How can I save money on food?
December 29, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How can I save money on food if I live in a place with roommates and an inoperable kitchen? Assuming that nothing in the kitchen works and that I work a full time job, study part time, and my roommates are overgrown slobs who I never see and don't really care about my opinions or thoughts.
posted by antgly to Work & Money (40 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
When you say "nothing" works — can you be more specific? Can you heat water?
posted by amoeba at 11:20 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

So like, you don't even have a working refrigerator or freezer?
posted by XMLicious at 11:21 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You definitely need to be more specific about what you have available.
posted by empath at 11:25 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

1. Your landlord should guarantee you working appliances, and if you have a gas stove it can be unsafe if it's broken. So if by "nothing works" you mean that your landlord has let major appliances break, you should take that up with him. I assume you have access to a working sink.

2. Otherwise? I'd get a hotplate for my room and possibly a mini-fridge. Get a single-burner hotplate from Target and maybe a plug-in kettle. You'll be able to make pasta, steamed vegetables, etc. A mini-fridge won't allow you to store much, but if you stop at the store a couple of times a week for vegetables, you can do all right. You can probably fit a bag of greens, some broccoli and a couple of other vegetables in there, plus a couple of blocks of cheese.

There are lots of very quick soups and sauces, plus you'll be able to saute. One-pan cooking isn't nearly as bad as you think. I did something very like this one summer, and while it wasn't convenient, I did have some good meals and was happy to have control over my own food.
posted by Frowner at 11:26 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have a microwave and/or a refrigerator? What tools do you have available?

Generally speaking, canned black beans (that you've rinsed under cold water) topped with avocado and maybe a fried egg and some salsa -- preferably with tortillas that have been warmed on the stove or in a microwave -- is fast, cheap, tasty and decently nutritious.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:28 AM on December 29, 2013

Buy a crockpot (they're cheap and hard to break, easy to clean) and throw some ingredients in there when you leave in the morning, come home to delicious food, and take the leftovers with you tomorrow for lunch. Repeat. You can make crockpot food from dry ingredients if you really have no fridge, and/or just buy small amounts on your way home and throw them in the crockpot right off.
posted by The otter lady at 11:28 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For the record, this for where I've currently been living. In California this will hopefully not become an issue.
posted by antgly at 11:30 AM on December 29, 2013

Antgly, we don't know your life (California?). Do you have pots/pans/plates? Any heating element or food storage space? Do the cupboards not work as well, and if so can you keep food in your room? We can be more helpful if you give details.

Assuming that your kitchen has nothing--no storage, no heating, no refrigeration--I'd say get some staples like beans, lentils, quinoa, and rice and buy a crockpot to cook them with, as The Otter Lady says above. You can buy onions, garlic, and shelf-stable squash to keep in your room, and most other vegetables are okay if you leave them unrefrigerated for 2-3 days. If you don't have refrigeration and don't want to buy something because you're moving, you can get dairy or meat on the way home from work/school but shouldn't keep them around longer than that. If you live somewhere currently cold for the winter (but where stuff doesn't get stolen), you can get a couple giant Tupperware containers and keep them outside with food in them to help with preservation.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing that we need to know what cooking resources you do have. I have suggestions, but need to know whether to pull from "how to cook everything" or from "building your own barbecue in the back yard as you have no heat".

But one book you may want to look at no matter what is M.F.K. Fisher's "How To Cook A Wolf". It's all about economic yet delicious cooking and is a graceful little read as well. Tamar Adler's "Everlasting Meal" is a modern-day take on the topic as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:59 AM on December 29, 2013

You could contact the landlord about the "nothing works" and you could not share groceries with your roommates and/or you could move. If you've got an electrical outlet a crockpot, electric kettle, and/or steamer can set you up for more than decent, cheap meals. Google abounds with recipes.

Basically in order to save money, you need to be proactive, creative, and flexible.
posted by sm1tten at 11:59 AM on December 29, 2013

How is everyone else eating?
posted by asockpuppet at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make your own kitchen---all you need is a a shelf or two, a mini fridge and an outlet. Into the outlet, you could put a hot plate and toaster oven, and then you could make all sorts of things like soup (with quick-cooking noodles and frozen veggies) or pasta, rice, foil packets, pizza bagels, tortilla-based wraps and more...
posted by JoannaC at 12:03 PM on December 29, 2013

If you really can't cook anything:

I've mentioned this here before, but when I was recovering from RC surgery and basically lost the use of my dominant arm for a few months I discovered that without cooking you can eat healthily or you can eat cheaply, but you can't do both. (Not for any length of time, anyway.) If you want to eat cheaply, fast food dollar menu. More than enough calories to live on.

