fix my diet
June 20, 2012 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me fix my diet: Simplicity Edition

I need a plan. I'm trying to eat healthy things, for under $30 a week, and ideally, things that are basic and can be found easily. Weirdly, for example, it's much easier to get a good peach in my neighborhood than it is to find reasonably priced butter or yogurt. I'm also allergic to most raw fruits and vegetables, and tree nuts, and I think I'm addicted to carbs, so it's pretty hard.

Right now, my staples are cereal and milk, soy milk, hummus, bread, eggs, PB 'n' J, spaghetti, pretzels, and then obviously the obligatory smoked salmon every week (it's only $5...) I want to include more fruits and vegetables and stuff, but once I do that the price starts going up exponentially. And then I don't really know what to do with them once I have them. Like, I just ate five carrots and I can feel a vitamin overload right now. But because of the way the stores are here, it'd be much easier to find unprocessed rather than packaged foods. And I'd rather stay away from packaged foods anyway, also corn syrup. (Think about corn syrup right now. It's gross, isn't it? It's in everything. Literally everything. It's even in my bread.)

I have this basic idea that I should have protein in my life, so that's how I came up with eating PB 'n' J every day. It also lasts a pretty long time. But I know it's also mostly sugar. Still, I can't disagree with the price and the simplicity. I made eggs for breakfast for a while, but then I realized that takes way too long and I just started making cereal. What are some other combinations that are simple and cheap? I used to make tuna pitas with hummus and spinach, but even that has way too many ingredients and was sucking up my money. Can I live on apples? Also, what can I put on spaghetti besides sauce? Can I just put butter on it? Is that gross?

Oh, and I can only make single servings cause I don't own a large bowl. I also don't own a plate. Actually, I'm borrowing all my roommate's utensils.

1.) No meat, please
2.) The only herbs we have are basil, oregano, garlic powder, and onion powder
3.) Preferably no recipes that require a small amount of some ingredient I'll never use again, i.e. "A dash of olive oil, it costs $11 a bottle by the way"
4.) If you recommend beans, please enlighten me on how to use them. I have no idea what to do with them, I don't even know the different kinds.
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You have some serious restrictions going on.

What fruit/veggies are you allergic too? Or not allergic to, if that's easier?

Are you open to the idea of buying a bowl, plate, one pot, tupperware to store leftovers? Bulk cooking is the cheapest and quickest way to cook, so you will eat more cheaply and with less effort if you have a pot to cook in and tupperware for leftovers/

Also, I totally understand that you don't want to buy $10 worth of something for one recipe - but avoiding staples (like olive oil), because they cost that much up-front is actually not really a great idea. Personally, I use olive oil almost every single time I cook. Would you be willing to buy something like olive oil if you knew you were going to use it in most recipes?

To answer your specific questions: No, you cannot live on apples. Peanut butter on apples is a healthy, easy, quick snack though. Sure, you can put butter on pasta, it's not gross at all. But, putting marinara sauce on it (from a jar) will give you some vegetables in your diet. You could even chop up some tofu or vegetarian sausage and throw it in (no cooking required) for a relatively balanced meal.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:53 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

My roommate eats a mostly vegetarian diet on very little money. His main dinner staple is pasta (sometimes he mixes it up and gets cool shapes or flavors) with a ton of butter and cheese (parmesan), plus steamed vegetables on the side. He makes a single serving every time and seems very happy with it.

Rice is another easy thing. You can cook rice in a pot with a can of black beans and a can of tomatoes mixed in. You can experiment with lots of different types of bean/vegetable combinations in rice. Leftover rice makes a great breakfast too - I like to fry up leftover rice in a pan and crack an egg or two on top and mix it in. It doesn't take all that long to do.

One of my other favorite cheap things to eat is "tunamac" - a can of tuna mixed into macaroni and cheese from the box (Kraft or Annie's depending on how healthy you want to try to be).

I agree that you should invest in a bowl and some tupperwares to store leftovers. This will make your life a million times easier. You could even use plastic bags (like the quart size freezer bags) to store leftovers. You can get like 50 for about $3.
posted by permiechickie at 5:13 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I made eggs for breakfast for a while, but then I realized that takes way too long and I just started making cereal.

