My Mum is the QUEEN of cheap eating, and she’s taught me how to do it too – so I’d like to pass a bit of that wisdom on to all of you!
Eating cheaply does not mean eating boring!
Cheap eating does not have to be the same thing day in, day out. There are quite a lot of things you can make for very cheaply that use the same ingredients, put together in different ways.
Herbs & spices are a godsend
Herbs and spices are reasonably cheap, and can turn a meal of something like rice and beans from boring to awesome! Different spice combinations can make the same base ingredients taste like a meal from anywhere in the world, which makes meals a lot less boring. Eg – a bit of tomato paste and some italian herbs can turn beans and rice can turn it into something akin to a stuffed capsicum, or add a bit of curry powder and cornflour and make a curry sauce! Beans and rice easily take on the flavour of whatever they are cooked with, so using stock instead of water to cook them can give them a bit of flavour as well.
Rice, beans, and frozen veges are your friends
So you all know about the rice and beans – but the way I’m talking about is not how you’re used to hearing it. Use legumes and grains to extend your meat (e.g. add beans to taco mince, add cooked lentils or barley to casseroles, put both in soups – there’s more, but that’s some ideas), as well as without meat.
NB: On their own, most legumes (beans, lentils, peas) are not complete proteins. However, grains contain the missing amino acids, so eating them together means that your body can make better use of the protein. Hence the beans-and-rice combo.
If you’re making something that is served with rice (e.g. curried sausages), mix the rice and sauce together before you serve it. This means you can make the meal stretch further, because even though you’ve made more rice, mixing it in together with the sauce first makes it look like you’re getting more food. I think it is because you are looking at a big bowl of something all the same colour, not a little blob of something on top of the rice.
Frozen veges are awesome – they keep FOREVER, they’re just as good as the fresh ones (often better, because they are frozen at peak ripeness), and they’re usually pre-chopped! I always have 3 different bags of frozen veges (corn only, peas only, corn peas & carrot mix), because they are absolutely the most versatile things you can have. They mix well with anything! Add them to literally everything, they’ll extend the meal as well as making it healthier.
Meal planning is the bomb
It may seem like a pain, and I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, but meal planning really DOES save money. I never used to do it when I first moved out, because it just seemed like way too much effort – but after I started doing it, I was amazed how easy it actually was!
It enables you to buy only what you need, so you don’t have food going gross in the pantry/fridge because you didn’t eat it. It also means you can plan ahead a bit, and incorporate a bit of variety into your meals. You can plan to buy a big bag of something this week, which will last a few weeks and frees up a couple of dollars next week for something else.
You really do need freezer space
The best thing you can invest in for cheap cooking is not a slow cooker – it’s a decent free-standing freezer. I have a little bar-fridge-sized freezer in addition to my fridge-with-attached-freezer, and it’s the main thing that makes it so I can keep my meal costs down. It means that you can cook a meal and freeze the extras, so you don’t need to eat the same thing for 3 days straight before it goes off. It’s also often easier and cheaper to cook a meal that serves 4+ people than it is to cook a meal just for one person. You’ll also want to invest in a big pack of those plastic ‘chinese containers’ (you know, the ones that food from chinese take-aways come in). The 6ooml size easily fits a one person serve, and they stack nicely in the freezer. If you’re squeamish about reheating food in them, just get a couple of glass containers with microwave-safe lids.
That said, I do love my slow cooker
Having one means that you can buy the cheaper cuts of meat (particularly red meat) and still make it edible. They’re also great for turning dried beans into perfect-texture cooked ones (except kidney beans. You need to boil those, and a slow cooker doesn’t get hot enough).
A slow cooker is also a god-send for if you are both time- and cash-poor. While you’re doing dinner the night before, you can prep all the ingredients for the next day’s slow cooker recipe (only 1 lot of dishes required!) and chuck it all in the fridge overnight. Then the next morning, dump everything in and let the cooker run while you’re at work/uni/home-but-busy and when dinner time comes around, voila! You have a large pot of something yummy ready to go.
NB: Bigger is not always better for a slow cooker, particularly if you are only feeding 1 or 2 people. A slow cooker needs to be at least 1/2 full to work properly, so get a smaller one (3L-ish) if you aren’t feeding a large group on a regular basis (or plan on making lots of really big stews/soups/roasts). I have a big 6.5L one and a smaller 3L one, and the 3L definitely gets a better workout than the big one – I only use the big one if I’m making big pot of something for a get-together or similar. The 3L is our everyday cooking item.
You can still cook slow-cooked meals without an actual slow cooker, but most of those methods use the stove/oven, which means that you can’t necessarily leave the house while it’s cooking.
As promised in my post last month about meal planning, I will be doing a list of my pantry staples VERY SOON. Hopefully ready for next week’s Tutorial Tuesday (fingers crossed!)