Restricting food budget
January 2, 2018 3:41 PM   Subscribe

I am a single person who has been too cavalier in my food spending the past months. What are some ways to cut down without feeling like a broke college student?

I shop exclusively at Kroger once a week (a grocery store). It's close to home and work, and that's key because I don't drive so I'm not interested in doing Aldi's or shopping at multiple stores. I don't eat out and don't drink so it's really groceries that are out of control.

I find doing meal plans really restrictive and I always fail if I'm too specific. I'm almost 30 and a professional, so not really wanting to eat ramen three times a day. I like cooking but realistically cooking every night doesn't happen.

I do have a specific monthly budget number, but seeing as how I live in the Midwest and most seem from high living costs area, I don't think knowing that number is important.

No partner, no kids, no pets.
posted by Aranquis to Work & Money (43 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Time to make a pot of chili... Eat it with rice to stretch it further.
posted by noloveforned at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

It might help to tell us what you are buying/eating now. Do you eat a lot of meat or fancy cheese? Prepared foods will also drive up your spending.
posted by janell at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2018

When I was single I liked to do chicken in the crock pot...I could get so many meals out of that. One night of actual chicken, and then enough chicken left over for chicken and vegetable stir fry, and soup too. Whole chickens are also cheaper than the same amount of breast meat. It's good value for the money.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Drop soda and other sweetened beverages in favor of water (or tea if water's too plain.)

Good bread is easy to make and costs pennies per loaf. It's not very time-consuming if you use the no-knead methods that are currently popular. And it's a heck of a lot better than the crap the grocery store charges several dollars for.

If you don't like meal planning, how are you at variation? When I don't have time for cooking I will usually make a fair-sized batch of a basic protein around which I can build meals (for example: chicken breasts or thighs.) Then, for the rest of the week: chicken enchiladas, chicken fried rice, chicken soup, etc.. Take a break in there somewhere so it isn't too monotonous, but with a bit of practice you can make quite a few meals that will satisfy your desire for variety.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:52 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going through the same thing.

1. Cabbage is your friend. You get a hell of a lot of cabbage for the money.

2. It sounds awful, but ramen is still like 25 cents a packet - what I do is add various veggies and/or protein and/or egg, drain off most of their seasoning, and use my own soy and other sauces - they're the costliest part, but they last many meals.
posted by Occula at 3:54 PM on January 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Frozen prepared foods is probably what I spend the most on. I know I shouldn't but cooking feels like too much some days Don't eat tons of meat or fancy food. Just too much of normal stuff. I don't drink anything but water 95% of the time.
posted by Aranquis at 3:56 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

On Sundays I do a big cook of two meals that will get me through lunch and dinner during the work week. Usually at least one is vegetarian which helps with costs. The other big thing that helps with costs is cutting out all beverages that aren’t water (I still buy milk more cereal). If I wanted to be cheaper I’d do oatmeal in the morning instead of cereal.

When you need a fruit pick one of the cheaper ones (in season or generally cheap like apples or bananas).
posted by raccoon409 at 3:56 PM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

what do you like to eat? where has your spending gotten too high? are you eating what you buy or are you throwing stuff out?
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:57 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

(an all-purpose answer, especially for winter, is: cook a big pot of chili on the weekend. Freeze it in microwaveable containers. Chili can be as cheap as you want it to be by upping the proportion of beans, but is still savory and satisfying.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:00 PM on January 2, 2018

At ethnic markets near me, there are often particular items that are staples of specific cuisines which are priced substantially lower than they would be at supermarkets.

For example, at a Vietnamese market ginger, noodles (better ones than ramen), and dried mushrooms are much less expensive, and at several Middle Eastern and South Asian markets there are large, inexpensive packages of pitas. I make pizzas with the pitas.
posted by XMLicious at 4:03 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Frozen veggies are probably cheaper than fresh due to waste.

Prepared frozen meals are going to be expensive. If that is the problem, then doing some more of the cooking yourself is the cure. Decades ago my wife and I followed the monthly menus in Womens Day magazine. They try to be economical, and I noticed they used a lot of egg dishes. Eggs make an inexpensive meal.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Meal planning. If you can cook 2 or 3 big meals on Sunday, you have lunch and dinner covered for most of the week.
Instant pot is great for this.
posted by k8t at 4:07 PM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Frozen prepared food is a total waste.

