For some time I’ve wanted to discuss “fast, cheap, healthy eating” in more detail, and finally I just decided to do it in a fast and cheap blog post. I should state that I am neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. I’m inspired by “paleo” type eating, associated with lower carbs and nutrient-rich meats and vegetables. Much of my thinking on budget eating was inspired by my “food stamp diets” in 2009 and 2007.
Good Time for Economy
Unemployment remains high throughout much of the country; it hit 9.3 percent in Colorado as of the last measurement. It seems very much as though the federal government’s inflationary monetary policies are starting to show up in food prices (see a first, second, and third article on the matter.)
So many people’s budgets are strained now more than ever. But we gotta eat. Thankfully, some easy, common-sense steps can help make one’s grocery budget stretch further while still providing great nutrition. That’s what this post is about.
My Dietary Pilgrimage
Once in college a fast food joint put burgers on sale, so I ate there every day until, one day, I nearly vomited. Then I stopped eating there. But the funny thing was, I wasn’t really saving any money by purchasing the “sale” food. Soon after college I stuffed my freezer with frozen dinners, again from a sale. But then I discovered that these dinners were full of salt and other junk, plus they just didn’t taste very good (at least after about the third one). Nor did they save me any money.
Now I’m still not much of a chef, but I’ve learned to prepare tasty, economical, fast, and nutritious meals. My wife and I eat things like curry chicken and saag, roasts with sweet potatoes and onions, quiche, and spaghetti squash with meat sauce. We eat very well, but we don’t spend a lot of time or money on our food. I thought others might benefit from my experiences.
The Great Myths: Eating Well Costs a Lot and Consumes Time
We hear constantly that nutritious eating is costly and time-consuming. It’s not. Some of the least nutritious food in the grocery stores, food full of sugar and processed grains, is also relatively expensive. Some of the least expensive food overflows with life-giving nutrition. Often preparing and packing a meal takes less time than going to a restaurant.
It is a myth that nutritious eating has to cost a lot. It is a myth that nutritious eating takes a lot of time. This entire post is about exploding those myths, but I thought it worth mentioning them explicitly at the outset.
Eating Out: The Great Budget Killer
I enjoy eating out at restaurants, just like most people do. But it’s important to understand just how much that costs. A nice restaurant meal easily can cost a person fifty bucks — enough for more than a week’s worth of groceries.
If you figure there are around 260 weekdays in a year, eating an $8 lunch for every one of those days costs over $2,000 for the year. If you buy a $4 coffee for each of those days, that’s another thousand.
Sure, if you’re bringing down a large salary, you’re very busy, and you enjoy eating out, spending that much or more might be worth it to you. But if you’re on a tight budget, or you’d rather spend that money on other things, preparing food and taking it to work is relatively easy.
Consider an Entertainment Budget
You probably don’t need to give up eating out, but you might want to eat out less often.
For a long time my wife and I bickered about spending money on entertainment. We’d spend money to eat out, then feel guilty about blowing our money on nonessentials. We’d argue about what entertainment pursuits were worth it.
We’ve solved those problems by adopting an entertainment budget. The idea was inspired by Diana Hsieh, though my wife and I adapted it to our own purposes. The basic idea is that you give yourself a certain amount each month for entertainment, to spend however you want without feeling guilty about it. Obviously the amount must make sense given your overall budget. If you spend less one month, you can carry the balance to the next.
We also decided to put a third of all extra income (beyond our regular take-home) into our entertainment budget (split evenly between us). We figure that gives us a third for fun, a third for taxes, and a third for investment.
Obviously the details of an entertainment budget can be adapted for the particular needs of an individual, couple, or family. But, having tried it, I really like the general strategy.
Forget List Shopping
It seems like every pretender who addresses the matter of budget shopping suggests that you shop only from an established list. Such advice is horrible. You cannot possibly maximize your grocery budget if you shop only from your preordained list. Indeed, while I do make lists for the essentials, often I shop without any list at all.
The grain of truth to the “shop by list” mantra is that it’s stupid to make impulse purchases of unnecessary items. Certainly I am not advocating that!
What I am advocating is that you take advantage of sales, the most important of which are never announced. I’m talking about mark-downs. You will never include mark-downs on your shopping list, because you cannot possibly know which items a store will mark down on a given day.
Now, not every store features mark-downs, but most grocery stores I’ve seen do. The idea is that stores will put items about to go out of date on steep discount.
My local grocery store — and this is similar to many other stores I’ve seen — features a regular “discount” section with breads, canned goods, etc. Most of these “sale” items are worthless: discounted junk carbs are still junk carbs. You’re not getting a “deal” by buying nutritionally worthless food. Sometimes, though, I have found spectacular deals in the discount sections.
Often, rather than place mark-downs in a special location, stores will leave them in their regular place. For example, once at Target I bought something like eighty 100-percent chocolate bars at a steep discount.
