Om nom nom for cheap!?!?
September 7, 2008 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Help a clueless student eat on a $100/month budget.

First of all, is it possible? 100-120 dollars doesn't seem much.
I eat nearly everything, besides water/melons (don't ask why, I don't know) so I really don't have any preferences as long as I can survive.
On top of all I am very skinny (don't ask why, I don't know) so I imagine I can do good with 2 good meals a day. I do have a somewhat fast metabolism though, so nutritiousness is a key here.

Secondly, I haven't been cooking a lot in my life but I am enthusiastic about starting and learning. Throw some resources for recipes at me, or some simple ideas from your experiences. I don't do much physical work to burn calories like crazy, so that's another thing to consider.
posted by GrooveStix to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 162 users marked this as a favorite
You can't go wrong with dried beans and brown rice...inexpensive, easy to prepare, very healthy and extremely versatile. Add tomato sauce, chopped peppers, onions and maybe a little tuna or salmon for a healthy meal that will go a long way toward keeping you feeling full and being relatively easy on the budget.

Lentils are another inexpensive source of protein and fiber, and can be prepared many ways to either enhance or disguise their inherent "lentilness". Or "lentilosity", whichever you prefer.
posted by motown missile at 10:45 PM on September 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

This FPP has some good information on eating very cheaply.
posted by theclaw at 10:50 PM on September 7, 2008

You are in rice and beans territory at this price point. The hard part is getting enough fresh vegetables to keep yourself healthy. Seek out a farmer's market or inexpensive vegetable stand or the like to supplement a prisoner diet of beans and rice.
posted by caddis at 10:51 PM on September 7, 2008

Basics: rice, beans, big bag of chicken (look in the frozen section or go to the grocery store in a poor neighbourhood), whatever veggies are on sale, cheapest bread (or, if you can get hold of a bread machine, you'll spend way less just making a fresh loaf when you get home in the evening), powdered milk, ramen...

...but, better, how about checking out the great links on eating for less here? Lots of ideas, there, and some of 'em are bound to be useful.

All Recipes (#1 recipe site, but also has cooking tips and general info)
Food Network (lots of expensive stuff, but does have good tips on basic recipes and skills)
RecipeSource (mmmm)
RecipeMatcher (lifesaver - put in what you've got, it'll give you recipes you can make with those things)

Also, check out the library for excellent cookbooks - librarians are also excellent resources for helping you find a book that will give you essential kitchen skills.

Good luck!
posted by batmonkey at 10:54 PM on September 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

$100/ mo just for food? That's easy: mix a bag of brown rice with a bag of lentils; dump a shotglass worth of this in a pot, add twice as much water, some salt, and some fat (olive oil), and some flavor (I like Thai seasoning or bouillon) , cook on low for 30 minutes.

Tortilla-food is cheap and easy too: Heat a corn tortilla or two until soft, smear some refried beans on it, add taco sauce, shredded lettuce or salad from a bag, top cheese. Add sour cream, or avocado if you like, or scramble an egg with the beans. Takes less than five minutes.
posted by unmake at 10:55 PM on September 7, 2008 [7 favorites]

Do you live somewhere where you could perhaps grow some tomatoes or another simple vegetable to supplement a bean+rice diet?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:06 PM on September 7, 2008

Look for scratch-and-dent vegetables. You can often get veggies that are about to go off for very cheap. This is the best source for all those pesky vitamins you'll need to avoid scurvy.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:11 PM on September 7, 2008

At this time of year, you can post on Craigslist and Freecycle asking people who have extra apples, tomatoes, etc. to if you can take them off of their hands. I have a garden and I have so many freakin' tomatoes that I am tossing some of them away.

My grocery store puts rotisserie chickens that don't sell in the refrigerated section for $3.99. I'll get one of those and debone the chicken, then make enchiladas. I make 8 enchiladas per chicken. Carcass can be used for soup. When you make enchiladas, throw in a can of black or pinto beans to stretch the meat. This is also very convenient, because the chicken is already cooked.

My husband and I get cans of soup of sale for $1 or less - this is a cheap lunch.

Learn about wild edibles in your area and forage. For example, mulberries sell for $5/pint at my local farmer's market. However, we can go to local parks near our house and pick as many mulberries as we want in June. They freeze well. I have a kiddo, so we make this a fun expedition and gather as many as we can. She loves mulberries!

Frozen veggies can be found on sale for $1/bag. Have lots of those on hand. You can either eat them as is, or throw them into soups/stews.

