eating healthy on a small budget
December 9, 2003 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Hope this isn't too stupid: I want to eat more healthy foods. I have a very small food budget. Any ideas? [more inside]

I don’t like mushrooms or eggplant. I prefer not too eat much meat. At the moment, my diet is very pasta and convenience food oriented, and I’d like to get away from that, but I’m kind of stuck in terms of what to do. I live alone, so most recipes make entirely too much—I eat a couple of evening meals, take leftovers for lunch a few days, and then whatever is left sits in the fridge and evolves.
posted by eilatan to Food & Drink (42 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Is preparation time a factor?
posted by nickmark at 11:33 AM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: I'd prefer quick and easy, but if it's really good, I don't mind a longer preparation time.
posted by eilatan at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2003

I simple stir-fry should do you nicely for a few days. Personally, I experiment with different combos of vegetables.
Here's a common list of what goes in:
Olive Oil
Bragg's Amino Acids
whatever produce looks good at the store
and I usually use some kind of soy product too (although troutfishing says it's shrinking my brain!)

My advice is try your best to stay away from the convenience foods and foods high in sugars. I'll let others address the carbs/protein stuff.
posted by anathema at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Go vegan. Despite massive subsidies to the industries that produce them, dairy products and meat are some of the most expensive items on the average grocery receipt.

An incredibly cheap and delicious vegan recipe:

1) Cut up several sweet potatoes, yams, onions, carrots, and regular potatoes into bite-size chunks. Use more of the ones you like best.

2) Stir them in a little bit of olive oil and a few shakes of rosemary, thyme, black pepper and oregano ("italian seasoning" will do).

3) Insert several peeled galic cloves here and there (smashing them makes peeling easy and releases more flavor).

4) Put in a casserole dish or foil-covered pan and bake at 400 degrees for 35-45 minutes.

5) When everything's golden brown and soft, drizzle some honey and sprinkle a little soy sauce on top.

Stir. Devour. Keeps well. It takes around 45 minutes to bake but the prep is really easy and the ingredients will keep for a few days until you have time to get to them. Make a buttload at a time and eat hearty for a week.
posted by scarabic at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2003 [7 favorites]

Since you're on a limited food budget you should try logging every penny you spend on convenience foods. My guess is that at the end of a few weeks you'll be shocked by the amount.

To add to the above: Any leafy green vegetable is going to be good. Things like Kale are extremely good for you.
posted by anathema at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

One of the easiest and cheapest healthy things I do is a habit that's pretty easy to pick up. Every time I go to the store, I pick up a head of lettuce, some brocolli, celery, carrots, and cherry or grape tomatoes. Once I'm done stocking all of my food at home, I'll dig out the cutting board and chop up all of the ingredients, stick them in a big sealable container, and toss it in the fridge. It only takes about 10 minutes, and you can get a good 3-5 good sized salads out of it. The cherry and grape tomatoes are good because you don't have to slice them and therefore they won't wilt your lettuce. It's also easy to do a fruit salad this way, but if you pour a little orange juice or squeeze a lemon into it, it'll keep the fruit fresher for longer.

A little bit more advice: If you don't have a toaster oven, get one. They're the most convienent machines in the world for a bachelor(ette). A big meal I'm on right now is getting some decent cheese, grating it, and slicing up some roma tomatoes. Toss it on some bread (something wheaty and grainy if you want the health benefits) and pop it in the toaster. A warm sandwich will satiate your appetite much more than a cold one will, and they're damn good.

Also, teach yourself that it's okay to go a little bit hungry for a little while. Your body will adjust fairly quickly (five or so days) and you'll crave less food. This has the added benefit of making your meals that much more satisfactory and tasty. And like all behavior modifications, don't be afraid to indulge and reward yourself periodically. It'll keep you from getting burned out and binging.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:59 AM on December 9, 2003 [3 favorites]

Oh, I love it. I'm a recent convert to the joys of kale. I crave it all day long.

I'm a raw vegan (yes, one of those orthorexic people) and kale salad is something I eat almost every day. It makes me strong, like Popeye.

