Cooking on a budget

slice of bread
Between buying a new house and preparing for baby #2, my husband and I decided a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t hurt to keep a close eye on our spending. We’re grateful that we’ve always had more than enough to live comfortably, but buckling down now and then never hurts. So we budgeted a conservative amount per week to spend on food/gas/miscellaneous, and went from there.

Since I do the majority of meal prep in our house, I’ve been particularly keen on cooking budget meals and finding ways to save on groceries…without sacrificing on taste and nutrition (having both a growing toddler and a pregnant lady to feed). Constraints often force the discovery of new ingredients and preparations, and this has definitely proven true even just a few weeks into this exercise. A few principles — none new, but diligently practicing them is another ballgame — have helped with belt-tightening:

Practice portion control
This has less to do with how much we eat per meal, but with how much we prepare and buy. I’m finding that for our family of 2.5, preparing food for 4-6 leaves us with enough for dinner, plus a couple lunches. That’s plenty. If there are too many leftovers, they inevitably hide out in the back of the fridge and go bad. Similarly, while buying in bulk is sometimes cheaper, the savings are canceled if you buy more than you can use.

Stretch meat
We do enjoy meat and are in the habit of buying less expensive cuts (think chicken thighs and certain Asian market cuts of beef), but we’ve also taken to using just a little less per meal — for example, using just two sausages in a soup instead of the called-for four. On-sale meat is something I do buy in bulk, then freeze in ~1 pound portions (butchers will often portion it out for you if you ask).

Rediscover rice and beans
Rice has long been a staple in our house, but we are learning to appreciate different types of beans and legumes. I have to say, the Instant Pot has really helped out here as it takes only ~20 minutes to cook up a batch of beans instead of a couple hours! We’ve also started trying more dal recipes using different types of lentils, and they’ve been a big hit. Fresh spices are key here; and this is another instance where I’ll buy from the local bulk store — not because I can buy a whole bunch but because I can get just the amount I need — 30 cents worth of tumeric, for instance.

Plan meals
I’ve never been much into weekly meal planning before; and I’ll probably never be the type to detail everything I’ll cook in the coming week. But I am trying to plan out at least the main courses several days in advance now, rather than just a couple. Mainly this is to cut down on unnecessary trips to the store where inevitably extraneous groceries make it into the shopping cart. I am in the habit of shopping the weekly grocery ads (the Flipp app is super helpful), which definitely helps determine what we’ll be eating.

I’m also trying to be more regular about preparing things that can be quickly thrown together for nutritious breakfasts/lunches — for example, boiling a dozen eggs and baking up a batch of granola at the beginning of the week; chopping up cheese cubes; baking a batch of muffins and freezing a portion. And of course a loaf of sourdough bread is almost always available.

Shop your pantry and freezer
One of the first things I did when we started this exercise was to take stock of what we already had at home. (Favorite rice vermicelli recipes, anyone? Because I have a lot…) Since we’re moving soon anyways, it makes sense to try to use up what’s in our pantry and freezer. I’m pretty good about knowing what meats we have in stock, but not so great at remembering our dry goods stash. (This ties back in with the first principle — don’t buy more than you can [remember to] use…) So I’m trying to do a better job of working in the wealth of neglected pantry items into meal planning.

Eat seasonally
Fruits and veggies get a bad rap for being expensive. If you’re buying strawberries in December, sure…but as long as you eat with the seasons, fresh produce is very affordable. (Plus, in-season always tastes better.)

What are some of your favorite budget recipes? Here are a just a few we’ve used for inspiration:


Auditioning for the Great Canadian Baking Show

great canadian baking show sign
At the Great Canadian Baking Show audition!

If you had told me three years ago that I would spend last Saturday auditioning for the Great Canadian Baking Show, I would have thought you were ridiculous. Three years ago I had never made a layer cake, much less a loaf of sourdough bread. But life can take some funny twists.

How it all started

Thanks to getting married, immigrating to Canada, and the subsequent funemployment while waiting for my work eligibility to kick in, I decided to delve into something I enjoyed but had little experience doing: baking. At that point I didn’t have any specific goals or recipes I wanted to master; I just needed to keep my hands and brain busy learning. And since it was gobsmack in the middle of a bad Canadian winter, staying inside next to a warm oven seemed like a good hobby to pursue. So I started checking out books from the library, perusing a few food blogs, and trying recipes that looked good.