Eggs are cheap protein. So is peanut butter. PBJ sandwiches are still good. And there is alaway grilled cheese!
posted by Ostara at 11:12 PM on September 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

$100 will buy you (if you shop around):

5 pounds of dry pasta ($8)
10 pounds of apples ($5)
5 pounds of bananas ($3)
10 pounds of chicken drumsticks ($10; yes, you can buy meat for $1/lb if you shop around)
2 heads of iceberg lettuce ($3)
1 pound of tomatoes ($1)
5 large cans of tomato sauce ($5)
a gallon of milk ($4)
a pound of butter ($3)
5 pounds of flour ($5)
5 pounds of rice ($8)
10 pounds of potatoes ($3)
2 pounds of 'meat ends' from the deli counter ($2)
1 pound of inexpensive cheese ($4)
1 box of quick-rising yeast ($2)
5 pounds of regular ground beef ($7)
2 cans of tuna ($3)
2 pounds of frozen vegetables ($2)
5 pounds of vegetables, depending on where you live and what you like ($5 or less)
5 pounds of dried beans (as little as $1, depending where you go)
1 pound of white sugar ($1)
Two dozen eggs ($4)
A bottle of salad dressing. Or, two bucks into your oil and vinegar fund. ($2)
Two bucks into your salt, pepper, and spices fund, since you don't buy them every month

And you'll still have $7 left to fill out your grocery plan with things you like that aren't on the list. That's enough for a respectable steak or a couple of litres of decent ice cream. Coffee.

The above list supposes that you're going to make your own bread, eat a lot of staple foods, and so forth. You can make mac-and-cheese. You can do oven french fries any time you like. You can make scalloped potatoes. You can pack a deli meat sandwich to go to school. Seriously -- two pounds of meat ends. You never know what you'll get, but that's 900g in lunchmeat, which is more than enough to last one guy for a month.

You can make hommade pizza. You can fake a pretty decent chicken cacciatore. You can have green salad. You can have toast and scrambled eggs in the morning.

Your variety is really limited only to the effort you will put into shopping around.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:13 PM on September 7, 2008 [60 favorites]

My budget student meal consisted of frozen minced beef + chopped garlic & onions tossed in a frying pan + boiled frozen carrots + rice. Frozen vegetables can be fresher than nonfrozen stuff because they freeze them at harvest time, or so I've been told.
posted by nihraguk at 11:21 PM on September 7, 2008

You can easily eat on that, assuming a) you don't eat out, b) you don't mind a lot of repetition in your diet, c) you are careful to eat a balanced diet so you don't get hungry and end up eating out to solve your cravings, and d) you have the time and space to cook and store food.

Usually having a fast metabolism means that two means a day isn't going to work, but everyone's different, so if it works for you great. But two big meals won't save you money compared to eating three smaller meals unless you are just skipping a meal, which is a poor strategy.

If you have access to a freezer or at least a fridge, you can save a lot of time by cooking big pots of food (eg stew, chili, soup, etc) and just reheating a portion at dinner time.

Don't feel constrained by the limitations of how other people structure their meals — a lot of regular breakfast foods are quite expensive (eg boxed cereal) and if you are on a serious budget then you might need to eat leftover rice and a fried egg for breakfast.

Usually the cheapest way to eat is partly-but-not-fully vegetarian. Meat can be expensive, but cheap cuts (eg chicken thighs on sale) used moderately are super for flavoring dishes and provide good protein and nutrition. Pure vegetarianism can be tricky on a budget, especially if you are active and craving lots of calories.

And realize that there is a tension between the absolute cheapest sources of calories, and good nutrition. You can buy boxes of mac and cheese on sale for 25 cents, and raman 10 for a dollar... but that's not a good way to eat day in and day out. Vegies and real meat and whole grains cost more than the hyper-processed stuff, but they give you a lot more goodness for that dollar.

I think a great resource would be some of the classic hippy and punk cookbooks with focused on cheap eating and learning basic cooking skills. Soy Not Oi is a real classic, as is Tassajara Cooking. Mark Bittman's various How to Cook Everything... books are also a great resource, though less focused on cheap eating. (Buy used, not new, for cookbooks if you are on a budget, or borrow from the library, obviously.)

Finally, go to every single university function that offers free food. Gallery openings, the dean's pizza evening, visiting speaker series, and so on, will offer free eats. And you will see that the nimble fingered (that means you) who carry a backpack or a coat with deep pockets can eat for the rest of the day if you load your plate carefully.
posted by Forktine at 11:29 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's totally possible. I'm just starting to master the art of grocery shopping twice a month, and can easily get everything we need to eat well for approx. 250$, which includes cleaning products, garbage bags and other non-food items. Oh, and we have to feed a big dog and several kittens atm.

It took me a few trips to nail down the things I'll need every paycheque, but you will figure it out pretty quick. Get things you can freeze or that never go bad in giant, family sized format. You can often save a bit of money there, and definitely effort because it lasts longer. Get freezer bags so that you can portion the huge piles of meat you should be buying to freeze. I use a list template my mom made, that I've tweaked to my own preferences. There are a bunch on teh internets, so I suggest starting out with one of those, and modifying it. It's easier to decide what you want/need, when it's on the page staring at you. I also saved the list from my first solid shop. That way I don't forget the usuals. I take note of some prices too so that I have an idea of what a 'deal' is.

