10 Things We’ve Learned This Year About Eating Well on a Budget

We’ve been trying to stay on a food budget for almost a year now.  It’s a lot harder than we thought it would be.  It would be harder still without my parents supplying us with some of the best olive oil in the world (from my uncle), grass fed beef (from my aunt and uncle, who own Bear Creek Ranch in New Mexico) and various Costco finds.  My students and neighbors give us a lot of food gifts.  From them I get tamales, posole, ceviche, bread, samosas, dolma . . .  and some great lessons in cooking.  We’d like to share some of the most important lessons we’ve learned this year:



1.  Plan and then plan some more.

Sit down once a week (with your computer and some favorite cook books) and plan every dinner.  Look at your calendar and plan easy or frozen meals for nights when you’re busy or out late.  Plan something special for Saturday or Sunday nights when everyone’s home.  

Keep in mind what you’ll be able to find at the farmers’ markets that week (and if you’ll be able to go once or twice or even not at all).  Leave a little room for special finds at the market, too.  

Check the pantry, fridge and freezer and see what needs to be used up.  Plan meals around these items and then replenish them next week when you go shopping.  

When you get good at planning, you’ll be able to figure in ways to use leftovers for new dinners and use up all your vegetables every week.  Take note of what you have left at the end of the week and either buy less of it next time or figure out how to eat more of it.  We often have greens left–a reminder that I need to be more conscientious about working them in to meals. 

Don’t just plan for dinners–plan how to use leftovers for breakfasts and lunches.  When you make pasta, lentils, couscous, quinoa or rice, always make extra.  These make good salads for kids’ lunches.  Lentils and beans can be pureed to make dips.

On Sundays (or even better, right when you get home from the market) prep vegetables for that week’s lunches. You can string celery and peel carrots all at once–then store them in cold water (change it every day) for the week.  Chopping all your onions at once makes cooking a lot easier, too.  I often avoid starting dinner if I’m dreading the onion chopping–it’s a relief when it’s already done.   





2.  Buy (almost) everything in bulk.

I buy some bulk items at Sprouts and some at Whole Foods.  I like to buy organic, but you don’t need to.  Make sure you put perishable items (those with a high fat content) like nuts, almond meal, quinoa and sunflower seeds in small jars and use them quickly.  You can buy large quantities, just store it in the freezer.

Bulk foods I always keep on hand: 

  • stone ground whole wheat flour 
  • whole wheat pastry flour
  • long and short grain brown rice 
  • arborio rice 
  • rainbow quinoa (Alter Eco from Whole Foods)
  • dried beans and lentils
  • quinoa flakes (Whole Foods)
  • oatmeal 
  • nuts and seeds (Sprouts or Costco)
  • dried fruit (Sprouts)

I haven’t been able to find wild rice and whole wheat couscous in bulk.  These I buy at Trader Joe’s.  I never buy trail mix or granola in bulk–they’re less expensive, healthier and more versatile if you make them from scratch.  





3.  Get and stay organized.

Last September, after a few morning meltdowns, we made a special cabinet for lunch making equipment.  I put pita, tortilla and root vegetable chips in snack size baggies and keep them in the baskets along with little baggies of trail mix.  All our lunch containers are in the top basket.  These never go in with the tupperware (on pain of death).

Organize drawers and cupboards.  Get rid of any broken or never-used equipment.

Organize menus and recipes.  I keep menus and shopping lists on my desktop and I use Paprika, a decent recipe app that lets you store recipes from many sites.  

Make sure you clean out the fridge and freezer every month.  You have to know what you have in order to plan well and use everything you buy.  We have one shelf in the fridge door that’s for the kids: almond and sunflower butter and fruit preserves so they can make sandwiches.

Don’t keep loose bags of bulk items or packaged food in the cupboards.  They take up too much room and are messy.  Put all your bulk items in jars, label them and keep them where you can see them and get to them easily.  I put the oatmeal and brown sugar in front so our six-year-old can get to them easily to make his breakfast.





4.  Keep a well stocked–but not over-stocked–pantry and refrigerator.

Keep long-lasting staples on hand.  Check expiration dates frequently and when you open something, use it within a week or so.  When you purchase these, always check the expiration date–get the freshest you can:

  • ricotta
  • gruyere
  • parmesan
  • feta
  • tofu
  • yogurt
  • cream cheese
  • shiritaki noodles
  • pancetta
  • bacon
  • small containers of cream
  • sourkraut 

Keep miso, mustard, tahini, hot sauce, soy sauce and other sauces on hand.  I always have fish sauce, mirin, Rooster sauce, concentrated pomegranate juice, ponzu sauce, sesame oil, walnut oil, chili paste and flavored vinegar in the fridge.

