How Much Is That Havarti in the Window?: Eating on a Budget Kind of Sucks

I like to do things in my life the wrong way.  Recently I went from being a pencil skirt and blazer-wearing, reasonably respectable member of the business community (no, really, I worked at the Chamber of Commerce) with a full time paycheck to a jeggings-wearing, hippie college student (in Art History of all the lucrative things.) Complete with student loans, a whole bunch of copies of my resume printed on nice blue paper that seems to cause employers to never, ever call me for an interview. (Yes, I’m choosing to blame the paper.) Plus, a four hour a week work study job that involves glaring balefully at students who want to use the practice rooms in the music building. It’s been an adjustment. The biggest thing I’ve had to change about my life, aside from moving to another state and everything about everything, is my eating habits. It turns out that expensive cheese? Is expensive. And meat? Is really expensive. Mostly I’m figuring it out. It helps to live with a vegetarian who has a great fondness for giant pots of Japanese miso soup with noodles. Here are some things that I’ve learned through trial and error about how to make less taste like more, or at least taste better than it otherwise would.

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?

By (e)Kelsium

Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

15 replies on “How Much Is That Havarti in the Window?: Eating on a Budget Kind of Sucks”

As for spices, if you have an Indian grocery store near you, you can get curry powder (goes with everything) and a garlic/ginger paste I put in EVERYTHING for super cheap. Actually any ethnic store will have spices for cheap and you can mix and match to see what you like.

I eat eggs all the time. My go to dish is stir frying some chopped tomatoes and any other vegetable I have on hand in olive oil, mixing in any kind of boiled pasta and tossing a couple eggs in after the pasta is mixed in. Sort of like a low rent pasta carbonara.

For those who can’t give up the meat, I find certain cuts of meat to be very cheap. Give up the boneless and the skinless, and things start looking very affordable.

I’m a fan of whole chickens (feeds me for a week: roast, sandwiches, stock, soup), pork roasts (and then sandwiches), and other big hunks of meat. If the cuts aren’t known for tenderness, just braise the hell out of them in a stew and they’ll be delectable. Usually these cuts are much cheaper.

The awesome bulk sections of several stores allowed me to eat decently when I was searching the couch for loose change. I loved the bulk spices, especially, for allowing me to make cabbage more exciting.

I benefitted from an on-campus food bank (by the way, the TA salaries were well below the food bank’s income maximum, and you weren’t allowed to work another job if you were a TA), but the food was sometimes gross or expired (I only noticed this with canned soups). “Hamburger meat” contains a lot of fillers. Yuck.

We also cut out most meat to save on the grocery bill – instead of making meat the star of the meal, we’ve learned to use small amounts as seasoning. The deli section is great for that – sometimes they’ll sell the butt end of the meat at a wildly reduced price (last week I got almost 1/2 a pound of prosciutto that way for a ridiculously small amount of money).

I also learned to put hot sauce on everything – BF even managed to turn it into salad dressing.

If you’re poor and you have a good food bank near you, make sure to go. Also, food stamps. Thank goodness for food stamps.
I find that sandwiches are pretty low cost — you can get bread, and sometimes even greens and tomatoes, at the food bank (if yours is a good one), and cheese, mustard, and pickles at the store, which all last a while. That is what I lived off of nearly three times a day for a month before I got food stamps — not the best experience, but I was lazy and the sandwiches were tasty enough to make it bearable.
Also, noodles with cheese and tomatoes, or tomato sauce, fried rice, huge pots of vegetable soup (like people have suggested). If you have a few hours to spare and a bunch of vegetables that are nearly at their end, you can make roasted vegetable broth and freeze it, and then when you want soup you can heat it up and throw in some carrots and cabbage or something. If you like chickpeas, they’re good with garlic salt and lemon and tomatoes, and cans of them are pretty cheap. Pasta with with tofu (if you can afford it — it’s still tasty without) fried with canned tomatoes, nutritional yeast and garlic salt. Any sort of pasta stuff, really — you can just fry some veggies with tomato sauce.
Baking IS a good idea (if you have time for it), especially when it involves cheap vegetables, like cabbage. I’m Russian and I make pirozhki (with cabbage and eggs) every couple of weeks, and end up eating them for the next few days.

But kelsium, have you ever heard of how awesome lentils are? Because they are awesome and filling and everything good. /sarcasm.

If you’re not buying meat, then spring for good Brisling sardines and Italian tuna–rich in all of that good fat and essential nutrients–and if you mash it with an avocado and toast (hit leftover avocado with lime and wrap it tightly in cling) and you have an impressive dinner.
Almonds are also good to get in bulk aisles–get what you can afford, and keep the rest in the freezer. They will serve as the best snack when you need them.

Going (almost) vegetarian is probably the best tip on how to slash your food budget. I would make do with a lot of rice and pasta, and eggs/milk as my source of protein. There were a lot of pasta salads and soups in Casa de Mafalda when I lived by myself.

Learning how to bake is also a great idea. If you can make a loaf of bread and a few sweeter treats, you can and probably will stop buying as many pre-made breads or cookies, which can get expensive.

Another issue for us, in addition to the budget, is our lack of freezer space. I have Tetris’d the heck out of our tiny freezer and made everything fit, but we have a hard time fitting in anything new.

One thing we do, since we’re carnivores, is buy ground meat in the big portions, like five pounds. Then at home we divide it all into one-pound segments, put them in freezer bags, suck out the air to prevent burn, and freeze. Same with boneless skinless chicken breasts; two to a bag. They are easy meals: put the bag in the fridge before we leave for work in the morning, come home to a mostly- or fully-defrosted main course.

I second the spices thing! We have a lot of trouble with fresh produce, so we often end up freezing (peeled bananas for smoothies and bread, sliced and sugared strawberries for baking and smoothies, chopped cantaloupe for snacks, etc.).

Finally, as “lentils!” as it sounds, rice and dry pasta really do help. A box of dry pasta, a can of crushed tomatoes, a bag of frozen spinach, and olive oil = a yummy, filling meal that, if there aren’t many of you, can last a few days in the fridge.

I buy a thing of mild salsa (usually the store brand is $2) and add it to everything. Scrambled eggs, couscous, whatever.

Speaking of couscous! Get thee to a Trader Joe’s and buy the Whole Wheat Couscous. Usually about $2 a box, and even with just salt and a dash of olive oil it’s delish and filling.

Making your own soup/chili is really cost effective because you can make a week’s worth for not too much money. My brother-in-law lived on potato soup during college.
I have also used olives as a meat substitute in pasta dishes, if you like them, but you have to slice them. Whole olives are too much for one bite and minced just make everything taste weird.
I have a friend who makes her own laundry detergent as a cost cutting measure. She says her laundry comes out to about 5 cents a load. She’s been doing it for years so it must work pretty well. If you are interested I can find out the recipe.

Chinese stir frys are great cheats. You won’t miss the lack of meat. That’s why we Chinese invented stir-fry–there were many poor peasants who had to stretch their meager food supplies.

Fried rice is great. You can do it with just ginger, garlic, and onions for flavoring without soy sauce, substitute chicken broth. Or add a splash of sesame oil. Yes sesame oil can be pricey but get a small bottle. It’s worth the cost. Or add teriyaki sauce to flavor your rice.

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