To save money: Cook dry beans once a week, a few cups at a time, use them to bulk out many/most meals. Pick your favorite or rotate: pinto, kidney, black eyed pea, etc. These all are rather different.

Do the same with brown rice or barley.

In general, prefer dry goods to canned, canned food Is paying a lot for convenience and shipping water around the world.

Cook large batches of soups or casseroles, freeze your own meals.

Never buy Kale or Quinoa, they are currently priced insanely high. Instead, buy collard (or mustard, turnip) greens, and millet, all of which remain dirt cheap.

Cultivate a taste for canned sardines, kipper, herring, etc. These can be a source of ethical, low cost and flavorful animal protein and healthy fats. Far cheaper and more ecologically sound than tuna.

Don’t plan meals so much as work on hot improvisational skills.

Finally, TVP is your friend. Super cheap and healthy soy protein. Shelf stable for a year or more, highly flexible. Use it to make burritos, extend meats, all kinds of stuff, look it up, can stand in for virtually any ground meat.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:08 PM on January 2, 2018 [11 favorites]

Eggs are cheap, filling, healthy and can be cooked quickly in lots of different ways. Omelets, scrambles, sandwiches... have an egg night once a week.

Soup is cheap and just requires some chopping, heat a big pot of water and throw some salt, onion, and whatever veggies, beans, or meat you’ve got in there and let it simmer for a bit.

Burritos! Beans and cheese plus whatever else you’ve got, I love roasted veggies in mine. Eggs! Breakfast burritos! You can make a bunch at once and freeze for quick microwave meals.

Buy a bag of frozen veggies for a dollar and microwave them in a bowl for 6 minutes, stirring and adding a few pats of butter halfway through. Serve with the protein of your choice and some rice. Jars of curry or teriyaki sauce turn this into an even better meal with a ton of flavor.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:20 PM on January 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

This book will give you so many ideas and is not nearly as preachy (it was originally put together by a Mennonite lady years ago) as one might think. I got a copy of this as a wedding present decades ago and it gave me an education on ways to feed me (and in my case my family) inexpensively yet healthily.

And lots of different recipes to riff off of!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:36 PM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh and if you do not have a rice cooker get one. A small one is pretty inexpensive at Wallyworld and rice is a great base for all sorts of quick easy meals.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:37 PM on January 2, 2018

Kroger-specific advice: do you have a Kroger Plus card? Do you shop for what's on sale, or do you just pick up whatever strikes you at the time? If you have the Kroger Plus card, you can set up an online account and load up coupons to your card. It only takes a few minutes to check for coupons before you go, and it can save a surprising amount of money. And after you use it for a while the system will start showing you coupons and sales for items you habitually buy. I'm not an amazing food budgeter or anything, but the online coupon thing is good.
posted by zoetrope at 4:38 PM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

A quick tasty inexpensive quesadilla-type main dish I make involves taking a tortilla, spreading an even layer of refried beans on one side and then shredded cheese, and baking it in a ~350℉ oven on a baking sheet for eight or ten minutes. This softens and then toasts the tortilla in one step (in my oven, on a middle rack, at least) while heating up the contents. Add salsa, avocados, scraps of meat you have handy, sour cream, etc, to taste.
posted by XMLicious at 4:45 PM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Frozen prepared food can definitely be a big driver of grocery bills, as can prepared deli foods, but they don't have to be. Buying relatively large quantities when they are on sale, it's less than $5 a day per person. Granted, that isn't cheap, but it's not all that much, either. It's almost always terrible for you, with either massive amounts of sugar, salt, or both, but when the other option is literally junk food, you do what you can.

The vast majority of the time my grocery basket consists entirely of whatever is on sale that week that is easy to prepare (so mainly frozen meals, bread, cereal, sandwich fixings, canned goods, and deli sandwiches). BOGO is your friend.

So are heads of cauliflower, broccoli, etc, whenever they are on sale. A splash of milk, a slice of process cheese food, a dash of salt, and a minute or two in the microwave makes a reasonably tasty cheesy vegetable snack for less than a dollar a serving. Think of a few different simple things you can make that fit your palate and just make whatever uses the stuff you can get in a given week.

