How do two foodies survive on a budget?
September 22, 2010 1:02 PM   Subscribe

You are a foodie, you don't eat out often, and you manage to spend less than $400-500 on food a month for two people, including going out. How do you do it?

The Mr. and I are huge foodies. He is an omnivore, and I am pescetarian. We've been spending anywhere from $500-700 on groceries alone, and up to $300 on going out a month. We know the simple solution for cutting down on going-out expenses, and we've been working on (and succeeding, a little) going out less.

How to you spend way, way less on groceries and still enjoy food at home every day?

We really enjoy eating tender white fish a few times a week. We also enjoy other types of seafood, such as clams, mussels, crab, etc. We eat a lot of Mexican food. We'll sometimes have a simple fillet with rice and a veggie. We love cheese, and we have a soft spot for good ice cream and snacks. We're not particularly snooty about our meals, and we'd be happy to eat "peasant food", as long as it's delicious and relatively good for us. I also bring my breakfast AND lunch to work, and I usually eat yogurt and a granola bar for breakfast and a tuna fish or PB&J sandwich for lunch. The Mr. buys lunches, but it'd be neat if he could bring lunch to work too.

A few more specific questions:

-Can stores like BJ's really save us money? Do they have a good selection of groceries? Seafood? Canned goods? Does it make sense to go shopping once a a month for pasta/canned/goods/fish (to freeze) and then once or twice a week for veggies and other perishable stuff?

-Do you have a lot of luck clipping coupons? It doesn't seem like a lot of the brands we use put out coupons. Is it time to give up brand loyalty to save money?

-Along the same lines, I prefer natural/organic products for both food and hygiene products. The Mr. couldn't really care less. Does BJ's carry those products, too? Is it time to give that up, or at least compromise a little?

-Do you have any tips on beating the boredom of eating in most of the time?

-Any tips of making great meals in less time? I work until about 6pm, and the Mr. works until 8pm some nights, so making quick meals is key. I know about making big batches and freezing them, but again, that gets boring.

Thanks ahead of time!
posted by two lights above the sea to Work & Money (66 answers total) 118 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly? Cook it all yourself. Buy the most fundamental ingredients you can, wash and skin and slice your own vegetables, and pack each meal with the cheap staples (rice, beans, fruits and veggies) and focus on one "foodie" item so that no single meal breaks the bank. You can also prepare the staples in bulk, so that you can concentrate your limited time on each "foodie" item.

Also, eat out even less, possibly not at all, and leverage that time to learn how to make your meals better.
posted by davejay at 1:06 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

No quick fixes but I think planning seems to be the key in these cases. This a cool blog for your purposes I think. They spend $30 a week on food and eat pretty well (granted they don't go out much/ever.)
posted by jourman2 at 1:08 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

The prime way I cut down on our grocery bill was to stop going to places like Publix, Whole Foods, and Kroger. Even Walmart and Target were too expensive on seafood.

Instead, I found a fantastic farmers market in a near by part of town, one that is geared towards non-English speaking patrons. They have a fantastic selection of fish, which I can get freshly cut however I want, and the other seafood selection is superior to anywhere else I have ever been. They also have much cheaper produce that (while not as pretty as the stuff at Publix or Whole Foods) is in my opinion superior in taste.

So, try to find out if such a place exists near you, and shop there instead.
posted by strixus at 1:09 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

BJs is kind of a rip-off for anything but VERY SPECIFIC needs. I've been a member a few times, and each time, it's not been worth it.

My tips all boil down to "stay the hell away from Whole Foods - nay, from normal supermarkets - as much as you can."

- Produce Junction! Or your local equivalent. Cheapest fruit/veg ANYWHERE, by several orders of magnitude.
- Chinatown: also deeply cheap.
- "Ethnic" grocery stores catering to immigrants.
- Grocery outlets - we drive an hour once a month or so to go to Amelia's, out in the sticks, because they are THAT CHEAP.
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:11 PM on September 22, 2010

Pick certain things you are not willing to compromise on (i.e. real butter and top grade maple syrup), and compromise on everything else (store brand vs. name brand canned goods, breads, etc.)

Instead of huge batches, before you plate out dinner, reserve a serving or two to go in the freezer. You end up with a variety of things stashed away.
posted by variella at 1:12 PM on September 22, 2010

We make one big meal a week on Sundays and eat that until about Thursday. I would say this averages less than $25 per week or $100 per month and takes care of most dinners. We still go out but when we do we prefer to go for lunch. If we do go out for dinner, it is not usually just us but rather with friends.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:12 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

As one half of a couple of poor students, I can say that planning meals for the week before grocery shopping is key. We notice a significant difference in the amount we spend when we plan ahead, as opposed to just heading to the store and planning as we go.

As for 'beating the boredom of eating in', well... it's up to you to get creative when you're cooking. Pick up a book like The Flavor Bible for ideas, or a cookbook featuring a variety of styles of food.

For days when I know we'll need a quick meal, I break out the slow cooker. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you get your ingredients ready the night before, you can throw it all in in the morning and you have a glorious stew (or pot roast or whatever) ready when you get home from work (or class). The thing is a lifesaver. It's also excellent for large batches of stuff like pasta sauce, which I then freeze.
posted by torisaur at 1:13 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: -Along the same lines, I prefer natural/organic products for both food and hygiene products. The Mr. couldn't really care less. Does BJ's carry those products, too? Is it time to give that up, or at least compromise a little?

Well, you're at cross purposes. You want to significantly cut your food expenses, and you generally buy organic? Stop buying organic.

Or at least be aware of which foods are less important to buy organic than others. (More info: Consumer Reports, Slate.)
posted by John Cohen at 1:14 PM on September 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Can stores like BJ's really save us money?

I don't know about the economics of BJ's, but assuming it's roughly like Costco, then the answer is yes, probably, if you can go there frequently enough. The trick is to buy things that keep (e.g., frozen things, non-perishables) and things that make good leftovers.

So, for example, yes to olive oil, cereal, rice, peanut butter, jelly, etc and yes to ingredients for stews and soups that you can make in bulk and freeze. Yes also to cheeses that keep. It's not really a grocery item per se, but yes to paper products, toothpaste, and other indefinite shelf-life necessities.

Do you have any tips on beating the boredom of eating in most of the time?

Variety, variety, variety. Pick a cuisine that you don't ever make at a home but love when you eat out, buy a good cook book, and learn it.

Take up gardening (together!), even if it's just a little window or patio container garden. Eating things you grew yourself is always more interesting and fulfilling than generic produce from the store. It gives you something pleasant and rewarding to think and talk about while you cook and eat.

If you can't garden, do things like can your own jam (together!). Then when you have PB&J you'll be bringing back pleasant memories of the trip to the farmer's market for the fruit and putting together your little jam assembly line in the kitchen. It beats the heck out of cracking open yet another generic jar of store-bought jam.

Any tips of making great meals in less time?

Depends on the cuisine you like. One trick is buying slight-processed common ingredients like chopped, frozen onions. It saves a fair bit of prep work.

Another trick is menu planning multiple days at a time. Cutting even one or two trips to the grocery store out of your weekly schedule can save a ton of time that you can then devote to actually cooking.
posted by jedicus at 1:16 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Plan your week's meals around what is on sale that week at the grocery store, buy staples in bulk. I don't know about BJ's but Costco has a surprising variety of fancy/organic stuff.
posted by ghharr at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cook it yourself! It's fun and romantic too! :)

- Use the internets for recipes rather than buying cookbooks. More to this point, read about different ways to prepare meats; I tried out the steamy kitchen method for steaks the other day and it saved me a bundle by not buying filet.

- Frequent your local "ethnic" shops for things like spices, produce, etc. etc.

- Join a local crop sharing program for cheap (and locally grown) produce

- For meats/fish/dairy - I prefer Trader Joe's over a run of the mill grocery (lower quality) or Whole Foods (higher prices), but keep your eye out for what's on sale. You could even make this into sort of an Iron Chef-type of contest with the hubs. OR - if you have a local/family owned/independent butcher shop - shop there.

- If you eat a lot of Mexican, buy a tortilla press (~$35) and make your own tortillas and tortilla chips and even taco shells. A 3-lb pound bag of maize flour costs around $2-3.

- Make your own bread and pasta - sure it's not "fancy" but you can get ultra-creative with things because you know what's going into it.
posted by floweredfish at 1:20 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: Build a pantry of the things you eat regularly by buying them on sale and storing them properly (i.e., rewrap or vacuseal your meats, don't just toss the store-wrapped package in the freezer). Make enough extra to freeze two or four servings. Keep a pantry inventory - this is KEY - so you know what you have. Eventually you'll be able to focus your purchases on produce and specialty stuff.

I think the key to living happily on a food budget is to break out of the "buy everything every week" routine. There are some good pantry AskMe questions, too.
posted by catlet at 1:25 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Subscribe to a CSA and use every veggie in the box every week. You will develop versatile go-to recipes for soups, pasta dishes, and casserole that you can make when the produce is fresh and you can get a lot of leftovers out of them.
posted by matildaben at 1:26 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

- eat more vegetarian meals. Even if you buy really wonderful, expensive beans (which I highly recommend) you will come out way ahead without compromising on your natural/organic values. Learn to make Indian food! Vegetarian Indian food is delicious and dirt cheap to make.

