How can I learn to grocery shop and cook on a college budget?
June 17, 2013 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm going into my senior year college and have relied on a fraternity meal plan and eating out often. What should I be buying at the grocery store regularly, and what are some quick and healthy meals to make regularly?

I'm a college student interning in Washington, D.C., and am trying to survive on a smallish budget. I'm lucky enough to have a paid internship, but I've learned that eating out for lunch/dinner daily can add up quick. In college, I've been on my fraternity's meal plan, and even when my dorm room had a kitchen, I pretty much stopped and started with scrambled eggs.

I know D.C. has great restaurants and I'm not opposed to eating out once or twice a week - but it's starting to get taxing, especially if there's any other things I want to do while I'm here. The house I'm living in has a kitchen and my landlord will occasionally offer me leftovers, but I don't want to be dependent.

I'm a bit overweight, so I'd like to focus on healthy recipes - ideally paleo - but frankly any home-cooking is better for me than restaurant food or fast food on a daily basis.

I know there's been threads on AskMeFi about this before, but most seem to have a specific angle that doesn't apply to me (veganism, cooking for a family), and I'm more interested on starting from square one, especially being on a budget.

Any help's appreciated, thanks hive mind!
posted by seandq to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Get some good tupperware and ziploc bags and learn to make use of leftovers.

I'm frugal rather than poor but my wife and I get six meals out of a broiler chicken. Breasts one day, Legs the next. Sandwiches from stripping the carcass. (I also make soup or stock with the bones / carcases that I collect in a freezer bag). That is from a $6 or less chicken.

Make your own fries rather than from frozen. Boil first then roast with some olive oil.

Pasta is cheap and makes great next-day lunches. Making your own sauces is far far cheaper than buying.

Beans are incredibly cheap. Dry is even cheaper than canned.

Replace potato chips with popcorn.

Make your own coffee - get a french press.
posted by srboisvert at 9:59 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two skills you need to learn (don't worry, they're REALLY easy): steaming and roasting vegetables.

To steam: get a pot with a lid and a steamer that fits down inside that pot. Fill with about an inch of water, load veggies into the steamer, heat until the veggies reach a desired level of tenderness. Dress with a little bit of butter or olive oil and salt and pepper and there you go.

To roast: cut up veggies (this can be anything--potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, etc) into bite-sized chunks. Toss them in olive oil and salt and pepper and spread them out on a baking sheet (protip: put a sheet of aluminum foil down on the tray first and it makes cleaning up way easier). Bake this at 400 degrees for 20-40 minutes until the veggies are fork-stabbable.

Learn how to cook rice or get a rice cooker. Want it to be healthier? Learn to cook brown rice.

Get comfortable cooking protein. You can google to find the simplest methods for this, but basically if you get a system down for cooking a steak or a piece of salmon or a chicken breast, you'll be good to go.

This basic formula will allow you eat a large variety (change out the kind of veggies you eat so you don't eat the same thing every day, pair it with a different protein each time, etc) of foods that are healthy and reasonably cheap.

It will also give you the tools to impress the shit out of any lady (if that's the way you roll) you bring home until you're about 25.
posted by phunniemee at 10:00 AM on June 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't do paleo, but here are some staples and ideas:

Staples: Lentils--brown or green, dried beans, quinoa, bulgur and/or wheatberries, brown rice, oats, low-carb wheat tortillas, corn tortillas, onions, potatoes (in moderation), lettuce/salad, fresh kale (cheap and very healthy), peppers--sweet and mild, tomatoes, apples, bananas (snacks), olive oil (can find for less than $10), red wine or balsamic vinegar

Breakfast: oatmeal, low fat greek yogurt, chopped nuts (almonds/walnuts), some chopped fresh fruit

Lunch--low carb wrap, hummus, chopped vegetables (whatever you like)

Dinner: mujarraf: cook lentils aind rice together (roughly 50/50) with some S/P, some herbs if you have them. Slice onions and fry in olive oil until dark brown and crispy. Sprinkle on top of cooked lentils, drizzle some balsamic on if you like. Serve with salad.

black bean soup (or tacos)

quesadillas (fill with whatever veggies you have in the fridge plus cheese)

quinoa cooked with some spinach steamed on top and 1-2 hardboiled eggs

canned tuna with 1 T low fat mayonaisse, chopped pickle, red onion and carrot. I eat this on wheat bread.