The key to this is hard-boiled eggs. You can make a dozen all at once, in the time it takes to make maybe two bowls of cereal. Then just dry them off and put them back in their carton in the fridge, and eat one or two each morning for a week. They're good whole, sliced/diced up in other things (burritos! sandwiches! hash!), or in egg salad.

Also, what can I put on spaghetti besides sauce? Can I just put butter on it? Is that gross?

The best thing to put on spaghetti besides sauce is... olive oil! (Skip the herbs, they're optional; you can sub your basil and oregano for the red pepper flakes, and you could probably get by with the garlic powder instead of real garlic). This is actually a traditional and super-delicious way to serve spaghetti, and will make that $11 bottle of oil go a long way. You can throw in a little parmesan cheese, sliced tofu or veggie-sausage, and/or spinach at the end if you want to give it a nutrition boost.

I also second the whey powder. sells the powder and the blender bottles at a good price.
posted by vorfeed at 5:15 PM on June 20, 2012

I think you should purchase pancake mix instead of eating PB&J. Pancake mix only requires the box and eggs, but PB&J sandwhiches require bread, peanut butter, and jelly. This is more expensive in the long run.

I make a very cheap yet delicious bean salad. Just get a can of mixed beans which is less than $1 and pour some lemon juice or even cheaper, buy one lemon and squeeze out the lemon juice and then mix it up with some fresh herbs!
posted by livinglearning at 5:20 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second alot of what insectosaurus says. You could find a small bottle of olive oil for $4 which would last you weeks. I cook alot more than you do, and I'm cooking for 2, and my Trader Joe's olive oil lasts me more than a month. So, don't shy away from staples like that. I'd have a bottle of hot sauce around but that's just me.

How about avocado? You can mash it up with some salt and pepper and eat it on bread, or slice it and put it on sandwiches, or lots of other things. garlic powder + tomato + lime juice = guacamole.

Chick peas in a can are an option, since you like hummus. Rinse, put in a pot with some water, add the spices you have on hand, and simmer. This is something I'd drizzle some olive oil in. Similarly, a can of white beans. Eat with the pasta.

Vegetarian baked beans + pasta + hot sauce is yummy. Same with rice instead of pasta.

Or try spaghetti with marinara sauce and tuna.
posted by cabingirl at 5:21 PM on June 20, 2012

You seem to have a strange definition of "simplicity." For example, a bottle of olive oil might be $11/pop, but you use about a teaspoon at a time and can use it on everything. I put it on pasta, on salads, on veggies to roast them, use it for sauteing. An eleven dollar bottle lasts me and my husband about two months.

I think the simplest thing to do would be to learn a few core recipes that use vegetables in order to add nutrients and variety to your diet. Do you know how to saute veggies? Heat some oil in a wide pan. While that's heating, chop up some veggies--onions, peppers, squash, garlic. Throw them in the heated oil, stir with a spatula until cooked. You can serve this as a side or throw it on pasta, which is what I usually do. Takes about as long as it takes to boil pasta. You can also roast vegetables--heat the oven to 350-400 degrees, cut up vegetables, place on a baking sheet covered in tin foil, tossed with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Cook til crispy. Or make big salads, if you can eat raw lettuce. Or steam veggies, if you don't mind spending two bucks on a steamer basket.

I'm sure that you'll scoff that all of this sounds like a lot of work, but what it's about is putting in a few weeks of time to learn how to do these kitchen basics until you can do them in your sleep. All of the above takes me ten minutes, tops. And once you have those core skills down, you can eat SO MANY MORE THINGS because it's not a big leap to go from roasting broccoli to roasting kale chips.

Because, when it comes down to it, the way you're eating isn't healthy. Switching out pancakes for PB&J is not going to make your diet healthier. And you're really, really lucky to live in a place where fresh produce is plentiful.

At the very least, if you're going to continue eating as if you were living on monkey chow, invest some money in a good multivitamin. If your diet is as dire as you say, I'd be worried about scurvy and other nutritional disorders.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:29 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I spent last winter eating ramen, an egg, and spinach for dinner every night. Cook the ramen, add the spinach, drain most of the broth and crack an egg into the pan, stir it up a bunch and yummm. Ramen's totally not healthy, but eggs and spinach are! You could probably do the same with spaghetti instead of ramen, I suppose. Hot sauce splashes are, of course, necessary.
posted by Grandysaur at 5:30 PM on June 20, 2012

If you're already making spaghetti, an idiot proof way to add vegetables to your diet is to toss them in with the pasta water a few minutes before the pasta is ready to be strained. Spinach is the best for this, but others (e.g. chopped carrots, broccoli florets) will work too. They'll cook along with the pasta and then you can strain everything together. You'll lose some nutrients in the vegetables from cooking them this way, but it's the least marginal effort relative to what you're doing now, and you have to start eating vegetables.

