31 Days of Cooking Hacks That Will Change Your Grocery List Forever

Since first embarking on a mission to eat healthy on a limited food budget a little over a year ago, my cooking has inevitably improved, but I’m still a bit of a novice in the kitchen. In our house, we’re constantly seeking and trying out simple recipes made with minimal ingredients that save us money on everyday staples: breads, soups, crackers, hummus, curry spice pastes. There have certainly been failures, but along the way we’ve developed an excellent repertoire of easy, cheap staples we can make fresh in our kitchen with limited time using items we can easily keep on-hand.

For the next 31 days I’ll share one recipe a day that has changed the way we cook and that has saved us countless dollars in the kitchen. I’d love it if you shared links to your favourite, easy yet affordable dishes in the comments. I’ll post one a day on this same page to make it an easy resource to bookmark and come back to as we’re sharing or when March is all over.

City Bread Country Bread Recipe from Chef Michael Smith

1. City Bread/Country Bread – Chef Michael Smith:
I’m kicking this series off with one of my favourite oh-so-simple cost saving recipes. I picked this up in November while at “Twas The Month Before Christmas” at The Algonquin. Chef Michael Smith was one of the guest speakers, and he took us through a workshop in bread making.

This recipe is so simple – just three ingredients, two minutes of actual hands-on work, and no kneading. As Chef Michael Smith explains it, the secret to this recipe is time. Giving lots of time for the bread to rise also means you don’t need to add any sugar. The result is big loafs of fluffy, moist bread that you can easily customize. We started with his city bread recipe and now use his country bread formula to bake our spent beer grains into beautiful beer bread. I recommend starting with his city bread or basic country bread.

Try it out today: http://chefmichaelsmith.com/recipe/country-bread-city-bread/

home made coconut milk

2. Coconut Milk – Wellness Mama
Back in November I spent a month learning to make curry.  I started with store-bought pastes, cans of coconut milk, and store bought paneer or tofu. The coconut milk added $3 to every single curry. Or it did, until I discovered you could make coconut milk.

I found the recipe on Wellness Mama, and true to the post’s promise, the whole thing took me about 10 minutes to make, and while I had to pick up a cheese cloth (adding an extra $2 into the initial mix), each bag of coconut milk makes me a little more than I’d get from two cans of coconut milk at the store, bringing the cost of coconut milk per curry down from $3 to about $0.75. I still use coconut milk in my curry, but I also now use it in smoothies and soups in place of milk or cream.

Try it out today: http://wellnessmama.com/2447/homemade-coconut-milk/

Easy Cracker Recipe

3. Artisan Crackers – Washington Post
Crackers are expensive, especially if you’re looking for multiple kinds to pair with appetizers like dips and cheese. But making crackers can be really easy. There are lots of recipes online, but I’ve been loving this base recipe from The Washington Post. Like the “City Bread/Country Bread”, learning this basic customizable recipe means you can quickly learn to make multiple flavours, and eventually start dreaming up your own cracker creations. I add a pinch of salt to the top of the basic crackers just before cooking. I don’t use a food processor for this, I do it all by hand, and it is really simple. I grate the butter into the flour which works well in place of a pastry cutter.

Try it out today: http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/recipes/everona-market-crackers/13322/

Veggie Peel Stock

4. Vegetable Peel Stock:
Stop throwing away your veggie peels and ends, there is veggie stock hiding in there! While scraps from a single onion from your morning skillet isn’t going to yield much stock, saving your coarsely chopped vegetable peels and scraps in a freezer bag over time makes amazing stock.

Risottos, soups, chilli, curry, and many other of our go-to favourites call for stock and store-bought stock can both be expensive and contain odd ingredients and loads of salt. Diverting your veggie scraps from compost pail to freezer bag plus a little cooking time gives you virtually free stock that can be used right away or frozen and kept for future recipes.

Making your own veggie stock is also a fun way to customize. For example, we make a lot of thai curry these days, so a stock that includes veggie ends from lemon grass, green onions, carrot peels, cilantro bits, and the ends of chillies from dinner prep gets a new life in stock that adds an extra kick of taste to my future meals. The only non-scrap you’ll need is olive oil.

