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To be honest, learning how to save money in the kitchen used to be a foreign concept to me. Simply being in the kitchen was a foreign concept to me.
I loved and still love eating out. Unfortunately, though, the reality is eating out is expensive.
At home, I can make an entire meal for what a salad for one at a sit-down restaurant might cost. So, needless to say, simply making the switch to preparing and cooking meals at home saves money.
That being said, there are easy ways to make your time spent slaving away in the kitchen even more profitable in the savings department.
In an effort to learn some of these cost-saving tips, I’ve read many, many books on the subject. Though the books kept their promise and did, in fact, teach me ways to trim costs, the real expense was my time and energy.
I’ll be honest, as a mother my precious time and energy is valuable and though I clearly want to save as much money as possible, I think there has to be a balance.
Yes, I can save money by washing out and reusing sandwich baggies, but is that really an effective use of my time? Am I really going to keep it up? Do I really have to answer those questions?
Feeling frustrated and angry with myself at my inability to continue using the money saving strategies I’d learned, I resorted to creating my own. As I’ve talked with my friends, I’ve noticed us sharing our money saving tips (particularly when it comes to cooking) as if they’re secrets that we’re ashamed; almost as if we’re somehow “cheating” or should feel guilty by finding and taking shortcuts.
So read on, and share our guilty little pleasures – ways to not only spend less time in the kitchen, but make every minute you spend there work for you!
Making your food stretch
There’s no easier way to make your food stretch than by making it simply last longer. Countless hundreds of dollars are thrown away each year by families allowing food to spoil and go to waste.
There are the obvious ways to retard spoilage and waste – freezing, properly packaging, and simply not over purchasing. You can also save money by finding smart reuses for unused food and table scraps, too.
However, I’ve found that the easiest way for our family to make food – not to mention my time and energy – stretch is to not only buy in bulk (when there’s a sale, of course), but to prepare in bulk as well.
As we try to eat a lot of fresh vegetables, many of the foods my family consumes don’t have particularly long shelf lives. Produce may have great prices in the summer, but I can’t purchase a bunch of fresh vegetables in the summer and expect them to keep very long.
I tried washing, trimming and packaging them up for a lengthy stay in the freezer for the winter months.
However, I have a normal size fridge with an average size freezer which left me frustrated trying to cram all of these little baggies into a relatively small space.
Not only that, it seemed that I wasn’t using up the frozen veggies and my good intentions to actually make something with them was never fully realized.
I changed gears. Instead of freezing individual components – for example, prepared vegetables – I started freezing already made casseroles and meals. Not only has this made better use of my precious little freezer space, but it allowed me to buy and make better use of other great grocery deals.
If all that wasn’t benefit enough, I realized I was actually buying myself more free time by getting everything not only prepared to use, but ready to use!
Granted, there was a steep learning curve as I figured out exactly what did freeze well and what didn’t. Likewise, it may initially be a case of trial and error as you attempt to deep-freeze your family’s favorites; but there are a few things I can pass along to help make your experience more successful than mine was initially.
Soups, broths and many sauces are ideal freezer candidates. It’s so much easier to cook a big batch of any of these and then to freeze for multiple uses, than it is to make it bit-by-bit. However, if the soup you’re preparing to freeze calls for any kind of pasta or noodle, stop right there. Skip the pasta and freeze as-is.
When you’re reheating to actually serve the soup, simply add the pasta in at this point. If you try to freeze the soup with the pasta already added, during the thawing process the pasta simply turns to mush.
Sure, these liquid foods may freeze easily, but I’ll bet you’re already questioning how in the world you’re going to store them in your itty, bitty freezer. I did, too. And, to be honest, I find that I can’t keep more than two to three weeks worth of meals stored in my freezer at any one time.
Even that might be a stretch depending on what exactly I’m freezing.
I’ve found, though, that this is actually more of a blessing as my small freezer helps ensure faster turnaround of the food; less goes to waste due to freezer burn.
So how exactly can space be maximized in the freezer to help store all these liquid foods? I offer two possible solutions, and to be honest, I fluctuate between the two depending on what else I’m planning to store.
Quart size freezer bags work great. Simply put the bag inside a large cup or container and fold the edges of the bag over so that it will stay open for you, funnel or spoon the liquid inside and freeze the bags lying flat.
This is key because after they’re fully frozen you can then easily stand them up side-by-side like books, stack them, or simply squeeze them into other small spaces in the freezer.
Dealing with baggies not exactly your bag? Or worried that the ongoing cost of freezer bags might actually eat away at your weekly budget?
Invest in square-shaped freezer and microwave safe food storage containers. The key with this method is the shape – square, not round. By using square containers, you’ll actually maximize your space by enabling things to fit closer together.
