Budget Gourmet: Mastering the Art of Elevated Cooking on a Dime

A couple make pizza together in their kitchen while sopping on wine.
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We spend a lot of money on dining out.

Keeping in mind that this statistic includes single-person households, and accounts for all of those late-night delivery orders — according to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household in America spends roughly $3,600 every year on eating out.

For any budget-conscious person seeking to cut down on unnecessary expenses, starting with eating out is a logical first step. Luckily, there are ways to save money on food without depriving yourself of culinary delights.

Let’s explore some essential tips and tricks for mastering the art of elevated cooking at home. You will learn how to prepare mouth-watering gourmet meals while saving money and easing pressure off your budget.

Headed out for a bite and confused by tipping culture? Here’s our guide to tipping, on, well anything. 

Budget Gourmet: Save Money On Elevated Cooking

Not sure how to grab some gourmet grub without breaking the bank? Try these tips on for size.

Start With Your Ingredients

The best chefs know that gourmet dishes start with great ingredients and creativity, so stock up on pantry essentials. Spices, herbs and simple sauces can elevate even the most basic dish, so leave space in the budget for a few key gourmet items.

First, consider your core flavor preferences. If you love Indian and Mexican food, make sure to buy cumin, which is a common seasoning for foods in both cuisines. Oregano is another key flavor component in Mexican meals, but also in Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern dishes.

You can try buying fresh herbs as well as dried ones at farmers’ markets; they often cost the same as the dried version, but they provide a different quality of flavor. And if all goes well, fresh herbs keep growing, so once you buy a cilantro plant, you can keep picking fresh cilantro to garnish your curries, soups and tacos.

Think strategically about pantry ingredients that you can stretch far, but that pack a big punch when it comes to enhancing the flavors of your dishes.

Tahini, for example, while expensive, can last for a long time. Take a spoonful of tahini and mix it with water until it has a nice, thick, creamy consistency that is still loaded with sesame flavor. Throw in some chopped garlic, a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh parsley for a fantastic sauce to accompany roasted vegetables or a fun dip that pairs well with pita bread and sliced raw veggies.

Plan Ahead

With just a little math and automation, you’ll be able to indulge in gourmet specialties without racking up debt, so you can elevate your meal planning on a budget to a whole new level. Try copying the “no waste” approach honed by fine dining kitchen masters.

When planning meals, consider how you can cleverly use all the parts of each ingredient. You should incorporate leftovers into your meal planning as well by brainstorming clever ways to reuse certain ingredients.

If you’re out of ideas for recipes or stuck on how to reuse leftovers, consider leveraging what modern technology has served up — ChatGPT, for example, can be a great help when it comes to planning meals or finding recipe ideas (although it will still require your input, and more importantly, a little extra salt).

Other tools, such as note apps, allow you to store recipes and edit them as digital documents in one convenient place (and tweak them as you make them your own). And finally, grocery shopping apps or subscription services can offer you discounts or convenience.

Back to the low-tech side of things. To use a practical example for meal planning, if tomatoes are in season, you can buy up a big bag for cheap, then plan your weekly menu “Top Chef” style, thinking of all the different creative approaches to using tomatoes.

You can prepare the same ingredients to cook up a bolognese sauce for pasta dinner on Sunday, then repurpose the sauce for Wednesday night homemade pizza. Change up the spices on a simple tomato sauce and add some sautéed bell peppers and a fried egg on top and treat yourself to a gourmet Shakshuka brunch.

Try to think outside the box — even tomato skins can provide the inspiration for easy gourmet at-home recipes. Dehydrated tomato peels can provide an intense flavor punch that you can grind up and sprinkle on popcorn, gourmet fries, or meat.

Presentation Makes a Difference

We eat first with our eyes, then with our noses, then with our mouths. In fact, according to food research conducted by Oxford professor Charles Spence, people tend to think that dishes that look beautiful taste much better than unattractive dishes, even if they are prepared with the exact same ingredients.

No one likes to eat a meal that is sloppily dished out, full of brown and white colors and unappetizing visual textures. Try adding a slice of cucumber or radish, a sprig of fresh parsley or cilantro, or even a small flower from your garden to each plate. These garnishes don’t require expensive ingredients, but they do show that you are taking your food seriously and that you care about what you are creating.

Pay attention to the color palette and portion of your dishes. Adjust the lighting in the room to create a soft, warm atmosphere. Bright white light bulbs can make any meal look a bit… meh. If you are cooking for others, play with serving dishes family-style or plating dishes individually.

Consider adding the final flourishes at the dining table. Grinding up fresh black pepper over your pasta or grating fresh cheese can add a theatrical flair that elevates the whole dining experience.

Benefits of Cooking Gourmet at Home

Not only does cooking gourmet food at home help you save money on dining out, but it also provides some unexpected benefits. Cooking gourmet at home usually leads to a healthier, more balanced diet. It opens up a whole new realm of creativity and engagement, so you will be more mindful about what you are eating.

This approach also provides new skills and learning opportunities to help you grow, from honing your chopping skills with YouTube tutorials to developing your understanding of the order of operations at play in a recipe and keeping track of what’s in season and fresh.

Cooking at home can even become a lucrative side hustle. If you find that your passion for cooking is ignited and you feel that your kitchen skills are up to the task, you can try sharing your videos on social media and see if you can turn your gourmet home cooking journey into a fun professional gig.

You don’t have to be a pro to have a cooking business—plus, you can then treat all your kitchen purchases as purely business expenses when tax day comes around. You’ll basically be making money and saving it at the same time, all while gaining influence amongst your audience.

Another unexpected benefit of cooking at home is that this new skill can help build community. Cooking at home can stimulate conversations and connections with your family, partner, housemates, or friends. Food is a powerful gathering space across many different cultures and convening around the table or kitchen counter to learn new skills and experience new flavors is a great way to bring people together.

Final Thoughts

Taking your cues from gourmet chefs in the world’s fanciest restaurants, you can adapt classic recipes with a heightened appreciation for high-quality ingredients, thoughtful presentations and smart, creative planning, all while being kind to your budget.

Saving money on food doesn’t have to be a grind. By learning to cook gourmet at home, you can expand your culinary knowledge, delight your tastebuds, play with your creativity and perhaps even grow your local community and learn new life skills. When it comes to food, taking time to slow down and pay attention to quality are factors that will elevate any meal—and it can be done without breaking the bank.

New York contributor Kiara Taylor specializes in financial literacy and financial technology subjects. She is a corporate financial analyst who also leads a group affiliated with University of Cincinnati that teaches financial literacy to Black students and helps them secure employment and internships.