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14 Frugal Cooking Tips (Make Saving Money a No-Brainer)

Frugal cooking tips to save money and give you more cash to put towards other priorities, like debt repayment or your vacation fund.

As a seasoned “Servantless American cook” (boy do I love Julia Childs!), I’ve got some killer frugal cooking tips to share with you.

woman cooking on a stovetop with red spatula, text overlay "frugal cooking tips to save money & time"

These are the cool tips and tricks that consistently knock our grocery bill down week in and week out.

Not only do they help us to save money, but they save us time and energy as well.

A two-fer!

Ready to learn how to cook on a low budget? Follow these tips.

Frugal Cooking Tips

You’re about to get my BEST frugal cooking tips – gained from decades cooking in my own kitchen.

Hint: these are especially useful if you're going through The Frugal Year Challenge.

1. Cook One “Forgivable Meal” a Week

There are lots of recipes out there that use very specific ingredients, and wouldn’t taste right without those.

And then there are what I like to call “Forgivable Meals” – a base that stays the same no matter what, and you can put so many different leftovers and stuff-on-hand you have to use up into it.

It still turns out delicious. Heck, your family’s even getting some variability!

Let me give you some really forgivable bases:

  • Pizza Dough
  • Bisquick & Cheese
  • French Bread Loaves
  • Soup
  • Pasta
  • Baked Potatoes

And now here’s a few examples of how to use what you’ve got with each of these bases:

  • Pizza Dough: use-up veggies pizza, chicken BBQ pizza, ham-lunchmeat & pineapple pizza, etc.
  • Bisquick & Cheese: Shepard’s pie, tamale pie, breakfast-casserole-for-dinner, vegetable casseroles, etc.
  • French Bread Loaves: Meat-n-Cheese stuffed French bread, French bread veggie pizzas, Bacon-egg-cheese-stuffed French bread, chicken alfredo French bread pizza, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches, etc.
  • Soup: leftover vegetable soup, everything-leftover-rice-based soup, etc.
  • Baked Potatoes: Load those babies up with all kinds of things – chicken/broccoli/cheese, leftover chili, BBQ chicken/red onion slices/cheese, etc.

2. Buy Less, Substitute More

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten excited about using up a bunch of ingredients in our pantry or freezer to make a meal…only to find that I’m missing just one (critical) ingredient.

I’m talking not having butter (pretty important), or buttermilk (pretty important), or even something like Bisquick.

And googling how to substitute <<insert critical ingredient you’re missing>> has been a God-send.

3. Cook a Bestseller with a “Ho-Hum” Meal

One of my favorite frugal cooking tips that will keep your family on board with your frugal efforts?

Is to pair a bestseller recipe or ingredient with a ho-hum one.

For example:

  • Cheap pasta dish paired with cheesy garlic bread
  • Unexciting meat dish paired with an in-season salad
  • Cheap pantry meal with a yummy mug cake for dessert

4. Cook a Base, Use it Many Ways

One of my best frugal cooking tips: change your thinking. Instead of looking at each meal individually, think about cooking a base that you can use in many of the same meals over the coming weeks.

For example, make a big batch of spinach dip.

I know – spinach dip? Not exactly a main dish.

That is…until you use it in these ways:

  • Spinach dip crepes
  • Spinach dip grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Mixed in with alfredo sauce to make chicken alfredo
  • As a side dish with dipping bread one night

One of the best bases, of course, is the baked chicken. Bake a chicken (or pick up one if you can find it cheaply), and use it to make chicken enchiladas, chicken BBQ pizza, hot chicken sandwiches, etc.

5. Cluster Your Ingredients, then Price Shop just those

Most of us are not going to take the time to create a grocery store price book. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have the time. Not only that, but food prices are changing (increasing) so much right now, that it seems like wasted effort.

Instead, you need to be strategic with pricing out the most used ingredients in your kitchen. This will really make a difference.

Go through your go-to recipes (here’s where I share about how to organize your recipes in a binder).

Then, figure out those ingredients that you tend to use the most.

For us, that’s things like:

  • Flour (our picky eater eats homemade waffles every. single. morning.)
  • Granola bars
  • Garlic powder
  • Spaghetti sauce

Write these down on a list. Then, take the time to find the cheapest way to source these ingredients.

That could be buying them in bulk at Costco or Sam’s. It could be buying 4-5 of them when they’re on a loss-leader sale, and then not buying again until the next loss-leader sales cycle.

Just focus on your list – way less overwhelming, and will make a dent in your food bill (here's way more tips on how to save money on groceries without coupons).

Bonus tip: Not only do you want to source these specific ingredients as cheaply as possible, but you want to then make the recipes that use these ingredients, as often as your family can stand it.

6. Get Your Kids in the Kitchen

Let’s face it: a good chunk of food waste that happens is due to our kids.

