How to make cheap food more appetising

by - Monday, March 25, 2013

Many of us feel the need to cut down on our daily living costs in order to make ends meet. Cutting down on the amount we spend on food is one of the first ways we reduce our spending, though often we find that cheaper foods are less appetising or nutritious than the (more expensive) choices we may prefer to buy.

For much of my adult life I have found myself having to budget well in order to make ends meet. Making sure I can prepare and cook meals within my budget has always been top priority, and I'm proud of the fact that my children have always been well-fed and enjoyed their food, no matter how little money I may have in my purse.

In this post I'd like to share some of the tips and tricks I've learnt over the years to make cheap food more appetising to help you prepare meals for your own family which look and taste great, no matter how little you have spent in making them!

Making cheap meat meatier

I know that in current times many will baulk at the thought of buying cheap meat which is neither organic or free range, but as our budgets shrink so grows the allure of cheaper alternatives. Unfortunately, cheaper meats may not taste so good, or may be bulked out by water or added fats.

Here are some tips to help ensure budget meats taste almost as good as the more expensive alternatives you'd prefer:

  • Always marinade meats before grilling or frying. Even a simple combination of lemon juice and oil can make a cheap steak or chicken breast taste great!
  • Leave cooked meat to rest for at least ten minutes before eating. This gives the meat a chance to pull back in the juices, ensuring the meat stays tender and moist.
  • When cooking minced meats, do not add oil to the pan and be sure to strain off the fat which cooks off before adding other ingredients. Most budget minced meats (particularly beef, I've found) have been bulked out with added fats which can spoil the resulting dish.
  • Prick sausages all over with a fork before cooking to allow all of the fat to drain out. 
  • Crumble stock cubes into meat-based dishes to enhance the flavour, when cooking bolognese, shepherd's pie or casseroles, for example. 
  • Another great tip is to crumble stock cubes and rub over joints of meat before roasting which results in a much meatier flavour.
  • Skim off the foam from the surface of the liquid when stewing or casseroling meats. This foam comes from impurities in the meat, and removing it makes the dish taste much nicer, as well as ensuring the liquid remains unclouded. 
  • When cooking cheap or frozen chicken portions, strain off the excess water which comes out during cooking before adding sauces or other ingredients. 
  • A mixture of soy sauce and honey is an excellent marinade to use when roasting chicken. Try painting it all over the chicken with a pastry brush before popping in the oven - the glaze not only tastes wonderful, it helps keep the chicken moist!

Penny-saving pasta, rice and noodles

Pasta, rice and noodles form the base for many cheaply sourced meals, without the need for an accompanying dish. Here are some ideas for making these frugal foods more appealing.

  • Try stirring in soft cheese and slivers of ham for a budget alternative to carbonara.
  • Melt butter (or margarine), tear up some spinach leaves and cook until just wilted, then stir on cooked pasta and serve with tomato sauce for a delicious easy dish.
  • Crumble a vegetable stock cube and stir into the water used for cooking rice to give it a delicious taste. You could jazz it up even more by adding cooked chopped vegetables.

Most supermarkets stock a line of budget pasta (usually shapes or spaghetti) which is considerably cheaper than even their own brand. In addition to being of plain appearance, these pasta types take longer to cook but can still be conjured into nutritious delicious meals. Similarly, long-grain rice can be found in "budget" ranges and substituted for Basmati in many rice-based dishes.

Packet noodles (Ramen) are a great frugal food which can be dressed up for a delicious meal or snack. My eldest particularly enjoys adding eggs just before the noodles are cooked to make a substantial snack (when he's particularly hungry he tops the dish with grated cheese and ham).

You can find dozens of Ramen recipes (almost all of which are very cheap to make) over at The Official Ramen Homepage including this recipe for Noodle Salad which I'd particularly recommend.

Making vegetables more appealing

Without resorting to prepared vegetable dishes from the supermarket, we can buy cheap raw varieties and add our own pizazz at home.
  • Add a little finely chopped onion when boiling potatoes to add a lovely taste to this basic vegetable. This is particularly good when making mashed potatoes.
  • Try frying cabbage in a little butter with slivers of garlic for a delectable side dish
  • Add a teaspoon of sugar to the water when boiling carrots to make them taste much sweeter
  • Dress any vegetables in a little butter (or olive oil) and a choice herb. My favourite is tarragon, which makes almost any vegetable taste superb. 
  • When cooking root vegetables for soup or stews, allow them to "sweat" in the pan for a while before adding any liquid. This helps to eliminate most of the aggressive aromas and makes the final dish taste much better.

Everything looks (and tastes) better when it's dressed up!

We eat with our eyes first, and a dish which is appetising to our sense of vision is more likely to be enjoyed with satisfaction.

Whenever possible, I like to add a little salad garnish to our family meals: a cheap bag of salad leaves from the supermarket can cost as little as 50p (and last the whole week!) but transforms a basic tomato pasta dish into something much more colourful and "delicious-looking". Alternatively try thinly sliced tomatoes drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar.

Finely chopped onions and parsley is a garnish we enjoy on casseroles and sauce-based dishes. For soups, try adding a dollop of sour cream; garnish with slivers of fried bacon, or stir in a slice of home-made herb butter.

Keep an assortment of cupcake decorations ("hundreds and thousands", chocolate strands and the like) for simple desserts such as ice-cream or "Angel whip". Sieved icing sugar or cocoa powder makes any plain cake look more expensive (and you can make them even prettier by sieving over a paper doily!).

Lastly, serve food on the best plates or bowls you have. Even plain old beans on toast is more satisfying when served on those unused bone-china dishes you've been saving for a special occasion. Children love eating cheap-as-chips strawberry whip in decorated glasses instead of plain bowls!

What are your tips for making cheap food taste better?

Do you have any tips for making frugal food more appetising? Please feel free to share your suggestions in the comments section below - we'd love to hear from you!

If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like to read my free eBook: Fabulous Frugal Food Bills, which details loads of ways we can save money on our weekly grocery bills.

Image credits: Main banner, original photo by oskay; meat photograph by adactio; pasta photo by flavorrelish; brussels sprouts by sing@flickr; garnished English breakfast by acockle. All sourced from the Creative Commons pool on Flickr.

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