The Broke Person’s Guide to Home Cooking

Instead of spending all your money eating out, supercharge your home cooking skills with these helpful (and tasty!) expert tips.

Like most activities in life, eating often requires making choices between what’s most enjoyable, most affordable, most efficient, and what’s best for your health.

You can probably find a nice restaurant that has healthy and tasty food, but it could take a lot of time and get expensive pretty quickly.

Fast food is as fast as its name, and while it can be cheap and tasty, relying on it will have a negative effect on your health—and those “cheap” meals can add up quickly.

Cooking at home is almost always going to be the most affordable and healthy option. But who has the time?

We spoke to the cheap cooking experts to bring you the advice you need to level up your home cooking experience and make it as healthy, affordable, delicious, and efficient as you need it to be.


Do your planning.

Taking some time to plan can save you a lot of time, money, and frustration later on.

“Being broke sucks,” empathized personal finance blogger April Lee. “Struggling with cutting bills or figuring out who to pay first is one thing. What about when you know you have to cut your grocery budget? I’ve been there and it isn’t easy but you can make it work.

“First, you need to know how much you can spend. With that value set, it will be easier to stay on budget when shopping. My favorite trick for staying on budget is to ‘pre-shop’ online. Most local grocery stores now have online shopping available. Sometimes the prices match the store prices, sometimes they are slightly higher.

“Once I have my budget number, I’ll shop my pantry first to get a good idea of what I have on hand and then pre-plan meals for each day. I then fill my digital cart with any items I need. As you add items to your online grocery cart it is easy to see your total at any point. Your goal is to make sure that the total is equal to or less than your budgeted amount. Once you have your cart just right, make your grocery list and head to the store.

“This method may seem like extra work but I have found that it ensures I stay on budget each and every week. Best of all, this method works regardless of your dietary requirements. You can use this even if you only eat organic, vegan, or gluten-free. Just adjust your cart until you are on-budget. Sometimes you don’t realize how adding little extras to the cart adds up.”

But what should be in that cart?

Get that produce!

Fruits and vegetables are healthy and relatively affordable if you buy them the smart way. And while there are some fancy vegetable preparation methods, you don’t have to do much to make a good side dish, or even a meal, from them.

“Skip trendy ‘superfood’ produce items and focus on basic vegetables,” suggested Beth Moncel, owner of Budget Bytes (@Budget_Bytes). “Basic vegetables like sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, and more are often less than $1.50 per pound and still pack a huge nutrient punch. ‘Superfoods’ often run more in the range of four to five dollars per pound.

“Stock up on frozen vegetables and fruit (plain, no sauces or seasonings included). Frozen vegetables are already cleaned and chopped, making them a breeze to toss into any pasta, soup, stew, or casserole you’re making, for an instant nutrient boost. Plus, since they have a long freezer life, you’ll be reducing your food waste. Food waste is money waste.”

Buying in season will also be more affordable and allow you more variety.

“Why not enjoy the local, seasonal fruits and vegetables?” asked Elizabeth Girouard, health coach and founder of Zing Meals (@zingmeals). “They are less expensive and more nutritious as they are often in the stores shortly after being picked. Check out the specials in conventional grocery stores – where you can often find berries, even organics, for a great price.

“Another option is a share in a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where you purchase a share or membership from a farmer and in turn receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the growing season. Here is a link to Dreyer Farms CSA in Cranford NJ which I have enjoyed for years.”

If you’re not too picky, you can save even more.

“Shop produce stores that sell less-than-perfect food,” advised Holly Wolf, Director of Customer Engagement for SOLO Laboratories (@SOLO_labs). “A blemished apple tastes the same as a perfect one. By purchasing less than beautiful fruits and veggies, you can save dollars.

“Take all your scraps of veggies (peels, cores of cabbage, tops of carrots, wilted celery tops, woody asparagus) and put them in a gallon zipper top bag. When it’s full, dump the frozen bits into your slow cooker, cover with water and let cook for six hours. Strain and you have a healthy vegetable broth for soups and stews or cooking rice.”

Legume lagoon.

If you need to get full, quickly, in a relatively healthy and very cheap manner, there are time-tested products that have been satiating hunger for thousands of years. Give or take.

“Rely on whole grains and beans,” suggested Moncel. “These are two of the least expensive ingredients in the entire grocery store, they are extremely filling, and contain tons of fiber and minerals.

Cook a big batch of grains at the beginning of the week to use as a base or bed for your meals. They’ll fill you up faster and keep your total meal cost low. I replace half the meat in recipes with beans to bring the cost down and the fiber content up (black beans with beef, white beans or garbanzos with chicken).”

Pasta lagoon.

Having pasta all the time isn’t the healthiest option. But it can be a good sometimes option that’s fast and cheap and it’s within your power to make them a bit better for you.