Kale Salad

rip a large bowl full of kale to shreds, taking out the hard center ribs
add a chopped avocado, very ripe
add a chopped up tomato
add a generous squeeze of lemon
add some celtic sea salt

Wash your hands well. Now take handfuls of the ingredients and molest them. Yeah, baby. Squeeze them and mash them and blend them and totally make them your bitch. You want to break down the kale and make it nice and limp. Limp is good. Now invite me over. Then we can eat it! Yum!
posted by iconomy at 12:04 PM on December 9, 2003 [5 favorites]

eilatan, is an absolutely stellar site. They have a "Good for You" section that you can browse, or you can find recipes by ingredients, meal or course. The recipes are rated, and the great thing is that you can choose how many servings you want the recipe to calculate for. For example, here's a recipe for Chunky Vegetarian Chili (5 stars!) calculated for a single serving.

You can use the drop down menu to search only for veggie recipes or low-fat or low-carb, and you can choose "25 minutes or less" and then throw in the main ingredient that you want to use in the search field, and you'll get a big ole list of possibilities. This site rulez!
posted by taz at 12:08 PM on December 9, 2003

Think dried beans, greens, big batches of soup, and small amounts of highly flavoured meat for flavoring (e.g., a little chorizo sausage in kale and white bean soup). Shop at bulk food stores - find one that isn't gimmicky and overpriced, but has a good turnover rate to ensure freshness. Remember that the freezer is your friend: make big batches, and freeze them. Risotto, as per trharlan, is good stuff. Squash risotto is even better. If you feel like meat, get a brisket or a flank steak - very flavorful, cheap cuts that are tender when prepared properly.
posted by stonerose at 12:09 PM on December 9, 2003

The main challenge is that convenience foods are, well, so convenient, and planning and preparing meals is time-consuming and something that not everyone enjoys.

Be more aware of what is in convenience foods you are eating and track how much you are spending on them. Take the time to read lables, and keep a log for a month of what you are spending on food, and learn about what you are eating.
posted by tranquileye at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2003

And what stonerose said. Bulk good, freezer good.
posted by tranquileye at 12:15 PM on December 9, 2003

I've spent a good deal of time over the last year getting to know the wide world of meat substitutes, so I can cook & eat with my vegan GF. Tofu is, IMO, the least appealing of the bunch, and lots of the "faux ribs" etc on the market are really nasty. I can safely vouch for all of the following, each of which is going to be cheaper pound-per-pound than meat, healthier for you, and better for the environment. They can also provide the protein that otherwise-healthy vegetable stir frys lack. Enjoy!

1) Seitain
My personal favorite, this wheat-gluten product has a fibrous, layered texture which really makes it feel less like gelatinous tofu and more like meat. It responds to a variety of seasonings, and is especially good in stir-frys. I buy it in sealed plastic pouches, in bite-size pieces.

2) Tempeh
Made from cultured soybeans, tempeh usually has a more nuggety texture, and a nuttier flavor than tofu or tempeh. It often comes in round or square patties. Not surprisingly, it's great in stir frys, but I also like to blacken it in a dry pan until it's toasty, and then cut it right up and eat it. Reports of deep-frying it are positive.

3) Boca Burgers
Boca is particular brand name. Their original boca-burger is a combination of soy protein and wheat gluten, and is vegan. The taste is something like an actual flame-grilled hamburger pattie, but the texture is lighter. These are often sold cheap at major-chain groceries. You can even find them at Cosco. I like to pan-grill slices of them, drizzle with barbecue sauce, and serve as sloppy-joes. Stir-fried with onions then mixed with baba-ganouj and seved in a pita, they make an excellent shawarma, too. Stocked in the frozen aisle.

4) GardenBurger's Product Line
GardenBurger is also a particular brand name that has traction with traditional grocery chains. I am not a big fan of their original product, but they have quite a diverse line of simulated-meat products that are absolutely delicious. The "pork" Riblet is pure meaty delight, the Herb-Crusted Cutlet is savory and delicious, and the BBQ Chicken is uncannily like a chicken breast (though not vegan). Look for this stuff in the frozen aisle.