I second PhoBwanKenobi's recommendation that you take a multivitamin.
posted by telegraph at 6:01 PM on June 20, 2012

for under $30 a week,
the obligatory smoked salmon every week (it's only $5...)

That's pretty inefficient. Is it really worth 1/6th of your total food budget?
posted by jacalata at 6:06 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

> Like, I just ate five carrots and I can feel a vitamin overload right now.

Just checking: you know that that's not real, right? Unless you're actually allergic to carrots, which is unusual.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:32 PM on June 20, 2012

Response by poster: jacalata: Wow, it is 1/6th, isn't it?
corpse: I ~am~ allergic to carrots! Raw carrots, anyhow.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:44 PM on June 20, 2012

Do you buy the hummus or make it? I would start making that, because you can get chick peas for pretty cheap in the bulk bin and make batches of hummus for much cheaper than what you will pay at the store.

An alternative snack is roasted chick peas. I love them and could eat them every day. They're very filling.

I make a lot of lentils - usually sauteing some combination of onions/carrots/celery/garlic/leeks/whatever and then cooking the lentils in water with herbs/spices/whatever. I buy a block of parmigiano to season with which seems expensive but it goes a long way.

Also olive oil isn't really terribly expensive (I get mine for about $6/liter from trader joe's or whole foods) and you will use it in a lot of things...such as hummus and when sauteing veggies or anything else. I make my own salad dressing with olive oil/lemon juice/salt/pepper/maybe some herbs. Even when I was unemployed and trying to save money I still bought the olive oil because it comes out cheaper in the long run because I use it to cook my own food instead of buying prepared or going out.

For breakfast I have hard boiled eggs because I don't have a lot of time in the morning. I also usually make a breakfast salad with some chopped veggies(usually carrots/celery/cucumber/peppers) feta cheese, some chopped nuts and the dressing I mentioned above.

For snacks I also make popcorn on the stove with a whirly pop. I buy the popcorn kernels and pop it in aforementioned olive oil. Could also make that in the microwave.

An old roommate of mine used to make her own bread (even bagels!) every week because she didn't want to pay for it.
posted by fromageball at 6:57 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lentils are a pretty good source of protein and don't require much work to prep. You don't need to presoak them and they cook up in less than an hour. They're not the best tasting thing that I've ever made, but they're not bad.

In addition, don't be afraid of buying staples that will last you a long time. I use Olive oil in practically everything I make.

Nutrition info:
posted by BostonEnginerd at 8:17 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

> I also don't own a plate.

$0.50 at a thrift store. They might even give it to you for free if you ask nicely. Or go to a dollar store and get some cheap plastic one; they'll also have cheap reusable plastic containers.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:22 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, it's time to join the adult world, and buy yourself a set of dishes, flatware, as well as a set of stainless steel bowls.

Ditch the garlic powder and buy heads of garlic. Sauteed garlic in olive oil is the stuff of nirvana. (Not to mention the tactile pleasure of smacking a clove of garlic under a knife to peel off the skin.)

Beans 101: buy a different variety of canned beans each week and make a salad or mix them with rice or pasta. You don't need to season them with much more than salt, pepper and a dash of vinaigrette (oil and vinegar).

And have you been officially diagnosed as allergic to vegetables? By a real doctor? I'm not trying to derail--I have simply not heard of somebody actually being allergic to raw vegetables themselves, as opposed to having intestinal trouble digesting them.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:27 PM on June 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

About the plates and utensils: It is my understanding that in a typical sublet or roommate situation, the person who "owns" the kitchen implements allows other inhabitants of the apartment to use them, on the condition that they are properly treated while in use, cleaned and stored. Unless your roommate has expressly said that he/she does not wish to share pots/plates/utensils, I think you can safely use them. Ask, if you have any doubts. You seem to want to be totally self-sufficient, but there's really no need to be, in this arena.
posted by Liesl at 7:24 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have the perfect cookbook for you: "The Student's Vegetarian Cookbook", by Carole Raymond. The book itself costs less than ten bucks, and it'll give you the tools to eat a cheap, healthy, simple vegetarian diet. It also focuses on cooking for one person, so you don't always have to eat leftovers for a week (not that there's anything wrong with that). It'll help you figure out many uses for beans, too. Just about all of the recipes take less than 30 minutes, start to finish, and most are even quicker.

