14 ingredient substitutions to cut costs without cutting flavor

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Food is expensive, and it’s not getting any better. Thankfully, there are smart ways to stay within a tight budget — and it doesn’t involve constantly eating out of a box or can. By making a few simple ingredient substitutions, you can still make nutritious, flavorful meals without hurting your wallet.

Hands grating a block of cheese on a grater, with a pile of shredded cheese and another block on a wooden cutting board in the background.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

These simple ingredient swaps will save you money, and the result will remain the same. You’ll still enjoy aromatic recipes bursting with flavor. The only difference you’ll notice is that you’ll have more money at the end of the week.

Protein flips 

Meat is probably one of the biggest parts of your food budget. So, if you save money on protein, you’ll automatically cut your entire grocery bill down. And the best part is that you won’t even notice a difference in your meals.

Bone-in chicken thighs instead of boneless

One of the easiest ways to save money is to buy bone-in chicken thighs. You’re paying for the convenience of not cutting the meat off the bone.

Bone-in chicken thighs are a delicious and cheap protein source that you can make in a variety of ways. From Alfredo to skillet meals and fajitas, the sky is the limit.

Creamy Tuscan chicken in a skillet.
Creamy Tuscan chicken. Photo credit: Real Balanced.

Whole chicken instead of chicken breasts

Take a look at the price per pound, and it might surprise you how much you’ll save when you buy an entire chicken. In fact, some stores sometimes sell whole chickens for around $1 per pound.

Then, roast the chicken, and you have juicy, fully cooked chicken breast meat ready for all of your chicken recipes. It’s an easy way to cook something once and use it over and over again throughout the week.

Beans instead of meat

If you really want to save some serious money, go meatless. Replace the meat with beans. This will work really well in things like chili and tacos. Did you know that cooked lentils are the perfect ingredient for tacos or goulash?

Even if you don’t want to replace all of the meat with beans, you can cut costs by replacing some of them. “I often replace half the ground beef, ground turkey or ground chicken with green or brown lentils,” explains Sarita Harbour of Recipes From Leftovers. “This works especially well with chili, spaghetti sauce and sloppy joe-style recipes.”

Turkey bacon instead of pork 

Fry up some turkey bacon instead of pork bacon. It’s often much cheaper and is lower in calories.

Close-up of a hand holding a crispy strip of bacon with more bacon strips on parchment paper in the background.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

It’s really easy to crumble up and use it on top of salad or as a side with a healthy breakfast. You can also add it to sandwiches for an extra layer of flavor and crunch or even mix it into turkey chili.

Buy bone-in steaks 

Like the chicken, you can save money when choosing a T-bone steak instead of sirloin. In this case, cooking and eating the bone-in steak is an upgrade.

If you’re going to plan a steak dinner, grill a bone-in steak. You’ll notice a big difference. “The bone helps retain moisture in the steak. This contributes to a juicier and more tender texture,” Jessica Haggard from Primal Edge Health shares. “Plus, the bone also adds to the flavor. Save these bones and add them to a stock pot with a few more marrow or meaty knuckle bones for bone broth later. It’s a great way to reuse them and save money on broth.”

You aren’t just saving money on the meat; you’re also getting ingredients for a delicious broth you can make, too. Plus, using the bones for broth ensures that nothing goes to waste, making your meal even more sustainable.

Spice savers

There are several different ways to save money on spices, flavors and breading as you cook. Don’t cut them out; just find a different way to use them.

Dried herbs instead of fresh

This is more of a long-term savings than an immediate one. One jar of dried herbs might cost more upfront than some fresh herbs but look at the cost per recipe. As you use the dried herbs over and over again, you’re saving money.

Instead of spending money each time you need to make a sauce or marinade, you can use what’s in your spice rack. It also reduces food waste because dried herbs last longer than fresh herbs.

White onions for shallots or leeks

Since onions, shallots and leeks have similar flavor profiles, you can almost always use them interchangeably. White or yellow onions are often priced well below green onions, so feel free to use them as a money-saving substitute.

The only thing white onions won’t do is provide the pop of color as a garnish that green onions do. But if you’re not worried about adding a garnish, use the cheaper option.

Saltines instead of breadcrumbs

Even though a box of Saltines and a box of breadcrumbs have about the same price, you get more in a box of Saltines. In fact, you can pretty much double the amount of breading you make with a box of crackers.

The crackers taste the same, especially if you crumble them into fine crumbs. Since they’re salted, you shouldn’t have to use more salt.

Chicken broth for white wine

Chicken broth can be used as a substitute for white wine in any marinade or sauce, and it is often much cheaper than wine. This swap can also add a rich, savory flavor to your dishes.

Making your own chicken broth from chicken bones and vegetable scraps can save you even more money. Plus, it’s a great way to reduce food waste and make use of leftovers.

Dairy ideas

Milk and cheese products are another money-sink. Thankfully, there are a few ways that you can make things at home or use a more affordable option.

Make your own buttermilk

Whether you want to make buttermilk pancakes or fried chicken, you can easily make your own buttermilk at home. Add one tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of milk, stir it and let it curdle slightly.

This homemade buttermilk will provide the same tanginess and rich flavors that you expect from store-bought buttermilk. It’s a surprisingly convenient and cost-effective alternative.

Grate cheese at home

Not only will grating your cheese at home give you better flavor, but it melts better and saves you money, all at the same time. You’ll be cooking with pure cheese, not cheese that’s coated with anti-caking agents or preservatives.

The price savings are minimal at first sight. If you make a lot of recipes with shredded cheese, the cost savings will add up over time.

Cottage cheese instead of ricotta

Per ounce, cottage cheese is priced lower than ricotta cheese. And they can be used interchangeably in many recipes.

If you don’t like the curds in the cottage cheese, purée it in a blender. It will be as smooth as ricotta cheese.

Sweet swaps

Finally, if you have a sweet tooth, then you can make a few changes and save money in the long run. These might seem minor, but they will make a difference over time.

Powdered sugar instead of maple syrup

Change up your breakfast routine and dust your French toast or pancakes with powdered sugar. The price difference between powdered sugar and maple syrup is pretty significant.

The fluffy white sugar is fun and adds the perfect amount of sweetness. It will remind you of funnel cakes from the fair.

Make powdered sugar at home

Granulated sugar costs around $0.30 per pound, but powdered sugar costs about $0.80 per pound. If you bake a lot, this can add up.

Make powdered sugar at home. Use a food processor to process white granulated sugar. It will eventually become fluffy like powdered sugar.

Save money without sacrificing flavor

As you begin saving nickels and dimes here and there, it will all add up to dollars. These small steps are so easy to do that you won’t even notice a difference in your recipes. Once you start getting in the habit of looking for ways to save money, you’ll create your own hacks and tricks.

Sara Nelson is the creator of Real Balanced, a food blog that showcases easy and balanced recipes. Since 2017, she has shared these recipes with thousands of blog readers and social media followers. Sara lives in Wisconsin with her family.

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