Cooking School: Frugal Dinners

Photo Credit: Tax Credits via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tax Credits via Compfight cc

There are blogs devoted to saving money, couponing, and getting the best deal on everything you buy.  Unfortunately, I just can’t get excited about that stuff.  I really dislike grocery shopping, so I’ve always gone for about speed and convenience over getting the best price on every item.  However… Now that I’m paying for two kids in daycare, it is becoming clear that I have to start paying more attention to our budget. After tracking our spending for a couple of weeks, our grocery and household budget is an area that can definitely use some trimming.   I’ll write more about our budgeting (or lack thereof) later, but for now I want to talk about some ways to save money by cooking meals with inexpensive ingredients and stretching your more expensive ingredients to last longer.

Go meatless or meat-light.  Meat and dairy are some of the “spendier” items on my weekly grocery bill.  Many families have incorporated a meatless Monday or another vegetarian night each week for the health benefits as well as cost savings.  My husband usually doesn’t enjoy vegetarian meals unless they’re fairly elaborate, like Indian meals with lots of side dishes (which I love but rarely have time to prepare). So instead of going completely meatless, I’ve been trying to cut the meat in some of our dinners down by as much as half, by mixing it with grains, beans or other vegetables.  (Here’s a whole post devoted to hiding veggies in plain sight!)  This sneaky trick works great in casseroles, enchiladas, chili, and soup.  I can also usually get away with a meatless meal as long as it has a significant helping of eggs in it, like a veggie quiche.  (Lentil sloppy joes are pretty good, too!)

Shop in season. I don’t always follow this advice these days, since my son loves grapes even in the winter when they’re ridiculously overpriced.  But when you can, buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is so much more affordable than those that have to be flown in from the southern hemisphere.  (Also — nothing beats good in-season produce for taste.  I’ve pretty much stopped eating fresh tomatoes except for during the summer.)  For family favorites that aren’t in season, try the freezer section.  I can almost guarantee it will be cheaper, and they still taste pretty good.

Buy in bulk. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce that I have found that our local Sam’s Club lately (we don’t have Costco but I suspect it is similar). With a little bit of planning, even our family of four (two adults and two small children) can usually use the larger quantity packages that are sold at the warehouse clubs.  Here are my use-it-up strategies:

  • plan meals that use a lot of whatever you’ve bought (like fajitas for a large pack of bell peppers)
  • wash and chop the fruits and veggies as soon as you get home from the store to encourage healthy snacking
  • use them in freezer meals 
  • buy vegetables that can be frozen (did you know you can even freeze spinach to use it in smoothies or cook it in the future?)

Go exploring.  Two of my best bargain grocery shopping tips (especially if you like to cook ethnic foods) are buying spices from the bulk bins at the local health food store, and buying sauces and and other speciality ingredients at ethnic markets.  I don’t have time to run down every sale in town at a zillion different grocery stores, but these are staple items that you can stock up on, and it’s really worth the extra trip — we’re talking prices that are half or a third of what you would pay at the grocery store.

Rubber chicken.  Yeah, it’s cliche, but it’s true — you really can s t r e t c h a single chicken into a lot of meals.  First, buying a fryer is cheaper per pound than buying the pieces cut up.  You can cook the breasts for one meal, then throw the thighs and drumsticks in the crockpot for another meal.  (Mmm…chicken pot pie.)  Use the backbone and other random bits to make stock for soup.  (Don’t be scared of cutting up the chicken yourself!  Get yourself a sharp knife and watch this YouTube video to learn how.)  You might even be able to pick off the last bits of meat from the carcass to use in enchiladas or a casserole.

What are your best budget-friendly cooking tips or recipes?

And an annoucement:  Shira Miller won the Wildtree giveaway by liking my Facebook page.  Thanks to everyone who entered!

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42 thoughts on “Cooking School: Frugal Dinners

    • Me too! I’m hoping people will chime in with more tips in the comments. Like I said, I’ve always assumed cooking at home was so much cheaper than eating out, so I didn’t have to watch my budget. But truthfully, it’s a little out of control. It doesn’t help that the most convenient grocery store to my house is way overpriced on most things.

    • That works! There’s nothing worse than wasting food because you’ve made something you don’t like in the name of frugality — it’s not frugal if you toss it, is it? That’s the same reason I don’t make many straight-up vegetarian meals. If my husband’s going to make himself a sandwich after dinner, it kind of defeats the purpose!
      Sarah recently posted…Cooking School: Frugal DinnersMy Profile

  1. We eat really simply for a lot of reasons. One of them being budget. Sometimes I find when cooking recipes you get trapped into buying a lot of ingredients you don’t need. I agree with shopping in season and we shop at a Farmers Market. They are always throwing “extras” in our bags.
    Tara Newman recently posted…Weight Vest TrainingMy Profile

  2. Costco has really stepped up their game with organic produce, free range/organic poultry and gluten free goodies. I buy in bulk, even though it’s only the 2 of us and freeze everything I can. Stark reminder that I’m a boring adult: watching our grocery budget go down excites me. I think I need a new hobby 🙂
    Kristina @ Damn Ten Pounds recently posted…If I ruled the worldMy Profile

