Want to spend less, shop less, and have more fun in the kitchen by cooking on a budget? We’ve got you covered.
Ah, cooking. It’s easy on the grocery budget, but sometimes it can feel like it takes too much mental energy and time to keep it up.
These days, there’s an added challenge of cooking with increasingly expensive ingredients, and trying to resist the siren call of Doordash for the fourth time this week. Not only that, but you’re trying to keep your grocery budget at a very manageable size. All these constraints? We love constraints. Because where there are constraints, creativity blooms.
We’ve got some practical tips to make cooking on a budget come more painlessly and even (dare we say it) spark some joy!
1. Stock Up on Pantry Essentials
A well-stocked pantry will save your wallet and protect your time from last-minute trips (and temptations) to the grocery store. Here’s a list of essentials we like to keep on hand:
- Canned beans
- Dried beans (if you have an Instant Pot this is worlds easier)
- Canned peaches, pineapple, pears (use canned peaches on oatmeal, or mix them for a fruit salad)
- Canned or frozen vegetables
- Powdered milk (I always have the non-instant kind to use for baking)
- Spaghetti sauce
- Barbecue sauce
- Oats (old fashioned or steel cut)
- Peanut butter
- Sesame oil
- Red pepper flakes
- Ginger (fresh or ground)
This is where it starts getting more fun:
- Chocolate chips
- Brownie mix
- Ice cream (not really a pantry item, but can you blame us?)
- Trail mix
- Mixed nuts
- Your favorite crackers
- Fun cereal
Ready to get serious about saving? Join the More Money Challenge, a 30-day plan with three simple rules. Plus, get a free pantry inventory as part of the printable workbook!
2. Keep Easy, Go-To Meals on Hand
Not every meal needs to be a Michelin-starred event. There will be nights (many nights) where you barely have the energy to cook a frozen pizza. Anticipate those nights will happen, and equip your pantry accordingly. Consider these lower-effort, “good-enough” options as an underrated protection from tripling (or quintupling) your dinner costs. Because when the low-energy bug strikes, it’s usually going to be either takeout, carry-out, or one of these (at a fraction of the cost).
- Things with beans
- Potatoes and eggs
- Stir fry
- Breakfast burritos
- Udon noodles that are already cooked (you just have to steam them) plus frozen stir-fry veggies with egg and tofu.
- Eggs and toast
- Frozen pizza (add your own frozen veggies)
- Frozen meals (Trader Joe’s is a goldmine for healthy-ish easy options)
Don’t forget this: if dinner doesn’t look like dinner, it’s fine. If you eat cereal every night, it’s fine. Don’t stress about it looking a certain way. You’re rolling with the punches. You might say, “Ok, here’s how I’m feeling mentally right now, so we’re having toast. Eggs and toast. That’s it.” Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
3. Make Cooking a Good Experience
If you want to make budget-friendly cooking just a part of your normal life, do everything you can to make it an enjoyable experience. Sometimes, that means doing less, prepping more, or pairing your cooking with an already enjoyable event. Here are some tips to making cooking a better experience:
- Start simple. Make recipes that include flavors you love but not too many ingredients.
- Cook with somebody else. Nobody around? Turn it into a virtual date with a friend.
- Read the recipe all the way through before you make it.
- Prep your ingredients before you start cooking.
- Turn on music or an audiobook while you cook.
- Give yourself plenty of time to do it. Make sure you’re not rushed or stressed.
- Keep a running grocery list. As you settle into your rhythm, you’ll realize you have more and more of the right ingredients always on hand.
- Try meal planning, if just for a month. You’ll escape the question of “what’s for dinner” and you can be flexible as needed.
- Have the right stuff. If you have pans that are a mess, knives that are not sharp, it’s just not fun.
When you really want to roll up your sleeves, this can be a time to be creative, experiment, and have fun. Cooking can be a mood booster: you’re creating something, you make a complete product (it usually tastes pretty good!), and it’s done.
Once you figure out how to keep pantry staples on hand and find joy in cooking, your food budget will slowly dwindle as you make this area of your life loads more efficient.
4. Keep Cheap, Easy Recipes on Rotation
Brush up your rotation with budget-friendly recipes that you know the family will enjoy. We’ve got some ideas to get you started:
- Make a baked potato and put a chunky canned soup (or canned chili) on top. Bonus if you add cheese!
- Baked sweet potatoes with shredded chicken and any sautéed veggies that sound good.
- Recreate your favorite restaurant recipes at home (note from Rachel: for shameless or closet Taco Bell fans, this crunchwrap supreme recipe is awesome and totally guilt-free in my book because it’s homemade)
- Make pasta with fun ingredients like capers, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes (anything that makes something basic like pasta feel fancy or different).
- Scrambled eggs with veggies and salsa.
- Make peanut sauce with stir-fry noodles, veggies, and top with green onion. I use this peanut sauce recipe a lot, thinning it with hot water to taste.
- Slow cooker salsa chicken. Try this two-ingredient recipe.
- Make tuna salad and add garbanzo or white beans to make it go further.
- Use black beans or pinto beans in ground beef, or kidney beans in sloppy joes (you can think of beans as a supplement to use less meat and make your meals more filling).
- This lemon garbanzo feta salad is super easy to put together. Bulger is cut wheat that cooks super fast, can also be used for burgers and other salads or in soups so it’s a good pantry staple. It has a texture similar to steel cut oats. If you haven’t tried it, see what you think!
- This artichoke-topped pasta is an example of what I was talking about to add fun things to pasta. You can easily add chicken to it.
- Try a gnocchi recipe for a change! You can even use frozen spinach for this one, and canned beans.
- Make Quinoa burgers or lentil burgers from your pantry staples
- Try these toasted coconut caramel Rice Krispie Treats (ok, it’s not dinner…but it’s delicious).
Well, there you have it! Cooking that’s heavy on joy, easy on the budget, and full of affordable ingredients.
We encourage you to take the pressure off of yourself however you can in feeding yourself and your family. Whether it means cooking a lot more as an outlet or whether it means the whole family eats cereal every night, give yourself permission to go whatever route you need each day.
So, what’s for dinner?!
Want to really crank up your savings? Join the More Money Challenge, where for 30 days there are just three simple rules, and one of them is no dining out. Can you do it?