Category Archives: Cheap Eating Philosophy

The Question of Meat: the Elephant in the Room That is Budget Cooking

Cedar Summit Farms Cow

Moo.

I want to address the issue of affording meat on a tight budget before I get into anything else here, because meat plays such a large role in the diets of so many Americans. In the interest of full disclosure, I will…well, disclose that I was a vegetarian for the majority of my years eating well on a teensy budget. And I will admit that yes, it is quite a bit simpler to eat well on a tight budget if you eschew meat completely. However, this doesn’t mean that becoming veg is the only way to manage to eat well cheaply, or that I will never post meat recipes here.

I recently fell off the vegetarian wagon (one word: BACON), and, after a brief period in which I ravenously devoured every meat item in sight, tried my hand at some really fancy meat dishes that I could never eat before, and routinely ran up $60-70 weekly grocery bills (ouch), I began to settle into a more moderate state of omnivory. This has involved seeking out ways to include meat in my dishes (and my budget) without making it the focus of every meal. I am still very much in the experimental/learning phase, but I am finding that it isn’t actually too tricky when I apply the same principles to cooking with meat that I’ve applied to my non-meat cooking endeavors all along – basically, figure out what’s cheap and look for recipes that call for that (or adapt recipes that call for something more expensive), and use only small amounts of things that are expensive.

If you are a big meat eater, the main constraint that budget eating will place upon your meat consumption is that it probably won’t allow you to eat meals that feature meat as the main component very often. So people like my grandfather, who stubbornly refuse to eat anything but a big slab of beef or a chicken breast at every single meal, will probably do poorly at reining in food costs. However, if you are open to replacing some of your meat with legumes or eggs, and to trying some recipes that include but don’t feature meat, you’re absolutely on the right track. Read on!

Meat is expensive compared to other protein sources, such as beans and lentils, for two reasons. First, meat just straight up costs more per pound (because it is more expensive to produce). And second, meat loses mass, often a substantial amount, when cooked because it releases some of its fats and water – so the weight of the meat you buy is greater than the amount of mass it will actually add to your food. Dried beans and lentils, on the other hand, actually gain mass and volume when cooked, because they absorb water and expand, so they end up being even cheaper per rehydrated pound than what you pay for them (magical, I know). For these reasons, eating beans and lentils is always going to be cheaper than eating meat.

However, meat really does add something to a dish that is hard to achieve without it. I was actually kind of dismayed, when I started eating meat again, to discover just how bloody tasty it is. The experimentation I’ve done so far has indicated that you don’t actually need that much of it to make a huge taste difference – browning some ground beef or sausage (removed from its casing) at the beginning of a soup or stew, or boiling a big pot of beans with some slab bacon or a ham hock does really make a HUGE difference (take it from someone who has been eating these things sans meat for the past seven years). So you can reap the taste benefits of meat without actually purchasing much of it.

But sometimes you might actually want to eat meat in larger quantities. And this is also do-able, but there are  cheap ways and expensive ways to go about this.

Here are three general strategies for working meat into your meals cheaply, from the least meat-intensive to the most.

1. Use meat as an accent.
As discussed above, sometimes including even a tiny bit of meat, like a ham hock or ¼lb. of bacon, can make a huge flavor difference, and can significantly impact how satisfied and full a dish makes you feel. Mark Bittman’s cookbooks include quite a few recipes that fit this bill, as do cookbooks on various ethnic cuisines (meat has traditionally been far less abundant than today, so culinary traditions from around the world have developed recipes that call for it in small amounts). Or, you can adapt vegetarian recipes by adding a small amount of meat. I will be posting recipes like this in the future.

2. Use meat as a replacement for something else in a dish.
Recently, I cooked chickpea and chicken dish that suggested, as a possible variation, replacing the chicken with eggplant. My first thought was that it would obviously be cheaper to cook the dish with eggplant, but upon inspection at my food co-op, I realized that free-range chicken thighs and organic eggplant are approximately the same price per pound, so in this case, it’s actually no more expensive to cook with meat! You can swap one or more vegetables for meat in virtually any recipe.

3. Focus on cheaper meats.
At this point in my evolution as an omnivore, I have only the most rudimentary grasp on all the different kinds of meats out there and how much they each cost. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a lot of variation in price (I’m incredibly astute, I know). Free-range organic boneless skinless chicken breasts, for example, cost a whopping $7.29/lb at my food co-op (I almost died when I saw that), where as chicken thighs, from the exact same chickens, are $2.29/lb. Upon making this discovery, I set out to find recipes that either called for chicken thighs specifically, or could be adapted to work with chicken thighs, and this has suited me just fine. I’m sure there are all kinds of properties that boneless skinless chicken breasts have that boneful, skinful chicken thighs do not, but I have yet to feel deprived over it. In my mind, this is no different from rejecting recipes that call for expensive cheeses, bizarro varieties of olives, etc.

Bonus strategy: Splurge occasionally.
As with all things in life, keeping up good food and money habits is a lot easier if you occasionally give yourself a break. Craving a huge, juicy steak? Treat yourself to one, if you can afford it. It will make it easier in the long run to maintain a lower level of meat consumption.

