How can I update my menu without breaking the bank?
September 28, 2008 5:20 AM   Subscribe

I would like to diversify my meal choices, but I can't afford to shop every week.... any suggestions?

I recently graduated grad school, so I'm your typical poor post college guy trying to get his life started. One way I found helps to greatly reduce expenditures is to go grocery shopping once a month. I've accomplished this by buying in bulk, and buying the same things over and over. However, I'm getting sick of the menu, and shopping for food is now a chore. My time as a bachelor has actually made me a good cook, so I'm not afraid to be adventurous. The only caveat is my budget is $80.

The typical shopping cart consists of 3lbs of 95% lean ground beef (2-3 nights of chilli, 2 nights of tacos, 3 nights of spaghetti and meatsauce); a bag of frozen chicken (8-12 dinners), pork chops or steak (the not so great cut of what's on sale, 2-4 dinners); 3 packs of spaghetti (30 dinners I do get sauce whenever I need it, not once a month) 5 packs of store brand "flavored" rice (10 dinners), 8 bags of various frozen veggies (30 dinners), 5 cans of tuna (10 lunches), 25 ramen noodles (25 lunches), eggs (6 breakfats) and oatmeal (12 breakfasts). If I hit the jackpot catching good sales, I may indulge in ice cream. I usually just drink tap water, but I can afford it, I get juice too. And believe it or not, I live in southern Cali, and that is $80 bucks give or take 5 bucks I usually just drink tap water, but if I can afford it, I get juice too.

So as you can see, I get a lot of mileage out of my food, but 4 months of this is getting to be unbearable. I used to love chicken... now I'm like X_X when I have to make it. I was hoping the metafilter think tank could suggest some things. I should note, I do spice up my secletion.... BBQ chicken, or I'll grill chicken, or bake chicken lol. The main consideration is it last to last for a few nights and not break the bank! thanks much =)
posted by FireStyle to Shopping (24 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Where do the immigrants in your town shop? If you have them, you should have a few ethnic groceries nearby, which tend to be targeted towards newcomers, who usually don't have tons of money to spare. My city has Chinese and Turkish immigrants, so I often go to their ethnic groceries, where I get lots of exotic things on the cheap like red lentils, rice noodles, coconut milk, etc. What you get depends on the populations where you live, but I'd hit up the local library for ethnic cook books. A typical meal for me is a beef curry made with curry paste, a little coconut milk, and rice noodles.

Also, spurlge on some spices or herb plants for your windowsill....they can add a whole new dimension to your cooking
posted by melissam at 5:42 AM on September 28, 2008

What about beans and legumes, especially lentils and dal in Indian recipes, split-pea soup, minestrone, feijoada, and so on?

I think what I'm suggesting is starting to use meat as a flavor base for more dishes, drawing on more cuisines (eg Indian, Italian, Latin American), and swapping out some of those flavored rice boxes (which get old pretty fast) for things like lentils that are more adaptable and really cheap. You can make a fabulous dish (enough for several meals) out of blackeyed peas cooked up with onions, spices, and some bullion, plus some leftover roast chicken added for flavor, for example, and the cost per meal is going to be really, really low.

So I'm saying treat meat as a flavoring more than a dietary staple, which implies choosing cheaper and more flavorful cuts of meat. Soup bones, shank, oxtail, and chicken thighs are all cheaper than the "high on the hog" dainty cuts, but are cuts that go a really long way as flavoring.

That lets you tap into Mexican, Brazilian, Indian, and other styles of cooking that are heavy on the rice/beans/legumes, with meat as a secondary ingredient. Avoid the fancy recipes that have lots of steps and weird ingredients you will never use again — you don't want to spend all weekend making tamales, for example. You want basic foods that taste really good and can be made in a reasonable amount of time.

