Super cheap meal planning for a single cook
December 5, 2008 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Are there any emergency cheap meal plans for single people?

I'm in a temporary financial tight spot, and I need to eat super inexpensively for the next three weeks. I should be able to pull this off: I know how to cook, I've got access to cheap produce, a decent grocery store, and an Aldi, and I've got a reasonably well-stocked kitchen. I'm looking for some guidance, though. There are a lot of websites with cheap weekly meal plans, but they tend to be for families. Does anyone know of any websites with something like the Hillbilly Housewife's emergency $45-dollar-a-week meal plan, but for people who are cooking for one? Extra bonus points if the recipes are not terribly unhealthy.
posted by craichead to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Steal this Wiki has some good cheap recipes.
posted by chairmanroflmao at 1:51 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

This isn't meal plan-y, but as a broke college student, I frequently check's budget cooking section for ideas on cheap, healthy meals.

Sure, you'll have to lay out the weekly meal plans, but the website is super user-friendly, and you can adjust the recipes for one with just a couple of clicks.
posted by aliceinreality at 1:59 PM on December 5, 2008

I like the blog here. Dollar stretcher sometimes has good ideas too.

I think the best advice for eating cheap and healthy one serving at a time is to get really good at preparing in bulk and freezing individual portions. It's sometimes hard to cook one serving of cheap foods like rice, beans, etc. without wasting some. So, along that vein you could also look for good "once a month cooking" recipes that are designed to be frozen.

A book I really like is this one if you just want to throw something together and all you have left in the cupboard is a can of tuna or something.
posted by cabingirl at 2:04 PM on December 5, 2008

I don't know any websites that will lay this out for you, but for three weeks you could probably put together a very cheap plan that would work for you based on the Hillbilly Housewife's plan or some usual common sense. A big bag of brown rice (possibly cheaper from the bulk bin), some dried beans (again, cheaper in bulk), and a variety of on-sale vegetables and fruits will keep you well nourished for cheap. If your vegetables start getting old before you can eat them, make vegetable soup. (Do this when they're just less crisp than you like, not once they're moldy.) For breakfast, eat oatmeal (again from the bulk bin). Lunch food is leftovers from dinner, or you could eat a lot of PB&J sandwiches. Buy grocery-store brand bread and peanut butter (sometimes you can get PB from the bulk bin, too!). This might get a bit monotonous, but for three weeks you can handle it. If you've got anything tasty in your cupboards already (salsa, spices, soups, etc.) make sure to use that stuff to help add variety.
posted by vytae at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2008

You don't even need a meal plan - you can subsist on $7.50/day easily by eating staples. Rice, and pulses are your friends (think mung dal, lentils, dry beans for soaking). Make your own pastas with whole wheat flour and eggs (not cheaper than store pasta but better tasting and more filling). Gourds and squash that are on sale. If you eat meat, a whole chicken should be easily less than $2 a pound - you can roast it, use it for chicken sald, and soup. Otherwise, tofu is cheap. A large tub of yogurt and in season fruit for breakfast. Salt, pepper, garlic, onions, and whatever spices you have lying around. Let your imagination and recipe websites guide you. Breakfasts become sausage, bacon, egg, and muffinless, lunches become leftovers from dinner the night before.

What you can't do is (a) buy convenience foods (i.e. frozen, preprepared, deli, "fun", etc.), (b) eat snack foods (soda, bagged snacks, tubs of ice cream), (c) use never-ending specialty ingredients (i.e. prosciutto, fancy cheese, lean cuts of beef, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and so on).

Just to give you an idea what you can do with a 12qt. stock pot and a few freezer containers. I write this as I am making a 10 quarts of ham and bean soup for my wife, daughter, and I. Price of ingredients for approximately 8 dinners for 3 people? $16.00 USD or less than $.70 each (we add fresh baked bread which raises that a fraction). That's for the ham (I use premium smoked hocks, 2 pounds of dried white beans, and vegetable ingredients for the stock). A 7 quart pot of meant and bean chili (5 dinners) costs about $20.00 (with premium organic ingredients), or about $1.30 per person per meal not counting the corn bread and honey we serve. We can get a whole 10lb. roasting chicken, cut the breasts and thighs out (two family dinners right there), use the carcass to render for 3-4 quart of stock to which we add a few veggies and some noodles for chicken noodle soup and other dishes (Cost of chicken? $8 dollars on sale).
posted by mrmojoflying at 2:19 PM on December 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's a related thread, and from that, a fantastic comment.
posted by peep at 2:35 PM on December 5, 2008

Response by poster:
You don't even need a meal plan - you can subsist on $7.50/day easily by eating staples.
It actually has to be closer to $5 a day than $7.50, and if I could get by on a little less than that, it would be nice. I think I've got breakfast covered, though: I have an unopened 42 oz. thing of oatmeal and a bunch of brown sugar and some raisins, and I think that should do me for three weeks.