There are lots of recipes online, but I find this to be the most straight-forward description of how to make stock from your peels: http://www.jamieoliver.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=30621#614wISzxE35Q4Cot.97

Potato Peel Chips

5. Peel Chips:
Stop throwing away your potato peels, there are delicious chips hiding in there! That stock recipe above isn’t a good place for potato peels, but potato peel chips are a great way to transform would-be compost into treats. In addition to your peels, you’ll need enough oil to coat the bottom of a pan and a little salt. Now that we’ve been making these for awhile, we like to play around by adding a small sprinkle of flavoured vinegars to chips after cooking, as well.

Slowly heat the oil up on the stove at a medium/low heat (4). When it starts to sizzle, place a single layer of peels on the pan, so that the chips aren’t overlapping. It only takes a few minutes for them to get crisp. Once that happens, use a slotted spoon or fork to remove them from the pan, put them on a plate (preferably with a piece of napkin, brown bag, or paper towel underneath to absorb a little oil) and sprinkle with salt. Repeat as necessary with remaining peels. Voila! Chips!

These won’t keep long, but that’s never been a problem in our house. If you have peels but no time to make these right away, cover the peels with water and put them in the fridge, then just dry well when you are ready to use them.

hummus

6. Hummus
When people ask what we ate during our $4/day food budget back in September and October, Drew’s first answer is always “Chickpeas. A lot of chickpeas”. He’s exaggerating, but chickpeas did play a starring role in some of our meals and snacks. A bag of dried chickpeas provided a variety of cheap and affordable dishes, and one of our favourite ways to eat it was making it into hummus.

Hummus is surprisingly easy and affordable to make, especially in large batches, though you will need to own or borrow a blender or food processor. It is one of our go-to cheap road trip tag-alongs, because a homemade big batch of hummus paired with a bag of pitas and a few veggies provides healthy, tasty road meals for days. I also make my own tahini, but because it takes so little and keeps so long you may be just as well to buy that in store. I like this recipe from Jamie Oliver because it once again shows you how to make a basic recipe, then gives you concrete suggestions for mixing things up. I use dried chickpeas to make this even cheaper, though buying canned will still be a slight cost saving over store-bought hummus.  If you opt for dried chickpeas, you’ll have to soak them overnight and then cook them for at least an hour before use (until they get soft and the clear-ish shell starts to come off).

Making my food look good is a talent I’ve yet to develop, but Jamie’s photo looks as good as this tastes, so ignore mine and look at his, which you’ll find here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/

7. Pasta
Dried pasta can be cheap on sale, fresh pasta is expensive. But fresh pasta is also really easy to make, and can be made for less than boxed pasta. You don’t need a food processor, as mentioned in the video above, it just requires kneading (about 10 minutes worth). You don’t have to cut it into strips – use it to make stuffed ravioli, or anything else your pasta-loving heart can dream up.

The video above is from The Hunter Report, and is an excellent visual of how to mix up fresh pasta quick.

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8. Pizza Dough – Martha Stewart
I’ve been popular at family gatherings these days. Back in September, I started to play around with making my own pizza crust. I thought it would be really difficult, but when my first attempt turned out totally edible I was hooked. I make pizza once a week now. I find it to be a great way to use up odds and ends in the fridge. You can put so many different things on pizza. Leftover meats, the ends of jars of preserves and olives, goat cheese, oils, and leafy greens, even fruit. My favourite combos to date have been a little leftover urban blue from a holiday gathering with a thin sliced pear, garlic oil and leftover ham. I also make a delightful array of spicy honey pizzas (I’ll share that recipe soon).

Pizza dough takes just a few ingredients and minimal time to prepare, and can be made and frozen for future use. This is also a really fun and surprisingly cheap idea for a customizable party treat. Roll smaller pies with the dough and put out assorted toppings so that guests can build their own custom pizza, then pop the uncooked, freshly topped dough in the oven at 450 – 500 degrees for 8 minutes (watch it!) for quick personal mini-pizzas.