Not only that, the fuller your freezer is, the more cost effective it is to run because there’s more stuff in there to retain the cold. Add to that, the more full your freezer is with already made food, the less likely you are to be tempted to eat out!
Gotta love the casserole! Simply throw a few ingredients in a bowl, mix it up, put it in a pan, bake and – yum – ready to serve and enjoy.
You’ll initially have to experiment with your family’s favorites, but you’ll find many casseroles freeze quite well. Many casseroles that I make and freeze for my family, I simply leave off the final topping or step before I freeze and then add it when I’m actually cooking it.
For example, our absolute favorite is a dish we call broccoli casserole. I simply mix up 3 cans of cream of potato soup, 2 cups of nonfat sour cream, a handful of shredded cheddar cheese, 1 cup low fat mayo, and 2 cups cooked broccoli.
This mixture is then added to a square baking dish that’s been generously coated with cooking spray and topped with just enough shredded cheddar cheese to cover the top. I then freeze it overnight.
The next morning, the frozen casserole slides right out of the baking dish and I wrap it up with aluminum foil and put it back in the freezer. When we’re ready to eat it, I unwrap it, put it back in the baking dish and put it in the fridge to thaw out during the day.
Cook for 45 minutes at 375 degrees and it isn’t until now that I add the final ingredient – crumbled up saltines are added all over the top and the casserole is baked for another 10 minutes. (Let stand for 15 minutes or so before serving. YUM!)
You’re probably asking yourself why in the world did I take the casserole out of the dish, only to freeze it in aluminum foil to later transfer it back to the casserole dish anyway?!
My tiny freezer, of course.
Why would I take up valuable space storing all my casseroles still in their baking dish? Not only that, I literally only have eight separate cabinets in my kitchen, so I only have a handful of baking dishes anyway.
This method may initially seem a little tedious and cumbersome, but it’s worked well for us. Not to mention, the money we save on not eating out and not wasting ingredients more than compensates for the few pennies spent on store brand freezer baggies.
Countless books have been written on freeze-ahead meals. I know, I’ve read many of them. However, I’ve found that none of these books really helped because – through no fault of their own, obviously – the authors didn’t know my family’s tastes and preferences. Likewise, I can’t expect to be able to do the same for your family.
Thusly, I’ll end the subject with this: I promise you that if you take on a few trial freezer-ahead adventures, you’ll soon work out quite a few of your family’s tried and true favorites that can be stashed away safely!
Like I said previously, I’ve read many books on how to save money and they did provide me with a multitude of tips to try – and they did work. Unfortunately, though, they often required more work on my part and I’ll admit it – as the tired and weary mom of a toddler – I simply don’t have the energy for more work.
Instead, I’d try the tips only to backslide and then later feel guilty for going back to my not-so-thrifty ways. Admittedly, the tips about to follow are not the cheapest route. However, they represent a good compromise between being cost effective and energy efficient!
You don’t have to make the entire box – of any premixed baking mix, that is! This goes for cakes, cornbread mixes, muffin mixes, scones and the like. If your family’s in the mood for a treat but often leaves half of said treat to go stale, simply prepare only half of the mix and alter the added ingredients (oil, water, eggs, etc.) and cooking time accordingly.
Not only will you get twice the mileage out of the baking mix, but you’ll be automatically limiting how much of the treat there is to eat. Just don’t forget to keep the additional ingredient list and baking instructions!
Stretch the costly fresh food with the cheaper canned food! Who doesn’t prefer fresh food to canned food? The taste is often better and the overall texture is firmer. So, go ahead and buy the fresh pineapple, for example, but make it stretch by making a fruit salad and adding it to canned mandarin oranges.
The fresh pineapple will obviously be the star and your family will feel like they’re getting a special treat, however, the addition of the canned fruit makes it a more substantial side dish and much more economical.
Fresh veggies and ground meats can be stretched into more substantial and more cost effective meals by adding canned beans to the mix! Bulk up your chili with black beans or double the quantity of your minestrone by adding a couple of extra cans of kidney beans.
Not only are beans great for you, but they’re great for your budget as well. And, yes, dried beans offer even more savings for those ambitious enough to invest the time. However, I’ve found that by stocking up on canned beans when they’re on sale, the savings of dried versus canned is negligible.
Make foods that can be masters of disguise! By this I mean prepare foods that can be made over again and again and again to make the best use of leftovers without leaving your family bored! For example, take potatoes.
The first night you could simply quarter a bunch of potatoes, boil them and then toss them with a little butter and chopped chives. The next night, you can take the leftover potatoes, mash them up with a little sour cream, salt and pepper and – voila! – mashed, creamy potatoes.
The third night you can take the remaining cold potatoes, mix in a little shredded cheese, pat into patties, coat with bread crumbs and fry to a light golden brown and – ta-da! – cheese potato cakes! This same trick can be applied to meats and countless veggies.
