Cheap Meals: Good Food On A Tight Budget
- Written by Candice Elliott
Looking for a way to make cheap meals that hit the spot? The shopping trolley is one of the easiest places to cut spending. Here is our ultimate guide to saving money on groceries and making good food on a tight budget.
Most of us spend too much on food. You can still eat well or maybe better than you currently are, and spend less money.
Here are the five steps to planning, buying, cooking and storing the food you want to eat.
1. The Planning
Take a few minutes to plan out what you want to eat for the week so you won’t be tempted by the siren song of the cheese counter.
Not food shopping hungry is a hackneyed bit of old advice. If you’re that hungry, eat something while you shop, just keep the package and give it to the checker. Otherwise, you’re a dirty thief.
Or go digital. Food on the Table is a site that asks your preferences, checks for sales in your area, and sends a list of five meals to your smartphone. Go armed with your list, written or digital for a week’s worth of meals and stick to the list.
You can't save money without a plan.Tweet This
Check The Circular
If you don’t get the weekly sales flyer delivered with your newspaper, you can find most store circulars online. Have a browse through that and plan your meals around what’s on sale. Check out staple items that might be on sale so you can stock up.
Don’t want to clip coupons? Then check out Ibotta. Ibotta is an app that gives you cash back on purchases you make in places like grocery and drug stores, general retailers, and online retailers. There are no paper coupons to cut out, keep track of, or annoy the checker and the people behind you in line at the store.
Check Your Fridge And Pantry
There is bound to be some veg that’s almost past it’s prime that needs to be used up or a can of something that’s been lurking in your pantry for ages. Incorporate what you’ve already paid for into your plan for the week.
Throwing away food is throwing away money. Maybe once a month, have a week where you don’t buy any groceries and just live on the bounty of the pantry.
2. Where To Shop
Prices from one shop to the next can vary widely. If you’re just in the habit of driving to the closest big box store, do a little research. You might be able to get better deals and even better, more interesting food elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean driving across town, wasting gas because one store has two things you need for ten cents a pound cheaper than the store nearer to you. Now that most circulars are available on-line, you can shop around before you even leave home.
Shop Ethnic Markets
If you have an Asian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern market near you, you might hit the jackpot. These stores tend to be cheaper than their big-box counterparts. They have less overhead, they have less space for storage, so the food is turned over more quickly, and you can find all sorts of exotic things you’ve never tried.
Spices and produce in particular tend to be less expensive in these markets. Even checking the ethnic aisle at your regular store can be cheaper. Goya spices are cheaper than McCormick spices in the regular grocery in my neighborhood.
There is a gorgeous Whole Foods one block from my apartment that is only about five years old. I loved shopping there at first. But after a few trips with lines almost to the door and dodging Upper West Side IVF brats on scooters in the aisles, I’d had enough.
Then I found Fresh Direct, and it changed my life. For a start, it saved me money. We started spending 40% less per week. The reason? You aren’t walking past all those delicious looking things that you want but don’t need.
The other great thing is the sheer convenience. If I’m low on something, I just put it into my digital cart rather than writing on a random bit of paper I can’t find when it’s time to go shopping. You’ll also know if they are out of something you need for a recipe and can change your meal plan accordingly.
There were a few times WF was out of a critical component of a recipe, and I had to change the plan on the fly. Time convenience is great too.
Fresh Direct delivers seven days a week from very early in the morning to pretty late at night. If you don’t have a car, you don’t have to carry heavy home bags or push your granny cart down to the shop.
I know some of you prefer to select your own produce and I do too. That’s what the farmer’s market is for, but it’s admittedly not especially cheap, in New York City anyway. That said, I’ve never had a problem with Fresh Direct produce. The customer service is top notch too. On the very rare occasion an item has been forgotten or broken, they bent over backwards to make me happy.
This can save you time and money too. If there is something you buy regularly, you can subscribe to Amazon and get a discount. It will be auto shipped to you at intervals you choose.
I use massive amounts of coconut oil, I eat it, wash my face with it, moisturize my skin and hair with it. Ordering the great big jars from Amazon is already cheaper than buying it in the shop and subscribing saves even more.