Memail me if you have questions.
posted by SpicyMustard at 10:10 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding srboisvert--if you're a coffee drinker, make your own. Can easily find a 2nd hand maker and get decent beans for $7-$9/lb.
posted by SpicyMustard at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2013

Pick a dish you want to work on, and just make it. Look up instructions, buy the ingredients, and do it. Don't bother trying to learn how to cook things that aren't the things you want to eat, just because your mom says pork chops are the first thing she learned to cook. Think about what you wish you had, and even if that's not "beginner cooking", that should be on your list. If a significant portion of your income is going to the Thai restaurant take-out down the street, then your first priorities should be Pad Thai (or some kind of peanut noodle) and coconut curry. The advantages are that you will want to eat what you cooked, your will impress the heck out of your friends who think that this is much more difficult than cooking spaghetti, you will save money on takeout, and - also very important - almost everything you learn will make you a better cook when you decide to learn other dishes. You'll already know how to chop an onion, how to saute, how to boil and simmer things, etc.
posted by aimedwander at 10:12 AM on June 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

Seconding the idea of using a whole chicken to get several meals/stock.

Lentils are a great, cheap form of protein and are less work than beans since you don't have to soak them. If you get down some basic skills like sauteing onions you have the base for a lot of tasty dishes.

I would also build off your scrambled eggs since they're another good, cheap form of protein. Roasted veggies or a salad with fried or poached eggs is really nice for any meal, including breakfast - even if you don't think you would like something like roasted asparagus with poached eggs, I would urge you to try it first. Then there are omelets, frittatas, quiche, etc. I think there was another thread on here recently about recipes that showcase eggs.
posted by fromageball at 10:16 AM on June 17, 2013

For spices - often the grocery store will have an ethnic section with many of the same types of spices as the name-brand section, but they'll cost much less. Look for any spices you need there first.

I'd also keep an eye on the sale papers - if chicken breasts are on sale one week, cook meals with those. If ground beef is, use that, etc.

We found that doing low carb was pretty expensive for us - if you have a warehouse club, it might be worthwhile to use it for buying chicken in bulk, as well as bulk salad stuff.

Yes to what phunniemee said - roasting vegetables is delicious and easy!

I also found that using a little countertop grill to cook meat on is easy and quick. I used to cook enough chicken breasts for a couple days at a time, so I could just quickly reheat them and only needed to clean the grill once.
posted by needlegrrl at 10:16 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Crockpot cooking is pretty fool-proof and can turn cheap ingredients into tasty concoctions. Just Google "crockpot beans recipe" to find some cheap bean-centric recipes.

If you're new to buying groceries and don't know what is a good price vs. expensive price, stick to this rule of thumb: buy food that is under $1 a pound (or $1.50/lb if you're in a high cost of living area like me). You will have exceptions of course, such as herbs and cheeses, but try to keep as many foods as you can under $1/lb. I've stuck with this strategy and I usually eat in-season fruits and vegetables (right now, peaches, summer squash, carrots, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, some varieties of apples, eggplant, watermelon...), beans, chicken, ham, eggs, canned tomatoes, rice, lentils, frozen veggies, milk, and more.
posted by daisies at 10:20 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I totally agree with aimedwander's advice, but I want to add a few things. First of all, source your recipes carefully. Get a reputable cookbook (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything comes to mind) if its in your budget. If not, use a heavily-reviewed recipe site like Epicurious or Allrecipes rather than something you find on a random blog. That way, you at least know that there is some potential of the thing you're trying to make being palatable. To keep on a budget, look for recipes that emphasize vegetables, beans and grains rather than meat, and that use less expensive cuts of meat. Even if they have meat in them, the other stuff will stretch your money a lot farther (think chili or pot roast vs. steak.) Finally, if you are trying a lot of new different kinds of dishes, shopping will seem really expensive because you'll be buying a whole bunch of novel ingredients for every meal. Instead, if you want to try a Thai curry, consider trying 3-4 different Thai curry recipes over the next few weeks so that you don't have a bottle of fish sauce languishing in your fridge for the next 2 years after only using 1 tablespoon. This will also help you become a better cook because you'll start to see the similarities between the dishes you try.
posted by juliapangolin at 10:25 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think this book would be helpful for you, Help! My Apartment has a Kitchen Cookbook.