It might be that my best option is to make a couple of big recipes of bean soup, freeze them, and eat them every day for the next three weeks, but that sounds kind of unappealing, so I'm hoping there's an alternative that will provide a little more variety.
posted by craichead at 2:35 PM on December 5, 2008

but that sounds kind of unappealing

Then don't do that. Seriously. It seems like it'll be easiest, but then you won't want to eat it every day, and you'll find yourself justifying the expense of fast food.

Another tactic you can use is to see what's on sale and plan a series of meals based on the primary protein you have. For example, if a pork roast is on sale, then you roast it the first day, then you cut it up and make pork enchiladas with salsa verde, then the third day you cover it in BBQ sauce and eat it on a bun.
posted by cabingirl at 2:45 PM on December 5, 2008

A whole chicken costs less than $10 and can go a long, long way. You roast it, eat it, and freeze/stretch the leftovers, then use the carcass for stock and freeze that. Or you can make stock first, poaching the chicken, and stretch the meat from there.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:55 PM on December 5, 2008

and eat them every day for the next three weeks

Ew...don't do that. Make three meals worth and have it once a week. Our bean soup is for the next two months :) The more you save on meals like that, the more latitude you have for days when you want something fun.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:19 PM on December 5, 2008

I'll second mudpuppie – a chicken is a great way to get your money's worth. Assuming you aren't too picky about the cruelty aspect of eating "broiler chickens", you can get them incredibly cheaply in some places – a 1.8kg whole chicken goes for €3.50 in my local Tesco – and it goes a really long way. Roast it and eat one breast with some potatoes roasted around it.

Pick off all the meat and make some stock, which is great for soups (when you can make a whole meal out of a bag of mushrooms, an onion, some milk and your stock). Eat the other breast the next day with rice and ketchup/hot sauce (a bottle of really hot hot sauce goes a long way, keep an eye out for this Vietnamese stuff), and make a curry out of the thigh and leg meat that will last you for another two days, minimum. Even factoring in the costs of the jar of curry sauce (Aldi do a very cheap and very delicious tikka masala), you've had chicken for four dinners for maybe €5.

Very cheap minced meat is usually easy enough to find in freezer sections, and with that you can make a great pasta sauce which can then be turned into a chilli the next day. Fry some chopped onions and your mince in a pan for a while (spoon off all the fat that comes off the mince), add crushed garlic for five mins (you just want to soften it, not brown it!), and throw in chopped peppers, maybe a chopped carrot, a few tins of chopped tomatoes and some seasoning if you can afford it. Be sure to use lots of salt because salt is delicious and we're too poor to care about our kidneys. Leave that to simmer for an hour or two and serve with pasta. The next day, reheat your leftover sauce (there will be plenty), add two tins of kidney beans and some chilli powder and some hot sauce. Serve with rice and enjoy. Chilli also keeps well so you can snack on the (inevitable) leftovers in the subsequent days.

Finally, my favourite pasta sauce is this: peel about six sausages (ultra-cheap ones, natch), roll the meat into balls about half an inch in diameter and fry them in some oil with a chopped onion and some crushed garlic. Add a dessert spoon of flour, stir for about 40 seconds, then add a cup of milk and stir that in for a minute or two – as long as it takes for the milk to bind to make a creamy sauce. Add two tins of chopped tomatoes and some oregano and simmer for an hour or two. About ten minutes before you serve, grate some nutmeg into it (maybe hard to get cheaply, maybe not) and serve with pasta. It's absolutely divine.

