Ten tips for good frugal food

6 February 2012
If you were to cook your own meals from scratch, I doubt you'd add sulphites, nitrates, artificial colourings or flavours, gums or MSG, and yet they're common ingredients in foods on supermarket shelves. Some preservatives, like calcium propionate (282) in bread have been removed recently because of their effects on health, but there are many other additives remaining in the food we eat. These things are added to keep food fresh, to add colour, flavour and to replace certain food properties that are removed during processing. Some additives are harmless, some cause problems, some haven't been tested. If you buy processed foods or pre-prepared meals, it's a good habit to get into to read the labels and have some understanding of what you're reading.

One of the ways we can get around this is to buy unprocessed ingredients instead of food that has be modified in some way, or already prepared and cooked. If you can make meals using ingredients you know, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, pulses and legumes, you'll be as close as you can get to eating and serving food you can be sure of. Instead of relying on packets of powdered spice mixes and cans of soup to add flavour to your food, get to know the herbs and spices you have available and use them instead.
  1. Chop, slice, shred your food yourself.
  2. Caramelise meat, chicken, onions and vegetables - that alone will add a lot to the flavour of your food.
  3. Make your own seasoning mixes. Find recipes here.
  4. Be careful with fruit juice as well. It's much better to grow your own or buy oranges and squeeze your own juice, but if that is not possible, read the label carefully and buy cautiously. There have been news reports last week about insecticides in orange juice imported into the USA from Brazil another country and processed in America.
  5. Buy in season; fruit and vegetables in season are usually cheaper and fresher.
  6. Buy cheaper cuts of meat, like shoulder of lamb or pork instead of the leg, and chuck steak, skirt steak, gravy beef, shin beef. All these cuts contain cartilage that break down with long slow cooking to give you natural gelatine in your food. That is very good for you. There's more to be read about this is the excellent book Nourishing Traditions. Use your slow cooker or a casserole dish in the oven to slow cook a double batch. Freeze the second portion. We buy our meat in bulk from a local family butcher.  We usually buy a hind quarter of beef which will see us through several months. It costs $7.95 a kilo (2.2lbs) and is local meat from the butcher's own farm. Obviously that is the ideal and not everyone has that luxury but you can ask about the meat you buy. If you ask questions you'll learn more and will be less likely to buy inferior meat.
  7. Stockpile - this will support you cooking from scratch. A cupboard full of ingredients will see you through not only your daily meals and snacks, it will be an insurance policy for those times when you don't have the time or energy to shop, when you have increased expenses one week and run short of cash or if there is a community emergency such as a storm, flood or fire.
  8. Use your leftovers. Learning how to deal with leftover food can stretch one meal into two or at the very least will provide a lunch the following day.
  9. Take your lunch and drinks to work or school.
  10. “Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing there?" Michael Pollan says. So if you eat grains for breakfast, forget the Corn Flakes, Coco Pops and Cherrios and go for oatmeal or semolina instead. Don't buy instant oats (or instant anything), buy rolled or cut oats or barley, soak them in water overnight and cook them in the morning.
Cooking food isn't one simple task. It's a series of steps that will see you buying, possibly growing, cleaning, preparing and cooking the food you eat. How do you go about it?  Can we turn this list of ten into 100 essential tips?


  1. This is near to my heart Rhonda. Healthy food also means no packaging. It's a win/win! My Tip - There is no need to buy bleached flour. Unbleached, or better still, wholemeal are much better. Add baking powder yourself to make self raising flour.

    I'm looking forward to reading everyone's tips!

  2. This is one of those things that leads to so many others, as you mention in that concluding sentence, Rhonda! Cooking from scratch was in many ways my entry point for growing my own food and striving for a more simple life. And "avoiding anything great-grandma wouldn't recognize as food" is something that's motivated me to keep my food as close to home as possible.

    One thing I might add to your list is food preservation; cold storage/ freezing, canning, dehydrating and the like as a way of having wholesome food year-round in places where there's a limited growing season.


  3. I completely agree! I only buy and cook bulk beans, rice, and grains. I keep them in air-tight containers so I don't have to worry about buying them frequently.