Here is the description: When Kevin Mills moved into his first apartment, he soon realized he couldn't live on just take-out food alone, so he called his mother, Nancy. She taught him to cook, and now the two of them have put together a collection of easy recipes (actually, they're graded?most are Very Easy or Easy, a few are Not So Easy) for inexperienced cooks, along with lots of "Mom tips" and "Mom warnings." (Because Kevin's girlfriend is a vegetarian, more than half the recipes are vegetarian.) Less ambitious than either Elaine Corn's Now You're Cooking (LJ 10/15/94) or Lora Brody's The Kitchen Survival Guide (LJ 5/15/92), and with a more scattershot approach, this should nonetheless appeal to recent graduates and others cooking for themselves for the first time.

I recently bought a copy for my college bound student, and it looks like a good start.
posted by maxg94 at 10:38 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I survived my senior year of college quite well utilizing canned pinto beans, not refried, and chips or soft tortillas. 30 years later, I'm never without these things in the house.

quick recipe
empty contents of can into pan
add some chili powder & ground cumin if you wish
cover & heat on medium til all bubbly. Turn the heat down or off & use your potato masher out to smash the daylights out of them. Grate a bit of cheese into them & you're ready to make burritos, nachos, etc..

top with diced onions & more cheese - dip with chips
sprinkle / spread on a cookie sheet of chips, cheese, then onions, broil

On sale these beans can be had for less than $.50/can sometimes.
posted by bricksNmortar at 10:47 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're into paleo, learning how to cook meat will be really useful to you.

I learned how to cook when I was a kid and although I know more advanced methods now, here is something that has stood me in good stead for many years.

If you're baking something in the oven, 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound. 2 pound chicken, 40 minutes in the oven. 4 pound chicken, 1 hour, twenty minutes in the oven. This will work with birds and roasts.

In the summer, salads are awesome with nice meat on top. You can even buy a rotisserie chicken and use the meat from that on a big, yummy salad.

For grocery shopping, read those advertisements. I usually only buy stuff that's on sale. You can save a FORTUNE doing that. For example, this week Kroger has a buy one, get one free deal on chicken breasts. Buy some for now, save some in the freezer.

I'm a huge fan of these things for portioning meat into single serving meals.

Go through the flyer and see what's on sale. Sometimes menu suggestions are easy because there will be a theme (Italian Week!) or a Holiday (Stock Up on 4th of July Picnic Supplies!)

You may need to be a "member" to get the savings so stop by the customer service desk to register. Also, go to the grocery store website, they'll have electronic coupons you can load to your card for additional savings. If you get a paper, clip the coupons and combine with BOGO deals. I got deodorant for .29 at Kroger yesterday doing this. (Gillette!)

Also, find out where your local grocery keeps the 'dented can' section. You will be amazed at what the store will mark down, including wine and beer. You can still use coupons on marked down stuff.

If you want to learn about how to best combine coupons and in-store deals, subscribe to a service like The Grocery Game. You can subscribe to the store you shop in the most and you'll get a list of what coupons to use with what sales and what your savings will be. At first I rolled my eyes, but now, I'm a believer! You should see the robbery I get away with at CVS!

You can do this, and if you learn to do it well, you'll find that you have plenty of yummy things in your pantry AND you'll have plenty of money in your pockets!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:03 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're starting from square one, have never regularly cooked for yourself, I'd say you should start following a few cooking blogs. Simply Recipes is what I started reading in college. She's got a wide variety of recipes. Some more complicated than others, but all are well with in reach of a novice cook. A comprehensive cook book like How to Cook Everything would also be a good choice too. Watch cooking shows on PBS. If you have friends that cook, ask if you can cook together. You'll learn more in person than from reading.