-join a CSA. If you're committed to eating organic, it really will be cheaper.

-grow your own herbs. if you're space limited or hate gardening, a tiny herb garden is still a great way to save grocery money. Buying bunches at $3 a piece constantly gets very expensive, and herbs are essential to good cooking.

-If you don't buy anything else in bulk, buy bulk spices. Pennies on the dollar.

-Forget coupons, just stop buying packaged crap and make your food yourself. Much, much less expensive, both immediately and in terms of your health care costs down the road. If you start eating and cooking mostly from whole foods, you'll soon realize that there AREN'T any coupons you can even use.
posted by juliapangolin at 1:30 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Just some additional info:

We prepare and cook everything we buy ourselves. I'm not really sure what people mean by "Cook it yourself". There must be something I'm missing there.

We do meal planning already. It never seems to make a huge difference.

On a related note: I agree that variety is key, but that also tends to be where our meals get expensive. We have to buy additional things that we wouldn't normally keep around to make new dishes. I can see that there might not be much we can do there.

We have a small concrete patio which does not (I believe) get enough sun. It is surrounded on three sides by a two- or three-story building, and the third side is an overgrown abandoned lot with a dead tree (which hovers over our yard) and HUGE weeds. We've tried getting it cleaned up. That's another story for another time. I'd absolutely love to get into gardening, but it's really not an option for us.

Re: organic foods, it's a mental thing. I know we can afford it, but we really are spending more than we should be. So, I'd feel guilty not buying it, but it's certainly something I could get over.

Great suggestions so far. Thanks!
posted by two lights above the sea at 1:31 PM on September 22, 2010

What's he doing for lunch and breakfast? I'd double check.

Cut down on coffee out.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:32 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: Agree with strixus.. stop shopping at name-brand grocery stores. Ethnic markets are your friend. Granted the produce won't be as gorgeous as the name-brand store, but a mis-shapen fresh red pepper tastes the same as a perfectly formed one.

I'm stumped on the seafood, but I live in the Midwest and figure that's not really going to be a local/thrifty item for me. Is there a Trader Joe's near you? They have pretty good frozen fish selection (so says the Midwestern girl).

As for quick cooking, start perfecting one or two fast dishes and build your repertoire from there. Examples: Stir-fry or Fried Rice. Keep looking for fast-to-fix dishes that you and he actually like to eat.

On nights when Mr. gets home late, can you put a pan of chicken in the oven (sorry this won't help you) in a marinade to bake in the time before he arrives home? Cook extra and he'll have leftovers for lunch or to roll into a tortilla for another dinner and/or lunch.

Planning your meals can also help the budget. You can cook larger batches of things for use later in the week or lunches. You'll also have less waste (and save time) than if you are shopping for each dinner individually.

I can't speak to the quality issues regarding BJ's, but I debate renewing my Costco membership every year for our 2-person household and finally cave in, as it has excellent meats and some lower priced luxurious items like cheeses. Buying the meats in bulk (again, sorry, this won't specifically help you), and having them on hand in the freezer can be beneficial for menu planning.
posted by sarajane at 1:38 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Mr. opts to spend his own money on his lunches, and he doesn't eat breakfast. We are not coffee drinkers, believe it or not.
posted by two lights above the sea at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2010

-Do you have a lot of luck clipping coupons? It doesn't seem like a lot of the brands we use put out coupons. Is it time to give up brand loyalty to save money?

The real key to coupons is to combine them with things you buy that are on sale, and to identify any stores in your area that might double coupons. Also, frankly, I've found that actually buying coupons from dedicated coupon sites or from eBay and combining them with sales can net big savings on certain staples.

There is a website called A Full Cup that has forums for just about every supermarket in existence, and the users there can provide you with a blueprint to what's on sale and what coupons will match the sales, then you can just pick and choose what to buy.

A couple of examples from my own life:
- Flour. Our local supermarket recently had a sale on 5lb packages of flour (not organic, but a quality brand), where they were $1 a package. I picked up 15 .55 cent of 1 coupons on eBay, for $1.50 (including shipping) and my supermarket doubles them, so not only was the flour free, but I had .05 cents overage on each package. Now I'm stocked up on flour for the next two years, but its money I won't need to spend on something else.

- Organic carrots. Earthbound Organics has a coupon on their website right now which is .75 off 1 of their products. My supermarket will double this, so a package of carrots that was typically $1.69 is now .19 cents. We have two computers, so I was able to print four coupons and stock up on carrots for a bit.

- Produce in general. Here's an eBay search for produce coupons. Some of them are rebates (I'm lucky because many beer and wine companies put out food rebate coupons, but in my state they are forbidden by law to require me to buy alcohol in order to get the rebate) and other companies (say, salad dressing companies) put out "$x.xx off produce when you buy our product" coupons. You can combine those produce coupons with sales and coupons on the "you must buy" products to get a lot of stuff free or steeply discounted. (I recently used coupons to buy two packages of Ken's brand dressing + $3 worth of produce for a total of $1.29, for example).

- Shampoo, laundry detergent, etc. Using coupons to get free or nearly free household products can free up money in your budget to buy other luxuries that you never see coupons on, like good cheese.

I do a lot of price comparison shopping, and I'm actually surprised to find that my local supermarket sales often do better prices on produce than the farmer's market or local vendors. For example, my supermarket offers locally grown apples (they name the farm and everything) for .69 cents a pound, but the farmer sells the same apples at the farmer's market for .99 cents a pound.

The great thing about sites like A Full Cup is they can provide you with an easy blueprint. Research, research, research - keeping a price notebook can really be your friend, even though you'll feel like a nerd the first month or so.
posted by anastasiav at 1:48 PM on September 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

I prefer natural/organic products... a lot of the brands we use...

We prepare and cook everything we buy ourselves. I'm not really sure what people mean by "Cook it yourself"

What's meant by "natural products" here...? What brands are you buying? If you want a natural product that is cooked by you you are looking at stuff that does not generally come with a brand attached (or at least not with a brand that one should pay any attention to) and stuff that does not come stamped "all natural," that being already self-evident with a bag of onions or lentils or what-have-you. "Cook it yourself" = make from scratch, not "avoid take-away."

How would you feel "guilty" by not buying organic? Why are you buying organic?

I am very food-fussy, and try to not go too nuts budget-wise; thus I am reliant on (1) Costco, (2) farm stands, (3) my freezer. Get the best whatever you can in bulk, prep it and freeze it. Your freezer will not be boring if it has lovely sauces, exotic veg, perfect desserts -- you can freeze a lot more than the usual chili-spag sauce-etc most people stick to.

"We have to buy additional things that we wouldn't normally keep around to make new dishes" -- and then you never use that ingredient again, or...?
posted by kmennie at 1:50 PM on September 22, 2010

two lights above the sea: On a related note: I agree that variety is key, but that also tends to be where our meals get expensive. We have to buy additional things that we wouldn't normally keep around to make new dishes. I can see that there might not be much we can do there.

Make a two week eating plan? I mean, getting set up to cook Thai or really good curry isn't cheap but if you're using those ingredients 25 times over the year it's very cost effective. Thai night, Italian night, Indian night etc still gives you a huge amount of scope with the same ingredient bases.

One bowl dishes seem somehow to be more cost effective at my house. Thai noodle bowls with shrimp, curry and samosas, vegetarian chilli, vegetable casserole with a side salad, etc.

Can you give us examples of what you ate last week? You might get better suggestions with real data.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:50 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: Ethic grocery stores, all the way. Some of those spices and other specialty items that you only need a little of for one recipe? So much cheaper bought in bulk at an ethnic grocery (or even not in bulk but packaged in the little mylar envelopes instead of in jars). I no longer buy worcestershire sauce at the grocery store because I can get a giant bottle at the local Asian superstore for 40% less per ounce. Ditto for things like peppercorns and whole nutmeg. If nothing else, start buying your spices, noodles, and some of your greens (scallions, snap peas, cilantro) at an ethnic grocery.

What this means is that you may have to make three or four stops instead of one when grocery shopping. So consider the time versus money tradeoff.
posted by devinemissk at 1:53 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Re: organic foods, it's a mental thing. I know we can afford it, but we really are spending more than we should be. So, I'd feel guilty not buying it, but it's certainly something I could get over.

I don't understand what you mean. Money is money -- it's all the same substance. You're in enough need of ways to spend less money that you posted this to AskMe. You regularly buy organic, and probably every single thing you buy organic has a conventional counterpart that's similar and significantly cheaper. I'm not trying to have an endless debate over this, but I don't know why you would single out organic food as something you "can afford." It's not like you really need it: one of the two of you doesn't care at all.
posted by John Cohen at 1:54 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We cook almost every meal we eat. We spend way less than $400/month on groceries eating fairly respectably (self link).

- Costco makes a lot of ingredients everyday for us, when they would be a luxury if purchased in smaller quantities. My favorite example is pine nuts (even though they've stopped selling them for the time being) - they're $20 for a 2 lb bag at Costco, and $5 for two ounces at the grocery store. They keep fine in the freezer. Likewise, we get very good whole bean coffee there, cooking goat cheese in one pound logs for $4 each, decent brined olives, two-packs of frozen organic free range chickens, etc. I would say that Costco is way better for food than BJs or Sam's Club - more selection, better quality, not-evil company.

