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Red Bean and Shiitake Mushroom Soup with Ginger

Red Bean and Shiitake Mushroom Soup with Ginger

Red Bean and Shiitake Mushroom Soup with Ginger, served with skillet cornbread

Apologies once again for the long hiatus. One of the more annoying things about grad school is that your brain is tired ALL THE TIME, which sometimes makes it hard to sit down and blog, even about something as wonderful as food. Also, most of what I’ve made over the past couple of weeks that have been underwhelming at best, and I don’t want to post underwhelming recipes.

This recipe is definitely not underwhelming, though, so we’re back on track. I was a little skeptical of this recipe the first time I tried it, just because beans and mushrooms don’t strike me as being well-matched partners in culinary crime, but this recipe changed my mind. (I have since discovered that Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian includes several variations on bean and mushroom dishes, so apparently this is a thing.) The combination of flavors in this soup is absolutely fantastic.

Dried shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitakes are much more affordable than fresh ones

Cool tip for buying mushrooms: Shiitake mushrooms are EXPENSIVE – $10/lb. at my co-op, and probably a similar price elsewhere. They’re MUCH cheaper if you buy them dried and rehydrate them, plus they keep for ages, so you can always have them on hand. Dried shiitakes are available at Asian markets, generally pre-sliced. Most of the time these packages only include the mushroom tops and not the stems (which are tough and inedible), saving you even more money over buying them fresh. The pack of shiitake mushrooms pictured here cost me $3.99 at an Asian market, and I used approximately 1/5 of it for this recipe – a huge improvement over fresh mushrooms!

Dried shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitakes

To rehydrate dried mushrooms, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes. Don’t throw away the soaking water once they’re hydrated, though – it contains a lot of flavor, and most recipes will have you add this water to the dish.

The recipe below is lightly adapted from the older version of The Cafe Brenda Cookbook, written by the owner of a fantastic little vegetarian restaurant in Minneapolis (now closed, sadly – the owner now operates a much pricier place). I highly recommend this cookbook – nearly everything I’ve made from it has been phenomenal (and the newer version is probably even better).

I recommend serving this soup with cornbread, if you’re a cornbread kind of person. If not, a regular hearty bread or even rice will round this out nicely.

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Red Bean and Shiitake Mushroom Soup with Ginger (adapted from The Cafe Brenda Cookbook)

1 lb. dried red beans – kidney, adzuki, small red (most boring bean name ever), etc.
1/2 oz. dried shiitake mushrooms (or about 1/3 lb. fresh)
3 Tbsp. coconut, palm, or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large leek, washed well, halved or quartered lengthwise, and chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped (optional – red bell peppers are expensive, so feel free to omit this)
7 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 two-inch long piece of ginger, minced (peel if conventional; if organic, it’s okay not to peel)
6 cups veggie stock or water + bullion, Better Than Bullion, etc.
4 Tbsp. soy sauce/tamari
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

Get the beans cooking: Cover beans in enough water to cover by about two inches, bring to a boil, and simmer until close to being done (how long this takes will depend on the variety). Add more water if the beans get too dry; however, it’s best if most of the water has boiled off by the time the beans are mostly done so that they don’t add too much liquid to the soup.

Shiitake mushroom soaking water

Shiitake soaking water

Meanwhile, soak the mushrooms in 2 cups of water for at least half an hour. Once they’ve fully hydrated, remove from the water and chop roughly. Save the soaking water for use later.

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the onion, carrot, and celery for five minutes or so, until softened. Add the leek, red bell pepper (if using), garlic, and ginger, and sauté for a further five minutes.

When the beans are nearly done (still a little bit hard), add them and their cooking liquid, plus the veggie stock, mushrooms, and mushroom soaking water, to the sautéed veggies. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the beans are fully cooked, whichever is longer. Remove from heat, and add the soy sauce/tamari and cayenne pepper. Add additional salt if necessary, and serve.

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Cost of core ingredients: I’m not including the red bell pepper here because I didn’t buy one (I stock up  at farmers markets during the summer and freeze them – I wouldn’t have used one in this recipe if I didn’t have any in the freezer because they are way too expensive in the winter). Ingredients here are primarily organic and were all purchased at my food co-op.