There are plenty of people who cook elaborate things for fun or to show off at dinner parties. Then there is cooking day in and day out. You need to get initiated into the routine, planning, shopping, prepping and cooking. It is a life skill and can take a while to develop so don't worry if you're not great at first. Maybe make a goal of cooking 2 nights a week, then ramp up. Maybe on Sunday you make a few lunches for the next week. You don't need to go full on Little House on the Prairie.

To start with, I'd pick out a shopping list app (or paper notebook). The default iPhone is great. I've got a list called "Dinners" and a list called "Grocery Store". If I see a recipe come up in my RSS reader that I want to try, or have some craving hit me, I'll add it to "Dinners".

The day or two before I plan to go shopping, I'll round out my dinners list until I've got about 5 meals planned. Then I'll expand that into the Grocery Store list. For example this week I've got "Fish Tacos" on my dinners list. I might look up a fish taco recipe and add "tortillas, frozen tilapia, cabbage, salsa" to the Grocery Store list. I'll also check the kitchen and make sure I'm not running low on essentials like flour or salt.

Then purchase the list. This sounds like and obvious point, but in reality it can be oh-so-tempting to just pick up that box of fried fish sticks instead of the raw frozen tilapia, or the pre made coleslaw instead of a head of cabbage. The difference in calories from fat, price per serving, sodium, etc is huge. Especially for a novice and budget conscientious cook, the List is your armor. Don't go to the store with out it.

When you get home from the store, freeze what meat you won't be cooking in the next day or two. This way you won't have to turn down an invitation to dinner if you've got $20 of raw meat about to go bad at home. Fresh veggies can be expected to last 5 days or a week. Frozen veg and meat will be key in getting your monies worth, especially cooking for one.

When you get home from work and wonder "Whats for dinner?" you've got your answer in your Dinners list, not in the take out menu stack.

Alright, spiel over. Here are a few of my favorite budget friendly meals. I can't say they're paleo, but the carbs they have are complex/whole grain.
  • Fish Tacos: use frozen tilapia
  • Black Bean Burgers: skip the buns or use 100% whole-wheat. The patties freeze well in sandwich baggies too.
  • Tuna and White Bean Salad: great for lunch, keeps for several days. Great to improvise around.
  • Kale and Chickpea Stew: Feel free to elaborate on this idea. Kale is great in any soup.
  • Chicken Piccata: buy "scaloppine" sliced chicken to make this easier, at a price increase of course. Have with whole-wheat pasta or a piece of whole-wheat toast.
  • Tofu and veggie stir fry: no real recipe here. Start a pot of brown rice (or quinoa). Drain a box of tofu on paper towels. Cut the tofu into chunks. Cut a pile of veggies into chunks. Mix up some soy sauce, siracha, and teaspoon of corn starch. Toss the drained tofu into a skillet with oil and fry until it looks golden. Toss in veggies. Toss in sauce. This is great to make a big pile of food for leftover lunches.

posted by fontophilic at 11:21 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

A few general tips:

- Don't feel like you have to go overboard with the frugality (unless you absolutely must). You'll find that, even if you're not thinking "frugal," your costs cooking for yourself will be so much lower than your costs eating out that you'll come out ahead anyway (unless your tastes lean towards wild salmon and foraged truffles). Meanwhile, if you go overboard eating beans and rice for every meal, you'll burn out quickly and find yourself eating out to spare yourself the boredom and drudgery.

- Breakfast is a good meal to save money on by having pretty much the same thing every day. I'll usually buy a box of cereal and a carton of milk at the beginning of the week and have that every morning for breakfast. If you don't like cereal, you can do eggs and toast, or yogurt and fruit, or whatever you like.

- This is a great recipe for pork shoulder (with a rice and beans side). Very cheap and makes a lot of servings. You can freeze portions for later.

- I agree with phunnieemee that learning your favorite ways to cook a meal of protein+veg+carb is a great way to build a good cooking routine. A good routine is to start your carb (quinoa and brown rice are both very nutritious), then sautee or sear your protein and then quickly steam some veggies.

My current habit is to sautee a few chicken breasts (I use the method from this recipe, dead easy) while I have some quinoa cooking in chicken broth. When the chicken is almost done, I pop some broccoli in a steamer (you can also use the microwave). Voila, healthy, delicious dinner in about 15 minutes. Also makes for great lunch the next day, mixed up together with some sriracha. The whole meal costs about $2-4/serving, depending on the quality of the chicken I use.

