Weekend Question Thread: Eating Well Cheaply

John wants to know about recipes/strategies for cooking well with little money.

When I was broke-broke, I lived out of my friend’s coffee shop’s day old bagel bin. I’d get a dozen of those for two bucks, buy some cheap cheese and make a heartier version of grilled cheese by melting it over top of those in the oven. A head of iceberg lettuce lasted forever if you trimmed the brown parts off and potatoes were the best cheap food I knew thanks to my grandmother’s stories about the Depression. Eggs, too. Cheap protein. A baked potato, even without butter or any other fixings, is like the most comforting thing to me.

There’s a couple of things that I’ve learned to make from scratch that everybody thinks are genius things but they’re very simple: Pasta and bread. They’re both somewhat time-consuming, so I don’t know if they’d work for super-busy families, but you can make them for company and they seem fancy even though they’re not expensive. I buy lots and lots of flour, and for pasta all you need are eggs and oil, and for bread all you need is yeast. You don’t need a fancy machine for pasta either, just a rolling pin and a pizza cutter or sharp knife.

The bread dough turns into cinnamon rolls in the morning, pizza on football afternoons, flatbread with whatever’s left over in the fridge thrown onto it. It’s a great way to throw a party for like $10.

What are your secrets for cooking cheap? John mentions a whole chicken, and I buy those when they go on sale, too, and use the carcass for stock. And a ham is the best thing for making something stretch forever. Meat is pricey but I find myself spending the most money on fruits and vegetables because it seems like those things go faster.

I swear to God, all I do in winter is eat and talk about food all the time.


19 thoughts on “Weekend Question Thread: Eating Well Cheaply

  1. It depends on what “cheap” actually is. But in college and even until today, a roast nearing expiration or “sell by” thrown in a crock pot with seasoning and even some potatoes fills the house with an aroma during its eight hour preparation that makes dinner almost like heaven.

  2. One of our recently graduated CLS students from LSUHSC has a blog called Budget Bytes. Here is the link:http://budgetbytes.blogspot.com/
    She breaks it down by cost/serving and the recipes are quite tasty!
    Peter does stews…which last for several meals for two…and I agree with Jude -rice and beans!
    I lived on Ramen noodles in grad school, but can’t even look at them now!

  3. When I need to save a buck, I tend to look to one-pot meals and vegetarian options.
    In its simplest form, the go-to is a stew using couple cups of lentils with an equal amount of a starchy food (rice, potatoes) seasoned and simmered in water until tender. However, from these building blocks you need never make it the same way twice.
    I generally start by sweating a big fat chopped onion in some oil and a little salt for a few minutes while pulling out whatever I have on hand. Earlier this week, to the salted, translucent onion I added garlic, bay leaves, a cup of brown lentils, a cup of green lentils, and about 1/2 cup each of yellow split peas and barley, stirred for a couple minutes and then covered generously with water. When the stew was about half-cooked I added sliced carrots, dried thyme and some baby spinach that was looking too droopy for salad (and if I’d spotted the bit of leftover couscous in time, that would have gone in, too!).
    There was a lot, so half got frozen. I was happy about the body that the split peas brought to the dish so will probably use them again.
    Usually I go with only one kind of lentils, some celery and diced potatoes, maybe tomatoes. Chopped greens of any kind, and almost any leftovers are fair game. An ingredient that’s already been cooked gets put in near the end so that it just gets up to temp. I first got my kid to eat this dish with the addition of a couple of sliced hot dogs; put them or any pre-cooked sausage close to serving time as well.
    A slow-cooker full of chili (half of which I can freeze, or use later in the week as chili mac or in taco salads) can cost me $8-$16 depending on whether I use meat, dried or canned beans, organic tomatoes and so on; and the cost of a pan of chole (chick pea curry) lies in single-digit budget-buck territory also.
    As an aside, we are lucky to live near a whole foods cooperative, which gives us access to bulk foods and spices. It’s a huge budget advantage to be able to get the quantities we need, and especially to be able to buy tiny quantities of expensive spices.

  4. I tend towards the same things everyone else mentioned – rice & beans, stews of various kinds, jambalaya, gumbo (surprisingly inexpensive), etc. One “trick” for flavor I’ve picked up is substituting chicken broth for water, or adding a bouillon cube.

  5. Shopping plays a big part, too. My wife grew up with a mother who shopped at a salvaged goods store, and we’ve been patrons of the same folks through a variety of incarnations over the years. You don’t go there expecting anything in particular, you just buy what’s available and make do. Bags of lettuce, frozen goods, cat food, fresh strawberries and other produce…sometimes you have to throw part of a hallock, but at $1 each you can afford it. Then there are the times you get great deals on expensive stuff. I developed a taste for Cotswold cheese (double Glouster w/chives, great with apples) after getting it at a pub years ago but the stuff’s like $18/lb now. One day a couple years ago, Barbara comes home with a couple dozen 5oz wedges at $1 each. We ended up buying out their whole supply. Never see it again, though. The neighbors this year are getting big Toblerone bars for Christmas, also $1 each.

