If there are two words to describe life, they are “hectic” and “expensive.” For a lot of people, these are huge factors that impact their lifestyle and diet. Eating well on a budget can feel like a delicate balancing act that loses control anytime things get crazy. But it doesn’t have to be.
Eating well on a budget is possible – with some practice.
Here are my tips for eating well on a budget that anyone can adopt right now:
1. Plan your meals strategically
I know, I know. If we all had time to do that, you wouldn’t be out there searching for ways to eat well on a budget, right? Hear me out. You don’t necessarily have to prep every meal, but even something as simple as knowing what you’re having for breakfast will help you start the day off on a positive note. If you have the time, I would encourage you to prepare your meals for the work week ahead of time. Planning your meals also helps you make practical use of the food at your disposal, and waste less of what you’ve bought.
Start by identifying the meals that you end up buying most during the week, or month. If you’re more likely to stop for breakfast before work than you are to go out for lunch, start by preparing your breakfasts at home on the weekend. You’ll save a few dollars, and what you prepare at home is probably healthier, anyway.
2. Freeze your food when it’s on the cusp of going bad
Granted, some things don’t freeze well or thaw to the same consistency as before. But this is a great way to make your food last longer. If you have produce you didn’t get to eating, just put it in a bag or container and throw it in the freezer. This is a great way to preserve herbs, too, which are notorious for going bad well before you have time to use them all.
The freezer becomes an even bigger player in the money-saving, meal-prepping game the further you get into it. Going back to my first point, if there are meals you want to prepare ahead of time, utilize your freezer space for quick meals as well. You’d be surprised how much it helps when it’s a few days before payday, and you don’t want to go grocery shopping just yet.
3. Keep staples — and not just pasta, rice or bread — on hand for quick meals
Most of us think of staples as any starch-rich food that is versatile and shelf-stable. In reality, any food can be a staple in your kitchen if you genuinely enjoy it and eat it in many of your meals. This even includes fruits and vegetables, if you find types that you don’t grow tired of. And, believe me, there are tons of ways to use certain fruits or veggies in your meals.
Let’s talk about more common shelf-stable household staples, though. Canned fruits and vegetables are a totally acceptable alternative to fresh if you want to stretch your dollar and buy something that doesn’t have an immediate expiration date. Canned goods are usually on the cheaper side, so try to add them to your regular grocery shopping list to stock up. I actually prefer canned tomatoes for tomato sauce over fresh, off-the-vine tomatoes — and that’s obviously because fresh tomatoes still have a way to go to become a pasta sauce. We have to give canned goods their credit where credit is due: they’re an accessible way to eat more fruits and vegetables on a tighter budget.
4. Use your judgment on new recipes that call for one extravagant ingredient
If you’re a new cook, recipes are the most helpful guides you can have to try out new and exciting meals. You want to learn how to cook the correct way, and following a recipe as it’s written without bending any rules is obviously the way to go! Right?
Well, not always. Recipes aren’t sacred texts, and you don’t have to follow every single instruction in them. There are tons of recipes written by advanced cooks that call for ingredients that are nice, but not necessary. If you have any reservations about something in a recipe that seems a little too extra, ask yourself:
- Is it the only thing in the culinary world with that flavor? For instance, does your recipe call for fresh garlic, but you only have garlic powder? Just use garlic powder. You’ll get the same great flavor — just in more concentrated doses.
- Is it less than a ¼ of a teaspoon’s worth? Is it worth you buying a big portion if you’re just going to use a fraction of it?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to make the call on whether you want to invest $5 in a jar of spices that you literally never heard of before, and may never use again. If you’re keen on sticking to the recipe in its entirety, I would recommend hitting up the bulk section and trying a small sample size of the spice. Who knows? You might end up with a new favorite ingredient, and get inspired to cook more!
My last tip goes hand-in-hand with this one, which is…
5. Don’t give up and order takeout because you’re missing one thing
It’s so tempting to scrap your chow mein dinner because you’re missing broccoli or another vegetable that completes it for you — but hear me out. The next time you’re taking notes of what’s in the pantry for dinner, think about it this way: if you have 75% of what constitutes a complete recipe for you, just make the meal. While, yeah, it would be nice to have coconut bacon or croutons for a kale caesar salad, the recipe isn’t incomplete without it. Plus, saving money wherever you can sure beats the alternative, which is paying upwards of $10 for takeout.
Becoming a better cook means getting creative with odds and ends and leftovers. We all want to eat better, and that means eating with more meaning and more intention, as well. There are many different ways to repurpose ingredients in our meals, and taking a chance on an ingredient you’re obligated to cook because there’s nothing else opens the door to new culinary possibilities.
Montana Cumming is a writer and content creator from Vancouver, BC. She enjoys cooking, writing, running, and recipe-testing to uncover the cheapest, tastiest, and most-nutritious plant-based recipes out there.
Image via Unsplash