Things I always buy that are pretty flexible:
Butter, eggs, milk, sour cream, a large container of vanilla yoghurt, bacon, lean ground beef, ground pork, boneless skinless chicken breast (stockup when it's on sale), pork tenderloin (good sale item too), sausages, Sale/couponed cereal only, frozen concentrated juice, one frozen Pizza, fresh brocolli, corn on the cob, apples, bananas, baby carrots, parsnips, avocados, lemons, limes, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, 2x bread (one to freeze!). I also always get a box of soy milk that I can keep in the cupboard until I'm out of fresh milk.

Things I don't need every shopping trip, but like to keep around:
rice, pasta, pesto, a can of plain tomato sauce, parmesan, pea soup, cream of mushroom soup, bouillon/stock, a couple of those lipton sidekick things, garlic, onions, potatoes, lemon juice, frozen fruit for smoothies and yoghurt. Taco meat seasoning, Tortilla chips, wraps.

So... that's a really incomplete and fairly personalised list of things, but what I'm saying is that, if I can feed two people a dog and several cats for under 250$ a months, then you can certainly feed yourself for a similar amount (less than 125!). Just buy a lot of whole foods, that you can freeze, fresh fruit & veggies. Limit the canned goods but have a few to keep around for a 'poor day's, and limit the ready made items, but likewise keep a couple around for 'lazy day's.
posted by sunshinesky at 11:32 PM on September 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Also, if you don't already have one, start putting together a spice rack/cabinet. Lots of yummy meals will be at your fingertips with just a few herbs and spices around.
posted by sunshinesky at 11:35 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

A few suggestions:

- Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, consider eating several vegetarian meals a week. Good quality meat is expensive. Cheap, fatty meat won't give you much in the way of nutrition that you can't get from vegetables. Good vegetarian sources of protein include lentils, tofu and tempeh.

- Find out where the migrant communities in your area buy their food. There's a good article here about why Asian groceries can save you money, but depending on your area you might want to seek out Latino or European grocery stores instead. I buy daal and rice in bulk from an Indian grocery store, vegetables from a chaotic market in Chinatown, and the odd luxury like roasted nuts or olives from a Lebanese store. Some staples can be bought in surprisingly large quantities - I bought a carton of udon noodles not long ago for roughly half what the packets would cost individually.

(If you're not part of these communities yourself, read up on the country's cuisine before you shop. You do not want to be the pompous white dude at the Asian market asking obnoxious questions about the food while the queue stacks up behind you.)

- When you have a few dollars to spare, start building a small collection of spices. Start with the basics like dried oregano, chilli, pepper, cumin. Learn to use them. Spices might seem like a waste of money since they don't have much nutritional value. But if you're living primarily on boring staples, a touch of spice can be the difference between actually eating healthy home-cooked food and blowing your budget on pizza just to stop the boredom. The same goes for small amounts of tasty luxuries like strong cheese, sundried tomatoes or olives - used wisely, they can make boring food enjoyable.

- If you have a sunny balcony or doorstep (or even better, a garden!), grow some herbs. Basil, mint, oregano and thyme are all quite easy to grow in temperate climates. If you buy spring onions (shallots), you can chop off the bit with the roots, stick it in a pot full of dirt and in a few weeks, you will have new spring onions. You can also plant the seeds from veges you buy. Some varieties need a proper garden and gardening knowledge, but in my experience chilli seeds will grow without much encouragement at all.

Good luck! If you have enough time each week to cook a few meals from scratch, your budget is definitely doable.
posted by [ixia] at 11:36 PM on September 7, 2008

instant noodles is the best friend of all poor students on tight budget.

you can add simple dishes to go along with it: fried egg, lettuce & salads, spam & sausages, ... you should supplement your diet with lots of fruits as well.

it could probably be rather unhealthy if you eat like this for a long period of time though.
posted by joewandy at 11:38 PM on September 7, 2008

Find out where the migrant communities in your area buy their food.

Just to underline why this matters, the other day I ran out of bay leaves and needed to buy more. I found that I had the choice of $5.98 bay leaves in the fancy glass bottle in the regular spice section of the grocery store, or a much larger $0.99 bag of bay leaves in the no-frills Latino aisle. Same product, different packaging for different consumers. A lot of the food you will want to buy if you are serious about eating cheap (eg beans, tofu, cheap cuts of meat) is an unusual or luxury item for a middle-class non-immigrant shopper, but is a quotidian item for an immigrant family on a budget.

Make sure you are shopping at stores that are catering to the budget-conscious shopper, rather than places where everything is expensive and you have to struggle to find cheaper options.
posted by Forktine at 11:44 PM on September 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

There'll be plenty of detailed advice in this thread, so I'm going general: always think in terms of staple-with-flavouring.

Rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, noodles and similar staples are cheap & fill you up. It doesn't take much more than a few well-placed flavourings (chilli, garlic, ginger, soy, indian spice mixes, thai curry pastes etc) in a simple sauce poured over the top for them to become packed with flavour.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:54 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't buy breakfast cereals--they're really overpriced compared to plain grains. Oatmeal is a cheaper alternative--make it with milk instead of water for more protein and creaminess. It doesn't have the added vitamins and minerals that most breakfast cereals do, but you can make up for that by taking a multivitamin if you want. If you're just getting the hang of eating cheaply, a multivitamin is probably a good idea anyway.