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Alright, I’ll leave you with this final thought: There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years over the health benefits of eating less meat and more plants – including not just veggies but also things like beans, lentils, and whole grains. Which means that cutting back on your meat consumption to save money can actually provide you with a healthier, more nutritious (and more environmentally-sound) diet in the process. It’s not very often that life works out so conveniently, eh?

Next up: another great recipe for yummy, cheapo cooking.

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Seven General Strategies for Eating Well on a Budget

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.

6. Plan.
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.

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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.

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In Search of the Sweet Spot: Good Food, Less Money

I realize that the world does not need another food blog. The world needs another food blog about as much as I need another reason to spend time online. But humor me for the time being by pretending that this is at least somewhat of an original idea.

This blog has come about because I decided to run my mouth off on Facebook about people’s food budgets. I had read an article on CNN that reported that $30/week is the average that recipients of food stamps are allotted in the US. I bragged that I manage to spend only $40-50/week, shopping exclusively at a food co-op (which are big in Minnesota, where I live), which has a mostly organic, and therefore pricey, selection. In response to this, several of my friends made some very good points about how it would be nearly impossible to eat on such a small amount of money if you a) didn’t know how to cook, worked two jobs and didn’t have time to cook, couldn’t afford to invest in decent cooking equipment, etc., or, more importantly, b) lived in a “food desert” where the ingredients one needs to cook healthy, cheap meals were largely unavailable. Both of these are legitimate issues, and for these reasons and others, I think it’s fair to say that $30/week isn’t sufficient, particularly for people who lack time, equipment, and access to ingredients.

But this article raised my hackles. While attempting not to disregard the very real issues many Americans face in finding cheap, healthy food, I’ll say that this article does make it seem unrealistically difficult to eat well on a budget. The author attempts to demonstrate that $30/week is insufficient by taking $30 to the grocery store and trying to buy a week’s worth of food. Unsurprisingly, she fails miserably – but this is as much due to the totally ludicrous way she goes about this as it is to her meager budget. She seems not to have bothered to make any sort of meal plan, and chooses food at random. She splurges on expensive items like chicken breasts and packaged fresh tomatoes, and doesn’t seem to have any concept of which foods are cheap and which are expensive. When all is said and done, she has only managed to purchase a few items that could conceivably be assembled into an actual meal.

My point is not that people on food stamps should be forced to plan carefully in a way that the rest of us don’t have to (though they would certainly benefit from doing so), or that they aren’t entitled to eat expensive, “nice” foods like chicken breasts and fresh tomatoes. My point is that, as with all things in life, eating well on a budget works a lot better if you think about it and plan a bit. If the challenge would have been to find adequate housing on a budget, would the author have just run out and rented the first apartment she found? Of course not – she’d have done extensive research first. So why should food be any different? But because we have access to so much food, so many types of food, and so many instant, packaged, and pre-made types of food, a lot of Americans become paralyzed at the prospect of having to assemble a nutritious, filling, and inexpensive meal from scratch.

Recently, a friend messaged me, telling me that she was trying to cut back on her spending and asking about my cooking habits. She remembered me running my mouth off about my food budget on Facebook, and wanted to know what strategies I used for eating well on a relatively small budget. As I thought about how to answer this question, I realized that I have actually learned a ton about this since graduating from college seven okay, going-on-eight years ago, due to a combination of obsessive thriftiness and very low-paying (but interesting and rewarding!) work. At the most extreme end of the spectrum representing my years of penury were the two years I worked for non-profits through AmeriCorps, living on a salary of under $11,000 a year plus $40/week in food stamps. During this time, I learned to be thrifty as heck with just about everything, including food, and many of those habits have stuck. Now that I’m a graduate student and half-time research assistant, I earn a bit more, but hardly enough to live it up, and I still can and do keep my food budget to around $40-50/week (including a couple of very pricey staples that I’m unwilling to give up) when I am watching my spending.

So I’ve decided to start a blog about how to “do” food better. Cooking from scratch or mostly from scratch doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be excessively time-consuming or finicky, and it absolutely doesn’t have to be expensive.

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I really like the related concepts of trade-offs and optimization, and I think they’re helpful to keep in mind when trying to figure out how to eat cheaply in a way that is healthy, tasty, and works with your schedule. While there’s no perfect approach that maximizes all of these things, it’s helpful to put some thought into which are the most important to you. Are you willing to spend some extra time, say, cooking beans from scratch, or is the convenience of canned beans worth the extra cost? Are the health benefits of organic veggies worth the premium you pay for them? There are a number of trade-offs involved in eating cheaply, and figuring out which are your highest priorities is the first step to feeding yourself in a way that doesn’t break the bank. But this doesn’t mean that you always have to choose between easy and cheap, or quality and cheap, or nutritious and cheap. There are a number of strategies I’ve developed over the years for optimizing health and convenience while still keeping my food budget low – strategies for finding the “sweet spot”. This blog will cover all of those strategies and more.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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