Cooking on a budget doesn’t need to be stressful: the key is knowing which ingredients will stretch your dollars and how to use them to create easy, affordable and filling meals.
Grocery shopping can be intimidating when you’re not sure what to look for. Checking weekly flyers and creating a shopping list will help you feel prepared and stay on track to buy only the items you need. Three things to keep in mind when putting together a list are nutritional value, dollar value and shelf life. Ideally, most of your purchases will fall under two or all of these categories.
Make the “reduced area” in the produce section your first stop. You may find imperfect, overripe and/or seasonal produce surplus here at a discount, for same-day use. Hearty vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes and even some greens, like kale and spinach that can be chopped and frozen for later use, are also great value. Keep vegetables unpeeled to retain fibre and nutritional value. Alternatively, buy frozen fruits and vegetables: they’re just as nutritious as fresh ones.
High-fibre foods provide bulk and take longer to digest, helping you feel full longer. Most vegetables and fruits contain fibre, but you’ll also want to focus on higher protein foods, like legumes and whole grains. Legumes can be purchased in cans but dried beans, lentils and chickpeas will have better dollar value. You can precook dried legumes and freeze them in portions for later use as an alternative to canned products. (A 540-ml can is equivalent to about two cups of cooked legumes.)
Whole-grain fillers like oats, brown rice and whole wheat pasta, and nutrient-dense items like peanut butter, canned tomatoes and fish, are great to keep on hand, too, especially if you can stock up on sale.
Broth bouillon cubes and dried spices and herbs enhance flavours, last longer and cost less than their liquid or fresh counterparts. One tablespoon of fresh herbs or garlic is equivalent to about one teaspoon of dried.
In the meats section, items that are discounted (for being close to their best before date) are a great purchase, especially ground meats and sausage. Use the same day or freeze for later. Meats are generally expensive, so consider adopting a more vegetarian or plant-forward diet by substituting half the meat in recipes with other protein, such as legumes or oats.
Eggs and cheeses are also proteins to consider buying when they’re on sale. Only purchase expiry-discount items if you know you can use them the same day, since eggs and most cheeses are not suitable for freezing. (Hard cheeses like Parmesan or pecorino can be frozen, but the texture will turn crumbly when thawed.)
Here are some recipes to put these tips to good use. Each recipe makes four servings: leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days, or pre-portioned into resealable containers and frozen for up to one month.
‘Clean out the fridge’ frittata
Prep 10 min / Total 40 min
1. Position rack in centre of oven, then preheat to 350° F. Lightly brush a 9-inch pie plate (or a medium ovenproof frying pan) with oil.
2. Whisk 6 large eggs with 1 tsp dried basil in a large bowl. Season with pepper. Stir in 1 cup grated cheddar cheese, ½ cup diced ham, 1 diced plum tomato, and ½ each diced red pepper, zucchini and small red onion. Pour into pie plate and stir to evenly distribute vegetables.
3. Bake until frittata is golden around the edges and firm when jiggled, 30 to 35 min. Sprinkle with fresh basil leaves just before serving, if desired.
Kitchen tip: You don’t need to stick to the vegetables above; this recipe is a great way to use up leftover fresh or frozen vegetables. You can also sandwich leftover frittata between toasted bread to make an omelette sandwich.
Chickpea curry in a hurry
Prep 10 min / Total 30 min
1. Cook 1½ cups brown basmati rice following package directions.
2. Meanwhile, heat a pot over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp oil, 1 finely chopped onion, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tbsp curry powder, 1 tbsp minced ginger and ¼ tsp salt. Cook, stirring often, 2 min.
3. Add 2 cups each cooked chickpeas and cauliflower florets, 1 cubed sweet potato and a 796-ml can diced tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, covered, until sweet potatoes are tender, 15 to 20 min. Stir in 2 cups baby spinach until wilted, about 1 min.
4. Top rice with curry. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro, if desired.
Kitchen tip: Feel free to use frozen varieties of vegetables here if you don’t have fresh. Substitute ¼ cup frozen spinach for 2 cups fresh.
Hearty kale and sausage soup
Prep 10 min / Total 35 min
1. Heat a large, wide saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 tbsp oil, then 2 Italian sausages. Turn sausages occasionally until they lose their pink colour, 4 to 6 min. Remove to a plate.
2. Add 1 finely chopped onion, 1 thinly sliced leek (white part only), 3 diced carrots and 2 minced garlic cloves. Cook until onion is softened, about 3 min.
3. Stir in a 156-ml can tomato paste and 1 tsp each ground coriander and salt. Slice sausages then add to saucepan, along with any juices. Cook, stirring often, until flavour develops, about 5 min.
4. Pour in 4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Stir in 8 cups chopped kale leaves, then reduce heat to medium. Cover and gently boil, stirring occasionally, until kale is tender, 5 to 7 min. Stir in 2 cups cooked green lentils. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Super-fast beef chili
Prep 10 min / Total 30 min
1. Heat a pot over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp oil, then 1 diced onion and 227 g sliced button mushrooms. Cook until vegetables are softened, about 3 min.
2. Crumble in 225 g ground beef, 2 tbsp chili powder, 1 tsp garlic powder and ½ tsp each granulated sugar and salt. Cook, stirring to break meat up into smaller pieces, until no pink remains, 3 to 5 min.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in a 796-ml can diced tomatoes. Simmer, covered, until flavours develop, about 10 min.
4. Stir in 2 cups cooked red kidney beans and cook until hot, about 2 min. Garnish with sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese and thinly sliced green onion, if desired.
Kitchen tip: Substitute beef and beans with any other ground meats or beans you have on hand.
Yummy vegan bolognese
Prep 15 min / Total 35 min
1. Cook 450 g whole wheat spaghetti pasta following package directions.
2. Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan over medium-high. Add 2 tsp oil, then 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 finely chopped carrots and 1 each finely chopped celery and onion. Cook until carrots begin to soften, 4 to 5 min. Stir in 2 cups cooked green lentils, 1 cup red wine, ½ cup vegetable broth and 5 tbsp tomato paste.
3. Set aside ½ cup pasta water, then drain pasta. Stir reserved pasta water into bolognese mixture. Boil until most of the liquid has evaporated but mixture is still slightly saucy, about 10 min.
4. Top spaghetti with bolognese. Garnish with nutritional yeast and fresh basil leaves, if desired.
Kitchen tip: Substitute red wine with more vegetable broth if you prefer.
This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “[Opens fridge door, sighs].” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.