My husband and I were recently asked, “How do you do it on such a tight budget?” I realized that going out to eat is the number 1 money sucker in our house besides gas so we’ve slowly made the transition to more home-cooked healthy meals. Over 3 years ago, we were getting used to paying a mortgage and just being “grown ups” so something had to change! The transition from always eating at a restaurant to more home-cooking takes time but it is worth it in the end. Also, acquiring a taste for more vegetables and fruits will take longer for others depending on their upbringing and habits. Start slowly, set goals of having 2 home cooked meals a week then to having up to 5. The key is to shop smart and begin to appreciate freshness in the meals that you begin to make at home. Do the math too, one day you will realize it only cost $10-$15 to make an amazing dinner for the two of you, where you would have otherwise spent $50+ at a restaurant.
Smart & Low-Cost Food Tips:
· Shop at Trader Joe's for guaranteed quality. Sounds like a promotion but I’m not getting paid, I honestly just love that place! I stopped going to big-name grocery stores because it was a waste of time, quality is sub-par, and you end up buying a lot of things you don't really need like overly processed foods (Oreos, Keebler Cookies, we’re all guilty!). Plus, TJ's has PLENTY of organic options and the price difference is usually about $1.00-$.50. When you see a Mexican supermarket, PULL OVER and buy your produce there. It's typically less than a dollar per pound for most fruits and veggies! Other options for great grocery stores: Mother’s, Henry’s, Whole Foods, and Bristol Farms.
· Being a pro in the kitchen: If you don't know how to do something, YOUTUBE it or watch a lot of the Food Network.
· Having the right tools: the number one thing to do if you are trying to cook more at home is to make the initial investment of having the right tools. If you are going to cook, you are going to have to LOVE & RESPECT what you use and feel confident in yourself. The chef's knife should feel heavy and solid in your hand; also it should always be sharp so that accidents don't happen. "A sharp knife is a safe knife!" I have a hybrid/santoku knife and it is attached to my left hand. Your cook wear (pots/pans) should be heavy, not cheapy, and not plastic handled so you can place it under a broiler when you get fancy. (Kirkland has a great set) Always designate cutting boards, one for meats and one for fruits/veggies. A microplane zester is the best tool to get a nice shred to cheese without wasting it or overdoing it, it’s also the best citrus zester.
· The best thing to happen in our kitchen: MISTO. Cuts out a huge portion of fat because you don't overdo it in the olive oil and adds an even coating to anything you roast or toast. This has made our olive oil stockpile last longer and I haven less guilt when I cook.
· When buying meat, try to get cuts that are on sale or buy a whole chicken. "Bone-in" is usually cheaper and beef with "loin" or "round" is typically leaner. "Meat is a treat" (just made that up) and not a staple in our kitchen. Because of this, we splurge on a good cut like filet or rib eye when we want to BBQ.
· Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season or on sale. I've noticed that our appetite coincides with the season altogether, so follow those cravings. (i.e. For Summer, we crave fresh and raw so I go with chopped salads with avocado and cut up melons/pineapples. For Winter, we crave soups and crock pot meals)
· Don't go crazy on buying fancy condiments, salad dressings, or fancy sauces, they end up staying in your fridge forever and you get over the strong flavor easily. The focus should be on the food itself and not a need for a condiment to give it flavor (with the exception for spring rolls). A successful week for us is when the fridge drawers are finally empty and the condiments are exclusive to 3 shelves on the door.
· Make dining-in “Fancy”: Don’t hesitate to use the fine china or linen napkins. Set the table and the mood! Eating a meal together will help with your relationship and your waist line. It is proven that mindless or distracted eating in front of a television makes you eat a lot more than you should. You will have the exception when your favorite game or show is on but eat at the dinner table at least twice a week. Another thing to do is to plate your food so you can control your portions. Remember, he’s a dude and you’re a chick, your serving sizes should not be equal.
· Get ideas! Snag a photo of the menu at one of your favorite restaurants. More than likely, they list every ingredient in a meal and it is up to you to get creative and adventurous at home!