Other times, stores will create a special place for mark-down meats and dairy. So get to know your store. And get to know your foods: I regularly use eggs well after their stated expiration date. (Obviously eating spoiled foods can be dangerous, so you have to pay attention.)
Obviously my shopping strategy depends on my living in an urban and suburban environment, where I am constantly walking or driving past stores. Because my rented mail box is near my local grocery store, I’ll quickly pop into the store most days of the week. (Plus I just enjoy walking through stores.) This enables me to hunt for mark-downs. But if you live out in the country, you’ll probably be able to visit stores infrequently, so you’ll be less able to take advantage of unannounced sales.
The key to mark-downs is to figure out what you need that’s a good deal (sometimes mark-down sales aren’t a very good deal), then buy a lot of it. Often I’ll unexpectedly pick up 20, 30, even 60 pounds of produce or meat, because it’s on a spectacular sale. By shopping only by list, you close your eyes to the best deals out there.
Eat What’s On Sale
Don’t schedule your meals far in advance; cook the ingredients that are the most economical at the time. If you find chicken on a great mark-down, eat chicken, not hamburger. If squash is fifty cents a pound, eat squash, not a pricey salad. Hamburger and lettuce will be on sale another day.
Shop the Good Aisles
I don’t even look at most of the aisles in my grocery store. Boxed cereals? Forget it. Soda? Nope. In my world, there are really only three main sections of the store: dairy and eggs, meat, and produce. (Add to these the minor sections of spices and chocolate.) If you’re shopping anywhere else, chances are excellent you’re wasting money.
Use Your Freezer
If you live in a normal American house, you have a freezer conjoined to your refrigerator. Use it! Practically every meat freezes well. Practically every fruit freezes well, including bananas. (Frozen fruit works great for smoothies.)
The freezer is what enables you to buy mark-downs in huge quantities and preserve the food for several months.
Particularly fruits are subject to large seasonal variations in price. So buy when the prices are low!
I also bought a half-sized stand-alone freezer for the garage. That lets me really stock up on meat and frozen fruit. (I also freeze sprouted bread.) Be aware that the freezer costs some money, as does the electricity to run it, but for some people an extra freezer can save money overall. An extra freezer also allows you consider options like buying a side of beef.
Even if you don’t have an extra freezer, your standard one can still hold a great amount of frozen food.
Consider a Dehydrator
I also own a food dehydrator, which is great for drying fruits like peaches, apricots, cherries, and strawberries. (I tend to cut my fruit into thin slices for faster drying.) I’ve even dried banana slices soaked in orange juice, and they were delicious but exceptionally messy. (I’ve also tried canning before, which may interest you, but I don’t do it any more. I much prefer drying.)
Think About Gardening
This year my wife and I are putting in two long planters with soaker hoses. The goal is to grow food is that is relatively easy to raise in our region and more expensive at the store, like tomatoes. I probably won’t grow hard squash, because usually it goes on sale every year for about fifty cents a pound (which likely will inflate upwards over the coming years). I want to try yams, too, and perhaps even some type of berry if I can find a region-friendly one.
I use coupons, just not very often. Usually coupons apply to overpriced items that you’d do best to avoid altogether. Getting a discount on overpriced, highly processed, nutritionally worthless food is still a bad deal.
Remember, there is no coupon for a mark-down, the best deal out there.
Often a coupon is a just a way to dupe the mathematically challenged into spending more money on unnecessary products.
Sometimes people trap themselves in a false choice with a coupon. They think, “Would I rather have Product X at its normal price, or at the discounted price?” The discount wins! But the third option is to buy some other product altogether, or to buy nothing. For example, a coupon for boxed cereal will rarely save you money over a box of uncooked oatmeal or a breakfast of scrambled eggs.
Very often, coupons are for suckers.
Watch Weekly Ads
Sometimes a grocery store will offer some spectacular deals announced in their weekly ads. Usually these ads are mailed to every household and are also available online.
A “loss leader” is a sale product that a store doesn’t expect to make any money from, and may even lose money on, in the hopes that the item will bring people into the store to buy other stuff. The loss leader is your friend. Just note any restrictions on quantity.
Sometimes stores offer steep discounts on products like eggs, some item of produce, tea, or a particular meat. Watch for these!
A couple of my local stores recognize “double ad day” every Wednesday, when the store honors ads from two weeks.
Perhaps surprisingly, Costco (to which my wife and I have a membership) often offers worse prices on staple grocery items. I buy neither eggs nor yoghurt at Costco, though I did recently start buying milk there. One issue is that often Costco offers only a big-brand item, while a local grocery store may offer its own brand or a less-expensive third-party brand.
But some things I regularly buy at Costco: roasted almonds, large bags of fresh spinach, ice cream, and yams. But on many items Target or the local grocer beats the hell out of Costco’s prices. So don’t assume that “membership store” equals lower prices; very often it does not.