- We buy other stuff in bulk when we can. Dry goods, but also things like getting the big can of awesome olive oil at our favorite cheese shop - it's much cheaper that way.

- We don't eat a lot of meat. What we do eat is really carefully chosen - we'd both rather eat excellent meat infrequently than crappy industrial complex meat often. So we buy beautiful sausages and make them last; make stock out of every last chicken bone; etc.

- We grow a lot of our own food.

- We eat a lot of starch-based meals - pasta made at home, polenta, lentils, beans.

- We eat in season. We spend most of our money at the farmer's market in the warm months, and we preserve like crazy people - I've canned nearly 50 pounds of roma tomatoes so far. That's 22 quarts. A box of Pomi imported from Italy is like $5 for a pint. After the first frost here, we won't buy another expensive, crappy fresh tomato until July when the local, lovely ones come in. We can peaches and pears. We dry green beans and corn and make jams and jellies. Our pantry will pretty heavily supplement our diets all winter.

Basically, I look at our choices as ways to eat better quality stuff than we could afford, not necessarily as a way to "save money." For example, we really like excellent, very high quality pasta. So we make it ourselves - three eggs and semolina isn't actually any cheaper than big box store pasta, but it's cheaper and better than most fresh pasta and a hell of a lot cheaper than the fresh pasta I'd buy if we were profligate spenders. Everything is like this for us.

Our summer budget breaks down about like this:

50/mo average at Costco for staples
100/mo average at the between-Whole-Foods-and-Safeway grocery store (Sunflower) for milk, eggs, toiletries, etc.
150/mo average at the farmer's markets for produce, meat, etc.
We probably spend an additional $50 in treats - the cheese shop, etc.

In the winter we'll spend more at the regular grocery store, but not that much more. We have our pantry to get us through, yay.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

The thing is, you can't have premium versions (happy organic farm-fresh imported/local responsibly-caught) of premium items (swordfish, peaches, asparagus, arborio rice, cardamom,...) all the time - which is not so say you can't splurge, but you have to think of it as splurging, not as "normal". The rest of the time, you get to choose whether you want happy organic very basic food (apples, peanut butter, beans, rice), or whether you want to go for cheaper versions of the less-basic food (shop ethnic markets and go with non-organic produce). But something's got to give.

Take your meal plan for the week, a calculator, and 20% of your desired monthly grocery budget, and go to the store. Get everything you need for your meals, and keep a tally of the costs. Is it more than 20% of your monthly budget? (20%*4 weeks for meal-specific stuff, plus another 20% for keeping your staples up) Keep putting things back on the shelf and substituting with something cheaper until you're under budget. The only way out is meticulousness; eventually you'll get the hang of it, and it will be habit, and you can put your calculator away. This might mean you will never again eat artichokes out of season, you might eat more vegetarian less pescatarian, you might eat some things non-organic, etc. You get to decide what's important on an item-by-item basis.
posted by aimedwander at 2:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Subscribe to a CSA and use every veggie in the box every week

This actually ended up costing me extra money, and making me feel deeply shameful about the quantity of food I was throwing away, simply because I couldn't manage to work everything into my meals. (This may be different for couples, but as a single dude who likes to cook, but doesn't have a lot of free time on his hands, it wasn't a winning equation)

I've found that the meat at Trader Joes is a bit (nay, *very*) pricey, and not worth the expense. I buy most of my meat from Giant's premium line (which is usually of excellent quality (unlike most of what Giant sells), and quite cheap compared to other places).

On the other hand, TJ's frozen seafood section is fabulous. Although I was initially somewhat "meh" on the prospect of frozen seafood, the quality is pretty good, and it's cheaper than anything you'll find at the supermarket, unless it's deeply discounted and on sale. (Unless you've got a good local fishmonger)

If you've got a small plot, gardening might not be great for everyday staples, although I've always had good luck with a small selection of spices. (Despite repeated neglect, my basil plants are turning into basil *trees*)

BJs is most worth it when you share a subscription with a friend or neighbor, and split the membership cost. Like others have said, it's worth it for the bulk, non-perishable items. It's become a family ritual for all of my siblings to return home to visit my folks for a weekend, take a trip to Costco, use my parents' membership card, and return with a trunk full of bulk groceries.

As you can tell, I'm still working on getting the formula right -- for what it's worth, I'm eating better and spending less than I did 3 months ago. Shop around, pay attention to what costs what where, and work on gradual improvements. Also take a look at what you're throwing out -- this was probably the biggest source of waste for me. I've been saving money by going to Harris Teeter on the way home from work every other day, and only buying what I absolutely need (never more than I can carry in my arms without a bag). Even though Harris Teeter is quite expensive, the quality of their produce is fantastic, and is almost always sold by the pound and in small portions. Because of this, I end up spending less, and buying better ingredients.
posted by schmod at 2:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is all of the fish/other seafood you're buying fresh or frozen? I'd believe that a large percentage of that cost is coming from buying fresh fish, which based on my own examinations of prices at our assorted local grocery stores (admittedly in Austin, TX, which probably makes a difference) is one of the most expensive proteins you can buy. Even frozen is sometimes really expensive.
posted by malthas at 2:01 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Talk to the wine purchaser at the alcohol store or supermarket where you buy your wine. Seriously, you can get fantastic wines for $10 and less, and there is a person who can tell you all about it. Nowadays, the wine is no longer the most expensive part of dinners at home.

Also, most restaurants will let you bring your own bottle for a small corkage fee. If I had the guts to bring my own bottle, we'd end up saving 30% or more on our dining cheque.
posted by halogen at 2:04 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't emphasize ethnic markets enough. The trick is finding out about them. Pick up community newspapers in Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog, whatever the local immigrant group is and scan for grocery ads, which are usually bilingual. The deals on seafood are usually amazing and I find the quality is often better than Whole Foods. Often times, there is a small restaurant inside with cheap, amazing food.
posted by caveatz at 2:04 PM on September 22, 2010

A well-stocked pantry is key for us. If you don't have one, it's going to be pricey to start one, but after that it's easy and inexpensive to maintain. Trips to the grocery store are, more often than not, just for perishables.

On meats, we take advantage of sales. Our area stores almost always have a sale on some sort of meat. We stock up (having a chest freezer helps, but you could still buy extras in a smaller amount) and that also acts as a pantry of sorts. For seafood, I think frozen is something to explore because fresh seafood is super expensive.

There are things I mostly make myself and don't buy. I learned to bake bread, and also got a breadmaker as a gift. So we mostly eat homemeade bread. The breadmaker was a pretty big surprise for me because I was expecting it to suck, but for basic everyday sandwich bread it actually does a great job (imo). It also has settings for just dough (which then you can shape and bake in your oven), or pasta dough, even jam. I actually can't remember the last time I bought jam, because every summer we buy berries and make freezer jam out of them. And it's virtually set and go, not much prep required. I also don't buy salad dressing as making your own is super simple. Little things like that add up.

As for organic, I think it's important to remember that as organic foods become big business, many producers are starting to resemble their mainstream, non-organic counterparts. I find myself questioning just how organic some products are - I especially question this with milk, because the major organic milk producers are having to meet some huge amounts of demand. This might be helpful in deciding which products are worth buying organic, and which might not be.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 2:04 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: As far as the fast meal thing goes - we have a few different meal "templates" that we can pretty much plug anything into. Mine are Asian noodle soups, risotto, and polenta; T can make anything into pizza or pasta. The procedures are so dialed-in that they take very little time to prepare. And we throw away hardly any food this way - that's a huge expense, if you're buying food only to toss it.

Basically, if you treat most things as unsexy staples and buy them in bulk/otherwise at a good price - flour, legumes, eggs, etc. - and treat them as the base of most of your meals, you can get away with adding some luxuries in the form of fresh produce and flesh. This means you have to be willing to cook with what's on sale - we do it by just stocking up the house with what looks good each week and cooking based off that. We almost never shop for specific recipes or meals - that way lies madness and untimely, expensive random purchases.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:06 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

It would help to have a more itemized list so we know where the bulk of that money is going. Like how much of your $ goes to fish/seafood? Also, are you throwing out a lot of stuff that has gone bad?

We live on the cheap and (imho) eat quite well by doing the following things:
-joining a csa (this alone has expanded my cooking repertoire)
-eating meat no more than once or twice a week
-making my own stock (veggies from the wilted stuff in the fridge, stems from csa items, chicken from leftover bones,shrimp from shells, whatever else I can think of) and keeping it in the freezer in reused yogurt containers
-spending no more than $5/bottle on wine, in general not buying a lot of bottled beverages
-keeping a mental list of what stores are cheapest for our staples (this basically means I never set foot in whole foods or other major grocery chains apart from trader joe's)
-having a maximum price I'm willing to pay for certain items (which explains why we haven't had pine nuts for a few months)
-finding substitutes for speciality items I know I won't use much (the internet is handy for this)

I really try to not throw food out in general, which means coming up with ways to work in the leftovers to the next meal, the aforementioned stock, throwing leftovers I know I'm not going to eat/use for a while into the freezer.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

What are you spending so much money on? You need to answer that first.