I’ve tried a number of different pizza dough recipes since my first pie, but I keep going back to Martha Stewarts recipe, which you’ll find here: http://www.marthastewart.com/332275/basic-pizza-dough

9. Gluten Free Pizza Dough – Adapted from Minimalist Baker
Adding the gluten free tag to anything seems to automatically bump the price by a few dollars, and often times the products don’t taste great. I serve this gluten free pizza to non-gluten free people often, and always to rave reviews.

I started by using a seven-ingredient recipe from the blog Minimalist Baker, then played around with the flour blend until I got the dough a beautiful mix of crisp and chewy. Use the base recipe, but sub in one cup each of tapioca flour, potato starch, and rice flour. Use parchment paper to help roll it flat. I also let it rise for about an hour before rolling it, and add a thin coat of olive oil before baking it.

Try it today: http://minimalistbaker.com/the-best-gluten-free-pizza-crust-sauce/

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10. Flour Wraps – The Cafe Sucre Farine:
I’ve had a few recipes in this round-up that involve flour, but admittedly, learning to make flour-based staples have been a major game-changer in my monthly food budget these past few months because they are versatile, and are cheap and easy to make. Flour wraps (and a gluten-free wrap that we’ll chat about tomorrow) have played a particularly important role in reducing our grocery bills, because they are so easy to pack and use for meals on the road (if you follow us on The Local Traveler, you’ll know we’re road trip lovers).

Flour wraps are easy to make and taste great. They take a little time, mostly by the stove, because you DO have to cook them one-by-one, but each wrap takes about 1-2 minutes to cook. Try it out today: http://thecafesucrefarine.com/2013/08/best-ever-homemade-flour-tortillas/

Corn Wraps Masa Harina

11. Corn Wraps:
We’ve been on a taco kick at my house. Once you have the base ingredients (in our case, salsa, hot sauce, and cheese) they are quick and easy to make by adding in a protein and some veggies. We particularly like egg tacos, which I thought sounded really weird until I tried them. Anyway, one of the most expensive part of taco night is the soft corn wraps. As it turns out, they are pretty easy to make.

Pretty easy is not very easy. The first few you make in that first batch are probably not going to turn out, but it’s a pretty quick learning curve. It is easier with a tortilla press, which I don’t own, but hand-rolled just takes a little practice. Keep some parchment paper on hand to make this a little easier, and play around with temperature. On my stove, about 6 is perfect, taking around 45 seconds on each side. The best part is that these only take two ingredients – Masa Harina (a corn flour which I picked up at Petes for about $4.50) and water. Mine didn’t take as much water as suggested (less than the minimum of 1.5 listed) in the recipe, so do add slowly.

Try it today: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_make_corn_tortillas/

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12. Focaccia Bread:

If you’ve successfully made the pizza dough above, you’re one step away from tasty focaccia bread. I started making focaccia with left over dough. It’s the same base as pizza dough, with just two changes. It takes an extra 1/4 cup of olive oil to coat the dough with before baking. If you have spices you love, you can add those on top, or just top it with salt. There is one other big difference. Before baking, you need to tear a number of small holes into the dough. This is a quick and easy thing to make as a starter or when guests are coming over for board games or beer.

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13. Bliss Balls:

True to their name, these easy treats are a little bit of bliss and an easy way to sneak healthy nuts and seeds into your life. I like them because the base is easier to make than granola bars. The core is just three ingredients – oatmeal, honey, and nut butter. From there you can add whatever you like to make a tasty healthy, road trip snack. I like adding coconut, a little chocolate, chia, flax, and hemp, or white chocolate and cranberries, and almonds, chia, flax, and hemp. Start with a cup of oatmeal, a half cup of peanut butter and 1/3 cup local honey. Mix it together with a tbsp to a 1/4 cup of any ingredients you’d like (up to an extra cup of dried materials). Mix and roll into bite sized balls and store in your fridge!

