Suggestions for dirt-cheap, high calorie foods
March 30, 2018 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm dead broke and yet still need to eat. I'm having trouble staying full on my budget and I worry my overall value health is suffering for it. I'm looking for suggestions for filling, high calorie food that can be purchased for next to nothing.

Basically I'm looking for ways to not lose any more weight during these lean financial times. I eat a lot of rice and beans, sometimes twice a day, and while I'm not too concerned about variety in my diet I'm still finding myself with the occasional hunger headache and shakes by the end of the day, which concerns me a bit. What foods can I eat to best prevent this from happening? What should I be looking for in what I eat to carry me through as long as possible?

Unfortunately, I'm permanently ineligible for EBT/food stamps so taking that route to bulk up my meals isn't an option.
posted by item to Food & Drink (72 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Peanut butter.
posted by amro at 10:40 AM on March 30, 2018 [17 favorites]

Oatmeal with a spoon or two of peanut butter in it.
Making your own yogurt is not terribly difficult.
posted by sockermom at 10:45 AM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lentils, rice + a splash of olive oil, a little garlic + dijon mustard. All of those ingredients are available at most dollar stores (maybe get the olive oil from a regular grocery?) Bulk size lentils are inexpensive at Indian markets, also restaurant supply like Smart & Final.

I ate a version of that regularly for about a year once and it was the healthiest I've ever been. I would add different stuff sometimes, but that was my base and I often ate it plain as described above.

Lentils are a lot healthier than beans and just as inexpensive. I also like them better. The oil adds a lot of calories.

(Also add salt and pepper, red pepper if you like it spicey. Get iodized salt.)
posted by jbenben at 10:45 AM on March 30, 2018 [14 favorites]

Can you buy sweet potatoes? White potatoes are probably cheaper and would also be OK, but they don't have as many vitamins. Potatoes in general are very cheap, very filling, and nutritious enough that you can live on them.

Also, when I've volunteered with different churches providing hot meals, we were always instructed to welcome everyone who showed up without asking questions. Are there churches near you that do this? In my experience, there was absolutely no trying to push religion on people or say anything about their personal lives - these were all Catholic churches.

The Salvation Army also provides food to people, but they are more likely to require you to attend services.

Not everyone is comfortable accepting charity, but you are literally hungry, so I hope you will accept whatever help you can find.
posted by FencingGal at 10:47 AM on March 30, 2018 [21 favorites]

Rice and beans is a great base that will take care of most of your nutritional needs. I'd spend some money on very cheap vegetables (bulk potatoes, onions, carrots, plus whatever greens are cheapest where you live), that should liven up your diet a bit. Chickpeas and lentils are good to rotate in with the rice and beans. If you want some affordable meat, chicken legs and thighs often go on sale where I live for around $1 pound. Eggs are a pretty cheap protein as well. Cook the veggies in some oil, salt pepper and garlic powder, it will be filling and tasty.
posted by skewed at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh, wow. You know what? I frequently added crumbled wakame seaweed to that lentil and rice mix. There's a lot of minerals in seaweed, I bet that had a lot to do with why it was so healthy...

Dried Wakame is inexpensive (pricey at grocery stores, cheap at Asian markets) and a little goes a long long way.
posted by jbenben at 10:52 AM on March 30, 2018

Canned tuna in oil, eggs, peanut butter, add cheese to what you can, bananas (smash them into things, slice em on top, in smoothies), sweet potatoes, whole milk, canola oil (use in salad dressings, toss pasta in), add powdered milk to dishes like mashed potatoes, shakes, oatmeal, yogurt, pancake mix. This is assuming you tolerate dairy! Sneak these in for a more calorie dense meal without as much effort.

Is there a food pantry nearby? I know it may not be comfortable to go, but if there’s a church or school or organization with a food pantry nearby, consider checking it out. You usually won’t need to provide any documents or proof, sometimes they may ask you sit through a class or food demonstration before you can go through the pantry.
posted by buttonedup at 10:52 AM on March 30, 2018 [21 favorites]

Peanut butter? Whole milk? Eggs for protein, if you're looking to mix things up from beans. If rice is getting dull look into barley, oatmeal, etc. Baked potatoes are actually very good for you, and if you can manage some cheap cheese or (salted) butter they are yummy.

I also think you should try not to miss out on too many micronutrients. A daily vitamin is good in situations like yours, but also look into ethnic groceries (Asian, latino) for less expensive veggies and fruits.
posted by Bebo at 10:54 AM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Don't forget about local charitable food pantries. They don't generally depend on benefits eligibility.

I would suggest switching to brown rice, which, as not processed, will give you a smoother release of energy without the insulin spikes of a simple carb like white rice.
posted by praemunire at 10:54 AM on March 30, 2018 [14 favorites]

Here's a list of foods broken down by calorie per dollar. Maybe make or buy some bread?
posted by gregr at 10:55 AM on March 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

You need some fat in your diet. Even if it's just adding some vegetable oil to the rice and beans. Seconding peanutbutter and tuna in oil. Eggs.

