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Steak tastes and burger budget? Six tips for cooking meals on a budget

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Preparing home-cooked meals is an excellent way to save money, but eating in doesn't require having to cut back on flavor. We sought the expert opinions of two Food Network stars to find out how you can prepare a king's meal on a pauper's budget.

Substitute ingredients, keep the flavor
Meat lovers find the porterhouse steak the most flavorful cut because of its abundant marbling and better distribution of fat, explains Aida Mollenkamp, food editor for Chow and host of the show Ask Aida on the Food Network. However, there are various meats that taste great, but cost less.

For instance, instead of a rib eye, you can go for a club steak, or flat iron steak, Mollenkamp says. "Club steak is not as tender as a rib eye, but it's got almost the same amount of flavor," she says. Once you remove the gristle, it's just as tasty as rib eye and saves you a lot of money, she says.

"If you're a veal lover, chicken substitutes absolutely fabulously for it," Mollenkamp says. And using dark meat instead of white meat can also help you save money.

Similarly, if you're a fan of lobster but have a limited budget, give monkfish a try, Mollenkamp advises. "A monkfish (fillet) looks like a lobster tail," she says. Try monkfish, whitefish, or sole with the same preparation as lobster.

The same principle applies to baking. For her Slow Cooker Cheese Cake, Sandra Lee, editor-in-chief of Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade magazine and host of the Food Network shows Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee and Sandra's Money Saving Meals, substitutes ricotta at $1.67/lb. for cream cheese at $3.75/lb. "I saved $2.08 or 55%," she says.

Stretch it out
When preparing your food, think ahead to when you'll use the rest of your items — like tomorrow's lunch. According to Mollenkamp, cooking a meal over the weekend can be good for your entire week's lunch menu.

"If you're a person who likes to eat a lot of tofu, a lot of beans, or a big piece of protein like a chicken or a roast, then think about different ways to use it," Mollenkamp suggests. "That way you're actually stretching the cost across multiple days as opposed to one big Sunday meal."

Mollenkamp says she recently bought a pork shoulder and rubbed it down with some chili powder and coffee. "It was huge," she says. "Seven pounds didn't cost me that much, considering how much meat I got." Out of one cut of pork, you can make a pork salad or include it in tacos or a sandwich. That way, you're able to push it across multiple days.

Roast your pork tenderloin into medallion coins, she says. "Bread it, sauté it, whatever you like. Take those pork coins and flatten them between pieces of plastic wrap until they're really nice and thin," Mollenkamp says. "They will go so much farther."

According to Lee, putting food items on double duty can save you money. "Many food garnishes and juices can serve as flavor enhancers," she says. "Using fruit juice in place of water in mixes — white cranberry or white grape juice adds flavor without changing the color."

Basil, for instance, can be sprinkled on your main course or sprinkled in a drink, Mollenkamp says. "Herbs take on different lives in different preparations," she says. "Anytime you're buying raw products, you're saving a ton of money."

Straight from the can
While the common belief may be fresh is best, don't forget canned items such as tomatoes or beans if you want to save some bucks. "We're all for fresh and seasonal food, but we definitely feel like there's a time to turn to canned food," Mollenkamp says. "There are certain canned foods that we actually prefer to fresh," she says. Beans, such as white kidney beans, are one example, she says. "Anytime you're using those, you can cut cost and cut time using the product."

Grow your own
Whether it's in the backyard or on your windowsill, growing your own ingredients can save you money. A company called Teich Garden Systems offers the tools you need to create your own garden. The best part is, a back yard isn't always required. You can grow tomatoes on your windowsill if you have limited space. Mollenkamp notes that by growing your own herbs and corn, you can pocket a significant amount of money. (See our feature on container gardening for more suggestions.)

Measure with care
"Measuring ingredients accurately is an important aspect of saving money," Lee says. She notes that with an ingredient such as pumpkin pie spice, pouring too much can be dangerous for the wallet. "One teaspoon of an average brand will cost you 71 cents, so if you make that a heaping teaspoon you are at a dollar," she explains.

Hit the frozen aisle
Lee recommends buying items in season to save money, but if the season has passed, check out the frozen aisle. "In season, four ears of corn will run you $1; out of season, one ear will cost you $1," she explains. "In the frozen section you can get a bag of corn that is frozen at the peak of freshness for $1.99, which is roughly equal to four ears."

By eating in, choosing your cuts wisely, and growing your own vegetables and herbs, you can save a substantial amount of money and not miss a single bite.

— Brian T. Horowitz

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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