Spice Oil Good and Cheap

14. Spice Oil – Good and Cheap
This is a good and cheap way to add a bit of flavour to pizza, pasta, veggies, and all kinds of other dishes that I found in the good and cheap cookbook. True to its name, it is fairly inexpensive to make. If you’re missing a spice or  two, you can get all of the spices you need at the bulk barn. I bought a single star anise the first time I made this (all I could fit into week two of our $4/day budget).

Try it out today (Page 162): https://8b862ca0073972f0472b704e2c0c21d0480f50d3.googledrive.com/host/0Bxd6wdCBD_2tdUdtM0d4WTJmclU/good-and-cheap.pdf

Ginger Ale

15. Ginger Ale – Wellness Mama:
I was excited (but skeptical) to learn that you can make your own pop, no soda stream required. It’s naturally carbonated, made from real ginger, and the process used to create it makes good-for-you probiotics. It is really easy skill-wise to make, the biggest challenge is committing to the daily upkeep to get your “ginger bug” started.

Try it out today: http://wellnessmama.com/8942/ginger-bug/

16. Homemade Paneer:
I’ve already mentioned my curry kick. Once I learned how healthy, easy, and delicious curries could be, I set out to make them as inexpensive as possible by learning to make many of the ingredients that go into curry in my own kitchen. One of my favourite curry ingredients is Paneer. There is a local farm that makes Paneer, and when I can get it direct I buy it, but purchasing the same piece from a grocer almost doubles the price. So I learned to make it myself. Paneer is really easy, and while it does take a lot of milk, a piece you’ll need for one to two curries still only runs around $5 to make and only takes about 15 minutes.

I use a recipe I found in the Sobeys Magazine, which is not available online, but this recipe from the food network is the same mix.

17. Gluten Free Naan Bread
I was tipped off to this amazing gluten-free recipe from @CityGirlSarah. It is SO GOOD and uses only three ingredients, but like she says, cook ’em low and slow. Naan is a delicious accompaniment to curry, and this recipe from My Heart Beets will impress both gluten free and non-gf friends. You can even use this same recipe for gluten free crepes. Almond flour is a little pricey, but you can buy it in bulk making the cost per recipe much cheaper.

18. Spice Paste:
I’ve already outlined the rest of my curry hacks above, but this one is my favourite of the group. Using store bought spice pastes were great, especially when I was learning to make my first few curries, but making spice paste from scratch is easy, and once you have a few core spices, it is also quick and cheap to mix up a variety of different styles of curry. So far I’ve made the Tiki Masala and Vindaloo pastes from Jaime Oliver’s list of recipes. But my favourite is making this green curry paste. I use a pepper grinder to grind all my spices together rather than just using a processor or doing it by hand with a mortar and pestle, because I find it works better and is a bit easier. I don’t use the shrimp paste or the coconut milk in mine, replacing it with a dash of oil instead.

Try it out here: http://thaifood.about.com/od/thaicurrypasterecipes/r/greencurrypaste.htm

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19. Sriracha Butter Popcorn:
Popcorn is a go-to snack in our house. It is cheap, it stores well, and it is really easy to mix things up. It’s also one of our go-to road-trip snacks because it is easy to make and pack in brown paper bags. We’ve tried all different spice combinations in our house using spices and condiments we have on hand, but our current favourite is Sriracha Butter Popcorn. The base ingredients (popcorn kernels, butter, sriracha, and oil) will cost a little bit up front, but the ingredients go a long way.

We’ve found all different recipes for this online, but we simply pop the corn in oil on the stove, melt about three tbsp of butter in a separate pan, and add 1 tbsp of sriracha once the butter is bubbling. we top the popcorn with the sriracha mix, add a little salt, and serve.

If you’ve never popped popcorn on the stove before, here are instructions.

20. Easy Preserve Cream:
This one isn’t a recipe but it is an easy way to save money in the kitchen. I use cream in my coffee, Drew doesn’t, which means the cream bottle takes a while to finish. For a long time I was finding that by the time the container was half way gone, the cream would start to spoil, even before the best before date. Then I stumbled upon a little hack on Facebook to help reduce food and money waste from spoiled cream. Just pour it in single servings into an ice tray, let it freeze, then Pop it into a freezer container. No more waste, and it helps cool hot coffee down to perfect drinking temperature right away.

