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how to be a frugal cook

We all know the scenario: it’s 5pm. You’re tired. The kids are cranky. You have no idea what’s for dinner. Will it be $40 takeout or a run to the grocery for 13 pasta ingredients you don’t have? Sigh.

Luckily, this type of thing can be prevented (not all the time—let’s face it, we’re all busy and human). You don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well, and you certainly don’t have to scramble every night to get something on the table. With a little bit of planning, you can keep your grocery budget in check and be enjoying a glass of wine at 5:00 instead of running around in a hungry panic. Here are my guidelines for how to eat well and still pinch some pennies.

1. Follow the sales. Seems like a “duh” moment, but keep your eyes peeled for good sales on the things that you like most. Those flyers that appear in your mailbox on tuesdays? Study them. Take notes. Is it worth it to take a trip to an out-of-the-way grocer for a sale on tomato paste? No. But for organic chicken at $2.49 a pound? Go stock up.

2. Make your freezer your BFF. Keep a list of the items in it in order of “need to use.” That way your $2.49 organic chicken won’t go to waste because it was forgotten. Refer to the list as you plan your meals for the week. Cross things off as you use them. Clean it out once a month (plus if it’s not totally full, your freezer will work more efficiently, lowering your electric bill).

3. Make double batches. I plan two meals for the week, usually in double quantities. Not only does it save time (at 6:00 most nights I’m just reheating instead of cooking), but also it’s usually cheaper to double one recipe than purchase ingredients for two. Throw together a quick salad or steam some veggies on the side and call it dinner. If you are the kind of person who simply can’t eat the same dinner two nights in a row, freeze half the batch for next week. It’ll feel like a new meal again.

4. Omit. Substitute. Play. If that recipe calls for a jar of $7 olives, would it ruin the dish to leave them out? Doubt it. An ingredients list asks for shredded pork but you have a leftover rotisserie chicken to use up, so adjust the spices and go the cheaper route. A recipe is not cast in stone. Unless you’re baking (in which case amounts and types of ingredients need to be pretty exact), mess around with that recipe so it fits you and your budget.

5. Go to the bulk aisle. Most better grocers have a bulk foods aisle where you can buy just as much spice as you need. If you don’t think you’ll ever go through that whole jar of turmeric before it expires, grab just a pinch for only a few pennies. If you’ll never use almond flour again, buy just as much as you need for those cookies.

6. Grow herbs. For the $3.00 you’d spend buying a small package of cut herbs, you can buy two whole plants that will last you all summer long. Fresh herbs add sophistication to any dish (yes, even burritos). Then in the fall, cut your herbs back, dry, and store in your pantry.

7. Keep a stocked pantry, and know what a stocked pantry means for you. For me, it means flours and sugars for baking, chicken broth, diced tomatoes, beans, pasta and olive oil. But my list won’t necessarily fit your cooking style.

8. Purchase two things for the pantry on every grocery trip (and watch for sales on the stuff you use a lot). That way, when the time comes when you must toss together a meal from ingredients that you already have, it’s likely that you’ll actually have it.

9. Plan for nights out. Let’s face it: sometimes we can’t (or don’t want to!) eat at home. Don’t over-plan your home meals so that things will go to waste if you’re not dining at home every night of the week. Take count of how many times you realistically eat out and plan your home meals from there.

10. If you go to the big box stores, make a list and stick to it. It’s easy to get all dreamy-eyed at a 10 lb bag of chocolate chips, but will you use them all before they go bad? Do you even like the brand? Make impulse buys in small quantities. Purchase things you use everyday in large quantities if the price is right.

11. Spend more money where it matters to you. If grass-fed beef makes your skirt fly up, factor it in to your budget. If local strawberries are the only ones you like, set aside a few extra dollars. Then spend less on things that you don’t care as much about, like pasta, milk or cheese.

12. Keep a “greatest hits” list of recipes on the fridge. Refer to it if you’re struggling for dinner ideas. It’ll prevent you from ordering last-minute takeout.

Now you tell me in the comments: what are YOUR tips and tricks for eating well on a budget?

-RDG