Bear in mind that I'm writing from Ireland, so things could be way off for you – just looking at the price of chicken in America in the above comments really upsets me. But hopefully this isn't too far off. Good luck in the next three weeks!
posted by SamuelBowman at 3:43 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just to boil my post down: by cheap, disgustingly-treated meat, evolve your leftover with each dish to stay varied, and use a lot of hot sauce.
posted by SamuelBowman at 3:45 PM on December 5, 2008

One way to go would be to cook up a few pots of dried legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), some brown rice, and use them as the bases for several different recipes by adding vegetables, small bits of meat for flavoring (if you're not vegetarian), and condiments. Sauté an onion and a green pepper, toss in some inexpensive (or homemade) salsa, and add black beans and rice for Cuban rice and beans. Fry a chopped onion and some chopped bacon or prosciutto (just one slice adds a lot of flavor) and throw in rice and beans or black-eyed peas to get Hoppin' John. If you have some saffron on hand (because you can't buy it on your budget), get some cheap chicken thighs, brown them, fry some veggies, add rice and beans, a can of diced tomatoes, and some crumbled saffron to get arroz con pollo.

The basic idea is to use cheap but nutritious staples for the base, and relatively expensive ingredients in small quantities for flavor--things you can add to your already cooked staples without much additional work. Depending on where you are, you might be able to get any spices you don't have but might want at a food co-op, where you can take only as much as you need, or at an Asian grocery, where you can usually get vast quantities of spices at a ridiculously low price compared to supermarkets.

Roasted carrots, parsnips, onions, beets--whatever veggies you can get cheaply--make a great side dish, especially as it gets colder. They keep a long time once they're roasted and they reheat easily. And you can toss them in a soup if they've been sitting in your fridge for five or six days.

For lunch, seconding the peanut butter. My wife likes sliced apples on PB sandwiches to add flavor and reduce the total percentage of fat. An apple can be stretched to three or four sandwiches. If you have a food co-op or a food processor, you may be able to get natural peanut butter for less than the supermarket stuff.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:02 PM on December 5, 2008

You're far from desperate measures, but here are some alternative ideas:
a) Can you get a short-term, part-time job at a restaurant?
b) Volunteer in a soup kitchen?
c) Dumpster diving?
posted by salvia at 4:14 PM on December 5, 2008

Along the lines of Salvia's response, I know a lot of climbing bums who are able to subsist by eating day olds from bakeries and delis; I'm guessing if you swallow your pride and ask around at some bakeries you could get some leftovers for free.
posted by Dr. Send at 5:01 PM on December 5, 2008

Government stooges can sometimes help you find cheap recipes.

The USDA maintains a recipe finder website that's designed to be used by people on food stamps (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamp budgets. Recipes included in their database meet certain nutrition, cost, and ease-of-use guidelines. Costs per serving get updated annually. You can search on many criteria, including type of dish, cuisine, cooking equipment, and cost. Just as an example, there are 245 recipes in the database that cost 50 cents or less per serving. You can also add recipes to a printable shopping list of ingredients.

Food Stamp Nutrition Connection: Recipe Finder

Likewise, back in 2000, they published a booklet of low-cost recipes based on the 1999 Thrifty Food Plan. It includes a weekly menu plan, but the plan is designed for a family of two adults and two children.

The most recent Thrifty Food Plan budget from October 2008 allots $35.90/week for an individual adult female, $40.40/week for an adult male. You can beat the USDA chumps on price by eating less meat. The 2006 TFP report gives allowances of just over 4 lb of meat or fish per week for an adult, including 2.6 lb of chicken. You don't need that much.

For the curious, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food has the documentation, costs for four types of food plans, and allotments of foods that can be purchased.

Foods I buy on budget: dry beans, rice, bulk peanut butter, nonfat dry milk, canned chicken and other canned meats, eggs, cabbage (buy cabbage! cheap as hell and extremely nutritious), potatoes, onions, carrots, most root vegetables, apples, canned orange juice concentrate if I really need it, frozen/canned fruits and vegetables instead of fresh, whole chicken, "variety" (organ) meats. Noodles and bread, of course, but I rarely buy these.

If I had to pick a few out of those to lean on, I'd say cabbage, beans, nonfat dry milk if you want (you can even make yogurt from it), some rice, eggs, carrots. Canned tomatoes too, maybe.

