Eating on a Budget: The No Ramen Plan

I really like to eat.

I watch the Food Network, I buy cookbooks for the photos, I subscribe to cooking magazines, my Zagat guide is full of notes from new restaurants I have tried.

I like cooking, I like being cooked for, I like eating out, I like hearing about recipes and I really like taste testing.

This habit can become expensive.

I try not to eat ramen…but there have been times in my life when I could hardly even afford that. What was a poor kid with a developed palate to do?

I had to learn to cook at home- and not only to learn to cook at home, but to learn to cook meals that a. I love and b. don’t break my supermarket budget (and optional c. impress my dinner guests. Having dinner at home saves on restaurant bills!). As I have mentioned before, knowing how to cook is a trait that everyone finds sexy. So cooking at home will not only decrease the cost of food, but it will up your sex appeal. (Is the oven making it hot in here or is that just you? Oh baby.)

Over time, I am going to share with you some of my most delicious budget friendly recipes. However, I am not an excellent recipe writer. My directions usually say things like “Bake a sweet potato at about 350. Or 400. 425 is fine too. It should take about 40 minutes. Or maybe an hour. Depends on the size of the potato. If you squeeze it and it feels like you want to eat it, then it is done.” To spare you from my massively unhelpful recipe writing, I decided to borrow recipes from the internet that are similar to my own favorite bargain recipes. (Did you know? The internet is full of recipes. You never need a cookbook). Stay tuned, but until then…

Here are some general tips that will help you slenderize your grocery budget:

