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5 Tips for Making a Meal for Under $25

With a little planning, it's still possible to cook and eat your favorite foods, such as lobster, without breaking the bank.
With a little planning, it's still possible to cook and eat your favorite foods, such as lobster, without breaking the bank.
©iStockphoto.com/twity1

When planning a meal, it's sometimes nice to let the cost be secondary. If you love to cook and eat, the occasional splurge on something just a little decadent can be almost a necessity.

And then, reality: Perhaps now is not the greatest time to splurge. Luckily, you don't necessarily have to. With some thoughtful planning, you can serve the likes of lobster and Gruyere to your family without breaking the bank.

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Here are five easy tips for reigning in the cost of a meal so you can cook (and eat) what you want -- at least every now and then.

First tip: Mix it up ...

One way to make an expensive ingredient into a less-expensive meal is to make it the only pricy ingredient on your list. This means, basically, prioritizing. You'll often be prioritizing your protein, which is typically the most expensive element of a meal.

Dying to have lobster for dinner? Combine it with cheap (but tasty) ingredients in the form of a lobster-mushroom casserole or lobster mac and cheese. This has the dual effect of making the lobster your only real expenditure and decreasing the amount of lobster you need to include per serving.

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You can satisfy a lamb craving with a stew, a need for crab with a quiche, and a desperate desire for filet mignon with reduced portions complemented by a pile of potatoes and green beans you buy in bulk. You'll be eating potatoes and green beans for the rest of the month, but it's worth it.

Which brings us to the next tip -- one that will help make a month of green beans and potatoes more appealing ...

Something a lot of us forget is that saving money isn't just about paying less; it's also about making use of everything you buy. There's no easier way to raise the cost of a meal than to let half a pound of asparagus rot in the fridge because the meal you made only called for eight spears.

Plan your meals so you'll use up all the perishable ingredients you buy, especially the more expensive ones. If you'll be making scallops with a raspberry reduction, plan to make a raspberry-pecan salad the following night and raspberry yogurt parfaits for Sunday breakfast.

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After that meal of filet mignon, you can make the extra potatoes and green beans into a stew, a casserole and a potato salad to serve with burgers -- all in the course of a week, with hardly any sense of repetition.

If you prorate the cost of your ingredients over several meals, each one ends up costing you less (if you buy in bulk, this approach is pretty much essential to make the savings real). This can also involve choosing one very special ingredient and incorporating it into your splurge meals until it's gone. If that lobster mac and cheese calls for truffle oil and you simply can't leave it out, plan to make your special meals revolve around truffle oil for a while. This won't be a hardship.

There's another option, though: What's just as good as truffle oil?

OK, actually nothing's just as good as truffle oil. Bad example. But there are a lot of ingredients that you can substitute without harming the outcome of your dish.

Often, you can pretty easily replace a more ancillary ingredient you'd have to buy with something you already have at home. For instance, in many recipes, you can use the following:

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  • Dried herbs instead of fresh
  • Vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans
  • A cheaper cut of meat for a more expensive one
  • Your own homemade infused oils (like basil oil) instead of store-bought
  • Swiss cheese instead of Gruyere
  • A mixture of onion and garlic instead of shallots
  • Yogurt instead of buttermilk
  • Vinegar instead of lemon juice

To find out what would make a good substitute for an ingredient you don't have at home, just do an Internet search for "substitute ______." Keep two things in mind here, though: First, always Google the amounts when you substitute, because they may not be the same for the original and the substitute items; and only do major substitutions for ingredients that aren't the central element of the dish.

Next, DIY.

This tip is about reducing some of the added costs that come with convenience. If you have the time and energy, doing all your own prep work can make the cost of a nice meal a bit more manageable.

This means, for instance, foregoing the prewashed, precut fruits and veggies for ones you buy whole; cleaning, cutting and marinating meat yourself; buying dried pasta instead of the fresh stuff; cleaning and shelling your own shrimp; and mincing your own garlic. It may seem like a small thing, but a 30 percent upcharge on bagged, precut broccoli can send you over the $25 mark.

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And since we're prorating, even a small extra charge for convenience can add up significantly over time.

Finally, the secret every budget cook knows well ...

Here's a term you'll want to learn: "Manager's Special."

"Sale," "Special Price," "Discounted" and "2-for-1" are important, too.

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Almost everything goes on sale at one time or another, and you'd be surprised what you can freeze -- not only things like meat and bread but also fresh herbs, cheese, nuts and fruit. Some people even freeze milk and eggs, because they don't mind the slight structural changes that can result, which don't typically affect the taste. If you buy a whole bunch of a product when it's on sale and then store it correctly (well-wrapped and pre-portioned, and in the case of milk, with about a cup removed from the carton), you can continue to reap the savings for months.

And that's the trick to eating well for less: If you take the long view, you can reduce the cost of almost any meal you make. Freezing, in particular, is a tool you'll want to use. After all, it can save you from eating those bulk potatoes and green beans for a whole month.

For more information on cooking, freezing and staying on budget, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Common Ingredient Substitutions. The Old Farmer's Almanac. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.almanac.com/content/common-ingredient-substitutions
  • Bittman, Mark. "Freeze That Thought." The New York Times: Dining and Wine. May 5, 2009. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/dining/06mini.html?pagewanted=all

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