If you can boil water, ramen noodles. Here are some ways to upgrade your ramen experience.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:09 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, functioning appliances are something your landlord is obligated to provide you.

That said, just because nothing works doesn't mean you can't get stuff that does work, for cheap. If charged with building a "kitchen" from scratch on the super-cheap, I'd grab a hotplate, a rice-cooker, and a crock pot, and work with those.

I'm going to assume you have a functioning fridge; otherwise, the expense/difficulty of having to buy every ingredient right before it's used is going to run costs up a good bit, though you can still save a lot and be able to cook at home plenty.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:38 PM on December 29, 2013

Find meals you like that you can assemble from items already cooked. For example, a supermarket rotisserie chicken can go for 4 meals. Buy rice in a pouch and a canned veg for one meal. Or get deli cole slaw or potato salad. You get the idea.

Cheaper than what though? What are you doing now and how much does it cost? Could you shop and store your food at work, using the fridge and microwave there to make your meals?

More info will yield more and better ideas.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:39 PM on December 29, 2013

You could probably survive (load up the veggies) on one $5 Footlong from Subway and 2 cans of cold soup or canned vegetables a day if you have absolutely no means of preparing any food at all. But you could get a rotisserie chicken for $6 and eat that for 2 days if you have anywhere to refrigerate it (work?).

You could upgrade the cold soup with an electric skillet (I see a lot of these at thrift shops, but you can find them for under $20 new) or an electric hot plate and one nonstick pan (you should be able to do both for $25ish).

Having a means of cooking/boiling would also allow you to make pretty much the cheapest grocery store foods available to you:

-cheap cheese
-cheap ground beef or chicken parts
-ramen or pasta
-beans and canned veg

Try to put some kind of green food in your body every day. If you have to eat packaged/fast/prepared foods, drink extra water to mitigate all that sodium.

I don't know if this is applicable where you are, but I've never been to a grocery store that didn't have (usually in the back by the employees-only area) at least a rack or two of stuff that's about to expire, fruit that doesn't look perfect, dented cans, clearance items, day old bread, etc. That's the cheapest food in the store. If there's a deli area, there may also be "clearance" stuff there that's about to expire, and there may also be another spot in dairy if they don't just discount in place.

Your roommates are irrelevant unless you think they will steal your food or equipment, in which case you'll have to find a way to secure them. It would be awkward, but you could theoretically carry your electric skillet in a backpack when you go out. Wrap it in a pillowcase so it doesn't get scratched.

Bookmark the websites of whatever grocery and discount stores are on your daily routes and figure out what days each of them puts up their weekly ads. Check out any dollar stores in the area, as they tend to have extremely cheap shelf-stable groceries.

If your full-time job has a fridge and microwave and somewhere you can discretely store a couple days of groceries at a time, and this is a temporary situation, maybe that's the best way to go. Keep a jar of peanut butter at home with a couple of apples, do your primary grocery-eating at work, and on the weekends be creative.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:55 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like A Girl Called Jack for recipes, etc. Some of the pricing is different from the US, if you're on this side of the pond, but her focus is on flexible, fast, and healthy recipes with minimal prep time (and usually only one or two burners are required -- you could use a hot plate or rice cooker or crock pot for many of the recipes). Also, she has a book coming out!

If you're short on money to buy a microwave/toaster oven/hot plate/rice cooker/crock pot, every thrift store in America is currently overloaded with George Foreman grill/panini press/quesadilla cooker-type appliances, which could be yours for very little money.
posted by pie ninja at 1:21 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ooh, do you have a farmer's market near you? Go at the end of the day and you can get great fruits and veggies for almost nothing sometimes. You won't even need to refrigerate some of them and I think many things will last a week without attracting fruit flies.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:24 PM on December 29, 2013

Is the issue that roomies are such slobs the kitchen is unusable?

You can set up a table in your room with a bowl to act as a sink, a big jug for water, a cooler and a single propane burner or hotplate. Also consider dorm fridge, microwave, crock pot, toaster oven. Wash dishes in the kitchen, ignoring roomies' stuff. Keep freezer clean enough for ice cubes for cooler. Cook vegetables, or open a can of veg., add to whole what noodles or rice. Maybe add some canned tuna, chicken, shrimp, or beans. Salad stuff, eggs, and opened canned food need to be kept cool. Bread, potatoes and onions can be left out. You have to keep it clean so you don't get critters, and smelly food will be smelly. Keep it simple, and you can still eat healthy and pretty cheap.