Also seconding that you should find your local food pantries. They won't have the same eligibility restrictions as government programs.
posted by Kriesa at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

You need fatty foods! Are you vegetarian? Because then you need a different route from an omnivore.
Vegetarian dishes with a lot of oil in them are stuff like ratatouille and iman bayildi, or rice-stuffed bell peppers.
If you can eat eggs, fried rice with an egg in them are very cheap and nourishing.
Peanut butter is great, also for sauces, like in South-East Asian food.
Do you live near any immigrant/ethnic stores? Often food is a lot cheaper there.
When I was very poor, I'd buy in bulk. Big bags of rice, pulses, and boxes of canned tomatoes. Big amounts of oil. Onions and garlic. Canned tuna. Flour for baking — if you don't have an oven you can bake pita on the stovetop. Make hummus with plenty oil. Onion soup is delicious and very cheap to make.
If you can eat meat, bacon is your friend. Fry it for taste, save the fat for everything.
posted by mumimor at 10:58 AM on March 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yes on the rice and beans, also Spanish Tortilla? It's just potatoes and eggs, but cooking them together makes them seem like more of a thing.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Do you use oil or other fat? If you can buy good quality oil and add it liberally. But even a cheap oil will add calories.
Also, onions and garlic add flavour and nutrional value. Nthing potatoes, so versatile, boil them fry them, mash them etc.
posted by 15L06 at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Good suggestions so far, thanks y'all.

Unfortunately my experience with local food pantries has been less than stellar. It seems to usually boil down to a several hour wait for some cinnamon rolls and a few potatoes. (I might be exaggerating, but not by much)

As a side-question, should I be concerned about headaches from hunger? Can this have lasting effects?
posted by item at 11:05 AM on March 30, 2018

Do you have a Farmers market near you? Some of the ones I go to will sell their imperfect harvest for next to nothing.
posted by Candleman at 11:08 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a side-question, should I be concerned about headaches from hunger? Can this have lasting effects?
The headaches are probably not a problem — remember to drink water, though. From experience I know that you can have problems with excessive weight gain later in life, if your fortune turns, because your body may get into permanent desperation mode.
posted by mumimor at 11:09 AM on March 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

You weren't clear about what your cooking resources/skill are. But if you have a functional kitchen and you're a comfortable cook who has time for it (all of which easily might not be true, so ignore if this is unhelpful), the basic bread recipe from Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day is just flour, salt and yeast -- it couldn't be cheaper calories (if you're doing this, you can buy yeast by the jar which is infinitely cheaper than envelopes.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:10 AM on March 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Cheap ramen (10 cents a pack) with 1 or 2 or 3 eggs stirred into it right before you eat it. All the liquid will fill you up, and the eggs help with protein.
posted by hydra77 at 11:10 AM on March 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, too. Dehydration causes headaches, and water can make you feel fuller.
posted by amro at 11:11 AM on March 30, 2018 [12 favorites]

Look at the dollar store or grocery surplus stores for more bang for your grocery buck. Maybe here if you're in Texas.
posted by hydra77 at 11:14 AM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Someone mentioned tuna, but specifically standard tuna salad with mayo is high protein and high fat, and tuna's strong-tasting so it seems like more. Tuna is something with a big price swing between brands and stores, so it's worth shopping around for.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:18 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely add a good amount of fat to your rice and beans to begin. Eggs are an amazing bang for your buck.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:21 AM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Can you share your location? Many Catholic churches have food pantries. You can also get free meals at some community cafes.

Easter candy is about to be deeply discounted. You may be able to get some candy with a lot of peanutbutter in it on the cheap.

I often will go to three stores when I am shopping on the cheap. Sometimes there will be nearly free things. I.e. 3lbs of potatoes for 99 cents. 3 pounds of apples for 99 cents. I encourage you to just go and buy the super cheap produce or staples. This week target had 18 eggs on sale for 99 cents.
posted by Kalmya at 11:24 AM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Target sells 51oz bottles of Bertolli extra light olive oil for $15. That's 12,000 calories of fat right there. Personally, I take a tablespoon shaken with water daily under the auspices of the Shangri-la Diet, but there's no reason it can't be used as a weight maintenance supplement. The whole idea is that the flavorless calories increase satiety dramatically, so in addition to being a solid slug of good fats, it should help with hunger. And if you can't bring yourself to just drink it, adding fat is, as others have said, bound to make whatever else you have last longer.
posted by teremala at 11:42 AM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding shopping at an Asian market if there is one available. Dried beans and rice are much cheaper there. I get three pounds of bok choi at ours for under two dollars. I am sorry this is happening to you.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 11:51 AM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

The idea of headaches from hunger sounds scary. Just to clarify, are you eating enough rice and beans, i.e. do you have enough food at each meal that you keep eating until you're full? But you still get hungry and headachey in between meals? If that's the case, then I agree, suggestions about adding fats (like cook up an onion in plenty of veg oil before you cook the beans) seem helpful.
On the other hand, if you're making a pot of rice and beans and portioning it out into 1c containers for lunch and dinner so that it'll last the week, you might just not be eating enough food, it's not the fault of the beans specifically. Make up batches of the dried beans in bulk, and enjoy them in bulk.
posted by aimedwander at 11:53 AM on March 30, 2018

If you are in the US, do you live in an area that has Dollar Tree stores (not generic dollar stores, this chain in particular)? They have two items which I find invaluable for this type of hunger-to-feel-full:

-frozen potstickers
-frozen pork tamales

One of those tamales added to a meal of rice and beans makes me feel MUCH more full. A few of those potstickers steamed up and topped with some soy sauce, same.

