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.

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Guest's picture
Debbie M

Weird. My experience is that cooking shows do not help me make meals cheaper, faster OR better. They are all about magically having rare or expensive items already measured and chopped sitting in little bowls in your kitchen.

Frankly, my best way of learning cheap, fast, and healthy recipes is to have roommates. Second best: getting all my mom's recipes. Also good: sharing recipes with friends and asking for recipes I like at potlucks in case they turn out to be not that crazy. And then I also just google for recipes for my favorite foods and keep experimenting until I find one that's healthy and simple but also yummy.

Guest's picture

The trick to learning to cook cheap meals from cooking shows is to take the techniques you learn and the general recipe ideas and pare them down ruthlessly. Rachel Ray isn't a great one for recipes, in my experience, maybe because she got her start at a supermarket trying to get people to buy more stuff. But learning cooking techniques is essential for making cheap ingredients sing.

Also, the internet is a great place to figure out how to cut recipe corners. Just use recipes as a general idea of where you want to end up, research to replace any ingredients you don't have, and people will think you have magic kitchen elves.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

A lot of those cooking show techniques require special or expensive equipment. I don't even have a food processor, for example, nor do I want one because I don't have a dishwasher. Again, I'd rather watch roommates, friends and relatives than professionals.

But I do admit that it was great to see how to "fold" ingredients in to a batter. I had been worrying that I was stirring too much, so it was nice to see that you can still do a fair amount of stirring.

And I also admit that I learned a fair amount by watching my mom as a kid--she did a lot of baking and stirring things in pots which, not surprisingly, are my favorite ways to cook as well. So, I already knew how to knead dough and roll pie crusts, and I already knew that raw scrambled eggs look disgusting and that cake batter is runny but biscuit dough is not, etc.

Guest's picture

I have found the show Good Eats to be the best for those who are frugal. The Chef often shows alternative uses for foods, kitchen gadgets etc. He sometime uses a processor but often times will show alternatives. Most of the show is geared towards learning how to use a specific food like a Potato or apple.
He has shown how to do things like turn your fan ino a food dehydrater.
Alton is the coolest Chef on T.V : )

Guest's picture

If you have a World Market, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods or Marshalls they often have spices, mixes, olive oils and cookbooks for cheap!

Marla Walters's picture

Mikey, I agree with your suggestion about watching cooking shows. I do that while I fold laundry. I often find them inspiring, and sometimes they get me out of a cooking rut. Also, you might think that making something is intimidating, but when you watch it being done, it's really not all that hard. PS: Thanks for the little mini-recipe with the pasta, basil, and tomatoes. I'm going to throw a little cooked chicken breast into that. Perfect!

Guest's picture

One good way to do it cheap: Rice and Beans, (Plenty of SEA salt!) cumin, garlic, onion, mushrooms. Cheap and easy, experiment with veggies, leftover chicken or on tortillas. Also:Boiled potatoes with butter, Paprika, pepper, garlic powder. Add something green, great cheap veggie meal.

Guest's picture

Debbie M is right--Google for your favorite dishes and use those recipes as a starting point. I almost always make it simpler one way or another. Also, I am learning that meal planning is close to top in making cheaper, faster, better meals. It beats buying all that clearance stuff that I never end up using before its expired.

Guest's picture

keep an eye out at the checkout counter for themed recipe collections. I got one recently for '5 ingredients, 15 minute' recipes and a lot of the things in there are super cheap

Guest's picture

I think a key to eating cheaper, simpler and better is to eat what is in season. The food will be fresher with a better flavor, so it won't require complicated cooking techniques or endless amounts of spices and flavors to make it palatable.

Guest's picture

I think the key to eating cheaper is to actually avoid coupon madness with the exeption of health & beuty products. Occasionialy something good may be there like
good quality dairy or pasta but don't get cought up spending hundreds of hours
on websites trying to figure out how to get a bunch of junk for free. Live your life to the fullest instead.

Buying lentils, beans, Rice, fruits veggies, eggs, dairy, pancake mix, pasta, flour, sugar spices does not require coupons to get the best price.

Convenient easy pre-made food can be found in healthier versions at Trader Joes.
Canned Organic beans about $1, Organic sour Cream $1.60, Organic Ketchup $2,
Canned foods not lined with BPA are beans, seafood They have amazing quality
Tuna for $1.60, BBQ Beans $1.50, Fish Nuggets $4 (from Cod), Hasbrown Patties $2, Shrimp fried Rice $3.50

The best Cheap & easy foods are

Frozen grapes (for kids)
Hard boiled eggs
Egg salad sandwhich
Tuna salad sandwhich
dinner omelette
Pancakes & Eggs
grilled cheese
Organic salad ( x-large Tubs found for $3-$5)
Spinach with cheese add pasta and its a meal
Tomatos in the broiler with herbs & olive oil
Whole Rotisserie chicken (best from Sam's or Costco ) can be split into several meals