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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Eating Healthy, Delicious and Nutritious Meals on the Cheap

I wanted to take some time today to address the topic of eating healthy and delicious meals at home on the cheap. It is a very relevant topic for those of us opting for self-employment, as find our incomes constricted, at least initially, while we start our businesses. Consequently we find ourselves cutting back on expenses such as eating out.

There is no reason why our palettes, or our health must suffer. In fact, I would venture to suggest that working from home gives us the opportunity to eat better than we ever have for much less than you thought possible. If you want to know how, read on.

What Kills Our Grocery Budget

There are certain foods that are always expensive and push our grocery bills up to high levels. By high, I mean over $150-$200 per week for 2 adults. The following foods should, and can generally be avoided for general consumption:

1. Beef steaks and cuts other than chuck, blade or stewing beef. These are very expensive and while they are a great treat, there are so many more delicious recipes you can make with cheaper cuts of beef that taste just as good.

2. Pork medallions and loin chops. Again this are much more expensive than shoulder butt, which although fatty can have the excess fat trimmed off.

3. Boneless meats. They are usually twice as expensive per pound and it isn't because bone-in meat weighs twice as much, because it doesn't. It is because you are paying the butcher's labour cost. As I have shown in my earlier posts, you can use the bones to make stock, which will prove to be one of your wonder ingredients.

4. Most condiments and sauces. These are very expensive and are full of preservatives and additives that are not good for us to be consuming on a daily basis. Exceptions to this are things like soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegars and cooking wines that cannot be made at home. Most of these things though are not that expensive. The things to avoid are the marinades, stir-fry sauces and salad dressings. All of these things can be made quickly and cheaply using fresh ingredients like garlic, fresh herbs, soy sauce and lemon juice.

5. Almost all packaged, processed foods from the centre aisles of the supermarket. Again there are many exceptions as the centre aisles contain your staples such as pasta,  rice, sugar, spices, flour and these are all important. But these are all basic ingredients that cannot easily be made at home. Similarly items like tomato paste, stock and canned tomato sauce are all useful to have on hand and not too expensive. It is generally items that you can easily make at home that you want to avoid like cookies, pre-packaged dinners, frozen dinners, canned curries, frozen dinners and the like.

6. Fresh herbs. You are best off growing these in little pots at home. If you buy them at the supermarket, you pay through the nose: $2-$3 just to get the teaspoon you need. The rest winds up rotting in your vegetable crisper.

The Wonder Ingredients

There are some foods that will always be cheap to purchase, that will always enhance the taste and nutritional value of the recipes you use them in:

1. Vegetable, Beef and Chicken Stock: Any time you are boiling vegetables that you later flavour with salt and butter, consider substituting the water with stock instead. Instead of using butter and cream in mashed potatoes, consider using stock instead. When making rice consider using stock in place of water.

2. Fresh Herbs Grown at Home: a herb plant will cost you $2-3 but will yield you fresh basil, oregano, rosemary, dill, tarragon, savory, marjoram and the like for the entire year. Investing $25-$30 in a herb garden will prove to be one of the best investments you can make toward making delicious food. You will find that with proper use of herbs and other flavour enhancers like lemon juice, cooking wine, Worcherstershire sauce, and vinegars you can greatly reduce the salt content of your food.

3. Onions, Green Onions and Garlic. Show me a single recipe of food that contains sauteed onions or garlic that does not taste better because of them. They are also dirt cheap.

4. Carrots. Good for adding sweetness and depth of flavour to slow cooked stews.

5. Lemons and Limes. The juice is an excellent source of vitamin C and flavour enhancer. The grated rind is an excellent source of lemon or lime flavour.

6. Fresh tomatoes. Again, show me a recipe that does not contain properly cooked tomato sauce that does not taste delicious. Once you reduce the acidity of tomatoes through the cooking process, tomatoes add sweetness and richness to most foods, especially when combined with herbs like savoury, marjoram and basil.

7. Butter. Need I say more? Everything tastes better with a little of it. I believe that it is actually a lot better for you than margarine. Many margarine products actually contain hydrogenated oils that are actually very bad for you. They are not natural so it is really any surprise?

Menu Planning

In order to cut down on grocery waste and take the guesswork out of meal preparation. I find it is a good idea to invest in a good slow cooker, and a few good cookbooks. I find the Joy of Cooking to be an excellent resource. Otherwise look for ones that contain recipes that are mostly simple ingredients, and recipes that entail more than one or two stages to the cooking process. The more stages there are to the cooking process, the better the food will taste, as a general rule. An example is my post on the roasted chicken stock where the extra step of browning the meat and vegetables is suggested, rather than just chucking the ingredients into a pot of water and hoping it will taste good.

Initially, it will seem cumbersome, but once you get the hang of planning menus and once you have made a repertoire of recipes several times, you will begin to develop a sense of how to combine ingredients together in a way that will be delicious on you own. It will start with making substitutions in the recipes themselves and seeing them turn out and will eventually get to the point where you can make a meal on the fly without a cookbook.

I started off by taking a Sunday afternoon to plan 4 weeks of dinners using my cookbook. As I made each meal Steph and I discussed whether we liked it and if it was a "make again". Then when it came time to plan the menu for week 5, I could introduce one new recipe and recycle four of our favourites from the last 4 weeks. This could be repeated for the next four weeks and continued indefinitely. I would use the notepad app on my phone for the menus and would have my shopping list at the bottom of the notepad, so that if I wanted to repeat the menu from several weeks past, I have my shopping list already. All I have to do is check the kitchen for stuff on the list I already have and then I just pick up the missing items.

I have found that this works wonders. Most of the meals have been delicious. They have been healthy and our consumption of processed foods have dropped drastically. Most importantly I have found that we have kept our food spending to an average of $130 CDN for a week and have not had to throw out much food at all.


  1. I love your cooking columns. Given all your spare time you could do a dedicated cooking blog :)

  2. You are kidding right Dale? Spare time? OMG My blogs are taking up 2-3 hours a day. I have to work to midnight 2 days a week to keep up with my lotting!