    And I only buy fresh local produce, or better yet--I get it from my backyard.

    I would add PLANNING to the list. The only reason I can eat the way I do with a busy schedule is by menu planning and cooking ahead. Having fresh produce in the garden helps too.

  4. Excellent list. The more conscious we are of where our food comes from and doing our own preparation the better our health becomes, which in itself is money saving. But we also often turn to doing things from scratch, growing our own and all of this is much healthier for us too.

  5. Love the list. My tip - you can add beans or lentils to just about any meal, this uses less meat, decreases the cost and is healthier.

  6. A few more for the list: - peel bananas before freezing to help prevent the flesh going dark
    - put 2 or 3 dried bay leaves in flours/ dry goods to help keep weevils away.
    - after cleaning cupboards wipe down with a mix of diluted eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils to keep the cockroaches and ants at bay. Lol, the smell dissipates after a few days but the effect keeps working :).

  7. My tip comes from a different place. For someone who is not used to cooking at all - start with all the helpers you need. Try cooking your favorite meal. If it's fastfood burgers and fries - buy frozen fries and preformed burgers. The tip is this - Don't be overwhelmed by what you could be doing...just start cooking. SJ in Vancouver

  8. thank you Rhonda for a wonderful post this morning,i have been a sufferer of Food Allergies for the last few year's,and that is one of my reason's why i make everything from scratch,and try to grow as much as i can myself,and i feel so much better for it,and so does my wallet! x Carol

  9. I like to think of it as buying ingredients rather than buying food, if that makes any sense.

    My mother was the world's worst cook... for her "cooking" meant taking a frozen entre out of the freezer, and following the directions on the package. But my father's mother was an AMAZING cook.

    I remember one day we were visiting Grandma and she asked us to stay for dinner. We accepted, and I remember my mom poking her head in the freezer and saying to me "there isn't any food here." But Grandma proceeded to prepare for us a feast the likes of which I'd only ever seen at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    In retrospect, it wasn't really a fancy meal, pot roast with pasta and veggies... but it was real food, and this was a rarity in my childhood.

    Anyhow, that moment is forever seared into my memory, and it's where I got the idea of ingredients vs. food. Grandma is still one of my greatest inspirations in the kitchen.

  10. Hello Rhonda and All

    My breakfast this morning was a fresh peach picked from the tree, a handfull of Tommytoe tomatoes and some snowpeas as I checked the garden.
    No packaging there.
    Just love your site and can't wait for the book.
    Have a wonderful day everyone!!!!!

  11. It a hot topic at the dinner table in our home, I have a 10, 8 and 3 year old who all enjoy the food that I serve and we talk about what vegies came from the garden, is this a 'healthy' meal mum, what could you do to make it healthier,etc...its all going into their clever brains and staying there...for the future...I am setting the path of what they know to be good food and the things that maybe arnt so good, we talk about what is in it and moderation. I love to think I am bringing my children up how my mum taught me, mostly through example and now lots of discussion and hands on food preparation.
    Im looking forward to popping your lovely new book onto my xmas list this year too Rhonda, ......Suzanne, Enchanted Moments.

  12. Like Linda this is near to my heart too.

    May I add: cook pulses and lentils in large quantities, use for one meal and freeze the rest in meal or portion sizes. Also even if you eat meat, have at least two vegetarian meals a week -- it's good for your health and easier on the budget.

  13. Hi Rhonda:)
    Thanks for another wonderful post....just wondering why you freeze your dried beans?I always have these packets on hand,but just leave them on the pantry shelf as they do have a long life.

  14. Catlady, it's interesting you wrote that because "Stop buying food, buy ingredients instead" was originally the title for this post. I changed it because I didn't think anyone would get it. Obviously I was wrong. :- )

  15. Carleene, I put all the grains, pulses and flour we buy into the freezer for a few days when I bring them home. This is to kill any bugs that may be in the packet. Then they go on the shelf until used. ; - )

  16. I LOVE this post. It's what I do, and what I believe, but I just love the way you say it.
    Have a lovely day, you two! xx

  17. I learn something everytime I visit your wonderful blog , thanks and I find it fun to try to be creative with food .

  18. I am learning to do things slowly. Slowly and, sometimes, its one step at a time x

  19. Hi Rhonda,

    I love this post. We have been cooking just about everything from scratch for a couple years now.