Don’t assume a coupon will save you money. Don’t assume a “sale” will save you money. Don’t even assume a mark-down will save you money. Don’t assume the larger package will save you money. Don’t assume a generic brand will save you money. Don’t assume a membership store will save you money.
In short, don’t shop like a sucker.
Only two things matter: the quality of the food, and the price per weight.
If a grocer can sell you a generic brand on “sale” for more than a regular brand, he will gladly do so. If a grocer can sell you a larger package for more per weight than the smaller package, again he will gladly do so.
Thankfully, many stores now provide the price per weight, so that can help. If not, figure it out yourself. Put the fruit on the scales. Put that fourth-grade education to work and do a little division. Bring a calculator with you if you must.
Cook a Lot at Once
Some dishes (scrambled eggs) are so quick and easy that it makes little sense to prepare large quantities.
Very often, though, it’s a good idea to cook a lot, then keep the spare in the refrigerator or freezer for later. This is the primary way to save time on food preparation.
Don’t cook two chicken breasts; cook six. Don’t bake one flan; bake two.
You only have to cook major dishes two or three times a week if you cook a lot each time.
The Pan: Types
Now I’ll get into cooking proper. I’ll start with an essential item for any cook: the pan.
I’ve gone round and round with pans. I started with a nonstick pan, but it started getting scratched. I bought expensive stainless steal pans, but they’re hard to use without food sticking. I tried cast iron, which are theoretically very cool but are difficult to use without food sticking and even more difficult to keep clean without ruining the surface. So now I’m back to a nonstick pan.
Are nonstick pans safe? Consumer Reports states, “Some perfluorinated compounds have been found to be accumulating in human blood, but our past tests suggest nonstick cookware is not likely to be a significant source of exposure.”
The keys to safely using a nonstick pan are to use it only on low to medium heat and toss it once it starts to scratch or flake. (I suggest a soft silicone spatula.)
The best feature of nonstick pans is that they are cheap. I’ve seen small ones for as little as a dollar, and regular ones for ten to twenty dollars.
The Pan: Dishes
Pans are great for cooking bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, toast, and so on. Try an “egg in the basket:” a piece of bread with a hole cut in it (say, with a glass), cooked with an egg in the hole.
Often I cook a generic dish starting with an onion. Peel the onion, cut it in half, and slice it in wedges and then in small pieces. Place the chopped onion, perhaps with some chopped cloves of garlic, in your pan with some butter, olive oil, or coconut oil. Cook on low to medium heat until translucent. Then you can add practically any combination of vegetables, meats, and spices for a quick, nutritious meal (plus leftovers).
Are you in the mood for something spicy? Try some tomatoes, hamburger, and chili powder. Have some summer squash sitting around? Dice it up and toss it in with the onion, perhaps with some diced chicken or turkey.
I also use my pan for things like cooked cabbage.
You can pick up a decent crockpot (with a removable bowl) for around twenty bucks. Do it! Nothing cooks food faster or easier.
Consider some possibilities:
* Throw a roast in the crockpot with some diced yams and onions.
* Combine a can of coconut milk, some curry powder, and a half dozen chicken breasts.
* For an easy, spicy dish, cook a half dozen chicken breasts in the crockpot with a jar of salsa.
* Throw in some ground hamburger for Mom’s chili recipe (or a recipe from the internet).
I love my crockpot.
You can also bake chicken breasts, fish fillets, and dishes of vegetables in the oven. I really like ceramic dishes with glass lids.
We eat baked “fry”-style yams fairly often. Just slice up a yam or potato into strips, coat them lightly with olive oil and salt, and bake them at 350 degrees for about half an hour, stirring after fifteen minutes. Or I’ll cook a sliced onion the same way.
You don’t need a bunch of knives. You need only one knife. But make it a good one.
If I could have only one knife, I would choose the Wusthof paring knife. It’s great for cutting up all kinds of vegetables, and it can handle meats well enough.
I also use a larger Wusthof knife for bigger jobs, but I use the paring knife much more often.
If you eat a lot of bread — we do not — you might also want a bread slicer.
Once I saw my sister drop a whole stack of Corelle plates, and not one of them broke. I love my Corelle plates. They’re inexpensive and sturdy, and they stack well.
But if you’re really on a budget, check out the local thrift store.
Don’t Forget the Simplest Dishes!
Some of the best dishes are the simplest.
What’s easier than throwing a couple of salmon steaks in the oven? Or tossing some chicken in the crockpot?
Salads can make wonderful meals or sides, and they are trivially easy to prepare. Top any combination of greens with any combination of vegetables, and perhaps some chunk tuna or chicken.