They also have bags of french-fried onions, which are good as a topping on rice that tends to tell my brain "you are now full" even if I only have a small amount of them. I don't know if any of these products are more calories per dollar, but the combo of unctuous+umami tends to shut down my hunger pangs more than a higher amount of sweet or carb calories.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:57 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Leanne Brown created the Good and Cheap Cookbook for people on food stamps, but there's no reason you can't use it (free PDF is here). It's a $4/day budget but will give you three well-rounded meals.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:04 PM on March 30, 2018 [9 favorites]

Assuming you are drinking enough water protein & fats are going to keep you feeling fuller longer. Eggs are amazing for this, Walmart and your local dollar store should have them cheap. 99c or less a dozen and flexible enough to not get boring.

nthing peanut butter. The dollar store stuff doesn't suck.

If you get headaches, try to drink some fruit juice, kool aid or even sugar water mix, to get your blood sugar back up.
posted by wwax at 12:11 PM on March 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Pearl barley is very filling and can be mixed with virtually anything, whether sweet like fruit or savory like meat. Turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas are also very cheap. They can be mashed and buttered like potatoes and taste pretty good. Corn is quite cheap. You are going to need protein so buy eggs. I get mine for less than a dollar a dozen. They also have filling fat.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 12:13 PM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

In another thread, I mentioned a simple, cheap rich food: pasta with blue cheese and egg. In a pan, heat some cream and slowly melt some blue cheese in it. Meanwhile, cook some pasta. When the pasta is ready, add some of the water and all of the pasta to the cheese mix, and one raw egg. Stir vigorously, then eat. This is very filling.
Now you have blue cheese and cream that don't keep forever. Since you don't mind eating the same, you can just repeat until you get bored, but there are other options:
If you have an oven, you can make a pizza with potatoes and blue cheese for variation.
You can cook pasta and make a sauce with bacon, peas and cream (and maybe blue cheese, but only as a crumble in place of parmesan)
You can cook sliced potatoes in the oven with layers of butter and seasoning to taste, pour cream over the whole and bake till the potatoes are soft.

When I mentioned aubergine/eggplant recipes above, it's because they can hold a huge amount of oil, which you need for calories. They are also delicious and ok-cheap. You can use eggplant as a substitute for meat in almost every dish, it costs much less and is very healthy.
posted by mumimor at 12:28 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing shopping at Indian, Arabic, and other ethnic grocery stores. Lentils of all kinds, rice, canned mackerel, veggies and all types of noodles are super cheap.

I grew up in a developing country, and families who couldn't afford an extensive variety of groceries would eat meals of rice, lentils cooked in a little milk and oil, and canned mackerel sauteed in a pan with a little canned tomato paste. Tasty and nutritious.
posted by Everydayville at 12:33 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

where do you live? at least in my area, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, New Seasons (regional) have free samples during the daytime.

scarfing a whole tray might make you persona nongrata, but grabbing an extra toothpickful while making yummy noises has usually (if anything) got me positive attention.

not necessarily a full meal, but definitely an acceptable afternoon snack, and more exciting than eating my own cooking.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 12:36 PM on March 30, 2018

If you end up getting any of the vegetables that folks mention, don't forget to save the trimmings/peels/skins etc to make vegetable broth. Put them in a container in the freezer until you have enough that you want to cook. (Same with fish or meat bones.) Free food!
posted by CiaoMela at 12:49 PM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another vote for yogurt, specifically plain, whole milk yogurt -- Trader Joe's has some good options. Top with bananas and granola for breakfast or dessert. Speaking of dessert (and Trader Joe's), don't pass up the dark chocolate! It's good for you, and a square or two after a meal helps you to feel full.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 12:59 PM on March 30, 2018

I agree with flour, peanut butter, oil, etc, but here are some other healthy options

Bananas are 656 Calories Per Dollar based on 61c per lb (they are 49c here)
Grapes: 130 Calories Per Dollar (based on $2.41, but they are $1.99 here)
Oranges: 215 Calories Per Dollar (based on 99c/lb)

so - if you can eat all that - that's 1000 cal for $3. An average man needs 2500 calories to maintain weight but you'd probably feel decent on 2000. I'm sure you can make up the other 1000 for $1 given the foods on gregr's list. $4/day = $28/week = $121/month. Is that doable?