In New York City these places are kind of grubby, so I wouldn’t buy food from them but I know some of the chain stores are nicer and they sell groceries, some of them familiar brand names. The dollar stores, even the skanky ones are great for cleaning products, again, name brands are available.
Now you’re in the store, and you’ve armed yourself with your plan and list. Remember, be an LMM Shopping Sniper, follow the steps below and get in an out in ninja time.
Buy In Bulk
But only when it makes sense. Don’t buy ten boxes of macaroni and cheese if you don’t like it just because it’s on special. If there is something you eat a lot of and that stores well, buy up a lot of it.
Check the bulk bins for things like grains, legumes, and spices. The cost is usually less, and you can buy exactly how much you need. If you do buy large quantities of these items, make sure to properly store them so no creepy crawlies get to them before you can use them up. I store these kinds of dry goods in canning jars.
Cut Your Own
Those little cling film wrapped trays of already chopped onion, carrots, or celery are convenient, but they are much more expensive than buying the whole vegetables and then cutting them yourself. I don’t believe people are so lazy or busy that they can’t take fifteen minutes to chop up some vegetables. It’s relaxing, almost meditative. Put on a pod-cast (LMM) or some music, grab a glass of wine and get to chopping.
The same with pre-shredded cheese. It’s satisfying to watch a block of cheese turn into hundreds of little ribbons. And I will slap you if you buy already chopped garlic! Garlic has all kinds of health benefits but not once it’s been sitting in a jar for months.
It also loses most of its flavor marinating in that little jar. Buy the whole head, take a clove, smash it with the flat side of a knife and let it sit for ten minutes. This activates all the good for you compounds and makes it a breeze to peel. Then just chop it up. Easy, cheaper, and better for you.
“Your diet is a bank account. Good food choices are good investments.” Bethenny Frankel
Buy In Bags
Don’t hit me! I’m not telling you to buy pre-packaged food. What I mean is if you have the choice of buying things like apples, lemons, or onions in a bag rather than piece by piece, the bagged ones are cheaper. If you’re not sure, stick the bag on the scale and compare it to the same number of the loose produce items.
Buy Less Meat
Far be it from me to tell you to go vegetarian or worse yet, vegan, the Hezbollah wing of vegetarianism. I eat paleo, so I eat plenty of meat. But it is expensive, particularly if you follow paleo tenets of grass-fed, pastured meat.
But I don’t eat huge portions at a sitting. If you aren’t working out on a regular basis and trying to build muscle, you can get away with eating less meat. When I make a stir-fry, it’s 80% veg and 20% meat. If I eat a steak, it’s about a four-ounce portion, not the whole twenty-eight-ounce hunk of meat. Think of meat more as a flavoring or a condiment and you will use less.
Some love it some hate it but if you want to make cheap meals, save money and be healthy, you have to do it. And no one is charmed by the person who claims to be unable even to boil water. A lack of ability to feed yourself is not a sought-after attribute in a grown ass person.
If you have a slow cooker, this is especially easy because it can take a large, tough (and therefore cheap) cut of meat like pork butt and turn it into pounds of fork-tender protein. Even if you don’t have a slow cooker, you can still make big pots of soup, stew, or chili.
It takes the same amount of time to prepare two servings of something as it does eight and the same amount of clean up. The extra food can be portioned out for lunches or frozen for dinner on the nights you’re not up to cooking.
So you made that slow cooker pork, and now you have pounds of it. You don’t want to eat pulled pork sandwiches all week (or maybe you do if you’re from the South). You can transform one dish into lots of other things.
Pulled pork tacos, shredded up on top of lettuce for a salad, thrown into a pot of beans for bean soup, scrambled up with eggs for a double dose of protein. Just change the side dishes you serve with each meal, and it will seem brand new. Bam, you got yourself a cheap meal!
Now that you love chopping vegetables, you have lots of skins, tops, ends, and fronds. Those aren’t trash! Save them in a plastic bag in the freezer until you have a bag full. Put them into a big pot of water or a slow cooker full of water and let it simmer for a few hours. Free vegetable stock!
