New though this blog is, you’ve probably noticed a theme: my approach to building a more budget approach to my food involves making a stuff at home. I’ve switched from buying bagels to making my own bread at home, I’m making yoghurt from scratch, I’m making granola, I’m rummaging through my leftovers to put together a meal, rather than reaching for the takeaway menu or a microwave meal.
Of course, there’s a cost included in all of these activities beyond the straight up dollars and cents I’m spending on raw ingredients. There’s the cost of production (electricity, water, heat, use of resources, etc). And then there’s time. Making bread requires that you’re around for a good couple of hours. Yoghurt takes more like 14-16 hours to process. This isn’t all active time of course, but there is an investment that I’m making here.
I’m lucky enough to work as a freelancer and I can organize my time to set some of these projects going and then wander back to my desk on the other side of the apartment while dough rises or yoghurt incubates. While I might be cash-strapped, I’m relatively time rich, and I know that isn’t a privilege that everyone (or even many people) share.
So what do you do if you’re working a 9-5 job + commute + family obligations + hobbies + social life + trying to get some sleep, once in a while? (Believe me, I’ve been there).
Here’s a few questions to ask yourself if you’re looking to balance convenience versus cost in the kitchen:
- What do you actually enjoy doing? There may be some home cooking projects that you already know you enjoy and you’d like to get back to. Maybe you’ve always had a thing for meal planning. Maybe kneading dough is a great stress relief for you. Maybe the idea of batch cooking and freezing meals for future-you fills you with joy. Start with what feels easy and what feels good.
- Look for small wins. Although some home cooking is time consuming, lots really isn’t. Take a look at your daily eating habits and see if there’s anything you could easily make for yourself rather than buying at inflated store prices. (Making your own granola or granola bars is a great example of this – super easy to do, cheap, and way more delicious).
- How else can you economize your food budget? It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to give up on all convenience foods. But are there ways you can cut down on their costs without making everything from scratch? Maybe you always buy brand name soda – could you switch to the store label instead? Do you find yourself stopping at the super bougie grocery store just because you happen to be passing – what if you tried to buy in bulk, or go on a trip to a local market on the weekend? There are lots of ways to cut down on food costs, not all of them involving hours spent in the kitchen.
Convenience isn’t the enemy – but it can sometimes eating up more of our grocery budget than we at first realize. What are your top tips for balancing cost versus convenience?
One thing I’ve thought a lot about since trying to be more budget-conscious with my cooking is the art of “what’s in the fridge” cooking. Now, I’ve always been more of a recipe follower than a “throw things together” type cook. My tendency when faced with a fridge full of ingredients which I don’t have a pre-set plan for is panic. (This is how I’ve ended up making some really weird concoctions in the past including my classic stir fry with peanut butter and honey thrown at it *hangs head in shame*)
However, the problem with always cooking to recipes is that without careful planning you can end up creating a lot of waste and spending more money than you intended buying speciality ingredients that you may only use once in a blue moon. (I’m looking at you, Yottam Ottolenghi – your recipes may be delicious but you have a lot to answer for in terms of my bulging spice cabinet!)
So while this isn’t something that comes naturally to me, I’ve been trying to think about what the secret to creating an AWESOME weeknight dinner from what just happens to be in your fridge/freezer/stock cupboard might be. Here’s some guiding principles I’ve developed so far:
- Take a good and thorough look at what you have. Have in an in-depth rummage, maybe even make a list of some of the things you have lurking in the fridge. Really slow down and think about what you have available. (Aka: don’t panic).
- Lean into your instincts. Repeat the mantra to yourself: “I am a good cook. I can do this.” Remember classic flavour combinations, think about core dishes you make often and then what substitutions can be made.
- Speaking of substitutions: don’t be afraid of them! Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, so if you don’t have something that you think your meal “needs” think through what might create a similar flavour profile. So, if you need an umami boost in your recipe for example, but you happen to be all out of soy sauce, maybe you have something else on hand that can give it that extra little punch. (For example: Worcestershire sauce, parmesan, tomatoes, etc.)
- Google! Google is your friend. Never underestimate the power of typing “chicken + celery” (or whatever it is you have to hand) if you’re really stuck for ideas. For the recipe lovers amongst us this might be the extra bit of hand holding you need to unleash your imagination.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, that picture above is my leftover chicken chilli that I whipped up last night – following this exact process. I went shopping in my fridge/cupboards, figured out a dish that could be assembled from what was there, did some googling for inspiration and even made a substitution or two. What you can see is: Frozen leftover chicken, a can of pizza sauce (we were out of tinned tomatoes!), chopped veggies that I just happened to have on hand, some spices, some stock, a tin of black beans, and a handful of frozen corn. Oh and a whole bunch of spices I just happened to throw at the pan. And there you have it, a perfectly delicious weeknight dinner (with enough for lunch leftovers) that I didn’t have to spend any extra money on. Perfect.
So, I’m curious – are you a whizz at whipping up leftovers into a culinary delight? What’s your process for making a delicious “what’s in the fridge” dinner?