Tomatoes (can be from a can), onions, and chilies, plus bullion cubes, are the flavoring base for cooking around the world. If you have those three things plus a couple of staples (eg pasta, meat, vegies, rice), you can make a great Italian pasta sauce, a really tasty Mexican guisado, an Indian curry, or a West African jollof rice; you are only a few ingredients away from a basic jambalaya or osso buco. And yet, you could eat these things one after another and never get tired of the basic ingredients, because the flavors come together so differently. (And they are all super cheap, too.)

My point here, really, is that if you very slightly expand your staples, and buy very flavorful meats, you can then combine and recombine those staples in ways that are not boring at all, and instead are exciting and fun to eat.

(And I'm sure you know this, but if you have the freezer space, freezing extras avoids the problem of eating the same thing for four days in a row and getting sick of it. If you don't have a freezer, then you have to watch how much you cook much more carefully.)
posted by Forktine at 5:51 AM on September 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

Look into joining a CSA. This can be a very economical way of varying your diet by getting an assortment of seasonal vegetables weekly, replacing your monthly supply of frozen vegetables plus probably some of your meat. Then, it's as simple as acquiring a couple of good cookbooks or googling your available ingredients to have new and interesting mealsl.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:02 AM on September 28, 2008

Where are the vegetables? They are so versatile and if you know where and when to shop - el cheapo. Fritatas, soups, casseroles, stews, patties, salads and on and on. You can take out the frozen kind - because they have ZERO nutritional value and get them as fresh as you can from the market. Betcha it'll come out to be more or less the same cost. And you can stretch them fresh veggies much more than the frozen (blech) kind.
posted by watercarrier at 6:13 AM on September 28, 2008

My only suggestion that comes to mind is to stop buying boxes of flavored rice, and buy the biggest bag of rice you can find instead. It will probably last a couple months, then you can buy black beans, lentils, etc. to make your own flavored rice mixes, fried rice, or other rice dishes..
posted by p3t3 at 6:19 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

One money leak I can see in your shopping list is the flavored rice. If you were to buy big bags of white and brown rice and invest $20 in a rice cooker, you can achieve great results on the cheap and stretch your leftovers. For instance:

Rice + leftover chopped up chicken + handful of frozen vegetables + pat of butter + salt and pepper + boullion (sp) cube a much more hearty meal than prefab rice mixes. Probably cheaper too.

I'm also a big fan of making my own tomato sauce. If you made a big batch all at once and portioned it out into 8 oz Ball jars, you could freeze a whole bunch and keep a couple handy in the freezer for later. I posted my recipe for this to my own blog awhile ago with some video. Price tag, assuming you're not going out to buy salt, pepper, olive oil and basil is about $10 for 90 ounces (for me, that's roughly 12 meals worth) of sauce.
posted by GamblingBlues at 6:19 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can take out the frozen kind - because they have ZERO nutritional value

Frozen spinach, and most especially frozen peas, can be more nutritious than fresh when they are flash frozen in the field. Likewise blueberries.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:22 AM on September 28, 2008

GamblingBlues is right about the rice cooker, I'd go all the way and get one of those sealed Japanese kind rather that the glass-topped ones. In warming mode they can keep rice for days. Keeping something warm preserves it just as much as keeping it cold does.

Cook the rice, in broth if you like, until it's about half done then layer some veggies or fish on top to steam.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:30 AM on September 28, 2008

You can get some cheap-eating mileage out of a 5lb bag of potatoes. (Seriously, this post is a little creepy considering my spudly user handle, but I don't work for a potato company or anything...). To start, you can make a quick and easy shepard's pie (only other ingredients seem to be things you have-- ground beef, frozen mixed veggies). Then you can use the potatoes to make a delicious corn chowder, which is a great autumn meal-- you can get cream and whole kernel corn super cheap if it's store brand. They'll also provide you with lots of "sides" options, like baked potatoes, which are filling, or cut 'em up to make steak fries/home fries for a treat. Also scalloped potatoes, potato-egg salad, etc.

One other suggestion is maybe buying ground turkey instead of ground beef-- I find that it's cheaper and tastes about the same if you spice and cook it right... we use it for chili and tacos, like you!

