I get a lot of comments and questions from friends, family, and readers in general on all the recipes and dining that goes on around here and I feel really fortunate that most of those are positive. But every once in a while I get the inevitable money and time questions. How can we afford to eat the way we do? How do we have time to cook meals just about every night? I work – a lot - and even though my husband works from home, he spends the majority of his day crunching out digital models on the computer under the gun of an east coast deadline. We. Are. Busy.
The truth is that at face value, home-cooked meals can seem like the realm of the elite foodie with flexible hours. I’ve been reading a lot of studies that cite the price of organic and healthy fruits and vegetables, the problem with affordable transportation, and the amount of prep time a healthy dinner can take.
However, eating fresh and healthy food doesn’t have to be a luxury. You can eat healthfully and well on a budget, without having it devour all your time! Healthy, natural food has never been more available, both in variety and in price. And food doesn’t have to be full of luxury ingredients or exotically prepared to be good.
Here are just a few tips and tricks I’ve learned – from being a creative gourmand who is definitely, thanks to paying off debt and loans and trying to renovate a house for sale, on a budget!
1. Meal plans are your friend!
If you don’t learn how to do anything else on this list, learn how to make a good solid meal plan. There are plenty of apps that can help you with this, but really you can just do it with a calendar. I do our meal plan in a free calendar our insurance company sent us. Still, when you plan your meals out, you put more thought into what you’re eating, make sure you get good nutritional variety, and save money at the grocery store – both because you’re not just impulse purchasing but because you won’t have to throw out as much stuff later because you forgot you had it.
I plan out as many of the “meal plan disruptions” as possible – social engagements, either for work or with friends, travel, and the days that we’re planning a date out or a restaurant review. Then I pencil in the rest of our meals around that. It helps me balance eating at restaurants with lighter meals at home, make sure we have a healthy amount of nutritional variety, and figure out how to best plan the shopping for the month. And yes, I generally try to do it on a by-month basis.
2. Multi-purpose your meals.
When making your meal plan, you need a good balance between nutritional variety and multi-use items. You don’t want to eat the same thing every time, but you want ingredients you can use in several meals throughout the week. That will not only help you benefit from buying in bulk, but will make sure you can make good use of leftovers. For example, if I’ve grilled chicken at the beginning of the week, I can grill extra and serve it up through the week reheated with vegetables, chopped over a salad, mixed into pot pies, thrown into a casserole, or a dozen other things. Likely, those other things will have similar vegetable combinations in them as well. This also saves time, because when I’m cooking and re-using items, I don’t have to start from scratch.
That being said, left-overs are a great thing and so is your microwave. Forget using your microwave to make TV dinners. Reheat your own home-made TV dinner, or even cook some things from scratch. Seven minutes and you’ve got a fresh baked potato! This is magic.
My dad has a whole rhythm where he only really cooks a couple times a week. He just makes many more portions of the meal than he and my mom actually need, and the extras go into the freezer. He can do that with a number of entrees and just make fresh vegetable sides to go with them later on – and when he’s got a decent stockpile going, he and Mom can go a couple weeks without cooking and still have variety.
3. Figure out your shopping rhythm.
How often do you need to buy bulk items? How often do you shop for fresh items? A meal plan definitely helps with this, but so does really taking the time when you move to a place to figure out what you can get where, and when it pays to shop in bulk.
We buy a lot of our staples that can be stored in the pantry or frozen at Costco. That’s a car trip for us probably twice a month, and each time, we usually come away with a huge bag of chicken breasts, a bag of fish cutlets, packages of grass-fed ground beef, potatoes, freezable greens, and probably the best deals on wine ever. I laughed once when I saw a Mark West Pinot Noir on a restaurant menu for $45 a bottle – we get it at Costco for about $9.
We make smaller trips to the grocery about once a week to get smaller amounts of more perishable items, and the nice thing is, it’s only about a mile walk from our house, so we can walk there with our canvas bags and get some exercise while we shop. It’s a good way to nab the cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, and other things we need to use more quickly.
Finally, we hit up our farmer’s market once or twice a month. This is more of a treat than anything else, but occasionally, we do find some great deals. That’s kind of a unique situation to Hawaii, though – we get a deal on locally grown things at the farmer’s market because we’re not paying the cost of mainland shipping. On top of that, our purchases from the farmer’s market last longer – we’re not dealing with losing freshness time on them due to the time it took to ship them from somewhere.
