When it comes to cooking, time and money exist at opposite ends of a continuum. The more you have of one, the less you spend of the other. Creating healthy meals on a tight budget doesn't necessarily require a huge investment of time, though you'll need to plan your meals more carefully to get the most out of your food dollar. Low income meal ideas are available from many sources, including university extension programs and all levels of government.
Traditional meals are typically centered around meat or poultry. That's not necessarily wrong, but it's not frugal, either. Meats are often the costliest part of the meal, so work on reducing your portions or finding ways to stretch what you've bought. For example, pasta sauces with lots of chopped vegetables and meatballs with whole-grain fillers are two ways to get added value out of your ground meats. Even better, substitute alternative protein sources. Use dairy products to add low-cost protein to sauces and casseroles. Beans are inexpensive, nutritious and long-lasting, and bean-based dishes such as chili are well loved in their own right.
Starchy carbohydrates have fallen out of favor since the rise of the Atkins diet and its kin, but potatoes and grains provide a range of healthy, filling and low-cost meal options. Use rice or noodles as a complement to lots of steamed or stir-fried vegetables. Bake or roast your potatoes instead of deep-frying, which saves calories as well as the cost of oil. Pasta sauce is inexpensive if you purchase it in bulk, or stock up on tomatoes and make your own. If you're concerned about nutrition, buy brown rice rather than white and use whole-wheat or multigrain pasta.
Building your meals around the available vegetables, rather than a meat, is a shift in attitude that can do wonders for your food budget as well as your waistline. Shop the specials at your favorite stores and load up on fresh veggies while they're on sale and in season. Be a regular at your local farmer's market, and get to know the growers. Often you'll be able to pick up bargains at the end of the day. Serve large portions of steamed, roasted or marinated vegetables at your meals, and relatively smaller portions of your meats and starches.
Pulling it All Together
You'll eat better and spend less time and money if you plan your meals ahead. Cooking in quantity once or twice a week is a big help, because you can package and freeze foods for later use. Make big batches of durable favorites such as chili or tomato sauce, and portion them for meals through the coming weeks. Plan to turn leftovers or surplus ingredients into casseroles or soups. Soups can be the most frugal meals of all, and visiting your library for a few good soup cookbooks can stretch your food budget remarkably.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.