Food on the Cheap

Once upon a time, I made a rash, but good, decision. I decided that I really wanted to live near my university instead of commuting four hours every day. But, I also knew that getting a job there would be hard without a local address. So, I did the fairly irrational thing: I moved there without having a job lined up. I had enough savings to pay my rent for a few months—except, oops, I totally forgot to budget for the other costs of living! Like food.

Food is kind of a big deal so I did some research, looked at basic nutrition, and then bought what was the cheapest. This was not at the “nice” grocery store with the nut bar and open bins of nutritional yeast and gluten-free oatmeal. This was at Grocery Outlet or Food Maxx. This was the “ethnic” Mexican, Vietnamese, or Indian market. This was the last half hour of the farmer’s market when the person behind the table wants to get rid of the last bag of oranges.

I took a notebook with me and, over a couple of shopping trips, saw what was cheapest and weighed that against my personal needs. For example, I find large grocery stores very overwhelming, so I get some stuff at Trader Joe’s that is the same price almost everywhere: milk, eggs, butter, bread, frozen vegetables—even organics, if I wanted them. I’m not including prices because they vary widely, and the best thing to do is compare prices at whatever is local to you!

In an attempt to balance my nutrition, I tried to have a carb, protein, and vegetable or fruit with every meal. For breakfast: hot rice pudding and fruit, or toast and an egg with frozen sautéed spinach, or just some oatmeal and brown sugar if I was feeling especially lazy. The oatmeal packets at the store are ridiculously easy to recreate. Lunch or dinner was maybe Spanish rice (rice, spices, canned tomatoes) and bean tacos, lentil and rice soup, black bean burgers, homemade French fries, pudlas, or stir-fry.

The Staples for a Cheap Kitchen

When I was living on the cheap, I filled my pantry with basic staples in bulk because they will spoil the slowest!

  • Dry rice
  • Dry lentils
  • Dry beans
  • Other dried goods (oats, bulgur, etc.)
  • Large bagged spices

I found that the following brought a lot more variety into my meals, so I bought as much as half my freezer and cupboards could hold! Discount and bulk stores, for the win!

  • Flour
  • White/Brown Sugar
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Frozen, dried or canned fruit and vegetables
  • Olive oil for cooking
  • Bouillon Cubes
  • Tofu
  • Eggs

Since we all have our own preferences and dietary restrictions, don’t feel limited because you can’t follow my examples above.  There are a lot of cheap alternatives for you to consider when stocking your own cheap kitchen:

  • Bulk Tea (instead of soda)
  • Corn Tortillas (instead of flour tortillas)
  • Bread ($2 for 12 servings!)
  • Fresh vegetables (when in season!)
  • Coffee (because everything is cheaper than Starbucks)
  • Mozzarella and Feta (the cheapest cheese I’ve seen)
  • Bacon Ends or Ham Hocks (great for flavoring soups and stews)
  • Meat and Fish on sale (throw it in the freezer if it is about to expire!)

Did you notice what’s not on here? I considered dairy, meat, and pre-processed foods “special items” because, when comparing price-per-ounce, they were way more expensive than other protein and carb sources like beans, rice, flour, and frozen/canned produce. Except for the occasional cheese wedge or free pizza, I didn’t see a lot of meat or dairy. It’s weird, but I was so into making affordable stuff actually taste good that I didn’t even miss meat. The key to cooking deliciously on the cheap is spices, spices, spices. I experimented with what I liked and started to add it to everything!

All this dried food requires a lot of cooking. I learned that it’s best to soak beans overnight to soften them, lessen gastrointestinal issues, and decrease cooking time! I just put some beans in a bowl, cover with water, and let them sit overnight. The next day, simmer until soft. I then discovered that it’s prudent to invest in a rice cooker if you like rice, and a crockpot if you hate standing over a stove. These meals usually come out to be cheaper per serving than frozen or boxed meals, and way more nutritious. It makes sense to try to safeguard your health when you can, because hospital bills in the future are definitely not frugal!

If you do like farmers’ markets, vendors usually lower their prices or are much more willing to haggle during the last half hour. They often don’t have long-term storage for their produce, so it’s better for them to get rid of it before it spoils. If you can pick from multiple markets, try them all, especially the ones in the less swanky parts of town: honestly, I’ve found the prices are much better there. I’ve seen the same vendors at multiple locations, and their lowest prices are usually in cities and more working-class parts of town, not the suburbs or the ladies-who-brunch neighborhoods.

I hope this article gives you some insight into eating cheaply without resorting to McDonald’s and Top Ramen! Some great resources with tips and recipes I’ve found include Budget Bytes, Broke Ass Gourmet, and Poor Girl Eats Well. If you’ve got any of your own suggestion, share them in the comments. Bon appétit!

Photo by Sara Slattery

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