Eating well – budget or no budget

I love cooking – more importantly I like to eat.  Eat well that is. It doesn’t have to take a lot of skill or a lot of gadgets and it doesn’t have to mean spending heaps of cash either – it can of course, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve been keeping my grocery bill under $450 per month.

We eat very well. Roasted butternut squash soup, chive potato pancakes, soba noodles with gingered sesame dressing, pinto bean veggie burgers with white mushrooms and edamame, fish tacos with freshly shredded cabbage and lime, beet and cumin soup, swiss chard and goat cheese tart, spinach, walnut and cranberry salad, coconut curried fish, veggie pot pies, spinach and ricotta tart, black beans and rice, eggs prepared in a myriad of ways, pancakes, roasted chicken, lasagna and ricotta stuffed shells, curried lentil soup topped with yogurt, tempeh with spaghetti and red sauce, maine shrimp and pea risotto, banana and blueberry muffins…these are a few of the meals I commonly prepare. The key to eating well is knowing what basics to always have on hand and what to do with what it is left in the pantry. It’s also about knowing the basics of how to cook. You don’t necessarily need to know the difference between a sauce pan and saute pan, you just need a few basic tools and a willingness to try along with a desire to eat well.

Many meals may be made from just a few basics. Add a few ‘extras’ to your basic list and your choices of what to make increase… being flexible with substitutes helps too.  For instance, a recipe calls for swiss chard and you don’t have any, but you do have fresh spinach, then use that or even frozen spinach may do. (just remember you have to use frozen veggies a little differently than fresh…) If a recipe calls for sour cream and your out, try plain yogurt. Or if you need buttermilk, try squeezing the juice from a lemon into a measuring cup (1 cup size) and fill the remainder with whole milk – you’ve just made soured milk which can be used in a pinch for buttermilk….

Below is a list of ‘basics’ I like to keep on hand and make a variety of meals from. Sometimes it’s just soup, salad and fresh bread, other times it’s stuffed shells (actually quite easy to prepare), or fish tacos and other times it’s a mixture of left overs reheated – it’s really whatever time allows for and what I have on hand. I also try to use up all my ‘stores’ before heading back to the grocery/market/health food store – this helps me keep my costs down. How many times have you ‘run into’ the store to buy a few things and spent way more than you had intended? I have, so I try to do ‘big’ shops (stocking up on the basics) with little ‘shops’ (replenishing the necessities) between – doing my best to keep to my list on the little shops.  It keeps me creative in the kitchen too – Hmmm, what  can I come up with these ingredients…?

I choose not to shop the box stores. I shop my local health food store, trader joe’s, local grocery, local butcher, local fish market and local farmers market. And my own garden while in season.

Perhaps your someone who wants to cook (but doesn’t quite know where to start), someone who is looking to reduce their grocery expense or someone who simply would like to eat at home more often, and above all else, eat well. Well, here’s a basic list of things to include on your next visit to the grocery market (add delete according to your dietary preferences of course).




potatoes (white and sweet or any variety you like)

spinach (frozen if fresh is too costly)

swiss chard – grow it if you have space, it’s a super easy veggie to grow

mushrooms (fresh only)

frozen peas and corn (fresh when in season if budget allows)



cabbage (keeps well for awhile and is great in fish tacos)

*I love all veggies, I’ve only listed the basics for cooking ideas – the more variety on hand the better.

Fruit (to be used in recipes) 

bananas (if they start to turn brown before you’ve had a chance to enjoy them, peel them and freeze them. Use to make banana muffins, bread, in pancakes)

blueberries (frozen when not in season or too expensive)

dried cranberries (use them on salads or in yogurt – you don’t need to use a lot)



*I love all fruits (with the exception of papaya – not one of my fav’s); I’ve only listed the basics for cooking ideas – the more variety on hand the better.


milk (cow or goat)

goat cheese – buy the larger sized logs, much better value and it lasts.

cheddar cheese

yogurt – if you love yogurt, buy bigger containers – better for your budget and the planet.

fresh parmesan cheese (not the packaged dry stuff) or asiago (very similar to parmesan oftentimes less cost)

ricotta (fairly simple to make at home too)

sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt


*Eggs – I realize eggs aren’t dairy, but they are typically near the dairy section…

Beans and Legumes  – all dried – they are actually very easy to cook and more cost effective, especially if you buy organic…







tempeh (freezes well too)

Dried goods

wheat and unbleached white flour (or whatever flour you can tolerate)

bread (if you find a good deal, buy a few loaves and freeze)

brown rice

cous cous

pasta – choose a variety.

corn tortillas

flour tortillas

soba noodles (nice for a change and fairly inexpensive)


Spices etc.


fresh peppercorns (invest in a decent pepper grinder)


curry (as spicy or not – whatever your preference)

fresh cilantro

fresh parsley (if you don’t use either fresh spice quickly enough,  chop and place in a bit of water in an ice cube tray, freeze – pop out when frozen and keep in baggie in freezer)

olive oil

vegetable oil

fennel seeds


*add to your spices over time as needed – there are so many wonderful spices out there…

Baking needs

Wheat and unbleached flour

baking soda

baking powder


brown sugar

white sugar (both sugars and flours keep well in freezer)

Odd’s n ends

canned tuna

peanut butter


coconut milk

vegetable or chicken stock

organic popcorn (not the prepackaged microwave stuff – actual popcorn kernels – it’s a great inexpensive snack and simple to prepare)


tamari (keeps well in fridge)

crushed tomatoes (makes simple and delicious sauce)


I do not eat meat, though I do enjoy fish, dairy and eggs. My partner on the other hand is a meat eater so I do prepare it on occasion – though I only buy it from our local butcher so it’s a bit more than the grocery store and less than the health food store, but so worth it!

chicken breasts or half a chicken (depends on cost – usually 1-3)

white fish (1-3 pounds depending on cost)

*if your a big meat eater, consider eating it only a few nights a week or in smaller portions or include it in pot pies, stews, baked zit – dishes like that to stretch your spending ability…

These are some basics (for cooking + baking) I like to keep on hand, add to each group as you wish or as your budget allows. Remember to think about the life span of certain ingredients. For instance, if your going to make a swiss chard tart, you may want to plan to make that fairly soon after you’ve visited the grocery store or the farmers market….swiss chard has a fairly short time span once it’s been picked. On the the other hand, if your thinking about making a potato and corn chowder, utilize that recipe for a night when a lot of your ‘fresh’ ingredients are running low and simply use frozen corn with fresh potatoes (potatoes have a longer life span if kept in a dark and cool place). What I’m saying is don’t let good food go bad. Think ahead.  Most importantly, have fun, include the kids (if you have any), have a drink and enjoy!