Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Gabriella Paiella shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Our favorite frugal tips.

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We're coming up on a year of My Broke Kitchen. The weather's also, finally, warming up, and as my spring fever kicks in, my devotion to cooking wanes slightly. So instead of launching a new project, let's review some of my favorite frugal advice:

1) DIY versions of boxed childhood favorites -- like ramen or mac and cheese -- are still cheap, but taste way better. 

2) Don't waste money on buying lunch that you'll probably scarf down hunched over your desk. Brown bag it instead.

3) And when you're tired at night, memorize a formula for a simple, filling, nutritious dinner. 

4) Stop being afraid of tofu -- it's one of the best cheap protein sources out there. And it's verstatile as hell.

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5) Ditto for beans.

6) Little luxurious touches go a long way, so make your own tapenades and add richness with coconut milk

7) Don't have a kitchen fully stocked with gadgets yet? Don't worry about it -- you can hack your own equipment, from double boilers to salad spinners.

8) Be a lush on the cheap by infusing your own booze. Your home bar will thank you. 

9) You can totally throw a massive dinner party without blowing your budget. Just get a crafty friend to help

10) When in doubt, put an egg on it

Tell us: What are your favorite frugal kitchen tips? 

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mary H
    Mary H
  • thesinglecook
  • BavarianCook
  • Mrs. Ricketts
    Mrs. Ricketts
  • Windischgirl
Yes, my name rhymes.


Mary H. June 10, 2014
Beans! This is a long time family favorite that I can make with my eyes closed, economical, filling, makes a LOT, freezes well and it's delicious:
1 bag of 15-bean mixed dry beans, quick soaked. (When they're rinsed and ready to go, you can add meat or vegetable stock to boost the flavor if you're not adding any meat.) Throw in:
2 chopped onions
2 to 4 garlic cloves, crushed
several diced roma tomatoes (or 2 cans of cut up stewed or diced tomatoes)
diced mild green chilis (or a can of Ro-tel)
diced carrots
a bay leaf
a bit of thyme

If you have a hambone with maybe some meat on it, that's a fantastic addition for non-vegetarians. Simmer it all for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours. Salt and pepper to taste.
You can add pretty nearly anything to this, chicken, celery, Andouille sausage, whatever you like. You may want to freeze half for quick meals later. It goes a long way.
thesinglecook June 10, 2014
I agree that beans are a great way to create a healthy meal for the cheap! I make Black Bean Soup using only 3 cans of black beans or a hearty Lentil Soup. Also, you mentioned having a go to "formula" for weeknights when money is tight. Mine is the "pull almost every veggie you have out of the fridge and roast em!" formula. Last night, I found a bag of carrots, 2 sweet potatoes and a red onion. Wasn't sure how they would come out roasted but they were so delicious. My protein was a Cornish Hen that I roasted on top of the veggies. Hens are another cheap protein, perfect for a single cook like me!
BavarianCook June 6, 2014
We cook from scratch and take lunches to work. Nothing gets wasted, and it's fun to create a new meal around leftovers. I always have bulk pork or chicken sausage portioned in 1/4 lb chunks in the freezer - that can thaw quickly in a pan when making a one-pan dinner of potatoes, eggs, meat and some veggies added to it. Most recipes call for more meat than needed, and I find that I can often use half and increase the amount of beans/vegetables/pasta instead. The freezer is my friend!
Mary H. June 2, 2014
Buy peppers, sweet onions or shallots, mushrooms, etc. when they're on sale, then chop them, place them in reclosable bags and freeze them in a flat sheet. (You can cook and season them as you like, if you wish, ie; mushrooms and onions with a little bit of bacon.)
You can break off a piece when you need a quick boost of flavor for a soup, stir fry, grilled sandwiches or a quick omelette.
Mrs. R. June 1, 2014
Very inspiring, thanks. Please see my comment to Enyaj for a simple 4 ingredient leftover using recipe.
Windischgirl June 1, 2014
As I was reading this, I was eating a bowl of leftover Israeli couscous topped with half a leftover bratwurst, thinly sliced and sauteed till brown, a handful of cooked green beans, and a 1/4 c of meat juices from a saute I did earlier in the week. Irony?
In our house, nothing goes to waste. Even little bits get put into containers that are then combined to make a hot lunch (I tote it to work in ceramic or glass bowls which I can microwave) or get served during those nights when dinner is "everyone for him/herself".
And I strongly believe--anything can be improved by melting cheese on top :-)
BethanyBites June 1, 2014
I am new to meal planning, and would like to be more efficient with less waste. Can anyone recommend a good blog or book on the topic? Many thanks!
Judith R. June 1, 2014
Save bones and trimmings from chicken in the freezer. When there is enough, make chicken broth and freeze it in 2 cup jars like peanut butter jars. Also, if buying whole chickens, freeze the chicken livers until you have enough to make a small batch of chicken liver pâté.
Napa G. June 2, 2014
A standard sandwich size ziptop bag holds 2 cups of broth and when frozen flat on a tray is very space economical. We also save beef and vegie trimmings (separately ;-) for more homemade broth.
sevenfaces June 1, 2014
Meal plan and make a list before you hit the shops. Limit impulse buying and know what's in season. Avoid convenience foods! You can eat the stems / leaves of just about any vegetable. Freeze whatever you can. Waste as little as possible.
rachiti May 30, 2014
@ Auntie Stacy Ah, Canada...that does explain some of the difference. In WI wings, even on sale, are still more expensive than chicken breast on sale..and that's before accounting for the bits that aren't consumed on the wings. I don't buy full price meat unless I'm just a touch short on what I need based on what's already in my freezer. As for bulking up the chicken breasts, some do and some don't. I buy from a grocer that does a 2% maximum saline solution. Yes, other shops in my area have ones that are highly injected (not to mention the ridiculous % used on frozen chicken breasts), but I avoid those for that very reason. It sounds like we're both savvy shoppers who know how to spot a good value in our area.

