I have always cooked most meals from scratch, but in the early days, it was a bit harder, having a full time job and 2-3 freelancing jobs on top made it a bit complicated to be a master chef every night. You want to optimize both the time you spend in the kitchen and the food budget, while eating healthy.
It can be tempting to microwave a £1 ready meal some days, getting the time and budget parameter in check, but if you look at the list of ingredients, you won’t want to repeat that too often. So how do you score all three?
Cheap easy meals at home
Meet your two new best friends: the freezer and the slow cooker. Throw anything in the morning into your slow cooker, a piece of cheap beef, some vegetables and a few potatoes, and you will come back to a delicious homemade stew for dinner. Prep work is limited as you only need to chop the vegetables, and with a little imagination (spices, replacing potatoes with butternut squash or lentils, etc.) you can make an endless list of meals. Better yet, you can throw in any vegetable that is about to go bad in your fridge, and reduce your food waste to zero.
Make a little extra, so you can freeze some portions or take your leftover dinner to work the next day.
Batch cooking is awesome because the cost per portion goes down with the number of portions you make. You only need to use the oven once if you make lasagna for four or for twelve. Be sure to mark your Tupperware and order them neatly in the freezer so you don’t forget about food.
– A big pack of meat. Cheaper than the smaller portions, meat will not be the center of your meal anymore, but added for the taste. Minced meat makes for great chili, tacos, lasagna, cottage pie, meatballs, burgers, and so on. All those recipes are really easy to prepare once you get the hang of it, and most can be batch cooked and frozen. Meat for stew is also cheaper than steak, and you can eat a smaller bit as the vegetables and potatoes will keep you full.
– Discounted vegetables. It can be the vegetables that have a short shelf life and are heavily discounted by the store, or the ones that are in season and cheaper than usual. You can chop them on the day you buy them and freeze them so you can prepare a quick stir fry on a lazy day, or throw them directly in your slow cooker during the week. You can even keep those cheap frozen veggies for a few months, while their price go up.
– Discounted fruits. Same thing as the vegetables, cut them and freeze so you have them ready for a morning smoothie or a fruit pie. From my experience, thawing fruits to put in a fruit salad is not great but you won’t feel the difference in a recipe where they are cooked or blended.
– Grains. I love lentils, white beans, red beans, chick peas, couscous, quinoa… they are cheap and filling. Add them to your stews, soups and chilis and you will be full with half the meat you used to need.
Now on top of stews, you also have all the ingredients to make a quick fried rice or stir fry. If you cook some rice at the beginning of the week you will have it ready to throw in the pan with some vegetables, an egg and maybe a little meat, and dinner will be ready in 5 minutes.
Start experimenting with spices and herbs (cumin, thyme, curry, rosemary, coriander, basil, mint…) and no two meals will look the same.
I also love the “anything salad”, which accommodates anything I have in the fridge. It always starts the same:
– A bed of lettuce or iceberg, so you don’t have to wash it and it is much cheaper than bagged salads. Raw spinach is pretty good too.
– Or a base of rice, beans, lentils, chick peas, whatever you have ready from another meal, cooked and cold already.
– Proteins in the form of boiled eggs, leftover chicken, a can of tuna, bacon…
– Vegetables, the ones you didn’t freeze that only have a few days left.
Again, thousands of options to mix and match, and as you gain practice, they will look good too!
There you have it, easy and quick to prepare, with cheap ingredients, and healthy for your diet.
Eating healthy and cheaply at work
I get it, you want to be the cool kid who eats lunch out with the cool colleagues. £8 lunches five times a week, 48 weeks per year? That would be £1,920, please.
How about instead you become the super cool kid who goes on a month long holiday with that money? Or, let’s be crazy, the super awesome kid who retires 10 years earlier with the savings?
Bringing lunch to work allows you to reuse leftovers, and always allows for a healthy option instead of a greasy fast food.
If you really can’t, check out the office’s cafeteria. My big firm’s cafeteria had sponsored meals for £1.50 if you didn’t eat meat, for that price you could get a huge salad, bread, cheese and a fruit or a yogurt. Quick, healthy, and still social with your colleagues. You can have meat at night with your family.
No office cafeteria? You should spend a week or two checking out the places around work, to find the best deal around. Do they have a loyalty card? Japanese, Indian or Thai restaurants often have cheap lunch menus that are pretty healthy and just a bit pricier than a fast food. A sandwich is a good option too, provided you don’t go crazy on the sauce.