All of these are essentially heat-and-serve. You should be able to eat any of them raw, and many are microwaveable. Very convenient, with fewer bacteria worries than meat.
posted by scarabic at 12:17 PM on December 9, 2003

do you have a market nearby that sells fruit + veg? that's usually a source fo cheap + healthy food. you can make "salad" from almost anything - some boiled potatoes, broccoli and a salty goats cheese is really nice (eat it warm with bread and a dressing (for me, that means vinegar (wine or cider) and olive oil - i don't know how americans can eat that toxic tasting stuff you get across up there). (olive oil is pricey, so don't use it for frying, just for dressings).

when i really can't be bothered i open a can of tuna and mix the tuna meat with mayonaise to make a sandwich filling. add tomato slices.

there's nothing wrong with pasta! if you're sick of tomato sauce, try pesto. it's pricey, but you only need a little. or if you can find small packs of cream, try cream and bacon (or cream and just about anything!). personally i'd rate even that "healthier" than convenience foods.

here, avocado are a great buy in season. make any salad better and are also good spread on bread. but i live in a country where avocado are pretty cheap :o)

well-made rice is delicious all on its own, but you can have it instead of bread with whatever random veggies you have lying around (just fry em up). (for good rice, fry some onions first in the pan and leave them in; then follow the instructions on the pack exactly - don't add any more water and leave on a low heat til "dry").

[on preview - someone mentioned beans. cook a bunch of lentils til kind-of done. then drain, rinse, add tomatoes and fried sausage (any decent sausage, cut into pieces) and cook some more. make a big pile and freeze/reheat.]

[and talking of freezing/reheating - make a big batch of veggie curry (veggies, extra tomatoes, curry flavourings, that coconut stuff, potatoes, whatever) and freeze in portions. curry gets better the older it is!) (or go posh and follow some real indian food recipes ;o)]
posted by andrew cooke at 12:23 PM on December 9, 2003

I shop and cook once a week. I make a big salad, hardboil some eggs, and bake or roast some meat, and usually make a dessert. Also I make a two or three week supply of veggie/bean first course type thing (such as a casserole) or breakfast muffins. I freeze what I'm not going to use that week.

Breakfast is muffins and milk. Lunch is salad, an egg, sometimes soup from a can or packet if it's a hungry day, and a piece of the cake or some of the cookies I've made. Supper is either a serving of casserole or a serving of meat and those frozen mixed veggies.

It's not perfect, but for about four hours shopping and kitchen time and $25 a week, it's not bad either.
posted by orange swan at 12:31 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, and I snack on fruit throughout the day.
posted by orange swan at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: Oh, I know what I'm eating. I'm eating a bunch of crap food. My girlfriend's been on my case about eating better, and, well, my clothes have started to not fit so well. But I don't want to go on a diet *specifically* to lose weight. I want to modify my eating habits to be more healthy because it's better to be healthy than not. I don't like to label foods--or types of foods--as being good or bad, but I feel like I need to change the sorts of foods which comprise the bulk of my diet.

And, um, greens scare me for some inexplicable reason--probably because I've never really had them. I'll try kale, though. There is a year-round farmer's market near me, as well as a couple of roadside produce stands, but I've always sort of assumed that fresh produce is out of my price range (I shop at the cheapest grocery store in my area, and their produce is pricey). I'll look this weekend, though, and see what I can get.

I've gotten some really good ideas. Thanks. :)
posted by eilatan at 12:38 PM on December 9, 2003

Ufez mentions the Toaster Oven. I'll chime in for a steamer. Perfect for making veggies of all kinds and perfect rice. Comes with a little manual that tells you how much time to steam for. Just drop in the food, pour in water, set the timer. Ding! You've got great food cooked in a healthy way. I recommend this cheapass Black & Decker model, which has been doing me right (used almost daily) for 3 years. Currently less than $20 at Amazon. Amazing.
posted by dobbs at 12:39 PM on December 9, 2003

brown rice.
posted by Hackworth at 12:42 PM on December 9, 2003

Scarabic, that sounds great. I also recommend a rice cooker/steamer. It really helps with prep time, and if you make brown rice instead of white, it can be pretty good for you as well.
posted by greengrl at 12:55 PM on December 9, 2003

eilatan, you've mentioned your local farmers' market. Go, and I think you'll be surprised how affordable locally-grown produce can be. And if you have some time to give ad want even cheaper food, ask the farmers if they have a work program on the farm or if they'd be willing to trade a couple hours of your labor for fresh vegetables. I'm a vegetable farmer myself, and I don't think I've met another farmer yet who wouldn't make that trade with an eager, responsible customer. And those of you who don't know who your local farmers are, is a great place to start looking.
posted by ewagoner at 1:16 PM on December 9, 2003

