Over the past seven or eight years, during which time I have ranged from Kinda Poor to Extremely Poor, I have learned a LOT about what is cheap, what is tasty, and good ways to maximize the cheapness and tastiness of my food without spending hours slaving away in the kitchen. I’ve learned tons of tricks, which I will post about here as they come up. But let’s start with seven basic general strategies for eating well on a budget:
1. Eat cheap foods.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but it actually runs counter to the way many of us think about cooking. Cookbooks and cooking shows on TV tend to focus on fancy recipes for froofy meals full of relatively expensive ingredients – huge chunks of meat, olives, capers, expensive cheeses, etc. These meals are great, if you can afford them, but they cost WAY too much for everyday budget eating. To cook well on a budget, you need to think outside of the cookbook/cooking show box. Look for recipes that feature mainly cheap ingredients, with more expensive ingredients used as accents – dishes that are mainly comprised of different types of legumes (beans, peas, lentils), grains (rice, barley, wheat breads, quinoa, etc.), and/or eggs, and that use more expensive ingredients like meat, cheeses, and out-of-season produce to accentuate flavors. These dishes are going to be a ton cheaper than recipes that start with, “Braise and season a seven pound leg of lamb.”
2. Minimize your packaged/processed foods consumption.
In general, packaged and processed foods are a LOT more expensive than their unpackaged/unprocessed alternatives or nutritional equivalents. Canned beans cost two-to-three times as much as dried beans. Premade canned sauces (such as alfredo or those jarred Indian curry sauces) cost a ton more than making the same sauces from scratch. Meat substitutes such as seitan, tempeh, or meatless burgers are outrageous compared to beans, lentils, and eggs. And don’t even get me started on those little serving-size packages of oatmeal. By buying cheaper alternatives to packaged foods (such as dried beans), cooking things (like sauces) from scratch, eschewing expensive items (such as meat alternatives) in favor of their nutritional equivalents, and generally avoiding “convenience” foods, you can save a ton of money.
However, there are obviously areas where this doesn’t apply or isn’t realistic. Condiments, for one – no one wants to make their own ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc. And pasta – you can make your own, but wow, it’s a pain, and packaged pasta isn’t actually that expensive anyway. I bake my own bread (more on this some other time) but the process of doing so is too inconvenient for a lot of people with hectic schedules.
A good rule of thumb is to buy packaged/processed foods when there will be a significant benefit in time savings or convenience, and to avoid them otherwise.
3. Buy in bulk.
By “bulk”, I mean bulk bins, where you can buy as little or as much of something as you want. (I do not mean that you should buy a 50 pound bag of ketchup at Costco.) Bulk bins mostly contain foods that are cheap and unprocessed, and have the additional advantage of allowing you to only purchase as much as you need, which saves you from having to pay for food that you will ultimately end up throwing out. Another plus is that in stores with a really wide selection of bulk items, things that might otherwise be considered exotic or specialty goods tend to be available for much less than if packaged. For example, I can buy things like quinoa for a reasonable price at my food co-op (in Minneapolis) because I can buy it in bulk, whereas my mother, whose local grocery store (outside of Denver) lacks bulk bins, has to pay twice as much for a froofy little bag of it.
Unfortunately, bulk bins aren’t available everywhere, which is a shame. Here in Minneapolis, food co-ops are so widespread that conventional grocery stores like Rainbow have had to offer bulk sections as well, just to compete, but I haven’t seen this elsewhere. Whole Foods tends to have a good bulk selection, but a lot of it is organic (which is great if you want to pay the premium for that, but not if you don’t). If you don’t have access to a bulk section, you can still reap some of the benefits by buying things like beans, lentils, and rice, which tend to be sold packaged at bulk-level prices at most grocery stores. (Or, if you live near a store serving any kind of immigrant community, you can often find huge bags of these things for even cheaper.)
4. Establish staples.
One way to cut down on food costs is to establish a set of staples that you cook with often. This goes for everything from legumes and grains (if you don’t have access to bulk purchasing, that is), to oils, vinegars, spices, etc. Costs can add up when you’re having to purchase a new, exotic type of lentil or spice every time you shop. You can solve this problem by starting with a core set of general ingredients, and gradually building up a collection of these things over time. However, keep in mind that many items have a relatively short shelf life, and thus, have to be consumed within this time span. Spices, for example, only last for six months or so. (For the record, I have used spices far older than this in order to not have to buy new, with no ill effects apart from dulled flavor, but many foods contain volatile oils that go rancid over time, after which they are no longer safe to eat.)
5. Eat satisfying/filling foods.
I find it odd that in our weight-obsessed society, foods are rarely assessed on whether or not they are satisfying or filling. Here’s the deal: foods that are high in the sorts of things your body needs are less likely to leave you feeling hungry for more. Foods that are low in these things do not satisfy your hunger as readily. By eating foods that are nutritious and, therefore, satisfying and filling, you can reduce the amount you eat, and thus, the amount you spend on food. (And as a bonus, you might even lose weight this way.)
I’ve noticed two types of ingredients that tend to make a huge difference in how filling or satisfying I find a dish: fats and whole grains. I’ve noticed over time that adding even a small amount of fat to something that I would ordinarily eat without any (such as oatmeal) makes a HUGE difference in how good it tastes, how satisfying it is, and how long I am full afterwards. As for whole grains, I also notice a substantial difference in how I feel after eating the same kind of food made with whole versus refined grains – whole wheat bread versus white, for example, or brown rice versus white.
I have a LOT more to say on this because I think it’s an incredibly important point that seems to be absent from modern nutritional wisdom, but I will save it for another post.
As already noted in my first post about the CNN article on trying to eat on $30/week, you’ve really gotta plan if you want to eat well on a budget. You cannot just go to the store and put random crap in your cart and hope it all comes out okay. (Pardon my snark. I am assuming that most people instinctively get this, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to say it anyway.) Planning a weekly menu does not have to be a big production – it can be as easy as doing some recipe searches online and picking out as many as you need to get you through the week. I like to plan dinners that are large enough to provide me with enough leftovers for one or more lunches, as this saves me the trouble of having to plan lunch items as well. If you’re the kind of person who really likes to plan, you can go further by picking recipes that use some of the same ingredients that might otherwise go to waste (such as parsley and cilantro – why must we buy so much of it at once??? But if you can pick out several dishes in a week that call for parsley, none of it will go to waste). You won’t save a ton of money this way, but you will save some.
It’s also good to get in the habit of choosing recipes based on how expensive their ingredients are. Whenever I’m looking for a new recipe, I always scan the list of ingredients first, to decide whether it’s within my budget range. There are plenty of recipes out there that have sounded amazing to me but that I have avoided due to their having one or more fairly expensive ingredients. It pays to think about these things ahead of time.
7. Splurge on little stuff.
I think the key to sticking with any budget (food or otherwise) is to identify some small things that you really appreciate or enjoy, and treat yourself to these things sometimes. When you’re able to feel as if you aren’t sacrificing your very favorite things, it makes all of the other sacrifices you might make to keep things under budget seem infinitely more tolerable.
For food, your splurges might include a weekly meal made from generally expensive products, a regular purchase that just brings you way more satisfaction than its cheap alternative (my $9/gallon grass-fed milk would definitely fall into this category), or an occasional fancy ingredient (such as a good olive oil). Regardless of what it is, it should be the sort of thing that brings you a disproportionately high amount of happiness or satisfaction relative to its cost.
So, there are seven strategies to get you started eating cheaply. I am going to provide more detail on each in separate posts. But up next – the first of my many favorite recipes for good, convenient, and cheap eating.