For a snack, I like something I call “Chocolate Uncovered Raisins.” Mix chocolate chips (I buy 60 percent Ghirardelli from Target, where I get the best price for that item) with some raisins (from Costco) and perhaps some roasted almonds (also from Costco).
Or for dessert I’ll mix a little ice cream (Costco) with shredded coconut (Sunflower), fresh walnuts (also Sunflower, from the bulk aisle), and chocolate chips.
If you’re not worried about your carb load, you can make silly stuff like popcorn or a microwaved Mug Cake.
I do take a multivitamin, along with Vitamin D3 and fish oil (all from Costco). We try to eat wild salmon (frozen) once a week, as I think that’s better than fish oil for getting DHA Omega 3. Salmon is easily the most expensive food I buy, which is why we limit our intake of it and supplement with fish oil.
I have severe misgivings about vegetable fats. Yes, it’s low in saturated fat, but it’s high in Omega 6 fat, and it’s just not something people ate as they developed. So, while a giant vat of vegetable fat is cheap, I go with butter, olive oil, and coconut fat. They’re a bit more expensive but still reasonable.
My grandparents played cards, a lot. When I got older I realized why: they didn’t have cable, and they didn’t have money for restaurants and such. So the family would get together for dinner and cards. And people had a delightful time. The same simple, cheap forms of entertainment are open to us today.
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Evil Red Scandi commented April 1, 2011 at 3:25 PM
You recommended a knife. Culinary flame war time! :-)
Seriously, though, if you have one knife it will have to be steel, because there are a few things ceramic knives can’t do – namely, cut through bone and other hard materials, and they can only be used on soft surfaces (wood, plastic, or bamboo cutting boards – no stone, metal, or ceramic). However, we’ve got plenty of very good knives and the knives we use 95% of the time are our Kyocera Ceramic knives. The reasons are simple:
1) They hold an extremely fine, sharp edge in a way that makes the best metal knives seem downright pathetic. Our “daily use” ceramic knives need sharpening about every two years. The big downside of this is that you have to send them back to the manufacturer for sharpening. This takes about two weeks (including shipping time), but they only charge shipping and handling (about $15 or so for the first knife, each additional knife for a few bucks more).
2) They don’t impart any flavor or increase the oxidation rate of your food. You’re probably reading this and immediately dismissing me as a brain-dead hippie who believes any stupid thing they read on the Internet. No, I’m serious – I noticed this myself before I started reading up on it. You actually can taste the difference – especially in acidic fruits – and see the difference in things like sliced apples (they go brown much more slowly). Really strange and not something we expected when we bought them, but I’m always willing to take yes for an answer.
3) They don’t stain or rust, and nothing sticks terribly well to them.
We had some very nice Henckels steel knives, and we were given a three piece set of Kyocera ceramics as a gift. We’ve expanded our collection of cermaic cutlery quite a bit since then. Aside from the steak knives (have to use metal on plates), the Henckels mostly gather dust these days. Our preference is so strong that we bought “backup” ceramic knives for the rare occasions when our main ones are out being sharpened.
Carol commented April 5, 2011 at 8:36 PM
I very much like the idea of cooking a lot and storing it for later as it would definitely save time on food preparations. I do have concerns though, how long do you keep it in the freezer before preheating it after- can it stay for say a week? We have tried it before but when I preheat it in the microwave- which is probably a bad idea as the food was still a bit cold even if it was already in the microwave for 20 minutes. Is it a better idea to heat it in a pan? Thanks
Walter in Denver commented April 6, 2011 at 1:32 PM
I enjoy cooking, although I’d never say I’m particularly good at it. But I cook all the time, and I have probably far too many pots, pans, knives, etc.
Things I find indispensable or at least extremely handy:
A dutch oven. If you are pressed for space you can forgo the slow cooker, any crock pot recipe can be made as well or better in a dutch oven. The only drawback versus a slow cooker is if you want to leave it cooking unattended, which may not be a good idea.
At least three knives – a paring knife, a chef’s knife for chopping and a boning knife, especially if you cook wild game.
A steaming insert for a large kettle.
A pressure cooker.
Over the long term having multiple cooking vessels for a variety of cooking methods makes cooking at home more interesting, and I will be less likely to eat out if I know I can cook just about anything myself.
Ari commented April 6, 2011 at 1:48 PM
Carol, How long food will keep in the fridge or freezer very much depends on the dish. But generally if you freeze something it will remain in the same state for much longer than a week. Whether you want to microwave or stove-heat a dish — with or without refrigerator thawing — again depends on the dish and the portion size. In my experience, microwaving smaller amounts, and stirring frequently, works better. (Don’t use plastics!)
Walter, Thanks for the tips. I never use a knife to cut bones, just because I tend to throw stuff in the crockpot, which nicely removes any remaining meat. I’ve found no need for a pressure cooker or a smoker, though I do have a nice steamer pan. -Ari