Previous similar question.
posted by theora55 at 1:28 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a small cheap rice cooker and a measuring cup to keep in your own room and you can cook this simple dish from non-refrigerated ingredients:

1/2 cup lentils
1/2 cup brown rice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 1/2 cups water
season with whatever (varying the seasoning allows you to eat this dish over and over without getting bored)

That's 1150 macronutritionally balanced calories ready-to-eat in less than a half hour. You can clean the rice cooker and lid with a wet paper towel if you do it right away before the crust hardens, so this should be doable even if you don't have access to a sink for doing dishes.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:38 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your profile says Brooklyn. I'm assuming when you say 'nothing' that you don't have refrigeration, a microwave, or a way to boil/bake something. So, seek out your local farmers market or the local 'cheap produce' market and get produce that doesn't require refrigeration and can be eaten raw: apples, bananas, avocados, broccoli, carrots, bread, sugar snap peas, spinach, etc etc, and just snack all day. Get a hot plate and a small pot/pan and a few times a week cook a cooked chicken breast or salmon filet or beans for protein and fat. Also you can hardboil eggs and those will keep for a day or two without refrigeration too. Healthy, easy, cheap.
posted by greta simone at 1:42 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cheap-ish things you can eat with no cooking, no cooking utensils, no freezer (and for the most part, no refrigeration if you buy in smaller amounts):

- Peanut butter sandwiches, peanut butter and celery, peanut butter and crackers
- Cheese and crackers, cheese and apples, cheese and pears
- Vienna sausages right out of the can
- Cereal with bananas and milk (where you are in the winter, surely there's someplace cold enough to keep milk? Near a window, maybe?)
- Tuna salad made with tuna, vegetables, and mustard
- Chicken salad made with canned chicken, onions, pepper, avocado. tomato
- Can of refried beans (which is pretty much bean dip) and chips, or rolled inside a tortilla with some chopped onion for a bean burrito
- Summer sausage or pepperoni with hard cheeses
- Sardines with hot sauce or smoked oysters (both available canned) and Saltine-like crackers
- Carrots and hummus

For grazing and also for balancing out some of the above:
- Bagels and other hearty breads
- Fruits: Apples, oranges, bananas, berries, melon, dried figs, dried cranberries, raisins, applesauce, canned pineapple
- Vegetables: Carrots, broccoli, celery, spinach, onion, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflower, pea pods, tomatoes
- Sweets: Chocolate, marshmallows, cookies
posted by Houstonian at 1:43 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One last thing (sorry for mentioning) is that the electricity in the place is the kind where plugging in an AC will kill the power for everyone.
posted by antgly at 2:05 PM on December 29, 2013

Well in winter AC should not be a problem? At this point it sounds as if peanut butter sandwiches, trail mix, shelf stable fruit and vegetables are your only options for eating in if electricity is also out. Eat out more making sensible choices both in terms of nutrition and budget? Sorry but you'd probably get more useful answers if your updates actually answered the questions people have raised.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:31 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

So...this is a squat, right? And that's why nothing works, and your housemates don't care, and there's no landlord and you can't run anything power intensive. And for some reason (desperation? social disconnect?) you're not plugged into whatever dumpstering/food distribution is available out there.

Me? I'd invest in a good quality large cooler and some ice - that will keep cheese and vegetables cool enough to stay good. I'd eat cottage cheese, greek yogurt (for the protein), sandwiches, salads (bagged greens), sliced apples with nut butter, drained canned white beans with minced garlic and a little plain greek yogurt...I had a pretty satisfactory meal the other day that was basically an apple, 2 T peanut butter, a chunk of cheese and some baby carrots. I assume you have some access to water - if you don't really have a sink, get a plastic tub and run it full of lukewarm water to wash.

Also, for pete's sake, there's got to be some hippie dippie food distribution near you. If I needed to save money and couldn't cook (which is basically what you're saying here), I would be going to any anarchist or radical food distros I could find. Food Not Bombs has a Brooklyn chapter and I bet if you contact those folks they'll be able to tip you off to other nearby food opportunities. If you are not customarily in this milieu, you probably think it will be gross food, but IME it's not - and sometimes they even have second-day baked goods from fancy places, or other highfalutin' stuff. (I don't know how all this works in NYC, but here in Minneapolis, there are several food distros.) You might want to contact the Catholic Worker houses in NY (look them up) - those are basically radical/anarchist Christian projects and while they can be all higgledy-piggeldy, IME there should be someone around who knows where there's free food. It can be really tough to feel confident enough to approach a whole new social sphere, I know, but honestly, most of those people are really nice.
posted by Frowner at 2:54 PM on December 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

Subway ($5+ foot longs) and Chipotle ($6+ burritos). If so inclined, split them in half and leave a few hours in between so you get two "meals" out of it. I saved a ton of money doing that. Everytime I bought groceries, I never used them or had a ton leftover that went bad, because I'm single, and it just wasted money.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There is electricity but it can't handle large appliances.
posted by antgly at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2013

Response by poster: It's not a squat. It's a sublet.
posted by antgly at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2013

Toaster? Toasted bread will elevate pretty much any sandwich. These appliances will draw less current than your AC unit, and for less time.
posted by yarntheory at 6:43 PM on December 29, 2013

Okay - I understand now why you can't get whatever appliance fixed, if it's a sublet.