In the kitchen, here are a few staple items that I always have in stock:
· Olive oil in your MISTO
· Balsamic vinegar - versatile as a salad dressing or marinade for roasted veggies
· lemon or lime
· Gourmet salt (Pink Himalayan, kosher, or sea salt because you tend to use less since the flavor is stronger...avoid table salt since it is a lot higher in the sodium content)
· Fresh cracked pepper
· Sweet chili sauce
· Hoisin sauce
· Peanut butter
· Vietnamese spring roll wrapper
· Any Grain or Pasta: quinoa, whole wheat pasta, brown rice
· Low-sodium soy sauce
· Boxed low-sodium soup like tomato or roasted red pepper tomato from TJ's
· Almonds or peanuts
· Shredded parmesan cheese
What I buy almost every week for about $30-$35:
· Roma tomatoes and/or organic sugar plum tomatoes
· Red onion #1-2
· Red potatoes #1 bag
· Cage free vegetarian fed eggs $3 (don't need it to be brown, the white ones are typically $.50 less)
· 1 bag of organic baby spinach. I use spinach as a salad versus the lettuce spring mix because it lasts longer and can be eaten raw or added to whatever you are cooking for more color and health benefits.
· Jar of organic marinara or salsa (depending on your mood you can go Italian or Fresh Mexican...salsa is typically more versatile so you might end up with two flavors Mexican for breakfast and Italian for dinner)
· Organic zucchini squash
· Whole wheat or corn & wheat tortilla (this lasts longer than bread when refrigerated and gets that carb fix) If you crave bread, buy their fat free sourdough. I like to jazz it up by spraying olive oil on it, rub garlic and sprinkle some parmesan then toast it.
· Bunch of bananas or a few apples
· 1 wedge of pecorino romano or any versatile cheese you like. Go for about the $3 mark (wedges last longer, tastes better, and satisfies that salt fix)
· Basil if you don't have a plant
Common recipes we make at home:
Caprese Salad - tomatoes, basil, microplaned Italian cheese and splash of balsamic vinegar on top of spinach.
Spinach Salad - hand torn spinach, red onion, tomatoes, avocado, 1 clove crushed garlic, and anything else you want to add (tortilla chips, rinsed black beans, canned sweet corn) all tossed in balsamic vinegar
Spring Rolls *The most important ingredient in spring rolls, (besides the easy sauce), is: mint, cucumber, carrots, and spinach. You can add anything else that is pretty neutral like shrimp, boiled lean pork etc.
Aglio Olio Pasta - whole wheat pasta cooked, then tossed in olive oil, finely chopped garlic, and tossed in parmesan cheese (you can add anything to this as well to jazz it up - zucchini, sun dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, or olives) To make this more of a citrus pasta, replace garlic with lemon or lime juice and zest and it can be refreshing when eaten cold.
Roast Veggies - Almost any vegetable can be roasted when they are cut evenly! Toss squash, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots, onion, or broccoli in some olive oil, touch of balsamic, a little S&P. Roast covered in 400 deg oven for about 20 mins then uncover for the last 10 mins. This is an awesome side dish to anything. If you want to use it as filler to a veggie taco, avoid using balsamic vinegar when roasting and top with a yummy salsa and some fresh cilantro/onion combo.
Roasted Potatoes - everyone loves potatoes, don't fry them! The key is to cut the potatoes to about the same size, toss in olive oil and
seasoning. Roast in the oven at 380-400 deg. Toss after 15 mins,
continue to cook until the edges are brown and crispy. Montreal
Zucchini Planks - Cut zucchini into long wedges or planks, spray olive oil on pan and on top of zucchini, sprinkle with parmesan and/or Italian bread crumbs. Roast in oven until tender.
I'm Filipino, so when I crave the cuisine, I always try to incorporate a healthier twist like getting leaner cuts of meat, carving out the fat, baking versus frying, and using low-sodium soy sauce. The flavor is still there but with a lot less chapstick fat resting on your lips after you finish eating it! This can get complicated, so if you need ideas just comment below.
I also find more healthy recipes via my Pinterest board. Let me know if you have any dilemmas!