On Eating Cheaply in Your Twenties

Monday, June 16, 2008

Wow, quite a response on that last post. E-mails really flooded in after that. All of which are appreciated and I promise I will respond to ASAP.

I feel I have left something out from that previous post. I want to relate to you how I actually do eat. One or two e-mails seemed a bit tetchy at me as I noted Easy Mac far too much and was a poor food lover to even have it in my cupboard. Actually, I don't, but I do keep a supply of Eggo blueberry waffles.

To be honest, I cook most every night. It's a mostly vegetarian diet consisting of a lot of stir frys, curries, soups, and bakes of various sorts; vegetarian not out of diet or morals but out of wallet. I actually keep my food budget to around $40-$60 a week plus on occasional lunch out if I didn't have time to prepare something for work.

My pantry consists of a variety of grains such as lentils, wild rice, pasta, udon and soba. Adzuki beans, cannellini, and canned black beans up the wazoo. LOTS of baking staples such as flour, various sugars and salts, and so on. Coconut milk is regular staple, tins of tuna, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and corn are pretty basic as well. Various jars of canned delights from friends who give it a bit of color, but sadly are beginning to run low. A shelf devoted to tea, coffee, and hot chocolate is one of my favorite spots.

My spice drawer is eclectic, unorganized, and muddled. From ras al hanout to poppy seeds to powdered mace, it's a veritable treasure trove of one time use items. Jars, bottles, knobs, berries, and so on litter the thing, and it needs to be cleaned out as soon as possible. A jar of rosemary from the mid-90's I must have spilled water into smells like a meth lab when I open it.

The fridge is stocked with butter (Costco), milk, and eggs. Fresh veggies and fruits purchased weekly based on seasonality, basic staples however are cheap baby bella mushrooms, green onions, and white onions. Bricks of tofu exist for pan frying into tasty little chips or stirfry. Vanilla yogurt and a cheese or two are often on the list as well.

Freezer is packed with bacon, meats from Hank if I have them (yay!), and much frozen chicken breast tenders as they are easy to portion out. My ice cream bowl lives there as well in it's snug corner. Bananas, cherries, cranberries and freezer jams line the door. Frozen toaster waffles as well - very easy to eat while biking to work (which saves a lot more money from gas and I get a workout as well).

Honestly, I eat pretty well and cheaply at that. Plus some nights I eat with friends in a little commune meal or I am fed by people who cook better than I.

The roommate however has not taken well to cooking. My freezer is PACKED with frozen foods like jalepeno poppers, taquitos (very tasty btw), breakfast burgers. Top ramen lines the shelves, which isn't a bad thing if you know how to throw away the flavor packet and work the ramen. However, he does not.

Still, like I said, I have my emergency stashes. During finals I lived off of hot dogs and corndogs, both of which I love.

I think it's completely feasible to eat well on a budget to one extent or another. Still, fish and meat that was once a four legged creature are rare here. My meals see a lot of repetition, but thats because they're quick and easy, and I'm often quite wiped out from the day. I only post non-dessert recipes on this site if in fact they take less that 10 minutes of active work on my part. I'm a fan of the throw and go method to cooking.

I really do think one can be a successful foodie and eat well and on a budget in their twenties (or whatever age). You learn to work around a budget, how to shop, and how to cook. Substitution is key. Learning how to stretch a recipe from feeding four to feeding 10 is crucial, because damn it I hate having to buy my lunches when at work. Planning an entire week's worth of meals before you go shopping is vital to ensure you don't overbuy and nothing goes to waste.

The people I most admire in their budget gourmet savvy are Hank and Holly. I mean damn, these people have a veritable farm in their back yard, plus for the most part hunt and fish all of their own meat. It's amazes me to no end. I however, have a green thumb of doom and not sure I should have a shotgun in my hand else with my attention span I'll accidentally Cheney up someone's face.

Does anyone else have any budget conscious tips? I'd love to hear what everyone has to say and how they approach food in their own budget gourmet way.


  1. When I was a student years ago, and living on practically nothing, the thing that saw me through it was making a big pot of soup every Sunday. I got beef bones for free from the butcher at the local market (this was decades ago) and I simmered the hell out of those bones. I was more concerned with nutrition at that point than taste. Had no idea what I was doing cooking-wise, but I certainly got all the marrow goodness from those bones and even some calcium too.

