How to turn a cheap meal into a gourmet delight

A $10 Gourmet Meal

by James Konik

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A lazy chef doesn't have to make bad food. Though many techniques used by professional chefs are complex and time consuming, some are very simple and can make a big difference to your cooking. There are lots of quick and easy ways to make your food taste better and are no more difficult than adding salt or pepper. Here are a few of my personal cooking tips for making your food go further.

Mix meat with other things

Being a meat lover doesn't have to hurt your wallet or your waistline. You don't have to go hungry to improve your diet, just be a little smart about your cooking. Meat mixed with something else can be just as satisfying as meat on its own. The basic rule is to chop it up and add it to other things. Let's take bacon for example. A few slices of bacon tastes great, but one slice of bacon chopped up and added to boiled cabbage tastes pretty good, too. And it tastes a lot better than a plate of boiled cabbage on its own. Shredded beef goes great with spinach or mixed greens. Since vegetables are much cheaper than the equivalent volume of meat, you can save money and improve your health without compromising on taste. It's win-win!

Vinegar and tomatoes

Vinegar and tomatoes are best friends. Mixing balsamic or wine vinegar with tomatoes will make them both taste great, and it's very easy. Adding vinegar to most tomato dishes while cooking can add another dimension to the flavour, and vinegar is incredibly healthy. If you don't use vinegar regularly in your cooking, buy yourself a small bottle and add it whenever you use tomatoes. As with all new ingredients, start by adding a little, and if you like it, add more! Remember wine vinegar does contain a small amount of alcohol, so it may not suit everybody.

Just save one

When adding anything from a tin or packet, I always save a tiny bit. Why? Because it won't make much difference to this meal, but adding a tiny bit of something can quickly turn tomorrow's plain dish into something special, such as a single sliced olive in mashed potatoes or a splash of cream in soup. Little touches can go a long, long way. Restaurants do this because it improves the perceived quality of the food, and it only takes five seconds to do. There's nothing stopping you from doing the same at home.


Herbs are truly wonderful things. They may look exotic and fussy, but they're not. A small jar of basil costs $2. You open the lid and put a tiny bit in your cooking. Instantly you have better food. Stock up on herbs and experiment. Use a tasting spoon for new ingredients if you're worried about ruining your meal. Once you learn what tastes good with what, you'll never look back.

Related: How to Do Dinner for 4 for $35


If you're seriously stuck for cash, buy a bag of potatoes. Think potatoes have to be boring? Not at all. Everyone knows you can add nearly anything to a baked potato like butter, cheese and beans for starters, but the same is also true of mashed potatoes. Cold meats, herbs, chopped vegetables can all turn an ordinary side dish into something spectacular. For the patient, roasted potatoes coated with olive oil, sprinkled with herbs are difficult to beat.

Follow your nose

Only you know what you think tastes great. If you have an idea, try it. If you like it, great! If not, try something else until you find what works for you. Experimentation is key in cooking. You don't have to use a whole dish as a test. Just separate a small amount into a bowl or spoon, add something and taste. If it's good, add to the whole dish. You can make great tasting food this way without a recipe book. Just follow your instincts!

Take the Next Step

  • Get cash back on the groceries you buy. Checkout 51 can show you how!
  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.
  • Join those who 'live better...for less' - Subscribe to The Dollar Stretcher newsletter, a weekly look at how to stretch both your day and your dollar! Subscribers get a copy of our ebook Little Luxuries: 130 Ways to Live Better...For Less for FREE!

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