Your problem is either that you buy a lot of things and them don't use them efficiently, so that some of your produce goes bad and the bread gets stale and the milk expires, or that while you use all of your food extremely well and plan carefully, you're just buying food that's too expensive. Or it's a combination. The first problem is a lot more fun to tackle - you just have to get creative, and once you have it down you'll feel great about how you used that last eggplant that had been sitting around. The second one is boring, and you just have to find what you're willing to compromise on, and also see if you can enjoy buying less processed ingredients and then making things yourself (milk is cheaper than yogurt, and you can make your own yogurt; flour is cheaper than bread, etc.)

If you have the first problem... The trick to menu planning for me was to use the same ingredients but use them differently so that I never felt I was eating the same thing. Otherwise, I would either eat the same thing every day and feel miserable about it, or try to make something different every day and spend way too much money. You can have citrus-y fish, fish with cream, plain grilled fish, fish marinated in soy sauce and ginger, fish with sundried tomatoes and greens, pasta or rice, etc... You can take ground beef and make hamburgers, use it in pasta sauce, or make meatballs with yogurt and mint, and not feel like you're getting bored. The spices and sauces and grains and produce are an initial investment, but will last a long time and you shouldn't have to run to the store every time you need sundried tomatoes or some thyme.

Actually, now that I think about it, you could have a third problem. You might be good at spending money on food, but insist on having a bottle of wine or a beer or two with dinner every night. That adds up.
posted by ke rose ne at 2:22 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

We prepare and cook everything we buy ourselves. I'm not really sure what people mean by "Cook it yourself". There must be something I'm missing there.

From scratch, right? For instance, where do you get your rice? Do you buy instant rice, or microwave rice, or do you boil the grains? If you boil grains, you're spending 1/3 of what you'd spend on instant/microwave rice, and that's good.

Extrapolate that to every food you can buy and cook with, and that's what we (or at least I) mean.
posted by davejay at 2:24 PM on September 22, 2010

The answer is: spend time if you don't have money.

We prepare and cook everything we buy ourselves.
How far away from processed foods do you go? Example: hummus. Do you buy premade hummus at the grocery store, or go to one of those "fill your own container" places, or do you buy cans of chickpeas and tahini from the bulk store? Or do you soak your own dried chickpeas, boil them, and make your own tahini from sesame seeds? Obviously time is worth something but I find the further from a processed food you are, the healthier you tend to get and also cheaper. For example, did you know bread only has like three ingredients? And it's crazy cheap to make it? TRUE.

Do you go to the restaurant for Indian food or order the meat takeout and supplement with your own rice and vegetables and bread? Do you whip up a curry and rice using storebought jarred spice mixtures and stuff like tastybites? Or do you go to the bulk store, buy rice, flour, ghee, and spices? Do you get your own whole spices and grind them yourself? And buy butter to make your own ghee? Each step down the line gets a bit cheaper but means more work for you. If you find this kind of crap fun (I do! But rarely have the time!), then you can save money this way. If you're going to sit at home and stare at random vegetables rotting in the crisper until you crack and go to get a pizza then you are not winning the battle.

That said, some processed foods save you money...unfortunately for you foodies, they are the shittiest ones. White bread, canned tuna, peanut butter, florescent cheese, cheap pasta, along with basically anything with a subsidy attached. If you want to save money, this is a way, but your taste buds and colon will have no thanks for you.

Coupon sites abound and if you tuck them into your Google Reader they can actually save you a lot. These people spend a lot of time finding deals and can get crazy discounts on all sorts of things. For example, one coupon site I watch recently had a deal where you could get a name brand deodorant for like 17 cents if you combined two offers and a sale weekend. That's nuts!

Find a happy medium - go to a fish market or wholesale place for the fish you love so much. On the rare meat eating occasions, get a cheap cut of something and marinate long and well with cheap bulk store spices. Go to an ethnic market/Chinatown/etc. Farmer's markets tend to be a's like the Disney "fresh food experience" or some shit.

Some nicer prepared foods aren't worth it as they are both expensive and take time (pesto, recipes with expensive ingredients). Some are easy to make and cheaper but must be made "in season" (sundried tomatoes, salsa, jams, pickles). Some are easy and cheap but take a lot of time and/or effort (bread, pasta, slowcooker meals like stews). Some take time and are more difficult but save money (smoked fish/meats, sausages. fancy desserts). Choose your battles.

Cheap "Healthy" / Cooking shopping list:
From bulk store: beans, rice, flour, oats, nuts, spices as needed (buy a few tbsp at a time). Then veggies from your cheapest local source (whatever's cheap, in season and/or long-lasting root veggies and apples), and eggs. Dairy and meat as garnish only - ie: sour cream to top vegetarian chili, or cheese or sausage to crumble on top. Milk only as needed (mostly isn't). Splurge items cooking oils, fats, and dairy, meat and fish.

Cheap "Unhealthy" / Fast shopping list:
Milk, white bread, cheese slices, margarine, sale item canned goods (ie condensed soups, pastes, etc). Frozen veggies, potatoes, pasta, canned tuna, peanut butter, bananas. Splurge items fresh greens, non-processed cheese, meat.

Don't forget you can often make cheap home cleaning products and personal hygiene items. "Natural" products are made often with very cheap ingredients, and you can make them at home. Deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, etc.

Cheap out on items where you can. If the bakery on the corner puts day old bread at one dollar, buy that instead. If your work gives you free coffee, hold off on the caffeine until you get to work. Have potluck dinners with friends (don't cheap on ingredients/quality or it will be your last). Follow "free stuff" websites for your city - sometimes there are random giveaways places.
posted by SassHat at 2:26 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Farmer's markets tend to be a's like the Disney "fresh food experience" or some shit.

I take issue with this part of your otherwise great comment. It's true that what counts as a farmer's market varies a lot from region to region and town to town, but at least here in CO we have two markets within biking distance of us that are the real deal - grizzled old dudes selling lopes and maters at good prices out of a pickup truck. Sure, there are fancified markets too (in Boulder last week I saw a stand selling pies at $20 a pop!) but there are almost always options. We go to our markets, talk to the guys about what they're growing, how they do it, the weather, whatever - more often than not they were the guys picking the tomatoes that morning.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:33 PM on September 22, 2010

Although I guess I should concede that the farmer's market guys will never beat the grocery store on price for anything - although their stuff is usually better, and is cheaper than produce of comperable quality at a store. But price is not the point of choosing to go there and buy from them, of course, and we consider it luxury money well spent.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:35 PM on September 22, 2010

Response by poster: Really guys, you have given us some great comments so far.

You touched on a lot of things. I appreciate the tough love on organic foods, even if it wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear.

We do tend to waste food some times, especially produce. The Mr. wasn't huge on produce when I met him. In fact, he mostly ate microwave dinners. So, working in produce has been a challenge. Its really important to include fresh produce in our meals, so we tend to buy them with the intent to use them and then they end up wasting away. We're working on that.

I think we really do need to get much more creative, and build a better pantry. We were living with a third room mate, and food-space was always tight for us. We're still a little tight, but we have a basement that could hold lots of sealed bulk foods.

Right now, we buy a bit more processed food than not. Time/energy is a huge part of the equation here.

In fact, our biggest issue is that by the time we get home and walk the dog, we don't start cooking until 7 or 7:30, and rarely are we eating before 8 or 9, some times later. We congratulate ourselves (literally) when we are done eating by 8:30. I have been going through some health issues which make me completely exhausted, and the Mr. is running around doing research all day, so by 7 or 8 our motivation is very, very low.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:45 PM on September 22, 2010

I've sometimes had the same issue with letting produce rot in my crisper drawers. Buy frozen vegetables. Seriously. The texture and nutritional value aren't much different than fresh, but they're (usually) a lot cheaper and last a whole lot longer.

Also, invest in a slow cooker. Put your dinners on before you leave for the morning, and come home to delicious yummitude at night. This lets you stick to a plan and budget, no matter how low your energy level is at the end of the day.
posted by Andrhia at 3:09 PM on September 22, 2010

Addressing the time issue: appliances may be your friend here. Clean out your freezer and use it, whether for full meals or for components like cooked rice, stock, shredded poached chicken, etc. Investigate a slowcooker; I use mine regularly, including to make stock and cook dried beans. If you have room for a small chest freezer (more efficient than uprights and easy enough to manage contents if you keep it small), you expand your possibilities. You can still eat processed food, but the trick is to process it yourself and freeze it. Spend a weekend doing just that, and then spend the next weeks eating the results of your labors.

Here's another blunt question for you: which is more important to you and Mr. lights above the sea, saving as much as possible or retaining as much of the food experience as possible? Figure out where that line is. Figure out where your weekly treat money is going to go - is it to six beautiful diver scallops, or a bottle of wine, or an extra payment toward debt? You have a lot of options here, but you need to decide - together - where the point of deprivation is. If you feel deprived, you will feel resentful. Resentment breeds reluctance, which leads to rotting zucchini and delivery menus next to the phone.

Honestly, being a foodie might be your salvation here. Maybe devote yourself to a cuisine and learn it, from tail to snout. Do you like Mexican? Get one of Rick Bayless's books, like Mexican Kitchen, and cook it back to front. Hell, blog about it. Most of the ingredients in Bayless's books are dirt cheap and the food is freaking amazing. Find your ethnic purveyors - here in Atlanta, I do best at the state farmers' market, which is about as far from Disney as one can imagine, but it's also where a lot of the restaurants here source their produce.
posted by catlet at 3:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eat less meat and fish. Seriously. If 3/5 of your meals are vegetarian, you'll save a lot of money.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:14 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To address the lack of time and energy on weeknights, learn to love leftovers. They needn't be dismal; in fact some dishes actually improve after a day or 2 in the fridge. Cook a big batch of something on Saturday, and something else on Sunday, and you'll have enough leftovers to take care of a few weeknights.

