. Have breakfast for dinner.
“A veggie-filled omelet or skillet scramble is a great way to get a meal on the table fast and eggs are an economical source of protein,” says Beacom. Besides the fact that they’re cheap, the best thing about eggs is that they’re so versatile. Sometimes I throw any leftover vegetables I have in a cast-iron skillet with whatever combination of herbs, spices, and cheese I can find, then crack two eggs on top and bake everything until the eggs are set. Or, when I feel like cooking something quick but fun, I poach eggs and serve them over salad, or on toast with raw veggies.
11. Pick multi-tasting ingredients, and don't let anything go to waste.
Eggs are great, because they’re good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But there are plenty of other ingredients out there that are also super versatile. “A box of spinach can be used in your morning smoothie, your afternoon salad, and sautéed as a side with a protein for dinner,” says Middleberg. Every time I open a can of coconut milk, I find myself only using half of it and letting the rest of it sit forgotten in the fridge. Next time, I’ll use what’s leftover as a base overnight oats, or mix it with peanut butter to make a sauce for leftover chicken and veggies. Because, honestly, the simplest and most underrated way to save money on food is to not ever let anything go to waste.
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This story originally appeared on Self.
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