I have a three-pronged approach to cooking: cook good food, cook often, and cook within my budget. The first two are easy for me; the budget is definitely the tough part. What made a budget more manageable for me was developing small habits that are sustainable and easy to stick with.
Here are the five essential habits that keep me cooking within my budget. They are simple, but — like the grocery habits we talked about last week — these are the bedrock of sticking to a budget. Are these the ones you practice too?
1. Embrace meal planning.
Planning meals and snacks ahead is essential. We talk all the time about having a mindful plan for your meals and your groceries, and for good reason — it's so simple, yet the payoff is huge. When you have a plan, you'll cook smarter, create more focused shopping lists, and have an easier time staying within your budget.
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2. Cook with what's in season.
I love cooking with fresh produce as much as I can, but there are certain times when it just doesn't make sense — like cooking asparagus in the middle of February. While I may be able to track it down at the grocery store, it's going to be pricier than when it's in season, and it's probably not going to taste as good. Stick with using in-season produce. It's readily available and usually less expensive. (And "in season" doesn't just apply to produce — we have a new grocery column launching soon that's going to divulge perhaps surprising tips on other things that also have seasons at the grocery store.)
More on the Food We Splurge (and Save) On: Food Budgeting: When to Splurge, When to Save
3. Embrace chicken thighs (and other inexpensive meat).
Cooking on a budget doesn't mean you need to cut meat out of your diet altogether; it just means you need to be smart about the cuts you buy. Even if I wasn't cooking on a budget, chicken thighs would still be at the very top of my list. Whether you buy them skin-on or skinless, bone-in or boneless, chicken thighs are inexpensive, meaty, full of flavor, and really versatile. Other smart buys include meats for braising, like pork butt, where the investment of time makes inexpensive meat delicious.
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4. Use the slow cooker.
And when you do try those more inexpensive cuts of meat, the slow cooker is your best tool. My slow cooker has been one of the best kitchen tools to help me embrace cooking on a budget. It's ideal for cooking inexpensive, tougher cuts of meat, like bottom rounds and roasts. Cooking these cuts over low heat for a longer period of time transforms them from tough and chewy to tender and delicious.
Fire up the Slow Cooker: 15 Hearty Meals for Your Slow Cooker
5. Regularly cook down the pantry and freezer.
Right now, sitting in your pantry and freezer, you probably have the makings of more meals than you realize. Last week Jessica told us how her family saves money by eating through their freezer twice a year. Most of us could probably go one week without grocery shopping, cooking meals based on what we have handy.
Challenge yourself by "eating down" your pantry and freezer regularly. If you can avoid spending as much money on groceries a week out of the month, that adds up to major savings.
Jessica makes a great point that this strategy makes you appreciate what you have and rethink your shopping habits. When you're faced with eating a bad purchase, there's a good chance you'll be more thoughtful the next time you go grocery shopping.
What's your best advice for cooking on a budget?
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(Image credits: Faith Durand)