Saving money at mealtime doesn't require unearthing an old casserole recipe or heating up a quick-fix meal from a box.
Here a trio of celebrated chefs — the Food Network's Melissa d'Arabian, award-winning Seattle chef Tom Douglas and White House assistant chef Sam Kass — dish up a baker's dozen ways to practice thrift in the kitchen without sacrificing nutrition or taste.
Melissa d'Arabian, mother of four girls, the oldest age 6, knows firsthand the demands of being a working parent. Since winning in season five of The Next Food Network Star, the corporate-executive-turned-stay-at-home-mom has reentered the workplace as a television personality. She understands that finding time to prepare inexpensive but nutritious meals can be difficult.
"Some days I need something I can get on the table rather quickly, and some days I can braise pork shoulders in the oven for a couple of hours," d'Arabian explains. "That being said, I can relate to needing to put food on my table that is nutritious but also not very expensive, that still feels good to eat."
To meet those goals, d'Arabian suggests:
- Making a "super inexpensive protein" such as quiche, wild mushroom omelets or high-protein pasta the centerpiece of a dinner once a week.
- Saving 50 to 70 percent by buying the cut of beef, pork, or chicken that the grocery store's advertising as its big bargain.
- Getting a "free" pound of ground beef by repackaging a five-pound tray of meat into six less-than-one-pound portions.
- Tracking the cost of the family's "go-to recipes" so you recognize when the main ingredients are on sale at bargain prices.
Tom Douglas is the author of three cookbooks and owner of seven Seattle restaurants, a bakery and a catering business. In addition to winning numerous James Beard Foundation awards, he was chosen as best restaurateur by Bon Appétit in 2008. He advises home cooks to borrow a page from the professional chef's recipe book.
"Some people shop with the 'if it costs more, it must be better' attitude, and vice versa," Douglas says. "That's the wrong way to start at the grocery store. It's not how we start in the restaurant. For the home cook, it is about getting the most flavor, the most tenderness for your buck."
With that in mind, Douglas says to:
- Rethink the cuts of meat you purchase. Baby back ribs cost $4 to $7 per pound, but Douglas says pork shoulder or butt is more flavorful and costs 99 cents to $1.50 per pound.
- Learn how to braise meats. Skirt and hanger steaks are inexpensive cuts of meat that can be made tender by searing and then slow cooking in moist heat.
- Cook for your "frozen pantry" by learning how to create individually quick-frozen (IQF) foods. Berries, peaches and corn are a few examples of produce that can be bought at the height of ripeness and frozen for later use.
- Shop at roadside stands and ethnic grocery stores for No. 2-rated produce that is equal in taste to top-rated produce but may have a less attractive appearance.
"A No. 1 shiitake mushroom, while it looks beautiful, can range from $12.99 to $15.99 at any grocery in the city," Douglas says. "A No. 2 shiitake mushroom is $3.94. Once I've cut them up and cooked them, you couldn't tell if it was a No. 1 or a No. 2 to save your life."
Sam Kass, the first family's former personal chef and now White House assistant chef, has his hand in preparing everything from simple family meals to state dinners. No matter the menu, Kass says his focus is on creating healthy dishes that taste good.
"We always focus on making sure the food we serve fosters the health of the people we are feeding," Kass said. "That is a priority of the first lady. Every meal that comes out of the White House, we are trying to make as healthy as possible."
Kass, who helps lead Michelle Obama's fight against childhood obesity as a senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, says tasty, healthy meals can be inexpensive if you:
- Cook in season. This guarantees the fruits and vegetables you buy will be at their peak for both taste and nutrition, but will cost less than at other times of the year.
- Begin your weekly menu planning with a meat that will become a central ingredient in other meals. Roasted chicken on Monday, for example, can become a chicken stir-fry with fresh vegetables on Tuesday and chicken and vegetable soup later in the week.
- Incorporate "undervalued" ingredients such as whole-wheat couscous, beans and lentils into your meals.
- When hosting large dinner parties or holiday meals, remember that "the best food is the simplest food." Don't overspend trying to do too much or get too fancy.
- Master basic cooking techniques. We need look no further than our own families to learn the necessary skills. "My grandparents' generation cooked," he said. "They learned from their parents. In their generation, meals were home-cooked because that's all there was. That knowledge has not been passed down to the same extent it was in previous generations."
His suggestion to grandparents: Leave a legacy. Put your grandchildren to work in the kitchen.
Andrea Downing Peck is a Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based journalist who writes about family issues.