Oh, and every grocery store I've ever patronized runs ridiculous sales on yogurt from time to time. Buy a lot. It keeps for months and is fantastic for a quick snack to tide you over. When it's only 10 or 20 cents a serving (even Target fairly regularly has it that cheaply around here, and I live in a very expensive city at the moment), it really is quite fantastic for the price.

And as others have noted, ramen can actually be dressed up quite nicely in many ways, though you may have better options available. Nonetheless, I always keep at least a dozen packs around even though I rarely eat it. I like it fine and it keeps forever and even full price is stupid cheap. Plus it goes well with the "toss in whatever is on sale" way of eating.
posted by wierdo at 4:45 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a huge fan of frozen prepared foods when sickness or other issues make it difficult to cook on top of everything else - so no guilt from me. Given that you're feeling overwhelmed about cooking but wanting to shave your budget, I'm guessing you want both economical and simple to prepare meals. I'm not sure exactly *how* restrictive you want to get ... there's a wide range of possibilities. Anyway ...

First off - Meal brainstorm instead of meal planning. On the weekend, look at what you have on hand in kitchen. Make a grocery list based on that info, and then (preferably after grocery shopping), make a list of meals you *could* put together with those ingredients and leave it somewhere obvious, like taped to a cabinet. Include your leftovers in your brainstorming. Ideally your list will include a range of options so on a crap night you can pick something that takes minimal time or effort, and on a better night you can try something more challenging.

Here are a few things I like to make that I find uncomplicated and tasty:
* Take good bread - two slices is about right. Spread it with mustard. Put some tomato slices on (romas are fine) and then sprinkle just a little bit of red wine vinegar and olive oil on the tomatoes. Salt and pepper. Put cheese on top of that. Stick the whole thing in the oven until the cheese melts. You can eat with greens but it's pretty good on its own too.
* Rotisserie chicken - I have a hard time finishing a whole chicken alone, but they are super convenient and will go into tacos, soups, salads, etc.
* Sheet pan dinners - if you have some frozen chicken thighs and/oe sausages and some basic veggies, you have a ton of easy dinners at your fingertips.
* Let go of the idea that salads have to include greens. Obviously they can include greens if you *want* them to, but they can also consist of, say, chopped broccoli, red bell pepper and shallots with a garlicky dressing, topped with chicken
* I recently asked a question about easy meals, and there are at least a few meal ideas that are also frugal
* A while back I found a good stir-fry recipe and bought all the basic ingredients. For a long time anytime I saw meat on sale I would buy it, take it home and freeze it into appropriate portions for a meal. Then with a rice cooker, one or two veggies I can easily put together a meal. Any leftovers are great for breakfast (or dinner the next night) with a fried egg.

A lot depends on your tastes, your cooking skills and goals. One person's breakthrough notion is something that'll never work for another person. I hope you get some helpful ideas here.

Avoid my mistakes with frugal cooking:
* Cooking something frugal, then not eating it because it tastes awful
* Cooking something frugal, then being hungry again in a half hour because it didn't have adequate calories/nutrition
* Buying up a ton of groceries so you can cook all your own meals, and then having them rot in the fridge
posted by bunderful at 4:48 PM on January 2, 2018 [14 favorites]

I should say that if your life is such that you can swing it, eating well is totally worth the expense in time or money. I haven't been able to do that lately, so I'm coming at it from the latter perspective.

If you can do the whole cooking thing at least a couple times a month there are many bulk recipes like chili or crock pot pork chops that take very little time actively cooking and freeze well and thus can be stretched to last for a week or more so you're at least eating less crappy frozen stuff and expensive restaurant meals.
posted by wierdo at 4:52 PM on January 2, 2018

Eggs. So many options with eggs.

Foil packs are a much cheaper solution to pre-prepped frozen meals (and more flexible). Requires a large piece of foil (enough to make a packet with the desired quantity of food).

