“Whatever Ya Got” cooking (a frugal way to use what’s in your fridge)

When we were engaged, my sweet husband bought me a book called The New Bride Guide by Ellie Kay (she’s the Coupon Queen- you may have heard of her book Half-Price Living: Secrets to Living Well on One Income). One of the best things that I got from the book was something so simple, but so very useful for helping to stretch the grocery budget, and to learn to creatively come up with meals, regardless of whether I had exactly everything that the recipe said.

She called it "Whatever Ya Got" cooking.

The name really says it all. The concept is basically that you learn to adapt your cooking to whatever you’ve got in the house.

It’s based on the premise of stocking up on deals when you see them, rather than buying your groceries based on the specific ingredients of your meal plan.

Personally, I do a bit of both. I am still a dedicated meal planner because I find it helpful for many reasons (less stress, ensures well rounded meals, reminds me to take out the meat from the freezer, helps me to plan around what I already have, etc.).

However, I also use this concept extensively, because I do not plan my grocery shopping meticulously according to my meal plan (although I certainly look carefully at my meal plan as I buy). But sometimes, you just don’t buy the right amount of green peppers. Or you go to use sour cream for your dinner recipe, only to remember that it was polished off when you had quesadillas for lunch the day before. Or you forgot that a particularly recipe called for cream, not just regular milk.

Here’s how it works:

Suppose for dinner, I”m planning to make Slow Cooker Beef Stew.

  • 3 pounds cubed beef stew meat
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup baby carrots
  • 4 large potatoes, cubed
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 (1 ounce) package dry onion soup mix
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

As I go to make it, I realize that I don’t have quite as much meat as it calls for, I’m practically out of olive oil, I have no dried parsley or dry onion soup mix (or red wine, for that matter). Do I make a last minute switch to a different recipe?

Nope! To make up for having not quite enough meat, I will bulk up the stew with some extra veggies. Maybe I’ve got some frozen corn or peas, or perhaps a turnip or parsnip, or even simply some celery. If I really want to add more protein I could toss in some extra beans or lentils I have in the fridge. I could also leave out a bit of the liquid in the recipe so that it’s not too soupy in the end.

I’ll substitute butter for the olive oil, and of course I’m using spelt or kamut or barley flour instead of all-purpose (because we have wheat sensitivities). Oops, forgot I have no baby carrots, but regular carrots sliced will work just fine.

I can use fresh parsley instead of dried (so maybe 1/4 cup fresh?), or even some dried Italian seasoning. Since I don’t use soup mixes (due to MSG, mainly, which is in practically everything whether it says "MSG" or not), I will probably add in a few garlic cloves, some extra seasoning and will substitute the boiling water with homemade beef broth.

Lastly, since I so rarely have wine open in the fridge, I often substitute a little less apple cider vinegar and make up for the liquid with broth (anyone else have wine substitution ideas?).

The beauty of this is that you can do it with practically any recipe! There’s the odd time when I get really stumped for a substitution, but probably 90% of the time, this works really well!

Here’s a list of some basic examples of substitutions that I use:

  • Yogurt/sour cream
  • Milk/buttermilk/cream (sometimes watered down) or even almond milk in a pinch
  • Italian/basil/oregano/parsley/rosemary
  • Peppers/asparagus/zucchini/broccoli/cauliflower
  • Carrots/celery/corn/peas/green beans
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes/turnips/parsnips/squash
  • Rice/millet/quinoa
  • Butter/olive oil/coconut oil
  • WIne/vinegar/broth
  • Bouillon cubes/homemade broth/leftover gravy or drippings/extra spice
  • Fresh tomatoes/canned tomatoes/tomato sauce/tomato paste
  • Ground beef/chicken/turkey/lamb (may need to alter spices or type of broth used)
  • Coconut milk/coconut paste/dried coconut blended with liquid/almond milk (again, in a pinch)
  • Lemon/lime

What about you? Please share your substitution ideas with the rest of us!

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  1. Thsi was a great post. I printed out your list and tacked it up on my fridge. I am always running out of something I need, so this is really going to be helpful! Thank you!

  2. Hi Stephanie!
    I almost ALWAYS cook this way – rarely do I make a recipe exactly as it is written out. Plus with Luke’s dairy allergy I have learned to be creative with substititions. One thing I use in place of milk is coconut milk. I am not a fan of soy for many reasons and the taste of the coconut milk is quite nice in baking and most recipes – especially curry’s.
    Also, with homeschooling and four kids I find I just don’t have the time I used to to cook from scratch each day – so I often cook a larger roast at the beggining of the week and then come up with creative ways to make the leftovers. Roast Beef turns into veg beef barley soup, recently honey-soy chicken turned into Hot & Sour soup, a roasted chicken turns into fajits or tetrazini (dairy free of course).
    And if I’m really honest, often I “use what I have” because I really don’t like shopping and it’s a way of delaying the inevitable =D.
    I am really enjoying your blog and have already gleaned so much from you!

  3. Well you’ve encouraged me to be more creative! For a while I’ve been venturing out a little and playing around with substitutions, but this is a great resource! Thanks so much!

  4. I wouldn’t say I play this game with regularity, but I am planning to make chili tomorrow, and I have a half-jar of spaghetti sauce I’m going to throw in for good measure so it doesn’t spoil.

    I often use applesauce instead of oil when I make a cake mix though. ‘Specially for brownies. yum.

  5. This is exactly the way my mom taught me to cook… use a recipe as a guide, and adapt it to whatever is in your pantry/fridge. It really confused my husband when we were first married, but now he just laughs about my cooking methods. 🙂

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