$5 dinners: 7 unusual tips for reducing your food costs

can of tuna in oil broccoli

We all go through times when cash isn’t as abundant as we’d like. Sometimes it’s beyond our control, and sometimes it’s self-imposed. Like me at the moment – saving for a trip to New York City.

Last year some of the most popular and controversial articles on Stonesoup were where I met the challenge to eat for $2 a day. While it was fun rising to the challenge, I’m certainly glad I haven’t had to be so cost focused with my cooking since then.

I really enjoyed the discussion and tips that arose from the article. So this year I’ve decided to create a series of recipes called $5 dinners. To help with my own savings and for those of you who also need to keep an eye on expenses.

We covered most of the obvious tips for keeping our food bills to a minimum last year. So today, to celebrate the inaugural $5 dinner recipe, I thought I’d challenge myself to think of some more unusual tips. And I’d love to hear in the comments if you have any tricks of your own!

7 unusual tips for reducing your food costs

1. use everything you paid for
Oil from the tuna (see recipe below!), canning liquid from the beans, broccoli stems, beet leaves, bones from the Christmas ham – all these and more are sources of flavour and nutrition that are often discarded.

2. minimise your waste
One of the biggest costs can be the food we throw away. Fresh produce is probably the most common offender here. It might actually be cheaper to use frozen rather than taking the chance that you won’t get around to cooking the fresh veg before they expire.

3. know when it’s OK to eat things past their best before dates
I still know people who think that everything has to be thrown out after it has expired. It doesn’t have to be like that! If you’re a little unsure, have a look at my insiders guide to use-by dates.

4. question your habits
We all fall into habits with our everyday lives. Taking the time to be objective and question whether we really need that coffee or other little ‘treat’ or could we bring filtered water from home instead of buying bottled can make a difference to our savings over time.

5. think about your energy costs
Last year I read M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating. During her essays on food and cooking during the war years, I was intrigued by the idea of being frugal with your energy for cooking. Until then I hadn’t really thought about the costs of having the oven running for hours. Fisher spoke at length about different ways to fit as much as possible in the oven to make the most of the precious heat. I wonder what her thoughts would be on modern refrigerators and freezers?

6. conduct your own taste tests
After conducting taste tests professionally on an almost daily basis as a winemaker and a product developer, I do miss critically evaluating things. Fortunately my Irishman also loves to test his taste buds so we often have little experiments at home testing different brands of tinned tuna or olive oil or potato chip or which butcher has the best sausages. The interesting thing is that the most expensive item is often not the one we most prefer. This often leads to future savings when we switch to the less expensive preferred option. Nerdy but fun ;)

7. be aware of pricing
I used to think that if I was cooking for myself, I was saving so much more than eating out. I figured it didn’t matter how much things cost. My $2 day exercise got me thinking about food costs and how by just being aware, not necessarily obsessive I can make changes that will make a real difference to my savings.

broccoli & tuna on a bed of white bean mash
[5 ingredients | $5 dinners]
super simple broccoli with tuna & white bean mash

serves 2

I’ve used frozen broccoli because it’s cheaper than the organic broccoli I’ve been buying at the Canberra Farmers Markets. But when I did a price check on fresh supermarket broccoli it was even cheaper so feel free to use whichever suits you.

Fresh broccoli may take a minute or so longer to cook, depending on how large you chop it.

For a fish-free or vegetarian version, use olive oil to cook the broccoli and toss in a generous handful of almonds or brazil nuts at the end to replace the tuna.

If you’re not into mash, or prefer to keep it to a one-bowl dish, you could just drain and toss in some canned beans with the tuna at the end.

If your frying pan doesn’t come with a lid, cover with a baking tray or some foil to keep the steam in when cooking the broccoli.

1 medium can tuna in olive oil (185g / 6oz)
1 packet frozen broccoli (500g / 1lb)
1 can white beans such as cannellini (400g / 14oz)
generous knob butter
squeeze of lemon juice

1. Heat a large frying pan over a very high heat.

2. Drain the oil from the tuna and add to the hot pan with the frozen broccoli. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Stir broccoli, recover and cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, drain the white beans and place in a small bowl. Mash with a fork until you have a chunky paste. Season.

5. Test the broccoli. When it is tender and defrosted, add the tuna and butter and stir until butter is melted.

6. Turn off the heat. Add lemon juice and season the tuna broccoli mixture and serve on a bed of the white bean mash.

food cost:

can of tuna: $2.85
frozen broccoli: $3.85
can white beans: $1.62
1/2 lemon: 22c
knob butter: 5c
TOTAL: $4.30 per serve ($8.59 total)

Given the international nature of the Stonesoup readership, it’s a bit tricky to consider the costs of different ingredients in different parts of the world. So please just take my food costs calculations as a guide, more of a method for me to gauge whether a recipe is worthy of inclusion into the $5 dinners series than a costing set in stone.



video version of the recipe


The next few weeks are quite busy at The Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School. This weekend Make Luscious Ice Cream Without a Machine kicks off for fellow Ice Cream fanatics.
And our first 4 week class for the year, Reclaim Your Waistline will be online from the 19th Feb.

Tune in on Thursday for your chance to win a chance to reclaim Your waistline.

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