And the last suggestion may not be doable, but if you happen to already have a membership to your local wholesaler's club (you said you bought things in bulk but I wasn't sure where), then you can save money by buying meat and lunchable items (cups of applesauce, Ramen, soups and stuff) there. Just buy a 5 lb tray of meat and when you get home, separate it into meal sizes and put it in freezer bags (the latter are minimal cost if they're store brand).

At the very least, if you don't have a membership, find someone who does, and hit them up to go along for the ride next time they go. Our local place seems to allow a guest, so maybe you could offer to carry your friend's groceries up to their place and put it away for them in exchange for the freebie trip.

Good luck!
posted by potatopeople at 6:51 AM on September 28, 2008

I definitely think you need more fresh fruits and veggies . . . I mean, do you poop at all?! I'd look for a farmer's market in your area. I can generally get a month's worth of veggies and fruit at one for under twenty dollars. If not, I'd try adding one bulk, in season fruit or vegetable item so you have nutritious snack foods around--right now, for example, apples in my area are four bucks for a three pound bag, which is pretty cheap. Definitely check out ethnic markets. Produce there tends to be much, much cheaper.

You might also consider adding canned vegetables, which are often cheaper than frozen, and canned beans. You can use the beans for a ton of stuff--for stretching out your chili, to make hummus, for adding to salads (if you also buy lettuce . . . ). Rather than buying jars of sauce for spaghetti, you could get cans of diced tomato and add the spices and salt yourself. This might add some space in your budget for other things.

You might try to teach yourself to make soup. I live alone and this is what I usually do if I don't want to cook for awhile. Since I live alone, I'm often sick of whatever it is by the end of the week, but you can vary it so that you never get the same soup twice. Pumpkin soup, made from canned pumpkins, is very healthy.

Oh, and this might get some flack from the peanut gallery since it's not a healthy choice at all, but if you want to spice up your plain water, packets of unsweetened koolaid can be bought for twenty five cents each. And you can add sugar or artificial sweetener to your liking.

Also something to consider: if your budget for food is so tight out of necessity, and you're not making a lot of money, you might qualify for foodstamps. It could be worth looking into.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:47 AM on September 28, 2008

Also--are you buying instant oatmeal or the kind you have to cook? Because the stovetop kind is cheaper, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2008

You say 3 lbs of ground beef gives you "2-3 nights of chilli, 2 nights of tacos, 3 nights of spaghetti and meatsauce". You might want to introduce more fruit/veg and cut down on the meat. If you were using 100g of beef for each meal, you'd need 800g of beef or around 2 lbs. You might also look at the amount of meat you are eating at other times.
posted by acoutu at 8:03 AM on September 28, 2008

I think all the hating on frozen vegies is really misplaced. I buy them on sale, so they are really cheap, and definitely cheaper than fresh vegies when you account for spoilage, trimming, etc. For a single person especially, frozen vegies are nice because you just use the amount you need and put the rest back in the freezer for later, so there is no wastage at all. Nutritionally they are fine, maybe not as good as something organic that you eat five minutes after it is picked but compared to the tired and over-sprayed stuff in the produce section at my local store they aren't bad. Canned produce, with the exception of tomatoes, tends to be really mushy and taste, well, canned.

I think farmers' markets really vary — my local one has produce of very high quality, but of equally high prices. I use it for luxuries (good apples, fresh greens) that are worth the high prices to me, but I'd never do all my vegie shopping there, unless I had a lot more disposable income than I do now. I'm sure there are farmers' markets out there with really cheap produce, though, and if your local one is like that then you have a marvelous resource available. (I was told recently that if you go around to the stalls right at closing time, there are serious bargains to be had, because no one wants to put the perishables back in the truck. It's worth a try, anyway.)