If you also save bones from meat, you can add them and make bone broth which is ridiculously good for you. If I’m making bone broth, I let it simmer in the slow cooker for three days. It extracts all of the marrow and the gelatin from the bones which is good for your bones.
You can use your stock to make soup, to make risotto, or as the base for a stew. In the winter it’s good just to drink hot tea. There are some scraps you shouldn’t add to broth, tomato and cruciferous will give it a yucky taste. I like my stock dark which you achieve with onion peels. If you prefer a lighter, clearer, stock you can leave those out.
Bacon grease is something else you should never throw away. If you cook eggs or roast vegetables in bacon grease, they will taste divine. Even the most ardent veggie hater will love broccoli, and Brussels sprouts roasted in bacon fat. And don’t believe all the hoo haa about fat being bad for you. That is a lie, and it’s making people sick and fat. Here is a good article explaining this killer myth away.
Grow Or Re-Grow Your Own
I know not everyone has room for a garden, but can you spare a window sill for a few little pots of herbs? They are so much cheaper than buying fresh and more potent than buying dried. Herbs will add a lot of health benefits and a lot of flavor to your meals.
You can use more than the leafy portion too. If you have something that has stems, like parsley, chop the stems up fine and add them to the dish, less waste, more flavor. Use the leafy part to finish the dish. Delicate herbs like parsley and cilantro wilt and turn an unappealing color when cooked for too long.
If you have a bit more room and ambition, you can re-grow some foods from scraps. This book will show you how to re-grow sixty-eight things from what otherwise would have been trash (or put into your stock bag). Potatoes, celery, squash, even avocados. Free guacamole!
5. Make It Last
It’s so frustrating when you’re trying to save money or eat healthier, and some of the food you buy goes bad before you had a chance to use it. With just a few tricks, you can significantly extend the life of what your hard earned money paid for.
If you didn’t listen to what I told you above and are buying fresh herbs, store them as you would cut flowers. Put them upright in a glass of water and store them in the fridge. For oily herbs like thyme, you can hang them in a dry spot like the pantry, and they will list for several weeks, even a few months.
If you are growing your own herbs, your crop might be more than you can use in a short amount of time. Chop them up and put them into ice cube trays you’ve filled with olive oil. Freeze them and then pop the cubes into freezer bags and freeze. In the dead of winter when you’re missing the fresh taste herbs bring to cooking, you’ll have summer’s bounty in your freezer.
I love berries, especially black raspberries from the farmer’s market but blueberries and strawberries as well. The problem is, the farmer’s market ones are bred for taste, not for looks, longevity or portability. So the market ones mold very, very quickly.
I was having that problem this summer and Google is kind to those in need. Fill a big bowl or soup pot with one part white or cider vinegar and ten parts water. Let the berries soak for about 5 minutes, and pour them into a colander. Line the counter with some paper towels and pour the berries out to dry. Once they’re dry, put them in something like a flat baking dish, so they’re in one layer. They will last nearly a week this way.
This one is easy. Break the bananas away from the bunch and wrap each stem in cling film. Bananas release ethylene gas to ripen themselves, and most of it is released via the stem. They will last a few more days this way. If you still can’t get to them before they go a bit squishy, you can use them to make banana bread or banana pudding. You can also freeze them, peels removed, and throw them into smoothies.
Ginger gives a nice kick to a lot of dishes and is very good at lowering inflammation in the body. But it does get moldy fast, even in the refrigerator. Put it in the freezer instead. And when you need it, peel off the skin off the portion you need and grate it on a fine grater. This will remove the fibrous strings that aren’t very nice to eat.
Wilted, slimy lettuce is gross. To prevent that, wash and dry your leaves, put them into a plastic bag and exhale into it before closing it up with a twist tie. The carbon dioxide will prevent it from wilting. Sounds weird but I’ve done it, and it works.
We go food shopping with the best of intentions, to save money and eat more healthily. Use these tips to save money, eat better, create better money habits and extend the life of your food. If you have any special tricks, please share them with others in the comments.