Spices: depending on where you live, some grocery stores don't have cheap spices. Surprisingly, many US drugstores (Rite Aid, Walgreen's) sell cheap dried herbs and spices--around $1 a bottle.

Eggs: good source of cheap protein, and if you're concerned about the fat/cholesterol content you can eat just the boiled white and discard the yolk. I've noticed that eggs and milk are slightly cheaper at drugstores than at supermarkets in some areas of the US as well.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:21 AM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Grains, beans, rice. sprouted seeds, freeganism - look into it .
posted by watercarrier at 3:28 AM on September 8, 2008

When I was in school there was a church that would give away day old bread to students from a bakery in town. And it was really good artisan bread. They just set it out once a week, big huge table of bread, it was pretty sweet. Maybe check around and see if there is anythign like that.
posted by ian1977 at 3:34 AM on September 8, 2008

It's certainly possible, a couple of years ago I was feeding two people on an equivalent budget. It did take smart shopping -- lots of price comparisons, being prepared to split the shopping between shops to get a cheaper price on an item I would have paid more for if I had done all the shopping in one place/a supermarket.

One side effect was that I did a lot of local and seasonal shopping by necessity. I was living in an isolated area of the country and anything that had to be shipped in came at a premium. This meant for the winter months our diet was based around root vegetables, onions and cabbage, its incredibly cheap, but it did require getting very creative when it came to cooking.
posted by tallus at 3:43 AM on September 8, 2008

I'm doing pretty much this right now, just be prepared to shop really conservatively. If you live in an area with several groceries, get on their mailing lists, sign up for whatever shopper cards they might offer, etc. One of the supermarkets near me runs buy one/get one (or two) free specials a lot - a lot of them may be for expensive things, but bogo peanut butter is an easy way to stock up. There was a 12 for $12 deal on hotdogs, so I bought several packs and put them in the freezer. Some weeks you might run into a great deal, some weeks you won't, but check the circulars/website, see what's on sale, and go for it. I usually buy saline solution, soap, etc. at one store, but staple food items I can usually get on sale cheaper at another..

Ditto what's been said about farmers markets and the like. We have a 'specialty' chain around here that prides themselves on great produce, but that can be really cheap. A dozen ears of corn in season for 3 or 4 bucks gives some great variety for a week or two.

Also ditto on teh prepared foods - usually not the best deal, but sometimes you get lucky. Don't buy it ONLY because it's on sale. Chef Boyardee for a dollar a can sounds great, but you can usually get pasta and sauce for $2-3 that will give you multiple meals. If storage is at a premium, instant mashed potatoes can be had for a few bucks, and a big box lasts forever. Yeah, fresh potatoes would be better, but that's a big bag of spuds to store.

Condiments make it happen - hot sauce, dried onion/garlic/herbs, etc. You can spice something up and make it more satisfying. I'll admit to being one of the guys that buys a block of ramen packs to keep at work (cheap, easy to store, and I swear I eat better at home), but I raid the office's communal 'extra packs' drawer (where everyone that gets takeout and the like tosses the extra ketchup/soy/taco sauce, whatever) and doses up my noodles to make them less boring. This is where that dollar store can come through. I buy tons of stuff at the local JobLot store - sure, there are probably fresher and better laces to get oregano and dried onion, but not at 89o cents a jar.
posted by pupdog at 4:05 AM on September 8, 2008

I would suggest building in an appreciation for eggs in your budget. They are cheap and flexible - scrambled eggs on toast is an easy breakfast, and you can learn to make fritatas or omelettes with veggies for lunch or dinner. You can also learn to make bread pudding with eggs and stale bread, which is fabulous.

Also, you can learn to make dinners that stretch over many meals. If you're learning to cook, than I think that meal mixes, even though they are maybe $2.50 each, is a good spend. If we make a pot of chilli or spaghetti bolognese, we can easily get four servings out of each one. Hamburger, store brand canned tomatoes, an onion and a clove of garlic will go a loooong way when you make meals out of them. For chili, you add kidney beans, which are like 39 cents, and for spag bol, you slice mushrooms. For cost cutting, you can halve the meat and double the beans or vegetables, too.

As you get more experienced in the kitchen, you can learn to drop the mixes and use regular spices to achieve what you want, but when you're learning, it's good to be able just produce the food and get more confident of your ability to do this.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:51 AM on September 8, 2008

I agree with most of what has been said so far - I'm a poor grad student and I survive on dried beans of all types, lentils, brown rice, eggs, peanut butter, frozen veggies, and whatever fresh produce is in season. (Store brand and ethnic all the way.)