SMOOTHIES are my not-so-secret. Milk, peanut butter, low-fat ice cream, bananas, protein powder. Then you can add a little simple syrup (my favorite flavors are strawberry and vanilla) and toss it in a blender. It will carry a good 450 calories or so in a 16 ounce shake. Without the syrup there really won't be much flavor, so I recommend it. Good luck!
posted by vito90 at 1:30 PM on December 9, 2003

Speaking as a non-vegan here -- if you want to keep some meat in your diet buy meat in bulk, partition it up into small portions, and freeze. Then you'll have an easy way to add a bit of meat to whatever you make ... stir-fry; stews; as part of a rice dish, etc. "Eating healthy and cheap" doesn't mean completely eliminating meat from your diet (if you don't want to).

Also, buy a cheap, small crock pot and learn how to use it to make soups, hearty stews, etc. I love being able to put water, veggies, and meat in the pot when I leave for work and come home 8-10 hours later to a hot meal. Plus, then you have something for lunch the next day!

Learning to "brown bag it" was one of the hardest things I ever learned to do. I always thought it was too much work; made it but forgot to bring it, etc... But now that I do it (maybe four days out of five), I've saved a ton of money and I'm eating better.

PS: Greens scare me, too!
posted by anastasiav at 1:45 PM on December 9, 2003

Chickpeas! chickpea and pasta salad, humus, jary. If you buy a big bag of the things, dried, you'll have to be quite organised and soak them ahead of time, but you'll have incredibly cheap but quite filling food. Bean salad: soak some beans overnight, boil until soft (or cheat on this bit and buy canned beans) then mix with chopped spring onions and parsley (lots) and a dressing made from crushed garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.

All kinds of soup (if you have a blender or food processor) can be made very cheaply: especially carrot & coriander, spicy parsnip & other types of tarted-up vegetable soup. Soup is much easier than you'd expect if you've never cooked it, as well. Less healthily, but a good way to bulk out some sausages into a meal is Toad in the Hole - a good meal when stodge is what you really need.
posted by calico at 1:54 PM on December 9, 2003

Lentil soup costs almost nothing, lasts a long time in the fridge, and is very tasty/healthy/nourishing. Toss a bag of lentils into a pot with water, garlic, celery, onion, spices, any other veg you've got hanging around. Simmer it up, toss in a can of chopped tomatoes, and feed yourself on it for a week. Or package it up into single servings and freeze for a good work lunch.
posted by bonheur at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2003

I think the key thing is to get away from convenience foods and cook from scratch. Fish is something that is nutricious and very quick to cook (season it, sqeeze some lemon on it, and bake). Another easy thing to do is to cook up a big batch of tomato sauce and freeze it. Then all you have to do is boil up some pasta and warm up the sauce.
posted by gyc at 4:21 PM on December 9, 2003

french lentils, in particular, are nutty and delicious and they don't get mooshy as easily.
posted by scarabic at 5:10 PM on December 9, 2003

You can put anything + cheese in a quesadilla and it is yummy.

Also, wraps are flexible. Rice + anything can be a good start. Rice + chicken + a simple peanut sauce + wrap == yummy.
posted by john m at 5:30 PM on December 9, 2003

I also eat meat and try to do it pretty cheaply. My list of tips copies some of the ones above

+ learn what makes a complete protein. Mac and Cheese= yes couscous and pilaf = no. proteins help your brain work better and keep you from being hungry. I'm no Atkins fan but too many carbs [pastas, breads, potatoes, all the cheap stuff] will go through you fast and not give you energy.

+ save stuff, make big meals and invest in some tupperware or other storage stuff. Here is a good generic soup recipe. find some greens/veggies you like, make a ton of soup and freeze/fridge it. same is true for stews, rice dishes and big hunks of meat [which is cheaper than small hunks]

+ stop eating out. this is generally less healthy and more spendy. make a deal with yourself and your girlfriend to limit the amount of times you eat out. we go once a week. this is easy in Vermont, possibly less easy where you live.