So I think the economical and healthy approach is to get the best of each world: buy frozen on sale for things (like peas, for example) that are cheap, convenient, and fresh that way; buy staples like onions in the regular produce section (watching for sales and loss leaders); and buy the luxuries at the farmers' market, though on $80/month there isn't a lot of space for luxuries. My experience with CSA is that the quantities are often wrong for a single person, but I'm sure that some CSA programs have single-person options. Again, though, the price is going to be a really big chunk out of $80, unless the CSA has a sliding scale (which some do).
posted by Forktine at 8:08 AM on September 28, 2008

Yes, the hate on frozen and canned veggies is absolutely bunk! While some frozen veggies lose a bit of nutrients in the freezing/blanching process, they ARE still just as nutritious as other methods or fresh, so you're fine with keeping with the frozen ones. Regardless, you really need more veggies and less meat. Eating what's in season will keep the veggie cost down - many types of squash are so cheap at the moment (pumpkin, butternut, acorn, others) and very healthy. They're dead easy to prepare - cut in half, scoop out the seeds (save them for toasting if they're big enough - a great snack for free!), stab it with a fork to make little holes on the inside and rub some brown sugar around the inside, add a bit of butter and water and bake in the oven for ~40 minutes. One squash is about 3-4 servings. Read the grocery store advertisement to see what other veggies are on cheap and look up a recipe that you can make with them. Most grocery stores have an area where they sell overripe or slightly damaged produce for way cheap, so you can get some good deals there, and better quality produce if you know what time them out at. I've found Farmers Markets to be higher in quality but the same price if not a bit more - sometimes I find great deals but like Forktine I never do all of my shopping there.

Looking at your location, South California, I would assume avocados are very cheap. They're a wonderful power fruit, add half to your breakfast for a great morning boost or throw into a salad. Do more research and find out what other produce is regularly low price, and plan around them.

You could also investigate soups. Very very cheap, but filling and delicious, and there's so many types of soup you can make that you'll never get bored. Simmer some beans and barley (maybe some leftover rice even) for a while, add any veggies you have on hand and some cubed meat and simmer for even longer, voila it's soup! It's a great way of using up scraps and leftovers, and can be a good number of meals. And it's pretty hard to make a bad soup. You can get super thrifty and "reuse" your chicken too - save your bones and leftovers from a chicken dinner the night before and stew them in a few cups of water to make a tasty broth base for the soup. Maybe cut up throw in some leftover pasta to make a chicken noodle soup... be creative!

Bonus tip for the thrifty shopper: buying dehydrated beans is even cheaper than canned beans and only requires that you soak them overnight to prepare them. I keep both canned and dried beans on hand to cover times when I need beans NOW, but if I plan ahead and rehydrate it's a great way to save some extra money.
posted by Meagan at 8:25 AM on September 28, 2008

I would dial back on the meat -- all kinds of it -- and get more beans and fresh vegetables. Frozen is fine, but having fresh as well will give you some variety.

Also, instead of the flavored rice mixes -- have you ever tried risotto? That can be very versatile. It will take some time in the kitchen, but you can do a LOT with it. (Mind you -- you will see some recipes say that you have to stir the risotto constantly as it's cooking, because you're adding the liquid only a half cup at a time as the previous half cup cooks into it, but that's actually not necessary -- just give it a good stir now and then and you'll be good.) Polenta is another thing to try -- that's just cornmeal cooked into a mush.

The thing with risotto and polenta is that they can be used as good "bases" to which you can add other ingredients, or even leftovers, to make a whole other meal. This sounds like what you'r[e doing with the flavored mixes already, but this way you can make it yourself, and that means YOU decide what flavor you get.

As Meagan says above, soups can also be good for this kind of using up leftovers too. And ditto on buying beans dried instead of canned -- although if you really want the convenience of canned, you could always try buying a bag of dried beans and cooking the whole bag in one go, which will give you about six cups of beans -- dole that out into three separate two-cup size containers and freeze them, and you'll have all the convenience of canned beans at a third the price.

But -- meat is more expensive than you think, and you're getting a lot of it. Cutting back on that a bit could help a LOT.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on September 28, 2008

To be clear, my recommendation of a CSA had nothing to do with hating on the nutritional value of frozen vegetables and everything to do with encouraging variety in the diet at an affordable price, as requested.