Eventually I started gravitating towards certain types of baking: notably pies, cakes, and bread. I have a tendency to get slightly obsessive, especially if something doesn’t turn out the way I planned (read: I can be a perfectionist and generally don’t believe in half-assing things). So for example, if I made a bad pie crust, you’d better believe a bunch more pies would show up in the next few weeks (after an appropriate amount of internet research on how to fix pie crusts and comparison of dozens of recipes). It sounds a little crazy and it probably is; but that’s how I learned: I made mistakes and tried to fix them. I read a lot and bugged baker friends with questions / advice / requests for recipes. And I just baked a lot, typically 3+ times a week. And somewhere in there I started this little blog to keep track of recipes. (Writing things down has always helped me understand processes better, so even if I use a recipe from somewhere else I usually rewrite them to include steps and tips that make sense to me.)

The Application

Fast forward to earlier this year. A couple months ago, my husband forwarded me an article about a casting call for the first season of the Great Canadian Baking Show. I didn’t think much of it except, “Oh cool, the Great British Bake Off is the best and I’m glad they’re bringing it to Canada.” Within a day a couple other friends had sent me the same link with encouragement to apply. I figured I had nothing to lose; so one evening I sat on the sofa in my sweatpants and filled out the online application.

I didn’t think about it at all, really, until a few weeks ago when someone from the network called me for a phone interview. I was honestly just thrilled to know I’d made it past the first cut. When an email came a couple days later with an invitation to a live audition, I was shocked (and super excited)!

The Great Canadian Baking Show Audition

The chocolate raspberry cake I almost brought to my audition.
The next few weeks were spent preparing for the audition. Not much information was given, except that we were to bring a “signature bake” and would be asked to bake an undisclosed recipe using the equipment and ingredients provided. I focused my efforts on practicing techniques I wasn’t familiar with (to get used to being uncomfortable); and on deciding what to bring as my signature bake. It was a toss-up between a layer cake or a loaf of sourdough bread (the two things I like making the most); so I decided I’d make both and see which one turned out better. The week of the audition I prepped the ingredients for the cake (chocolate raspberry, of course) and made the same loaf of bread multiple times so that I’d have the best chance of success when it counted.

The morning of the audition I still hadn’t determined what to bring as both bakes had turned out as well as I could have hoped. My first instinct was the cake, because it had more immediate visual impact. But my husband nudged me to bring the bread, pointing out, “This is your recipe and a true signature bake; if you’re proud of it, you should win or lose with that.” (Have I mentioned my husband is the best? Taste-tester, child-wrangler, ingredient-buyer, soundboard, voice of reason — I’m truly blessed.) So in the end, I packed up my humble loaf of bread and a jar of homemade cultured butter and drove off to the audition site.

sourdough bread signature bake
My “signature bake” — a loaf of sourdough bread.
Due to NDAs I can’t divulge much about the actual audition itself (sorry, you’ll have to audition yourself to get the full scoop!), except to say I had a blast! I had imagined myself in front of a scary panel of judges, trying to slice my bread without shaking or cutting myself and hoping I wouldn’t make dumb mistake like mixing up the sugar and the salt. In reality it was more like hanging out with a bunch of other baking nerds, whipping up delicious things and eating really good food (yes, we got to try each others’ stuff!). I felt totally relaxed throughout the whole process, and in the end I believe bringing the bread was the better choice (thanks again, husband!). It was well received and stood out in its simplicity (and lack of sugar).

I don’t know if I’ll make it any further in the Great Canadian Baking Show process, but I certainly have no regrets about trying. At the end of the day I was more inspired than ever to keep baking, learning, and improving. It was refreshing to meet a variety of other people — from engineers to students to salespeople — who bake just for the love of it. And I was reminded of the joy of creativity. Whether you cook, bake, sew, write, build — what a vital and refreshing part of the human experience. I’m thankful that I can make my cake…and eat it too.

audition group shot
A big happy (and maybe slightly sugared-out) baking family