I'm guessing the birthday in your profile is a joke but if you're actually a minor you absolutely should be able to get help affording food. Call 211, see if there's a social worker at school, something.
posted by AFABulous at 1:25 PM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

For bread, sourdough is even cheaper than regular homemade bread. Once you have a starter going, all you need to add is flour and water to have all kinds of bread things.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 1:35 PM on March 30, 2018

It's counter intuitive but don't go so much for high calorie count, go for volume. Right now you should focus on controlling the feeling of hunger, which means that quantity supercedes quality. Of course, when possible get greens and vitamins if you see them on sale, but right now you need your body not to starve.

Even if you literally drink oil, the volume will still be too small, and your stomach will feel empty, and that will cause hunger pangs, headaches and general woozyness. At one point you might see floaters or get dizzy. This is your body starving. Ive been there before (I skip meals a lot because I tend to hyper focus). You need bulk and regularity.

So yes to potatoes, popcorn, beans, rice etc. Go for several smaller meals a day so you will never have an empty stomach. Bananas are great to fill up if you can afford them. Now that the warm weather is coming, you can make no-knead bread. 1 bag of flour at around $2.5 will make you 6 loaves of bread, which again, volume.

The effects of a carb heavy, nutrient poor diet are manageable in the short and mid term. Starving has much more immediate effects.

My husband faced starvation as a refugee. I will ask him for tips but I do know bread and potatoes saved him and his family. Sure they were a little malnourished, but they were alive and not miserably hungry.
posted by Tarumba at 1:48 PM on March 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the tips. There is a wealth of info in this thread so far. This is great - I really appreciate it.

I'd prefer to not say my exact location, other than I'm in the southern US.
posted by item at 2:02 PM on March 30, 2018

You can get to 300 calories or more per dollar or more eating off fast food dollar menus. I'd imagine it's the same with gas station food. A Costco polish and soda are ~400 calories per dollar and you don't have to be a member. Healthy wasn't a requirement.
posted by cnc at 2:13 PM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh and don't forget you can always go dumpster diving!
The first time is weird but then it's fun.

Whole Foods dumpsters are a favorite if you can get there. Google dumpster diving +your city and chances are you will find specific resources with schedules and " reviews".
posted by Tarumba at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Potatoes and milk are both considered complete proteins, with all of the 9 essential amino acids so that is probably a good place to start. Eggs are too but I know that can be hard to swing on a budget.

I'd also nth the fat thing--fat is pretty much the most satiating macronutrient because it induces a sense of fullness then delays the onset of hunger because fat takes longer to digest and that delays stomach emptying. Plus it is calorie dense of course, and your body uses it for all sorts of good stuff. If you can get cheap olive oil that would be good because it tastes a little nicer, but I know where I live (not the U.S.) it costs about $7 a bottle for even the shit stuff.
posted by BeeJiddy at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2018

Not just what -- but where. Do you have a friend with a warehouse store membership? Buy in bulk there. There are also warehouse stores that don't have memberships, and "odd lot" retailers that take in things that are close to expiration. Check out any local bread bakeries, they'll often have a day-old store next to the bakery that will have a surprising selection of things. Also look up any local food distributors and see if they have outlet shops. There's a lot of places to buy staples in quantity that might take a little research to find, but should pay off very well in dollars per calorie.

And yeah, look for high quality proteins and fats for nutrition, fill in the calorie corners with low glycemic starches, and be sure to get a reasonable amount of fiber to keep things moving -- a half-dozen dried dates a day (which should be under $2/lb) can make all the difference.

ETA be mindful of scurvy if you have to skip fresh veg/fruit for months.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:44 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

As the weather warms up learn what edible fruits grow around you for free vitamin C. You may be able to find wild mulberries, raspberries, crab apples (sour but edible and you can stew them with free sugar packets from the coffee shop), etc.

McDonalds junior hamburgers are like $1.50 if you eat meat, and when you order, you can also ask for extra mayo, and a couple of butter and mayonnaise packets on the side for a little bit of tasty fat to put on top of other foods. Coffee creamers too.

Can you return bottles to make a few extra bucks a week?

Around closing time, a lot of coffee shops toss out unspoiled food that they can't sell the next day. Befriending a barista at a Starbucks or similar might get you some free end of day sandwiches (just be subtle about it, because due to food poisoning liability they're not really supposed to give away expired food- but lots of individuals will totally do it under the table). If you loiter out back near closing time and quietly ask for anything expired, you might get lucky.

If you feel comfortable telling friends, you might get some hookups. I drove home from a baby shower the other day where lots of leftover food was going to be tossed- I would have been more than happy to pack up a big tray and make a delivery to a food insecure pal! People will often share if they know there's need.

Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:12 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Jack Monroe’s blog might be of use - the recipe prices are based on UK supermarket prices, but for the majority of ingredients the US is not going to be that much more expensive.
posted by tinkletown at 3:27 PM on March 30, 2018

Do you live somewhere where oranges grow? In my neighborhood (in California), a lot of people have orange trees in their backyards that they don't actually harvest and they are happy to share. Eating oranges can help keep your blood sugar up so you don't get headaches/shakes (and the fiber makes it healthier than juice). Good to get the micronutrients from fruits and vegetables along with basic calories. If you have a yard, you could also plant a small vegetable garden.
posted by pinochiette at 3:50 PM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I came to add, my local grocery chain has some really cheap store brand items. Like the big 4 sleeve thing of saltines for 89 cents. Sometimes big blocks of cheese also go on sale so that could be a good pairing.
posted by Kalmya at 4:05 PM on March 30, 2018

Here are the basic foods of Nicaragua, from what I can tell. They're really good at calories per dollar here.

It's common to eat a lot of rice & beans (black beans are more nutritious than the red beans preferred here), grilled banana, shredded cabbage (sometimes with a little beet or carrot) in vinegar, onions & peppers in vinegar, eggs (scrambled or fried), and maybe a slice of barbecued cheese. (meat)

Snacky-type dishes (fried plantain chips, for example - I'm told you should fry them yourself, because it's cheaper to do that than spend $0.33 for a bag of them) come with the vinegary shredded cabbage on top, and/or the onion & peppers. Cabbage is important here.

Cabbage will give you micronutrients. Those are good for not getting headaches. It will also give you fiber, which is good for feeling full.

Today, dietitians agree that plant foods should comprise the major part of the healthy human diet.

If you walk into a grocery store and force yourself to spend $10 on cheap produce, you'll walk out with a TON of food relative to pretty much anything else in the store you could have spent $10 on. Source: cashiered in a small grocery store.
posted by aniola at 4:21 PM on March 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Cornmeal mush— you can eat it as a grain or a hot cereal, you can fry it in slices, it’s sweet or savory as you like it. Boiling water plus cornmeal. Not masa— cornmeal.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:48 PM on March 30, 2018

Mix canola oil into your rice and beans for extra calories, and consider rice and lentils instead. Cheaper and doesn't require soaking.

Also, Chinese grocery stores often sell fatty scraps for $1 a bag, and each bag is typically a couple of pounds. You can either make rich meaty broths with them, or render them down for lard and crackling.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:50 PM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thru-hikers, who count their food by calories
per gram (rather than calories per dollar) pack olive oil to bulk up the caloric content of their meals. Oils are pure fat, which is as calorie-dense as food gets. Butter works too, obviously. (It just doesn't pack well for hiking.) So get yourself some olive oil or butter (butter is probably cheaper) and add a generous portion to your rice and beans. A stick of butter is over 800 calories. People who trek in the Arctic (where they burn up to 5,000 calories per day) will cram down entire sticks of butter with their meals to help keep their weight up.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:10 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you walk into a grocery store and force yourself to spend $10 on cheap produce, you'll walk out with a TON of food relative to pretty much anything else in the store you could have spent $10 on.

There is no chance this will provide as many calories as other things in the store, which is part of why we have an obesity epidemic. OP needs calories first so he doesn't starve.
posted by AFABulous at 5:17 PM on March 30, 2018 [16 favorites]

A lot of people are recommending oil, but margarine and lard might be cheaper. Lard is traditionally cheap, but it might be an expensive foodie thing now. In the documentary Living on One Dollar, the filmmakers aren’t able to figure out how to get enough calories on one dollar a day until their neighbors in Guatemala teach them to cook with lard.
posted by FencingGal at 6:19 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here's a $45 a month menu to feed 6 people: I've tried it. It works.

If you're already doing the bean and rice thing, then you need to add fat, like everyone is saying above. Another tip is to shop at ethnic groceries. I find the prices are much lower, because you are not paying to shop at a Premium brand store.
posted by xammerboy at 9:13 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oatmeal with Grape Nuts is really filling. Add a spoonful of maple syrup (or even Log Cabin or other maple-like syrup) and brown sugar, which lasts a long time for how cheap it is. The Grape Nuts add texture and interest and they’re extremely calorie dense.

Bisquick for pancakes and waffles, or make your own batter with the basic ingredients (flour, sugar, egg, milk, etc).

Are you able to spend a few bucks on a multivitamin? If you have to stick to a fairly homogenous diet out of financial necessity, a multi will provide many of the nutrients you wouldn’t otherwise get. I know that when every dollar counts, it’s painful to spend anything on an item that doesn’t fill you up, but still. I think it would be a worthwhile expenditure.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:29 PM on March 30, 2018

People watching their waistlines or blood pressure are often advised to stick to the outer perimeter of the store, where the “real” food is (fresh produce, meats, dairy, and really anything close enough to nature to be perishable).

You are not those people, you definitely don’t want to snack on celery, and you sure as hell don’t want to buy ten bucks worth of it just to watch it rot in your crisper. Preservatives are your friend right now.

