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Updated on Friday, February 8, 2019
Lobster tails, shrimp and filet mignon are foods that may come to mind when you think of the perfect gourmet meal. But these items probably won’t make the final cut of your grocery list when you’re on a tight budget.
Thankfully, foodies and amateur chefs don’t need to go broke when trying to cook nutritious and delicious meals. In this article, we share a few food shopping and cooking strategies that can help you step up your game in the kitchen while on a budget.
Don’t be shy— try some new fresh herbs.
When it comes to flavor: “Herbs are our best friend,” said Tiffany Derry, chef, restaurateur and the Season 7 fan favorite on Bravo’s Top Chef. Herbs are an affordable way to elevate the simplest of dishes, but they are often underutilized by people who don’t know how much they can change the taste of a meal.
Derry, based in Dallas, loves the lemony fresh flavor of basil and recommends it to home chefs. Derry also suggests parsley as an inexpensive addition to your herb collection. Yes, parsley can be used for more than just a garnish! Tarragon is another underutilized herb with a citrusy fresh flavor that Derry uses to spice up her dishes.
Earthy sage, spicy garlic and ginger, piney rosemary, sharp oregano, aromatic mint and chives are other herbs you can find in your grocery aisle. A little experimentation with new herbs can take your dishes to the next level without breaking the bank.
Not sure what herb to use in your next dish? The Food Network has a rundown of how different herbs taste and the types of dishes you can use them for. When shopping for herbs, take the time to inspect each one before purchase. Herbs should look fresh and not bruised.
If you have herbs left over after cooking a meal, Derry recommends putting them in the blender with a little bit of oil to make a paste to put away in the fridge. Grinding fresh herbs down helps you avoid food waste and the mixture can be used to jazz up a few more meals. Add a quick spoonful of your herb paste to spice up eggs in the morning or rice at night. You can also dry herbs or freeze them for use later.
Buy local and in season.
Money spent should be spent on the best possible quality. “Eating foods that aren’t in season are a waste in terms of flavor and nutrition,” said Derry. Whenever you buy local, you’re getting the best price for the best product. Search for markets that source from local farmers and pay closer attention to when local produce is in season. Buy produce that you plan to eat within a week to limit food waste.
For both perishable and non-perishable items, regularly comparison shop stores in your area for cost and overall quality. Look for produce with deep colors and without small holes. Punctures could mean that an insect got to snack on it before you. Smelling fruits can help you choose the best ones. The quality of the ingredients can make or break the taste of the final product.
Get whole meats and break them down at home.
Buying whole meats like turkeys and chickens throughout the year (instead of just for special occasions) is another cost effective way to fill up your fridge. According to Derry, bone-in meats can feed more people and can give you more bang for your buck, especially when you’re looking at fish.
Let’s take a look at the numbers: As of press time, Whole Foods through Amazon Prime Now has boneless, skinless chicken breasts selling for $4.99 per pound. On the other hand, you can get a whole chicken for $1.99 per pound. Even bigger savings are seen with fish. Snapper fillets are selling for $27.99 per pound compared to $12.99 for the whole snapper.
Breaking down your own food may seem intimidating, but it’s something you can master with practice. There are many video guides online that can show you how to cut fish and poultry step-by-step. Bon Appétit magazine, for instance, has several how-to guides including how to fillet whole fish, how to carve ham and how to butcher a chicken.
The beauty of getting whole meats is the versatility, according to Derry. You can cook many different meals with your meats and your assortment of herbs without going over budget. One night you could have roast fish, the next you could make fish tacos and the leftover fish bones could be used for a fish stock. “The idea is that one thing can be turned into three [meals],” said Derry.
Learn the right techniques to compliment your ingredients.
Besides stocking the right ingredients, cooking techniques will take you far. Making delicious food doesn’t require a lot of money, said Derry. Much of it is perfecting the cooking skills for each type of dish.
“A sauté is a sauté, no matter what type of food you’re making,” according to Derry. Sautéing is cooking on high heat with a bit of oil and shaking the pan so the food doesn’t stick to the bottom. Grilling is also high heat method that brings out the flavor. “Anything can be delicious as long as you season it properly and cook it properly. I can make a pack of Ramen noodles taste amazing!” Derry said. You take the noodles, throw out the seasoning packet and put together your own broth. Add a poached egg to elevate the dish.
Besides sautéing and grilling, there’s baking, broiling, pan-frying and deep frying. There’s also boiling, poaching, steaming. Experiment with different techniques when cooking vegetables and meats with your new herbs and spices. When in doubt, look for a tutorial on how to do each style of cooking step-by-step.
Buying high-ticket grocery items isn’t necessary to cook gourmet. Put a few herbs on your list and purchase other quality ingredients that are within your budget. After stocking the pantry, roll up your sleeves and cook up your own new (and delicious) meals.