21. Easy Preserve Herbs – The Kitchn:
The same trick from above can be used to reduce waste from herbs. Whether you buy expensive little herb packers from the store or painstakingly grow it at home, fresh herbs have a short shelf life. But freezing extra rosemary, cilantro, and other herbs into ready to use sizes is a great way to save money and add flavour to meals in a snap. You’ll need oil, an ice cube tray, and your coarsely chopped herb of choice. Just think of how much tastier this is going to make cooking next winter!


Full instructions are found over on the Kitchn, including some herbs that won’t preserve well this way. Read it (then try it) here: http://www.thekitchn.com/freeze-herbs-in-olive-oil-173648

22. Just Add Water Onion:
This one is also not a recipe, but it’s totally changed my grocery list and has saved me money over the last year. I had heard that you could regrow scraps of green onion, but I thought you’d have to plant it (which has an entry cost of pots and soil).  Then I read that you could just stick the ends into a glass of water and let them grow, and I didn’t believe it. It seemed too simple. But although it is really simple, it also works really well, and REALLY fast! In as little as five days we’ve been able to use our re-grown green onion.

Green onion usually ranges from 0.99 to 2.00, so the savings are substantial. You can re-grow a green onion multiple times, and it would continue to re-grow indefinitely, but I find it loses its flavour a little after a number of re-growths. Try it out today by reserving a good piece of the white parts of your green onions. Simply stick those ends into a glass of water so that the bulb faces down and the cut end sticks out above the liquid and put it in a sunny place. Change the water every two days or so. You should notice a big difference even in the first two days.

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23. Lemon Fresh Clean:
Stop throwing away your lemon peels, there are cleaning ingredients in there! There are lots of ways to re-use lemons in cleaner, but our favourite is one of the simplist ways to use it. Half lemon peels are great for cleaning and disinfecting fixtures in your kitchen and bathroom and making them shine.  Rub a half lemon peel on any of your stainless steel fixtures then finish by wiping with a cloth. Voila!

Here’s a list with 21 more ways to use your lemon peels: http://os.care2.com/all/22-uses-for-lemon-peels#1

24. Candied Lemon Peels – Martha Stewart:
Better still, turn your lemon scraps into a tasty treat. Candied lemon and orange peels are easy to make and make for a colourful spring and summer candy to set in dishes around the house for you and your guests to snack on.

Try it today: http://www.marthastewart.com/313211/candied-citrus-peels

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25. Home Made Croutons – 100 Days of Real Food:
Have a loaf of bread that is starting to go stale? Don’t throw it out! Make Croutons! Croutons are super easy and totally customizable. The basic recipe just needs four things – bread, oil, salt and pepper. Croutons are great for salads or to throw on top of a bowl of soup. They’re kinda expensive in store, and making them from stale bread also cuts down on food waste.

You can make croutons in a pan or in the oven. I like the oven because it keeps a little longer. This recipe from 100 Days of Real Food uses italian seasoning and garlic powder, but don’t go buy it if you don’t have it on hand – seriously, salt and pepper will do the trick. Once you master a basic crouton, you can get creative with whatever herbs and spices you have on-hand. They keep a few days if stored in an air tight container: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/12/11/recipe-homemade-croutons-delicious/

Green Smoothies Tips To Cut Down On Food Waste

26. Five Ways to Use Up Less Than Fresh Lettuce:
The past year has made me hyper aware of food waste. Close to HALF of the food we produce world-wide is wasted. There are a number of places along the production and distribution channels where this happens, but in Canada, more than 40% of it occurs at the retail and household level. And groceries are expensive, I don’t have money to throw in the garbage. But I still find myself doing it. It’s something I’ve been working hard on, checking my fridge and cupboards for items close to expiration on a regular basis so that I can use it up rather than throw it out. It’s led to cheaper grocery bills and some innovative dishes.

Lettuce and other greens like spinach and kale are some of my biggest food waste pain points. I find lettuce goes bad really fast, and unless it is fresh and crisp, I can’t stomach it in salads. But there are a number of ways to use up spinach, lettuce, and other greens that are starting to sag.  Here are a few of my favourite ways to use up the green stuff.