    I think a big thing that Mums spend money on are prepackaged snack products- yoghurts, cheese and crackers, chips, raisins etc.

    We buy all of these in large sizes and then I take a bit more time to cut the cheese into cubes, add my own fruit to plain yoghurt in a reusable container or put raisins into a little cloth homemade baggy.

    It reduces waste in packaging, reduces the cost of buying for convenience and you can also replace additive and preservatives with whole foods- you know everything that is going into your child.

    We have recently switched from a vegetarian to omnivorous diet (more on that here http://www.thiswholefamily.com/2011/11/omnivorous-family-somber-confession.html if you're interested) so I am trying to teach myself how to use cheaper cuts of meat and to use everything (bones for stock etc.) so that nothing goes to waste. Nourishing Traditions has been helpful but I think I should read through some of your back posts! I am sure there is a wealth of knowledge there too! : )

    xo m.

  20. These are good posts, if only to encourage me that I'm doing what I can.

    Of course the other day, I realized I can't ask "Would my grandmother recognize this as food?" because she uses more convenience food than we do! Each generation is going to have to add a "great" to grandmother when asking that question.

  21. I, too, have food allergies (5 years) and I blame everything! The best way to combat the problem is with a strict diet and nothing prepared .. including ketchup, steak sauce .. etc. It would be quite a survey to find out how such food allergies have risen the past few years .. especially since GMO foods have been on the market.

  22. Meagan, we had been vegetarian for 8 years when I read Nourishing Traditions. I was totally vegetarian, Hanno ate meat when we went out. Since going back to meat, we haven't looked back. Good luck with your changes, love.

  23. One of my favourite frugal meals is what we call Chinese Chicken wings. Chicken wings are seriously cheap, and I buy enough for 2 meals. I cut them into bits, make a marinade with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, chinese rice wine, oil and chinese five spice, then pack each meals-worth into a container and stick it all in the freezer. That way, I take it out the night before and as it defrosts it marinates! Great convenience food! All it needs is an hour in the oven, turning and basting occasionally. Yum!


  24. Such good points, Rhonda! I think more people would be able to live more simply and on much less money if only your 10 tips would be utilized in their homes.

    Cooking from scratch, buying in bulk, using real ingredients--so important for taking control of ones grocery budget! In our large family, it is the best way I know of to stretch those grocery dollars!

    I would like to agree with your advice, I know from experience in feeding our family of 10 that it is possible to eat good, real food on a frugal grocery budget.

    Thank you for this!

  25. I would add that if you've purchased dry goods you'll be keeping for a while (beans, pasta, flour, whatever), pop them in the freezer first to kill any weevils or anything that may have hitched a ride, then repackage in airtight containers, don't just leave it on the panry shelf in it's cardboard box or flimsy plastic bag. Learned that one the hard way.

  26. Hi Rhonda, what an inspirational post! Was lovely to see you reference 'Nourishing Traditions' as this is the book that led me to a simplier, healthier and happier life. I think all it takes sometimes to introduce people to improving their life is to start off simply with some words of encouragement and a bit of advise which you do beautifully! Thank you =)

  27. Thanks Rhonda,
    Your photos resembled many processes that go on in my kitchen! Good to see that I'm on the right track!

  28. One thing I'm experimenting with doing is buying one large bag of decent organic granulated sugar, and then use my food processor to make caster sugar or icing sugar when I need it for baking. Before I was buying all three of them and bought the cheapest I could find to stay within my budget. Now I have the money to buy one good quality product and I can use it for three different purposes.

  29. I like to make bread and pizza bases and when i make a loaf i always double it and make a second one to put in the freezer. That way even when im really tired and want something quick i can throw whatever i have on a pizza base and dinner is done.

