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Top tips for cooking on a budget

Keep your belly and budget happy with expert cooking tips.

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Last updated: 20 July 2022
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

The latest CHOICE Consumer Pulse survey shows that the number of households that are finding it difficult to get by on their current income has risen to 23%, up from 18% in June 2021. This means many of us are having to reconsider everyday luxuries that we used to take for granted, including some of our favourite foods.

With the rise in the price of groceries, many of us are also having to adjust shopping habits and look for new ways to cut costs to get food on the table.

But budget cooking doesn't have to mean cheese on toast for dinner every night (although we do love a cheese toastie and argue that it makes for an excellent cheap meal!). CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair has put together her top tips for whipping up dinners that'll last longer and cost less.

legumes in a bowl

Legumes such as kidney beans and cannellini beans are a nutritious way to make meat meals go further.

1. Load up on legumes

Don't worry, we're not talking about demolishing endless cans of baked beans. Legumes such as lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and cannellini beans are cheap and nutritious sources of protein that can replace pricier meat in dishes, or be added to make meat meals go further. 

Fiona recommends adding legumes (tinned or dried and soaked) to bolognese, stews, sausage casseroles, soups and pies to get more meal for your money (perhaps making an extra batch for the freezer, too). 

"Equal parts meat and legumes is a good rule of thumb when substituting, although soups and stews can handle more," she says. Not only are they nutritious and filled with fibre, but legumes are also much cheaper than meat and could help you slash serious cash off your grocery receipt. 

Legumes shine in the slow cooker, too, as they benefit from cooking over a low heat for long periods of time

For example, instead of buying 1kg of Woolworths Beef Mince at $13/kg and using the whole thing for your bolognese or lasagne, use just 500g mince (at a cost of $6.50) and add a couple of cans of Woolworths lentils at 80c each (or $1.90/kg) to save almost $5 on the cost of that dish. Freeze the remaining 500g mince or use it to make meatballs the following night (stretching those out by adding puréed cannellini beans or chickpeas, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic and spices, and serving with a sauce or in tortilla wraps). 

Legumes shine in the slow cooker, too, as they benefit from cooking over a low heat for long periods of time, particularly if you've added spices and flavourings such as garlic, ginger and onion to make things such as a curry, dahl or bean dip.

2. Embrace frozen and tinned veggies

Although they may be viewed as a second-rate alternative to fresh produce, there is absolutely nothing wrong with embracing frozen or tinned vegetables in your cooking. Not only do they last much longer, but they also retain nutrition well and often cost significantly less than fresh alternatives.

The flavour and texture may not be quite the same and you need to watch out for extra additives such as salt in canned varieties, but it's still a cheap and tasty way to get you on your way to your five a day if you're clever with how you use them. So how can you give them a makeover?

Vegies

"Purée frozen peas with ingredients such as parmesan cheese to accompany pies and roasted meats," says Fiona. "Boost fritters, quiche and pies with thawed frozen veggies. Add frozen edamame to salads or blend for a broad bean pasta sauce."

Berries

Fresh berries can become very expensive in Australian winters and often spoil quickly. Try frozen berries instead – they can be kept on hand to add to smoothies, juices and sweet sauces, at a fraction of the price of fresh (when berries aren't plentiful).

Corn

If your children love fresh corn but you wince at paying up to $2.50 per fresh cob, try the occasional substitute with canned corn spears or frozen corn kernels. Frozen corn kernels or tinned creamed corn is an excellent addition to make chicken soup go further, as well.

3. Make regular meat-free days

The easiest way to reduce your spend on meat is simply to buy less. If you're worried about whether or not your family will embrace one or two (or more!) vegetarian nights a week, start with more substantial, sustaining vegetarian meals that are guaranteed to not only celebrate cheaper seasonal fresh produce but also to fill them up, too. 

Try a creamy mushroom pasta, ricotta lasagne layered with eggplant, zucchini and mozzarella, or eggplant schnitzels (prepared in the same way you would a chicken schnitzel) served with a side of mashed potato or fries. 

4. Buy in bulk (when it's cheaper) and try preserving

Buying produce in bulk will generally cost less than buying smaller amounts (check unit prices to make sure). So get into batch cooking and make large quantities of a meal. Eat some now, divvy up leftovers and freeze for later.

Make sure nothing goes to waste by storing meals correctly. Fiona says, "You can also preserve, pickle and dehydrate cheap seasonal foods for later. Chargrill discounted zucchini, eggplant or capsicum, and bottle them in olive oil to be used on sandwiches, salads or a vegie lasagna. The infused oil can then be used for other cooking." 

5. Do your own prep and make things from scratch

Pre-cut meat and vegies are convenient, and for people with mobility issues they can be a necessity. But if you're able to DIY you can save a lot of money, when you're paying up to five times more for pre-cut vegies. 

One appliance worth buying is a food processor. Priced between $49 to $1399 in our latest food processors review, these wonder machines cut vegetables, mince garlic, make pesto, shred cheese and make hummus, among many other things. Doing these things yourself could save you money compared with buying packaged equivalents at the supermarket. 

6. Bake with overripe or wilted produce

Fruits and vegies needn't have an uneconomical early grave – you can turn them into baked goods. Look for specials at the fruit market or supermarket on fruit that is browning or about to turn, and take it home to turn it into cakes or muffins for more affordable lunchbox snacks and treats.

Buy discounted produce that's overripe, or choose a day of the week to go through the fridge and use up any veg or fruit that's about to turn

Fiona Mair, CHOICE kitchen expert

"Buy discounted produce that's overripe, or choose a day of the week to go through the fridge and use up any veg or fruit that's about to turn," says Fiona. "Unless the produce is mouldy or smells funky, there's no need to throw it away.

"Carrots, sweet potato and zucchini can be shredded into batters to make cakes and muffins. Vegetables can be sliced to use as a topping on focaccias and pizza doughs. Fruits such as soft berries or browned bananas can be whipped into breads, cakes and muffins." 

7. Make your own stock

Save on the price of stock by using cooked chicken, lamb and beef bones to make your own (you can always freeze the bones to make the stock at a later time). 

Fiona says, "This is a must, as good store bought stock isn't cheap." For example, Maggie Beer's Natural 500mL Beef Stock goes for $5.50 and will probably only get you through one meal.

"Stocks are also a great way to use up leftover herbs and vegetables (other than potatoes or pumpkin, to avoid cloudiness) and will last you a month in the fridge and 12 months in the freezer if it's well-sealed," Fiona adds.

8. Shop from your cupboard first

Pad Thai noodles, abandoned cake mixes and enough cans of chickpeas to survive the apocalypse... you never know what you'll find in the far reaches of the cupboard.

Embrace the cupboard shop and cook from what you've already got (or use it as a base so you know what you have before you go shopping and spend money you don't need to).

Another tip from Fiona is always to have a roster of basic ingredients stocked, depending on what cuisines or dishes you like to eat. For example, if you love curries, stock up on extra coconut milk and spices so you can make one with leftover vegies at a moment's notice. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty unless otherwise stated.