Develop a repertoire of excellent-leftovers recipes: soups, stews, curries, chili, and pasta sauces. Some stir-fries reheat well.

Learn what does not reheat well: fish (it overcooks on the second heating), pan-fried things like burgers, grilled anything. Most salads don't keep well after tossing and dressing, but there are some exceptions.

I've had some life-sucking commutes and although I love to cook, the last thing I wanted to do was make a meal from scratch when I got home, tired and hungry and cranky. Good leftovers + microwave = best of both worlds.
posted by Quietgal at 3:14 PM on September 22, 2010

We've had much better luck with lettuce at our house since we started washing it before putting it in the fridge. When you get home from the farmer's market (or the supermarket) wash your greens, dry them, layer them between paper towels (or kitchen towels) and then put them in the fridge. This makes it way easier to make a salad on the fly and I find they keep better this way. Credit goes to The Paupered Chef, although we use a big plastic container instead of the crisper drawer.
posted by clockwork at 3:25 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: These are specific to Philly, and also sort of all over because I've lived in a few neighborhoods.

Italian market - oh my, so cheap. So so cheap. It does require walking the length and checking all the vendors for veggies, though, since quality and price really varies. Not organic. On weekends there is a place that sells fantastic fresh tortillas, for $2 for something like 20. The fresh pasta place at Christian and 9th (Superior Pasta Co?) sells fresh pasta for about $3-4 a pound. The various Mexican groceries are much less expensive than grocery stores. Avoid the fish. Claudio's has good cheese prices, and is a good place to buy olive oil by the gallon. Also their fresh mozzarella is so good, and much less expensive than Acme.

Kaplan's Bakery in Northern Liberties - they have great bread and it's the cheapest good bread I've found. I think a "small" (seems normal to me) loaf of challah is around $3. They also have excellent rye, and sell half-loaves if you ask. Also an abundance of delicious and freakishly cheap muffins and cakes and things.

The underground supermarket in Chinatown and the asian supermarket on Spring Garden - huge amounts of asian food, giant bags of rice, overall good prices although I always end up buying all kinds of mysterious cookies and packaged things.

Reading Terminal - you really have to be careful here, but Iovine's always has good veggie prices (I've compared, they are consistently less than Acme), the Amish stuff is generally quite cheap. Haltemann's has the best meat I have ever tasted, and seems to have reasonable prices. The Farm Stand stuff really dramatically varies on whether it's expensive or not. Their yogurt is the same price as Whole Foods' but much tastier. Martin's has packaged sausage specials where you get three packs (4 links each) for a total of $5 if I remember right. The spice corner sells bags of just about every spice for $2 a piece.

Jerusalem Market at 3rd and Girard - lots of very affordable middle eastern groceries, including a huge selection of cheese.
posted by sepviva at 3:53 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Given your last update here, I do think you shoudl consider a slow cooker. It requires only a small amount of prep, and it does most of the work for you. I love mine. And I've found good recipes in this cookbook.

Incidentally, some rice cookers also have tons of settings that allow you to do more than just rice. They are called fuzzy logic rice cookers and can also help you with being a bit more hands off, but still making stuff from whole ingredients (ie, oatmeal from actual oatmeal instead of from packets).
posted by DrGirlfriend at 4:05 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: As far as motivation goes - the one thing that has saved my ass from getting fast food or a pizza or snacking on tortillas and yogurt all night instead eating a meal is... marinating.

Some people take to it, some don't (not sure why, I'm told it involves too much planning and feels too forced). I know that chicken or meat isn't really going to suffer if it's sitting in a marinade in the fridge for another day so I don't feel too constricted. But I would probably never make chicken if I had to put work into it the day of; it's just too daunting. If I quickly cut it up and toss it in soy sauce, ginger and garlic, then I know that I won't have to work to make it tasty whenever I choose to cook it. Or toss it in curry powder and yogurt. It's a vague enough marinade that it won't determine that it has to be eaten with this or that or cooked one way or another. I do the same with meat, and it becomes anything from barbecue to curry to burrito. (I don't really cook fish, so I don't have specific advice.)

I still have that problem with produce. I like salads, I really do, but I'm rarely bothered to actually get the big tub of spinach out and cut up all the other things. Try putting vegetables into meals in different ways than just salads - I'll chop up green onions and yellow onions and spicy peppers and bell peppers and put them in my marinade and cook them with the meat. I make a lot of spicy food so I often have yogurt with a cucumber or a tomato quickly cut up into it.

The other thing is, figure out what ingredients make meals for you. I often complain that I have nothing to eat, and have to go to a store to get x in order to make a meal (even if x is just a teaspoon of lime juice). I'm sure there are millions of people who could put together a perfectly tasty meal with what I already have in the fridge and pantry, but I feel helpless unless I have certain ingredients - lemons or limes, onions, butter, garlic, yogurt, or soy sauce. Certain items I don't care about at all, and won't bother to go out and get coconut milk or fish sauce or cardamom or a certain vegetable just because a recipe tells me to. This is one thing that's always really entertaining about roommates - people have completely different opinions on what these things are.

Learn to follow your instincts instead of thinking you need every ingredient on a recipe. I often hesitate to make stew because I don't have a good red wine or stout around for the broth, or don't have fresh parsley or fresh thyme - but you can make a perfectly delicious soup with stock or even water. I use recipes for inspiration but try to never look at them when I'm cooking.
posted by ke rose ne at 4:11 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shop for better prices at different grocery stores.
Where I live there is one grocery store (a half hour away) that I save about 400 dollars a month (I spend about 700 a month for 5 people).
Even when I run into one of the closer stores I am shocked at home much more expensive they are. A lot of things are TWICE the price. It freaks me out every single time I go i there.
And I also go to 3-4 separate places in a month. Two warehouse stores, my regular grocery store and Trader Joes.
There are so many things that are so much cheaper at a Trader Joes and Costcos.
In my case I feel justified buying things like fresh organic berries since I know I saved money by shopping around.
posted by beccaj at 4:22 PM on September 22, 2010

Mr previously didn't eat much veg and ate a lot of frozen dinners. Now you are buying veg for him, and it is going bad.

If you want to trim the budget -- maybe you need to adjust your shopping a bit more towards reality. If he was previously happy with Swanson's he is really unlikely to start charring eggplants for breakfast.

You say you're both tired in the evenings, and that you buy a lot of processed food... A lot of money goes towards stuff with fancy marketing.

You're ordinary Americans by the sounds of it. I'm trying not to be rude but -- you're not a pair of gourmands, just normal folk maybe interested in eating a little better than they used to. And you don't quite know how to shop or cook for that.

A lot of the advice here is wonderful but not particularly realistic for your situation. You're not going to find the time for a CSA, you're not going to be whipping up Indian food or a fresh pesto on a weeknight; thus, hitting Costco for pine nuts and an import shop for ghee and spices is not going to be useful.

I would try to focus on finding the ready-made stuff that is made with good ingredients, that is reasonably priced (that, particularly, does not suffer from bullshit "all natural" mark-ups), that is reasonably tasty. Celentano is nice frozen food... Above all, don't fall for the nonsense that little sachet of powder X is better than little sachet of powder Y. If it is heavily processed foodstuff it is heavily processed foodstuff and basically the same deal, no matter whether it says "Giant Hyperglobal FoodCo" or "Auntie Francie's Farm Organix." Clip Hyperglobal's coupons, use 'em.

Really, a more honest assessment of what is going on with the groceries will help. You want to be 'foodies' but do not know how to prepare food from scratch -- this is cool -- but, stop buying the ingredients and letting them go bad. Start viewing this as the hobby side interest it sounds like it is, not your daily bread. (What IS your daily bread? Because if you are buying vegetables and they are going bad -- you are eating something else in the meantime. Which is what? Focus on improving that.) Take cooking classes together. Find time to make a fancy new dish on the weekends and put the ingredients for it under your "entertainment" expenses.
posted by kmennie at 4:52 PM on September 22, 2010

Also: maybe you want a follow-up question of "What are really nice veg dishes that only require a very brief prep and have only a few ingredients?" Nobody with tomatoes, fresh cheese, and basil is letting their tomatoes, fresh cheese, and basil spoil; caprese salad is just too tasty and easy for that to happen. Focus on the more simple veg dishes?
posted by kmennie at 5:04 PM on September 22, 2010

In fact, our biggest issue is that by the time we get home and walk the dog, we don't start cooking until 7 or 7:30, and rarely are we eating before 8 or 9, some times later. We congratulate ourselves (literally) when we are done eating by 8:30. I have been going through some health issues which make me completely exhausted, and the Mr. is running around doing research all day, so by 7 or 8 our motivation is very, very low.

Seriously, man, get a crockpot. The difference to your life between eating at 7 and eating at 8:30 is profound. In addition to the time savings, a crockpot lends itself to cooking cheaper cuts of meat. . . I have a KILLER recipe for lamb shanks that will make you drool with delight.

the cheapest way to buy quality meat, seriously, is by the side or the split side. It requires a chest freezer or rental space in a meat locker, but I got 110 pounds of grass-fed grass-finished no-hormone beef for $292. Now, I was the only one who wanted the offal (liver, kidneys, tongue) and the soup bones, so I had probably an extra 10-15 pounds in my share, but even so, you can hardly beat that price.

