For many of us, eating is one of the best activities of the day. Breakfast, lunch, lunch two, dinner, post-dinner, or a multitude of snacks – nothing is quite as satisfying as a good meal or five. However, whether you’re eating recreationally or for the basic three meals per day, it can be disheartening to see how even a routine trip to the grocery store can take a big bite out of your bank account. Conventional wisdom seems to hold that healthy foods are more expensive, but you can be handy in the kitchen and fill your bags at the grocery store without gobbling up a ton of hard-earned cash. We’ve rounded up a few pointers to help you eat like a king on a pauper’s budget.
A few strategies might help you save money before you even set foot in the grocery store. Planning out your meals, making the most of ingredients on hand, and making a list of what you need can help you avoid impulse buys and buying a bunch of random stuff that looks good, but may not yield filling, well-rounded dinners.
• Visit the bulk bins: Buying food in bulk not only cuts down on unnecessary packaging, but yields cheaper prices and gives you the opportunity to buy ingredients in the quantities that you need. If you want to experiment with a new grain or legume or want to put together your own nut mix, a visit to the bulk bins will allow you to do this in a way that makes sense for your budget. Bring your own bag to add some eco-friendliness to your shopping routine.
• Rethink your protein: This might come off as annoying to those who shudder at the term vegetarian, but consider eating less meat. Meat is typically the most expensive part of a meal, but with a little research and experimentation, you can make an infinite amount of hearty, meatless recipes spanning many flavor palettes. Lentils, garbanzos, split peas, nuts, couscous, black beans, brown rice – all are inexpensive and filling staples that can be used in a multitude of recipes, and can conveniently be found side-by-side in most bulk sections. Moreover, these items are dense in nutrients, vitamins, and fiber, and if stored in an airtight container, will be good for a long time.
• Explore your produce options: Consider buying produce from places other than grocery stores. Farmers markets, produce stands, and corner stores are often stocked with bountiful arrays of fruits and vegetables, often at better prices than supermarkets. (Five oranges for $1, for example, means a whole lot of fresh-squeezed orange juice in my household.)
Produce that is in season tends to be much cheaper, so pay attention to what’s currently growing and what is being flown in from the other side of the world. Another tip is to buy frozen fruits and vegetables, which are typically inexpensive (and are often on 10 for $10-type sales) and can be used in a ton of different ways.
• Buy generic: Of course, make sure you are getting the quality ingredients you want, but for basic staples, there is often little difference in brand-name and generic items aside from price. Check the price-per-ounce notation on the price tag (and not just the price), as packaging can be deceptive.
• Sales: Take advantage of sales on items you love, but also be aware that just because something happens to be on sale doesn’t mean it is something you need. You’re not saving $3 by buying a $10 item on sale for $7; you’re spending $7 you didn’t plan on spending in the first place!
• Cooking: Going out to eat is great – no muss, no fuss, and you get to eat stuff you might not know how to cook. For those on a budget, however, a $10-$20 check each time you go out to eat can add up very quickly. But you’ve been so good about saving money by shopping responsibly at the grocery store, so let’s take it one step further by cooking more meals at home.
One strategy that can help you save time and money on meals is to cook enough food so that you have leftovers. That way, you’ll have lunch ready to go for the next day (or days). When you’re putting away dinner, simply portion out food for tomorrow so you can throw your containers in your bag as you head out the door. Not having to think about what you’re going to eat affords significant peace of mind, especially if you know your lunch is going to be tasty since you made it yourself.
And if the food is amenable to freezing (lasagna – yes; salad – no way!), you can freeze whole meals or separate ingredients to make new meals when you are so deeply engaged in studying Kafka or some esoteric calculus formula you can barely pull yourself away from your desk to eat, let alone cook.
You can also repurpose leftover odds and ends into new meals. Potatoes getting stiff in the fridge? Rice starting to dry out? Consider using them as ingredients in soup.
Jason Lucero, a sous chef at Tabla and Ode, suggests buying a rotisserie chicken for its versatility and abundant meat. You can easily whip up flautas, tacos and tostadas with chicken and tortillas, which can be cheaply topped with vegetables and beans. While not necessarily the cheapest item, avocados can be added not only for the flavor, but for their spectacular nutritional content.
Lucero also suggests making big salads, which can be topped with the aforementioned chicken, tuna or garbanzo beans. You can also add quinoa and other grains, he says, or experiment with flavors by adding fruit, such as watermelon or cantaloupe, to salads. Salads are relatively quick to prepare and the ingredients can be cobbled together without undue expense.
And although essentially devoid of nutrients and anything of value to your body, that classic college staple, ramen noodles, can easily be jazzed up with chopped vegetables, peanuts, sprouts, thin strips of meat or a fried egg. You’ll be surprised with what you can do with a 20 cent bag of noodles!