    I recommend buying chicken backs and wings, should be very cheap, chopping them up and making a big batch of stock once a week. Also, buy brown rice in bulk (at Asian markets can get in 25 lb bags). Brown rice is packed with so much more nutrients than white rice, and when you are on a budget, you really are trying to get as much of the nutritional value as you can out of your food.

    Eggs are a great value. Hard boiled, scrambled, frittatas, etc. Easy to cook, great protein, etc.

    I do recommend getting a pressure cooker - turns cooking beans into fast food. A perfectly balanced protein meal is corn tortillas, rice and beans. I think I lived off of cheese tacos when I was a student and not eating my whatever soup. Still do live off of them. Cheap cheap cheap.

    Jeffrey Steingarten has a great chapter in his "the man who ate everything" (I think that's the name of the book) in which he tries to live on the amount of money for food that people who are on food stamps are expected to live on. Very interesting to see his approach to eating well balanced meals on an extreme budget.

  2. My boyfriend and I also buy the bags of frozen chicken tenders - they are great for sauteeing and tossing in pasta or making tacos! We live in TX so along with those our staples are tortillas, shredded cheese, bacon, eggs, green peppers and onion. He's half-asian, so long grain white rice is common too. I keep at least 3 pounds of various pasta and cans of garlic & onion sauce around. We get pork chops and the occasional NY strip when it's on sale. I keep around half-and-half and cream cheese for making tasty pasta sauces on a whim.

    I also pick up whatever seasonal veggies are around every Monday, which is supposedly the cheapest day to hit the grocery store. We get the Sunday paper and clip coupons. We buy generic whenever possible.. except when it comes to a block of parmesan or romano; I always go quality on that and it is worth it.

    The boy doesn't eat beans but I keep black ones around for mixing with the rice, and I am desperately trying to shift to brown rice but he continues to resist.

    We've always got at least two bulbs of garlic in the cupboard, it's our main spice. I roast it often for a mellow change. Paprika and the pepper grinder are always running out. I pour Cholula hot sauce on a lot of stuff.. but I am weird like that.

    Our lazy or junk usuals are easy mac, frozen chicken wings, lean pockets & store brand frozen pizza, and Mrs. Grass chicken noodle soup. :)

  3. What are people's thoughts on the vacuum sealers sold at Costco to get air out of freezer bags? Worth it? I usually have a lot of frozen beef and sauces I bag up and I wonder if they would taste better if they were vacuumed sealed.

    With time being short as it is, my idea of cheap food is getting a 3 pound pag of spinach ravioli from Costco and eating that with various sauches over a period of days

  4. I get a kick out of trying to save money on food, and still eat better than I could at most restaurants.

    We live on chickpeas, lentils, a number of dried beans, quinoa, rice and some pasta.

    I keep standards on hand, like celery, carrots and onions, and shop at the local farmer's market twice a week, so we have fresh fruits and veggies. I ride my bike there, which limits the amount I can bring home without falling over on the bike.

    I buy large cuts of cheap meat, like pork shoulders, and roast them up on my days off and then transform them into salads, tacos, or sandwiches so the boyfriend doesn't get bored.

    I bake my own bread, make my own pasta, and just last night made an outstanding pizza with sausage I got from the butcher, and a little cheese from the local cheese shop. It was cheap, and delicious.

    We also grow a ton of herbs in our garden (because they are really expensive at the store,) and there are so many tomato plants out there, that it might be a problem come August.

    I enjoy cooking, and baking, so it doesn't seem so hard to be a foodie, and live cheap. I have to admit that I am really lucky to live on the sunny Central Coast though. I have access to a lot of good stuff.

    Our biggest splurges are local wine and beer, and they are delicious, so I'm not giving them up.

  5. I'd like to begin by saying there is nothing wrong with Kraft Dinner, EasyMac is disgusting. Kraft Dinner is very versitile and you can make an array of delicious meals out of just one box simply by adding things like tuna or salsa.

    I agree with soup and giant batched of pasta with sauce. Also check out the "day olds" cart for veggies. If your eating that night or freezing you can usually get away with half price produce, however, I stay away from half price meats.

    Also try cook once, eat twice. Making chicken? Double the saute for stiryfry, and night two use it in pasta. Saves the work and the one thing I learned in uni is that time is money.

  6. I think that location plays a big part in one's food choices as well. I don't just mean growing seasons and soil quality, although that's part of it. Quite simply, costs are different in different parts of the country. My very small budget buys more food here in Indiana than it would in California. Not that I necessairly advocate moving just to afford better food, but if an opportunity presents itself, why not?