Where places like CostCo or BJ's or whatever really excel, for me, is in staples, specials, and cheese. Sometimes you can really luck out; I found organic chicken breasts there, in an 8-pack (where each package contained 2 breast halves), for $2.29 a pound. Stocked up on those mofos, I tell you what. And the cheese is literally half the price it is at the grocery store. They don't have super-fancy Whole Foods cheese, but they have extra sharp cheddar and Comte gruyere and Cambazola and fresh mozzarella. With only two people in the house, the produce is never going to be worth it for you, it'll all go bad unless you declare one week Spinach With Every Meal! or something. And for toilet paper, dry beans, rice, quinoa, shampoo, &c, the prices can't be beat. But you have to know what you're going there for, and not really deviate.
posted by KathrynT at 6:43 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing the produce thing. Stuff like bell peppers, fresh mushrooms, and onions are hella cheap and be used in a bunch of delicious ways. Planning out your meals a little bit will help you to make sure that you don't buy it until you need it and helps to avoid the stress of trying to figure out what to make for dinner after working eight hours. It will help you eat out less since you'll rarely be struggling with what to make and end up saying, "Screw it, lets go out."

You should also try to think up as many easy dishes as you can and use them to write up a menu to look at for those times that you don't have anything planned.

My wife and I don't eat breakfast either except on weekends but we find it fun to have breakfast for dinner every once in a while. Its a sure bet that pancakes or waffles with some breakfast sausage or bacon will be a pretty big departure from whatever you had the last few nights.

When we do go out, we almost always go a "Happy Hour" at one of the local bars. After 9:00pm a lot of places have drink specials and half price appetizers. We'll usually order three appetizers and a drink or two. It keeps things pretty cheap and scratches our going out itch once a week.

I also noticed that you like to eat a lot of sea food. The fish is probably one of the major things breaking your budget and might be giving you mercury poisoning.
posted by VTX at 7:22 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are some really excellent answers here but I would like to add my own observation - if you do get a slow cooker, it's easy to convert recipes from the oven to the cooker. My rule of thumb is if it goes in the oven for an hour at 350F, it'll be done in 8-9 hrs done on low in the cooker. This is especially awesome for casseroles, soups, stews and other mixed ingredient dishes that taste best cooked a long time.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:17 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

We prepare and cook everything we buy ourselves. I'm not really sure what people mean by "Cook it yourself". There must be something I'm missing there.

I think they mean that if you make those granola bars (approx $1.25/bar in a box) from oats ($0.08 worth) and raisins ($0.15 worth) honey ($0.20 worth -- I'm kinda guessing on these), you save. Or if you take the milk and some acidopholus packets, it's about half as expensive as buying yogurt.

On the organic question, if you watch the prices and shop seasonally, you can find organic produce at essentially the same prices as conventional (minus the polluting-other-people's-water-supply part!). You just have to watch the prices. In my grocery store, in the organic section, in the banana section, there are $0.52/lb bananas right next to $1.50/lb bananas. Wuh? The conventional bananas were like $0.55 on this particular day. I'm sure someone is going to come along and say BJ's has bananas for $0.00/lb or whatever, but all I'm saying is that if you watch prices, you can get organic produce for an average price. In fact, this may be a dumb comment, but do you watch prices all the time? If you don't, once you start, you will find fascinating discoveries, like that one brand of natural deodorant is $2.79 and another is $9.72, for no obvious reason.

My trick for making big batches without getting bored is to make something really bland and then spice it up more each day. So, let's say I make a big pot of beans. Night one: plain beans on couscous. Night two: bean stew with garlic, carrots, and tomatoes. Night three: bean stew enchiladas with tons of cumin and sauce on top. Or, night one: lentils and potatoes. Night two: potato-lentil curry soup. Night three: sauteed potato-lentil curry with garlic, chard, and onions.

My other advice is to just accept your laziness so that you can be deliberate about what super-quick-cooking meals work for you. If you have saving money as your goal, you can give yourself a pat on the back when you do it, even if it means you congratulate yourself for bringing a can of soup to heat up at work for lunch. For me, the fast-cook meals are ones I get sick of faster, but it's kind of fun to figure out what new meal I can make for $X or less.
posted by salvia at 8:55 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that I've found helpful is finding cheap foods that are time-consuming, but mostly cook unattended. I cook those on the weekend, or the night before I plan to use them.

For example, I've been cooking a lot more dried beans from scratch since I discovered this no-soak 90 minute bean recipe. There's very little in the way of prep work, and as a foodie bonus, the beans taste better than the canned ones.
posted by creepygirl at 9:18 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding four things.

Make it yourself, from scratch. Doesn't have to be labor intensive. Light asian soup made with homemade frozen stock; rice and meat/veg stir fry; herb salad (some of it from your own pot based garden). Twenty five minutes, less than five dollars for two.

Ethnic grocers. Regardless of whether it's bulk staples or green-grocer produce, the supply chains are often shorter (or less complex), are often based upon extended family networks, and immigrants need to work harder for less. So prices are lower.

Farmers markets. Real ones. Buy seasonal.

Bulk meat. Find a wholesaler, butcher your own and freeze. Even if you're not buying whole sides, most cities of any size have wholesale restaurant suppliers who will do retail for cash on things like whole rump (I think you call that something different in the states, but I don't know what it is). I bought my last one here for $5 a kilo and it cost $35 plus butchering time. If I'd bought the same thing as steaks in a supermarket it would have cost me about $90.

The wholesaler thing also works for me with seafood, but only at the premium end of the market. The cheapest seafood I can get is Vietnamese Basa or African Nile Perch from my local supermarket. But if it comes down to price comparisons on crayfish or large fillets of local table fish, I'm much better off buying from the Greek family warehouse up the road in an industrial area than I am buying from the competing Greek family retailer in the premier shopping district down the road. If that makes sense.
posted by Ahab at 9:49 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: Since you mention ice cream specifically, here's what I've found. The mister is an ice cream junkie, and can't eat eggs. Most ice creams have eggs in them, so finding a brand he can eat necessitates a lot of label reading. In examining the labels, we found that regular old Breyers has better ingredients and less crap in it (high fructose corn syrup, for instance) than a lot of fancier brands, and there are often sales on it (recently, I grabbed 5 "half gallon" containers for $1.99 each with a grocery store membership card. That's like the cost of two overpriced pints of schmancy ice cream!).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:35 PM on September 22, 2010

As folks said above - extend your proteins with beans, grains and vegetables, and cut down on processed foods. For example, cook up a big pot of fish stew using frozen fish (cheaper than fresh, often just as good & pretty much indistinguishable in a stew), and then freeze portions which you can then bring for lunch or reheat when you get home from work. This way you don't have to cook *every* night, but can still have delicious homemade food rather than paying a lot more for something store-bought. Lots of foods - casseroles, stews, whole roasted chickens, etc. - can feed you for 3-4 nights for very little money.
posted by judith at 10:37 PM on September 22, 2010

Response by poster: Again, so many great answers. I'm about to mark some answers that I particularly like.

I am a little disappointed that some of you jumped to the conclusion that we were essentially lying to you when we said we were foodies. Maybe it's because we don't make our own bread and/or yogurt, or when we admitted that we sometimes don't get to every veggie we buy. Who knows. I should really know better than to expect people to not diagnose us based on a few paragraphs. But, I am still a little peeved. We do make a lot of things from scratch ourselves, but time is a HUGE thing. We make our own veggie and mushroom stocks, for example. Last night I got home at 9:30 and we still hadn't had dinner, and I managed to churn out a pretty good, healthy meal. No, I didn't run to the grocery store to buy fresh tomatoes, or use dry beans that needed to soak for 2 hours. I used canned tomatoes and beans. So sue me. The Mr. said it was "really fantastic", and he's not a huge fan of black beans, so that's saying something. Give us a break. We live in the real world. And in our "real world" we don't have the time or energy to make our own yogurt or bread every week.

I really, really appreciate those who gave constructive and practical advice. We don't eat meat every night of the week (and very rarely anything other than fish), and I am a huge bean/legume fanatic, so I think we're on the right track. We're definitely going to get a membership to Costco to stock up on a lot of canned goods and bulk food which would be a good staple to our growing pantry. I am going to try to let loose a little on organic stuff. Shopping at ethic food markets is a great idea; we live in Philly, so we just have to figure out where they are. We've had plans to get a slow cooker, but that's not likely to happen for another 6 months or so. We're definitely looking forward to it. We make a lot of things from cookbooks (especially Rick Bayless; we're huge fans), and we'll have to start experimenting. We don't have a lot of "real" farmers markets in Philadelphia. We have a bunch of small farmers markets that sell fairly cheap produce, but most everything else is overpriced. I used to shop at the Italian market all the time when I lived over there, but we're a bit farther away now. We'll still have to make the trek once a week, I think. We already buy a lot of frozen fish.