+ go easy on cheese and meat if you cook at home, use it more for accent than main course. get a big hunk of chicken breast and portion it into freezer bags and add it to all your brown rice dishes or whatever. seems more like meat to the meat inclined but w/o all the fat/cholesterol. big meat with bones and whatnot is often cheaper. learn to debone chicken.

+ watch what you drink. beer is expensive and not that great for you. switch to hard alcohol and drink less. wine with meals &c. juice beats soda, tea beats juice, water beats tea.

+ don't deny yourself everything, find stuff worth spending the extra cash on [in our house it's good cheese and good coffee] and allow it but try to shop cheap, or bulk or get-a-big-one-and-freeze-half with the rest

+ make your kitchen a place you want to be. Invest in some good tools [like the ones mentioned above, I'd add a juicer maybe and a good set of knives] and make it a place worth being in -- cooking takes time but it can be pleasant time.

+ cookbooks -- tell people you are into cooking and they will have recipes, cookbooks and website advice. I like recipe source -- food from all over, lots of different variations, no ads.

+ breakfast -- part of sane eating is eating something for breakfast, even if it's just an english muffin or an apple

I also don't like greens. I've been trying to learn to like spinach.
posted by jessamyn at 6:04 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Rather than any specific recipes, I would recommend picking up vegetarian "college student" type recipe books, since they're expressly geared toward those of us with small budgets and little time/patience/spare brain cells. Veggie recipes are great because you can always toss in meat or make the dish a side to chicken or whatever. My two personal favorites are (simply titled enough) the Student's Vegetarian Cookbook: Revised and The Starving Student's Vegetarian Cookbook they're no Joy of Cooking, but they'll get you started!
posted by nelleish at 6:38 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Many people have said some of what I would've - I'm also a major fan of kale, and I grew up absolutely hating, loathing anything greener than iceberg lettuce (it was Ohio, after all). That said, some people find raw kale to be too bitter. I don't, and iconomy obviously doesn't, but you might want to try kale steamed or sauted (with minced garlic) first - if you cook it for just about a minute, you'll see it get very deeply green - stop right there and remove it, sprinkle with some lemon, maybe a dash of salt. Delish.

The thing about greens is that if you're trying to eat healthier and not gain weight, they give you the best bang for your nutritional buck. As Joel Fuhrman explains, you should be choosing foods that offer the most beneficial nutrients per calorie - that way if you eat the same amount of calories you'll get more nutrition than otherwise, and conversely if you get the same nutrition, you'll be eating less calories.

Oh, and garlic is healthful and not very expensive, especially if you use it in the amounts most recipes call for. Myself, I usually substitute "head" for "clove" and still have never found anything to be "too" garlicky. But that may be just me.

One other tip is that if you have an Asian neighborhood in New Castle, try to find a good Asian grocery store. If nothing else, they'll have cheap bulk tofu, which is a rich protein source and can be made palatable depending on the context. But they'll also have some interesting vegetables, usually at good prices. Good luck!
posted by soyjoy at 7:10 PM on December 9, 2003 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So many great suggestions! I feel like I should tell you all what I *do* have--I do have a toaster oven and a decent amount of tupperware--I do need more, though. I have a great set of knives that I adore using. I have a good skillet and two good saucepans. I've already pretty much cut out all alcohol because of the price. Sigh.

My big expenses in terms of convenience foods are breakfast stuff (generally pop-tarts or some variety of oatmeal bar--it has to be something I can take to work with me because I never have enough time at home to eat breakfast), and sodapop. Caffeine seems to be essential for my brain to function at work--I do a lot of work with numbers, so I have to be sharp. However, I got by today on a cup of hot tea and one soda, so maybe I can switch to hot tea fully, which is a lot cheaper than soda.

I'm a bit of a weirdo when it comes to pasta: I don't really like sauce, so I tend to eat it with just butter and maybe a little bit of cheese if I have any. Not particularly healthy and probably one of the most unhealthy things I do eat. If I did put tomato sauce on the pasta, I cold at least pretend I was getting a vegetable.

I have a few cookbooks here: the latest edition of the Fannie Farmer, the first Moosewood (the one by Mollie Katzen with the delicious gazpacho recipe), something called Recipes 1-2-3 (three ingredient recipes) and The Vegetarian Epicure.

I think what I'm going to do is try to find some good hearty soup recipes, some casserole recipes, and learn to like eating the same thing for a week. And freezing what I don't eat instead of letting it evolve in the fridge. And eat more salad. And fruit. And drink more water.