  6. cook, do not buy made meals. leftovers are the best. less meat. farmer’s market bulk. i get cheap peppers in bulk, from my pepper lady and freeze them pre-cut. i got a peck or 2 of died onions. i had onions til june last year. sadly the carrots were not good this year cause drought, but they were good in stew. i got enough carrots for at least 4 pots of stew. the superior potatoes still look fine. pea/bean/lentil soup from dried beans goes a long way. ahh, i make great soup thanks to my grandma + her genes.

  7. darrelplant – don’t know where you live but double-Gloucester with chives is available in big city cheese shops. I’ve bought it in New York, California and Washington. You can even buy it on line — though it’s not cheap anywhere. It’s one of my favorites.

  8. I make poor man’s minestrone soup a lot. You can make a pretty good soup with noodles, frozen vegetables, a few tablespoons of jar spaghetti sauce, spices, and a cut up ham slice or some chicken picked off of an old piece of KFC. Soup has a good ratio of filling-to-fattening too. A lot of cheap food is starchy and not so nutritious.

  9. Here’s a kit for several good cheap meals:
    4 to 6 envelopes Corn-Kits ™ or cornbread mix (not the honey-sweet kind) (3 for $1 now)
    4 to 6 envelopes Bis-Kits ™ or baking mix ($1 for 2 this week)
    1 box powdered buttermilk
    2 lb dry blackeyed peas
    2 lb your favorite dry beans
    1 large can butterbeans
    3 or 4 smoked turkey wings or 1 lb ham hock or 1 large envelope real bacon bits
    1 dozen eggs
    1 bunch kale
    1 8 oz block sharp cheddar cheese
    you will also need a bit of butter and some condiments (plus tea or coffee if you so
    desire — and I’m hardheaded enough to like bouillon powder instead of cubes).
    We make a crock-pot full of black-eyed peas (dry peas, a ham hock or 2 turkey wings,
    3/4 to a tsp onion powder, 1/4 to 1/3 tsp garlic powder, salt & pepper, water to cover all, cook on high for an hour, then at least 3 hours on low, until it’s thick and smoky and wonderful; an ounce of bacon bits tossed in replaces the wings or hocks nicely too.)
    There are 2 of us, and this will make 2 suppers and a lunch, spooned over hot buttered cornbread. Ham hock or turkey wings give it a meaty richness; if you prefer it vegetarian, add 1/2 tsp to 3/4 tsp of liquid smoke when you turn down the heat, and just before serving stir in 1 tbsp light olive oil.
    If you have ’em, you can chop a bit of carrot and celery and onion into leftovers of this, and make hoppin’ john. Ours never gets that far …
    Now, those butterbeans want heating … dice the meat from a ham hock or turkey wing into a skillet and brown it lightly in a tablespoon or so of oil; wash and stem the kale, and wilt it with the meat. Open the beans and add them to the pan, and rinse the
    thick juice out into the pan with half a can of water or so. Once the juices reach a
    bubbly simmer, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. Biscuits or cornbread,
    either one, on the side.
    Make a double batch of biscuits according to the package, only use buttermilk
    (made from that box of dried) for the liquid. Dice your sharp cheddar into pieces about
    1/4 x 1/8 inch and stir in, along with two teaspoons of cracked black pepper. These are
    yummy hot and not bad cold.
    Melt 3 Tbsp of butter and stir in 3 Tbsp of flour, a pinch of salt and a big pinch of
    black pepper; cook until it’s almond-colored, then add 1 1/2 cups water or stock to
    make a cream gravy. Serve this over biscuits — for breakfast put a cooked egg atop each biscuit before the gravy goes on; for lunch or supper try a slice of bacon per biscuit,
    and a thick slice of fresh tomato atop the bacon, and then generous gravy.
    Vary this with what you like — different sorts of beans or meat, mostly; and of course,
    if you tire of biscuits or bread the mixes make excellent pancakes, waffles, or muffins
    with the addition of an egg and oil (the directions are on the packages). A potato baked
    or mashed with butter, a little shredded cheese, salt and pepper and a little bacon is a
    pretty healthy meal, and quite a treat — try making your own “loaded baked” mashed potatoes with a good variety of “instant”.

  10. Lentils. As a living alone grad student (i.e. before I had Jude shoving delicious étouffée at me) I ate a lot of lentils. Green ones with a can of diced tomatoes and dried basil, red ones with some potatoes and curry powder.
    The power of cheap seasonings to make your food suck less is not to be underestimated.