Please feel free to keep answering. You folks have been great overall.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:26 AM on September 23, 2010

I think by "cook it yourself" people mean "eat out less and instead prepare at home the dishes served at restaurants."
posted by phoenixy at 9:18 AM on September 23, 2010

Similar to the slow-cooker suggestions, I would suggest a pressure-cooker. A pressure cooker can cut your cook time dramatically. If you can't manage to prep your meals before you leave for work in the morning, you can still make a batch of beans in 20 minutes. Or braise lamb shanks in 30. Ratatouille in 15.

Great suggestions in this thread!
posted by bluejayway at 9:44 AM on September 23, 2010

I love that you asked this question because I'm dealing with some of the same issues right now. :-) My husband and I are also terrible about letting produce waste away -- this thread reminded me to go freeze the bouquet-size bunch of parsley I have leftover from making beef stock that only needed five stems of it.

Anyway, I'm pretty prissy about food quality so I have a lot to say! It's definitely possible to eat amazing food cheaply, you just have to do a few things... (Canning should probably be on this list, I just have no experience with it yet.)


I can definitely vouch for making things that freeze well. I see you already freeze things so I'll throw this out there in case I hit on something you haven't thought of, or else for the benefit of others with similar questions. One big thing I always have in my freezer is beef stew and chili -- but of course to fit your dietary preferences, most kinds of soups and chilis work well. Once the soup/chili is done I let it cool off, then freeze it by the cup-ful in small plastic tupperware containers. I thought it would be difficult to get stuff out of the containers, but nope! You just pull on the edges a little and press on the back, and you don't even have to run them under hot water or anything. I save the pucks in gallon freezer bags. One big puck is a bowlful and reheats in less than five minutes in the microwave.

If you freeze things like that in one big brick, chances are good you're never going to reheat it because it'll be a hassle, and you'll have to refreeze any leftovers again, etc.

Your husband might like this: I make butter injector sauces for meats and freeze those all the time, too. Injectors make a huge difference for poultry; I don't even like getting poultry at good restaurants anymore because I can make it better at home, and cheaper. Plus if you have a good meat cleaver you can save money by buying whole poultry, then using the leftovers in a stew that you freeze. The recipe base I use makes enough injector for roughly five whole chickens, so I pour the rest into an ice-cube tray and it's roughly a cube per chicken.

I make stock at home -- such a HUGE difference -- and condense it down until it fits into an ice-cube tray such that each cube can be reconstituted with one cup of water, then save the cubes in a freezer bag. It tastes just as great reconstituted. I point this out mostly because it saves space, and when you're freezing a lot of things it can get crowded. I make about eight cups worth at a time and this lasts for quite a while.

I freeze egg whites in ice-cube trays and save the cubes in freezer bags. I have a couple dozen egg-whites at any time because I like to make ice-cream and use the yolks for that, but the whites sure do come in handy and keep me from wasting eggs later.

By the way, if you want to save money, don't make your own ice-cream, haha. I make it for control over the ingredients, but even if you're just putting the cheapest stuff in it's going to be more expensive than premium ice-cream you can buy, maybe about the same at best.

I also make cheesecakes and pies and freeze them in bars; I do this partly because I eat low carb and that's a good way to ensure I always have a sugar-free snack around, but also because anything like a cheesecake or a pie is too much to eat at once but thaws wonderfully. Before I started freezing those things the rest would go bad, and I'd eat more stuff off my diet when I'd get sugar cravings. Other low carb stuff I freeze this way: muffins, brownies, cupcakes/cake, poundcake, cookies. (If anyone's wondering how that can possibly be low carb, check this blog: coconut flour and black beans are miracles and those recipes pass easily for the real thing.)

Finally, it's just as important to know what NOT to freeze: you might enjoy an earlier question I asked in this vein. Of course, trial and error is still your best friend.


Anyway, my big tip is this: you can make some amazing food, better than even premium speciality items, just by using great FRESH spices. And great spices are not that expensive if you know where to get them. I get them from Penzey's and they're consistently cheaper than anything from the grocery store, especially if you buy them in the baggies rather than the glass bottles. Some of their stuff is as little as $3 for 8oz. Penzey's is great if you have one nearby, but even if you have to get it shipped I think it's worth it.

Unfortunately, I disagree with those who suggest buying spices in bulk bins -- at least not if you're a foodie. Fresh spices make way more difference in whether something tastes amazing or not, and it took me a long time to realize that; in fact, that's the point where I started preferring my own cooking to restaurant cooking. A lot of places where you can buy bulk from a bin have old spices and, cheap or not, it's not worth the money if it doesn't taste good. Don't buy a spice if it isn't extremely fragrant, and don't buy more than you'll use in a year.

(Similarly, be wary of buying flour in bulk unless you use a lot of it, because it does diminish in quality -- and don't buy whole grain flours in bulk at all unless you know you'll use it quickly or you're willing to refrigerate it, because these will go rancid at worse, or just plain taste bad after several months. Trust me, I found this out the hard way.)

I always have several homemade spice blends lying in wait, most of which I use for meat and fish rubs (which I pair with a matching injector sauce), but many, like the cajun, can go in pretty much anything. One way I switch up the beef stew I always keep around is to use a different spice blend in it. The other benefit to making your own spice blends is that it's fast; I can rub and inject some chicken and have it in the oven in ten minutes. Pescatarian food doesn't benefit quite as much from this, but most spice blends go great with beans or vegetables if you use common sense, and you can make ones that fit seafood well. I keep a blend of Herbs de Provence around because it's great on both poultry and seafood, for example.

Most of my spice blends come from The BBQ Bible book about sauces, rubs, and marinades, and I highly recommend that book even if you don't eat much meat just because you can use the recipes on anything, really.


A related thought is that if you want to make amazing stuff at home, you're really going to have to search for some strong recipes -- spice blends are only one example. Nearly any dessert you can think of, for example, you can probably make mind-blowing at home if you have the right recipe; I'm almost never impressed by restaurant desserts, and restaurant desserts are pretty good. Fancy soups you can make relatively cheap but AMAZING, and they make a nice compliment to a meal when reheated; tomato bisque, curried red bell pepper, etc. Definite foodie material. Stuff like that can be a pain to make, but when you're getting several month's supply out of it, it's worth the effort -- and at least for me, I find it's enjoyable enough to make something like that every now and then. Want a fancy artisan bread? MAKE ONE! You will thank me. There are lots of great bread books; I very much recommend the King Arthur Whole Grain cookbook, which has the BEST BROWNIE RECIPE you will EVER eat, whole grain or otherwise.

I also recommend making pizza from scratch, beats the hell out of everything. I don't eat much bread in general but when I do, I want it to feel worth it.


When all is said and done, if you want quality, here's the few things to splurge on: dairy, spices (shouldn't even be much of a splurge), oils -- and just basic oils, you can infuse your own to make them foodie material. Organic milk and butter are worthwhile (they taste way better and organic matters more), but organic cheese can be expensive unless you're going for a basic cheese. Cheese is generally worth splurging on. Organic vegetables are cheaper at a farmer's market. Good chocolate is worth the money. So is good tea. Not a coffee person or much of a drinker, but I imagine those are worth quality as well. (When I cook with wine, I don't use the very cheapest, but I don't go much higher than $7/bottle -- I really can't taste the difference, but I know some people can. Spend the money if it's worth it for you!)


Finally, when you start cooking a lot of your own stuff, don't be afraid to invest a little money in the proper equipment. It'll feel like spending more money, but it'll pay off over time -- just be smart and get the best quality for the price, because a lot of cooking stuff is WAY overpriced. I like things like Cook's Illustrated for rankings. Here's my recommendations:

Chef's knife for $27 (never pay ridiculous prices for a knife; this came out on top in a KI test)
Cleaver for $40 (there might be better options out there)

For cookware, Pyrex is good and cheap. There are tons of adequate pizza stones and peelers for cheap. A good variety of tupperware or like products is cheap and great for storing and freezing. A $5 coffee grinder for grinding spices. A sturdy cutting board if you don't have one -- I recommend a self-healing plastic one since wood ones can retain germs and get moldy and such. Silicone muffin pans beat the hell out of metal ones and are easier to store. Similarly, one cheap thing I've loved is silicone ice-cube trays.

Then, of course, there's some things that you hopefully already have, because they are pricey: a food processor and a stand mixer. I have KitchenAid for both and love them to death after having used cheaper ones that sucked. I believe there are pasta-making attachments for these, which is another plus (I almost never eat pasta, even though I do love it).

One final idea that I don't know how to categorize: making your own fondue at home is easy and awesome. I have this fondue pot and it works great, and The Melting Pot's cookbook is fantastic. A three course meal at The Melting Pot, with no alcohol, is about $120... make it at home, or only a few courses, and it's way cheaper. On Sundays my husband and I like to do cheese and chocolate. You don't need a fondue pot, either, though broth/oil fondue seems difficult without one, and I think cheese cools too quickly without a constant heat source and is easy to burn or separate on a stovetop. I make chocolate fondue in the microwave, though, just by heating on lower power for no more than 20 seconds at a time. A $3 - $4 swiss chocolate bar, some berries, and a cut-up piece of coffee cake is enough for two people. For cheese fondue, 7oz of a cheese is enough for two people, and we just cut up a small cheap baguette and an apple -- even spending a ton of money on the cheese, which we do, you can do it for less than $10. The upfront investment in alcohol for the fondue can seem steep -- I think we spent $30 on a bottle of Kirschwasser and a $7 white wine for swiss fondue -- but you get multiple fondues from it, perhaps months worth of doing it once a week. I'd estimate our fondue Sundays cost maybe $20, $25, but they're awesome and cheaper than even a cheap restaurant.
posted by Nattie at 10:11 AM on September 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

One note on crockpotting, especially if you work long hours: I've found that even on low, the optimal cooking time for most things is 7-9 hours. Including my commute, I'm often out of the house for 11 hours, which makes things like chicken cook up into mush. The Kitchn recommended a solution of cooking your dinner in your crockpot while you sleep, then putting it into the fridge to reheat when you come home.

