What if, instead of ordering takeout, you could have a meal ready in less time than it would take for the delivery man to knock on your door? A healthy, hearty cheap meal that would help you save money on food and leave you full and content?
For years, I used to eat out of cans or make quick sandwiches that I never quite enjoyed. No longer.
Grocery shopping on a budget
The first thing I do when I shop for food is look for ways to save money on it. These generally include seasonal fruits and vegetables, products with a short lifespan, and some – though not all – products that are being promoted. Because even if that yogurt is half price, if you don’t eat yogurt, you’ll just end up throwing the whole thing away and wasting money.
I often shop at the end of the market, when sellers heavily discount fresh food, or at the end of the day, when the supermarket applies a 30 to 50 percent discount on meat that expires the next day. I freeze it and save a ton of money. My shopping always includes basics – such as onions, garlic, tomatoes, and bananas – that I eat no matter what. Then, if the strawberries are on sale, I’ll have strawberries.
When I get home, the food that I need to eat the soonest will go into a special shelf in the fridge where it will lie in plain sight. That is what will be on the menu tonight.
Recycling the food you have
I have also mastered the art of making the same kind of food with different ingredients. You can save money on food by making sure that you're doubling down on the same ingredients for different recipes!
For example, I make a lot of stews. Making the same stew every time would be boring. So I just have a template. My stew includes beans or grains – generally lentils, but sometimes chickpeas, split peas, chili beans, or white butter beans. Then a tomato-onion-garlic base that I fry in a bit of olive oil.
I add to that whatever vegetable that was cheap at the supermarket that day, or that is about to go bad in my fridge – Spinach, kale, celery, carrot, parsnip, cabbage… – and almost always potatoes. I season with thyme, rosemary, and laurel most of the time. Sometimes, I add jalapeño peppers and make it spicy. Finally, I add a little meat as a way to add flavor. It can be diced beef, bacon, or chorizo. Half a pound of meat is enough for six to eight servings.
Just out of these few ingredients, I can make dozens of different stews.
I also cook a lot of stir-fry and fried rice using the same method. A rice or noodle base, some of whatever is in the fridge, plus an egg for protein if you don’t have meat, and you’re good to go.
Salads are the same. Sometimes, I’ll put a base of spinach or lettuce. I like shredded carrots and cucumber for extra crunch. Fresh cilantro gives it a great flavor. Avocados will add extra calories, if you don’t want to put chicken or tuna. You can make so many different salads out of the most basic ingredients. Add olives, nuts, or seeds, and you have an even nicer salad.
Pizza is one more fantastic way to get rid of old veggies.
I make my own dough, but you can buy ready-to-roll dough – just add on a little shredded cheese and lots of veggies, and you’ll make a delicious pizza.
Aside from the stew, all these meal options can be assembled in less than 30 minutes.
Cooking in bulk
For stews and recipes that require more cooking, I also have a system: I batch cook. I’ll make enough stew – or lasagna, or pasta sauce – for six to 12 servings. Then I will freeze the leftovers (because no one likes to eat the same thing three days in a row), and just thaw it out when I don’t want to cook. I’ll freeze the pizza dough, as well.
And when I bake a batch of bread, I make about five loaves, slice them, and freeze them. I take out a couple of slices in the morning and put them in the toaster. If you buy sliced bread, you can do the same and freeze it so that you don’t end up throwing away half the loaf when it gets stale or moldy.
You may not have a big enough freezer to keep a lot of meals, but if you prepare a few meals on Sunday and freeze enough for the week, you will save money on food, as well as a TON of time. With just a couple of hours of cooking at the beginning of each week, the kitchen only gets dirty once, the oven only gets warm once, and you have meals for the next seven days.