For what works out to $8 a week I get around 4 lbs of fresh vegetables a week. A CSA can be cheaper than buying produce at the store or farmer's market because it's worth it to the farmer to have the upfront money, in other words, to know that all of their produce will sell every week.

Many vegetables don't come in frozen form. Many recipes cannot be made with frozen vegetables. Plus, having fresh seasonal vegetables in the house means you cook with them because you've got them and thus you're forced to explore new recipes. Some of the vegetables we get we freeze right away, to be used in the off season. Some we make into old standby recipes. Some we eat raw. But we're also constantly trying new recipes with new foods.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:52 AM on September 28, 2008

The key is to have ingredients that can be combined in different ways--mixing and matching. I like to have these things in the house: rice, eggs, soba noodles, tuna, dark leafy greens, tortillas, peanut butter, hummus, beans, cheese, supplemented by whatever seasonal fruits and vegetables grabbed my fancy--e.g., berries, fresh peas, beans, squash.

Reducing the meat can trim your budget. Mostly due to laziness, I don't eat much meat at home. Asian markets are great for different kinds of noodles, along with big bags of short-grain rice. Also, eggs and peanut butter are good sources of proteins and fat that are relatively inexpensive. Find a health food store with a bulk section. Go there often for oatmeal, and grains like quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, wheat berries.

You really want to cut costs? Bake your own bread. And no, you don't have to buy a bread machine. You'll save a lot of money, and your bread will kick ass over the fluffy crap that is passed off as bread in most places.

Frozen vegetables are geared for people who don't have the time and opportunity to keep fresh ones in the house. The OP's concern is cost, in which case fresh and frozen are roughly the same (based on fresh and frozen broccoli at my store), and doesn't say whether he/she is near a farmer's market or a good supermarket.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:23 AM on September 28, 2008

Some things that are cheap and keep well:
- pancake mix
- dried beans
- lentils (mmm), split peas, etc.
- the big bag of rice (you could get different kinds - basmati, brown)
- onions and garlic
- peanut butter: good for PB&J or for an easy peanut sauce -- good on chicken wings or on veggies & rice
- squash and potatoes
- tahini (sesame seed butter), which makes good sauces, or a good sandwich, or you could use it with the chickpeas (and some lemon and garlic) to make hummus (a little less cheap than the other suggestions above)

To keep fresh veggies and spices around, what about growing your own? Basil, cilantro, green onion, & lettuce seeds don't cost much at all (free at the Berkeley Ecology Center if you promise to repay them with more seeds once your plants go to seed). You'll need something to grow them in (old oatmeal container with some holes drilled in the bottom, maybe?) and you can often get soil or soil amendments (eg, compost) for free (City of Berkeley has a monthly giveaway of compost). Alternatively, you could get a plot at a community garden, which already has dirt. Also, surely some folks in your neighborhood have fruit trees, no? Offer to help them rake or something in exchange for picking rights.
posted by salvia at 10:31 AM on September 28, 2008

Is the reason you can't shop every week the cost of transportation to the store? If it's just the cost of groceries in general, then I would buy at least a few fresh fruits or vegetables each week. I usually buy whatever is on special at my store (sometimes it's veggies that are a couple days old and need to be sold right away -- those are really cheap, although you should cook them ASAP). Also, I would buy canned or dried legumes (chick peas or cannelini for example). Those are a good way to bring variety to the protein part of your meal. And they're really cheap. My favorite recipe is ful because you can use canned tomatoes and canned/dried beans; I substitute white beans for fava. It's so good, and so cheap (search the Moosewood at that link for Ful). I have to say, it was beans and canned tomatoes that got me through grad school.
posted by bluefly at 11:41 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Similar questions have been asked many times on AskMe -- example, example, example, example, example, example.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:22 PM on September 28, 2008