In the freezer, stock:

  • frozen fruit and vegetables
  • chicken broth
  • French bread and naan
  • pancakes (always make a double batch)

In the pantry, stock:

  • tomato paste and tomato puree (Bionaturae comes in jars, so it’s BPA free)
  • pasta sauce (check labels and buy the ones with the least amount of sugar–I like the Safeway brand and I stock up when it’s on sale)
  • two cans each of several kinds of beans
  • four cans of chickpeas
  • a couple cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
  • good quality dark brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, cane sugar and a little white sugar (for carmelizing) 
  • peanut, almond and sunflower butters (sunflower butter will have a little sugar in it)
  • coconut milk (Aroyo D, available at Asian markets, doesn’t have BPA or weird additives)
  • apricot jam, orange marmalade, fruit preserves
  • boxed whipping cream (from Trader Joe’s)
  • tuna and anchovies
  • olives
  • capers
  • roasted peppers (Trader Joe’s are good)
  • pickled jalepenos
  • chipotle and green chiles (cheaper at the Mexican markets)
  • sun dried tomatoes, a can of pineapple (Native Forest is BPA free) and apricot jam (I like the organic, low-sugar preserves at TJs)
  • an emergency box of chicken broth (try to always use homemade–it’s a zillion times better)
  • a box of tomato soup
  • whole wheat pasta

You don’t need light and dark brown sugar, you don’t need self-rising flour, and you don’t need polenta and cornmeal (just grind the polenta).  Try to avoid redundancies like these and you’ll save space.  It’s nice to have semolina and “00” flour for pasta making, cake flour for cakes and bread flour for bread–but keep these in the freezer since you won’t use them often.

Buy olive oil and vinegar in large containers and transfer to cruets.

Always have onions and garlic on hand–you use them every night.





5.  If you make it from scratch, you won’t get fat.

If you make your own snacks, crackers, desserts and bread, you’ll end up eating a lot less of it.  It’s a great way to stay slim.  I’ve also learned to really enjoy making these things from scratch.  I make my own bread, granola, flatbread, crackers, popsicles, ice cream and cookies.  It’s much less expensive, but it’s the difference in taste that makes it worth it.

When you cook, don’t be afraid to use butter and cream.  Use whole grass milk (with cream on top) and full fat yogurt.  If you’re not eating out and not eating packaged food, you can handle the calories.  A little fat makes everything delicious.  Just watch the bread, pasta and sugar and you’ll be fine.





6.  Shop smarter.

Always have a list.  I keep a shopping list on my computer desktop.  I keep things on it that I need every week and add to it whatever else I need after I plan the week’s dinners.  It’s better to shop at the same grocery store every week.  You’ll know where everything is, you’ll be more comfortable going to customer service and you can take advantage of on-line deals and gas rewards with your store card.

I only go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s once a month.  I get the same things every time.  This way, I don’t go crazy and spend a million dollars.

Shop at ethnic markets.  I love LeLe, Baiz and Ranch Market in Phoenix.  You’ll get better prices at these stores and often better quality.  If you need help, ask an older woman who looks like she knows what she’s doing.  She’ll probably be more helpful than the staff.

This brings up another point I want to make: if you want to save money, you have to learn to cook ethnic foods.  Try to get to know some immigrant women and talk about food.  I have a class full of recent immigrants and all the women cook.  They’ve not yet switched to the American diet (and I hope they never do), and they make many things from scratch.  They’ll be glad to share recipes.  I find most people, especially women, like to talk about food.  





7.  Learn to cook in season.

Learn several recipes for all the fruits and vegetables you love and make them when they’re in season.  If you have a few old standbys to rely on, planning will be easier.   At the end of a season, you can buy up all the things you like from your farmer and freeze them for later.  Peaches, berries and tomatoes are a special treat in the middle of winter.





8.  Don’t expect a garden to save you time or money.

Gardening is fun and worthwhile, but it’s not necessarily cheap to get started.  And, unless you have a lot of land, you can only grow so much food.  It also takes a long time to make crappy soil into good soil.  You can do it by composting, though–and composting is a great way to avoid wasting food.  

I get the most use out of my little herb garden.  Most herbs don’t keep long in the fridge, so it’s better to just run out in the back yard and snip what you need.





9.  Meat is expensive, as it should be.

Buy it locally (in season if you can) and make sure it’s organic and grass fed.  Poultry should be free-roaming, organic and, if you can find it, heritage.  Salmon should be wild-caught with no coloring added.  Not Atlantic. These things should be very expensive, or you’re getting ripped off.  Cheap meat is an illusion–it doesn’t exist.  When we buy factory farmed meat (and most of us do) we all pay the cost in health care, pollution clean up and the potential long-term problems associated with antibiotics resistance and environmental degradation.  We are also condoning the low wages and poor working conditions faced by workers in many factory farms.  

At first it drove me crazy.  Every article or cookbook about eating on a budget was really heavy on the chicken dishes.  Often these lacked imagination or were just plain gross.  I finally found some good cook books.  I like the books by Mark Bittman, Alice Waters and The Moosewood Restaurant.  I also consult The Flavor Bible quite a bit to learn (or be reminded of) what flavors go together.  I look to web sites like Epicurious, Eating Well, Food Network and Bon Appetit for ideas on how to use whatever I’ve found at the farmers’ markets.  I have amassed a fairly good battery of chicken-free dinners.  

When we do buy chickens, we buy two whole ones from the farmers’ market.  We eat the meat (and sometimes gravy) for two meals, then make chicken stock for the freezer the next day.  

