The uninitiated often think that restaurant cooking is all about using the finest ingredients, especially those that ordinary home cooks don’t have access to. This is not even close to the truth: any restaurant would soon go out of business if they tried it, and the foodstuffs restaurant supply houses sell are pretty much those you can find in any supermarket.
When chefs do spend extra on special ingredients like dry-aged steak, oysters and truffles, these are often destined to go into loss leaders: menu items designed to draw customers in, but which don’t themselves earn much of a profit for the restaurant. Instead, they’re hoping to make up the difference on drinks, soups and other dishes that are much cheaper to prepare.
In other words, restaurants are masters at creating good food on a budget, including healthy options. You can use many of the same tricks at home, from planning your menus as carefully as you choose your outfit for a first date, to bringing your food waste down to almost zero, to doing more of the work yourself, to selecting ingredients that are 90% as good yet cost half as much. You’ll see that following just a couple of basic principles can save you a ton of money while also improving your diet considerably.
Table of Contents
- 1 How to Win at Food Shopping
- 2 Eat Cheap and Healthy Ingredients: What Should Be on Your Shopping List
- 3 Finding Your Feet (and Inspiration) in the Kitchen
- 4 Eating on a Budget Without Becoming a Kitchen Artist
How to Win at Food Shopping
You may think you know everything there is to about shopping; chances are that you’ve been doing it a while and you’re capable of pushing a cart around without hurting yourself. If you want to save money on groceries and eat healthier, however, you’ll find there are a few extra skills to learn. Many of these are used outside, not in, the supermarket.
Plan Ahead Like You’re Getting Paid for It
How many of you can relate: I currently have four cans of sweetcorn in my kitchen. I don’t even like sweetcorn, but for some reason it seems like something you should keep on hand. The cans just keep hiding out in the back of the cupboard; every month or so, when I can’t remember whether I already have one, they welcome another sibling into the family. I will probably still have a sweetcorn collection when I die.
This may seem like a trivial thing, but it’s only one example of what happens when you don’t plan your meals and shop accordingly. What’s the alternative, and how does planning benefit your health and your wallet?
Organize Your Cooking Around Your Schedule Instead of Vice Versa
Really, the only way of eating healthy on a budget is to prepare your own meals. Pre-packaged health foods are available, but they normally cost a lot more than their calorie-heavy counterparts (and often aren’t actually good for you in the first place!).
We’ll show you more about cooking healthy, delicious, inexpensive meals without burning your fingers or losing your mind in a minute. First, however, let’s talk a little about how planning your meals ahead of time actually makes preparing them easier.
Most recipe books geared towards meal planning will give you an estimate of how long an average cook will take from picking up a paring knife to placing a dish on the dinner table. This is usually divided in to active preparation time and total cooking time: there are plenty of tasty recipes you can make in under 15 minutes, even if you have to wait a little longer for it to actually be ready. You can therefore pick a simple, quick dish for those evenings when you simply don’t have a lot of time (and ordering a greasy pizza starts looking like a great idea). By the time you get home, you already know you have all the ingredients you need – no sundown supermarket runs required.
On other days, you may have plenty of time available. Instead of spending 3 hours on Youtube, you can be productive and get on with making dozens of portions of something more involved, like a traditional casserole or lasagna. Then, divide these into appropriate sizes and freeze them for later. This is just as convenient as microwave dinners, almost always tastier and healthier, and will cost you a lot less.
You can find pretty much the same principle in most restaurants, especially smaller ones running a shoestring kitchen staff. Some menu items, like salads and fish, have to be made to order: these will be counterbalanced with dishes prepared during the morning shift in order to get orders out quickly.
Shamefully, almost two fifths of food in America ends up in landfill. If any restaurant manager even came close to this figure, he would be fired if not actually shoved into a dumpster himself.
Professional kitchens have a number of ways to reduce food waste: the chef may design a special to use up an ingredient that’s getting old, leftovers are organized and clearly marked, refrigerators are faithfully calibrated to the right temperature, and almost everything that somehow still doesn’t get sold is either used in soup and sauces or donated to charity.
The most important part of reducing food waste in restaurants, though, is intelligent buying. Restaurants have to use a crystal ball to predict how many customers they’ll have and what they’ll order – if you do proper meal planning, on the other hand, you’ll know how much of what you need to the nearest ounce. If you have a store located conveniently on the way home from work, you can even buy seafood, vegetables and fruit on the day you use them for the best possible flavor.