- Another easy, healthy, leftover-friendly staple: whole-wheat or brown rice pasta topped with a tomato sauce that has a healthy amount of veggies and/or chicken sausage. I'll usually start by boiling the pasta. Once that's going, I'll sautee the chicken sausage (Italian style, of course), remove it, and then sautee some chopped-up veggies in the grease (zucchini, carrots, spinach, kale and mushrooms are all good, and it never hurts to sautee some onions and garlic first), then add back the sausage and dump in either jarred sauce or canned tomatoes (blend them first unless you like your sauce very chunky). By the time that's done, the pasta usually is too. If you're trying to lose some weight, keep your pasta serving under a cup and make the sauce the main thing.

- It never hurts to have a few freezer meals on hand for the times when you're busy or just don't feel like cooking (especially in DC in the summer!). Trader Joe's has great, cheap frozen meals - you can also make things like the pernil above to freeze and use later when you don't want to cook.
posted by lunasol at 11:22 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

- Don't waste food. Google up "I Have Ingredients What Can I Make" and find some sites that will let you input what you've got and help you figure out what to make. You can always make some kind of kitchen sink soup and fill it out with pasta (which is not paleo, obvs).

- A pound of ground beef, a can of kidney beans, a can of crushed tomatoes, and seasonings (or a packet of pre-mixed seasoning) - add veggies that you have around - makes a very serviceable chili (brown ground beef, drain, add beans, add tomatoes and veggies, add seasoning, cook another few minutes).

- I make something similar to what bricksNmortar suggests with the beans, yum.

- Pay attention to where you're buying food. DC doesn't have a lot of less costly food stores, so maybe ask your landlords where is a good place to shop on a budget. Yes, you can do Whole Foods but you have to really watch it. Their 365 brand stuff can be a decent value. At any store, if you can build meals out of sale items you are far better off. Find a farmers market but don't overbuy - only get what you can and will eat in the next few days. Frozen veggies are okay too. Union Market is great and fun, it is not inexpensive.

- Add veggies to your eggs, and eggs for dinner is fine.

- Suggestion to take something you like to eat and look for a recipe is good - if you can find an America's Test Kitchen or Cook's Country recipe (they are on their website but cost $$ after a free trial, but you can often find an individual recipe on a blog somewhere) they usually give insight on why they made things how they made them.

- Do you have a crockpot/can you borrow one? You can dump a bunch of stuff in and let it cook (it needs to be about 2/3 full, so it lends itself better to something like a roast or stew that you can make one big batch of and then keep eating throughout the week - roast is good because one day you can have roast and veggies, then a sandwich, then fry with some potatoes for breakfast to eat with your eggs, etc). It's good to make one basic thing like that say once a week, and then use it different ways throughout the week. Start it off with fairly bland seasoning (maybe just salt and pepper) so you can vary it as you go - Indian, Mexican, whatever flavors you like. If you make it one really strong flavor to start with it's harder to be versatile.

- Reddit has several subreddits on frugal and cheap and healthy eating.

- Most grocery stores have little steaks or pork chops sliced thin - these are usually priced reasonably and cook quickly.

- If you don't already, pay attention to serving size and nutrition info.

- As a general rule, the less processed alternative is usually better tasting and healthier.

- Cook and eat breakfast, it does help. If you don't already eat it you make think it makes you hungrier, but you will adjust.
posted by KAS at 11:23 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some links to paleo on a budget: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Since you're a student, you can get Amazon Prime for free using an .edu address. Do that, use Subscribe & Save to stock up on basics when they go on sale, and save 15% when you have five things coming in a given month.

Buy things when they go on sale and then plan your menu. If you manage to find a super good deal on something, buy extra and freeze.

