There are two ways to approach preparing meals: one is to find a recipe and then buy all the ingredients for that recipe. The other is to create a meal with what you already have on hand.
The second approach – creating a meal with what you have on hand – is the most frugal way to cook, and it’s how people have been feeding their families for thousands of years.
The frugal way to eat is to buy seasonal and inexpensive ingredients, then make a meal of them (so to speak).
How did our grandparents learn to cook?
They didn’t have a tonne of cookbooks. They learned basic recipes, techniques and methods that could be adapted to the food they had.
That’s also how chefs learn to cook.
Recipes are useful and a great tool for learning new dishes, but their real benefit comes from being able to adapt the techniques to the ingredients you have on hand.
How to cook anything
Mastering a few simple skills in the kitchen will save you time, save you money and allow you to create an endless variety of healthy meals on a budget.
You’ll be able to create amazing meals no matter what ingredients you have in the pantry.
Here’s an example.
Just say you have a single chicken breast you need to stretch to feed your family. What do you do?
You could make:
- a stir fry
- a pie
- chicken pasties
- a chicken curry
- chicken burritos
- chilli chicken and beans
- a chicken risotto
- a quiche
- poached chicken and noodle salad
- potatoes stuffed with chicken
- chicken pasta sauce
- mushroom and chicken crepes
- chicken, baked vegetables and couscous salad
- gourmet chicken sandwiches
And I’m sure there are many, many other ideas.
You’re only limited by the other ingredients you have on hand; you’re not limited by ideas.
The other bonus is that if you’ve planned a creamy chicken pasta dish for instance, and you find the cream has gone bad, or you don’t feel like it on the night, you have the resources and the flexibility to make something else without too much bother.
1. Basic cooking techniques
Take time to learn the basic preparation techniques like how to prepare and cut vegetables. YouTube has a huge array of videos (like this one) that will teach you these skills for free.
Check out how to dice an onion, skin a tomato, julienne a carrot or segment an orange. Learn the science of marinade or how to whisk egg whites.
Cooking techniques refer to how you’ll apply heat. Wet heat includes boiling and steaming. Dry heat methods of cooking involve baking.
Mastering each cooking method will ensure your food turns out perfect every time.
Finally, there are your basic recipes. If you know how to throw together your own stock, a few of the ‘mother sauces’ and some batters and doughs, then combined with the basic cooking methods, there’s not going to be much that you can’t cook up at the drop of a hat.
2. Basic ingredients
What preparation technique goes well with what ingredient?
What happens if you poach chicken? What happens if you deep fry a banana?
If you know a few different cooking techniques for your favourite ingredients and a few pairing combinations you can easily create a huge variety of meals.
A good food dictionary is also a great resource.
3. Get creative in the kitchen
Nothing beats experimenting in the kitchen. Mix and match core ingredients like meat and vegetables with spices, herbs and sauces.
Taste as you go and note down what you like. The cookbook you create yourself will be the most valuable cookbook you’ll ever own.
Jot down what flavours work together, tips, tricks, techniques, substitutes and variations; not only will you find it useful it will become a treasured family heirloom for generations to come.
Frugal cooking starts with confidence in the kitchen and confidence comes with practice. Taking the time to learn basic cooking skills will save you time in the long run and it will save you money. And it can become a hobby you enjoy for life.
Melissa Goodwin is a writer and the creator of Frugal and Thriving who has a passion for living frugally and encouraging people to thrive on any budget. The blog is nine years old and is almost like her eldest baby. Prior to being a blogger and mum (but not a mummy blogger), she worked as an accountant doing other people’s budgets, books and tax.