Planning your meals and shopping ahead of time also makes it much easier to ensure you get a balanced diet. As one example, a typical adult needs about 60 grams of protein per day. This doesn’t mean you have to eat exactly 60 grams every day, it just has to average out over time. Similarly, most people need about 2,000 calories daily, but there seem to be major health benefits to varying the amount you eat on different days.
If you already include some vegetables in your diet, great, but eating a variety is just as important. Your body needs the folate and iron from spinach, the manganese from onions, the potassium from root vegetables as well as plenty of other stuff, even if the amounts of each are small. Laying out a meal plan for the entire week will ensure that you don’t eat only your favorites.
Meal planning has another advantage, too: consuming only what you need. Overeating brings you no closer to your health goals, expands your waistline and raises your food budget more than you can imagine. Restaurants have long realized how important portion control is to their bottom line: if you order an eight-ounce steak, you can be sure that it’s not much over 8½ oz.
How Meal Planning Works
If you simply eat whatever you want whenever you feel like it, you’ll never eat cheap and healthy. Our monkey brains are programmed to fill up on all kinds of bad things that didn’t even exist a hundred years ago. Most people don’t have the willpower required to break this conditioning, which is why some form of meal planning is essential.
Over time, people have studied different approaches and turned meal planning into something of a science. It’s up to you if you want to count calories, eliminate gluten from your diet or try following some weird (and unproven) diet. All that’s necessary to eating healthy on a budget is that you more or less follow the following steps:
- Choose a recipe for each meal. You could simply select a couple of your favorites that look economical and nutritious. Using an app makes things much simpler, though: depending on which you install, you can search through recipes based on dietary requirements, favorite ingredients, and how long each takes to prepare. Some even suggest particular meals depending on which ingredients are on sale near you and tell you what kinds of food will round out your diet depending on factors like your weight, age and gender. Dinner will usually be the main event, but don’t forget about packed lunches and something for breakfast.
- Go shopping. Your app should have generated a complete shopping list for you, so you don’t have to do the math. You may want to add in additional things like snacks and delete ingredients you already have in your pantry. It’s best if you do this once a week on Saturday or Sunday and work everything into one shopping trip. Driving to the store multiple times eats up gas and time, and makes you more likely to buy things you know you shouldn’t. If an item is not on the list, it shouldn’t be in your cart, even if it consists of pure chocolatey goodness – this is why you should never go shopping when hungry.
- Prepare some or all of your meals in advance. You’re welcome, of course, to incorporate takeout and restaurant meals into your meal plans. If you want to eat cheap and healthy, though, it’s really recommended that you have at least one dinner prepared in advance so the Monday blues don’t lead you to choose a convenience meal you don’t really want to pay for.
That’s literally all there is to meal planning, even though it has a reputation for being complicated and time consuming. It can be as fancy or as simple as you choose to make it. As for the amount of time it takes you: eating fresh food is always going to be a little more demanding than ordering in, but spending an hour or two in the kitchen on Sunday will simplify things immensely later on in the week. Even if you just peel and chop some garlic, onions and carrots, you’ve already given yourself a head start.
Eat Cheap and Healthy Ingredients: What Should Be on Your Shopping List
You are what you eat, they say, but I’m pretty sure I’m not 50% Italian. What’s meant by this phrase, obviously, is that your body will thank you when you fuel it with the right stuff, including by making you feel more cheerful and motivated.
What we’re after is doing this on a budget. According to one study from Harvard University, eating healthy rather than junk costs an average of $1.50 more per person per day – not that much, but it adds up to almost $100 a month for a couple, which you can easily find better uses for. Looking at the nitty-gritty of the paper, however, you’ll see that you can shave more than a couple of cents off this figure. The data was collected in 10 countries, so your situation may be different. $1.50/day is also based on an “average” diet and retail prices: if you shop smart and choose economical recipes and ingredients, you may as well forget about this number.
The First Step Towards Eating Healthy on a Budget: Ditch Overpriced, Harmful Foodstuffs
Although a lot of companies trying to sell you their pre-packaged, “healthy” food will tell you otherwise, it’s actually easier to diet on a budget than by spending more. Many people make the mistake of thinking that cheap fast food – one-dollar burgers, frozen pizza, ramen – is the cheapest way to eat. Leaving aside the fact that these are the nutritional equivalents of a pipe bomb, any apparent savings disappear very quickly when you take into account one simple fact: these foods are less satisfying. Somewhat disturbingly, they’re actually engineered to keep you chewing.>
Within two hours, you’ll be hungry again and end up gaining a ton of weight with this all-carb-and-fat diet. You should also be thinking about future medical and dental bills: next to smoking, what you eat is the biggest disease risk factor that’s actually under your control.