  3. One of my favorite topics! When there’s a good sale on meat, I like to get a large enough piece/pack to cook once and stretch it for a few meals. For example, here’s one of my favorite recipes for pork shoulder: http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/2010/02/slow-cooker-carnitas-recipe.html
    The first night, we’ll eat tacos. Then I’ll freeze two more portions, and have tamale pie one night and tortilla soup or taco salad another. (We could do all three in the same week, but that tends to spark loud protests.) Just having fully cooked meat at the ready makes the whole idea of a home-cooked meal more manageable, and it does stretch a dollar.
    Meg recently posted…Happy Valentine’s Day!My Profile

  4. Great tip to shop at “ethnic stores” for spices and such. I actually shop at the International supermarket because I find EVERYTHING except the “American” stuff is cheaper – produce, meats and the seafood is sooo much cheaper and fresher. I buy organic fruits and milk, cereal, paper towels, etc. at the Giant. I also want to “beef up” my meals with more proteins like legumes and also veggies so I use less meat. It’s not only good for your wallet but for your heart too. I like the blogs Vegan Miam and Oh My Veggies.
    lisacng @ expandng.com recently posted…Lack of words. Photos of boy and puppy instead.My Profile

  5. I enjoy your tips better than my old standby, which was to just shop for the kids and eat their scraps. Wheeeee! Terrible.
    We can’t buy meat unless it’s local and organic (or I get nutty on my husband) and since we’re pretty poor, we do go light with the meat.
    We have a HUGE garden so during the spring and summer, produce is free, (well..not really but you know what I mean) local and organic. The problem is that last year, we had too much and wasted enough.
    I think just a chest freezer in the garage could salvage a lot.
    Tamara recently posted…Wait, What? Is This a Dream?My Profile

    • I really wish I could get my family on board with the local/organic meat. But until we can regularly eat less meat without my husband whining that he doesn’t feel full, I don’t see it happening. I’m so jealous of your garden! But not really, because those things are a lot of work! Do you can any of your produce? My grandma has a huge garden and she cans and freezes enough produce (mostly corn, green beans, and tomatoes) to last all winter.
      Sarah recently posted…Cooking School: Frugal DinnersMy Profile

  6. Our closest local grocery store is closed FOR A YEAR while they do renovations. #Firstworldproblems, I know, but now the closest grocery store to us is Trader Joe’s. Uh-oh. Hoping it won’t be a major budget killer 😉
    These are some great tips. I feel like I do alright at stretching out our meats, and on weekends I have been making a trip to a local store that has the cheapest produce in town but is a little farther away. And then I get everyday or canned stuff, milk, etc at a regular chain.
    Allie @ Days Like These recently posted…The Fine LineMy Profile

  7. When we moved back here, I visited 5 different grocery stores with a list of the 10 most common grocery items I buy. I compared prices (some stores didn’t even sell some of those items), and now I drive from Ozark to the Dillons at Battlefield and Kansas to shop (passing probably 4-5 other stores along the way). I’ve also found that loading the digital coupons onto my Dillons card is worth the time. I use paper coupons too, but the digital coupons are a good option if you don’t want to deal with cutting and carrying the paper.
    Fawn @ Instead of the Dishes recently posted…Free Fun in 417 with Kids: February 21-27My Profile

    • Fawn, I’ve been thinking I needed to try Dillon’s. I sometimes stop in the one at St. Louis and National on my way home from work, and their prices are definitely lower than Price Cutter’s (which is my over-priced but extremely convenient grocery store). I signed up for the digital coupons — those are really cool! Thank you for the tip.
      Sarah recently posted…Cooking School: Frugal DinnersMy Profile

  8. My mom always used whole fryer chickens when we were growing up. I have trouble with the whole removing the neck and other innards part … but I’m pretty sure I could convince Jim to do that 🙂 My grandma always cooked them in the slow cooker to use in casseroles later. I like that idea, and I’ve seen a slow cooker “rotisserie style” chicken that sounds like a great take on that method of cooking it.

    Great suggestions. Keeping our food budget down is always a struggle here, too! I didn’t cook at all this week because we were all felled by a gastrointestinal thing — I’m pretty sure we saved a lot of $ in the form of grocery expenses!
    Shana Norris recently posted…Say Goodbye to Survival Mode.My Profile

    • That is awesome! I think I could handle couponing if I just skip 90% of the crap in there (packaged foods, etc.) and just focus on items I would actually use. I always get distracted by all the shiny cleaning products. =) I honestly haven’t paid much attention to the groceries at Target because I’ve always assumed they were overpriced. Apparently not!
      Sarah recently posted…Cooking School: Frugal DinnersMy Profile

  9. I’m so bad about sticking to a grocery budget. Over the years I’ve learned what I should buy in bulk to save money, and what will just go to waste. I do freeze produce in the summer to use in the fall and winter; we belong to a CSA and I can only eat corn on the cob for so many consecutive weeks! I’d love to buy more organic and local meats, but it’s costly and not as convenient to get.
    Dana recently posted…NJ asks away!My Profile

  10. I’m totally okay with meatless meals, but my husband always says he wants meat after a 12 hour day at work, so we do eat meat almost every day. And a roast chicken, it’s true, can be so useful! Just today I was tearing bits off of a carcass and I’ll add them to a salad for his dinner tonight–ta-da, healthy, filling meal with meat that was already cooked!

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