I do a serving of chicken (frozen, from large bag of frozen breasts or tenderloins), frozen vegetables (most commonly broccoli, cauliflower, or those blends that have carrots and a few other things), grains if you want, a glug of dressing. I do more protein, no grains, but you can balance the three parts however you like. For dressings, I like ranch or honey mustard, but I've had good luck with greek-yogurt based ones, including a Persian-style marinade.

Store in freezer until needed, put in preheated oven at 400F for about 40 minutes, eat. Total cost $2ish per meal, and it makes perfectly reasonable leftovers for lunch the next day if you do another pack at the same time or make larger packs. I love these because it solves the 'I can't even think about food' problem when I get home, and they only take about 10-20 minutes to prep a good number.

For ideas, I really like the BudgetBytes website. A bunch of her options are a few too many steps for me after work, but I really like it for ideas on what things to combine, things to make when I do have more time for cooking (she does a lot of 'cook big batch, eat all week') and how to think through keeping food costs down.
posted by modernhypatia at 4:53 PM on January 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Speaking of BudgetBytes, I wanted to recommend a super easy, budget-friendly recipe I made recently. This Veggies Noodle Stir Fry is a great way to jazz up ramen noodles, and load up on veggies. I'd go with fresh cabbage, but all your other veggies can be frozen. You can easily skip the green onions and cilantro.
posted by hydra77 at 5:01 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like the general idea of the veggie-starch-protein concept (and maybe a fat/dairy). So yeah, a quesadilla with black beans, cheese and spinach would work there. Or a pre-cooked chicken breast, side of (frozen-then-defrosted) peas and maybe a baked potato (microwave it or cook a few a head of time). Make a scramble with eggs, ham (or whatever) and veggies of your choice. Done!

And while I know you want to save money and this runs a bit contrary to this idea -- spending some time and yes, money, stocking your pantry really helps. If you can't afford to (or don't want to), you could do it a bit at a time. Every time you're at the store, buy another can of beans (you can cook them yourself, and I support that, but nothing wrong with canned) or buy another bag of frozen veggies. Next time, buy a bag of rice or a box of pasta. Buy some canned tomatoes or a jar of pasta sauce on your next trip. Buy some seasonings and condiments every so often (yeah, I know grocery-store spices aren't the best, but they're better than nothing). Things like potatoes and eggs don't last forever, but they last long enough. (Meats and cheeses last less long, of course.)

Soon enough, you'll have enough "ingredients" to throw meals together pretty quickly and/or just need one additional thing (or sometimes, nothing else). And this makes it easy enough to supplement with fresh vegetables/fruit. Not every meal needs to be a masterpiece. If it's just some pasta and frozen vegetables (with a protein of your choice) and some Parmesan & butter, well, it's food. I like cooking. I like food. But there is a certain point where you just need food to keep you alive.

(Also, as a person who lives alone, I've just accepted that sometimes I will buy a frozen dinner and that there is just going to be some food waste built in to my life. I don't even have a full freezer right now so if I can't eat it in a week, it's gone. That's just how it is.)
posted by darksong at 5:01 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Potatoes! I like potatoes with chili (canned is fine) and cheese.

I also like veggie bowls: potatoes + chickpeas + tomatoes + greens + whatever salad dressing you like. Or beans + rice + frozen veggies + greens + salsa.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 5:04 PM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

You don’t need a rice cooker if you cook rice like pasta. I’ve been doing it that way for years, and I actually ditched my rice cooker. Directions here. You might be able to find more detailed times elsewhere. For brown rice, I boil for thirty minutes, drain, put back in pan, cover, and let sit for ten minutes more. Perfect every time. Cooking this way also reduces the arsenic levels. More on that here.

If you’re going to sometimes use frozen dinners anyway, don’t beat yourself up, but stock up when they’re on sale. If they’re a dollar off and you buy ten, you’ve saved ten dollars. Of course it’s better not to use them, but it can be hard and might be unrealistic to think you can suddenly start cooking all of your meals from scratch. You could also try changing gradually. Maybe start by using half as many in a week as you do now.
posted by FencingGal at 5:25 PM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here's a question: how much food are you throwing out? Are you really eating everything you bring home? It may be easier in your head if you gamify this to reduce food waste rather than "budgeting" so much. Maybe don't begin with hardcore MEAL PLANNING but just like "I'm going to buy a family pack of 5 chicken breasts and cook them all at once, put two in the freezer for later, and these three need to get eaten over the following 2-3 days or they're going to go bad. I've got half a can of beans that need to get eaten by tomorrow, I'll make some rice to have with beans and chicken tomorrow for lunch. I can have the rest of the rice that night with chicken and garlicky green beans..." and so on, so you have a plan for using up what you buy at any given time.

