At the popular cooking website Allrecipes.com, visitors want to know one thing: How can they cook for less?
"People are moving away from steak and using ground beef. They're moving away from salmon and looking to tilapia, a cheaper fish," says Esmee Williams, vice president of marketing for allrecipes.com. Recipes for less-expensive dishes, such as casseroles and chili, have also surged in popularity, she says.
Those cooking trends reflect the fact that food prices are rising faster than a cheese soufflé. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an almost 5 percent annual growth rate for food eaten at home, with certain items, such as cereals, up over 9 percent. But cooking experts say that with the right ingredients and recipes, affordable (and tasty) meals are just a grocery list away. They offer these six tips:
Plan ahead. Shopping with specific meals in mind for the week ahead makes it easer to buy in bulk and repurpose ingredients, turning Sunday night's roast chicken into Monday night's enchiladas, Williams says. "A lot of folks get in trouble when they don't plan ahead. The day takes longer than expected, and they're ordering out or reaching for ready-made meals, and those are very expensive," she says. "The more you can cook from scratch, the further your dollar can stretch."
Do it yourself. Instead of buying a package of grated cheese, buy a chunk and grate it yourself, recommends Kim O'Donnel, author of the Washington Post's A Mighty Appetite blog and Real Simple's food blog. "We pay for the convenience of all these things," she says. She also recommends homemade hummus, which takes about seven minutes with a food processor, as well as homemade pizza dough, which doubles as a fun activity for kids.
Rediscover eggs and beans. Even though the price of eggs has gone up, they're still cheap compared with meat, says O'Donnel, and they are incredibly versatile. Around $3 (at about 25 cents an egg) can generate a dinner frittata, brunch strata, or quiche, she says.
On the same note, a simple dinner of black beans and rice—plus chopped onion, olive oil, seasonings, and shredded cheese—can make dinner for two for under $5, O'Donnel says.
Go meatless. "Cooking vegetarian meals often is a good way to save money," says Amy Sherman, Cooking with Amy blogger. Her spaghetti salad and Indian-style chickpea recipes are packed with flavor without relying on meat.
Reinvent leftovers. Extra rice can go into a fried rice dish the following night, O'Donnel says. "That's one of my favorite cheap and good meals—just add celery, bell peppers, shallots," she says.
Certain dishes, such as lasagna, chili, and soups, also are easily made in large quantities that can be frozen or eaten throughout the week, says Sherman, who often cooks most of her meals for the week on Sunday.
Use what's in the fridge. Home cooks stuck with extra eggplant or flounder can avoid wasting food by using websites such as Allrecipes.com and the FoodNetwork.com to search for dishes based on the ingredients they have at home. Sherman's favorite inexpensive recipe, spaghetti carbonara, uses eggs, pasta, garlic, bacon, and other ingredients that are often on hand. "It has lots of flavor, and it's easy to make," she says.