My grandmother is sending me a gift card for Christmas to purchase a small kitchen appliance with (I'm in the midst of replacing all sorts of stuff--life's been bizarre for the last year and a half), so I think I'll get either a steamer or crock pot.

on preview: soyjoy, I'm not sure if there's an Asian market around here or not. There may be one up in Wilmington (I live near the Del Mem Br), but I've only been here for about a year and a half and I'm still learning my way around.
posted by eilatan at 7:24 PM on December 9, 2003

Eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, very little meat, and nothing that is not fresh. Drink water.

I'm not surprised at the length of this thread, but it's really really simple.

Eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, very little meat, and nothing that is not fresh.

Indulge yourself occasionally by eating or drinking something out of a bag, box or bottle (like 17 beers, for example), but be aware that it's almost certainly not going to be good for you.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:47 AM on December 10, 2003

Lentils, lentils, lentils. Can't say it enough.

Occasionally when kielbasa is on sale I cook up lentils and sausage-cook the lentils, add a small amount of tomato sauce, a bay leaf if I have it, then chop the sausage up into pieces and let it all simmer.

Rice is your friend too. Actually you can make up a bunch at one time-if you do stir-fried rice it is actually recommended to use day-old cooked rice. Having tried it, I agree.

Oh and for breakfast, make friends with peanut butter on toast. Filling and quick.
posted by konolia at 4:24 AM on December 10, 2003

I make lentils often, in so many different ways, and konolia, you're going to think this is pretty funny, but it's perfectly true: I read the bible story about Esau sellng his birthright to Jacob for a "mess of potage", and then somewhere (I think, maybe the WholeEarth recipe book) found out that a "mess of potage" was a simple dish of lentils, which I tried to recreate with only lentils cooked with onions, and then mixed with rice. It's still one of my absolute favorite dishes, anytime, anywhere. Espcially when accompanied by some nice, fresh barely cooked bitter-ish greens, with lemon and olive oil. Yum.
posted by taz at 4:59 AM on December 10, 2003

My favourite winter comforting-but-still-healthy recipe, and it freezes well

8 oz. Shell Macaroni you can even substitute with Elbow pasta.
1 lb. chopped spinach (i use fresh, but can use frozen too)
1 can chopped tomato sauce (or for more zing, use salsa)
8oz. cottage cheese which is ricotta
8oz. cream cheese - softened (I use 'lite')
1/2 cup - 4 oz. Sour cream
1/3 cup chopped green onions

Cook Macaroni. cook spinach in a skillet and add tomato sauce or salsa.Remove from heat. Combine cheeses, sour cream, onions and green pepper. Spread half of the shells in a 2Qt. casserole dish - cover with the cheese mixture. Add the remaining pasta. Pour spinach tomato mixture all over it. Bake at 350 for 40 mins. or until bubbly. Serves 6/8
posted by darsh at 6:21 AM on December 10, 2003 [3 favorites]

I fought the battle of needing to take something with me to work for breakfast (or else buying it on the way) for years, but I've finally found a good and healthy solution. I've got a nice solid thermos that I make oatmeal in every morning. All I have to do is fill it up about halfway with 'old fashioned' (i.e. not quick oats) oats, add some flavoring items (I'm stuck on honey, myself, and often vanilla or orange extract) and then fill up with boiling water, stir and close. By the time I get to work I've got oatmeal. Mmm... oatmeal. I finally have a satisfying breakfast without shelling out for heart attack on a bun. And the prep time is seriously minimal. I usually start prep at 8:00 and am out the door by 8:14. I'm usually still getting dressed and getting my shit together at the same time.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:49 AM on December 10, 2003 [2 favorites]

Grains in general are great. If you can find it, quinoa is both easy and quick to prepare, plus it's very versatile and a great source of protein. It can go in soup, be made into dessert with soy milk, honey and raisins or replace rice in a stir fry.

As for appliances, I think that a pressure cooker is a MUST. It's one of the best ways to make meal preparation faster and easier. I can now make really yummy risotto thanks to my pressure cooker. All my attempts without one have ended in disaster (and took hours). There's a great cookbook to get you started too: Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure.

