We’re a couple of weeks into the new year, and I’m sure that like me, many of you have resolved to do better with your financial resources this year than you did last year. If that’s you, your grocery budget may well be a place you want to cut spending, but not at the expense of food quality. I’ve heard plenty of people comment that my grocery budget must be astronomical based on what we eat, but the truth is that I’m spending much less than one would expect and definitely less than most people I know. Let’s take a look at how to eat well on a tight budget.
1. Buy from the bulk bins.
If you are fortunate enough to have a grocery store that carries items in bulk, make use of it, even if it’s at a grocery store that you fear will eat up your whole paycheck. Yes, specialty grocers can be quite pricey, but they are worth a visit for bulk items like hard-to-find grains, specialty flours and sugars, beans, spices, pasta, lentils, dried fruits, and nuts. Many times, these items are cheaper this way, and in my experience usually taste better since they tend to have a high turnover rate and haven’t sat in a plastic bag for months on end. You can also buy the exact amount that you need, making it perfect for either sampling small amounts of something new to you or buying a month’s worth of your favorite staples. It’s also worth taking a look at other staple items like milk, eggs, yogurt, and butter, as they are sometimes priced competitively.
2. Learn how to maximize flavor from inexpensive ingredients and where to use them.
This could (and probably will be) the topic for its own post down the road, but it bears mentioning here: simple cooking techniques will get you far in eating well on a tight budget. For example, you don’t need expensive ingredients for a flavorful bowl of pasta- just remember to salt the pot of water before adding the pasta, and then you can dress the pasta with something simple (butter, lemon juice, parmesan, and black pepper; olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and capers; olive oil with tiny anchovies and garlic melted down into it; caramelized onions and butter… endless options, really). Speaking of onions, that’s one ingredient I don’t think I could cook without. Pickled, roasted, sauteed, caramelized, tucked into a galette, jammed, paired with sweet ingredients, creamed, pureed, and stuffed, there are SO MANY WAYS to use them either on their own or to enhance other ingredients, and each preparation brings out a different personality in them. Garlic can do wonders with its versatility- sweet when roasted, creamy when confit-ed (is that a word?), assertive when browned, and mellow when tamed with acid. Even eggs are so much more than a breakfast protein- sieve hard boiled eggs onto a salad with a mustard vinaigrette, or use yolks to enrich soup, to make aioli, or to make citrus curd. Leftover whites can be beat and used in waffles for extra crispness, or use them in pavlovas and angelfood cake (both great with the aforementioned curd). The vast majority of my favorite foods are built upon the backs of humble ingredients- learn how to use them, and you’ll never eat poorly.
3. Cook outside of your comfort zone.
Some of the most flavorful ingredients out there are things that people swear they hate. Anchovies, mushrooms, seaweed, bivalves, and offal come to mind as ingredients that I routinely serve people who are staunchly opposed to liking them, and I’ve not once had someone not enjoy it.* Most of the time, they ask “what is in this that makes it taste so good?” and are shocked to find out that anchovies are what gave their pasta sauce such depth and flavor, or that their gravy was made with giblets. These kinds of ingredients are generally inexpensive (or, in the case of giblets, come free with the bird) and can be used in dozens of dishes, making them perfect items for stocking your pantry or freezer, and because so many of them are not popular items, they usually cost very little.
*Partially for the challenge and partially for my own amusement. Don’t judge.
4. Know that almost any scrap can be used to make something else.
I harp on this one so much, but because it makes a massive difference in how well you can eat, I need to say it again: Use your food scraps. More than that, shop so that you will have scraps to use. Buy your chickens whole so you have a carcass to use for stock (the backbone is the most important part, which is why I don’t say to just buy drumsticks and call it good). I can’t think of a better place to start than making your own stock to make your cooking taste a thousand times better. Save the little bits of aromatic vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, leeks) in the freezer and add those to your stock. Use thin fruit peels to flavor alcohol (apple peel bourbon, anyone?) and candy your citrus peels for snacks or a for tasty addition to baked goods. Use corn cobs and shrimp shells to make the best bisque you’ve ever had, and use the stems from herbs like parsley or cilantro to make compound butters. Small bits of ginger, herbs, and spices can flavor a simple syrup to add to your next libation or even your whipped cream. Turn stale bread into breadcrumbs or croutons. This, more than anything, is how you make the most of your ingredients, and therefore your grocery budget.
What are your favorite inexpensive ingredients to use, and in what ways do you use your food scraps? What ways do you go about eating better on a budget? Give me some feedback in the comment section!