Whether you need a swap in a pinch or you're having trouble finding what you're looking for at the store, these tips will help you make your favorite recipes more affordable.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
April 05, 2020
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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Grocery shopping these days is a bit of adventure (here are our tips to stay safe while you're at the store). You may have planned on buying chicken breast, only to realize your store is all out. Many of us are also looking for ways to make our dollar go further and our food last longer. It's especially important to be flexible as you're shopping and cooking and be open to trying meals with a twist.

These affordable ingredient swaps will help you do both, without sacrificing nutrition. These are some of the healthy, accessible foods that I swap in a pinch.

1. Beans for Meat

The possibilities with beans are pretty much endless. Swap out beef for something like our delicious Sweet Potato-Black Bean Burgers. Give chicken and pork a rest with our Black Bean Tacos Recipe. Beans come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors that make them a versatile plant-based protein for any type of cuisine. Beans are shelf stable and a fraction of the price of poultry and red meat, especially foods like lamb or beef. They are much easier on the environment, too. Looking to save even more? Try buying dry beans and cooking them yourself, we even have this guide for How to Cook Dried Beans to get you started.

2. Frozen for Fresh

The frozen aisle often gets overlooked as processed or not as healthy, but the frozen section is always a great place to shop, especially now. I buy berries almost exclusively frozen because you get more fruit that is picked at peak ripeness for a fraction of the price of fresh. Just let it thaw a little, and they can be used in lots of recipes (I love to make smoothies, yogurt bowls and muffins). Also, for some vegetables like corn, peas and broccoli, I go for frozen over fresh. They have a longer shelf-life, save me space in the fridge and help me easily eat more vegetables. They are also typically lower in sodium than canned versions (although those are OK to use right now too).

In some cases, frozen meat and fish can be cheaper than fresh alternatives. You can always buy meat when it's available or on sale, and freeze it yourself.

3. Canned Fish for Fresh Fish

Not only is tuna or salmon salad a delicious (and underrated) go-to meal in a pinch, but anchovies add flavor and umami to everything from salad dressings to stews. I always opt for canned fish in recipes where it doesn't make a difference, like pasta, salad and fish cakes. Canned fish is super affordable and lasts for months in your pantry. In fact, there are some recipes that work even better with canned fish than fresh. Need proof? Check out our Easy Salmon Cakes or our One-Pot Tuna Pasta.

4. Chicken Thighs for Chicken Breast

Not only are chicken thighs cheaper than breasts, but, in my opinion, they are more flavorful. If you buy boneless skinless thighs, they can be used in place of chicken breast in most recipes, though they may cook slightly longer depending on their thickness and size. Here are some healthy chicken thigh recipes to try.

If you are really looking to save money and are not averse to some light butchering at home, buy a whole chicken or chicken quarter. Breaking down a whole chicken is easier than you may think, and you are left with breasts, thighs and more. It is a great cooking project when you have more time at home as well. You can also make a phenomenal chicken stock with the bones (see below for more).

5.Cream Cheese for Goat Cheese

Goat cheese is a creamy and delicious boost to several dishes, but it is not necessarily cheap. Try swapping in a more reasonably-priced, equally-delicious ingredient like cream cheese. In a stew or smeared on toast, you'll still get that creamy, cheesy flavor. If you want more tangy flavor, just add a little plain yogurt. However, for some dishes like salads, I would suggest opting for a different cheese, since cream cheese does not crumble like goat cheese.

6. Homemade Stock for Store Bought Stock

Making stock at home is practically free. Start saving vegetable scraps and meat bones in a gallon bag in your freezer. Once you have stockpiled enough for the amount of stock you want to make, simply add it to a pot of water and let it simmer for anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, adding water as needed. This will save you the money you'd spend on store bought stock, and helps you repurpose food scraps that would have been wasted. Check out our recipe for Vegetable Stock with Kitchen Scraps to get you started.

Bottom Line

Whether it's opting for plant-based burgers or tacos, or getting your creamy fix from cream cheese rather than goat cheese, these ingredient swaps help you save money while helping you cook healthy meals. Not to mention, foods like canned fish and frozen berries last much longer than their fresh counterparts, without sacrificing nutrition. Try these ingredients to help you skip the specialty products, save money and eat healthy.