I love my vacuum sealer too. Not only do I use it for longer term freezer storage, but it keeps my veggies super crisp, my cheese fuzz free, and my bulk pantry staples fresh until I need the next jar. Even though there's only two of us, I never plan on an entree lasting only one meal. I'll freeze non-dairy leftovers if I know we won't want that again soon. I even use my 2 cup tupperware sizes to freeze individual portions of soup and turkey stock then use the vacuum sealer to turn those bricks into long term storage. Out of one vat of turkey stock (I froze the turkey carcasses until I had enough for a pot) I got over a dozen 2 cup portions of stock for soups etc. Given that those boxes of salt-free stock run nearly $3, I'm saving a bundle on stock alone. Thank goodness for my chest freezer.
Auntie S. May 29, 2014
@Rachiti - I don't live in the USA. I live in Canada, where halal meat is cheaper than regular slaughtered meat for some strange reason. And I was talking about regular purchase price, so obviously the wings are cheaper by the flat on sale than I bought the other day at regular price. But, skinless, boneless chicken breasts up here are sold by the weight, and often a lot of meat producers fill their chicken breasts with water to bulk up the prices. Do they not do that in the States? I have no idea.

Also, we bought a top of the line food sealer at Costco where my in-laws, retired butchers, swear they have the best cuts (very generous) for the better prices vs. grocery stores and other local butchers. That Costco membership is very handy to us. I also buy a large amount of vanilla Greek yogurt and fruit cups there, and take the time to make the husband yogurt/fruit/yogurt/granola cereal cups to take with his lunch every day. Otherwise, he'd skip fruit all together. I can't live with that. His mother wouldn't let me live with that. :-D