For an easy and cheap way to mix a new flavor family into your regular schedule: instead of having spaghetti with tomato sauce, make a "asian" peanut sauce over spaghetti and stirfried fresh or frozen veggies. Its easy: just combine regular old peanut butter with a little hot water (only a little, or it will be too runny) and stir it in a bowl until its creamy and liquidy. to this add the following in whatever amount tastes right to you: soy sauce, cayenne powder or chili flakes or hot sauce, chopped onion, cilantro, maybe a little of a prepared curry paste (like those little glass jars from thai kitchen, these are really good and can be used in many ways to add spice and flavor, i even add it to ramen!), you could add ginger too if you like, or maybe some plum sauce (or just cheap plum jelly). Boil pasta, stir fry veggies with oil and maybe some more soy sauce, pour sauce on top when you serve it. YUM. this is good hot and cold. also, good with chicken.
posted by dahliachewswell at 2:28 PM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try buying produce at ethnic markets, too--it's often cheaper.

If there's a damaged/dented foods shelf at your supermarket, make sure you check that out. I find a lot of canned vegetables, fruits, and beans, boxes of rice, and quick bread mixes. At smaller stores you can sometimes get bruised or overripe produce at reduced cost.

Buy fruit and vegetables in season and freeze them.

Two of my favorite dirt-cheap staple dishes:

Chop up some onion and pepperoni (or hotdog or sausage, whatever you've got) into little bits and saute it in oil. Stick in peppers or other vegetables if you have them. Add leftover cooked rice and keep frying til everything's getting delicious-looking. Beat an egg or two, dump it into the rice, and scramble everything around good. This uses really cheap meat as a flavoring while giving you some more protein from the egg.

Soak dried black beans overnight, then rinse and set to boil for about an hour. Cook white rice. When the beans are nearly done, add finely chopped onion. Drain beans, add to the rice, and sprinkle generously with salt. Ideally the grains and beans will be firm and distinct, not mushy, and the onion will still have a little bite to it.
This might be the cheapest staple dish you can eat. Casada--black beans and rice usually served with sides of fresh tomato, fried plantain, and some kind of meat--is the staple meal of Costa Rica, with good reason: it's cheap, filling, hits most food groups. The beans and rice will keep for several days, microwaves well, and is amazing for breakfast, too.

Basic Louisiana red beans and rice with sausage is another good bet.

On preview, seconding dahliachewswell's peanut sauce--I lived on that in college!

There are a TON of great blogs about how to eat affordably. Here are a couple places to start:
posted by hippugeek at 2:32 PM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: wow, this is incredible.... so many good dishes here, i don't think dinner will ever be boring again! Shopping at ethnic markets is such an awesome idea as well.... there are quite a few nearby!
posted by FireStyle at 4:21 PM on September 28, 2008

I like to spend an hour on perusing allrecipes once in awhile. I particularly like the option available at the top of the page where you can type in ingredients that you generally keep on hand and pull up all of the recipes they have that use that/those ingredients. I may or may not follow the exact recipes they have there, but I read the ones that sound most interesting, and for me, least complicated, with the most taste bang for the buck. I pull ideas from the recipes such as cooking methods, sauces/herbs/flavorful ingredients that I can keep around to complement the common ingredients I generally cook with. You will doubtless find great new ideas for the basic ingredients you like to use, and learn what herbs/techniques you may want to add to your cooking repertoire.

One more really simple idea I use...I buy a five-pound bag of potatoes, and use the bigger ones as bakers, (or two smaller ones) making them a whole meal by topping them with various ingredients, most of which you seem to use already...i.e. top with marinara sauce, and some steamed veggies and cheese, or taco ingredients with sour cream and salsa, or sour cream/stir-fried pork or chicken with frozen vegs, with a couple of favorite herbs/sauces, like those you'll be adding from your local ethnic markets. Of course the rest of the potatoes can go into soups, frittatas, etc. The baked potato meal often can come from leftovers of previous meals, so is a real timesaver when you want to just sit down, watch the game, and eat.
posted by mumstheword at 6:43 PM on September 28, 2008

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