Green Monster Smoothies:
All ingredients for this are easy to keep on-hand (freeze the bananas) making this a quick and healthy way to use your greens.

Green Rice:
You can throw spinach into any kind of rice dish for a burst of flavour and nutrients, but I especially like this green rice recipe. Plus, Cilantro is another grocery item that is quick to go. But really, you can just throw it in with the rice and some seasoning. It’s delish.

Kale Chips:
These are so good and you can really get creative with the spices you use. The recipe above involves a few spices but I included it because of the great run-down on avoiding kale chip failure. We started making them with just oil, salt, and pepper, and it is delicious.

Stir-Fry:
Throw greens into any stir fry for a tasty, healthy add-on. Kale is great with squash and tomato, and spinach or arugula is nice in just about anything. This doesn’t work as well for lettuce.

Lettuce Soup:
This doesn’t sound good, but it is delicious, and a great way to get a huge dose of nutrients.

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27. DIY Tortilla Chips – Buzzfeed
If you can make corn taco shells (see above), you’re just one step away from nacho chips. Delicious, home made nacho chips. I made these tonight, and that photo is all that’s left. They’ll be gone by the time I hit publish.

Here’s how to make your own: http://www.buzzfeed.com/food52/how-to-make-crispy-delicious-tortilla-chips-at-home#.qtzKgDql6

28. DIY Marshmallows:
Did you know you can make marshmallows at home? This base recipe will help get you started making easy, delicious, artisan marshmallows. Replace the vanilla with a splash of local maple syrup, or local blueberry or haskap juice, or anything else you can dream up. While these don’t end up being much cheaper than store bought, they are so much better, and make a fun party dessert. Plus, most of the ingredients are basic pantry items, so you can keep everything on hand to mix up marshmallows in a snap.

29. 2-Ingredient Gluten Free Dairy Free Pancakes:

We have made these quite a few times. They’re easy, cheap, and tasty, and allergy friendly. Serve these with some local maple syrup, or just serve plain – the banana gives them a nice sweetness. These also freeze well.

30. 2-Ingredient Gluten Free Dairy Free Cookies:
Dessert doesn’t need to be difficult, expensive, or made separately for those with gluten or dairy allergies. These easy 2-ingredient cookies are everything I love. They use up a fresh item – banannas – when they’re about to go, they are almost fool-proof, and you can customize them any way you like should you have extra ingredients on-hand. The second ingredient, oatmeal, also happens to be one of my pantry basics.

Try it out today: http://www.theburlapbag.com/2012/07/2-ingredient-cookies-plus-the-mix-ins-of-your-choice/

 31. 2-Ingredient Gluten Free Dairy Free Soufflé:
Local maple syrup and eggs are another two ingredients I frequently keep on-hand, but until recently I wouldn’t have thought to mix them together. Turns out that these two items can be transformed into an easy and impressive soufflé, perfect for dessert or a satisfying snack.  The main difficulty is whipping the egg whites into soft peaks. Don’t get discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t turn out.

Try it today: http://www.sugarlaws.com/two-ingredient-maple-souffle

About the author

Gillian Wesley

Since getting together six years ago, we have given away our television, begun weekly DIY nights, experimented with urban homesteading, challenged ourselves to drive less (100 days car-free in 2013), and have learned more about food security. We have experimented with a range of budgeting strategies, all of which involve consuming less stuff. We buy food with reducing packaging in mind. We got a dog. We have been doing these things for a variety of reasons: financial, social, environmental, to achieve a better work-life balance. It has resulted in us enjoying an increasingly simple and satisfying lifestyle. We’ve been influenced by a lot of people we’ve encountered and things we’ve read about along the way, notably the Transition Movement, the Antigonish Movement, and, more recently, traditional Acadien living. And we’ve learned that we are by no means alone. There are many, many people who are taking steps to downshift their lives. Sign up for our eNewsletter, and we’ll send you a round-up of our new and upcoming projects once a month.

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