The food sealer is such an important, useful big ticket purchase for us because, like I said earlier, I tend to buy in bulk and seal everything up into portions for two types of meals: week nights for two, and weekend binge cooking for at least 4-6 meals which I will in turn use as dinner, lunches and freezer meals for a rainy day. If you plan it all out in advance, it's all do-able and way easier on your food budget.
enyaj May 29, 2014
It's easier for me to build evening meals on a weekly basis this way: one meal with potatoes, one with rice, one with quinoa, one soup/stew/chili, one pasta, one flatbread, one seafood. Other proteins added as diet and budget allow, and vegetables purchased for one meal at the beginning of the week can be used in a stir fry later in the week, or added to eggs or tofu in the morning. The trick is to segue all into breakfasts (e.g., chili over eggs) and leftovers lunches. This is maintenance eating, I guess, but when you are both busy and low on funds, it works. I package dinner my leftovers before we even sit down to eat. I put the glass snap-top containers on the counter while dinner is cooking, and when I dish up the plates I simultaneously portion what we aren't going to consume at that point into containers. When we're done eating, the leftovers have cooled sufficiently to put in the fridge, and lunch is ready to grab in the morning. When someone is loading the dishwasher, someone else can be soaking the oatmeal for quick breakfast, or assembling plates and ingredients for breakfast (e.g., bag of tortillas on the countertop, frying pan on the stove top, condiments at the ready). We eat really well, and really cheaply because we take these steps.
Mrs. R. June 1, 2014
I relate to your style. My favorite happy accident was leftover lemon herb grilled chicken breasts shredded and wrapped in flour tortillas with canned enchilada sauce and preshredded pepper jack cheese. I brown the "burritos" in a dry skillet, top with remaining enchilada sauce and cheese and bake for 30 minutes or so 'till bubbly. Voila! Lemon chicken enchiladas. The best.
russell May 29, 2014
Stir fried rice with veggies and eggs...Inexpensive a so good...
rachaelmr May 29, 2014
We eat less meat when saving money (since we only eat 'healthy' meat - no hormones/no antibiotics/free roaming, etc, we don't have many cheap meat options) and instead buy a lot of bulk rice, spinach, eggs, beans. We already make most of our food from scratch (can't get much cheaper than that) but what we really found works for our budget & health is buying almost daily. We budget $60. for basics (every 2 wks) and then $15./day for anything else. We can shift it around a bit and buy a day or two in advance but buying daily means a lot less waste and a lot less impulse buying. I have to make meals (plus snacks or extras) for that $15./day for 3 (and I prefer to have some leftovers for lunches). Most frugal plans recommend buying in big bulk - but I generally don't have that much cash up front (like buying a whole pig or even a CSA), so it's little by little that makes it work here.
rachiti May 29, 2014
Cheap wings...Auntie Stacey must live in a different part of the US than I do. I can get boneless skinless chicken breast on sale cheaper than chicken wings. I live in WI, and around here BBQ chicken wings are the things of legends. I shop the bargain bin at my local grocer. They have a fresh meat & seafood counter - the items that are misshapen, starting to get just a touch brown (ground beef), or leftovers that won't fit in the case make their way to the bin on a daily basis. I learned the hard way though that shrimp is NOT something that should be purchased when less than absolutely fresh :/ Most fish (as long as it will be cooked) though is fine...ditto for all sorts of red meat. After Christmas I got two 2lb boneless leg of lamb for $20. It's not a 'bargain' for meat but it's sure a bargain for lamb in the UK (my hubby is British & he misses the abundance of cheapish lamb). Even if I don't have plans for it that night, if it's a good deal it makes it's way into my cart and into my freezer when I get home (re-packaged, of course). My husband wants meat every day...this and the good meat sale prices are the only way I can accommodate this.
Beth May 29, 2014
Meal planning in general! If you know which ingredients you'll need to use up you won't waste as much food. This free meal planner also estimates the price breakdown for all the recipes so you can get an idea which of your favorite recipes are also your best "budget" recipes:
Auntie S. May 29, 2014
One of my favourite things to do is by cheap cuts of meat (usually the parts that are bone in that no one really buys because they look for the expensive boneless first) in a large flat pack. I then take it home and chop it up to make smaller packs for meals or just, in the case ( I chopped the all up for a huge batch of chicken wings I can have over a few dinners. I even make my own bbq sauce at home. It's dead easy.
BC M. May 28, 2014
A bag of dried beans is dirt cheap and lasts for so long... not to mention all of the delicious meal choices it inspires!
Shikha K. May 28, 2014
I actually put eggs on everything - great and delicious protein source, especially on pizza!
sew719 May 28, 2014
this is my favorite Food52 column! please don't stop!