You don’t have to sacrifice flavour or excitement in your weekly menus just to stay on budget. It’s simply a matter of getting the maximum taste for minimal expense—and discovering which of life’s food luxuries deserve your dollars. To shake up your taste buds, here are five tasty yet wallet-friendly ingredients, plus five delicious foods worth the splurge.
Save Some Money
1. Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
These are a versatile and flavourful essential from the meat department, and they’re often more affordable than chicken breasts. Thighs are super juicy and work well in all sorts of recipes: They can be added to the slow cooker, used in curries, marinated and grilled, or roasted on a bed of potatoes for a simple weeknight dinner.
Tip: If you’re removing chicken skin before cooking, grab the skin with a paper towel rather than your bare hands. Your fingers will be less likely to slip, and the skin will pull away in one easy motion.
2. Dried beans and pulses
While these pantry staples do require more planning than cans of cooked legumes, most of the work is hands-off soaking time, and it’s easy to prep extra and save them for later in the fridge or freezer. (Check out our guide to pulses for the best way to prep and cook these tasty budget savers.) Chickpeas and lentils add hearty texture to tomato-based pasta sauces, kidney beans stretch out a pot of chili to feed a crowd, and split peas satisfy in Quebec-style pea soup.
Tip: Lentils are very fast to cook. They don’t require soaking and are ready in under 20 minutes. They make an excellent base for a quick soup or stew.
3. Long-grain rice
Long-grain rice, such as jasmine, is another superb pantry staple. It makes a quick side dish and comes to the rescue when a guest who avoids gluten stops by for dinner. Less pricey than the short-grain variety, long-grain rice is just as versatile: Serve it steamed alongside veggies and meat, use leftovers the next day in a fried rice dish or rice pudding, or make it into a cold salad with julienned vegetables and a ginger-lime dressing.
Tip: Rinse long-grain jasmine rice in cold water before cooking to remove surface starch for a fluffier result.
4. In-season produce
Add a line on your shopping list for seasonal produce so you can take advantage of store specials and the month’s fresh offerings: asparagus in spring, strawberries in early summer and root vegetables in fall and winter. (Discover what’s growing in your region with our seasonal produce guide.)
Take full advantage of an abundance of produce by swapping in-season ingredients for those close in flavour and texture in recipes. Swiss chard can be substituted for spinach, for example. Minced green onions can take the place of chives, and most berries are interchangeable as the summer progresses. Find more food-swap ideas in our handy guide to substituting produce.
Tip: Display washed and ready-to-eat fruit in a bowl, and place it in a high-traffic zone. Your family will reach for these seasonal gems instead of packaged snacks.
5. Ground beef, pork, chicken and turkey
A package of ground meat is a meal-planning superstar and a home-economics essential pick. Brown some ground meat for DIY family tacos, or drop homemade meatballs into a simmering tomato sauce. Shape it into patties for grilled hamburgers, or spice up ground meat for Middle East–inspired kofta kebabs.
Tip: Leftover ground turkey, chicken or pork mixed with sage, salt, pepper and brown sugar makes delicious sausage-style breakfast patties.
Worth the Splurge
1. Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
You only need a small bottle of luscious extra-virgin olive oil because a little goes a long way. Drizzle it over salads, pastas or pizzas right before serving, or pour a little in a saucer as a dip for crusty bread. Heat can damage this oil’s delicate, fruity taste, so don’t cook with it—canola or another vegetable oil suitable for high heat is better for that task.
Tip: To keep your extra-virgin olive oil at its peak, store the bottle in a cool, dark place away from the stove.
2. Real vanilla extract
Real vanilla extract is worth the splurge for its intense aroma and flavour. By contrast, inexpensive artificial vanilla doesn’t have the same sweet boldness and can leave a bitter aftertaste. In addition to using it in cakes and cupcakes, you can mix real vanilla extract into French toast batter, add a drop to brewed coffee for a vanilla-infused morning cup of joe, or pour a capful into a pot of porridge sweetened with maple syrup. When used just a little at a time, even a small bottle can last for months.
Tip: Add a drop (or more, to taste) to plain yogourt, stir well and top with fresh fruit for a quick dessert.
3. Maple syrup
Authentic maple syrup from Canadian maple trees has no equal. It’s homegrown, naturally sweet, pours easily and makes for a rich, flavourful finish, whether it’s drizzled on pancakes or over fried chicken and waffles. You can add it to cocktails for a stylish twist, mix it with sriracha for a sweet and spicy dipping sauce, or blend a little into whipped cream for a maple-infused dessert topping.
Tip: Use maple syrup as the secret ingredient in salad dressings or glazes for grilled chicken to add depth of flavour.
4. Coconut oil
Solid and white at room temperature and clear when melted, coconut oil is a worthwhile purchase, given its flexibility and long shelf life, not to mention its slightly sweet and mildly nutty flavour. Use it in stir-fries and curries that include coconut milk. In baking, it can be used in place of vegetable oil or butter to impart a slight coconut flavour. (For best results, look for recipes that call for coconut oil.) It also has a high smoking point, so it’s suitable for sautéeing and frying.
Tip: Store coconut oil in a cool spot to prevent it from melting (as it would near a stove) and re-solidifying, which will reduce its shelf life.
Full of flavours and textures that range from salty, crumbly and pungent to sweet, creamy and mild, cheese is an indulgence that satisfies with even the smallest amount. Whether it’s shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano on an arugula salad, slices of aged Canadian cheddar in a grilled cheese sandwich or a selection of hard and soft cheeses served at a cocktail party, it’s hard to beat the unique savouriness of cheese.
Tip: Baked dishes like macaroni and cheese, lasagna or gratin don’t require pricey artisanal cheeses. Save the luxe varieties for when you can really delight in each bite, like on a cheese platter or as a garnish.