Everything to Know About Cooking on a Budget

Is your food budget out of control? While it might be easy to shop for packaged foods--or just order takeout--you aren't doing your budget any favors. Luckily, it's simple to streamline your grocery shopping so that you save more and waste less.

Do you dread seeing all the restaurant and delivery charges on your account statements? Or are you just looking for a way to start saving more money? One of the areas where you have the most control over your spending is your food.

Cooking on a budget will help you avoid the high price of restaurants and delivery services. It will also stop you from coming home with a ridiculously long receipt and a catastrophically high grocery bill. 

Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat-eater, whether you love to shop the sales or you don’t know how to get around a grocery store, these seven tips will help you learn how to cook on a budget–and even eat a little healthier!

#7: Be Strategic About Meat

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Let’s face it: meat can be expensive. While it’s a great source of protein, beef, in particular, has a harsh impact on the environment and your wallet. If you can avoid meat altogether, start there. Some studies state that vegetarians spend $750 less a year on groceries than meat-eaters do, which leads to some serious savings. 

However, not eating meat is just not an option for many families who can’t imagine life without it. If you’re not ready to give up meat, there are several key things to keep in mind so that you’re purchasing meat in a smart way and not letting any of it go to waste. 

First, you can use your slow cooker to create large, delicious meals that leave you with leftovers to enjoy later. You can buy bigger cuts or packages of meat, and you’ll see the savings add up when you buy meat in larger quantities. Make sure you freeze whatever you won’t be eating soon so that nothing spoils before you have the chance to use it. 

One last tip: some people advise buying a whole rotisserie chicken from the deli section and eating that over several days. It’s definitely easier than preparing a chicken yourself!

#6: Choose Potatoes and Eggs

Potatoes and eggs
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Potatoes and eggs are two extremely versatile ingredients that aren’t all that expensive and will fill you up. If you’re cooking on a budget, you definitely need to stock up on these two ingredients.

You can easily find potatoes in bulk for a good price. Cook them simply or try more complicated recipes, whatever you’re comfortable with. They can be paired with just about anything in your fridge. Baked potatoes and mashed potatoes are two classics, but you can also look for recipes with different flavors. Cheesy queso potato soup and Philly cheesesteak potato wedges are two recipes that are a little more complicated, but definitely worth it if you like cheese!

Eggs are another ingredient that you should start using regularly. While there are pricey egg cartons out there, if you’re on a strict budget you can buy them cheaply in bulk. Eggs are a fantastic source of protein that can be cooked in so many ways. 

Frying and scrambling eggs are two of the easiest meals. You can put a fried egg on a sandwich toss in some veggies with some scrambled eggs. Add an egg to ramen noodle soup and you have a classic, tasty, inexpensive dish. Egg-based casseroles are also a smart meal that you can eat on for days.

#5: Make Leftover Night A Tradition

Leftovers in Tupperware in fridge
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When you buy and cook in bulk, you’ll end up with leftovers. While leftovers may have a bad reputation, there’s no reason that they should – if you’re strategic about how you eat them. No one necessarily wants to eat something that’s been sitting wrapped in foil in the fridge for five days. So, be smart about your leftovers. 

You can double a recipe that you know will keep well and plan to have the same meal two nights in a row. Or, you can go with the classic combination of having your leftovers for lunch the next day. 

Eating leftovers for dinner a couple of nights a week is a smart savings strategy. Make sure you don’t overdo it, however. Leftovers for dinner more than twice a week may leave you burned out and tempted to spend money on something else instead, like take-out, which is just about the worst thing for your budget.

#4: Plan Your Meals

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When you make a budget, you need to know exactly how much money you’re working with. Once you have that dollar amount, it’ll be much easier to stick to it if you think about your priorities and make a plan ahead of time. After you know that number, you can start deciding on your meals.

First of all, look at what you already have. Think about the meals you can make from your existing ingredients, especially ingredients that will spoil soon. Research recipes that use the ingredients already in your cupboards and fridge.

Next, think about recipes you already know how to cook that are inexpensive, even if you don’t have the ingredients currently. You definitely want to rely on some tried-and-true recipes as your working with your new budget.

Then, you need to think about which recipes you can stretch into more than one meal. If you buy just a little more of this ingredient, can you save money overall and have another meal? That’s the best-case scenario, as buying in bulk can lead to serious savings.

Take the time to research recipes that you like that contain the same ingredients. That way you can use up all of an ingredient, so nothing goes to waste and you can spend less buying a bunch of different ingredients.

Making a plan does involve patience, research, and sticking to the list when you’re in the store. However, it’s definitely worth it, as it’s the smartest way to save money and calories. 

#3: Time It Right

Meal plan
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As you decide which meals you’re going to cook, you also need to decide when you’re going to prepare them. The main factor influencing your decision should be perishability, a.k.a. when the ingredients are going to spoil. 

Some reports have found that the average American household puts over $2,200 of food in the trash every year. That’s terrible for the environment and for your wallet. Don’t fall into the trap of buying produce only to throw it away. If you think there’s a chance you won’t end up cooking it, don’t put it on your list and definitely don’t buy it. 

However, if you have a meal plan and you’re determined to stick to it, then plan to cook your meals with the most perishable items first. Delicate veggies, like asparagus, kale, spinach, and tomatoes, should be eaten first. Hardier veggies, like artichokes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and eggplant, can wait. 

#2: Buy What’s In Season 

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Buying produce that’s in season will help you stick to your budget. When you pay for an out-of-season vegetable or fruit, you’re paying a premium price. Take a look at an infographic that explains which vegetables and fruits are best each month.

Farmers’ markets can be a great place to find good deals on in-season produce, but your mileage may vary depending on your location. Again, you’re only looking for what’s in-season, not what’s most convenient or what you like the best. Also, keep in-season produce in mind as you plan your meals.   

#1: Shop Smart

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Grocery stores are designed to appeal to your senses in many ways. The displays at the end of aisles are arranged to catch your eye and convince you that making that extra purchase is in your best interest. 

Don’t give in! It’s almost never a good idea to impulse buy when you’re at the grocery store. Impulse buying can make a huge dent in your budget and leave you without enough money for the necessities. You’ve taken the time to research and make your plan, so stick to the list!

Another major part of shopping smart is shopping the sales. If you can swap one brand for another that’s on sale and still stick to your meal plan, then you should go for it! Keep an eye out for those tags but make sure you compare quantity and cost. Spending $5 on a 2-ounce product that has a flashy “SALE” tag isn’t a better deal than spending $6 on a similar product that contains 4 ounces, or double the amount.

Avoid impulse buying and take advantage of good sales. If you have the time, take a look at your weekly grocery store ads. You’ll find all the info you need in those pages about what deals to look out for. It might even make your research and meal planning even easier when you limit yourself to what’s on sale.

Cooking on a budget doesn’t have to be impossible. While it involves some work, the savings are more than worth the time and energy in the end. As you continue to work on planning your meals, you’ll see that it gets easier every time.

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