And it is totally okay to buy processed helper foods. A bag of frozen green beans has about the same servings as a bag of fresh, only you can eat the frozen ones as needed for a month rather than in 4 days before they get furry. The $5 bag of chopped broccoli is far more likely to get eaten in my house than loose crowns, it just is, and sweet potatoes are way more likely to get eaten than butternut squash. I almost always find a way to use up sour cream, but never eat all the hummus so I stopped buying it. I always keep a decent frozen pizza in the freezer ($5 plus cheese and spices and maybe some leftover meat from the fridge vs $20 delivery) and frozen eggplant parmigiana we can throw in the oven and eat with salad or noodles, and my grocery store has this amazing better-than-food-court quality frozen mandarin chicken that is low effort (I always buy it with a bag of frozen cauliflower rice, and then it's practically healthy!) and will get eaten eventually instead of delivery. A jar of pasta sauce, if it turns the dregs of your vegetable drawer into dinner, is useful.

Just strategize a little bit and it will make a difference. Everything you put in your cart, ask "is this going to get eaten? when?" and if you have an answer and you can make it work with the other stuff in your cart or at home, before it goes bad or before your next run to the store, there you go.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:32 PM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Top tips from when I was really, really stretching the food budget:

In my experience, THE #1 best way to stretch a budget is with pasta. Pasta is cheap, but more importantly, to the American palate, it is filling. I've gone weeks eating nothing but pasta with butter and a little parmesan. Sausage is shockingly cheap and will make your standard pasta-with-tomato-sauce (the can stuff is way cheaper than the jar stuff) seem fancy. Parmesan is expensive but you only need a little bit, and it lasts forever in the fridge. Get some ricotta (you can further stretch this by replacing half with cottage cheese) and you can make a huge lasagna. Freeze half and you've got two weeks' worth of dinner.

Buy a loaf of crusty bread from the bakery, have them slice it for you, and freeze it. You can warm up the slices in the oven (375 for 5 minutes) and then you can have bread all the time without ever throwing any away. Also good to freeze: bacon.

Yes to eggs. With aforementioned bacon. Or, shakshuka is SUPER cheap. Serve it over rice to stretch it further. Also for breakfast: instant oatmeal with water, 'cause then you don't have to buy milk or anything.

Also, these two specific recipes from Budget Bytes have comprised my entire diet at certain points in my life: Chorizo Sweet Potato Skillet, Lemony Kale and Quinoa Salad.

Don't make salads; your greens will go bad in the fridge and you will waste your money (I know this because I also live alone. I mean, I have a cat but I don't let him eat salad). Buy bags of frozen spinach and frozen broccoli to make sure that you get some green stuff in your diet. This broccoli is indeed really really good. Buy ReaLemon instead of getting actual lemons because it keeps forever in the fridge (this is a theme).
posted by capricorn at 5:42 PM on January 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

I got a lot of mileage out of the Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Carole Raymond when I was living alone. I was in my 30s, not a student, but it is a collection of simple, quick, inexpensive recipes targeted for one or two meals. Sometimes I just didn’t want to make a pot of something and eat it for a week. I still use a handful of the recipes from it, multiplied for a family.
posted by Kriesa at 5:46 PM on January 2, 2018

Also -- a cold sandwich for dinner is kinda sad, but a sandwich grilled on both sides of a hot skillet with a little butter is pretty satisfying. There is usually some kind of sliced cheese on sale to put in the middle.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:48 PM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lots of great food ideas here but on a dollar level here’s how I did it:

Week 1 - I took the average of the last 4 weeks of groceries for my budget. I put that dollar amount in an envelope in cash. I spent no more. Cash is the biggest secret.

