Once you’ve made your plan and gone shopping, it’s time to roll up your sleeves in the kitchen. Get familiar with the best cooking techniques for inexpensive ingredients. Be prepared with clever ways to use leftovers or foods that are a bit past their prime. And, of course, know how to properly store leftovers and extra ingredients to avoid waste. Here are some tips to help you in the kitchen.
According to nutrition experts, a healthy serving of cooked meat is 3 ounces. That’s about 4 ounces raw. If you’re eating meat for dinner aim for it to take up no more than one-quarter of your plate. Fill half the plate with vegetables and the final quarter with a whole grain. Eating less meat is better for your health and your budget.
Tougher cuts of beef and pork are a lot cheaper than steaks and chops (about $2 to $6 per pound for many cuts compared with $10 or more per pound for steaks), but no one wants to eat a piece of leather for dinner. The best way to cook tough cuts of meat: cook them low and slow, usually for 3 or more hours, often in liquid, to make them melt-in-your-mouth tender. Try Chinese Pork & Vegetable Hot Pot (pictured) or Oven Barbecued Brisket.
Roasting a big piece of meat is an easy way to feed a crowd. Of course, a crown rib roast or beef tenderloin (unless your market is running an amazing special) isn’t an economical choice. So choose cuts, such as leg of lamb, turkey breast or pork shoulder, and roast them. Your guests will never guess that Middle Eastern Roast Lamb with Tahini Sauce costs less than $3 per serving.
Related Link: Vegetable Roasting Guide
Got a few vegetables or a little leftover meat? Maybe you have some fixings for a salad or a light soup, but it’s not quite dinner. Pasta and rice are cheap, healthy pantry items that let you turn a few leftovers into a meal. Try quickly sautéing peppers and onions and toss them with noodles, herbs and a little cheese, or add rice into a vegetable soup to make it more satisfying.
Stir-frying with plenty of vegetables and just a little bit of meat is an obvious choice when you want to make a quick and healthy dinner. It’s also very forgiving, so if you have a little extra onion or half a leftover zucchini you want to use up, just throw it in your stir-fry.
Related Link: Healthy Stir Fry Recipes and Tips
We like to double recipes so that we can get ahead on our cooking and have a dinner or lunch ready for later. The added benefit is it helps use up ingredients that we bought for that recipe (a bunch of herbs, for instance). Recipes that freeze well, like Rich Chicken Stew, Oven Barbecued Brisket and Hungarian Beef Goulash (pictured) are great ones to double. Also consider cooking an extra chicken or more meat than you need. The leftovers are great in soups, salads, quesadillas or hash later in the week.
Related Link: Healthy Make-Ahead Meals and Side Dishes
When you’re making dinner, think about what you’re going to eat for lunch tomorrow. If you’re making a salad for dinner, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed, for lunch the next day. And what about your leftovers from dinner? Is there a little extra chicken or maybe part of a can of beans? Toss that in with your lunch salad. Packing lunch is a great way to make sure you’re not wasting any leftovers—and to help you eat healthy, save money and save time throughout the day.
Related Link: Light Lunches
Turn stale bread into croutons for salads or soups. Just toss cubes with oil and some seasonings and bake them. Or turn stale bread into breadcrumbs to use in recipes like Black Bean Croquettes with Fresh Salsa or Stuffed Tomatoes with Golden Crumb Topping.
Related Link: Make Your Own Fresh Breadcrumbs
Freeze overripe bananas (peeled) if you don’t have time to use them immediately. Throw them into smoothies or defrost them when you want to make some banana bread or muffins.
Related Link: Healthy Banana Recipes
We like to keep citrus on hand because it’s a great way to perk up a sauce or a salad dressing. Keep lemons and limes in the refrigerator and if they start to get dried, shriveled or have brown spots on the skin, squeeze the juice and store it covered in the refrigerator or freezer.
Related Link: Healthy Citrus Recipes
Yes, it sounds like hyperbole, but vacuum-sealing tools are truly revolutionary when it comes to preserving food in the freezer. They ensure that your food—leftovers, meats, fruits, vegetable or extra stuff you bought in bulk—stays delicious, without freezer burn, for months.
Related Link: Healthy Freezer Recipes
Make sure you have sealable storage containers on hand to save leftovers. You can buy inexpensive clear plastic or glass ones at the supermarket. When they're clear you can tell what's in them at a glance, and may be more likely to eat the leftovers.
If you don't have hours to be at home tending a braise on the stove, try a slow cooker. It will give you the same effect (i.e., it gets tough, inexpensive cuts of meat meltingly tender), but you can plug it in, leave for the day and come home to a dinner like Rich Chicken Stew or Hungarian Beef Goulash. Look for used slow cookers at garage sales or make the investment in a new one that is programmable and will automatically switch to a "keep warm" setting when it's done cooking. They start at about $40.
Related Link: Easy Slow Cooker and Crock Pot Recipes