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Inflation-proof your meals: These cost-effective cooking tips won’t leave you with an empty stomach — or wallet

Inflation is eating into family budgets.

Grocery prices shot up by 12.2% in June compared to a year ago, the biggest annual increase in more than 35 years, according to government data. Some foods have seen bigger than average price increases, such as eggs and dairy, which went up 33.1% and 16.4% respectively.

How can home chefs make meals that cut down on costs but not flavors or nutrition?

“If you just try to cut back a little, or maybe even buy half of those really expensive ingredients, you’d be surprised at how satisfying your meals can still be,” said Beth Moncel, the founder of Budget Byte, a food blog that focuses on lower-cost recipes. “You don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.”

Be smart with your use of protein

Protein is usually the single most expensive ingredient in a meal, but you might not need a lot to add flavor to your meal, Moncel said. For expensive ingredients such as meat and cheese, just a little bit could make a dish super flavorful, she added.

The recommended calorie intake for an average American is 2,000 calories per day, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the US Department of Agriculture. It can fluctuate depending on the person’s age and sex, but the USDA recommends that adults consume 5.5 ounces of protein per day.

That can look like two eggs in the morning, and three ounces — about the size of a palm — of chicken breast for lunch and dinner combined.

Protein doesn’t have to eat from meat, of course. It can also be found in eggs, beans, lentils, peanut butter, nuts or seeds, according to MyPlate, a nutrition website under USDA. Plant-based protein options include tofu, tempeh or falafel.

Don’t let inflation distract you from a deal

Another tip: Rather than obsessing about inflation, look at how the price compares to other protein sources.

For example, chicken was 18.6% more expensive in June compared to last year, making it one of the items with the biggest year-over-year price hikes, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fresh boneless chicken breast was $4.56 per pound. But beef is still more expensive: one pound of ground beef was $4.89, and a pound of boneless beef stew meat was $6.90 in June.

Earlier in the year, high beef prices drove consumers to chicken. In June, however, pork and beef prices continued to decrease for the second month in a row. The price of beef and veal in June decreased by 0.6% compared to the price in May.

Beef is “still a very expensive item even though it has dropped a little bit,” Moncel told MarketWatch. “So I’m still reserving that item for a special occasion.”

It’s not about feast or famine, she said, instead it’s about smart shopping. “I don’t like to say any ingredient is totally off-limits,” Moncel said. “But if it’s something super expensive like that, maybe just save it for once in a while, you know, special occasions.”

Similarly, some items that have seen huge price increases during red-hot inflation are still relatively cheap. Eggs, which have soared in prices by 66% over the last year, are a good example of this, Moncel said.

“It would scare a lot of people but if you actually look at it again, the price of that item is still relatively inexpensive compared to everything else,” Moncel said. One egg will cost 25 cents, she said. “So I don’t think it’s something that I would stop buying because it went up 65%.”

chicken legs vs. whole chicken

While the price of chicken legs, breasts and wings have soared, whole chicken has become a more affordable option. The price of whole chicken per pound was $1.91 in June versus $1.88 per pound for chicken legs, according to St. Louis Fed data. Both are down from recent highs of more than $2 per pound earlier this year.

However, it’s more cost-effective to buy the whole chicken, cut it or roast it whole, and use it in multiple meals. Indeed, that has become an increasingly popular trend among some consumers looking to save.

Another cost-saving measure: de-bone the chicken yourself. Boneless chicken breast cost $4.57 per pound in June 2022, up from $3.35 in June 2021, but bone-in chicken is typically less than half that price per pound.

Moncel said that people should make their own decision about buying a whole bird based on not only their budget but also their time. Butchering the chicken yourself takes more effort than throwing a boneless skinless chicken breast into a pan.

“It’s not going to be a good fit for everyone. And that’s how I budget shopping and cooking in general. You have to kind of decide whether or not doing these things from scratch is worth your time because for some people it is, some people it isn’t,” she said.

Mix cheap and expensive ingredients

Shrimp is relatively expensive, but cooking with it doesn’t have to be. To cut costs, Moncel will combine shrimp with cheap ingredients like cabbage or potatoes.

Some recipes are ideal for mixing high-cost with low-cost ingredients, Moncel said. She recommends pizza, stir-frys, and salad bowls.

Carbohydrates and vegetables are usually among the cheapest ingredients. Tomatoes are one food that have withstood inflation in the past year. One pound of tomatoes was $1.84 in June, according to BLS, up just 0.6% on the year.

“Both pasta and tomatoes are super inexpensive,” Moncel said. “So if you adjust those ratios, it’s only gonna save you a couple of cents.”

Opportunities for ingredient substitution

Substituting an expensive ingredient with a cheap one could save you money. But the trick is knowing what to substitute without sacrificing the flavors.

Chefs and recipe developers put some thought into this early in the pandemic.

“The combination of cooking more and trying to shop less, along with unpredictable inventory when we do venture out for ingredients, means the home cook is encountering curve balls almost constantly,” cookbook author Carla Lalli Music wrote for a Bon Appetite newsletter in April 2020 .

Some ingredients lend themselves easily to substitution, she wrote. The cabbage family includes Savoy, Napa, green and red — any of those types will work in a recipe calling for cabbage. The same is true for grains, where brown rice can be swapped for farro, which can also be replaced with barley, she added.

Recipe writer Jennifer Kushnier said keeping the basic structure of a recipe is important, but you can substitute one ingredient for another with a similar texture. For example, for “breaded chicken breasts with roasted broccoli, pesto, and farro,” any of the main components are changeable to ingredients with similar textures.

And that provides great flexibility to integrate ingredients that are on sale. “If chicken breasts aren’t on sale, but boneless pork chops are, use ’em instead,” Kushnier wrote for an online column in the food publication CookingLight.

Improve flavor with new techniques

Ingredients are not the only way to enhance flavors, cooking techniques can also add flavors to a meal, according to Esther Ellis, a registered dietitian nutritionist and dietetic content manager for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

High-heat cooking techniques such as pan-searing, grilling and broiling can intensify the flavors of meat, poultry and seafood, whereas a very hot oven can give veggies a sweet and smoky flavor, Ellis wrote for a column on EatRight.org, a site that is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“To maximize food’s flavor and nutrition, start with high-quality ingredients,” she wrote. “They don’t need to be the most expensive foods.”

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