But - could you update just one more time (mods, I hope you will allow that) to answer the following questions:

Do you have a working refrigerator?
Do you have a working oven?
Do you have a microwave?
Do you have a toaster or toaster oven?

Knowing the answers to those specific questions will help a lot of us help you. Thank you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:51 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fridge? Yeah, but it's all full of food from ages ago that nobody has ever cleaned up. Basically full and all expired and smelly. Like it's just something I hate even thinking about.

Yes there's a working oven and stove. But it's always left in a terrible state and there are roaches and it's all dirty and disgusting to even attempt touching, not even considering cooking on it.

No microwave and no toaster or toaster oven.
posted by antgly at 8:35 PM on December 29, 2013

Thanks for responding.

I see one or two ways you could make improvements right away -

1. Clean out the obviously-rotten food from the fridge. If it's your current roommates' food, offer to do it as a favor and stick to only the obviously rotten and moldy stuff. I bet that will clear up some room for you.

2. Clean the oven. Then you will be able to cook on it.

Assuming you are able to stay on top of that, then you'll be able to start making simple food at home. And...honestly, if the only reason you were saying your kitchen was "inoperable" was because it was dirty, that's kind of a mischaracterization.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:45 PM on December 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

buy a rice cooker that has a steamer basket. i lived almost two years without a kitchen, beyond a refrigerator and sink, by having a rice cooker. you can get creative with what you make, although in the end i just ate rice and vegetables supplemented with whatever protein i wanted to add. but, there are rice cooker cook books and there's basically a whole cult of rice cooker devotees scattered online who post recipes for things you wouldn't imagine you could cook in one. mine was maybe $20.00. i ate healthy and saved shit tons of money. it's also easy to clean up and you can make a full meal in 20 minutes by adding the rice and water, putting whatever you want in the steamer basket, setting it to cook and then walking away 'til you hear it click off.

plus, if you have gross room mates, you basically just need one bowl and a fork or spoon so you can minimize your time in the kitchen and their mess. there's really not a lot of work involved. like i said, mine was $20.00 but you get what you pay for and if you can spring for a better one, the price really reflects quality here.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:51 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, get the Pot.
posted by salix at 10:44 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mate Dave lived in a share house where somebody once put a chicken (uncooked) in the fridge, bare, without any kind of dish under it, and just left it there. After it had been there for three weeks he started noticing that it was kind of melting through the grating of the refrigerator shelf. After two months, nobody was using the fridge any more. After six months the chicken consisted of a few patches of skin on a skeleton and a pool of slime on the fridge floor, and the cloying stench of death when the fridge door got accidentally knocked open was simply unbearable. So I know exactly where you're coming from with "inoperable".

The way Dave dealt with it was getting horribly drunk before cleaning it out. And he threw everything out; there was no way anything left in the fridge with that corpse was ever going to be worth eating anyway. He took out the metal shelving and cleaned it with a blowtorch. He used somebody else's bath towel that had been left on the laundry floor until it was a fair way to rotten itself, soaked in a bucket of bleach, to deal with the puddle on the floor. That went out with the food remnants. Then he went over the interior three times with more bleach. And he had a fridge again.

If you want a kitchen, you're going to need to be (a) brave and angry enough to clean yours up unassisted and (b) relentlessly passive-aggressive in keeping it usable.

My tried and tested method for keeping kitchen benches and cooktops usable in a house full of out-of-control slobs is that anything that gets left around with food remnants on it gets washed, dried and hidden. They can't make messes with what they don't have. And if they find the hiding spot and the stuff comes back, the next time it gets left out dirty it just gets turfed. Naturally, this means you need to keep your own set of cooking equipment and you'll need to secure that.

Seize the fridge and the oven and claim them as your own. Before cleaning them out, go and buy a couple of huge fuck-off chains and padlocks so you can stop anybody else using them. If the filthy fuckers can't get by with the cooktop, fuck'em.

