It’s true that there are plenty of ways to save on meals out at restaurants and on meal delivery, including snagging free delivery or keeping track of our favorite spots that offer free food on specific days of the week. But perhaps the best way to make our food budget go further is to make meals at home – and to consider the ingredients themselves.
As a freelancer, my income often ebbs and flows, and there’s been times I’ve struggled with staying on my budget while creating interesting meals at home that keep me from buying takeout – this was especially true during the pandemic, when we were all trying to stretch out the time between grocery runs.
Stocking up on the best meal-stretching, budget-friendly ingredients can be the best way to extend our food budget. These are ingredients that can make dishes feel heartier and more filling but also last a long time, are versatile, and often create healthier dishes as well.
These super star meal-stretching ingredients will let you create delicious meals while using less of the pricier ingredients, such as meat. This bigger, more satisfying meals may also lend themselves to meal prep, so you can portion out in a few containers to add to the freezer for another night – thus stretching the ingredients (and your food budget) even further.
Superstar Ingredients to Always Have On Hand
While it may seem like funny math that you’ll spend less on food by adding a food ingredient to your meal, it’s actually true. The right inexpensive ingredients can make that meal go further, and lead to healthier, more well-rounded meals (and less spending at the grocery store!).
I keep lots of canned beans on hand, and they are themselves a great meal-stretching ingredient, but even better than canned are dried beans.
Dried beans are sold in larger quantities (usually in a large bag versus a smaller can of beans) and that means you get a lot more potential meals for less money. While the benefit of canned beans is that they are pretty much good to go straight from the can, dried beans will need to be soaked or tossed in a slow cooker or pressure cooker to soften up. The process is easy though and those beans are a workhorse. While I often use them in chili or soups, they could also be perfect in an array of casseroles and roasts (or on their own, seasoned with fresh herbs!).
Beans are loaded with fiber, too, which makes them very filling – keeping you satisfied longer and not snacking an hour later.
Rice is another pantry mainstay that packs a lot of punch because it lasts forever, is very budget friendly, is full of nutrients, and is both filling and versatile enough to be enjoyed in many ways, in many dishes.
It can be added to soups and stews or casseroles to stretch that meal or as a side dish with pretty much any dinner. For example, blend those beans or combine with meat and veggies to use in burritos or enchiladas – you’ll use less meat and not miss that pricey ingredient at all. It can even be enjoyed on its own, paired with veggies or cheese and spices, for a very satisfying dish that costs only pennies.
Oats don’t get nearly enough love and attention. I start my day with oat milk in my coffee or cereal every single day, and oats are also essential for everything from overnight oats to oatmeal cookies and so much more. They are shelf-stable, loaded with nutrients like fiber and vitamins, and they cost pennies per serving.
Oats aren’t limited to oat-specific drinks or dishes, either, though. They are also very useful for making other dishes stretch further, such as to thicken a soup.
There’s a reason that in the book (and movie) “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney created that potato farm – and it pretty much saved his life (spoiler alert!). Potatoes are a powerhouse meal-stretching ingredient because they are incredibly inexpensive (especially if you grow them on your own), filling, versatile, and did I mention delicious? Whether having a family baked potato bar for dinner or enjoying a side of fries or mashed with dinner, potatoes are always welcome. They also lend themselves beautifully to soups and casseroles.
There’s perhaps no greater freezer asset for meal stretching than having a bunch of frozen vegetables on hand. Personally, I always have spinach and broccoli in my own freezer. The spinach gets tossed into my soups and stews, while the broccoli is great to have on hand for everything from stir fry to a touch of green in a mac and cheese. Why are frozen veggies so important to have on hand? “They cook up so well, can be eaten on their own or dropped into a recipe and when served, there are no leftovers because everyone comes back for more,” says Chef Lea Anne Dea of Conagra Brands.
Frozen veggies are just as nutritious as fresh veggies.
“Frozen vegetables help cut down on prep time in the kitchen and are always ready to be cooked when you are ready to cook them. No worries if life gets busy and the meal you were planning to make this week doesn’t happen until next week — they won’t lose any freshness,” says Chef Dea.
Frozen vegetables are also so useful because the more of them that are in a dish, the less meat you will have to use in that dish – cutting down on costs. It’s not only cheaper but healthier. We all love fresh vegetables, but it’s such a pity when we don’t use them before they start to wilt – that’s money and food lost right there. Keeping them in the freezer keeps them fresh longer, and gives us more options.
Recipes Featuring These Ingredients
Now that you’ve got these superstar stretching ingredients, here are some ideas of what to do with them. These recipes all feature one more more of the ingredients above:
Cholent is a Jewish dish that is along the lines of a hearty and filling beef-centric stew. It incorporates beans and potatoes (and could even include something like rice or another meal-stretching grain like barley if you want to bulk it up even further!).
Oatmeal is usually associated with sweeter ingredients, such as fruit and honey. But giving it a savory spin is a great way to incorporate veggies and eggs, making this oatmeal a heartier meal that could also be a weeknight dinner.
Very Veggie Beans and Rice
I love this recipe because it incorporates three different meal stretching ingredients – frozen veggies, beans, and rice – into one healthy and tasty dish.
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