  30. My tip is: be smart and not too hard on yourself. If you know that you are going to be tired when you come out of work, cook an easy meal. Something like pasta, broccoli and pesto and olives. The pasta and broccoli take 10 mins to cook, the pesto and olives you can have ready made in the fridge.

    In the weekends, or when you have the energy you can cook more elaborate. My partner cooked braised meat in beer this weekend (it's winter here). Yummy and a healthy variation on our mostly vegetarian meals during the week.


  31. I try so hard to do this. Being vegan it's kind of essential to cook from scratch. I do fairly well at home but the one thing I struggle with is lunches. I just don't seem to be able to get organised enough to take lunch in to work every day, or even most days. I mean well and plan a week's menu one weekend and then the following one I'm busy with other things and don't manage it. In London lunch from a sandwich place is about £6. I get annoyed with myself every time I spend it!

    Must try harder.

  32. I would add that if you have a pressure cooker, use that to cook those things that need long cooking times to save time and electricity. We save all bones from chicken, pork or beef. When I have enough of any one kind accumulated in the freezer, I pressure cook them in water for about an hour. This makes wonderful marrow broth. The bones then are so soft you can crush them with your hands, and they are good to nourish your garden or your pet. The broth is wonderful with just a few herbs, or as a base for soups, beans and casseroles.

    I also save all the fats that come from our meats and I have started making soap. I made a really nice batch of lavender-scented soap that was 60% chicken fat.

    All these animals have given their lives so that we can eat. The least we can do is use every bit.

    When I make mashed potatoes, I always make a lot extra. I also cook rice and beans in the pressure cooker. It is really handy having individual-sized blobs of mashed potatoes or cooked rice in the freezer. I pour the beans into quart-sized freezer containers for a quick meal. I've tried putting dry beans and water in jars and pressure canning in my big canner, but the long cooking time makes them a little gummy.

    In summer I make popsickles from fruits and fruit juices, with a little gelatin added, a nice treat when you come in from the garden! Sometimes I will make my own pudding pops by making chocolate pudding with a little extra milk.

    And lastly, I recommend growing fruit trees and berry bushes instead of ornamentals.

  33. Wonderful post :) My tip is for sourcing the food that you can't grow/produce on your own land. Find LOCAL producers (meat, eggs, grains/flour, veggies, fruit) and NOURISH those relationships! Support farmers who are working hard to grow quality organic foods in your area by NOT spending your money on ingredients at the grocer. By direct from the producer as much as possible to help that farmer continue doing what he/she is doing. Can, freeze or dehydrate what you buy from the farm so that you can eat well until the next harvest/butcher time. Be MINDFUL of how you spend your money on food because as Joel Salatin says, we are VOTING with our dollar!

  34. I'm a real oatmeal freak, and while I won't eat instant oats, I do use Quaker Quick Oats. Nutritionally, they're indistinguishable, and we buy huge packages at a warehouse store, where I believe the price is very nearly, if not exactly, the same. Cooks a little faster, and can easily be done in the microwave.

    What I take for lunch is muesli. Oats plus some dried fruit, doused in milk, soy milk or even orange juice, and left to soak until I eat it (cold). Sounds weird, but is along the lines of the Swiss muesli. If the day is quite cold, a short pass through the lunchroom microwave warms it just a little. I can't stand any oatmeal cooked to paste, and in fact my husband won't eat it the way I cook it at home. He says it is still raw.

  35. I am just super excited! Saturday I baked my own bread for the first time!!! I cannot believe it!!! I always cook from scratch, always. But making your own bread is a whole new level!!! Here is the recipe:


    Rhonda you can inspire so many people! Please keep up the great work!

  36. As good a post as ever, Rhonda. I find that China is the worst offender for a lot of things: orange juice being a major one. Why we still import from them is a mystery to me; after what we know goes into the manufacturing processes, and what goes on in the factories there. Suicides are another thought: most are not happy in their employment and that alone should get us thinking about persuading them to change their ways on that note.