$30 a week will be a challenge... some things that pop out are:

The salmon: it's fine to treat yourself, but if your budget is strict, this doesn't belong in your list of regular weekly purchases.

The soy milk: Why? If you're not vegan and you're not avoiding dairy, this seems like a waste of money. If you believe you need soy, there are cheaper, healthier sources (and I don't believe you need soy).

Add rice to your list. And potatoes. A baked potato makes a great meal, and is relatively quick if you have a microwave.

You need to be open to buying some staples that you'll use week after week, such as olive oil. You can easily polish off a bottle of olive oil in a summer.
posted by Kriesa at 8:03 AM on June 21, 2012

Woah, this is just sad. Why do you hate yourself so much? You need to grow up and start learning to feed yourself. Only a child would steadfastly refuse to invest even a modicum of time and energy into a meal.

When I was living off of $20 per week, I'd make a big pan of ziti, with ground meat (you can use ricotta) and spaghetti sauce. Then I'd have it for lots and lots of meals.

There was a great blog not too long ago about a guy who ate on $1 per day. Genius! Here's the actual blog.

First of all, some tricks to eating cheap:

1. Look at the weekly ads. You can get pasta for about .50 per box if you know how to shop. Many grocery stores have buy one get one free, stock up. Even better, go through left over Sunday papers and get the coupons. Sometimes you can get stuff for free!

2. Tortillas, cheese and salsa. Quesadilla!

3. Cottage cheese and fresh fruit.

4. Tuna should be about .69 per can.

5. Vegetarian Chili. Get a can of Chili Beans, a can of Rotel and heat up. Yum. (clearly there's more you could do for a much better chili, but this is a starting point.)

6. Bean dip. Take a can of refried beans. Warm the beans, add a layer of cut up avocado (if you like it, I don't), sour cream, olives, green onions, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, cheese. Eat with tortillas, or tortilla chips. You can get 36 corn tortillas DIRT CHEAP. Toast them in the oven, or if you're feeling advanced, fry them. They keep well in the freezer.

7. Cream cheese and vegetarian chili. Another yummy dip. Smear cream cheese on a plate, add warm chili on top, add grated cheese. Eat with chips.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:57 AM on June 21, 2012

To simplify, get a few staples that can be easily mixed and matched. Stick with one or two to minimize expenses of staples. Rice for example can be expensive but if you stick with #2 below as your main fare, it is a very good investment.

A few examples:

1. Mexican-like. Tortilla, cheese, corn, and beans. Put cheese on tortillas. Throw in veggies of your choice(spinach, onion, mushroom, etc) and put them in the oven. You've got yourself queasadilla. Or tortilla, rice, beans, veggie and meat of your choice and you've got yourself a burrito. You can make a bunch at a time, wrap them with aluminum foil and you can have them for breakfast too.

2. Asian fare. Rice and stir fry. Rice might be a big investment up front but if you decide to use it regularly, it's fairly cheap. I think you can get a 50lbs rice bag for $30. 50 lbs lasted the two of us 2 years. To stir fry: throw in garlic and onion in a dollop of hot oil. Then stir in whatever veggie or meat you like. Salt and pepper might be adequate. Drop in soy sauce or a bit of broth for extra flavor.

3. Sandwich style. There are a ton of variety you can do. Caramelized onions. Throw them on a hard bread and mix with cheese, other veggies of your choice, and you've got yourself a Philly cheese steak sandwich. Been to subway? It should give you ideas on how to mix and match. It might be a bit more limiting that you don't eat meat but veggies and mayo on good bread is heavenly.

4. Pasta style. Pasta plus whatever else. You mentioned you didn't know other sauces. Yes - butter is yummy on just pasta. There is also pesto and just straight olive oil, and alfredo sauce. That's 5 sauce based just right there. To add other variations, vary the stuff you put on them. For example: Butter based and add clams on them. Or caramelized onions. Or garlic. Or spinach. etc. And don't forget the herbs.