  11. I make a practice of cooking in bulk on weekends, either freezing portions for later or repurposing the leftovers into weeknight meals.
    I save bones and trimmings to make stock so there’s always something on hand for making rice, soups and stews. I freeze some of the stock in ice cube trays and zip bag the results which is SO convenient when you need just a little something to moisten and flavor a dish.
    I also pre-measure and freeze stock in zip bags for my favorite baked rice recipe, adapted from Paul Prudhomme:
    2 cups rice
    2 1/2 cups stock
    2 T each of very finely chopped onion, celery, and bell peppers.
    1 1/2 T melted butter
    1/2 t salt
    1/8 t garlic powder
    dash of pepper
    Mix well in a loaf pan or small casserole dish, seal tightly with foil and bake at 350 for about 1 1/4 hrs.
    If you prefer brown rice increase the stock to 2 3/4 cups and bake for about 1 1/2 hrs. You can modify the seasoning to compliment whatever you’re serving the rice with.
    So easy and when done in a corningware type casserole dish it’s almost impossible to overcook.

  12. I’dstart with flour.
    It really is amazing stuff. Lately I’ve been on a bread baking streak, and I learned how to capture wild yeast. So for about 60 cents a loaf, I now make better bread than I used to buy in the stores.

  13. Soup. Easy, able to use bits of any and everything, and so good in the winter. Add some bread (home made or day old from the sub shop for 35 cents a large loaf) and the world is good.

  14. The cheapest food isn’t always the most healthy. Carbs, especially wheat/flour,rice and any starch vegetable stimulate appetite by provoking an insulin response. For my money, when I have very little, I get the most energy dense food for the least amount of money. Fat is by far the most energy dense food and also quite good for you. Buy a good animal fat source…fatback, lard, chicken backs, etc. and some veggies. Onions, carrots, maybe a few potatoes and cook the fat down with the veggies.(adding any salt pepper, spices that you like.) This is very nutritious as fat is a much better fuel for your body to run on than glucose. Not only will it fill you up it will keep you from getting hungry for a much longer period of time.(No insulin response from fat) As an added benefit, it will also make you lean. Fat makes you skinny and healthy and carbs make you hungry, fat and sick. Stay away from carbs, of all types and your appetite will diminish along with your waistline.
    Merry Christmas

  15. The comment above suggests beginning a diet through ketosis, for which one’s doctor should be consulted before undertaking. And veggies, once cooked, also produce a spike in insulin response, especially potatoes —

  16. I cook a lot with my rice cooker. White, brown or wild rice, barley, bulgur wheat, wheat berries, farro, quinoia and just about any other type of grain can be cooked in a rice cooker. You can cool them, add some salad dressing and make a salad with them, or you can eat them hot. You can get grains really cheap if you buy them in bulk (at ethnic grocery stores especially).
    There are tons of recipes online, or you can wing it like I mostly do. For protein, you can add lentils, beans or quinoia (but if you use dried beans, you will have to pre-soak or pre-cook them). I’ve added chopped ham in with lentil mixes, and that turned out great too. If you want veggies, you can add cheap dried veggie soup mix and put that in to cook with the rice/grains, or for cold salads, add veggies (I especially like broccoli and carrots) after the grains have cooled. I make a cooker full on the weekend and split it up into small containers for the week. So it doesn’t get boring, I’ll package some plain (to reheat) and make a couple of different cold salad versions just by using different dressings for each container.
    I watch for sales of rice-a-roni-style packaged mixes and put them with too, when I’m lazy and don’t want to do my own flavorings. I think that the mixes as sold have not enough rice and too much flavor packet, but if you add a bunch of other grains to the packet, it ends up better.
    My nieces and nephews LOVE cooking with the rice cooker when they visit, and we often add small pasta (orzo, pastina, broken up spaghetti, etc) too. They can each do their own custom recipe of grains and flavors and we vote on whose turned out best. Even the preschool-aged ones can cook with a rice cooker…they are pretty fool-proof.

  17. nutrient rich, raw vegetable foods are the cheapest only way to go.
    spinach, chard, kale. tomato, garlic, avocado. a bit of starch (lentils) and a bit of oil (sesame) and some herbs like parsley, purslane, cilantro. you can live off just two servings of that stuff per day.

  18. This is late, but an inexpensive meal my mother used to make was what she called “Indiana Chili.” Why did she call it that? Because we lived in New Mexico where “chile” is something altogether different than “chili.” Basically it was what I know as Cincinnati chili, but cooked up all together. You take ground meat (a lb? or less?) and brown it with chopped onions and garlic. Add a can of kidney beans and a big can o’tomato sauce. Simmer and add elbow macaroni in whatever quantity you prefer(you might have to add some water.) After my parents moved to NM from Indiana, my mother started throwing red chile powder in to give it a kick, but I’ll leave that to your taste. You can make a lot of this or a little and it is easy, cheap and filling and good for you. If you want to go meat-free, you can just do a couple of types of beans.

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