A Chef's Insider Tips for Kitchen Economizing

Savvy restaurant chefs know that they can't afford to compromise the quality of their food, even when tough economic times hit. My job as a chef is a balancing act. I work hard to surpass patrons' expectations while controlling food costs. You may be facing similar challenges at home—you want to trim your grocery bill, but still eat well. Try some of these tips for shopping and cooking that I have adapted from the best practices of professional kitchens. They will help you enjoy a variety of fresh, delicious foods without feeling like you are cutting back.

Make a double batch

Since you have already decided to cook, why not double the recipe? Make more soup, tomato sauce or lasagna than you need and freeze the rest for future use. Not only do you save time, you cut costs, too. Here's why: Every time you shop, cook and clean up, you incur expenses that can add up, including transportation costs, utility usage and the potential for food waste. Besides being efficient, cooking in large quantities gives you the opportunity to take greater advantage when grocery items go on sale.

Sharpen your knife skills to save on produce

You'll save when you choose and use fruits and vegetables in their whole form. That means forgoing broccoli florets and passing up containers of cut up pineapple. And if you're willing to go DIY with a cutting board, a peeler and a knife, you can save in more than one way.

First, produce that's not pre-cut or washed is sold at a lower price point. Next, there is value in the parts of produce that are typically discarded. For example: thickly peel broccoli stems, then steam or sauté their tender interiors along with the florets; braise the leafy green tops of beets and turnips in olive oil with garlic or ginger; wilt radish tops into soups and stir-fries for a mild peppery flavor; and finally, collect vegetable peelings and use for stock making.

Start an herb garden

Garden fresh herbs make even the simplest dishes come alive with little effort. And once in the ground, they're yours for free.

Preserve the best of the season

When you buy fruits and vegetables at the peak of their season, you get them at the height of ripeness for the best price. Take this opportunity to try preserving them. There is a great deal of renewed interest in food preservation, with community groups and municipalities starting to offer hands-on workshops to teach this practical skill. Or consult the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your university's extension office for the necessary technical information. And remember, preserving isn't just canning, it can be as simple as freezing a flat of berries.

Cut back on protein portions

Buy smaller amounts of higher priced proteins like steaks and fish and fill out plates with complimentary vegetable, bean and grain sides. Think fish with lemony quinoa and Swiss chard, and grilled flank steak paired with white bean salad. Or explore cuisines in which meat plays only a supporting role. Many Asian noodle dishes are rich in vegetables, with just a bit of meat or seafood delivering high impact flavor.

Invest in weekend kitchen time

Avoid going to the grocery store after work, when you are hungry and more likely to reach for prepared foods. Get shopping and cooking done on weekends, when you have time to plan. Take a couple hours to set yourself up with workweek dinners and lunches. Cut after work cook time by washing lettuce and trimming vegetables in advance. With just two or three meals lined up, you lessen your chances of turning to costlier alternatives.

Keep beans and soup on hand

You can't beat dried beans for value. When paired with a grain they are a complete protein, and an affordable, satisfying meat substitute. Freeze cooked beans in small batches for convenience and quick defrosting. Soup is also economical—the price per serving is low, it's a good place to use leftovers, and it gives you a filling option for lunch or dinner.

In the end, the best route to limiting food expenses is simply by getting into the kitchen. The more foods you can take, prepare and cook for yourself, the greater your savings. Better yet is how well you will eat.

Kelly Myers is a Portland-based food writer whose work is focused on bringing the healthful pleasures of seasonal eating to practical everyday cooking and eating. She is also Chef de Cuisine at Nostrana, a restaurant at the vanguard of Portland's sustainable and local eating movement.

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