And don't be afraid to substitute less expensive ingredients for other foods if there's something you'd really like to try, unless you're baking. Baking's like chemistry and some ingredient substitutions can yield unexpected results.
posted by houseofdanie at 11:25 AM on June 17, 2013

Oops, missed the paleo request - in that case, you can just skip the carb part of the protein+veg+carb routine and skip the pasta.
posted by lunasol at 11:28 AM on June 17, 2013

I know you said you've looked at a lot of other threads, but this one was pretty good. I discovered Mealime from it, and I will probably be using it in the future.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:34 AM on June 17, 2013

You will be lazy. Trust me. After having had food served to you for 20+ years, you're aren't going to become an ambitious chef all of a sudden. I was in the same situation when I got my first apartment on my own. My biggest tip is that it's perfectly acceptable to eat the same thing 2 or 3 nights in a row. Cook in large quantities and store leftovers in the fridge/freezer to eat the next day, and the day after that. No one will judge you, plus you will probably end up eating a lot better than some of your friends.

Also, it's completely acceptable to take shortcuts when preparing food. Use frozen veggies instead of produce-aisle veggies. They will last MUCH longer and tend to be much cheaper. Plus, many of them can be cooked by tossing them into the microwave for 4-5 minutes. Frozen veggies also tend to have less salt and preservatives than their canned equivalents.

Use bouillon cubes/powder instead of real chicken/veggie broth. Again, much cheaper in the long run and lasts MUCH longer. You're not out to impress any chefs out there, only your friends. :)

Buy a lot of meat when it's on sale, and put the excess in the freezer. Meat can stay good up to 6 months in the freezer, although, I've stored it for longer and didn't die of any horrible diseases. Remember to transfer the meat from the freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use it.

Buy food-kits when they are on sale. Taco kits, pasta kits, stir fry kits, etc. Similarly, buy frozen dinners when they are on sale. These are all very easy to prepare and give you alternatives when you want to be a little ambitious, plus they are usually made for 2 or more people, so they can last you a couple of days. For example, my grocery store (Safeway) sells family size frozen lasagna for $7 every once in a while, and the entire package usually lasts me 3 or 4 days. Part of doing this right is knowing how to portion the food, which is a good skill to learn.

I hope these tips help out. Good luck.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:42 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

nthing the value of leftover management.

In fact I like to make certain dishes just for the leftovers. Mostly stews and casseroles that are best prepared in large portions and that can be easily stored/frozen for later consumption. Many stews actually get better over the course of a few days after initial preparation anyhow.

My favorite is Rataouille which I like to make on weekends. The Rataouille can then be eaten during the week and/or easily frozen/thawed without much loss of flavor and texture. It's easy to make, cheap, healthy and flexible as far as ingredients are concerned. If you have access to freezer space it's best to make lots of it regularly during tomato season, freeze it and dip into your stash during winter. Goes well as a side to almost any meat or just throw some pasta in it.

There's a million recipes for it out there.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:54 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Watch PBS cooking shows, even if you can't/don't want to make most of the stuff. I really learned a lot from the cooking shows - how to cut up a whole chicken, how to do basic techniques. Especially good if you want to eat differently from how you grew up.

I recently moved to paleo/primal eating. What I had was a long process though. While poor and in college, (especially after we had kids) I learned to cook a good sized roast on the weekend, then eat t as left overs all week. What I did was find different cultural recipes that I liked and make a different thing each day so that we didn't get bored from eating turkey all week. I made a list of things ranging from taco salad, curry, stir fry, and one dish meat and vegetable dishes. We usually eat lunch from dinner the night before. When I moved to paleo eating, I pretty much just took out the carbs and made the same meals with more veggies. For stuff like spaghetti, I do the sauce and meatballs (or just ground meat) and take a zucchini squash and slice it thin, top with shredded cheese and bake in the oven on a greased pan for about 20 minutes or until browned. I put my sauce over top. For the things like the stir fry or curry, watch some shows and see how they are made, and then go from there. Do get some curry pastes and sauces from a local Asian food store - you don't have to make from scratch and they are pretty yummy.

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 11:59 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Make more of something, then freeze it. (I assume you have access to a freezer that no one will raid.)

Bigger packages are almost always cheaper on a per-unit basis, and cooking larger meals saves you cooking the second time. If you can cook a lasagna, you can freeze fie of the six big portions for future nights. Make a pot of pasta sauce and freeze it in Zip-Loc bags. Make a big batch of beans & rice and seal a meal's worth into a Zip-Loc. Cook a big piece of meat, or several smaller pieces bought in a big package, and save them fir future dinners.