Oh, and a rice cooker is great too! We eat a LOT more rice now because we don't have to worry about burning rice on the stove.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:03 AM on December 10, 2003

I second all of the recommendations regarding buying in bulk, using the toaster oven and crock pot, and cooking large amounts of food at a time, then freezing leftovers. I have just a few additional recommendations:
  • Frozen veggies are a single-person's friend. Almost as much nutritional value as fresh, and better tasting than canned. Also, you rarely have to worry about your veggies going bad.
  • Freezer burn is not your friend. Use good freezer bags, and bag your frozen veggies when you bring them home, even before opening them.
  • Beans are your friends. I like to make a huge batch of beans, freeze them flat in bags, then when I need some, I break off a hunk of beans.
  • Freeze "meal-sized" portions, so that when meal time arrives, you can easily select your food and cook it without succumbing to the pressure of going elsewhere (fast food) for your "nourishment".
And finally: Have a pleasant place to eat your meals. (This is a corollary to jessamyn's suggestion of making the kitchen a pleasant place to cook.) Don't eat in front of the television, which promotes bad eating habits and poor food choices, but sit down at a table, with a nice tablecloth, and perhaps a candle or some other pleasant thing to peer at, and make your dinner a peaceful event that you look forward to. You will be less likely to prepare and eat crap.
posted by Avogadro at 8:19 AM on December 10, 2003 [1 favorite]

Great question and great answers! Before I scrolled through the responses, I was thinking lentils as a staple. They are dirt cheap and can be prepared along with a ton of different flavors so that you don't end up eating the same thing all the time.

Making Indian food is a good way to go, concentrating on protein and flavor. Also, most recipes can be scaled big and used for leftovers. Reheating them at work always makes people jealous.

Soups are a great way to go too for ease in making and also for storage. Making bean soup and freezing individual servings is nice, especially when it gets cool (like into the low 60's here in SoCal). Once you get confident, soups are great for trying new combos and flavors and give you a ton of meaty or meatless options.

Someone mention a crock pot, great idea. Making chili and soups is easy, and using it to cook chicken gives you great, tender meat that falls off the bone.

Speaking of chicken, if you can buy fresh, antibiotic chicken, you'll be well served. It costs more, sometimes much more, so you may not buy as much, but you'll be doing your body a favor.
posted by jonah at 9:11 AM on December 10, 2003

Caffeine seems to be essential for my brain to function at work

I used to drink a couple sodas every day at work, or a soda and a chocolate bar, to keep my caffeine level up because I would notice a big midafternoon haziness if I didn't.

However - and I promise this will be the only suggestion of mine that's about omitting rather than including foods - I found that once I stopped consuming dairy products I was sharper for the whole day, just drinking water. I do still have a cup or two of coffee when I first wake up, but my caffeine intake (and the generally crappy stuff that goes along with it) has plummeted since I got that other stuff out of my system.

And jonah, I'm sure you mean "antibiotic-free chicken," right? The other kind is easy enough to find, after all...
posted by soyjoy at 10:29 AM on December 10, 2003

ooops, um, yeah get the antibiotic-free stuff. Then again, if your medical coverage is weak...
posted by jonah at 2:52 PM on December 10, 2003

Now I'm one of those grumpy people who become intolerable once their blood sugar level gets too low. When I became a vegetarian I had to learn if I was going to cut bad stuff out of my diet, like sugar and caffeine I needed to replace these things with food that would give me enough energy for the rest of the day. I've found that if I don't get enough satisfying food or don't plan my meals ahead I am more likely to give in to the temptation of takeaways and convenience food.

So in addition to the fresh fruits, vegetables and grains message in this thread, I'd say plan ahead. A good breakfast will set you up for the rest of the day. If you eat naughty in the morning, you'll eat naughty all day. Dump those pop tarts. Find a cereal that has lots of fruit in it to satisfy your sweet tooth and stave off those mid morning munchies with a banana. Very good for seratonin levels.

Also be a MacGyver in the kitchen. I think you should develop supreme confidence in your own cooking abilities. Delusional as it may seem it gives you the courage to experiment and the improvisational skills to make do with the raw ingredients available when dough is a little tight. General culinary smugness can take one a long way.

(Er although an inexpensive night class on cooking may also go a little way to improving your abilities also. )
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:35 AM on December 14, 2003

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