Week 2 - same amount, but I used 10% for loss leader items that I knew I would use (things I always bought.) Where I live, the loss leaders are generally in the flyer, usually the big items on the first page. From here on in, 10-15% of my total food budget has gone to stocking items on sale. After a year you’ll learn at which interval to buy things - in my area, the big blocks of real cheese go on sale every 5 weeks or so, so I don’t buy further ahead than that. Peanut butter goes on a huge sale around back to school, and now. Etc.

Week 3 - I started to reduce the money in my envelope by 5% a week. I did this until I hit my goal. This gave me time to find my killer recipes, or alternatives, or take time to learn to make my own muffins, etc. For meals I have about 10 that are surefire hits with my family but really cheap. (Pea soup + homemade bread, quiche + roasted root veggies, etc.)

Note that I did not spend the cash all in one trip. But I have kids who surprise me and suddenly need apples midweek; ymmv.

Any extra money goes in my treats fund for the odd week I really need fancy cheese, or a celebratory cake. But I always do the 10% loss leader ship.

(For recipes I always examine peasant food of various cultures for cheapness...colcannon, congee, polenta, risotto, frittata, soup with dumplings, etc.)
posted by warriorqueen at 6:07 PM on January 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

During a stint of (thank goodness temporary) poverty, I learned that daal was a lifesaver. Daal and rice are a complete protien, and there are enough variations never to get exhausted of one flavor profile. Buy the spices you need for this in the bulk section, buy them whole and they'll last a lot longer. Get a cheap-ass $15 coffee grinder to grind them up when you need them.

There are lots of examples of great recipes on here, and a billion others on the internet, so I won't go into those in too much detail. Meal plan. Those two scary words take like ten minutes. You can do it while you're watching TV. It's not scary. If you're at the grocery store buying anything except what your forgot to buy last trip, you're already losing the battle.

There is only one real guiding principle here: The majority of meals created each week, must have left-overs or be an easy component for a future meal. Anything high ticket, or that can't be broken down for purchase now requires dovetailing.

We have a tendency to plan around the protein, because that's usually the single highest price item that you get shopping weekly. Here's an example week for us: First up, crockpot pulled pork sandwiches and collards for a side (so, we're going to do pork butt this week). That pulled pork gets turned into tacos the next night*. The last of that pork gets put into a stir-fry of your choice. We like stir fried rice, but there are again, so many variations on this. Those collards (which usually come in huge bunches) get placement in the stir fry. Everything else in those dishes is kind of a single-purchase (a few mushrooms, onions, etc) The thing about most of these is that you just made 3 dinners, but the stir fried rice will likely yield enough for left overs, so there's lunch. You could stretch this further by making burritos one night. You could make pork buns with it. You can make hash and eggs with it.

Same exercise with chicken. You now only buy whole chickens. Buying a whole chicken and breaking it down into its constituent parts is the single most thrifty thing you can probably do in the kitchen. Not only would you pay two or three times as much per pound to have the bird pre-cut, but now you have two wings, two legs, two breasts and a carcass. That carcass, with some veg, can turn into the best goddamn chicken stock you've ever made. If you have a pressure cooker, it takes 10 active minutes and an hour of hanging out to make some stock. Maybe double that time for regular broth? So now we have our chicken. With the breasts, you make yourself some chicken tikka, over rice (i would scale this recipe down if its just one or two people; that recipe can feed our family of three for a total of 3 meals).
With the thighs, you make yourself some miso claypot chicken. Or some Thai curry. Or just chicken noodle soup. Or a nice rice pilaf/paella thing. You can do tacos or burritos here too.

That broth is a great soup. Hit up classic peasant meals: caldo verde, chicken and dumplings, stuff like that. Chicken's a bit easier to dovetail into a billion different things.

To fill in the gaps or to bulk of a dish, eggs are your friends. No shame in putting quiche in a frozen-prebaked pie shell. Quiche is a great dumping ground for scraps in fact.

Eggs on top of roasted vegetables and greens is fuckin aweeeeesome. It's like it's own sauce.

*pro tip; corn flour soft taco shells are about a hundred thousand times better if you just dunk them in water and throw them on a hot nonstick skillet
posted by furnace.heart at 6:07 PM on January 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

While it's not cabbage cheap, I like getting half gallons of salsa. It works out to about $2/lb for flavorful, ready to eat veg that lasts forever in the fridge. Good with scrambled eggs, mixed with rice and beans, poured on a baked potato... Corn tortillas are also super cheap and on theme here.

