How to cook on a budget: Serina Huang's tips and tricks

Fish of the day: A bowl of haddock, leek and spinach risotto.
Fish of the day: A bowl of haddock, leek and spinach risotto. 

I have always been frugal. My Taiwanese mother-in-law says I have frugal ears. My Dad tells me I come from a long line of frugal ancestors. But even he acknowledges that I have lifted frugality to a new level, especially in the kitchen. Frugality means being sparing or economical with money or food. It sometimes gets a bad rap, with modern consumers wanting to be seen as generous rather than likened to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yet there are sound environmental and societal reasons for maintaining a frugal kitchen. For starters, did you know that the average Australian household wastes 20 per cent of the food that it purchases? This equates to one in five bags of groceries being thrown into the rubbish, to the tune of $8 billion dollars worth of wasted food that rots in landfill each year. Meanwhile, Australian charities. including many in Canberra, routinely provide much needed food relief to struggling families. For example, YWCA Canberra recently ran a winter food hub appeal supported by The Canberra Times. The campaign involved making a pot luck meal for under $5; I had fun creating seven dishes for $4.49. 

I love to cook, and delight in creating innovative dishes cheaply. And I put my money where my mouth is: last month we spent an average of $15.09 per day on groceries (including cleaning items, toiletries, and even nappies), which fed two adults and two children comfortably. We even had a birthday party and people over to dinner. To me, frugal cooking involves appreciating fresh and raw ingredients, valuing the resources that went into creating the food, and making it stretch as far as possible. I love crafting simple comfort meals for my family. Many top chefs and cooks have been inspired by their mothers' pauper kitchen classics, and for good reason: simple food cooked with love is always more authentic than the most lavish banquet.

Fish risotto

My Dad recently returned from a fishing trip to Merimbula with an impressive sized snapper. We enjoyed it baked as the centrepiece of a dinner party with friends and family. As I was cleaning up the kitchen, I dumped the bones into a slow cooker with two litres of water and some salt. Voila! By the next morning I had a flavoursome stock that I used for risotto.

I added fresh goji leaves to this dish. A branch was given to me by a Malaysian Chinese friend years ago, and the drought-hardy bush has taken off in my vegetable patch. You can substitute baby spinach leaves.

1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
500g arborio rice
1 cup white wine (or rice wine)
1.5 litres fish stock
One cup flaked fish
2 cups goji leaves


In a heavy saucepan, fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil. Add the rice, stir to coat with oil and fry gently for a few minutes. Add the wine, then gradually ladle in spoons of hot fish stock while continue to stir. Crumble in fish flakes and cook until tender. Turn off the heat, stir through the goji leaves and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving.


Total cost: $3.25, serves 4

Serina's frugal cooking tips:

  • Be organised. Sketch out a menu plan. You might not follow it to the letter, but at least it will discipline your purchasing. 
  • Stick a shopping list on the fridge. When you are about to run out of something, write it down.
  • Eat seasonally and locally. I love visiting Canberra's local markets (my favourite is Rotary's Trash and Treasure at Jamison Centre), where produce is cheaper than supermarkets and you can interact directly with producers. 
  • Accept offers of food with gratitude. Many Canberrans have bountiful vegetable gardens, and will willingly gift produce such as tomatoes, zucchinis, silverbeet, lemons or herbs. Generously share your own crop, and receive in return.
  • Improvise. Before dashing off to the shop to buy one missing ingredient in a recipe, consider if you can substitute something.
  • Prep your vegetables in advance. You are more likely to toss some vegetables into a stir-fry or salad if they are washed, cut and ready to go. 
  • Pack a lunchbox straight after dinner to use up leftovers. I always receive compliments when reheating my lunch in the communal kitchen at work.
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze. I divide meat into smaller serving sizes, flattening mince into ziplock bag discs and pre-slicing meat ready for use.
  • Bulk out meat with vegetables, pulses or grains. This is healthy as well as frugal.