At this time of year, people generally have two things on their mind: getting healthy and getting out of debt. Eating well on a budget helps accomplish both of these goals, and it’s easier than you might think.
Shelley Robinson, regional executive chef for Coast Hotels and a faculty member in Vancouver Community College’s culinary arts program, says the first step in being frugal without sacrificing flavour is getting back to basics.
“Learning how to cook is key,” says Robinson, who won an episode of Food Network’s Chopped Canada and has competed on Top Chef Canada, in a phone interview. “A lot of people default to low-nutrition, false-economy cheap foods—things like noodles in a cup and fast food. They seem like they’re inexpensive, but the cost is very high for our health; you’re not being satisfied or satiated nutritionally.
“There’s a lot of free information out there for people wanting to learn how to cook without spending money on cooking classes,” she says. For instance, you could take in some of VCC’s “Go Ahead. Live Well…On a Budget” videos on YouTube. In one of them, Robinson explains in less than two minutes how to make an easy and economical roast chicken—which brings us to her next budget tip.
“When you are buying meat, buy whole cuts,” she says. “You’re better off to buy a whole chicken and roast it rather than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Anything processed is going to cost more money. Learn how to prepare whole cuts of meat. A whole chicken will serve you dinner for two and leftovers, plus the next day’s lunch, and you can make a soup as well. So a $10 or $11 chicken will go a long way, whereas two chicken breasts feeds you once.”
Of course, reducing the amount of meat you eat is another way of saving money, says registered holistic nutritionist Cari Snell, who specializes in family nutrition.
“Meat is expensive in relation to plant foods, and North Americans eat way more of it than required,” Snell tells the Georgia Straight. “If you’re aiming for the best-quality meats—grass-fed and pastured—then buy in bulk when it’s on sale and freeze. Or research a B.C. farmer that produces pastured and grass-fed meats. Many will sell full, half, or quarter shares at reduced prices and will also deliver.”
Cooking in batches can save time and money. Snell explains how to cook one night and come up with three dinners: “You could roast two or three baking sheets of bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, onions, zucchini, and garlic,” she says. “Serve a third of the vegetables one night with grilled fish and a salad; a third of the vegetables tossed with hot pasta and a little Parmesan cheese the next; and then for the third night, top some flatbread or French bread with a little tomato sauce with basil and oregano added, place the veg on top, add some grated mozzarella, bake at 350 degrees [Fahrenheit], and you’ve got pizza.”
Robinson likes the idea of taking batch cooking one step further by teaming up with neighbours.
“Making big pots of stew, chilies, and soups also goes a long way,” Robinson says. “If you live in [the] West End or any high-density areas, something I’ve heard about is doing these community, large-batch, share-and-exchange programs. You make a big batch of soup and give away a few jars, then someone makes something else and gives it to you. It’s a fun, neighbourly thing to do. You get a variety, [and] anything you make in batch quantities goes a lot farther for your dollar.”
Meal planning is crucial if you want to preserve your grocery-store budget.
“Plan dinners like our grandparents did: for the week on the weekend,” Snell says. “Monday is vegetarian. Tuesday’s chicken. Wednesday is pasta. Thursday have fish, and so on. Then you’ll have a general idea of what you need to have out of the freezer to cook. Use your cookbooks or the Internet to plan recipes, or just keep it simple. You can do grilled fish with brown rice, vegetables, and a salad; pasta tossed with grilled peppers, mushrooms, onions, and a little Parmesan; a stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, onions, garlic, and a sliced chicken breast.”
Purchasing produce that’s in season is a no-brainer when it comes to saving money. Robinson suggests hitting farmers markets or even going berry-picking, loading up, and freezing fruits and vegetables, pickling them, or making chutneys and jams.
“I learned that mentality from my grandparents, who had a farm,” she adds. “We got a mandarin orange at Christmas, but outside that we didn’t have strawberries when it was outside the season unless we canned or froze some from the garden. The cost of food is on the rise; I don’t think there’s any way for us to escape this. Learning how to cook, buying things in season, supporting local farmers saves money and makes us happier and healthier people.”