“My money savvy comes from being raised in a family without money,” says Melissa D’Arabian, author of the best-selling cookbook “Ten Dollar Dinners,” which came out this August, and host of the Food Network show by the same name.
“My mom was a single parent putting herself through college and eventually medical school. We didn’t have money, so we worked around it, and I think that [mindset] just stayed in my blood.”
Five years ago, D’Arabian decided to quit her job in finance to become a stay-at-home mom. She’d just had twins, in addition to two other toddlers (now 6 and 7).
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During her first few years as a stay-at-home mom, her frugality came in handy. In fact, a YouTube video of her showing how to make homemade yogurt in her Texas garage (something she says saved her more than $150 a month) caught the attention of the Food Network. In 2009, she went on to compete in, and win, the fifth season of "Food Network Star."
“I’m not against spending money,” says D’Arabian, who admits to loving manicures and professional waxing. “I am against spending money mindlessly. [My message] is about not letting the fact that we’re imperfect give us permission to stop trying.”
D’Arabian’s new cookbook is chock-full of recipes and money-saving tips. “It’s meant to help [readers] lower their shopping bills overall and become thoughtful, responsible consumers,” she says. “It’s about celebrating food, respecting our resources and feeling good about the food we’re putting into our bodies.”
D’Arabian shares her ten most helpful thrifty tips, as well as two tasty recipes she loves.
1. When it comes to grocery carts, size matters.
They’ve done studies: The bigger the grocery cart, the more money we spend, says D’Arabian. Always pick the smallest cart that will fit your needs.
2. Make your first stop fruits and veggies.
Head to the produce aisle first, and focus on what’s in season. The idea of produce as a budget-buster is completely a myth if you know how to shop, she tells us. Most importantly, disregard out-of-season options (like peaches in January). In fact, D'Arabian tells us that the produce aisle is one of the few places where cheaper usually means better quality, because the riper the fruit, the more the store wants to unload it.
Also, food that is in season locally costs less. That’s why you pay so much for weird, genetically modified fruits and veggies shipped to your grocery store from another country. So, load up your cart there first with what’s on sale and in season.
3. Reframe how you think about budget food.
D'Arabian doesn't think about how much it costs to get a plate of food on the table, but rather about the price per nutrient. For example, you may be able to get two packages of ramen noodles for a dollar, whereas a one-pound box of whole grain pasta with flaxseed, legumes and protein will cost $2.29. While it’s true that ramen noodles might be the cheapest thing out there in terms of volume, as a strategy for nourishing your family, you’d still have to find protein, fiber and nutrients for the meal elsewhere.
4. Don’t forget the beans.
D'Arabian says: "A real money saver is incorporating ‘bean night’ once a week into your family’s repertoire. Dinner could be a big pot of chili or sautéed white beans with some strips of grilled chicken on top. The principle holds true for any inexpensive protein, like a poached egg with a brown butter sauce, croque madame or quiche (which are all recipes in my book). If you serve a really cheap protein once a week, it will be automatic savings."
5. Get fresh with fish.
"Because fish is perishable," D'Arabian says, "there’s usually at least one kind at the fish counter that they want to encourage people to buy [before it goes bad]. This means they mark down the price pretty drastically." Try making your recipes simple enough so you can swap in any white fish, depending on what’s on sale. Either serve it that night, or ask if there is any of the fish that’s on sale, still frozen in the back. Then, you’re thawing it out on your time and getting the cheaper prices.
6. Keep flavor enhancers in the freezer.
Bacon, fresh ginger, nuts, grated cheese and even leftover wine (for cooking) keep exponentially longer in the freezer than in the fridge. In her book, D'Arabian suggests storing these in resealable freezer bags (or for wine, in ice cube trays) so you can easily add just enough to brighten, deepen or add a textural component to a recipe.
7. Tally your perishables once a week and create a five-minute menu plan.
The most expensive ingredient is the one you throw away, so take a few seconds to check through your crisper drawers and see what’s lurking in the back of the fridge. Let your inventory review drive your week’s menu. If all you have are odds and ends, make an anything-goes soup or pasta sauce. You menu doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.
8. Never throw away a free source of flavor.
Ingredients that give you double the mileage are pure gold for budget cooks. D'Arabian notes, "I make good use of squeezed lemon halves by freezing them in resealable freezer bags to zest in another recipe. You can also use the shells from shrimp to make a quick shrimp stock. Similarly, I buy celery with the leaves still attached—they’re a great substitute for parsley."
9. Take an inexpensive “standby” favorite and give it an exotic makeover.
Meat loaf, meatballs, chicken soup and chili are all crowd-pleasing recipes that can easily take on a flavor boost with ingredients from your local ethnic supermarket. (Here's why one economist says ethnic supermarkets are the best bang for your buck.) "Cilantro, curry powder, chipotle in adobo sauce, coconut milk and salsa are all easy add-in ingredients," D'Arabian suggests. They can change the taste of a dish just enough to give new life to inexpensive ingredients without the family getting bored.
10. Try a clear-the-pantry week.
"When I do this, I easily uncover hundreds of dollars I didn’t need to spend," D'Arabian says. Take a tour of your kitchen pantry and write down the major ingredients lurking around. Use the list to create a menu for the week. It’s a fun challenge to see how long you can go without buying new food items beyond the few necessary perishables, such as milk and eggs.
Hungry? She shares two of her delicious, affordable recipes: