Here's further proof that counting pennies is compatible with dining well: In a large-scale blind tasting conducted by the authors of The Wine Trials 2010, both regular consumers and sommeliers liked inexpensive bottles (all under $15) just as much as, and often more than, their costly ($50 to $150) counterparts. The same principle is true for cheese—cheaper domestic versions are often just as delicious as imported ones. For example, Jason Hopple, who curates the cheese cart at New York City's upscale restaurant the Modern, likes Wisconsin Stravecchio more than the often pricier Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Another smart strategy for eating well on a budget: Avoid paying for convenience. If you're willing to invest a little extra time, you can often save a lot of money. Always buy things like chickens and watermelons whole, for example, then cut them up yourself.
So what should you splurge on? We interviewed culinary experts and scoured scientific reports to find out. Happily, they also had lots of suggestions for everyday saves: Seven-dollar wine! Discount club cookware! Toss them in your cart and know that both your taste buds and your wallet will be getting a treat.
12 ways to eat well on a budget
Save: Many of us are trying to eat more seafood, but the prices can be prohibitive. Frozen fish is a smart way to save. Much of the "fresh" seafood at grocery stores has been previously frozen anyway (it will say so on the label). Other budget-friendly choices include canned sardines and farmed tilapia and catfish, either fresh or frozen.
Splurge: Wild Alaskan salmon is a good investment; it contains more omega-3s than farmed, and it's the only salmon truly certified as wild (a 2005 investigation found that the majority of salmon labeled "wild" actually isn't). Plus, Alaskan is the only sustainable salmon pick on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list. As for scallops, look for those labeled "dry." These aren't actually dry—they just haven't been soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate, a preservative commonly used to make (cheaper) scallops absorb excess water, says Henry Lovejoy, the founder of EcoFish. Who wants to pay $9 a pound for water?
2. Baking ingredients: Real vanilla does cookies proud.
Save: Store-brand sugar is indistinguishable from gourmet version, says Susan Reid, editor of King Arthur Flour's The Baking Sheet. Store-brand butter will perform just as well in baking as a high-end European style (use the latter to spread on bread and other baked goods). And while Reid says top-quality dark chocolate will make for richer-tasting baked goods, you don't need a premium brand white chocolate. Just make sure it's real white chocolate, with cocoa butter listed as a primary ingredient.
Splurge: Almost every expert cited real vanilla extract as one thing they don't ever scrimp on. "Never use the artificial stuff!" says Reid. "It has one component—a chemical called vanillin. That's one flavor note, trying to make up for 132 flavor notes found in true vanilla. I can instantly tell when a baked good uses fake. It's worth paying $10 for the real stuff." The right variety of flour (pastry, bread, all-purpose) is also worth the investment because it will have a specific protein percentage that allows your bread to rise properly or your cake to feel smooth. Look for "unbleached" and "unbromated" versions. Finally, if you don't bake often, buy smaller amounts and store in a cool, dry environment—flours, especially whole grain, can go rancid after three to six months.
3. Cooking Ware: A good pan is essential.
Save: "I love the basic $7 cookie sheets from places like Costco and Sam's Club," says Reid, who adds that there's no need for things like "cushion technology." Pasta pots and stockpots are also a good place to economize: Boiling water and simmering stock do not require anything fancy. And forget about that top-of-the-line 10-piece department store knife set; investing in two good-quality, midprice knives—a simple, sharp chef's and paring knife—should do it. The most important thing to remember when choosing a knife is that it feels comfortable and sturdy in your hand—brand names or chic styling are secondary considerations.
Splurge: All our experts agree—save up your pennies for one high-quality piece of skillet-type cookware that you'll use for preparations where an even transfer of heat matters, like searing meat or sautéeing vegetables. Reid claims that if she were stranded on a desert island, she'd want her All-Clad 2-quart stainless steel sautéuse pan. "It's shallow enough to fry in, but the straight sides and lid mean you can use it for stews or to braise meats and vegetables," she says. And even though it costs well over $100, "it'll last 100 years."
4. Liquor: Straight-up saving...with a twist.
Save: Most Americans drink vodka in cocktails, not straight up, says Noah Rothbaum, editor in chief of Liquor.com. "It's a neutral spirit by definition, so if it's mixed with something like cranberry juice, a standard, under-$20 bottle will be fine." The same goes for gin: Rothbaum says that some of the best gins in the world—and the ones mixologists use—come in under $20.
Splurge: "Tequila is one place where you do have to spend some money, even when mixed—it's hard to find a good bottle below $30 (although there are lots of bad bottles)," says Rothbaum. Invest in a bottle of good liqueur, like $30 Canton or St. Germain; a few drops can make any mixed drink or wine taste much more expensive. And take a tip from good bars across the country: For the best-tasting cocktail, always use freshly squeezed juices and make your own simple syrup.
5. Feel good about cheap wine.
Save: Cheap ($7 and under), widely available bottles from Barefoot, Trader Joe's Charles Shaw, and Black Box were all ranked highly when their labels were concealed. "In a wine store, the best place to start is with the wines you haven't heard of—not because wines from obscure regions or producers are necessarily better, but because you're not paying a premium for a brand name or producer," says Wine Trials author Alexis Herschkowitsch. Or look for wines from a so-called negociant, like Cameron Hughes Wine, who buys the excess from high-end wineries and sells it for much less under its own label. A store can direct you to those they carry.
Splurge: If you have an emotional connection to a wine—its vintage is the year you graduated from college, or it's from an area you vacationed in—that warrants spending more. When serving a vino that's more expensive, keep the bottle on the table and (subtly) let your fellow tasters know its value: Studies show people enjoy a wine more when they think it costs a lot.
6. Spices and Herbs: Turn over a new (dried) leaf.
Save: "I choose the generic or bulk version of almost every spice or dried herb," says Felder (they can cost as little as one-quarter as much as a name brand). Alejandra Ramos, of the award-winning food site AlwaysOrderDessert.com, adds that you don't always have to use fresh herbs in a recipe, even when called for. Especially in cooked dishes, dried work fine (some herbs, like oregano, are even better dried).
Splurge: Always buy fresh basil and parsley—the dried versions lack the evocative aromatic compounds that give these herbs their unique flavors. And grind your pepper fresh, either with the built-in device that comes on many pepper jars or with your own grinder.
Save: You can forgo organic for fruits or veggies that have thicker skin: Think avocados, mangoes, onions, pineapple, and bananas. And store-brand organics, like Whole Food's 365 label, are often cheaper than conventional versions, assures Laura Klein of OrganicAuthority.com.
Splurge: Meat and dairy are the most important items to buy organic and grass-fed (or from a local supplier whose practices you have confidence in). Conventional versions usually come from animals raised in poor conditions and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, both of which are linked to rises in early puberty and superbacteria. As for produce, Klein has an easy rule of thumb for when to spend more: If it's sweet, go organic. Pests tend to like sweet things as much as we do, so more pesticides are needed to keep them away from berries, nectarines, peaches, pears, apples, cherries, tomatoes, and sweet bell peppers.
8. Olive Oil: Expensive is overrated.
Save: When oil is going to be cooked, you can usually substitute vegetable or regular olive oil (even if the recipe calls for extra-virgin), says Eve Felder, associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America. As for vinaigrettes: Felder advises using a blend of two-thirds low-priced olive oil (the plain type, without any virgin or extra-virgin labels) and one-third "kind of nice, but not really nice" olive oil.
Splurge: Use extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle over foods just before serving. Look for a regional seal of certification on the bottle, say, from California's Olive Oil Council (COOC) or Italy's Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). Choose a dark-colored bottle and store in a cool, dry place, which will keep light and heat from oxidizing your oil. And expect to pay $10 to $15 for a 500 milliliter bottle—good olive oil is expensive to make, says Fran Gage, author of The New American Olive Oil.
9. Coffee: It's all in the beans (not the machines).
Save: For excellent coffee on a shoestring, skimp on everything but the beans. Fortunately, the rest of a brewer's paraphernalia comes at budget prices. For crushing those beans, coffee consultant Erin Hulbert says that a simple $20 grinder works perfectly. For brewing, she suggests an inexpensive French press or a $5 Melitta drip coffee funnel; no coffee machine required. Now there's even an espresso machine that Hulbert considers a bargain: "The MyPressi Twist is $150, but the espresso is better than ones I make on $20,000 machines." If all of this sounds like more than you can handle on sleepy mornings, the grocery-store brand Eight O'Clock was the nonprofit Consumer Reports' taste-test winner. It retails for just $6 a pound.
Splurge: Freshly roasted beans, ground just before brewing, are key. To ensure that your beans are hot off the roaster, buy direct from your coffee shop (whether Dunkin' Donuts or a local favorite) and ask for the beans they use in the store. Beans are best used within two weeks of roasting; Hulbert says their ideal life span is close to that of fresh bread.
10. Meat: Happy animals mean happy meals.
Save: Skip the imported prosciutto or other cured meats when wrapping shrimp or asparagus. Use domestic, or Felder's favorite: good old bacon. Reserve the nice stuff for when you're serving it straight up.
Splurge: In a recent experiment, food experts were unable to tell which ingredients in a meal were from Walmart and which came from Whole Foods—except when it came to the factory-farmed Walmart chicken. Organic, pastured chicken has a truer flavor, and usually hasn't been injected with salty chicken broth. Likewise, grass-fed meat often tastes better, and is also good for the planet and for your health. That's because it contains more beneficial fat and less saturated fat. Look for the designation "grass-fed from birth to market," which ensures that it wasn't fed corn at the end of its life (the organic label doesn't guarantee this).
11. Fruits and Vegetables: The freezer is your friend.
Save: When a vegetable is out of season, buy frozen rather than imported-from-afar fresh. The nutrient levels are comparable, and they won't perish in your fridge before you have a chance to enjoy them. Berries, mangoes, pineapple, peaches, spinach, corn, and peas all freeze well. The only veggies that don't hold up well when frozen are the starchier ones, like carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower. In the canned foods aisle, you can now find butternut squash and sweet potato purees alongside pumpkin—all good choices when winter favorites are unavailable.
Splurge: Remember the taste of a true August vine-ripened tomato? Or corn on the cob from a roadside stand? When fruits and vegetables are at their peak, spend a little extra for local, juicy produce, and you'll still be remembering those perfect bites come January. Ramos always keeps fresh lemons on hand for recipes that call for juice. "It can cost a bit more, but their acidic brightness makes so many foods pop, and pre-squeezed and artificial juices can leave a strange aftertaste because of the preservatives."
12. Cheese: Go fancy when it stands alone.
Save: Inexpensive cheese works for most uses, like cooking and salads, say Felder and Ramos. For example, if you're grating Parmesan over pasta, a $9-a-pound brand will suffice. And whenever you use a stronger cheese, like feta, you can use less.
Splurge: Choose that over-the-top, close-your-eyes-it's-so-good, $17-a-pound cheese when you're offering it on a cheese plate or as the star of a dish like fondue. "If you're serving a wheel of Brie and having a glass of wine—that's when you want the fancy stuff," explains Ramos.