Take a few minutes to sit down and create a map of sorts outlining the various ways your family can re-enjoy the same foods! The key to this technique is simply planning to enjoy the various ingredients in a set order.
Keep food stretchers on hand at all times! There a few staple “stretchers” that every well-stocked pantry should include in order to maximize the ability to stretch food in a tasty and effective way! Fortunately, these staples often have a long shelf life and are quite economical in their own rite. These include bread crumbs, rice, various pasta shapes and ready-to-make baking mixes.
It’s not a surprise that all of the staples listed are carbohydrates. Let’s face it, carbohydrates are cheap, help us feel full and should be side dishes – not the main attraction at a meal.
So make sure you’ve got these items (and any others your family makes good use of) on hand at all times because it is these little go-to helpers that can either transform what would ordinarily be a bland leftover or add economical bulk to an otherwise expensive, less than filling meal.
Making eating in better than eating out
I’ll admit that often the appeal of eating out is actually someone serving me dinner, not me cooking and serving dinner to someone else. I can’t really help you there, but there are things you can do to make eating in more enticing than eating out in many different ways.
There are two different tactics to achieve this goal: 1) Make the meals as good as or better than your favorite meals out and 2) Make actually preparing and cleaning up the meal as easy as possible. Let’s face it, there’s a ton of money to be saved by eating at home.
The problem is so many of us are so busy from running our families around and simply too tired to spend hours in the kitchen. So the key here is to make the food not only appealing, but as simple as possible to prepare so that you’ll actually do it!
Let’s tackle the first tactic: Make the meals as appealing as possible. Remember that whenever you’re eating at home, you’re already saving money. You don’t have to tip the wait staff, your kids aren’t tempted by a small cup of soda pop that costs the same as a 2 liter in the store, and you’re not paying through the nose for a small side salad.
So as a special treat now and again, go to your favorite restaurants and order sauces, salad dressings and spreads to go. By ordering “toppers” (as I call them) to go, you’ll be getting the taste of the restaurant at home; however, you won’t be paying big bucks for the bulk of the meal that you can easily prepare at home.
If you absolutely can’t get enough of a particular dish at a restaurant, don’t be shy about letting them know it! Couched with a sincere compliment, ask the wait staff for the recipe! I used to frequent a local, family-owned restaurant for one salad alone. One day – after making sufficient, “Oh, this is so yummy!” sounds – I came right out and asked the waitress for the recipe.
Not only did she give it to me right then and there, she later went into the back, wrote it all down for me and double-checked the recipe with the chef! I now can enjoy this exact same salad at home whenever I want for a fraction of the cost! You never know if you don’t ask and the worst that can happen is they’ll simply say the recipe is a secret.
If this is the case, whip out a pen and paper and jot down a few notes about what you think is in the dish. This will enable you to better recreate it at home from memory.
Don’t forget the extras! Whenever I start to feel a bit deprived and sick of eating at home, I take extra care to pay attention to the little things that make meals out so good (besides the wait staff!). Maybe there’s a special drink that helps make your meal more enjoyable out or a dessert that tops off the meal.
For us, it’s the addition of a salad. By planning to always have salad fixings on hand, it helps ensure we’re better equipped to calm the craving of pulling into a restaurant on the way home from work! Yes, you can save even more money if you’re willing to forgo the extras, but these extras serve a purpose!
Think of the little extra cost you spend on getting the really yummy croutons or the chocolate syrup for making chocolate milk as insurance that you’ll actually go home to eat.
Time for tactic #2: Keep meal preparation and clean up as simple and as easy as possible! Let’s face it, you’re probably the one doing all of the meal planning, making and clean up anyway. So make it as easy to do as possible.
One way to do this is by taking built-in short cuts at the store. Again, these may cost you a bit more money up front; however, when weighed against the cost of eating out you’re way ahead of the game. Feel no guilt!
If you’ve decided to start taking the route of make-ahead freezer meals, you’re half way there! Not only will you have very little prep, but clean up will be a snap too – especially if you’ve wrapped and frozen your meals in aluminum foil. Simply keep the meal wrapped up when you place it back into the correct casserole dish to thaw. Then, when it’s time for dinner, just bake the prepared dish as is. Afterwards, all that’s left to do is throw the foil away and – Voila! – Clean up is done!
Though you may initially feel like you’re paying for convenience on certain purchases (and don’t feel guilty about this if you’re able to recoup the costs in other places as time is money after all), sometimes you really are buying much more.
For example, buy the in-the-bag, ready-to-eat salads!
Yes, they cost more than their “head of lettuce” counterparts, but you’re also taking home only edible, usable lettuce. How many kids (and finicky hubbies) won’t eat the center pieces of a head of lettuce anyway?!