“Macaroni and cheese, Rice-A-Roni, Pasta-Roni, and other shelf-stable pasta and rice mixes can be made into main dishes by adding a few fresh ingredients,” offered Tangela Walker-Craft, founder and President of Simply Necessary, Incorporated.

“Adding fresh or frozen vegetables to pasta and rice mixes can make them a little healthier. Adding vegetables and diced (cooked) meat turns them into a semi-homemade casserole.”

Shop smarter, not harder.

It’s not just about what you buy. It’s about how you buy it.

“Preview store sales flyers to find out which items are on sale,” recommended Walker-Craft. “Stock up on items that are consumed on a regular basis while they’re at the lowest price. Canned foods, frozen foods, and non-perishable items can be purchased and stored until they’re needed.

“Shop the bottom shelves. Stores take advantage of lazy shoppers by placing the most expensive brands at eye level. Name brand product manufacturers often demand the best, most visible placement on store shelves. They can do this because they’re often the ones that make stores the most money.”

Where you shop within the store is also important.

“Shop the perimeter,” advised Girouard. “I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but this is where the majority of whole foods are located. Generally, the inside aisles are full of the pre-packaged boxed foods that typically aren’t ideal for a healthy lifestyle. And believe it or not, they’re usually more expensive per serving. Of course, there are some items you will need from the ‘inside’ aisles, but fill your cart with the majority of items from the perimeter.”

Here are some free samples!

You didn’t think we were going to let you go without some examples? Thankfully, our experts offered some of their favorite affordable, healthy meals for you to try out!

Here are some options to consider courtesy of Claudia Sidoti, Head Chef at HelloFresh (@HelloFresh):

“Omelets for dinner are great when you’re on a time crunch and have a limited budget. Try spinach and feta for something Greek inspired or Tex Mex with a little frozen corn, cheddar, and jarred salsa. You can even afford to serve it with a little toast on the side!

“Quesadillas have always been our go-to at home. I love to clean out the fridge and get creative. I often cook up whatever veggies are still rolling around the produce bin of my fridge, use up the remaining cheese and even add other protein if I happen to have some leftover cooked chicken or steak.

“A little protein goes a long way and for two dollars you will be amazed at how easy it is to build a delicious and satisfying quesadilla for dinner. Don’t forget to top it with sour cream & salsa if you have that on hand!

“Pasta with ham & peas can be made with about two ounces of deli ham and half-a-cup of frozen peas, a clove of garlic, a knob of butter, and a handful of grated cheese. This will run you about two dollars if you’re a savvy shopper.”

And here are some recipes from Walker-Craft:

Our mouths are watering already! Let’s eat!

Further reading:

To learn more about ways that you can save money on everyday expenses, check out these other posts and articles from OppLoans:

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Contributors

Elizabeth Girouard is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Certified Master Workplace Wellness Ambassador and Founder of Pure Simple Wellness and Zing Meals (@zingmeals). She is a prior award-winning corporate executive who quickly rose to the ranks as an international expert. Elizabeth has learned from experience that “Food is Medicine” and is passionate about making healthy eating and living easy and practical. She meets corporate and individual clients where they are today and helps them lose weight and gain energy through sustainable diet and lifestyle changes.
April Lee is a single working mom and personal finance blogger who enjoys finding hassle-free ways to save money. She has worked her way out of the payday loan cycle, paid off tens of thousands of dollars of debt and now lives debt free with her daughter in southern California. Visit her blog at HassleFreeSavings.com.
For the past eight years, Beth Moncel has been dishing out healthy, inexpensive recipes and teaching kitchen basics through her popular blog, Budget Bytes (@Budget_Bytes) and the corresponding cookbook, Budget Bytes – Over 100 Easy Delicious Recipes to Slash Your Grocery Bill in Half. She loves getting creative in the kitchen and hopes to show others just how fun and rewarding cooking can be.
Claudia Sidoti, Head Chef and Head of Recipe Development at HelloFresh (@HelloFresh), brings more than thirty years of experience to the HelloFresh kitchen, most recently hailing from Food Network, where for over eight years she served as Test Kitchen Director, leading culinary content and contributing more than 3,000 recipes to Food Network Magazine. She began her career at 19 as chef and restaurateur in New York City, spending eight years in the kitchen at Onini restaurant before shifting gears and food styling for television commercials, editorial, and ad campaigns. She later launched catering company Beauty & the Feast, along with Urban Market, an international specialty food shop that featured authentic dishes inspired by her multicultural family. At HelloFresh, she focuses on expanding and honing the robust database of delicious, easy-to-follow recipes for home cooks, which currently houses more than 1,000 unique recipes.
Tangela Walker-Craft is a wife and mother. She is a graduate of the University of South Florida where she obtained a degree in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing. Tangela is the founder and President of Simply Necessary, Incorporated in Lakeland, Florida. She is the inventor of the patented GoPillow!  She shares family and parenting tips, including easy recipes, on her Simply Necessary, Inc. blog.
Holly Wolf is an executive with over 30 years of experience in banking and healthcare.

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