Even seemingly innocuous pre-packaged salads can be terrible for you. If you really want to eat healthy and lose weight, preparing your own food is the only option. The more processed something is, the less nutrition it contains.
You can easily replace all of these junk foods, whether on-the-go snacks or comfort food meals, with options that are better for you and cost less. You should outgrow your old cravings in about two weeks. Try the following substitutions:
- Instead of breakfast cereals consisting of nothing but sugar and regret, try oatmeal and fruit. Alternatively, you can bake a few dozen muffins and take some from the freezer as needed.
- Bottled juice contains almost as much sugar as soda; try making your own iced tea instead.
- Popcorn is perfect to munch on when settling on the couch. Popping your own from kernels is about four times cheaper and you can control how much salt, fat and flavorings goes into it.
- As long as you go easy on the dip, crudite – i.e. fancy sliced raw vegetables – are way, way better for you than potato chips.
- Stuffed vegetables topped with cheese will make you forget how much you love pizza and don’t contain nearly as much oil.
- Weird as it seems, frozen mashed bananas are just as good as ice cream but with half the calories.
Money in Your Pocket Every Time You Shop
You probably already have a fairly good idea which ingredients are cheaper to buy than others. It’s also important to realize that eating on a budget will only work out if you do it consistently: even if you choose low-cost recipes and cook them yourself, you’ll still spend more than you have to if you don’t make an effort to find the cheapest ingredients. Here are some tips:
Don’t Get Taken in by Brands
There’s definitely a difference between expensive and less pricey pasta, but paying more isn’t always worth it. Store brand spaghetti is often perfectly fine and significantly cheaper. Similarly, the more something has been processed, the more you’ll pay: block cheese is usually less per pound than shredded, hamburger less than patties and dried chickpeas cheaper than canned. You can also get pretty much the same result by substituting cheaper ingredients for premium ones, like using cheaper cuts of beef in a slow cooker.
Jump on Sales
Staples like dry and canned goods can last for months if not years, so stock up when the opportunity presents itself. If you’re the hands-on type, you can also learn how to dry or otherwise preserve fresh produce when it’s in season and available at a bargain. Jams and dried fruit also make great gifts.
Beans Instead of Beef
Though most restaurants now at least try to offer vegetarian options, customers still expect to see menus where almost all the protein was once swimming, walking or flying. If more people changed their preconceptions a little bit, they’d discover a whole new galaxy of delights.
Replacing animal protein with the vegetable kind is also better for your health and a great opportunity to save some money. The following is based on a quick poll of average retail prices, those at your regular stores may vary:
Even considering these savings, many people are concerned about legumes causing flatulence. You’ll find that this is much less of a problem than cartoons like to suggest. Beans are also incredibly versatile. If you’ve not yet been introduced to the wonders of legumes: try making this restaurant-quality soup:
just fry some cauliflower, carrots and seasonings in a large pot, adding boiling water and a handful of cooked beans when they’re done. Liquidize the lot with an immersion blender, and you have a delicious, nearly-instant meal packed with nutrition. That’s the basic recipe; you can add as many wrinkles to it as you want.
Eat Cheap and Healthy, But Don’t Deprive Yourself
You’ve probably seen by now that eating healthy on a budget is indeed possible, but it’s also possible to take this too far. There is some stuff you shouldn’t scrimp on:
- Healthy cooking oil. Tropical oils like palm are high in saturated fats, making them unhealthy to cook with. Stick with sunflower or canola, and perhaps high-quality olive oil to rev up your salads.
- Seasonings. Spices, dried or fresh herbs, vinegar, mustard: the amounts of these you use are tiny, and they make all the difference when it comes to taste.
- Seafood. Smoked salmon may no longer be in your budget, but eating fish once a week makes a big difference to your health. Try canned mackerel or sardines: they’re economical and packed with heart-healthy omega oils.
- Healthy seeds. Nuts and almonds, delicious as they are, also cost quite a bit. It’s easy to replace them with ingredients like flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Forget About Organic
I’m not a nutritionist, and even if I were, my opinion wouldn’t necessarily count for much – there’s plenty of misinformation out there. What’s nearly certain, however, is that buying organic produce isn’t worth it if it means eating less fruit and vegetables overall. Chemical-free tastes much better, but the health differences are minimal, so concentrate on quantity before worrying about quality.