I am surprised that no one in this crowd has extolled the virtues of a slow cooker yet. For someone new to cooking, this is an easy way to get started. On a Sunday morning I will take a look at what supplies I have on hand, check out a few recipes online to get an idea of what spice combinations would be good (I like and the food network), and throw together a pot of dinners that will last all week. Especially for a "staple" diet and all those dried beans, a slow cooker is great. It's an investment up-front, but one I think definitely saved me money in the long-term because it made my cheap eats so easy and delicious. (Or since you're a student you might do what I did - ask for one from your parents as a holiday/birthday gift! Mine laughed at me, but were impressed when I made them a delicious stew when they came to visit.)
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 4:59 AM on September 8, 2008

I my spreadsheet says that I spend $125 a head for food a month. We're vegetarian; it's not hard to get a nutritious diet. There may be some hidden costs since I rarely have to refill something expensive from my spice rack. OTOH we eat well with lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, and expensive ($9-10/lbs) coffee. Some key things are

a) acquire a pressure cooker. People unwilling to give you random money for food may be willing to help out with a cheap pressure cooker; they make it easy to prepare dried beans which would otherwise take hours. Retail around $40-60.

b) I shop alot at Aldi and a discount vegetable store. Think about discount grocers near you. I'm told that Chinatowns can have really cheap vegetables, and bean curd. If you can't get that, beg/borrow/steal a membership card or a trip with a friend to discount place like costco and get the things that you can there in bulk. Spices are MUCH cheaper if you're not buying them by the little glass jar. You have to look around, but small bulk bags exists. Some very useful spices are cheap: cumin, ginger, coriander, red pepper, most herbs. I found that bulk spices were cheaper at Whole Foods (!) than at generic grocers like jewl or kroger.

c) free food. When I was an undergrad, I found that I could get free lunches 3-4 days a week and free dinners 1-2 by going to random events, journal clubs, and group meetings.

d) PLAN PLAN PLAN. Write down every meal that you're going to eat at the beginning of the weak. Cross off ones that you know you can get for free (ie. there is Society of Physics Students Wednesday at lunch with pizza). Come up with meals (more on that later) to fill the remaining gaps; write down the ingredients you need for those; buy only those. Most people (esp single people) waste tons of food because they don't plan correctly.

e) TRACK TRACK TRACK. I can save muchos dinar because I know what works, what everything costs reasonably, what's a steal, and what's a ripoff. The only way to do that is to get some practice and keep track of what you've bought. Credit/debit for purchases, a tiddlywiki for a food journal, and a folder/scan of receipts makes this easier. Lots of the time I look in a circular and see "SALE SALE SALE!" and check the unit price to see that it's nothing special. Lots of people get taken in by pseudo sales.

e) Cheap breakfast. Once a week, make muffins and freeze them, or homemade instant oatmeal packs (rolled oats, sugar, creamer, some dried fruit), or granola. You will save tons compared to commercial cereal.

Some meals from the past few weeks (I just pulled these off my fridge):
Broccoli delight (a broc and rice casserole)
Zucchini parm
tex-mex red beans and rice
Vegetarian reubens (tempeh)
Egg cups (baked eggs in bread or tortillas in cups with onions/garlic)
Channa masala
Sang paneer (with moz instead of real paneer)
Pad thai (rice sticks are pricey, use regular noodles or rice itself)
Avocado Alfredo lasagna
Spicy black bean burgers (cumin, onion, garlic, ground chipotle in the patties)
Orzo with porcini mushroom sauce
Pitas with sprouts, tomatoes, fried tofu, avocado
Portobellos baked with balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, pecans, and olive oil
Grilled mushroom/cheese sandwiches with tomato soup
Creamed corn and rice casserole
Refried pinto beans
Red beans and rice, fresca salsa tortillas
Baked potato wedges
Zucchini quesadias
Salad with white beans and an orange vinaigrette
TofuBQ again
Pad thai again
Bean burgers again
Stir fried rice
(red) Lentil red curry
Beet and apple salad
Sauteed asparagus and mushrooms with almonds over rice
Cauliflower and marinara pasta bake.
Several mixed stir-fry vegies (~6 of them, ginger and or garlic and sauce like teriyaki)
Several more pasta dishes
Butternut squash soup
Farmer's breakfast
Corn bread
Several breakfast items: pancakes, fruit salad, crepes, omlets
Veggie gravy (start of a roux) and biscuits

You can see that this isn't eating like a peasant. I'm making everything in decent portions, wasting nothing, (mostly) avoiding pricey items, and getting good prices on everything. The fancier sounding things are in smaller proportions than the cheap ones. Try a dish like red beans and rice or the black bean burgers a few time, record the spices that you use, experiment, and actually get it right. It'll make you much happier than more things done poorly. One of the really tricky things is to know when to just buy something. For example, buying eggroll wrappers for pot stickers is one million times easier than making them from flour. Buying marinara sauce is usually worthwhile, especially if you look out for a good sale.