~1 lb. dried small red beans @ $1.89/lb = ~$1.89
1/2 oz. dried shiitakes @ $3.99 for 2.5 oz =  $0.80
1 medium onion: ~$1
2 carrots: ~$1.15
1 large leek: $2.49
1 two-inch piece of ginger: $0.54

Total cost for at least 6 servings: $7.87 + the cost of small amounts of oil, celery, garlic, veggie bullion stuff, tamari, and cayenne pepper.

Bon Appétit!

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Filed under Beans, Cheap Eating Strategies, Fusion, Gluten-free, Recipes, Soups, Vegan, Vegetarian

Beans!!! (And a Flowchart!)

Beans!!!

Beans!!!

Okay, beans!! I love beans so much that I once read an entire book about the history of beans. They are cheap. They are tasty. They come in about a billion varieties. They show up in basically every regional cuisine on earth.

They are also a bit more involved to cook than some other things, like lentils. And there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there in internet-land about what you should do with them. I have cooked, and eaten, a LOT of beans since I started cooking for myself, so I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic.

Here is the Culinary Cheapskate’s Very Authoritative and Official Guide to Cooking with Beans™, with an emphasis on doing beans on the cheap while still keeping things (relatively) quick and simple.

1. Use dried beans.
Canned beans are super quick and convenient, but they’re about twice as expensive, as well as bulkier to store, and they lack the cooking liquid of home-cooked beans that adds flavor and nutrients to soups and stews. Canned beans are fine in a pinch, but I recommend getting in the habit of cooking your own dried beans over the long run.

Depending on the type of bean and age, dried beans can take anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours to cook. If you stick with the quick-cooking types (including black/tuttle, kidney, lima, adzuki, canelli, and navy beans, all of which should cook up in under an hour if relatively new, assuming they’ve been soaked) and spend the time during which they’re cooking to get your other meal prep done, cooking with dried beans won’t take that much longer than using canned.

2. Soak.
I’m a big advocate of soaking beans. It’s not necessary with beans that cook extremely slowly (such as chickpeas and pinto beans), because the beans will absorb enough water as they cook. However, quick-cooking varieties will generally not absorb their full capacity of water during cooking (particularly if cooked in a pressure cooker), and can turn out dry and mealy.

It might be tricky at first, but if you get into the habit of remembering to throw beans in a bowl to soak in the morning when you’re planning on cooking with them in the evening, soaking your beans is pretty much no harder than not soaking your beans. (If you end up not using your beans that day, you can toss them in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.) Dried beans need four to six hours to fully rehydrate.

However, if you do find yourself making a quasi-last minute decision to use beans in a meal and don’t have any soaking, the quick-soak method is a big help. Wash and sort your beans, and put them in a pot covered by two inches of water. Bring this to a full boil and keep it there for one minute, then shut off the heat, cover, and leave your beans to soak for one hour. They will absorb water more quickly this way.

3. Use a pressure cooker and/or a slow cooker.
If you’re going to cook a lot of beans, particularly the slow-cooking varieties (chickpeas, pintos, and anything that’s been sitting around in your cupboard for ages), then it might be worth investing in a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers cook food at a higher-than-boiling-point temperature, which results in the food cooking faster. The upshot of this, for beans, is that you only need to cook your beans for maybe 20-30% of the time required by regular stovetop cooking. This makes a huge difference when cooking slow kinds of beans like chickpeas and pintos. I recommend soaking beans before you pressure cook them (even though a lot of sources say you don’t have to), as they tend to come out dry and mealy otherwise.

Slow cookers provide another potential way to simplify the process of cooking beans. Most slow cookers reach about 300 degrees on the high setting, which is plenty hot enough to cook beans. However, the food in a slow cooker does take quite a while to reach this temperature, so beans will still take several hours to become fully cooked this way. In my experience, fast-cooking varieties of beans cook in about 3-4 hours in a slow cooker; if you leave them cooking all day, however, they can get overcooked and fall apart completely. Slow-cooking varieties of beans can take from 6 to 8 hours to cook fully in a slow cooker, making this a nice option for cooking slow varieties of beans during the day while you’re at work. Generally, you don’t need to soak beans before cooking them in a slow cooker, which makes this a bit simpler as well.

4. Freeze ’em.
Beans freeze and defrost beautifully, so a good way to simplify your life as a bean-cooker is to cook more than you need and freeze the excess in small containers (1- or 2-cup sizes). I generally just cook as much as I can fit in my pot/pressure cooker/slow cooker and freeze what I don’t use in the meal at hand.