For protein, since you don't eat meat, will have to be: fermented soy (tofu, tempeh, etc), beans, and seafood. You might want to look into quinoa too as variation to either rice or pasta. Beans are the cheapest but you can get good deals for canned seafood (tuna and clams).

And yes - invest in a few things first. Get containers (or at the very least zip lock bags) to store either the cooked food or the fresh ingredients.
posted by 7life at 9:30 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have this basic idea that I should have protein in my life
This is very correct.

What are some other combinations
I am not a nutritionist, but apparently nutritionists no longer think you need to 'combine' partial-proteins (like grain (bread) + legumes (peanut butter)) in a single meal. If you eat cereal for breakfast and legumes later that day, your body can assemble the components into protein.

that are simple and cheap?
Legumes are indeed your friend. Some of them are tasty with almost no other ingredients.

Red lentils + water + salt + small pot with a lid.
(Note: you can indeed get pots from thrift or dollar stores. Look for one with a nice thick bottom. Avoid non-intact teflon. My favorite all-purpose pot was snagged from our building's recycling bin.)
Put lentils in pot. Add twice as much water. Stir so lentils aren't sticking to bottom of pan. Put pan on stove. Heat. When water boils, turn down heat and add lid. When water is gone, add salt & eat. (If you want to get fancy, add mashed-up garlic, ginger, cilantro stems, jalapeƱo, coconut milk. Or just use the herbs you mention above.)

Pinto beans + water + garlic + salt + big pot + freezer bags/tupperware
Put lots of beans in pot. Add at least 4 x as much water. Let sit for at least 4 hours. Discard water. Add same amount of new water. Add garlic. (I use 2 peeled cloves per pound of beans. A head of garlic costs about a dollar and lasts for ages. If you insist on using powdered garlic, add it later, with the salt, as lengthy boiling can turn powdered herbs bitter.) Heat. When it boils, turn down heat to simmer. Cover pot with lid, or if you don't have a lid, check it every hour or so and add more water if needed. After a few hours (2-4) start chewing on beans to see if they are nice & soft. When they are, add salt and cook for a few more minutes. Then turn off heat. Eat some beans now, put some in the fridge, put most in the freezer.

Cheaper fish.

Smoked salmon is delicious, but you'll get far more nutritional bang for the buck if you buy little oily fishes like canned smoked herring or sardines (leaving at least 3 extra bucks per week to invest in longer-term deliciousness supplies, such as condiments or a dollar-store vegetable steamer tray.
Some folks eat them on toast; I like to mix mine in with rice, which can be made the same way you make lentils (if it's brown rice, which has more B vitamins, use a slightly higher rice:water ratio -- somewhere between 1:2 and 2:5.), and some condiments, preferably including vinegar.

What kind of cereal are you eating for breakfast?

If it's boxed cereal, you can almost certainly improve your money:nutrition ratio by substituting cooked cereal, which you make in the evening every few days. Millet is so cheap that in the US it's mostly used for birdseed, and has even more B vitamins than brown rice.
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:45 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can I live on apples?
No and yes. Apples contain astonishingly little in the way of vitamins. But they're a great source of fiber and more importantly of slow sugars. They've been experimentally shown to keep people awake more effectively than coffee.

Also, what can I put on spaghetti besides sauce? Can I just put butter on it? Is that gross?

When I was your age we used butter + nam pla (fish sauce), which is a couple bucks at Asian groceries. Lots of people hate it, though, especially if they hate anchovies.

Cheap vegetables:
Vegetables are actually quite important. And easily cooked, especially once you've acquired that steamer basket. Cut them up, put them in the basket, fill the space under the basket with water, heat with lid on. Or just boil or bake.
-Buy what's cheapest, rather than working from list of specific ingredients. Cabbage and potatoes are reliably cheap, but in general you'll want to buy first and figure out how to cook it later. Some stores have special shelves of less-than-perfect half-price produce.
-Go to a farmers' market at the end of its day and ask a vendor what they'll give you for a dollar. (I've never tried this specific move, but when the market's about to close unsolicited freebies seem to rain down -- usually double amounts of whatever I'm buying anyway. Once in Boston we got an entire crate of cold-damaged avocados for $1.) If you wind up with way too much of something random, freeze it or give it away to friends.
-You seem like someone who might enjoy dumpster diving. If so, make it your hobby. Seek out dumpster-diving buddies with local expertise. Hell, place a personal ad.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:25 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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