$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.


  • Looking forward to the series, Jules. Eating well on a budget has always been a passion for me. It’s one of the things that led me to start growing my own – a packet of seeds for salad greens , plus a bag of dirt and a pot to grow in costs less than 2 bags of washed organic greens… And it’s much more fun!

  • There is a cat in my vicinity who would consider it Sacriledge! for the humans to eat the tuna oil. I can not imagine a less peaceful meal. ;)

    However, I’ve been taught to rinse the tuna, rinse the beans, rinse the whatever … and now that you mention it, I don’t ‘rinse’ any home canned products. Why am I rinsing away nutrients of mass production?

  • (1) On the note of energy usage, I recently had the revelation while cooking multiple meals on Sunday, for the week ahead, that reusing a pan/pot had this advantage. For example, yesterday first I browned some ground beef for spagetti casserole. Secondly, I browned another pound of ground beef, then seasoned it for tacos. Lastly, I cooked burgers in the same cast iron pan. A quick scrape between the taco meat and burgers was good enough for me. In this instance I will wash the pan and season it only once, instead of three times, and I am sure I saved energy on heating the pan up as well.

    (2) I have recently found many advantages in planning meals for, and cooking ahead, for the week. (My favorite, saving valuable time with my daughter and husband on school nights, and reduced stress!) A great money-saving advantage, as I sit down to do my meal plan for the week, is that I save money by first shopping from home (what do I have in the cupboards already?). When I am done with my meal plan I have a consice list of what else I need from the store–if I stick to this I have saved on buying extras, and make fewer trips to the grocery store!

  • You got me for a moment there! Tuna at $2.85? And then I realized you are in Australia. The same meal would cost me about $2.50 – $3 in U.S. dollars depending on the sales. We only buy tuna when it’s on sale and we buy only the white tuna (actually, only my husband eats it – I don’t eat fish) and the same with the rest of the items except for the lemon. That’s the only thing that doesn’t go on sale so I get one if I need it anyhow.

    My niece once said she tried cooking at home but didn’t save any money over eating out. When I found out what she was cooking I knew why. I told her to save money you can’t always eat only your favorite, most expensive foods!

  • I’m going to be trying this one on the weekend. My partner and I are adjusting to a monthly pay system which has meant a little squeeze on the cash and it just so happens I accidently bought too much broccoli.

    A note about living in Australia, I shop at Aldi as much as possible, and I find their ‘Italian Style Tuna Chunks in Olive Oil’ are actually nicer than most of the Woolies or Coles brands. And one can of tuna, $1.30, cannellini beans, >$1, win!

  • hey cat
    thanks for the aldi tips – I guess that makes my costing on the high side!

    yes – I should have mentioned the prices are Australian dollars – although at the moment the exchange rate is about 1:1 with the USD so glad to hear the same meal would be a lot people for you!
    and good advice to your niece – truffles and caviar aren’t much cheaper to have at home!

    love it – you’re saving enengy, time and washing up!

    so that’s what cats are for! I’ve stopped rinsing beans since I tasted the liquid and it’s actually like bean broth..

    love your work! I’ve recently started with growing a few veg and you’re right – it’s so much more fun! still have a lot to learn which is really exciting!

  • yeah, i’m really interested in learning to grow my own salad leaves. my father in law does it in pots, apparently nothing too hard about it.
    I figure if I’m going to grow anything, it might as well be the dearer items I buy. I imagine bags of pre-washed salad leaves would be one of them. Any other suggestions?

  • Steve,
    Growing salad has been a massive saving for me. Herbs too especially basil which always seems to be so much more expensive than other herbs.

    My zucchini has also been doing really well (apparently it’s easy!) and same with my beets (I’ve been eating the beet tops too)

    I know, simple eating is the best for appreciating the beauty of individual ingredients.

  • I just saw your post on zen habits….you talked about going vegan but on this blog you have been talking about a paleo diet. Now I’m confused.

  • HI Jana
    Sorry for the confusion!
    I tried the paleo diet last year and decided it wasn’t for me.

    On Zen Habits today my post was about going vegan one day a week. Which I’m really loving. But I’m not planning on going vegan full time.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • Wow! I was just thinking about how to make cheap(er) meals and then voila! this shows up in my inbox. Would love to see/read more of your $5 recipes!

  • Plan, plan, plan. That is my most effective cost-saving method. And the part I’m struggling most with at the moment, with all this change I’m going through!

    On bean mash, I have made that using the entire can too. I saute some onion and garlic in butter, then when it starts to colour, I tip in the beans and their liquid. Simmer for 5 ish minutes until it has reduced, and the onion is soft enough, and then whizz it with the stick blender. The original recipe called for a splash of cream but I usually only have milk on hand so that’s what I use. The only thing is that some brands of beans have quite salty liquid, so I guess that is personal taste (and it depends also on what you’re serving it with). It makes a helluva bed for a roasted rack of lamb, as previously-doubtful Manonwheels will now attest :)

  • With the economic crisis we are facing it is really necessary to cut cost our meals but of course we should not also sacrifice nutrition. Your tips are absolutely very useful and I appreciate it so much. I will share this blog post to my mom friends.

  • Re: Use by dates. I grew up in Oz, but live in Spain. Some time ago my mum brought me a jar of Vegemite (I was missing it). I put it in the back of the fridge and forgot about it. I found it again last week and have been eating it non-stop. Use by date? June ’09. It still tastes exactly the same and I’m still alive :) My rule: If it isn’t from an animal, and it smells OK, I eat it. No problems so far!

  • Here’s a number 8, though it’s a bit of an open door: make do. Be creative and see if you have an ingredient in your cupboard/fridge/local shop that you can replace with the one in the recipe. ESPECIALLY if it’s fancy and foreign (and costly). I can tell you that it brought in more money than I imagined.

  • Thanks for the great insights and tips – I really enjoy your blog. I love tip No. 1 especially – I’ve often wondered why people don’t use the whole plant when there are so many edible parts! (habits!) And regarding saving energy there’s a lot to be said for heat retention cooking. A “hay box” is fantastic for slow cooking, proofing bread or keeping things warm, but the same concept can be applied in so many simple ways, eg. cooking lentils in a thermos! It often takes a little planning but doesn’t have to. When I first moved to Cambodia I had only a single burner and when cooking rice or pasta I would often bring to the boil for a couple of minutes only, then switch off the gas and wrap the pot in a large towel to finish cooking while I used the burner to cook vegetables. The rice / pasta is usually ready by the time the vegetables / sauce is. I’ve got a double burner now but still using retained heat methods to save gas.

  • Well I’m eating this recipe right now :) it’s…not bad. Definitely filling. Some flavour from eg soy sauce, sesame oil or chilli would’ve been nice – all stuff I had in the pantry but wanted to try your recipe as is.

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