5. Don’t be finicky.
I often encounter recipes that instruct you to keep a close eye on your beans, lest they tragically begin to break apart. I think that this is the kind of finicky nonsense that makes cooking a chore rather than a fun activity. There’s nothing wrong with beans that are breaking up a bit, and in soups and stews, this adds thickness and texture to the dish. (Plus, in my experience, beans that are cooked enough to start breaking apart are less likely to result in epic farting.) So don’t sweat it too much.

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Okay. I love beans so much that I actually made a flow chart about how to cook beans. Click for the full-sized image.

How Should I Cook My Beans?

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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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Deborah Madison’s Hearty Lentil Soup

Deborah Madison's Hearty Lentil Soup

I will get better at taking pictures of food, I swear!

I love cooking with lentils. They’re cheap, cook up fast, and don’t require a pre-soak like dried beans, plus they come in seemingly endless varieties. They work great in soups, stews, pilaf-type dishes, and cold salads.

Even just within the category of lentil soup recipes, there seems to be endless variation. There are versions from Middle Eastern, Indian, and European culinary traditions, as well as modern interpretations, like the recipe below.

This is one of my favorite lentil soups because it is quick, easy, and packs a ton of flavor, in addition to being cheap. It works because it includes two acidic ingredients (red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar, and dijon mustard), which intensify the flavors of the rest of the dish. Served with a high-quality, filling bread, this is easily a complete meal.

See below for a tabulation of costs as well as recommendations, tips, and tricks.

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“Hearty Lentil Soup” from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

2 tbs. olive oil
2 cups finely diced onion
3 large garlic cloves
salt and freshly milled pepper
3 tbs. tomato paste
1/3 cup finely diced celery
1/3 cup finely diced carrot
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 1/2 cups French green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 tbs. Dijon mustard
1 tbs. sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
Chopped celery leaves and parsley

Heat the oil in a soup pot over high heat. Add the onion and saute until it begins to color around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile mince or pound the garlic in a mortar with 1 tsp. salt. Work the tomato paste into the onion, then add garlic, celery, carrot, bay leaves, and parsley and cook for 3 minutes. Add the lentils, 2 quarts water, and 1/2 tsp. salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, 25 to 35 minutes.

Stir in the mustard and vinegar. Taste and add more of either as needed. Check the salt, season with plenty of pepper, remove the bay leaves and serve, garnished with the celery leaves and parsley. The longer the soup sits before serving the better it will taste.

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Cost of core ingredients: This is something I am going to try to do for the recipes I post here, though it’s a little tricky because there’s no good easy way to estimate the cost of things that you only use a bit of (like olive oil, vinegar, garlic, etc.). So I will just take a stab at estimating the cost of the main ingredients, with the caveat that the actual cost of the dish is a bit more. The costs listed below are for primarily organic ingredients purchased at my food co-op, so the cost of this dish would presumably be less if you shop at a conventional grocery store.

Lentils: ~0.6 lbs. @ $1.79/lb = ~$1.07
One large onion: ~$1.20
Two carrots: ~$1.15
Half bunch parsley (I’ll use the other half later this week): $1.00

Total for 4+ hearty servings: ~$4.42 + the cost of two stalks of celery plus small amounts of olive oil, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaves, dijon mustard, and red wine vinegar, plus good bread for serving

Possible or recommended variations:

  • French lentils (sometimes known as Le Puy lentils) tend to be expensive and not widely available. They’re cute and pretty, but not worth the extra cost. Substitute regular green or brown lentils – you won’t notice a difference.
  • I usually add a bit of veggie or chicken bullion when I add the water, for a bit more flavor.
  • I really like my foods acidic, so I tend to double the vinegar and mustard – I find it kicks up the flavor a bit.
  • Regular yellow mustard would work fine here if you don’t want to buy a separate mustard. However, I wouldn’t recommend using other vinegars. Double the mustard if you don’t have red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar and don’t want to buy it.
  • Increase the lentils to 1 3/4 – 2 cups for a heartier, more filling soup-stew.

Tips and tricks:

  • Celery will actually keep for several weeks to a month in the crisper, if you’re willing to cut out a couple bad bits here and there, so you can use the same bunch for many meals.
  • Freeze leftover tomato paste in tablespoon-sized blobs (I put them on a plastic plate, and then move them into a ziploc bag once frozen) to avoid having to purchase a brand new can every time you cook with tomato paste.

Bon Appétit!

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Filed under Gluten-free, Lentils, Recipes, Soups, Vegan, Vegetarian

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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