  • Beans are given a bad rap. Sometimes they stink (hehe literally…get it?). But sometimes beans are creamy, or garlicky, or spicy, or smoky. Beans are high in fiber and are an excellent source of protein. When I went to Barcelona I kept ordering this local dish of white beans and sausage. I could care less about the sausage, but the beans were SO GOOD. I passed up all sorts of “fancy food” in favor of those beans. If anyone knows how to recreate them, I want the recipe!
  • Eggs! What a fantastic, versatile, filling, cheap food. You can eat eggs at every meal. They are so comforting and delicious. They can be a convenience food (hard boiled) or a gourmet food (poached in white wine, fancy!), food for a crowd (quiche) or comfort food (scrambled with buttered toast). Excellent invention, chickens! A dozen eggs costs less than a cup of coffee and it can feed you a number of meals for a week (if you are me).
  • Think about buying and using meat as a seasoning rather than as the main entree. Meat is usually the most expensive item that people buy, but you can use it for flavor and get your protein elsewhere to stretch your budget without going totally veggie. For example- I make this absolutely delicious meal* with butternut squash, white beans, kale, polenta and bacon. The whole dish uses three strips of bacon and the flavor is fantastic. Bacon, sausage and ham all have a strong flavor punch, especially in soup.
  • Think carefully when buying in bulk. Do you cook for one? What are you going to do with 10 lbs of bananas that were on super sale at Costco? Buying bulk for things that don’t spoil quickly (onions, potatos, squash, peanut butter) = good. Making 12 loaves of banana bread because you couldn’t eat those bananas in time = defeats the purpose of saving by buying bulk. But wait! Do you have a friend or roommate who is also on a food budget? Buying in bulk and then splitting the haul is an excellent solution- especially if only one of you has a bulk store membership.
  • Bargain produce to consider eating more of: bananas, cabbage (seriously! great on tacos, in stir fry, cole slaw, stuffed cabbage, cabbage soup), potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and carrots. Frozen produce also can be a bargain. Don’t forget to buy seasonal produce to get the best deals (and the best quality produce!).
  • Try growing your own herbs. Dried herbs are expensive (and not as tasty), but fresh herbs will cost you your entire paycheck. Each herb plant should be $3-$4 at a garden store and will keep producing (just don’t kill it, obviously). I also would recommend growing your own vegetables, but as a hobbyist veggie gardener myself I know that this hobby sometimes costs more than I get out of it in produce so don’t start a veggie garden expecting to save money on your first try.
  • Make your own chicken, turkey or veggie stock. This is easy to do- after you roast a chicken (significantly easier than you think it will be, I promise!), save the bones and boil them for a few hours with some salt and vegetables like onion, carrots and celery. My best no-waste trick is to save the little bits of veggies that you won’t eat (like the ends of carrots or onions, or celery leaves), put them in the freezer, and when you are ready to make stock use those instead of putting in whole good vegetables.
  • You can avoid buying green onions if you do this. I have been doing it for years and it is yummy and also lovely decoration!
  • Cheese is the only food you can safely just slice the mold right off of and keep eating. (Is that gross? My dad told me that trick and I haven’t gotten sick yet. Blue cheese is half mold anyway so it must be ok.)
  • Freeze fruit that has a weird texture or produce that is almost spoiled that you won’t eat in time. Make some smoothies, put the veggies into soup, bake the fruit into oatmeal or rice pudding, or make a pie. I just made an amazing pot of applesauce with a few disgustingly mealy apples.
  • Generally, not wasting food will save you money. But cooking for one without being wasteful is a challenge. Sometimes I am better at this than other times. Making an effort to rotate my fridge, freezing leftovers that I can’t stand to look at anymore, and doing some meal planning can all help reduce your waste (and can give me some ready-to-eat lunches for later on, which is another money saving tip!)
  • Depending on your milk consumption, consider buying more expensive organic milk- it tends to have an expiration date a few weeks after non-organic milk (my dairy industry friend says that it has to do with freshness and shipping). When I buy normal milk I usually have to toss half of it, when I buy organic I am more likely to finish it before it expires. It costs more up front but it saves me money over time.
  • Shop the sales. If broccoli is on sale this week and cauliflower is not…this might be a broccoli week, my friend.
  • Chicken with bones in and skin on is cheaper than boneless skinless. It takes about 5 minutes of grossness to peel the skin off of chicken and it saves a lot of money. I personally think bone in chicken is always tastier because it makes the meat more tender (and you can save the bones to make stock, you clever bean!)
  • Having a party? Embarassed about not buying nicer wine and/or your sad liquor selection? Try making a crowd-pleasing sangria with some Two Buck Chuck (yum yum yum yum). Or, for wintertime dranks- mulled wine!
  • Speaking of hosting- throwing a party can be quite expensive. Try going potluck (one of my best themes was a “Dip-off” party where everyone brought their favorite dip) or go for some crowd-pleasing cheap eats, but put some thought into them. I have a killer 6-bean veggie chili recipe that I serve with a baked potato bar- including bacon, cheddar, sour cream, scallions, caramelized onions etc. etc. The topping options (which can top either the potatoes or the chili) makes the whole meal seem a little fancier, and feeding a crowd on beans and potatoes won’t break the bank, will leave vegetarians happy, and will fill up my guests.
  • Soup is (almost, unless you are making lobster bisque) always a bargain meal that is lovely in the wintertime. When I visited Paris I discovered the reason why French women don’t get fat- who can afford the food?! My hostess and I made a few pots of potato leek soup (melt butter, boil potatoes and leeks with some water and then add salt and pepper and mash) and we felt tres Parisian eating leek and potato soup with baguettes and cheese and a bottle of wine, but I didn’t spend all my euros on it. And it was SO GOOD.
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it in useable portions.
  • Lots of inexpensive foods (beans, eggs, cabbage, sweet potato) tastes better as a taco. You know what else is inexpensive? Tortillas. Yum.
  • As I have already mentioned, I have a CVS problem. While CVS is not exactly a full-service grocery, they do have some great sales on the food they do have (and most of their food does not spoil). This week I am planning to buy 8 containers of mixed nuts (usually $6.29 each) for $4 each. When you buy $30 worth, you get $10 extra bucks back. So I will get 8 containers of mixed nuts for a net of $22 ($2.75 each) instead of spending $50 for the same quantity of food. No coupons even needed! Eight containers may seem excessive but my boyfriend eats them almost every morning for breakfast, so I know we will use them quickly.
  • If you don’t already, buy generic. Usually generic brands are made by the same manufacturer as name brand so you are getting the exact same product. I haven’t found much difference between the two except with Cheerios, and I am going on the record to say I think generic brand Cheerios are weirdly dusty and have the wrong texture.

Tips I have already mentioned:

  • Sign up for your grocery rewards program and then check to see if you can pre-load electronic coupons onto your card online. Almost no effort, saves hundreds of dollars. (My grocery offers $5 off of $20 purchases all the time. That is basically a free $5 and all I have to do is log into one website).
  • Try ethnic groceries for produce. Be adventurous and look for stores that sell “seconds” (produce that has been rejected from the chain groceries but is still in great shape.
  • If you need more kitchen supplies, try Goodwill. They always have huge selections for bargain prices.

*See what I mean about recipes? This is the recipe I started with but I used less bacon, switched butternut squash for pumpkin, added some chopped kale and then served it over polenta. Sorry. Even though I can’t write up a better recipe than that I encourage you try making this anyway!



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