My advice for you, then, is the reverse: the outer walkways of the store are lava. Stick to the core for optimal calorie/satisfaction-density, notably:
  • Pasta, which will keep much longer than fresh-baked bread
  • Tuna and peanut butter for protein, as mentioned above — again, better shelf-life than whatever’s at the meat counter, and loaded with satisfying oily goodness
  • Frozen ready meals — skip the ones advertised to dieting women (calories aren’t that low but portions are insultingly small); aim for the ones targeting working-class families (all servings are for you!)
  • Box dinners once in a while, watch for “manager’s special crap why is no one buying this” sales
  • Cheap high-preservative bread to put your peanut butter and tuna on
  • Broth or bouillon cubes
  • Store-brand cheese/butter/mayo on sale, to ensure that you move through the tuna and the bread
  • Indulge if you can in canned fruit in heavy syrup (compare varieties!) to ward off scurvy
  • If your jurisdiction doesn’t yet penalize it with extra taxes, some nice brand-X soda pop
  • Creamy condensed soups, or similar — stuff that sticks to your ribs and reassures you
  • American cheese if you’re like me and can actually abide it; cooks up nicely in the hearts of those greasy knockoff crescent rolls
  • A few seasonings you really love, generic or “ethnic” label — I love that weird “Golden Curry” the Asian markets always have, it makes anything good.
The only exception to the no-perimeter rule might be potatoes...but again, do a little cost-benefit analysis: can you really work your way through that $4 10-pound bag of Idaho russets, or will half of them be sprouted before you find an agenda for them? If you’re a good cook, go for it; if you’re like me, some dehydrated mashed potato flakes will have a much better ROI even if the actual cost per unit/calorie/satisfied belch seems higher than the “whole” version.

Oh, and sodium/potassium. The former will be easier to get. Do not skimp on the latter. But overall, do not be afraid to shop like a poor kid in the late 1980s.

And hey: I can tell you don’t live in my town, so I can’t direct you the church pantry I give to. (My parish, big bunch of social justice hippies. Seriously.) If the local Catholic diocese is having a hard time keeping up with food pantry demand, check in with the Episcopalians or the Lutherans or the Unitarians or the Mormons or the United Methodists. Lots of areas have no-questions-asked hot meals at local schools in the summer months, and community gardens, too.

I’m also a survivor of eating disorders and I can tell you the headaches are common but not really OK and you just shouldn’t have to deal with that.

posted by armeowda at 10:14 PM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just a note that the Hillbilly Housewife plan has prices from 2003. So while it’s good as far as nutrition goes, the budget is wrong. (And it claims $45 a week for 4 people, not per month.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:47 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Girl Called Jack/Cooking on a Bootstrap is a blog that was started because the author was going through the same thing. There are a ton of recipes on there, broken down by cost:
posted by aquamvidam at 6:26 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Use more oil in your cooking. Cheap canola oil runs about 6,000 calories per dollar if you buy a gallon jug at Walmart. If you sneak an extra two tablespoons of oil per day into your food, you will add about 250 calories to your diet and it will literally cost you less than 4 cents a day. The health benefits of olive oil vs canola oil are debatable (they've actually got very similar profiles) and certainly not worth paying 5x the price.
posted by drlith at 6:50 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh wow. There really are some great suggestions in here. It seems like it's common to find articles telling you how to eat healthily on a budget and the advice y'all are giving is exactly what I'm looking for - how to stay full on a budget.

I should clarify: I'm not getting hunger headaches on the regular - it's only happened occasionally (actually, it's happened occasionally for most of my life). I was just curious as to methods to prevent them from happening. I also have a life-long essential tremor that's exaggerated by hunger/low blood sugar (among other things), so this will help stave off the shakes too.
posted by item at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fat and protein I think are the missing pieces - chicken thighs and medium ground beef are the cheapest meats I can think of; is there any way to set aside a little money for when these go on sale? There’s an app called Flipp that can let you know where the cheapest in your neighbourhood are. Dollar stores have canned sardines, salmon, and tuna.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:33 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I spoke to my husband, who has been in your situation before, and he confirms you should try to spread your calorie intake over as much volume as possible. During the war his mum would always prioritize baking bread (in their case white flour was a luxury, so they did eat whole grain bread only, which he kind of hates as a result).

So yeah don't go for calorie efficiency (like granola bars or anything that concentrates high calories in small volumes), but go for starches primarily and whenever possible add protein and fats, but that's secondary. If you want to try dumpster diving you could focus on supplementing the starches. I once scored a box of expired beef jerky (use common sense interpreting expiration dates).

Also try to distribute your intake into three meals at least. My husband said two meals is sustainable only if you're sleeping in between the meals. Otherwise you'll get really hungry, less productive, and won't be able to focus.
posted by Tarumba at 8:38 AM on March 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Excellent advice from armeowda! I just wanted to add you can freeze fresh baked bread and have one loaf out at a time. Just let it cool down to room temperature, bag it and put it in the freezer. Defrosted homemade bread is perfect and delicious!