Finding Your Feet (and Inspiration) in the Kitchen
Now we get to the hard part of learning how to eat healthy on a budget: preparing your own meals. The big secret is this: it’s really not hard when you go in with the right attitude.
Even the most famous chefs once had to learn how to hold a knife, how long to boil an egg and how to measure flour. They became great because they stuck with it and kept on learning.
You, however, are probably not planning to get a Michelin star any time soon. All you need to know to become master of your own kitchen can be learned in a few dozen attempts. Try to follow recipe instructions, don’t be afraid to critique your results (but not too harshly), and remember that confidence can make up for inexperience more often than you think.
Kitchen Basics Anyone can Learn
Once you start cooking, you’ll learn how easy it really is. Advanced techniques will still be beyond your grasp, but every new success lets you try more recipes. If you’re currently more of a microwave wizard, you can still get in on the action; learn the following fool-proof skills and you’ll already be well on your way:
- Boiling pasta. This is literally the simplest thing you can do and will give you access to thousands of meal choices.
- Make a vegetable stirfry. You don’t have to toss the pan like in the movies, just use the highest heat you can manage. This delicious side will boost your nutrient intake immensely. Adding some fresh ginger, lemon juice and sesame seeds will convince even the most carnivorous toddler to eat their vegetables.
- Create a stock. Instead of buying canned broth, you can use leftover bones, vegetable peelings and food you’re about to throw out as the start of a fantastic soup.
- Roast a chicken and vegetables. Whole chickens are a great budget protein for the busy cook, and everyone loves it roasted. Bonus points for being able to carve one into portions.
- Create a salad. Raw food should really make up part of every diet. A nutritious, light salad adds variety to a meal and doesn’t cost much – as long as you whisk up your own dressing.
- Prepare one dessert from scratch. Everybody needs something sweet once in a while, but the last thing the healthy, thrifty eater wants is to spend money on store-bought treats.
Saving Time on Thursday Nights
Many people are put off the whole idea of cooking by the amount of knife work involved. The truth is that most chefs aren’t too fond of slicing and dicing either: that’s what apprentices are for. Called mise en place in the trade (probably because “place in place” sounds stupid in English), getting everything ready to jump into the saucepan is often the most time-consuming part of preparing a meal. Don’t let this discourage you: there are some things you can use to cut down on the time spent in the kitchen (other than hiring an apprentice or letting your kids loose with cleavers):
- Buy a food processor: Especially when making a lot of one dish, this will save your sanity. It will also let you prepare a wider range of low-cost, nourishing recipes with ease: how about French onion soup or homemade hummus for only a fraction of what it costs at the store?
- Learn how to slice vegetables: Many people struggle with preparing things like bell peppers, leeks and of course artichokes only because nobody ever showed them the right way. Honestly, experienced cooks cringe at how beginners use knives; not only because of the waste of time but because of how much more dangerous poor technique is.
- Buy your vegetables pre-sliced: This can be a lifesaver when you’re pressed for time and the kids are wailing for dinner. If possible, get them frozen: prepared fresh vegetables start losing much of their nutritional value once the skin is breached. If you want to have a healthy snack always available, store them in water or learn about pickling. Most butchers will also be happy to dice or even debone meat for you if you ask them nicely.
There’s this myth that just refuses to die: meat is a necessary component of any healthy diet, particularly for health-conscious people who like to work out. Let’s all make it a point to tell these guys what they’re missing:
Vegan and vegetarian athletes will typically tell you that eating meat would only hold them back: not only do they get all the protein they need, they can train a lot harder since their bodies recover much faster. As a bonus for people trying to slim down, people pretty generally lose weight after switching to a meatless diet.
Note that swearing off dairy and eggs as well as meat places you at risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency. This can easily be rectified by taking a supplement designed for vegans.
Cutting out pork chops, hamburgers and even chicken from your diet may seem like a tall order, but the health benefits as well as the possible savings are undeniable. A middle road that’s much easier is to cook a meatless dinner one or two days a week. You’ll find that there are plenty of cost-conscious, healthy vegetarian meals that will please even the most devoted meat-eater:
Eating on a Budget Without Becoming a Kitchen Artist
Remember that when you first start eating healthy on a budget, it takes at least a month to really notice the effects on your body (and probably longer in your bank account). The best advice is therefore to commit and not give in to your desire for unappetizing, overpriced and eventually lethal junk food. Learn a few recipes, then add another every week for variety and to build up your repertoire. Cooking is indeed fun when you approach it with the right mindset, and will soon become a kind of hobby.