If you get any grief from your housemates about this hardline new policy, your response is simple: we didn't have a fucking kitchen before I did all this because none of you cunts could be arsed maintaining it. What we had instead was a fucking city dump overrun with rats and roaches. Now I have a kitchen, and you can get fucked.

And then you fuck off to California and you take the padlock keys with you. Fuck slobs.

Or you could set up a mini-kitchen in your own room with a bar fridge and a bottled gas camping stove (get a carbon monoxide detector as well). Your call.
posted by flabdablet at 3:57 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, how horrible. And I know from experience that having roaches just wears you down.

I'd still check out Food Not Bombs, not least because maybe you can eat some free meals out of the house. If you do have food in your room, keep everything super clean, as the roaches absolutely will visit you if you don't. (Again, oh god, I know this from experience.)

This article describes long-term-use coolers and recommends a couple of less-expensive ones. Apparently, there are coolers designed to be used for five or six days at a time for camping and boat trips. One of these could easily act as a refrigerator for you, especially if you stuck to cheese, yogurt, vegetables and salted/cured meats. It sounds like it would not work for large batches of food, since it might not be able to handle cooling down a large pot of beans, but I bet that if you just made, say, two or three portions of something and let it cool in the pot and then refrigerated one or two portions, it would work fine.

I doubt very much that a hotplate draws as much current as an air conditioner - if you can run a fan or a laptop, I'm pretty sure you can run a hotplate.

Keep your dry stuff inside one of those pet food storage containers (we had to get one for our cat's food one year when we had a bizarre influx of earwigs, ew so gross.)

Wash everything promptly. If your sink is routinely terrible, get a two dish tubs (one for soapy and one for rinse) fill them and do your dishes there, drying and putting away as you go.

Honestly, I might just get a friend to come over and keep me company while washing down the fridge, at least if it's not as bad as the decayed-chicken one referenced above. If you could do that, you really could just get a hotplate and then make big pots of things and that would save you money.

But if you couldn't face that, belting up and investing in a good cooler and a roach-proof food-storage container will allow you to eat decent food relatively cheaply at least.

Be sure to clean and inspect all your stuff to make sure you don't have any fellow-traveler roaches going with you when you move. (I didn't actually even do this, but somehow managed to avoid bringing them with.)
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

What are you currently spending on food? What kind of meals are you eating?

Honestly, if your kitchen is unusable because it's disgusting, just clean the damn kitchen. Yeah, it's not your mess, but now you have a damn kitchen and can save money.

You can store your pots and cooking implements in your room, to keep them out of reach of gross roommates. Store food in sealed plastic bins in your room as well.
posted by inertia at 8:56 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

What's the kitchen and storage situation at your workplace?

I keep eggs and cheese at work and make scrambled eggs in the microwave. I also keep peanut butter and jelly and that healthy bread that never seems to go bad. And cans/boxes of Indian food I heat up in paper plates. During the work week I basically eat three meals a day at work, mostly though not entirely without eating out. Veggies and hummus is easy. Bananas are cheap. You can do a lot more with a microwave than you would think, especially with parboiled rice and pasta. For eating out I find that Subways is usually the best combination of cheap, healthy, tasty, and filling. I prefer Chipotle's but it's definitely more costly.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:31 AM on December 30, 2013

To piggyback on my earlier advice, lest my "just clean the kitchen" sounded a bit cavalier - I also once had roommates who also didn't clean the kitchen. They also moved out and left me with the mess, and left the freezer frosted up to the point that the only space in there was a 5x7 hole that they'd carefully chipped out that was just big enough for a pint of Ben and Jerry's.

I dealt with that by cleaning the everloving fuck out of the kitchen after they'd gone. I threw out pots that I just didn't want to deal with (like the pot full of white rice they'd left on the stove for three days), scrubbed the fuck out of the less gross ones, and threw out everything that was clearly inedible, and then used a hair dryer to defrost the iceberg in the freezer. It took an entire afternoon and was gross as shit and I went through two entire rolls of paper towels.

But when I was done I had a clean and functioning kitchen that I could cook in.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:02 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's a sublet where you will be held responsible for the state of the apartment after you move out, it's going to save you a ton of money to clean the kitchen yourself instead of paying it to the landlord later.

If not, you'd probably still save some money by cleaning the kitchen yourself because you wouldn't have to buy appliances to replace the ones that already work in the dirty kitchen.

But if you really really don't want to clean the kitchen, in addition to some of the suggestions above I'd suggest using the facilities at your workplace or school for actual cooking and keeping shelf-stable quick eats at home, in your room, in very well sealed containers.
posted by sm1tten at 2:43 PM on December 30, 2013

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