Go to ethnic markets for produce, they're often significantly cheaper. Also check farmer's markets. And find out what's in season where you live. It's going to be both cheaper and more nutritious than December tomatoes.
posted by jeeves at 5:09 PM on December 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

Second the whole chicken for protein, and don't forget about pork. I often see certain cuts go for $1.49/lb. Add potatoes or rice and some sort of veggie.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:04 PM on December 5, 2008

You're in for 3 weeks... I can't do the healthy thing.... rice is your friend you can buy a 5 pound bag for like $5 bucks or so. That's your carb. You can also find $1 pizza, plain cheese it's nasty but it's still something that will keep you alive for the day. There are those horrible fruit pies, they sell them for $.50 or so, they're like 1000 calories, not good but it'll keep you going if you're hurting. Mac-N-Cheese, Ramen. Spices and condiments are your friend, mix up that ketchup with some wostershistershire (wtf ever) and a dab of mayo and some sort of hot sauce. Go to your local megastore look at serving count, I have a giant bag of cheese sticks, serving size is 1 and it's 600 calories, eat 3 of them and you're sorta set. Rice is going to get boring, but one day it's just rice, the next day it's covered with a bit of butter the next day it's pineapple. If you get desperate hang out outside of a fast food joint and go "no I don't want your money I'm hungry... buy me a burger". You'll be fine.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:29 PM on December 5, 2008

A phase a few years ago, for about three months, I was earning a big $250 a week. After rent, transport and bills, this left me about AUD $25 for food. It was really, really hard, but I survived by writing down how many meals a week I needed and then shopping for the cheapest food I could get to make those meals. For me, I needed breakfast, two snacks, lunch and dinner. I figured I needed to have some sort of fresh fruit/veg every day, some sort of protein, and the rest was negotiable.

What that meant, in practice, was breakfast was porridge (oatmeal) and sultanas with a little bit of sugar, snacks were apples or bananas (the cheapest fruit I could buy), main meals were two-minute noodles + the cheapest green veg I could get, or potatoes. Oh. So. Many. Potatoes. Because I could buy, like a two kilos for $5. Which meant seven potato meals costing about $1 each. I used to boil them and then re-fry them in olive oil and spice. And even tho they're carbtastic, well, at least they're a vegetable with some nutritional value. (Some being the operative word after all the boiling and frying.) Protein was one pot each day of the cheapest yoghurt I could buy.

And I literally had a scribbled chart with what I was going to eat every day for a week. This helped me deal with the "Aieee no money, will starve'' panic. Because, even tho it was potatoes or noodles, seeing it written down was very reassuring. I knew I wasn't actually going to go without food even if I wouldn't be having tea at the Ritz.

If there was money left over, I spent it on chocolate. And teabags to make sweet black tea. The chocolate helped me feel not so deprived and the tea staved off hunger pangs pretty well, too.
posted by t0astie at 7:33 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Aldi has really good dry pasta at rediculously cheap prices - pasta goes a long way with lots of variety. They sell biscuits for something like €0.49 a pack....

Just grabbed the Aldi insert out of the paper, so let's see (just for fun. I'm interested in how far a euro can stretch):

6 potato farls = €1.09 (€0.18 each farl)
tin of beans = €0.34 each
butter = €1.09 for 500g

So you have 3 meals (2 potato farls topped with butter and beans) for about €1.00 each, with lots of butter left over for pasta meals.

6 eggs = €1.59
Sliced wheaten bread = €0.89
(I don't see mayo in the insert, so I don't know the cost of a jar of that)
That's at least 3 egg mayo sandwiches for about €1.00 each, again.

So far I'm at about 6 meals for €6, though it's fairly repeatative, I admit.

They have delicous jars of antipasti roast peppers and mushrooms for around €1.50, if I remember correctly, which can flavor a lot of meals or just be a delicious treat to sneak a forkful out of the fridge every once in a while.

450g of mince is €2.99. Cook that with some tinned tomatoes, chili type spices, and spoon over rice or pasta. Yum!

A litre of orange juice is €0.89 there too.

Grab a bag of potatoes - by the user name and Aldi reference, I'm assuming you're Irish. You need your spuds, so. They're cheap, filling, and versatile.

How are we doing so far?
posted by InfinateJane at 9:36 PM on December 5, 2008

One summer, I was extremely crunched... and pared it down to $35 a month. Rice, dried beans, pasta, olive oil, garlic, apples, oatmeal, peanut butter, cornbread mix, Tang mix. You'll notice that none of these things (save the apples and garlic) have any water or air in them. You can save a lot of money at the grocery store if you systematically avoid paying for the transport of water and air in your food-- you can easily add that back in for free once you get it home.
posted by specialfriend at 4:51 PM on December 6, 2008

See if there's an Angel Food Ministries distributor near you. There are no qualifications necessary - everyone qualifies. This month's regular box is $30 (according to the site) and can feed a family of 4 for a week, so it stands to reason it could feed a family of one for 4 weeks. Hopefully you're not past the ordering date for this month (it varies depending on your host site).
posted by IndigoRain at 11:32 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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