Go to your local library (the popular library, not your campus one) and they'll have a variety of cookbooks. Similarly thrift shops, but you can get tons of great recipes for nothing on the internet. If you have the gem of an idea, or an ingredient epicurious, allrecipes, vegetarian times, and lots of other sites can fill it out for you. The best cookbooks for me were a) Good Housekeeping b) Better Homes and Gardens and c) Vegetarian times. Good Housekeeping Illustrated assumes that you know nothing whatsoever; it discusses pans, substitutions and measures, sauces, techniques, everything.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:16 AM on September 8, 2008 [15 favorites]

Certainly! That's about $3.60/day. When I was in school, I was on a very similar budget. I always liked to think how much eat meal was costing me. For example, I usually like to do breakfast and lunch for under a dollar, and "splurge" a bit with dinner (usually with meat). I cooked for two, but you could just freeze the extra portions. I shopped at my local dented can store (mainly for failed products or changed packaging), the bread outlet, the healthly food store that had cheap produce (something like Sunflower or Sprouts), Costco (my parents gave me a membership) and a regular grocery store for staples. At the regular grocery store, I routinely used coupons on items that were already on sale, and bought perishable items that were about to expire (and ate them that day).

Examples of what I ate:
-Eggs, eggs, eggs. Eggs are great and cheap. Eaten with toast, or maybe with a defrosted muffin from a batch I made earlier.
-Bagels and Cream Cheese. You can routinely get a 6 pack of bagels on sale, or with a coupon, for about a dollar. Add store brand cream cheese (on sale) for a dollar, and it's a $.30 breakfast.
-Yogurt (when it was cheap) from a big tub, not a individual size portion. (except when they were on really good sale)
-Frozen waffles. Not very nutritious, but often on sale.

Most days I packed it to school. I really liked to eat apples, broccoli and a handful of kashi protein cereal (bulk from Costco). If I ate at home, I'd have leftovers or maybe a sandwich. Grilled cheese is cheap. I'd splurge every Friday by getting a no soda lunch at campus.

Big Batch Chili. Make it however you like.
Spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce (from a giant can of tomatoes from Costco), freezes very well.
Whatever meat I got cheap that week. Typical veggies and starch type arrangement.
Biscuits and gravy. There's always sausage on sale.

On weekends, I worked at a restaurant and ate my lunches for free. I highly recommend serving part time in college. It's great money, and you get free/reduced price large meals.

When shopping, I had a price point for most of my staples. You could be more organized and keep a notebook. For example, I still sometimes drank Dr. Pepper, but only if it went on sale for $2 for a 12 pack. If I wanted non-from concentrate OJ, it had to be also less than $2. I ate whatever produce was in season, and cheap. However, I never found the farmers markets to be cheap. They usually have the most expensive, if tastiest, produce. Eating this way does require a willingness to cook. If you have room in your budget for a book, I highly recommend The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It's not just about food, but it's a great motivation for living a frugal life.
Good luck!
posted by lizjohn at 5:16 AM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I should have previewed. I second everything a robot made out of meat said!
posted by lizjohn at 5:19 AM on September 8, 2008

Oh, it's not on my list but we also made pizza from scratch a few times (including the crust, it's not hard): top with onions, garlic, pineapple, red bells peppers, mushrooms and cheese. It'd cost you $15 out can costs $3 in. We also tend to steam eggs and veggies for snacks while the rice is cooking.

I used to make more spicy stuff, but Ms. Vegetable doesn't like that as much. If you're willing to throw in some fresh habeneros and some fake sausage you can make killer chili. The reason that super hotness is so prevalent in SE asian, mexican, etc. food is that it cheaply and easily makes staples interesting. In thailand, the rice is the meal and that super spicy curry sauce (and maybe some meat or tofu) is flavoring/topping to make it palpable.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:28 AM on September 8, 2008

Palatable. ha
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:30 AM on September 8, 2008

More memories of impoverished student life: for those many pasta nights throw in some fresh spinach, diced onion, something green to make it healthier, more varied, and yummier. I liked to crush up some peanuts on top.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:33 AM on September 8, 2008

I'm not a student, and I eat on less than $100/mo.

Two big ground rules:

Don't throw anything out, and make sure that any ingredients that you can put together for something can be used for something else. A good example is ground meat for tacos. I can only eat so many tacos by myself! So I freeze half of it immediately, and then with the other half, I'll have tacos every other night for a week. Usually in the mornings I'll throw the taco meat in with some scrambled eggs (and fresh produce if I have it... my garden's producing green peppers and tomatoes right now) and make breakfast tacos, which also help me use up the tortilla shells that I got for the tacos. This way I finish all the meat and all the shells before they go bad or I get tired of it.

A second thing is that your freezer is your friend. I make my own spaghetti meat sauce to an old family recipe, and I'll freeze portions of it that I can reheat and use individually... and I also cook a big pot of pasta at the same time and then freeze the pasta and sauce together in single servings. I usually have a freezer ( my secret recession weapon ) full of frozen single-serving grab and go dishes... I may only cook once a week, but I've got a month's worth of meals in there!

Small tips: I cook full family sized dishes, and as above, freeze them in single servings (I'll usually pre-cut things like chicken breasts and servings of steak or other grilled stuff so that I don't have to bring a knife with me or try cutting things using a plastic knife at work.)

I usually grocery shop for 2-3 months at a time all at once. This involves making a careful plan of what you're going to cook exactly, going to the store, and buying only those things.

