Cooking and Baking on a Budget: How To

>> Tuesday, December 8, 2009

These days, it's expensive to stay well fed. It's even more expensive to cook and bake anything out of the ordinary (well, more elaborate than spaghetti and tomato sauce or plain-Jane brownies). How can you keep things interesting in the kitchen, but still pay the heating bills and give gifts to your friends & family?

Just follow these simple steps . . .

Step #1: Make a plan & stick to it. Even if you haven't tried planning your meals before -- it's never too late to start. At the beginning of each week, I make a rough outline of our dinners so we can shop accordingly. The list need not be specific -- one night, I just say "pasta" another "breakfast for dinner." I even think of what I might like to bake later on in the week so I don't overbuy. Basically, make a plan so that you don't end up purchasing way more food than you need. Less waste. Less mess. More cash.

Step #2: Take a look around your own pantry. You may be surprised with what you find. Just the other day, I uncovered two unopened bags of Ghirardelli chocolate chips in our reserves. Unless you take stock of everything in your house before grocery shopping (even with planning -- who has time for that?) -- you're bound to have some extra ingredients floating around. So before you get in your car, hop on your bike, or wait for the bus and head to the store, hit your kitchen cabinets (or freezer, even)!

Step #3: Again . . . Use what you have. Maybe you are aware of ingredients in your house, but they're about to kick the bucket. Those super-ripe bananas that will go bad unless you use them today? Bake something with 'em, maybe even Stephen's favorite banana cake. Bag of bread going bad in two days? Make a small batch of stuffing. The possibilities are endless if you get creative. Just don't use food that has already expired.

Step #4: When you do buy, buy in bulk. This is a tip we've not paid much attention to lately, but I'd like to start again. When we lived in Ithaca, there was this great natural foods store where we'd buy everything -- couscous, flour, granola, oats, oil, peanut butter, etc. -- in bulk. We'd even bring our own containers to make it a green venture. Especially during the holidays, if you know you're going to be baking a double (or triple) batch of cookies for that office party . . . if you know you'll need extra for those unexpected guests at X-mas dinner . . . or whatever the case may be, check out the bulk foods section at your grocery store. Or hit up bulk chains like Sam's Club, BJ's, and CostCo.

But beware: If you don't really NEED that 100-pack of instant hot chocolate, put it back on the shelf!

Step #5: Shop sales & shop seasonally. We always check out the produce section first thing when we get to Wegmans. We typically end up buying whatever veggies and fruits are on sale that week and then adapt them to what we want for meals. This week, in fact, the store was having a huge sale on asparagus. So, though we usually buy broccoli -- we changed our tune. Apples were definitely in abundance this fall, so I snagged a bag every time we were out and -- as a result -- used them much in my baking. Use a lot of shredded mozzarella? We do. When it's on sale -- get two bags instead of one. Cheese usually has an expiration date at least a few months in the future.

These tips only scratch the surface. Have you had success cooking/baking a week's worth of excellent meals only using little dough to do so? We'd love to hear about it! Just leave a comment or email us at

More tips on how to live large on a tight budget:

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