Sure, we’d all love to eat fancy steaks and fresh fish from our own kitchens. But with the rising cost of groceries and homes with more than one mouth to feed, those dishes are more like a treat or a rare indulgence than an everyday staple. So the question becomes, what items do you actually need to stock up on in order to stretch that food budget out?
MasterChef Canada contestant Jennifer Innis has an idea or two. The Vernon, B.C. dental hygienist, wife and mother of three was recently eliminated from the competition, but she’s still got plenty of mouths to feed at home. The difference is that there, she doesn’t have the fancy MasterChef Canada pantry to shop from — or the budget. Things can get tight, especially with her husband, a tradesman, dealing with layoffs in between contracts.
“We’re very much a budget cook family. I think that might have been one of my pitfalls in some ways on the show,” Innis says. “But at the same time it makes you be creative. You can throw any kind of ingredients at me and I’ll make a dish out of it.”
So what should a budget chef stock up on?
Whether you make your own with leftover vegetable rinds and bones, or stock up on the liquid gold when it goes on sale at the grocery store, stock can be the difference between an Okay crockpot meal and a repeat recipe the whole family will love.
“We do a lot of crock-potting at home on workdays. That way I know that dinner is hearty, healthy and ready to go when I get home,” Innis says. “Because if I don’t plan ahead it’s going to be takeout or something like that. Then you’re going to be spending too much money, and you’re going to be filling yourself full of sugar and fats and sodium and all kinds of other stuff you shouldn’t have.”
Along with onions, garlic and peppers, Innis declares this green one of her weekly must-haves thanks to its versatility and high nutritional content. Plus, when it’s in season, it’s pretty cheap. “It’s so packed with vitamins and it’s very easy to work with,” she adds.
Farm fresh from the farmer’s market or on sale at your local Costco, Innis — who also loves baking — is a big proponent of having lots of them on hand. “You can bake with eggs, you can cook with eggs. Eggs are kind of just like a perfect component in themselves. If you have flour and eggs you can make yourself noodles or something like that. ”
4. Canned tomatoes
“Diced tomatoes are always a staple in my house,” Innis reveals. “You can put em in sauces, you can make a soup out of them. I make a really good tomato basil soup. And if you’re having grilled cheese sandwiches then you’ve got the perfect dinner right there!”
5. Meat “fillers”
Only have a little bit of cash for ground turkey or beef? Try Innis’s “green meatballs” trick.
“My kids thought they were amazing.I had maybe a hunk of ground beef the size of my hand that I had to stretch between the whole family,” she recalls. “So I filled it up with breadcrumbs, spinach, and a bunch of other vegetables and then I stirred in a couple of eggs to bind it all together. We ended up having a dozen green meatballs.
Another trick? Pureeing a squash and using it as a sauce thickener in pastas. “My husband hates squash, and he doesn’t realize he eats it all the time.”
“I find that oats are one of the greatest things to make your meat stretch,” Innis says. “They thicken up and add in texture without taking from that meaty texture.” The home cook uses those little suckers for more than just meat too. “There are tons of different ways. If you’re doing muffins or cookies and run out of flour, throw in some oats. It sticks to your ribs and it stretches everything. And you don’t taste it!”
Have a pantry staple or dish? Tell us in the comments below.
MasterChef Canada airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET on CTV.