And my last tip is to get your mom and Grandma to send you their excess coupons. Send them a list of stuff you use and ask for the ones they don't need. I mean, Grandma ain't gonna be buying Axe body wash for herself, so she may as well send me that coupon! With my last big shopping trip at the end of July, which when augmented by my garden has me in fresh food until mid October at this point, I got $250 worth of groceries, laundry detergent, etc. for $170 after coupons. I've only spent an additional $40 since then on soda and a few fresh items (lettuce, etc.) to fill the gaps.
posted by SpecialK at 6:11 AM on September 8, 2008

Check out the hillbilly housewife. It is geared towards serious poverty. On the website she has $45/week and $70/week food plans which are supposed to feed four to six people, so you should be able to scale them down for meal plans that cost you around $11-$20/week, at most.
posted by Anonymous at 6:39 AM on September 8, 2008

nthing "shop at immigrant grocery stores!" In particular, the enormous Asian supermarkets like Assi or Lucky *insert number here* are fantastic for ridiculous prices on bulk rice and fresh vegetables. Napa cabbage is usually around fifty cents a pound; one of the giant heads runs about $2.00 and will keep you in greenery for a week if you slice the leaves and put them on top of rice when it's about ten minutes from being totally cooked.

Alternatively, as long as it's leafy and in the vegetable aisle, put in a hot frying pan with then ten cents of canola oil, a couple pennies worth of ginger and garlic, half a cent of soy sauce, and you have get "stir fry" vegetables that go as $7 sides in fancy-pants steakhouses.

Also, if you're really hitting the bottom of the barrel (living on $10 a week for one person), I can't emphasize the importance of rice cooked in soup. Two dollars worth of soup bones or chicken backs, vegetables from the market at chuck-out time, a half-pound of uncooked rice. It's more filling than just regular soup made with soup bones (which tends to be tasty, but not that filling because there's no meat), and it's easy on the pocket book at about sixty cents or less a serving. It's do-able.

Final cheap Asian grocery store tip: the giant, gnarly carrots that go for fifty cents a pound are much, much sweeter and tastier in soup than the kind in regular grocery stores.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:29 AM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll add my voice to the crock pot suggestion, if only because you can take cheaper cuts of meat and slow cook the hell out of them. You can buy a whole chicken for less than a couple of boneless breasts, cook it with some onions and maybe some potatoes for 5 hours, and have a chicken so tender that the meat practically falls off the bones. And if it's just you, you can eat that chicken with rice or vegetables or with sandwiches for several days. The same goes for stew meat, and you can also use it to easily cook dry beans (so much less expensive than canned) and oatmeal.

The slow cooker itself is a small expenditure, and you can often find them dirt cheap at garage sales.
posted by bibliowench at 7:57 AM on September 8, 2008

I didn't see this mentioned, but go to grocery stores and eat samples. They're usually out at dinner time. I'm not saying that it will fill you up, but if you're desperate to have something that's a "splurg" -type item, like cookies or donuts, there are usually samples available in the store. They're supposed to make you buy more, but I often find that it satisfies my (or my niece's) sweet tooth without costing me anything.
posted by parilous at 11:16 AM on September 8, 2008

Many communities have a store that sells outdated, overstock, and clearance food items. Good place to get variety. Ramen noodles & leftover veggies = easy lunch. Baked beans can often be had cheap, last ages, good, fast nutrition. beans on toast, mmmmmmm.

This family of 4 ate on 100/week, which doesn't exactly translate to 1 person eating on 25/week, but they ate a pretty conventional diet. Looking up the article, I searched for "feed family of 4 100/week" and hit a lot of articles.
posted by theora55 at 12:53 PM on September 8, 2008

It won't be easy, but I think you can do it. Definitely take a look at the Hillbilly Housewife site.

Ultimately, canned goods are going to be your best friends. If I were you, I wouldn't be buying any fresh veggies. Canned or frozen is fine, and much, much, much cheaper. Also, go for bone-in, skin on chicken. The less processing, the cheaper.

I would eat oatmeal or granola for breakfast, a pb and j for lunch, and "splurge" with dinner. Stick to canned foods and you should be fine.
posted by xammerboy at 12:57 PM on September 8, 2008

Depending upon whether or not it's available in your area, I recommend Angel Food Ministries (with apologies for the name) as a definite option- not the healthiest, but it's not a bad way to get some variety with your beans/lentils and rice. A freezer will be necessary because of the amount of meat in each box, and since you can get more than one box at a time, and they usually have just one drop-off a month, it does add up. You can round out one or two regular boxes with some bags of beans, rice, and inexpensive vegetables and be set for the month.
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:37 PM on September 8, 2008

