7 cheap ingredients to brighten up everyday meals
If you’re eating on a budget then it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and you can end up having samey, bland food day in, day out. Sometimes a pound or two carefully spent here and there will make your meals way more flavour-packed and interesting – these are my top seven suggestions for store cupboard ingredients to brighten up your meals this spring.
It’s an easy way to ring the changes; just pick up one or two things here and there as and when you can afford it. Many of them will last for weeks, if not months or years.
Sweet chilli sauce
Mix with water, veg stock or natural yoghurt to make a delicious dip, add to salad dressings/stir fries/noodle dishes just before serving, or use as a relish in hot or cold sandwiches. As long as you don’t buy the hottest version, you can also use it for a nice change in place of ketchup too. Great with a fry-up or eggs on toast.
Prices for a bottle of multi-use sauce (i.e. not labelled as dipping sauce or cooking sauce) are usually between £1.00 and £1.50. Try a Chinese or Thai supermarket for the best range and prices.
English mustard powder
Lasts for ages and ages if you keep it cool and dry. Use it to make up just the right amount of strong, fresh mustard, or add a little to oomph up your mashed potatoes, mayonnaise, soups, pie fillings or anything with melted cheese. It’s also great added to sautéed veggies such as turnip, green beans, broccoli or cauliflower towards the end of cooking.
Price: standard tin of Colman’s mustard powder £1.34 in most supermarkets.
Vegetable stock granules
Home made stock is lovely, but time is money and you don’t always have the time to make your own, or the space to store it. Granules allow you to use the exact amount you need, so there’s no waste. Add to stews, casseroles and bakes for a well-rounded savoury flavour, or use as a snack instead of expensive instant soups.
A 150g tub of Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Powder, reduced salt, is £1.70 in most supermarkets.
Non-average dried herb or spice mix
The usual ‘dried mixed herbs’ are okayish, but you could treat yourself to something like Fines Herbes, Herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning. Add to omelettes, quiches, stews, dressings, rice, pasta etc. Interesting spice mixes for the warmer months include Ras el Hanout, Baharat and Za’atar for a Middle-eastern flavour, instead of sticking with the usual generic chilli mixes.
A recent best buy was a decent size jar of Kania brand Herbes de Provence in Lidl for 59p, or try Dunn’s River Everyday Caribbean Seasoning, 89p for 100g, or an own-brand Piri Piri seasoning for under £2.
Small bottle of flavourful oil
I tend to only have one open at a time because oils go off relatively quickly, so the least wasteful option is to buy a tiny amount and keep it somewhere cool and out of direct light. Try hazelnut, walnut, plain/toasted sesame or hempseed oil in salad dressings or marinades, or drizzled on top of bakes or side dishes.
My favourite is truffle oil, and I buy a tiny bottle once a year from an Italian deli to add a decadent flavour without the expense of buying truffles. It’s lovely added to scrambled eggs, garnishes for soups or anything with mushrooms in it. Look out for the ones with a slice of real truffle in the bottle, rather than ‘truffle flavour’.
Sample price: 250ml of Tesco own brand walnut oil is £1.52.
A tiny tin or jar of the sweet version of smoked paprika can last and last. Use tiny amounts to add a smoky and moreish backnote to soups, stews and pie fillings, or go all out to make barbeque marinades and sauces or tapas-style dishes. Also nice added to mayonnaise.
Example price: Asda own-brand smoked paprika is 82p for 45g.
Small jar of capers in brine
A teaspoon of capers here and there can take a dish from bland to special, as long as you rinse them a bit to get rid of excess salt. Great in small amounts to liven up salads and pizza toppings or added to a little oil/melted butter as a garnish for steamed or grilled fish – and they keep for weeks in the fridge once opened.
Crespo capers in salted water are £1.49 for 198g, and there are cheaper own brand versions.
I’m stopping at seven today, but there are plenty more cheap but interesting ingredients to perk up your dinners, and I might do a second post about it soon.
Do you have a favourite store cupboard item to add some pizzazz to plainer food, especially something that costs under £2?
I’ve had Colman’s mustard in my cupboard for ages without knowing what to add it to. Will have to try it with cheese-based dishes (hell, every dish should be cheese-based).
Hi Emma, agreed, everything should have cheese. Apart from maybe sorbet. But then again it is nice in cake…
On another cheesy-mustardy note, writing the article has reminded me that it’s high time to make some welsh rarebit. Phwoargh!
hi, thanks for the ideas.
my own little treat to pep up meals : worcester sauce-add to soups,stews,chilli,bolognaise .
Hi Lorna – thanks for reading! LOVE Worcester sauce too, good call.
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