If cabbage is your pace, it's surprisingly tasty quartered and roasted.
posted by momus_window at 7:17 PM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

In addition to doing the weekly meal prep, it's helpful to create your own frozen meals from those -- for me, the biggest waste factor from groceries is buying premade meals and letting my cooked stuff spoil because it turned out I didn't feel like eating that particular thing that week. So now I freeze stuff in portion sizes.
posted by Xany at 7:41 PM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm going to plug lentils as being cheap, filling, nutritious, protein-and-fiber-filled, and at least for me slightly more grown-up feeling than ramen. I've given this recipe here before and I still highly recommend it (well, I'm trying keto now, but I would recommend it for your situation, and I miss it!).

To the dry lentils in a pot, I typically add at minimum: dehydrated onion and garlic (you can use fresh for both, but life's too short), water, red wine, and olive oil. For a meal rather than a snack, I usually reduce the initial water amount and add frozen vegetables mid-way through (they release water as they cook), and then I mix either shredded cooked chicken or sausage at the end. 30 seconds of prep time and maybe 15 minutes of cooking time, most of which is passively waiting for the pot to finish. Creates several servings of a tasty stew-like meal for very low cost.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:43 PM on January 2, 2018

Are you hung up on the idea of hot food for lunch? Here in the Netherlands, lunch = bread, pretty much. And that is fine and can be cheap and quick; it's easy to add some vegetables to your sandwich. Makes it healthier, more like a complete meal, and adds variety too.

Another piece of Dutch food wisdom: the humble potato is your friend. It's cheap, tasty, versatile and nutritious. If your potatoes aren't too old, they do fine without peeling which saves a lot of work.

A quick way to prepare them: wash them, cut them into wedges, microwave them on a high setting for five minutes, them fry them in a bit of oil. While you're frying them, use the microwave to boil some vegetables (broccoli works well). If you manage to prepare a protein at the same time (fry some eggs, fish or meat?) you'll have yourself a decent meal in all of 15 minutes.

Or fry them with a chopped onion and a bell pepper, and then pour some eggs over it all to make a frittata. Make it spicy if you're into that.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:21 AM on January 3, 2018

I always have rice, noodles, potatoes, tortillas, cheese, and eggs on hand because they're cheap, good basics for lots of favorite recipes. I always have vegetable stock, soy sauce, hot sauce, mayo, salt, pepper for flavor. I buy small quantities of produce and won't buy more until I use it. Keeping the basics replenished means I always have something to eat. What are your basics? Figure that out and make sure you always have them in the house. Supplement when you want something different, but don't be afraid to substitute cheaper ingredients.

Like others have mentioned, Budget Bytes is a great website. I know you said too detailed makes you fail, and I am the same way, but I use it all the time to find cheap recipes I can make in bulk. I just say to myself, "This is the plan to save money. I am following the plan. I will not waste money when I can make delicious cheap food myself in a reasonable amount of time."
posted by amodelcitizen at 6:16 AM on January 3, 2018

Don't buy too much of the following: packaged herbs, pre-prepared fruit, pre-prepared meat (aside from stuff like uncooked bacon), juices or sodas, and packaged snacks.

Buy more weird produce, especially squash, and learn how to use it. Easiest way to start is just chop it up and dump it into your pasta.

Packaged snacks should be a treat only. Usually you can cut down your snack craving with something simpler and cheaper: any kind of fruit, DIY popcorn, any kind of raw vegetable + hummus or yogurt, toast, yogurt + granola, hard-boiled eggs, cheese + whatever's lying around, milk + cereal, and my favorite -- leftovers!

A meal does not need to follow the formula meat + vegetable + starch + 30 minutes of prep, or any such thing. A meal is whatever fills you up and keeps you going. One day it can be ramen; another day it can be a roast chicken with some hummus; another day it can be a salad. I often substitute any mix of the snacks from above in place of a meal. You don't need to have a formula for meals, which should give you some flexibility in "meal planning".