    Also, I highly recommend growing your own food, if you can. $2.00 of asparagus seeds will grow an insane amount of asparagus for at least 20 years (at that point it usually needs replanted).

  7. When I cook sauces, batters, whatever, I freeze anything that will survive the freezer. I can make a huge stock pot full of homemade-from-scratch spaghetti sauce and freeze enough for six or seven dinners. When I need a quick meal I mocrowave the sauce while the noodles boil.

    Pancake batter, egg whites, muffin batter, and dough all freeze with varying degrees of ability too. I usually freeze half a batch of pancake or muffin batter so that nothing goes to waste. Two bananas turn into 24 muffins, but only 12 will get eaten before they go bad. But if I freeze half and bake only 12 I have free muffins just waiting for me. Theoretically they could be spooned into the cups, frozen, and stored in ziplock so you just had to pop them out but I haven't actually tried that yet.

    Buying in bulk is also good if you have room (under the TV, under the bed, in the attic, behind the sink) to store bulk goods. I watch for sales on things I know I use and buy them then.

    I also buy fruit in bulk when it's in season and cheap and freeze in serving size portions.

    Really, if we lost power and I had to clear out my freezer the neighbors would all eat very well. But it works! If I have extra in the freezer I have a quick meal so I don't have to buy pizza or eat out. I don't have to run to the store and be tempted with impulse buys. And I don't waste anything.

    Meal planning is also a good idea. If you buy something that can't keep well it's best to plan meals back-to-back that use up the leftovers quickly. And if you plan a menu for the week (or month) you can make one grocery list and one trip to market. In the long run the fewer grocery trips you run the more you save.

  8. Garret, what do you use your adzuki beans for? I've seen them used a lot as sweets in Japan but I'm not sure i've ever seen them prepared in a savory way.

  9. Planning, planning, planning – that’s the key. I am a working mother with two young children so I have all the best intentions of serving the family good healthy meals.

    I try ever so hard to have a plan of meals for the week and from there I draw up a shopping list of what I need to get. It is really difficult to stick to a list sometimes when there are specials or discounts that the supermarket/ market has that day I go shopping.

    If I can incorporate it into my cooking plans, I do get it. Otherwise it’s a terrible waste to pull out something that has gone limp or has freezer burn and not for the pot.

    When I cook it’s sometimes for a dinner and leftovers for lunch. Sometimes I cook up a storm on weekend with soups, beefy/ porky meatballs , stews – a few things that can be put together with rice or pasta or stir-fried vegetables. Then meal preparation doesn’t become too much of a rush as at least one dish is already ready to be heated.

    I get creative if I have small portions of dishes left behind.

    With a bit of bacon, minced garlic and onions, egg and depending on leftovers, I stir-fry it all up with cooked rice or even pasta.

    These days, I find that I’m not just planning to make it easier for me to get out meals for the family, but with the rising costs in food, it only makes good common sense.

  10. One of my recent, well-loved finds has been my weekly CSA deliveries of vegetables, and the occasional fruit. For $20/week, I receive a veritable treasure trove of freshly picked, organic fruits and vegetables grown locally, and always, by nature, in season. This has forced some creativity on my part, due to my lack of knowledge of "fancy" (read: non-frozen-staples) vegetables, but aside from the occasional onions and mushrooms, I hardly need to supplement my share, and have learned things about myself. For instance, I love greens. Kale, chard, agretti... you name it, I will eat it, and cook it in under 10 minutes, too! I am, however, sharing this share with my husband, which may be harder for you with your non-foodie roommate, but it's really fun, and worth looking into. http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

  11. Meat can definitely add up - we stick to mostly cheap stuff. I love skirt steak and flank steak - they're cheap cuts but I grill them quickly so they stay tender. You can use marinades, rubs, whatever. And $3.50 worth of meat can mean 3-4 meals!

    When I have time, I roast a whole chicken. That makes tons of meat that I can throw in lots of stuff, plus then I cook down the carcass for broth.

    Asian Markets are a cornucopia of deals - dried shitake mushrooms are so much cheaper there that it's breathtaking, and others have already posted on rice being cheaper. Their canned goods and sauces are also usually cheaper than the grocery (and a much wider selection).

    Last year I grew entirely too many tomatoes, so I made marinara and froze it - we're still eating it - and I made "sun" dried tomatoes in the oven overnight, saving myself a TON on those pricey little devils.

    I'm in TX too so there is plenty of cheap tasty food (yay, tacos!) but I love to cook at home, and I've been diligent with my garden, which pays off. Good luck, Garrett!


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