If you see bread or any baked goods on sale at the grocery store, try to stock up and freeze (there's usually a rack with reduced stuff- bread, donuts, cakes) - they will be good as fresh upon thawing.
posted by Tarumba at 8:48 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

In your rice and beans, consider switching to soy beans. They have more fat and more complete protein than other beans. If you have a blender, you can also make tofu and soymilk).
posted by Frenchy67 at 10:28 AM on March 31, 2018

If you find a good deal, milk and cheese can both be frozen. I happened to be in the grocery store a few months ago when they announced over the PA a flash sale on ½ gallons of whole milk. They'd accidentally ordered a few hundred too many, and were selling them for a quarter as long as supplies lasted. I picked up a dozen and stuck them in the chest freezer when I got home.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:49 AM on March 31, 2018

Whoops! Sorry, I had it in my head that it was $45 a month, not a week! Anyway, there are some really good meal ideas in that menu. I like rice and beans, but you have to have some variety if you're going to eat cheaply for the long haul.
posted by xammerboy at 11:24 AM on March 31, 2018

Another suggestion would be to buy frozen vegetables. They're just as nutritious as fresh, or even more so, because they're frozen when picked. I usually buy a chicken, boil it, and make the broth into a soup. Boiling the chicken makes it easy to remove all the meat.
posted by xammerboy at 11:30 AM on March 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know how common they are in the states, but here across the puddle if you head over to a farmer's market at closing time, you can usually ask the sellers about the stuff they're throwing out: food that didn't sell because it's bruised/was dropped/is a bit overripe etc. also, bakers tend to sell stuff cheaper at closing time. I hope things look up for you soon.
posted by speakeasy at 11:42 AM on March 31, 2018

If you get headaches, try to drink some fruit juice, kool aid or even sugar water mix, to get your blood sugar back up.

I definitely get headaches with low blood sugar. Next time you have the opportunity to get a cup of coffee, maybe grab some extra sugar packets to keep on hand.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:29 PM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

In season where I live the winter keepers are the least expensive produce: Cabbage, turnips, carrots, onions and potatoes. Basically you go through the produce section ignoring everything that is sold per piece and looking at the per pound price. I set myself a maximum which is usually two dollars or three a pound because we are doing well and don't have to squeeze the budget until it screams. However I am in a different country not the Southern US so you will want to figure out what the cheapest per pound price is and work your way up from there.

You can do the same thing in the meat section. Many stores have a weekly special on meat that is extremely low because people decide where to shop based on that. Check the flyers on line to figure out which store carries the three or four cheapest by the pound items to base your week's shopping on and go to that store. You might find chicken legs the cheapest meat in town this week, so you go there. If your budget allows use the per pound price of the third cheapest produce or meat as your maximum. If you can't go that high, use the cheapest. If you use the bone for flavouring and calcium then getting bone in meat is not a loss of protein.

Then look for your cheapest source of grease. In my area margarine is usually cheaper than any other grease, including bottled oil.

Then you go through the frozen food section and check the per pound prices on frozen vegetables and fruit. In my area frozen fruit is never cheap enough to get, but big bags of no-name frozen corn, peas and mixed vegetables are good and cheap. If you don't have a freezer a medium sized bag of corn niblets or other veggies will last four or five days without any fear of spoiling in the fridge.

Then hit the starch sections and look for pasta, rice, beans, peas and lentils. Only buy them if they are below the per pound price. Ideally you will want to make a mixture of these when you cook - rice and beans, or rice and lentils, or beans and niblets. Also check out cooked cereals and baking supplies such as flour and oatmeal.

El Cheapo tea in bulk is usually the cheapest way to flavour water. It might be worth putting the el cheapo orange pekoe on your shopping list if it makes tap water drinkable for you. I would advise against frozen fruit concentrate, which is your cheapest source of fruit juice as it is mostly sugar. Since it has been processed the vitamins in it are just additives, the same as eating a vitamin pill. Frozen fruit punch concentrate is even worse. However in some places lemon juice is also cheap and a few drops of that in water might also help you to drink it.

Cooking your extremely cheap meat requires some finesse. It is usually extremely greasy, which means it can make the meal sickly. I like to roast the meat until it is just barely cooked, then put it in the fridge so that the grease will rise, and then skim it off and save it in the fridge for flavouring for bland starch meals. Any remaining liquid that boiled out of the meat is nutritious and flavourful. You can also boil your cheap chunk of meat and put it in the fridge broth and all and then skim it off the top of the broth when it hardens. The meat is removed from the bones, if any, and the bones simmered in a little water to make broth. A cup of broth with a slice of onion and a quarter of a carrot boiled soft in it is not at all filling, but it is so inexpensive it makes a decent between meal top up and adds some interest to your diet. If you roast your meat see if you can brown the grease in the bottom of the roasting pan and then de-glaze it to get more flavour for your broths.

Basically, learn to cooking if you don't already know how. It is often mostly a matter of paying attention rather than just slapping something in the microwave.

Items like hot dogs are flavouring. They may be very cheap but they don't have much actual meat in them. You'd be better off with chicken thighs if you can get them for a comparable price. If you want flavouring look for big packages of spices, especially in ethnic stores or sections. A large bag of curry will be the same price as a discount spice jar of curry, and a pinch on the rice can make a nice difference.