- Two good cookbooks to check out from your library or buy used: "More With Less" and Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything."
- Buy fresh produce in quantities that ensures you'll use them within 2-3 days. People normally throw out 30% of what they buy, so avoiding waste is key.
- Find out where your local Hispanic community shops and go there for fresh items and more. Much cheaper than chain grocery stores. They're also a good place for cheap cuts of meat, tortillas, beans, condiments, etc.
- Keep a few packets of instant oatmeal in your backpack. If you find yourself suddenly hungry, most cafes offer free hot water to make it, and you won't be tempted buy prepared food.
- Buy whole chickens and learn to cut them up yourself. Much lower cost-per-pound, and you can use the trimmings and bones to make soup.
- Avoid ramen noodles. Yes, they're cheap, but they're also very unhealthy. You can do better.
- Keep powdered milk as a backup. It doesn't taste quite the same when drunk straight, but it's perfectly fine for recipes (and much cheaper).
- Learn to bake your own bread. It may seem daunting at first, but after 2-3 times it will be intuitive. Slice the loaf and freeze what you don't use right away.
- Check thrift stores for cooking equipment. With a 12" cast-iron pan and cast-iron Dutch oven, you can make just about anything. To complete the set, add a cutting board, a sharp knife and a stockpot.
- Buy dried beans and lentils. Cook a pound of them at a time in a stockpot (soak beans overnight in water first, lentils don't require soaking). Divide the end result and freeze. Add to recipes and soups.
- Stock your pantry with staples that will make cooking from scratch easier and possible: canned tomatoes, olive oil, onions, garlic, seasonings, soy sauce, hot sauce, pasta, beans, rice, potatoes, flour, yeast, sugar, powdered milk, canned tuna, peanut butter, jam, tortillas to freeze, condiments.
- Enjoy learning to cook! It's a lifetime skill that will give you a lot of satisfaction, not to mention the significant amount of money you'll save over the years by avoiding processed and restaurant foods.
posted by lipstick bookworm at 5:45 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a grad student right now, so I understand the tight budget. I've got a blog where I post the recipes I make, the nutritional information for it (so you can see what is best if you need protein, fiber, etc), and I estimate the total cost and cost per serving of each meal. For example I made a mac and cheese from scratch the other day, and got 8 servings out of about $4.00 in ingredients. Visit for more details.

My biggest advice though, would be to make a big meal from scratch, and then freeze it for later. If you are one person, it may take a while to go through the next 7 servings of mac and cheese - but for 50 cents per serving, it makes a pretty cheap lunch that just needs to be reheated. I made a roasted veggie mix the other day that worked well in a wrap, with rice and chicken, and as a quesadilla - so definitely look for things that can be used in multiple ways - that also was incredibly healthy for a relatively low cost.

Let me know if you have any questions!
posted by wannabegourmet at 12:47 PM on September 13, 2008

Another way to make breakfast - rolled oats from the bulk bin, in a bowl. Pour boiling water on them, a dollop of jam, and eat. Very easy clean-up; I'd never cook oatmeal in the traditional method.

I sometimes need a bit of protein on the side, my wife doesn't.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:38 PM on September 14, 2008

Some alternative solutions:

It's important to understand that you can feed yourself almost entirely without the use of money. There's a money economy that most people in the US are plugged in to, but it can be almost completely circumvented by a mix of creativity, social networking, and a basic understanding of how consumer capitalism works. A bit of free time also helps. (But if you only have $100/mo for food, you should have plenty of free time. If you don't, you should quit what you're doing, because it isn't worth it.)

Get involved with your local Food not Bombs group. It's good for at least one free meal a week (six if you're lucky enough to live in Portland), and you'll get plugged in to a variety of ways to get other free food.

Remember that we live in an extremely wasteful market economy. The best way to get free food is to get an 'in' at any place that distributes food. For example, if you have a friend who works at a bagel shop, you will never want for bread again. At one of the local bakeries in my town, you just have to ride up to the loading dock and they'll load you down with the bread that can't be sent to the grocery stores for one reason or another, though it's still completely edible. It's also great to live near a tortilla factory; I remember one in Denver that threw out crate loads of not-quite-round-enough, piping hot tortillas on a daily basis.

If you volunteer a few hours at a local food co-op, you'll likely get access to more distressed vegetables and slightly dented cans than you can possibly fathom eating. By dome-mate works for our co-op, and the only money I spend on food these days is for beer, coffee, and some freaking incredible local tortillas.

Also, volunteering to work with a CSA or local farmer (such as running a stand at a farmer's market) will often get you a good deal of free food. The produce that gets sold at the market is the stuff that looks the best; all the rest is generally fair game.

And, finally, Don't fear the dumpster!
posted by kaibutsu at 12:07 PM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

We (family of six) use a local food coop. We get local produce and meat for forty percent off, and eat more vegetables because we have too. Also, look into container gardening. And find a source for freshly milled wheat flout (or grind your own) and buy a pasta machine. A wheat grinder is expensive up front but there is nothing like waffles made from freshly ground whole wheat. Buy the "white" variety rather than hard red--still whole grain goodness, but tastier.
posted by mecran01 at 3:16 AM on September 16, 2008

posted by zouhair at 7:42 PM on January 13, 2009

« Older Help me buy some suits   |   What is an editorial plan? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.