Mandy Lee is an expert at using cooking as a means for escape. The food blogger behind the award-winning site Lady and Pups recently released her first cookbook, "The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors."
In the book, Lee offers a deeply personal account of how she used cooking to cope with her anger over her relocation from New York to Beijing, and she shares the recipes she came up with along the way.
But for Lee, "escaping" doesn't require extravagant recipes and expensive ingredients: "Although unnecessary, I live as if I'm on student loans. There is in fact a chapter in my book ... riddled with nonsensical things I eat on a daily basis as if they're scraped off of the floors of leftover pantries. And the trick is ... I actually love eating cheap foods. In fact, I prefer it."
Here are some of her favorite ways to save money on food without sacrificing flavor — and her recipe for "Fast and Furious Carbonara," a flavorful dish that will run you just $2 per serving and includes Lee's go-to homemade condiments.
When it comes to saving money on food, the secret sauce is in fact the sauce, says Lee. "Always keep a few jars of high-impact condiments like chili oil, chili sauces, or spice mixtures that will bring anything you're cooking to the next level," she suggests.
The condiments Lee suggests using are more complex than your average ketchup or mustard, but they're just as accessible, and just as delicious: "The mindset that expensive food equals better foods is absolutely untrue."
To enhance inexpensive ingredients, Lee says she tops cheap noodles with chili oil and adds Spam to avocado toast. She dresses canned sardines in herbs and ginger and serves them over rice.
You can save even more on condiments if you make them yourself, Lee says. Buy a spice grinder: "Freshly ground spices are tastier and cheaper than store-bought."
You can use a coffee grinder, that costs around $14, to grind any whole spices to save money. Take pepper: Whole peppercorns cost $2.69 for 8 ounces. The same amount of store ground pepper costs $8, and it's not nearly as flavorful, Lee says. Just make sure you don't grind your coffee in the same machine as your spices, since you wouldn't want your coffee tasting like curry.
Grind your own coffee, too, though, for "huge savings," she says. "It will blow your mind in the long run."
Another way to save is by letting go of your ego. When it comes to bargain shopping, Lee says she has no shame. "I'm known to have lingered in supermarkets for 30 minutes just to wait for the sashimi to go on sale during dinner time."
You can save big by buying food close to its expiration date, says Lee. "I don't shy away from items in the supermarkets that are discounted because they are a few days away from their best-before date. In my experience, these foods are still perfectly fresh to eat and often times 30% to 50% cheaper than their original pricing."
Indeed, ignoring some expiration dates altogether can save you "a ton of money," Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of the grocery chain Mom's Organic Market, told Grow last year. If you're worried about buying meat that's close to its best-by date, use your nose, he suggests. If it's bad, it will smell rancid. "It's that simple," Nash says.
Try going to the grocery store a few hours before closing time, since that is when the store will likely slash prices on items that will expire the next day. Wednesday is the best day of the week to bargain shop, since new food shipments are delivered on Tuesday night. That prompts grocery stores to discount foods that are close to expiring, according to Reader's Digest.
And if your almost expired food needs to be cooked right when you get home from the store, even better, Lee says. Cook whatever you just bought and make delicious meals you can eat for the next few days. "I love, love, leftovers," she says. "In some case, even more so than the first meal."