4. Stock your pantry.
Potatoes, onions, and carrots last a long time, even with that shipping time. They’re also the basis of dozens of different soups and casseroles. Best of all, they don’t take up fridge space – you can just stick them in a box in your pantry or cupboard.
Then, let’s not discount canned things. Don’t be afraid of cans. You can recycle cans, and the things in them might not be farmer’s market fresh, but they’re still pretty close nutritionally and if you’re using them in something baked or simmered like a stew or casserole, you won’t even notice. I tend to save the fresh things for meals where I need the ingredient to shine. In a pot pie or shepherd’s pie, I’m using canned veg. And I know that shattering sound I just heard was your illusions. I’m sorry.
Still, try heating up Campbell’s heart-healthy beef stew and pouring it over mashed potatoes and tell me good food is hard and expensive to make. It’s darn tasty, under $5, you can feed four people with it, and you can make it in under 20 minutes.
5. Stock your freezer.
While it’s really nice to have fresh vegetables, fruit, and herbs, the frozen varieties are really just as good for you when it comes down to it. I stock up on bags of frozen vegetables at Costco, or I buy the bulk ones there as well, slice off what I need for the immediate future, and bag the rest in the freezer. The same goes for meat. Again, Costco is my best friend. I buy a large pack of chicken breasts, mid-grade stakes, or fish, parcel them out into packages, and separate out what we’re using that week and what goes into the freezer.
Honestly, I think I spend more time bagging groceries and freezing them than I do cooking them. Set aside enough time on a weekend, though, and you can put whole meals together in freezer bags that you can either cook up when you get home or throw into this great time saver…
6. Put your crock pot to work.
A crock pot is this busy girl’s favorite invention, next to the microwave. You can make soups, stews, casseroles, and pretty much any one-pot recipe you can find in a crock pot. If you prep everything the night before, all you have to do is throw it in the next morning and set the timer, and your food will be ready by the time you get home! You can usually find a good model with a timer for under $60.
Back when we were living in Sleepy Hollow and making ridiculous commutes, I even made ravioli in the crock pot. It was a little dry but it wasn’t bad, and I’m tempted to try it again, just for the heck of it.
7. Get motivated to cook.
Telling yourself that you’re going to do a better job of cooking isn’t enough. It’s a lot easier to make eating a healthy meal a priority if it is a priority, more than sitting on the couch and watching TV or whatever else happens in the house at the end of the day.
Food is fun, or it should be. Blogging recipes and sharing them with my husband and friends has majorly motivated me to expand my culinary abilities, and after practicing and stretching my creativity, it takes me no time at all to chop things up or whip something together. Either that, or it just doesn’t feel like that much time, because I really enjoy it.
Whatever motivates you, whether it’s saving money by not dining out, cooking for friends and getting compliments on your food, tackling a new recipe, or trying a healthy eating regimen, grab onto what keeps your energy up and pushes you to practice your cooking. If you find the fun in it, you won’t mind heading to the kitchen after a long day, and it will become a lot less tempting to phone for takeaway.
8. Treat the meal like an event.
I get my husband in the kitchen with me every once in a while and it’s a lot of fun for us to make something together, especially if it’s a tasty treat or dessert for a special occasion. When we have friends with kids over, if the kids are interested in helping or learning about cooking, I give them things to do suitable to their age level. With a little instruction, pretty much anyone can shred lettuce or herbs, grate cheese, or knead dough.
Sharing good food is one of the warmest, most social things we do as a species. I’ve been in so many business meetings or negotiations that seemed tense, until someone brought in the food, and it never fails to amaze me how a good meal can diffuse a situation. It’s really hard to get up in arms at someone when you’re breaking good bread with them.
Staying away from overly processed foods and eating healthfully doesn’t mean you have to be Julia Child. It also doesn’t mean you can only shop at the organic market or get your food from the CSA. All it takes is some good solid planning and the motivation to do it. And sooner or later you’ll figure out that you can get a good, tasty one-pot meal for four for less than the price of a meal at McDonald’s – and a meal that actually has flavor and nutrition to boot.
Did I miss anything good out there? What are your tips and tricks for eating well on a budget?