Cooking for a family can be expensive, time consuming and sometimes overwhelming. With a little advanced planning and economical tips and tricks, you can transform cooking from a chore to an enjoyable family activity. Here are my favorite recommendations for minimizing stress associated with cooking big meals, as well as some planning tips to help you stick to a budget.
Stretch time between supermarket visits.
This is a tip I use at home to shave dollars off our monthly budget. I make myself wait three additional days to go food shopping after I say, “It’s time to go to the grocery store.” Always keep staples like rice, eggs, beans, canned salmon and frozen veggies available to create reliable dinner options that will save money in the long run, since you’ll be using what’s already on hand. It will also help decrease food waste, which is important, since a shocking 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted,
costing the country $165 billion.
Schedule about 20 minutes of meal planning in to your weekly calendar, and put a reminder on the fridge to keep yourself motivated. Once it’s a habit, you’ll be impressed by how much time and money you save. To start, create a list of recipes and the quantities of all the ingredients you will need. Knowing what you’re going to cook when you go shopping can help you purchase the necessary quantities of food. Look for recipes that use similar ingredients to help you save even more money. For example, if you are buying a bag of carrots for vegetable soup, think about other ways to use the carrots, such as roasted in the oven with a whole chicken, chopped into a salad or shredded into slaw.
Buy produce on sale and in season.
Fruits and vegetables can be expensive, so watch for sales. And consider substituting a cheaper fruit or vegetable for the more expensive one listed in a recipe. Additionally, fruits and vegetables tend to be less expensive when you buy them in season. When buying foods out of season, you’ll find better prices in the frozen section. Also visit your local farmers market during peak season, since it can be a cheaper option than the grocery store.
Buy foods whole.
Buying pre-cut fruits and vegetables can add unnecessary costs to your shopping trip. Products such as pre-packaged shredded carrots and cheese are more expensive than buying them whole and shredding them at home. Purchase fresh produce if you can use it within a week or so, otherwise opt for frozen produce—it’s just as nutrient-rich as the fresh versions.
Schedule prep work.
Use free time on the weekends to get some prep work out of the way. If weekly meals are planned, cut up veggies for each meal and store them in ready-to-cook containers. This will make cooking quick and easy when you are pressed for time during the week. Cook some foods, like rice or oatmeal, in big batches ahead of time and reheat when you’re ready to eat.
Buy in bulk when possible.
You don’t have to go to a wholesale market to get the benefits of buying in bulk. Many supermarkets now have small bulk sections. Common bulk items include beans, lentils, rice, quinoa
, oatmeal, nuts and dried fruits. Store bulk foods in airtight containers to extend shelf life.
Make meat the accent.
Often, meat is the highlight of American dinners, but it doesn’t have to be. Making meat an accent rather than the main focus can help cut costs. Instead, highlight a variety of colorful vegetables and plant proteins, such as beans, tofu, quinoa and nuts. As an added bonus, research shows there are health benefits to eating a more plant-based diet.
Stock up on canned beans.
They’re shelf stable, so you can keep them for long periods of time. Make beans the protein source one meal a week to save money in the long run. Use beans
in stir-fries, soups, chili, salads or lasagnas.
Soup is a delicious and filling meal and also very inexpensive. It’s also a great way to use leftover foods from the fridge. Do you have half a carrot, two celery stalks and a can of beans? Toss them in a pot with chicken or vegetable stock to create a simple vegetable soup
Make your own broth.
Store carrot peels, celery tops, onion skins and bones from roasted chickens or turkeys in the freezer. Once you have enough, place the scraps in a large stockpot. Add herbs like bay leaves, thyme and parsley, then fill the pot 3/4 of the way with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover and lower heat. Simmer for at least an hour, strain it, and voila, you have a homemade, delicious broth. Use within one week, or store it in the freezer for up to six months.
Use all edible parts of the plant.
You can eat the greens of root vegetables such as beets and turnips, the vines of squash plants, the stems and leaves of broccoli, the core of the cauliflower, and even zucchini blossoms. Use the greens from root vegetables to make pesto, or sauté them alone. Add squash vines to stir-fries or sauté them on their own. Cook the stems and leaves of broccoli with the florets. Roast a cauliflower core until it’s soft, and then add it to mashed potatoes, or cut it up and cook it with the florets. Stuff zucchini blossoms with ricotta cheese and veggies, then bake them in the oven until warm.
Grow something at home.
You don’t have to have a garden to grow your own food. You can grow foods in a small windowsill! Herbs can be expensive at the store, but they’re easy and affordable to grow at home. If you have a porch, grow something a little bit bigger, like tomatoes or zucchini. Growing your own will save you money, plus it’s a great way to get kids involved in gardening
Pack lunch boxes with extra ice.
Go heavy on ice packs when packing lunches
. This way, if family members are still hungry hours after lunch, they can safely eat leftovers, if there are any. After all, ingredients for turkey sandwiches and fruit salad cost money! With extra ice packs, you can salvage them.
By using these planning and money-saving techniques, you can reduce the stress around cooking and enjoy providing nutritious meals for your family. Make a commitment to try your favorite tip this week, and continue to experiment with new ways to make cooking easier and more affordable.