When you buy 1/4 of a steer (about $5.99/lb), you’re going to get some cuts that you can’t just throw on the grill.  One word: braising.  That and a lot of garlic.

This raises the question how do you afford all this?  Well, you don’t.  At least not more than once a week.  The cost of meat precludes eating too much of it, so you’re forced to do what’s right for your health, the environment and the animals we eat.  Done and done.  If you buy good meat, you’ll also find you take more care in preparing it and you enjoy it more.

Use eggs, cheese, nuts, avocados and tofu.  Add a little bacon–it makes everything good.  Use cream, butter and lard–you won’t miss the meat.  I always ask if the chickens who lay my eggs eat a lot of bugs. If they do, the chickens probably have happy lives and their eggs will be especially nutritous.  Sometimes you can get duck eggs and quail eggs, too.  This allows you to change things up a little.





10.  Waste not, want not.

Learn to use leftovers.  When you have extra bread, make bread crumbs and freeze them, or make bread pudding.  Always make extra chili, soup, beans and lentils and freeze some for later.  Be creative, but expect a few disappointments.  I made sardine and rice gratin this week (I had leftover risotto and bread crumbs) and Pat and Lute both gagged on it.  I mean this literally.

Get in the habit of eating your groceries in order of perishability.  Use salads and fruit first and then move on to things like tomatoes, avocados (never buy them too soft if you’re not making emergency guacamole or tomato sauce) and greens.  As I’m running low on supplies, I turn to more long-lived items in the fridge and on the counter.  

Use as much of the fruit and vegetable as you can.  You can candy citrus peel, use parsley stems in stock, sautee beet greens, put celery leaves in salads, and eat roasted fava beans whole.  When you buy meat and poultry, save all the bones and parts to  make a stock the next day.  Seriously–save it all.  Even the bones the kids have gnawed on.  Fish can be used whole in bouillabase.  Save chicken fat and pork fat for cooking.

  • Use up staples like flour and nuts within a couple months and replenish them frequently.  
  • Use berries, stone fruit, bananas, salad, avocados, asparagus, mushrooms, bean sprouts (stored in water) and alfalfa sprouts within 2-4 days.
  • Use melons, citrus, greens, cucumbers, eggplant,sugar snap peas, tomatoes, green beans, fava beans, summer squash and most cruciferous vegetables (cabbage lasts longer) within a week or so.
  • Use apples, celery, onions, garlic, ginger, root vegetables, winter squash and tubers within a few weeks.  You can keep these on the counter in cool weather.  



Okay, make it 11 things.


11.  Enjoy.

Like anything worthwhile, it takes time to get good at shopping, cooking and eating healthily.  But when you do, you’ll find you enjoy it (at least most of the time).  The best thing about cooking great meals at home is that it brings the family together.  The family meals we’ve shared over the past year have brought us closer.  We enjoy our food and each other a whole lot more this way.


8 Comments on “10 Things We’ve Learned This Year About Eating Well on a Budget”

  1. Lisa Gray Giurato says:

    I understand the convenience of canned beans, but consider buying dry beans in bulk. I get white, pinto, black-eye peas, black beans, kidney all in bulk from a local Amish store. A big bag of dry beans lasts forever! Yes, more work, but there are some quick cook bean methods and beans offer a nice alternative to meat, providing healthy fiber, protein, and stretching your wallet. Just a thought! Love your post. I do a lot, not all, of what you say already.

    • I agree. Canned beans are for emergencies. I put beans and lentils under bulk items. We usually have white beans, French and green lentils and whatever cool beans they have at the farmers’ markets. My favorites now are trout beans and scarlet runner beans. I don’t ever make chickpeas, but am going to try this year. I wish we had a local Amish store. Lucky.

  2. df says:

    What a wonderful overview of how to eat healthfully and as affordably as possible, this was a fantastic read. I’ve done most of what you note, but trying to do them all together, all the time can elude me. I make mistakes, and then I try again. Some of these things just come naturally and feel right (eating locally, in season, including meat from animals that were raised properly), while others (enough planning, being really intentional and careful about leftovers) can be harder. Excuses always exist; I’ll try again tomorrow. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks, my friend. We used to waste so much food–it made me feel terrible. We’re better now, but it takes constant effort. I’m going to work on a compost pile next. Our bunny can’t eat everything. I also really, really want chickens. : )

      • df says:

        I’m so glad that it isn’t just me who struggles on not wasting food. And sending good chicken vibes your way for the future!!

  3. What a fantastic list! We usually plan our dinners ahead of shopping, but you take it to a whole new level. I am going to use your tips to plan even better. I am sort of in the same place as “df” in terms of the whole list. You are inspiring. Thanks for sharing your journey and efforts!

    • Thanks for the encouragement. The hard part is how much time it takes. I’m finding it’s getting easier and more natural, though. My computer and my friends and family have been the key to doing this.

  4. […] of New Year’s resolution season, I thought today I’d suggest that readers check out this great Food Fighters post with the “10 Things We’ve Learned This Year About Cooking Well on a Budget.” Each […]

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