How to Cheat at Cooking, Not Feel Guilty and Save Money

Cooking Shortcuts with Convenience Foods

We may strive to be a domestic god/dess, but sometimes life gets in the way. Balancing work-home-family-kids takes its toll on all of us. As a chef, it's thought I must cook everything from scratch. I probably do more than most, but there are still those times when I cheat a little. My 'cheats' are not a free for all, as I remain aware of the quality of foods I buy. Some will never make it into the house (frozen mash, ready-made meals, instant gravy), as they are either too full of junk or prohibitively expensive.

Here are a few of my favorite cheats ... and I never feel guilty using them.

  • 01 of 08

    Puff Pastry

    Wensleydale Blue Cheese and Pear Tart
    Wensleydale Blue Cheese and Pear Tart. Photo © RFB Photography

    Making puff pastry is a fun thing to do, and all the effort is worthwhile. However, a leading celebrity chef turned me on to ready-made puff pastry a few years ago, and I will admit that I have never made it from scratch since. Life's just too short.

    There are some really good brands of pastry out there now. I prefer to buy butter puff pastry and always check to make sure there are no hydrogenated or trans fats lurking anywhere on the ingredients list, and I have never been disappointed.

    Having all the work done for you leaves you free to create fabulous dishes like this quick and easy Blue Cheese and Pear Tart or a fabulous British classic Beef Wellington Recipe.

  • 02 of 08

    Canned Goods

    Quick Tomato Sauce
    Quick Tomato Sauce. Photo © StockXpert

    Whether home-canned, bottled or bought in, canned goods have a firm place in my cupboard. A favorite are cans of tomatoes, which are preferable (and cheaper) to fresh in some recipes like this Quick Tomato Sauce for pasta or grilled meats or fish, or for this Vegetable Soup Recipe.

    Other useful canned goods to make a quick supper are chickpeas for a delicious, quick and cheap Curry Recipe or a bowl of Greek Hummus.

    Canned oily fish (Tuna, Sardines, Anchovies, Salmon) are a must for the cupboard. They are a nutritious food and handy for a quick sandwich, salad or pasta dish.

    Keep on eye on the cans in your cupboard, though -- they don't last forever. Here are a few handy tips from About's Home Cooking Guide.

  • 03 of 08

    Stock Cubes and Bouillon

    Pick Me Up Soup, Spinach Soup Recipe
    Photo © istock.com

    There was a time a few years ago when I would never touch a stock cube. They were high in sodium, chemicals and ground up bits of animals I would prefer not to eat. Stock cubes and bouillon powders have come a long way since then, and there are now some good quality ones available. Always check the ingredients to make sure.

    A chicken, beef, or fish cube comes in handy for making a quick soup or gravy. I rarely buy vegetable stock cubes as it only takes a few moments to chop a carrot, onion, and leeks, add a few herbs bring to the boil for 20 minutes to make a good vegetable stock.

  • 04 of 08

    Lazy Herbs, Garlic and Chili

    Fresh Herbs
    Fresh Herbs. Photo © StockXpert

    A bouquet of fresh herbs straight from the garden is heaven, but unless you live in warmer climes, from late autumn until the spring getting hold of fresh herbs means supermarket pots of forced, thin,​ and expensive weak ones. Dried herbs have their place, but when a recipe calls for fresh herbs and it's snowing outside, unless you have frozen some, jars and tubes of lazy herbs make a great substitute. Jars and tubes of herbs have a good shelf life when kept in the refrigerator, so in the long run can be cheap to use.

    Don't restrict the "laziness" to herbs. Jars of chopped garlic, ginger and chillies are useful when time is short and you want to get dinner on the table, as with this Chicken Tikka Masala Recipe.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Curry Paste

    Curry Spices
    Curry Spices. Photo © istock.com

    Grinding, roasting mixing spices for curry recipes is an integral part of making an authentic curry, but sometimes there just isn't time. This is when I reach for the curry pastes in the refrigerator. It speeds up the whole process, and as long as you buy a good, quality paste the results are usually pretty good.

    I don't use it often and have found that once opened it can go stale fairly quickly, so I always buy small jars so they aren't wasted. I am also lucky that there is an Asian shop near where I live that will grind and mix the pastes from fresh ingredients and package them ready for the freezer -- even better. Check out if there's one near you.

  • 06 of 08

    Custard Sauce

    Date, Walnut Sponge and Custard
    Pouring Custard. Photo © RFB Photography

    You can't beat the delicious taste of home-made custard sauce of eggs, vanilla, cream, milk and sugar -- yummy. It's not a long cooking process, but as it demands standing at the stove while it cooks, sometimes there just isn't the time. There are some excellent ready-made sauces available in cans or tetra-pax, which are great for whipping up a quick and easy Trifle Recipe, or pouring over an Apple Pie or Steamed Pudding.

    Throughout Great Britain and Ireland, mention custard, though, and the first thought will be of Birds Custard, a corn flour-based powder invented by Alfred Bird in 1837. It remains today much as it has always been, and no British store cupboard is complete without a tin lurking somewhere at the back. I always keep one.

  • 07 of 08

    Bagged Salads

    Healthy Salad Plate
    Healthy Salad Plate. Photo © istock.com

    The best salad leaves come fresh from the garden, but as that's only for a few months a year, it means buying it in. There are good salads to be had at farmers markets and, as a last resort, the supermarket. Supermarket salads don't really do it for me, and I would rather buy bagged salad leaves. It's quick and easy, and provided it's within the sell-by date will keep very well in the refrigerator, meaning less waste, which in turn means saving money -- how many times have you thrown away a half used lettuce?

    Bagged salads are certainly a time saver -- no trimming, washing, drying. Add a few tomatoes, onions, chopped celery and grilled meat or fish, and you have a quick, easy and nutritious meal.

  • 08 of 08

    Meringue Shells

    Eton Mess. Photo © RFB Photography

    Lurking at the back of my store cupboard are a box of ready made meringue shells. Making meringue is easy and cheap, but it's the cooking which takes time.

    A ready made meringue shell makes a super-fast dessert, just fill with fresh cream and top with fresh fruit and hey-presto, a mini Pavlova. British classic Eton Mess, again can be made in minutes with crushed meringue shells.