Learn to suck ALL the air out of a Zip-Loc before you seal it, and your food will pack smaller in the freezer and also last longer. (In the freezer, air pockets => condensation => mummified food => revulsion and dining out.)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:49 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Three rules that have helped me immensely:

(1) Create a weekly meal plan, and stick to it. This way, you buy only what you actually need, and use everything you buy. Shopping with a list in hand helps reduce impulse buying. The plan should be detailed, with recipes as needed so you know exactly what you need. When choosing recipes, pick those with just a few ingredients, or simplify the recipes, so you aren't spending money on things you'll only use once.

(2) Try to plan your meals so that you're making as many different dishes as possible from the same group of ingredients. Check out supermarket weekly store ads and circulars and see what's on sale, and figure out meals to make from those things.

(3) Use cash when shopping, and bring a calculator. That way, you have a hard limit on what you can spend. Keep a running total on your calculator so you can see if you're going over limit.
posted by Mo' Money Moe Bandy at 12:59 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

BTW since you are on a budget - your local library will have a wealth of cookbooks. There is no need to buy any of them.
posted by srboisvert at 2:25 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of my favorite paleo meals don't require cooking:

- tuna, avocado, celery, apple - mash the celery and tuna together, stir in the other two. Filling, tasty salad.

- Protein on salad. I like canned tuna, salmon, shrimp, crab (ok, it's not as cheap, even at Trader Joe's), or baked fish (again, TJ's has frozen fish for reasonable prices). If you're baking up fish, bake up a bunch of servings (serving ~8 oz, if you're paleo) for several days.

- Almond butter, fruit, and almond milk smoothies. Almond butter isn't cheap, but TJ's sometimes has it (as well as frozen fruit), and if you're calling that breakfast it's still pretty cheap.

There are tons of great recipes online, so google for some of your favorites, or "paleo recipes" and you will find enough so that you won't have to learn a lot of cooking skills to make great stuff.
posted by ldthomps at 2:48 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing that took me forever to figure out is that meals don't always start from raw whole ingredients; they can start just fine from ingredients you cooked earlier. Once you learn how to store (and how long to store) cooked food (you don't have to call it leftovers if it's cooked expressly for future use) and how to reheat, you can cook when you have time and reheat when you don't, all using ingredients that you cooked to your taste and preference.

Sometimes assembling a recipe for a single person means cooking everything, but only assembling a single portion, and saving for later. That way you can store your cooked veggies away from your cooked proteins. Sauces and salad dressings should be applied before serving in all cases. Don't store protein in water-based liquids. (Storing them in fat, i.e. confit, can be both preservative and divine.)

Consider a recipe for waffles: you can mix up the ingredients, dry ingredients and the wet ingredients, and store them separately until you're ready to make waffles. Then you mix the portion you want, save the rest. Most meals, or at least most dishes, have some quality that lets you pre-make one or more element ahead of time. Storing them correctly is the key-- dry ingredients can sit on a shelf for near eternity (as if a person can go eternity without waffles, phaw!). We ingredients take up little room in the fridge. (Also, remember that the fridge is not a time machine or a stasis pod. Everything expires in there.)

Finally: "Good Eats," the show that got me cooking. Nearly all the episodes are on Youtube. Science, history, techniques, advice, and cooking for people who don't necessarily know how to cook, but want to learn. And the tone is as light as a feather.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Not paleo, but the single best, cheapest, healthiest thing I have learned in the last few years is how to cook brown rice in the oven. I learned from Alton Brown's brown rice salad recipe, which I think is misnamed - it's pretty much a cheat's risotto. You put the rice in the oven, come back an hour later, fry a few things in a pan (for us: usually bacon, leeks and mushrooms), add some stock and the rice, then let it simmer a few minutes till it's a reasonable consistency. We've also done it with black beans, chorizo and marinated artichoke hearts, and once with leftover pulled pork. Every meal I've cooked this way has come out beautifully. There's at least four servings in it, and it's very cheap. Leftovers refrigerate and microwave well, too.