Our cute, adorable, sometimes-challenging, picky eaters.

My husband and I – proud parents of a child with food sensory issues – have found that the best way to get a child interested in eating what you have to offer is letting them help you cook it.

And you can take this a step further. You can let them help planning the meals to begin with!

Little hands are great for reaching back into the recesses of cupboards and pantries and finding the “treasures” there. Kids also love to brainstorm ideas (blue spaghetti, anyone?).

Speaking of pantry treasures…

7. Go Digging for Treasures, Regularly

Expired and expiring foods is the arch nemesis (as my younger brother used to say) of running a frugal kitchen.

That’s why you’ve got to make it a habit to regularly go into the nether regions of your cupboards, freezer, and fridge and bring all those ingredients front-and-center.

Then, you meal plan FROM these ingredients.

Psst: these free kitchen inventory printable sheets will help.

8. Limit the Number of New Recipes You Try

I know, I know – as someone who loves to try new recipes on the regular, I know that this one sounds like a drag.

But hear me out. Because the truth is: each new recipe I (and you) try, I generally have to buy at least one, if not three, obscure ingredients that I have no other use for…besides this recipe.

If, instead, I stick to the same batch of recipes in our lives and sprinkle in a new recipe here and there (that doesn’t take a bunch of new ingredients I’ll never use again), then I’ll save us money.

Period.  

Not only that, but I won’t find these really odd ingredients taking up space in the back of our fridge’s second shelf three years from now.

Speaking of those rando’ ingredients…

9. Freeze One-Off Ingredients for Next Time

I have several recipes in my semi-usual rotation of meals that use a one-off ingredient.

A few years ago, I started seeing the pattern of waste – it never failed that that one can of chipotle adobo peppers I need for that one recipe lingers in the fridge long enough to go bad by the time I’m ready to cook that same meal again.

And I don’t use that one ingredient for anything else.

SO, I started freezing the rest of that one-off ingredient in a single-use portion (the specific measured amount needed for that recipe) on the top shelf of my freezer. I use one of those soda-can clear containers to collect all the small bags of half-used ingredients.

Right now, that shelf has a half-used can of chipotle adobo peppers, measured out in 1 tbsp. portions, a half-can of black beans, ½ cup of carrot juice that I use in a homemade dressing, etc.

Your freezer is not just to freeze meals. Learn from my own mistakes and start saving both time and money by freezing single portions of an ingredient to use.

Psst: check out my freezer tip in the article how to save money on snacks.

10. Learn to Harvest Your Leftovers

Leftovers – love ‘em, or hate ‘em, but there’s no denying that they are a huge tool in your frugal cooking toolbelt.

There are so many ways to jazz up, dress down, and otherwise reuse leftovers that I devoted an entire article on how to reuse leftovers.

But I’ll share a few of the nuggets here:

  • Make a food bowl
  • Chain-link your meal planning
  • Freeze single portions for at-home, future lunches

Psst: here’s 15 more ideas for cold lunches for husbands to take to work.

11. Take the Pantry Challenge Each Quarter

Forget about doing a yearly pantry challenge – when you challenge yourself to eat all of your meals from home, from what’s already stashed in your pantry/cupboards/freezer and spend like $50/week on fresh food.

Up the savings-ante by doing a pantry challenge once a quarter.

Here are pantry challenge tips ideas and rules.

Don’t be afraid to vary the length of time you want to do the challenge for (especially since you’re doing it once a quarter). You’ll save money whether you do it for one week, two weeks, or a whole month each quarter.

12. Choose Frozen over Fresh Veggies and Fruits

I would never have posted this tip…until we moved to the desert.

Let me tell you how much more expensive fresh vegetables and fruits are out here.

It turns out it’s not just if you live in the desert – fresh fruits and veggies are generally more expensive than their frozen counterparts.

The good news (especially since I’m a little bit of a health nut)? Frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen quickly after their peak ripeness, so most retain most (if not all) of their nutritional value.

Not only that, but you waste far less from the veggie drawer, since they keep for months at a time.

13. Freeze Your Spices and Seasonings

Have you ever thought about how expensive a bottle of spice or a seasoning is? It’s one of the more expensive ingredients when trying new recipes.

And they expire, just like any other food.

Save some money over the years by freezing half of each of your seasonings/spices right off the bat.

Then, when your bottle expires, bring out small portions at a time.

14. Batch Meals when Items Go on Sale

My final frugal cooking tip – when one or several ingredients for a specific meal you like to make go on sale, buy enough to make two of that meal.

Go home, cook the two meals, and freeze one.

You’ve now saved money on both this meal, AND on a future meal.  

Don’t underestimate these frugal cooking tips. Start incorporating them into your daily kitchen use…and your grocery bill will creep down, down, and down some more. How satisfying!

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Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.