My first and best piece of advice whether you’re on a strict food budget or a diet is to invest in your spice cupboard. No matter what your mom says, there is a difference between name brand and store brand, that is until you cover both of them in Thai spice blend. I recommend requesting a catalog from Penzey’s and starting to highlight things for your birthday list right this second. Spices can be pricey, but the nice thing is that a little can make such a huge difference to your cooking that to me at least the expense it completely worth it. The things that I can’t live without: salt and pepper (obviously, but sometimes I have to remind myself how great the basics can be), garlic powder, an Italian herb blend of some kind, cinnamon, and a couple of specialty blends for when you feel like mixing it up, like the aforementioned Thai spice.
My next piece of advice is simply: eggs. You know how on Top Chef they’re always like EGGS ARE THE GREATEST THING EVER IF YOU CAN COOK AN EGG YOU CAN COOK ANYTHING EGGS EGGS EGGS, yes, Gail Simmons, we get it, you hate rubbery eggs? Well, it’s true. Eggs are pretty great. And cheap! Experiment with ways to make eggs and perfect your favorite. Omelets, hardboiled eggs, all manner of fried, scrambled? All delicious, and any breakfast guests (wink, wink) will be impressed when you ask them how they like their eggs and don’t just mean watery or rubberized. My very favorite thing to eat for lunch in the winter is egg whites fried in a little bit of butter or vegetable oil with salt and herbs, with or without a slice of melted cheese on top, on toasted white bread.
That brings us to my next totally hypocritical piece of advice, which is; learn to bake. This is a totally hypocritical piece of advice because I don’t actually claim to know how to bake bread, but my roommate does, and I’m learning! Once you get the hang of it, it really can save you money both on groceries and emergency trips to the store when you realize you’re out. Not to mention the stress relief from pounding dough, the huge sense of accomplishment you get when you take a loaf out of the oven, and the inimitable smell of baking bread filling up your house. Be sure to keep a look out for sales on flour and yeast, especially around the holidays, so that you can stock up cheaply. In an apartment with two people we go through about a loaf a week, which is about an hour time commitment of actual labor, and about two hours total time from start to finish. Obviously, this isn’t an option for everyone. Not everyone has the free time to bake bread once a week, and I certainly don’t want this to be one of those why don’t you bake your own bread and eat organic lentils? WonderBread is the opiate of the masses! kind of articles. But if, like me, part of the reason you need to trim your food budget is unemployment and a little too much free time, learning to bake is a great way to keep the cost of delicious, delicious carbs in your diet down and your hands busy.
One of the worst things about having limited disposable income for food is how expensive fresh produce can be. I still haven’t quite figured out a way around this one, and I don’t know that I ever will. What I have been doing is fixating on the things that are available in season and eating as much as I can get my hands on before they go away. Clementines, those little teensy seedless oranges whatever you want to call them but I call them clementines, are a great example of this. They’re relatively inexpensive, they last a while, and they pop into grocery stores when you need them most: December and January. I can pack those away like nobody’s business. In September and October I went through one of those handled paper bags of apples a week. I made apple pies, apple tarts, and I froze some applesauce that I’m still enjoying long past the last of the fresh apples. Here is where I’d tell you to can fresh produce for later use, but that would be going too far, since the closest I’ve ever come to knowing how to can things was making bread and butter pickles with my grandmother in the early 90s. The best I can say is buy things when they’re cheap and enjoy them while they last.
The easiest—though the ease of doing it is debatable—way to slash your food budget is to cut out meat. I’ve never been much of a carnivore so it wasn’t a huge sacrifice for me, but not everyone feels that way. I’ve found that adding textured, flavorful vegetables, like sautéed mushrooms, peppers, and onions, to pasta dishes is a pretty good substitute for meat, and adding burritos with beans and rice to my meal repertoire is a good way to get some extra protein. I have also wholly embraced my love of that great fish, the tuna. Because I’m not budgeting for porterhouse steak on the weekends, I don’t mind spending an extra ten cents a can for the good all white albacore kind. A little mayo, a lot of honey mustard, some salt, pepper, herbs, and diced tomatoes if I can get them, toss in the oven with shredded cheese on top at four hundred degrees for five minutes, put on some toasted bread, and tada! Gourmet tuna melt. For my boyfriend, who thinks that my vegetable-eating ways are an affront to God and America, though he’s too fond of me to say so, I keep a bag of pepperoni around to toss on a frozen pizza or in with some pasta for a quick and cheap meat dish.
Out of all the things I’ve done to try to keep my eating habits inexpensive yet satisfying my favorite is buying a giant glass jar with a slightly chipped lid on super clearance at Target and filling it with clearance Halloween candy. I’m hoping to top it off with some more chocolate after Valentine’s Day, since the Snickers bars always seem to disappear the fastest.
How about you guys? Tips and tricks for cheap eats? Favorite recipes for leftovers + tuna?