You don't need slivered almonds in the green beans; you don't need 5 million extra aromatics to make a good stew. I think that once I realized I could make a good soup out of like 3 pantry things, I simplified a lot of my shopping and cut down on a lot of miscellaneous, mismatched ingredients that would ultimately go bad before they got used.

Canned beans are easy, cheap, and healthy, and they will add significant bulk to anything. They can also serve as an anything-goes side dish. Steak + beans. Roast chicken + beans. Greens 'n' beans. Pork chops + beans. Fish + beans tossed in a dressing. Scrambled eggs + beans. Etc.

If you have, at some point in your life, been a fan of either oatmeal, porridge, or grits -- then man you are looking at one of the cheapest, easiest, most spiritually-filling meals ever.

Good luck!
posted by miniraptor at 7:08 AM on January 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I don't know if Aldi's does this, but my store has a clearance meat bin (about to expire), a small clearance shelving area, AND what I call a scratch-and-dent cart near the checkout that has 90 percent stuff that either I don't want or is so dented it seems dangerous or impossible to open, but every so often you get that super cheap can of beans extravaganza that someone dropped in the back room, score!
posted by Occula at 7:49 AM on January 3, 2018

Homemade fried rice (take day old rice, heat oil in skillet add rice, make room in center of rice pile, crack egg, cook egg a little, scramble, add leftover veggies or frozen veggies, heat) was an easy, cheap meal I did when I lived alone. Having a few go tos that use up stuff in between nicer meals helped keep meal prices down.
posted by typecloud at 1:15 PM on January 3, 2018

Just how cheap are you thinking of? There are some fast cheap meals that I quite liked but I probably wouldn't serve to guests =P

Macaroni chicken soup - $1.50 for 500g of chicken drumstick, $0.35 for 350g of carrots, $0.25 for 125g of onions, $0.25 for 125g of pasta.... that's $2.35, makes enough food for two meals (250g chicken each meal). Oil and salt / msg, brown the chicken and onions for a few minutes then dump water + carrots into it then boil, prep time seems to be about 10 minutes, mostly just cutting the carrots and onions.

Those "one pot pastas" really do work. Just tomatoes / basil / onion / pasta + anything optional you want. Costs slightly more because tomatoes seem to be expensive recently and fresh basil is a luxury herb unless you can get it in your garden... prep + cooking can be done inside of 20 minutes.

Heck, a marinara pasta can be done inside of 20 minutes if you just want it done without sauce, just olive oil / herbs, and won't cost too much (500g of marinara seafood costs just $5 for two meals) and prep time is zero.

There are probably more variations on the above (various soups, pastas).
posted by xdvesper at 7:15 PM on January 3, 2018

On the cooking-ahead and using-leftovers front, I found Tamar Adler's book useful for ideas and mindset.
posted by yesbut at 11:47 PM on January 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

This book is my go to when I am stretching it a bit. Leanne Brown wrote this as a part of her thesis on trying to live on 4 dollars a day (which is what you got if you were on Food Stamps in NY when she wrote it). When I was unemployed and on Food Stamps ( got more like 6 bucks a day) and I found ideas from this book were right on.

Also, when you go grocery shopping; always search for the overstock/deep sale shelf. Almost all grocers will have a corner of the store that will have this. I almost always check this in the grocers I go to before I do regular shopping. Mostly you will find packaged stuff; but I always find a lot of produce packaged to sell for insanely cheap prices.

Finally, just stop buying packaged food. The only thing I get packaged now are Canned Tomatoes and Coconut Milk. I got an Instant Pot recently and stopped buying canned beans. Eggs stay edible for a LOT longer than the sell by date. So if there is a sale on 18 pack eggs, load up. TVP and Seitan are also wonderful protein sources, as is non-fat Greek Yoghurt. I am a vegetarian so I am useless when it comes to advice with meats. :) Also, if you join me in the cult of the Instant Pot, I can promise you that cooking in bulk becomes insanely easy. I like to cook, but am also lazy. So I used to cook 1-2 times a week. Now in the month that I have had the Instant Pot, I cook 3-4 times a week. And the food tastes fantastic.

But whatever else you do, please take a look at the Book I recommend. It is free!
posted by indianbadger1 at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

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