Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
But when she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so the poor little dog got none
We’ve all been there. It’s the end of the month, every bill you have is due, and the pay period ends on the 3rd of NEXT month so you’re scraping and pinching to make enough money to both eat AND pay rent by the 1st while still hopefully having clean underpants.
And really? Ramen noodles are not good for you. You can turn them into decent food if you have to, but that might cover you for ONE night – or even a week if you absolutely have to.
What if your budget only allows a couple of shoestrings for food all the time?
The goal is to be able to eat cheap food without suffering from a) malnutrition b) rampant weight gain or c) utter boredom*. I mean, you COULD live off ramen noodles and “reduced for clearance” chocolate cakes at the bakery, but after a week you’d feel like ass. And while you CAN eat nothing but beans, rice, and off-brand dry cereal, after awhile that gets incredibly boring too.
Also, you might get scurvy. Yarr.
So we’re going on an adventure to take you from Mother Hubbard’s to… well, I won’t say Martha Stewart, but at least happily well fed and without having to starve your dog. This week, we’ll get started with choosing budget friendly recipes. The next installment of Mother Hubbard’s Cooking Adventure will get you through the grocery store and teach you how to avoid some really common pitfalls. Then, we’ll take a look at leftovers, cooking for just one (or just two), and the “healthy snacks and lunches” part of this whole deal. After that, I’ll hook you up with some of my favorite, easy and cheap recipes.
First, some resources:
- Hie thyself to Budget Bytes – a cooking blog entirely devoted to easy, delicious, cheap recipes. Included are step by step recipe directions AND a cost breakdown of each item.
- Check out the Hillbilly Housewife’s Recipes too – while I don’t always agree with everything else on her site, she’s got some gems for saving money – especially if you’re willing to do some prep work first.
- Also, I love The Stone Soup Blog – which is really a blog about cooking DELICIOUS food, but also has a $5 dinner section and a lot of good information on making deliciousness go a long way (her goal is 5 ingredients, 10 minutes to dinner).
- Allrecipes.com is another great resource, and I like to look at their menu deals/articles on the right hand side of the page. Often it’s enough to get a few new ideas and start the menu ball rolling.
The first step toward eating cheaply – especially if you’re cooking for more than just yourself – is to really evaluate all the convenience foods you buy. I don’t mean grabbing a bag of pasta and a can of spaghetti sauce (yes, I said can, more on that later) as much as I do grabbing a frozen, salt laden entree that won’t taste very good and will leave your ankles begging for mercy from water retention tomorrow.
Under the sub heading “evaluate convenience foods” goes “evaluate restaurant foods”. You can almost always eat for less money and more nutrition if you make food yourself. Yes, some nights there is nothing else to do but call for pizza delivery, but that $15 can go a LOT farther. You’re essentially paying for time in those situations, and they WILL happen. Don’t sweat it too much, just do your best to plan for other options. I try to keep one meal in my freezer – even if it’s just making a double batch of soup and freezing it – so that if it comes down to it, there’s one dinner stocked away that I just have to heat up.
In fact, that’s kind of step 2 – once you’re looking at the cost vs. time of your convenience foods, start planning meals.
This is the part of budget cooking that I hate, and I’m not too proud to admit that I kind of suck at it. Part of my sucking at it is my desire to constantly be making new recipes. Going to the grocery store is, in some ways, a creative experience for me. I want to walk in and go OOh! Eggplants! and buy some even if they’re stupid expensive, because all of a sudden I’ve got an idea for a stuffed eggplant recipe.
While fun, this is NOT the way to save money at the grocer’s.
Instead, pick out a few meals that you like making or that seem interesting. If you need ideas, check out the recipe blogs above, as well as thinking back to food that you might have eaten as a kid, and keep an eye on the Divas, as I’ll be posting some good recipes as well.
Both SSH and I grew up eating spaghetti with meat sauce one night a week (His was every Thursday, mine rotated around). That plus some steamed frozen (green vegetable of choice) and you’ve got a solid, inexpensive meal, especially if you cook with the spaghetti sauce that comes in cans (Hunt’s is the brand I usually find) instead of the more expensive stuff in jars. Bonus Tip: If you have extra sauce, freeze it for next time!
You’ll want to choose meals that make use of an expensive ingredient sparingly, using it for flavor (like a really snazzy cheese, or olives, or sesame seeds) while being made up mostly of staples – whole grains and vegetables. You might need to start thinking of meats as more of a side dish, since meat is VERY expensive – even consider eating vegetarian one night a week! Splitting a chicken breast into two servings, but making up for it with delicious roasted potatoes with sauteed onions and some steamed vegetables will not feel like you’re depriving yourself of a decent meal, but it dramatically reduces the cost per plate of that meal.
For a week with just SSH and I, I usually plan 5-6 dinners for 7 days, with one day for leftovers (most leftovers get eaten for lunches), plus breakfasts and some staple snacks (pretzels, fruit, cheese, hummus).
This is the point in our little adventure with Mother Hubbard where I recommend that you spend $20 on a slow cooker.
For 1-2 people, a 3 quart slow cooker will almost always be enough, for 4+ you’ll want a 6 quart one. Some recipes will do better in the smaller size (I have both, but that’s mostly because I got my 3 quart one in a deal with SSH when I signed on for this marriage thing).
Given options, you want one with a removable inner crock (so you can put stuff in it the night before, stuff it in the fridge, and then just put it in the “pot” part and turn it on in the morning), and a programmable option is really nice, especially if you want it to only cook for 6 hours and then just click back to “warm”.
Slow cookers are pretty awesome, and they are NOT just for stew/soup. While you CAN make an awesome chili in one, you can also make delicious sour cream and chive chicken (cook up some rice, and poof! dinner!), pulled pork “barbecue”, and even cook a whole chicken. Because one of the biggest factors in throwing up your hands and ordering takeout is “I’m exhausted and I don’t have time to cook”, the crock pot can be a real lifesaver.
Coming home from work to a kitchen filled with the smells of a delicious pot roast isn’t bad either.
As you’re planning your meals, pick at least one new thing that you’ve not made before.
This will do a number of things, but mostly it’s to keep you from being utterly bored. Food is awesome. It’s one of the biggest pleasures in life, especially a nose-to-the-grindstone, workin’-for-the-man kinda life that leads to shoestring grocery budgets. Eating a variety of foods is important, both for your mental health AND your physical health.
And you really CAN eat well, even on a budget.
*True facts: you get more nutritional value out of food you enjoy eating. Who knew?