  37. I asked The Darwin City Council Library to order your book :-)

  38. can i order your book to ship to the U.S.

    thanks, luann

  39. Sharleen, stand by for Friday's Weekend Reading post. I have an excellent vegan link for you - it's full of delicious looking vegan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including baking and snacks.

  40. Luann, please read the Down to Earth book tab at the top of the page.

  41. Today, we took our weekly trip to the supermarket. Your comments on ingredients hit home as it is something we do constantly. Even, perhaps especially, on things we have bought routinely. We recently changed brands on one because of all the hidden salt as well as the preservatives. I love the notion of not eating anything great-grandma wouldn't recognize as food. And thank you for the link to budget101. We both have it bookmarked.

  42. I really enjoyed all your insights today Rhonda. I am a long time reader of your blog and you are just so inspirational. I have been a homemaker since marriage 15 years ago and so many people have made me feel bad with thier comments about how I should get a job so we can have more. What they don't realize is that I do have more... more time with my kids, more peace, more contentment, more healthful food to feed my family, more time to be a good wife, more inner joy. Thank you for always being so very inspiring. Your blog always reaffirms my decision to be a homemaker. I also homeschool my kids and it is so rewarding.


  43. Hi again. This was such a timely blog to read after my dilemma yesterday. Before I went to work I took out some mince to thaw but I was so tired on my way home from work, I started thinking perhaps it was time for takeaway instead of cooking. Then I thought about how many veggies I had , homegrown and bought and alas a creative pasta mince bake dish started developing in my mind.. half the battle was over... once I had a short rest when home, I began to create... and alas, everyone commented how tasty it was... once again confirming how easy it really is to cook your own food and save money, kilojoules and time really in the end too and create home baked meals for loved ones... so if I can do that so can many others I am sure.. Lynette from Adelaide

  44. Hi Rhonda! Just love your blog and all your information is wonderful and so helpful. As I read this afternoon I am so intent on finding the recipe for those beautiful rolls pictured in the first picture of your post today!!!! It's not there in the post.....did you or will you share it? They look beautiful and ooooh so tasty! Thank you! Dawn

  45. Dawn, tis here: http://down---to---earth.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/bread-and-potatoes-simple-food.html

  46. Hi,

    Quick question...In your fresh ingredients sentence, you said pulses and legumes. What are pulses?


  47. frugalmom, they're lentils. Sorry if I confused you.

  48. I would add to remember that "best-before" means just that. Don't throw out food just because of a date. Use your senses - does it look like it should, does it smell like it should, etc.

  49. This is a topic near and dear to my own heart. It is how we can live as a family of five on one income. There have been quite a few times over the years when we have had no money due to illness or unexpected expenses, or even last years floods, and have shopped from home.

    I especially love to stockpile toiletpaper, shampoo, deodorant and washing powder, things that don't go off when they are on an exceptional special. Having to go almost a week without electricity last year really burnt my fingers in regards to buying bulk meat though!

    Great post!

  50. Love this post and so agree. One of the best things about growing your own groceries is what's NOT in your produce or on it. Unlike conventionally grown crops, home grown food is not pumped full of harmful nitrates just to get them to look good for market - they are chemical free!
    Plus the money saved in food miles by not having to go to the shops, no added packaging costs and the fact the only 'processing' is washing the vegies in the sink and assembling FRESH nutrient dense ingredients on the plate. Not only is the flavour far superior than what we can buy from supermarkets but it only takes minutes from garden gate to plate rather than sitting in trucks or on shelves for who knows how long. Once you have the bug to grow your own, there's no going back!

  51. I am SO glad that a lot more people are becoming aware of the genetically modified foods out there! You are hearing about it more and more every day!

    Thank you for sharing this - and your blog - it really does make an impact and helps me on a daily basis with my transition into homesteading and self sufficiency!

  52. Just wondering...why soak your oats in water overnight?

  53. A bit late to comment, but just wanted to say my frugal and time-saving tip is to buy a whole chicken and poach it. I then pick the meat off the bone and put in meal-sized portion bags into the freezer. I can then defrost quickly and throw in with some vegies and soy sauce and we have a yummy stir fry! I then use the poaching water and bones for stock. SO cheap and easy!



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