Friday, December 30, 2016

Cheapskate Gourmet: Eating Like Royalty On A Peasant's Budget

Chocolate Truffle Cake (5354498813)
By Dennis Wong from Hong Kong, Hong Kong (Chocolate Truffle Cake) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


A few years ago, I found myself facing a dilemma. I love good food... but I also love keeping money in my bank account where it belongs. I wanted to find a way to eat luxuriously on the cheap. After a period of trial and error, I've come up with a system that works for me (and hopefully it works for you, too!).

  • Plan ahead. It's possible to eat luxuriously on a limited budget, but it requires foresight. I have a monthly food budget ($300 or so per month for my family of four).To ensure that my money stretches all month, I plan my food purchases and menu carefully. I build my food budget around the meals I want, picking high quality ingredients and then filling in what I can afford around that. What works for me is shopping every two weeks, so I split my budget in half, pick my 'special' meals, fill in my staples, and check prices ahead of time to see where I can save money.
  • Build a well-stocked pantry. I set aside a certain amount every month (anywhere from $10-50) for building my pantry. I base my purchases around sales so that I have high quality ingredients on hand that I paid well below normal price for. If good olive oil or coconut oil is on sale one week, I pick up enough for 2-3 months. If there's a sale on expensive fish, I'll buy several servings and freeze a few of them. In this way, I don't have to shell out for all of the ingredients for a gourmet meal at once.
  • Be open to substitutions. Sometimes, subbing cheaper ingredients in for the more expensive ones is barely noticeable and will save you quite a bit of money. Many recipes that call for heavy cream would be just as good with half and half (which is quite a bit cheaper). If a recipe calls for salmon, I often substitute steelhead trout (which has a lighter flavor, is much cheaper, and carries similar flavor combinations very well). If you do a bit of research into food substitutions, you can find several excellent lists of substitutions to try that will save you cash.
  • Experiment with making your own gourmet ingredients. Roasted garlic, roasted red peppers, cooking wine, crema, infused oils, flavored vinegars, pickled vegetables, stocks and broths, nut butters, yogurt, fresh cheeses, and a multitude of other ingredients are surprisingly easy and cheap to manufacture at home. If there is an ingredient that seems too expensive to pay regular price for, do a quick internet search for ways to make it at home. You'd be surprised how many things you can create for a fraction of the price!
  • Moderation is key. Unfortunately, being a cheapskate means some amount of sacrifice is necessary. While you can enjoy the finer things in life on a budget, you may not be able to do so every day. I generally pick 4-8 'special' meals to make every month, and eat simple wholesome food the rest of the month. Honestly, I've found that giving my palette a break from rich and complex flavors makes me appreciate them more when I do have them.
  • Consider cutting down on meat consumption to afford better cuts. It's very possible to eat shrimp, lobster, and steak on a budget, but it requires careful planning and sacrifice. In order to afford the better meat and seafood that my family enjoys, we eat vegetarian 4-6 days every week. When we do eat animal protein, we have room in the budget for the high-quality cuts and varieties that we enjoy the most. I find we all enjoy it more this way, both because of the novelty and the higher quality ingredients.
I live by these tips, and it has allowed me to expose my kids to a huge variety of foods without breaking the bank. Do you have any tips of your own? Drop a comment below!

Signing off now -- the eggplant parmigiana is just about ready, and it smells divine.

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