Don't forget to look at the expiring but not expired produce. There is often a bin. Then compare how much of a package is salvageable to make sure it is below your per pound maximum. Items like this frequently require immediate cooking. You might, for example find celery and tomatoes and mushrooms. These will make either vegetable soup, or go into a pasta sauce.

Canned food can be deceptive because of the amount of liquid. Before you buy anything like canned beans or pasta give the can a good shake. If it makes a slopping gluggy feeing you know it is has a lot of fluid in it and will not be really filling. Canned goods on special are worth checking out however. Stewed tomatoes can go in a lot of different recipes.

A habit to get into is always putting a small bowl of peas or beans on to soak, ready for you to cook them the next day.

Bacon is often cheap and you can sometimes get bacon ends. In this case bacon is very much a flavouring. Once slice of bacon can make a dish of beans taste good or go in a split pea soup to make it nicer.

There are outlets that sell stale baked goods. They sometimes sell in two categories "Day old" and "Bird bread" The bird bread is not unlikely to be mouldy, so check for that before you buy.

Try to save up a cushion of spare grocery money so you can start to buy in bulk. When you can do this you can end up with a reserve in the house which is good for a feeling of security, and more variety in your diet which can help a lot with the depression from having few food choices. When you first do get a tiny bit of leeway in the budge buy something that you will use sparingly and which will last such as a bottle of cinnamon, or a bag of curry powder.

To use less oil toss your vegetables in the oil before you roast things like potatoes and turnips and cook them at first with a lid, only finishing them with a high enough heat unlidded to brown them. Try and develop a taste for potato skins and carrot skins and apple peels.

If there are any in bulk sections where you can shop check them out with your by the pound maximum. Sugar will probably be within your budget but is one of the last flavourings to resort to, as it is the one flavouring that has no nutrients in it. You want to go for nutrient rich foods if you can. For this reason sugar and white starches should be limited if there is any way to do so without missing meals.

If you have good friends or siblings who can afford it check if they would be willing to host you for a dinner once a month, as a social event. Four friends will add up to once a week. Also check out free church suppers or free coffee and a muffin events that would be fun rather than an arduous way to get free food. Some churches require attendance at a service and listening to a sermon. Others just want to get you fed. There are sometimes such things as free coffee and cookies after regular services so you might want to attend a church that does this, for the community as much as the cookies. Sometimes coffee and a muffin events are held at libraries and other social centres and if these are interesting you they can be a first choice in entertainment.

Another thing you can get from friends and family are things like sourdough starter - and thus not have to buy yeast to turn flour into bread, or borrow one of their appliances like a hot air popcorn popper.

If you can keep plants and can score some live herbs those can be helpful for flavouring the boring starches. Oregano and chives are two that do well with snipping and then you can tell that you flavoured your rice. Basil is another like this. Mostly you will want stronger flavoured spices over weaker ones. Salt will be your number one flavouring agent. Chervil is likely to not make a difference where as cayenne will easily make you certain you're not eating plain boiled rice. A mixture of grease and spice flavours much more than just spices or just greases alone. Vinegar is another cheap flavouring that you'll notice when added to things. If you buy pickles when they are on special, or olives remember the flavouring possibilities of the liquids they come with. You can change the containers they are in once the pickles or olives are gone so that they you don't think of them as just left over pickle juice but a bottle of sweet dill vinegar.

If you regularly see something you have never bought at below your maximum per pound price - say sauerkraut or cornmeal, look up some recipes on using that, or try and sample some elsewhere to see if it is something you want and can deal with. Cornmeal can be made into polenta, or into Indian Pudding with the addition of squash. Chowder, made mostly from potatoes but with a little frozen bulk bought fish whitefish that was bought on special can be nice, for example. You can make it with margarine, and a little lemon juice or vinegar and start by frying the fish before you add little cubes of boiled potatoes. It can be made with just water, or if with a can of stewed tomatoes you can call it cioppino if milk is too much for your budget.

Check out industrial sized cans if you have freezer space. You might be able to score an industrial sized can of fruit cocktail and freeze it in portions after you open it. Tomato sauce is another one where this can be practical.

Sometimes community centres and churches offer cooking classes on how to cook things cheaply. Look for a food purchasing club, where you bring them $10 and a huge shopping bag and they fill it for you, buying wholesale. Also look for local websites, and facebook, as there can be a support group that reports the cheap deals in your area.

Most people can afford the cheapest eggs, if only occasionally. To avoid feeling deprived when you serve yourself just one egg see if you can serve multiple items in a meal like this so that you get one egg, a sprinkle of chopped raw onion, and an eighth of a cup cooked frozen green beans with your rice, rather than throwing the onion and the beans into soup later. Very cheap colourful jam makes a nice garnish on cream of wheat or tapioca or rice pudding. Just one teaspoon on the centre of your oatmeal every morning, or one teaspoon of brown sugar can make it feel dressed up. A big jar of very cheap strawberry jam will last a long time when used like this. It's not going to give you any vitamins or anything but it will be a bright spot in your day.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:42 PM on May 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

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