(And if you don't want risotto, the baked brown rice is excellent in any other context where you'd use rice.)
posted by escapepod at 4:13 AM on June 18, 2013

I'm a graduate student, and I eat mostly primal (at least during the week), so I promise you this can be done! However, it does take a fair amount of planning. The goal for me is usually to get the highest quality, most delicious food I can find for the week, and then waste none of it. My major issue has always been buying too much food, rather than too little (my parents stock their fridge so that it's full to bursting, so I've been trying to combat that habit). The way I solve this is shopping two or three times per week, and buying just what I need for the next few meals. I know that some people stock up in bulk, but that doesn't work well for paleo, since meat and produce don't keep for long. You'll also have to budget a little more, since you won't be relying on cheap fillers like grains and legumes. But, this should still be an improvement over eating out all the time.

Using leftovers is pretty key. One major revelation for me was figuring out that leftovers don't have to be eaten "as is." Instead, you can use them as components in other preparations. Judith Jones' book The Pleasures of Cooking for One is great for learning how to do this, although the book itself isn't paleo.

Recipes abound on the internet, but I find that they're really not that useful. The issues are many: internet recipes tend to be untested and poorly edited. They often require ingredients that are in season at different times (this seriously confuses me). The biggest issue is that they're usually not suited to your tastes. Freeing yourself from the fetters of recipes also makes shopping much easier (because you're just buying what looks good, instead of a list of random ingredients). Also, cooking without recipes means that you can figure out how to use your last egg, some leftover chicken, a shallot, and a couple celery stalks (if you're curious: make some mayo from the egg and whatever fat you feel comfortable using, add some salt, pepper, and vinegar, toss in the chicken, then add finely minced shallot and celery. Chicken salad. I had this for lunch today.).

Cooking without recipes means learning technique. Unfortunately, few cookbooks teach technique (there's probably a vested interest here, since learning technique obviates the need for cookbooks). Luckily, Michael Ruhlman has come out with a new technique based book, Ruhlman's Twenty, which should get you started. How to Cook Everything: The Basics is also pretty good.

If you don't want to buy a book, google the following techniques, and get comfortable with them:

Dry Methods: Broiling, roasting, grilling, sautéing, pan-roasting, frying
Wet Methods: Braising, stewing, poaching, blanching, steaming
"Master" recipes: mayonaise, stock, vinaigrette, the french mother sauces (if you decide to ease up on the paleo somewhat, grain ratios, basic bread, and pie crust are also key)
Eggs: seriously, just learn how to do as many things with eggs as possible

Since you're into paleo, learning fermentation methods might also be useful.

If you can swing it, sign up for a knife skills class (they have them in my area for ~50 bucks). Then, buy a decent chef's knife (the model I linked is a favorite of pros, and is only $30, which is not pricey, even though I know it seems like a crazy amount to pay. Seriously, a good knife is worth it). You'll also need a honing steel, which you should use every time you use your knife, and try it get it professional sharpened a couple times a year. A good knife is the one tool you really need (if you have the budget for two tools, you'll also want a cast iron skillet, which you can get for $15).
posted by therumsgone at 7:12 PM on June 18, 2013

I cook a large pot of soup every week. Either chicken and rice, or ground turkey with kale and white beans. Soup is my dinner every night of the week. For breakfast I make a quick breakfast burrito (tortilla, cheese, protein & salsa). Lunch is a protein with steamed veg. Super super cheap overall, bonus points for helping me lose weight while not going hungry.

I highly second steaming veggies & rice. You can do a large tupperware full once or twice a week. You can also do say 4 chicken breasts at once, or 4 chops, or whatever. Now there is enough food to last you a few days, so you won't be tempted to go out to eat. Only cooking once or twice a week is really where it's at, in terms of saving money.

You will have to figure out on your own whether you waste food that you've shopped for. It took me a long while to admit to myself that I would buy ingredients for things that I wanted to try, but didn't actually have the time to make. Now I keep my grocery list tight, and I only buy "extras" if I have already planned the prep and cooking time into my schedule.

And I second all the advice about making your own coffee, and popcorn. Actually, get used to drinking tea. You will save money by not buying those yummy but expensive creamers.
posted by vignettist at 5:15 PM on June 20, 2013

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