Not to mention, it’s really tough to get lettuce completely dry enough to prolong its refrigerated shelf life. When you purchase the already trimmed and washed salad packages, not only is every piece inside that package usable but it’s been thoroughly dried and prepared to last on a refrigerator shelf.
While we’re on the subject of “pre-washed” and ready-to-use,” let’s not forget the plethora of bagged, fresh vegetables available for purchase.
Obviously they’re not always cheaper than their bulk counterparts, but when found on sale – and they often are – these are ready-to-go and worth their weight in gold because you can simply toss them from the bag into whatever it is you’re cooking.
Many varieties even come with instructions on how to steam the veggies right inside the bag, saving you not only one more pot to clean, but electricity and time as well!
And don’t discount the value of frozen vegetables!
Fresh veggies aren’t necessarily better for you than are the deep-freeze varieties. Frozen vegetables are often picked at their peak, washed, trimmed and frozen very shortly afterward, preserving a majority of their nutrients and taste.
It stands to reason that frozen vegetables are better for you than fresh vegetables that have been sitting on grocery store shelves for who knows how long. Not to mention, frozen vegetables – especially store brand varieties – can be purchased very cheaply year round and are also already washed and trimmed!
One thing I simply hate about eating at home is the fact that I can’t sit down and enjoy my meal knowing there’s a huge mess waiting for me in the kitchen. Because of this, I’ve learned little ways to cut my cleaning time at least in half. One simply way to do this is to simply multi-task.
As I wait for things to heat up on the stove top and in between stirs, I chop up another ingredient. As I wait for something to heat up in the microwave, I wipe down the counters. After I plate up a meal, I always place the now empty pots and/or casserole dishes in the sink filled with warm soap water to soak. (Though be especially careful with glass and ceramic cookware.
Never add cold water to these when they’re hot as the change in temperature can cause the cookware to shatter.) This all might seem like minor stuff, but all of these little things add up to more free time after the meal!
One of the greatest ways I found to actually cut my clean up time was actually what I considered a splurge! Ironically, too, this supposed splurge has ended up saving me money in the end as well.
Wanting to try to become more savvy in the art of cooking and homemaking, I started tuning in to a famous TV personality. She raved about the merits of the silicone baking mat.
This seemingly flimsy piece of silicone simply gets placed on the bottom of your cooking sheet and not only does it create an instant nonstick surface – no cooking spray required – but it makes clean up an absolute snap!
Throw the mat in the dishwasher and the cookie sheet back in the cabinet because it stayed clean.
Though the initial cost of the silicone mat may surprise you, compare it to the cost of years of cooking spray and/or aluminum foil you would otherwise be using and it’s a bargain.
One of my favorite “cheats” in the kitchen is using little seasoning packets. They exist for practically everything from tacos and burritos to countless sauce mixes. Yes, I’ll admit that these little envelopes can be an expensive luxury when it would be far cheaper to create the same taste from scratch with the contents of the pantry or the spice rack.
But these same packets, that often cost a buck a piece, can be found on sale regularly.
Not only that, I’ve found that the spice packets used for flavoring things such as meat or beans can be used to season three to four meals making them not only better for you (far less sodium intake), but much more cost effective as well. Simply use one-third or a quarter of the package contents rather than the entire packet.
For sauce and gravy mixes, I sometimes found that I was using two or even three packets to make an adequate amount. Instead, I’ve found that if I added more water to the packet contents and cook it a bit longer, I’m able to make more with very minimal loss of taste or consistency.
Last but not least, avoid getting stuck in a rut. Every family will have its favorite re-runs as far as meals go, but don’t burn those favorites by! Those tried-and-true winners need to be spared from overkill so that you can pull them out when you can’t think of anything else to make!
There are lots of free resources out there for quick and easy meal ideas. The library is a great place to borrow cookbooks. The Internet will enable you to do searches narrowed specifically to any special diet your family follows, not to mention many websites will allow you to actually print recipes at specific dimensions including 3″ by 5″ – the size of a standard recipe card.
Yay! No energy spent on copying it down by hand!
Though it may sound lazy, I prefer to think of this last tip as effective time management. In dire need of a few new, good recipes to add to my family’s line-up, I started checking out the book section of my neighborhood thrift stores. For very little money, I’ve picked up a number of great cookbooks.
Unfortunately, though, I never find a cookbook that has more than a few recipes that I know I’ll make more than once and I simply don’t have the space to store that many cookbooks.
So, having spent so little money to begin with, I feel no guilt in simply cutting out the recipes I know I’ll actually use, taping them to an index card and throwing it in my recipe box. I then recycle the remainder of the book that is otherwise useless to me.
This process has helped me grow a great recipe box that I can fall back on for ideas that have been “pre-screened!”