6 Tips for Making Cheaper, Faster, Better Meals
There are days when I spend an hour or more in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and flipping food for an amazing weeknight meal. It's just that those occasions are rare.
I don't always have that kind of time (the last thing I want to do after a long day of work is slave in front of a hot stove), and I doubt you do either. That's why I'm always looking for ways to eat well while also reducing my in-the-kitchen presence and food costs.
So you can eliminate some of the stress that comes with "what's for dinner?" try out these tasty time- and money-saving tips. (See also: 7 Time-Saving Kitchen Tips From an Insider)
1. Think Simpler
Some of the best meals I've ever made had five ingredients or fewer. There's even a show on Food Network based on the concept, called 5 Ingredient Fix. The host, Claire Robinson, doesn't count salt and pepper because of their omnipresence in every meal, which leaves more wiggle room for other ingredients. One of my favorite fast-cook dishes contains whole-wheat pasta, olive oil, garlic, sautéed grape tomatoes, and fresh basil. Light, healthy, and ready in 15 minutes.
2. Ask Friends for Gourmet Foods
I'm not saying you should go door to door like you're needy, but rather when someone asks what you'd like, say, as housewarming or birthday gift, tell them about a product that you've recently seen on sale at your favorite food shop. Although typically a tad expensive, Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel offer serious discounts — like up to 75% off many times a year — which can help you stock up on higher-quality packaged goods at low costs. Marshall's also is an excellent place to find boutique-brand non-perishables at well below retail, especially if your pantry is craving dried pastas, sauces, and jams.
3. Take Cooking Classes
Sadly, I know people (I'm married to one of them) who can't distinguish a pot from a pan; that is to say, if they touched anything besides a microwave, they'd probably burn the house down. Yes, cooking is daunting and practice makes perfect, but in my humble opinion it's essential for an adult human being to be able to feed him or herself without dialing seven digits. If you don't know how to cook — or are afraid of trying (or whatever other reason you're making up to get out of it) — consider cooking lessons; there are lots of businesses that offer them nowadays. If you want to save those course fees, ask an experienced friend to show you a few basics to help you gain confidence. No need to be shy. If any of my friends asked me to help them learn how to cook, I'd be delighted, eager, and completely flattered. Yours will, too.
4. Scavenge Clearance Sections
At both my local supermarket and neighborhood Target there are clearance sections for food. Often the items are near expiration, discontinued, or damaged. For instance, I scooped up several boxes of Kix at below 50% a few months ago because the box tops were ripped. So what? The plastic bag containing the cereal was still perfectly sealed. Same goes for canned goods. Many times they go to clearance if they're dented. Who cares? I'm not eating the can, so in my cart they go.
5. Be Creative With Leftovers
I'll admit that I'm not a fan of leftovers — depending on what it is. A dish like lasagna is a one-time-only meal for me, but rotisserie chicken and other meats, especially, can be used to make quick midweek meals when you want something simple yet satisfying. I could go on forever describing the various dishes you can turn leftover chicken or pork into, but I'll leave it to the professionals. Rachael Ray's Week in a Day is an excellent resource for turning one main ingredient into multiple meals, as is Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller.
6. Watch Cooking Shows
I've mentioned several cooking shows already, and it's for a reason — I love them, and I live by them. Having never taken a lesson in my life, I fancy myself a fairly formidable cook. Where did I learn how to do what I do? Trial and error, of course (remind me to tell you about the time I put a piece of frozen chicken in a shallow pan of sizzling hot oil — not pretty!), and by watching cooking shows. Through the years, I've learned how to chiffonade basil, properly hold a knife, season seafood, sear a steak, whip cream, and more. Learning these techniques gave me the confidence I needed to enter the kitchen and make delicious meals. As I said, in the beginning the results were mixed, but eventually you, too, will get the hang of it. And that's when you'll really start to enjoy it.
Have suggestions on how to make cheaper, faster, better meals? Let me know in the comments below.