At most times of the year, saving money on your Co-op grocery bill is all about the basics: shopping sales, buying in bulk, looking for deals, and avoiding those pricey temptations that can put your spending over budget. While we have lots of ways to help you save money this way, sometimes everyone needs a little bit of fanciness in their lives, especially this time of year.
So, how do you impress your foodie friends at your next holiday soirée without stretching your budget to the limit? It’s surprisingly easy, and we’ve got what you need right here at the Co-op! Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years.
Keep it simple
Some of the most impressive and delicious dishes are also the simplest. Pick one or two affordable, delicious foods that you really want to highlight and build the rest of the dish around them using a small number of other ingredients. Too many ingredients and complicated cooking techniques can strain not only your budget, but also your time (which is often just as precious as money this time of year).
Remember, simple doesn’t have to be boring. There are lots of inexpensive, interesting, and tasty ingredients that can easily be made into the centerpiece of a holiday table: from red kuri squash or tat-soi in the produce department to lamb shanks or chicken wings in the meat department, to any number of ancient grains in the bulk department. Any of these and more can be beautifully and deliciously highlighted in a holiday dish.
Keep it seasonal
The great thing about seasonal eating is that it perfectly combines frugality with gastronomy. When a food is in season, it is almost always at its cheapest and simultaneously at its tastiest. With so many amazing local and seasonal items available right now at great prices, there is absolutely no reason to think out of season. Some of my favorite budget holiday ingredients are cranberries, local apples, persimmons, pomegranates, winter squash, sweet potatoes, kale, navel oranges, and kiwi. This is just the beginning of the list—just ask your friendly produce stocker for more ideas and a sample!
Shop the bulk aisle
One of the best times to shop in bulk is for those fancy holiday dishes that require just a tiny amount of an obscure ingredient that you’ll probably never use again. Rather than buying an entire package and letting the majority of it languish in your cupboard, you can purchase exactly what you need in the bulk aisle. That’s not only money saved, but it’s food not wasted.
Presentation is everything
Now is the time to channel your favorite celebrity chef and plate your holiday dish with flair that might seem over the top any other time of year! Get creative—beautiful garnishes can definitely come from the grocery store, but your backyard is just as good a place as any to find the perfect leaf, twig, or pinecone that turns your boring old pumpkin pie into a work of art. Take a look at the food “waste” left over from your holiday cooking adventures—sometimes you’ll find what you are looking for in that lemon you used for zest, the errant spring of rosemary, or even the beet tops you almost tossed into the compost bin.
Think outside the box
Sometimes, a little creativity and sense of foodie adventure is much more important than how much you spent on your ingredients. The best example of this that I’ve seen recently is New York based Chef Dan Barber’s experiments in making food “waste” into haute cuisine. Menus at his pop-up restaurant WasteEd have included things like Rotation Risotto which features “second class seeds and grains, squash seed pulp, pickled peanuts, and spent cheese rinds.” and Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad, which includes “pistachio, damaged storage apples and pears, whipped chickpea water.”
Frugal has never been so trendy, so go with it and see what you can come up with!
Know when to splurge
The hard fact is that many times, good ingredients cost money. Usually this is because many truly great foods take a lot of time, labor, and love to create. Think grass-fed beef, which takes much more time and care to raise than typical grain-fed beef; or a local handcrafted cheese that is lovingly made by the same hands that milk the goats who provide the milk; or local organic pumpkin seed oil pressed from seeds that are harvested by hand on the small farm where they are grown in northern Wisconsin.
These ingredients, and so many more, are worth splurging on. However, if you’re going to spend the money on a super premium ingredient, make sure to do it justice. Things like Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil, Dreamfarm Chevre, or a nice cut of organic grass-fed Willy Beef should be elevated in your cooking, not overpowered. These simple, delectable ingredients speak for themselves. If you’re contemplating an expensive ingredient that will just blend into the rest of your dish, it might be a better time to be thrifty and save your money for where it will be noticed.
Here’s to a delicious, memorable, indulgent, and thrifty holiday season!