Cooking on a budget

It’s not always easy to eat a balanced meal. Sometimes we want convenience, so we buy pre-made dinners that we just need to heat up. While these meals are convenient, in most cases these items are filled with preservatives and additives which can negatively affect our health.

Ordering take-out can be a healthier option (depending on what you order) that is still convenient. However, it can become very expensive.

So how do we balance it out between good food that’s easy and affordable? How do we cook on a budget?

Work with a dietitian

A dietitian is someone who can help you develop a specific, effective nutrition plan. This can include types of foods that are nutritious and budget-friendly. Dietitians should also be consulted if you have specific food allergies or health concerns.

Please note: Dietitian is a protected term in Canada, which means they need to have professional certification. Nutritionist is only a protected term in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia. This means that someone may be a nutritionist in British Columbia but not have the same credentials as someone in Alberta. Dietitians of Canada has an explanation and a chart of protected titles by province/territory that can help you identify what kind of health professional to consult for dietary needs.

Check the Canada Food Guide

The Canada Food Guide (CFG) is a great place to start to help us understand nutritious food choices and balanced meals.

The goal is to maintain a balanced diet, filled with nutrient-rich foods that will nourish and power our brains and bodies. The CFG also has tips on meal planning, food trends, improving your eating habits and healthy options for eating out in the community.

It’s important to note that depending on your unique needs, some recommendations in the CFG may not be appropriate for you. Always speak to a dietitian if you have any questions.

Meal planning

The most efficient way to cook on a budget is meal planning. This is when you pick out what meals you want to make for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for a period of several days.

There are several benefits to meal planning:

While planning ahead and decision making can be challenging after a brain injury, meal planning will help over the long-term. You will be able to take your time and make decisions in your home (not the grocery store) and will not have to worry as much about quick decision-making in the produce aisles.

When meal planning, the most effective process is the following:

  • Write out your meals for the week, including lunch and dinner. You can do this by using a calendar
  • Create your grocery list based on the ingredients needed for those meals
  • Grocery shop for the full week

When preparing your weekly meals, review the ingredients you already have in your freezer, pantry, and fridge. By using up the ingredients you already have on hand, you will reduce waste and the cost of purchasing new ingredients.

You can make your meals each day, or another option is to prepare meals for the week and store them. The wonderful thing about this option is that it reduces waste, organizes your diet, and all your meals are ready for you when you want them. You can store them in your fridge (or freezer if you won’t be eating them right away).

Cook in bulk

Making large meals such as stews and casseroles is a great way to reduce the amount of work that goes into cooking and stretching a dollar on your grocery list. Meals like lasagnas, lentil soups, and other big meals use affordable ingredients and can last a long time. Many of these options can be frozen, which is convenient for those times when you aren’t feeling up to preparing a meal from scratch.

Shop thoughtfully

There are ways to shop for food that can cut down on your expenses.

Buy budget-friendly alternatives

When cooking on a budget, it is important to note that there are many budget-friendly healthy alternatives to the regular foods we eat. Beans and lentils are a great protein alternative to meat, while a healthy margarine can replace mayonnaise and butter. Oatmeal, purchased in large, long-lasting bags, is a healthy and cost-effective option for breakfast. Vegetables and fruit such as  “cabbage, potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, squash, broccoli, apples, bananas, [and] oranges,” are both nutritious and cost-effective options for cooking.

More budget-friendly healthy substitutions can be found on the Heart and Stroke website.

Choose foods that can be spread out over multiple meals

Foods that can be used in multiple ways can help you save money. A good example is roasted whole chickens. It can spread over many meals. It can be used in stir fry, stew or soup. You can also use the chicken bones to make your own homemade stock.

Choose your recipes before you shop

Recipes that have affordable ingredients (like rice) or ingredients that can be bought in bulk (again, like rice) can help make your grocery list less expensive. If you need some inspiration, there are a lot of healthy, low-budget recipes available on the Internet for free. We have also included some at the bottom of this page.

Plan to use up the ingredients you buy to eliminate waste

If you are making a meal with a particular ingredient you don’t use often, try to find more recipes that use the ingredient so it doesn’t go to waste. For example, an ingredient like fresh ginger has a limited shelf life and can be used in multiple recipes like stir fry and sauces so that it doesn’t go to waste.

Substitute less expensive ingredients into recipes

You can choose less expensive ingredients (for example, a cheaper cut of meat), particularly if you are using a slow cooker or a pressure cooker where the cooking process will make the food more tender.

Use coupons and shop the sales

Knowing what is on sale can really help to save you money. If you have a favourite grocery store, look at the weekly sales and coupons on their websites. You can also sign up for their email list to access potential savings.

If you want to shop around for the best deals on specific products, free apps like Reebee help you search the sales in your area.

Some grocers also have a discounted aisle or shelf in each department. These items are usually nearing their “sell by” date. However, if you are using the item within the next couple of days, it is a great way to save some money on groceries.

Most grocers also have rewards or points cards. This is a great way to earn rewards/money towards future items.

Use seasonal ingredients

Another method to reduce food costs is to cook with ingredients that are in season. This means buying fall vegetables like squash in the fall, and summer vegetables like zucchini in the summer.

Ingredients that grow in season are less expensive and readily available. This method also allows you to change up your menu and create seasonal menus that incorporate a greater variety of foods and nutritional options.

Here is a chart of vegetables and fruits according to their season, along with more tips on eating seasonally.

Some recipes to get you started

No matter what you like to eat, there are meals out there for you. Here are some compilation articles with recipes you can use for inspiration.

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