Also, expanding on ke rose ne's marinade comment, set up your protein + marinade in a glass baking dish in the fridge before you leave for work in the morning. Come home from work, put the baking dish in the cold oven, turn the oven on, go walk the dog. The protein cooks while you are out walking the dog. You return to nearly-finished-cooking dinner and a fabulous aroma.

Our favorite marinades are:
Soy sauce, pineapple juice, ginger and garlic
Lemon juice, garlic and rosemary or oregano
posted by sarajane at 10:17 AM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

To help with the produce waste, plan your meals for the week, including the sides and then just buy the specific amount you need of each veg. I stopped a lot of produce waste, once actually had (and followed) a plan.
posted by sarajane at 10:24 AM on September 23, 2010

Best answer: I have to say, I think the word "foodie" might be a bit loaded for this environment. I see "foodie" used in a few ways:

1) justification for conspicuous consumption, similar to a "fashionista". Also a kind of "scene" to be into-- what chefs you like, what restaurants you've been too, what terroir you can taste in this cheese, etc.

2) a more "socially acceptable" way to say you like cooking with out being some regressive 50's housewife freak (for the ladies) or some kind of wimpy mamma's boy (for the gents). Being a foodie, fits in with the image of being a young, urban, professional-- a home cook, doesn't.

3) "I'm fat, but at least I'm fat on good food!" somewhat similar to "I might be alcohol dependent, but I only drink good wine!"

So, foodies #1, are going to say "Why don't you spend $60 on artesian smoked salmon? All others are inferior!" Foodies #2 are going to say "I can't imagine not making my own artesian smoked salmon!"

I waited to answer this question, because honestly I had no idea what you meant by foodie. It seems to me like you intend "foodie" to mean "I like to eat good food" which, I mean, who doesn't right? The word foodie always seems arrogant to me, like "non-foodies" are the unwashed McNugget munching masses. All in all, I'd sidestep that loaded word all together. Food is food.

So, on to the actually answering your question bit: It seems like you've got a great handle on the technical aspects of cooking, and you've probably got a well equipped kitchen too. I think where you're getting tripped up is in shopping, and looking at the bigger picture when you're cooking. If you're shopping, planing, and cooking for one meal at a time, you're going to be spending more energy, wasting more food, more money and more time per dish, than if you spent some time making a plan for a whole week.

I'm not talking about bulk food freezing, costco memberships, or "once a month cooking". I don't think it'll help out a family of 2 very much. I'm talking a menu like:
  • Pan seared fish over orzo(or pasta) with mustard pan sauce and roasted summer squash, eggplant and peppers
  • Roasted veggie risotto (from veg stock and leftover and veggies which you'll use to make:)
  • Vegetable and roasted chickpea soup with bread (blitz the leftover veg with broth, bring to a simmer, add roasted chickpeas and season)
  • Nicoise Salads, with croutons (from leftover bread)
  • Vegetarian "Szechuan" Tofu and green beans
This list is roughly stacked in order of providing leftovers to the next meal, and what's going to go bad quickly (eg, cook fish first). It's also flexible. Don't think "monday must be fish, tuesday must be soup". At the end of the week, you should be looking at a mostly empty fridge, or at least nothing going bad in it. If you've got some leftovers a saturday morning quiche can catch just about any leftover.

This would result in a shopping list (assuming staples are stocked) that looks like:
  • 2 portions fish
  • eggs
  • 4 Japanese eggplant (or 2 globe)
  • 3 yellow summer squash
  • 3 zucchini
  • 2 red and 2 green bell peppers
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1lbs tofu
  • a large amount of green beans (1.5lbs?)
  • 4 red potatoes
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 larger can (can be fancy) tuna
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 2qt veggie broth
  • Small container black olives (can be fancy olive bar kind)
  • arborio rice
  • pasta
  • baguette (might want to purchase mid week)
  • Chile paste, fermented black bean paste, (assuming you have soy sauce and sesame oil)
If that costs you more than $60, even mostly organic, I'll eat my hat. You could even throw in a $15ish bottle of white wine, add a little to your pan sauce, and have with your fish and risotto meals.

I say shop at a regular, godblessamerica mega-mart. Not an upscale store, not costco, not walmart. Just whatever the "middle class" grocery chain is there. Go for American produce, which will have much less pesticides/herbicides used that imported. I do make trips to farmers markets and ethnic markets, but they're not a weekly thing. Remember, the more stores you go to, the more time you're spending.

This weekend, look through your pantry and fridge then sit down with a note pad and, some cook books. Pick 5 things to cook, based on what you have on hand, what's going to go bad soon, whats in season, and whats on sale. Consider how you can dovetail ingredients together, so that you waste less. Keep the menu list on the fridge, so you know what you have. Keep all your recipes together (if you need them). Keep a running grocery list, and note when you run out of a staple.

I'm also a big believer in keeping a few "emergency" meals on hand. These are meals that have shelf-stable or frozen ingredients that take a minimum amount of energy to put together. Black bean burgers, Chickpea curry, etc.

Also a good idea is to keep some healthy snack (or appetizers) around, something you can munch before walking the dog and cooking dinner. If you're trying to cook complicated things when you're tired and hungry, no wonder you'll choose to eat out more. Get something in your stomach so it'll stop saying "Hey, it's 8pm and I haven't eaten since noon! Lets go get dinner out!" Some snack ideas are: baby carrots and hummus, crackers and cheese, apples, glass of milk, etc.

Ok, this is way too long already. One last idea for you, if you've got smart phones there are great shopping apps. One for Android is "shopulator" which lets you see what your shopping cart total is as you add items. It'll take you forever to go shopping at first while entering prices, but if you can see the difference those extra $6 for organic veg, vs conventional, or fresh fish vs frozen, you might start shopping smarter.
posted by fontophilic at 12:39 PM on September 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Agreeing with others about ethnic grocery stores, local produce stands/farmers markets, CSA if you find one that's the exact right fit for you (do some shopping around and research), and wholesale/restaurant supply for frozen items, maybe spices too. And you mention you plan, but do you take the mantra "recipes give you idea, but the marketplace gives you dinner"? Because that's the dimension of planning that matters. My parents cooked for us like kings and were also mega thrifty, and now that I'm on my own I've figured out how they managed it. It's not just making a grocery list based on default items you always get without thinking or with a general but still vague sense of the week's meals. No. It's going to the weekly ads first, noting the best deals around town, writing down those ingredients, and going to your cookbooks/prior knowledge/online databases/whatever and finding dishes to highlight or make use of said weekly good-deal items. Then plan how you're going to most efficiently grab all these items around town--my parents used to go on a pre-planned once a month or so jaunt to the furthest reaches, usually the restaurant/wholesale supply spots and fish markets and best local butcher and all that, altogether to save time and gas money--and we went the usual once a week to the close-by standard grocery shops, with visit to East Asian and Indian markets and all that sometimes for the season's supply of spices, rice, etc. (That part reminds--someone upthread mentioned having a pantry and getting out of the "every week you're starting over from scratch" mindset, and I agree. Store items properly and really reflect on how long it takes you to consume staples that will keep a while, and then keep your pantry stocked right for you. Then the super-fresh weekly job is just that.)

This is a lot more work than normal at first, but it's worth it. I don't do coupons on top of that, just all the hassle of getting my pantry and freezer(s--you may find this way of doing things involves another freezer, for my parents it did) in order and knowing my routines for when I could manage to get to the outskirt spots, and then watch for good deals around town like a hawk and plan dinner accordingly. We have the CSA too, which if you think about it is the exact same set-up with the same focus on what's good and cheap right now, and acting accordingly from that, not the other way around. Bouncing mentally quickly into making what's cheap into versatile meals is the key. And frankly if you're foodies, it's a skill you should develop anyway, no? The best restaurants know to start with what's best ingredient-wise and work from there. Don't put the cart before the horse, despite the fact when it comes to meal planning the default way people think about it is indeed backwards.
posted by ifjuly at 8:03 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You're in Philly and semi-vegetarian? The Italian Market and the Asian supermarkets (especially the one at 12th and Washington) are amazing! I just came back from the Asian market with: Tofu, cage-free eggs, soymilk, noodles, bok choy, cilantro, hot peppers, limes, tofu skins, bean sprouts, green onions, red onions, soy sauce, peanuts, and garlic. Total? 20 bucks! At a regular grocery store I would have paid almost that for the soymilk, eggs, and tofu alone. And the Italian Market is totally great as well. Portobellos for 99 cents a pound! You do have to dig around a bit at the market. Some vendors have better/fresher veggies than others and you can never count on what will be there any given day. But, if you can get down with the idea of going without a plan and just getting whatever is fresh and cheap it's a crazy good resource. I've definitely left with bulging bags without breaking a ten spot.
posted by troublewithwolves at 1:13 PM on September 26, 2010

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