In brief: After years of food insecurity and lack of free time from working multiple jobs, I’ve gotten good at cooking with almost no money. As promised, I’m sharing some of that experience and invite you to do the same in the comments.
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I am not a chef. Or a nutrition expert. But, this is not a health and exercise blog — it’s a reality series on attempting to be well enough to function through illness, poverty, and food insecurity.
And so, as promised, I’m going to talk about food from a realistic perspective born out of years grocery shopping at the Dollar Store, making the most of almost nothing, and having to choose between bills and eating. I typically worked (and do work) physical service jobs, running on nothing is a non-option because 90 hours a week on your feet without fuel will land you in the hospital for a very expensive stay that would cost you all of your jobs. I had to find a way to eat on spare change and, while I’m not a triathlete, I’m healthier than I would be if I hadn’t figured this out.
Most of these recipes and advice won’t have meat or won’t have much meat. That isn’t a political statement on anything other than how expensive meat is and since it doesn’t contribute much nutritional value, I was never able to spend my money or my calorie in-take on food that didn’t do something for me. I’m down for ending the way we factory farm in this country because we’re killing the planet and I’d like for my nieces to have breathable air. However. I will not shame people in food deserts, people without time to relearn an entire diet system, people with inter-generational households who’s nutritional needs vary, people who don’t have the greatest kitchens or refrigerators at work to stash lunch/dinner, people who are so exhausted from systemic poverty and work schedules that burdening them with saving the planet on top of trying to provide their families with food tomorrow would destroy them physically and emotionally, or people who’s medical needs and conditions won’t allow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
That being said, almost any recipe or or advice I’ll give at any point can be vegetarian-ized, pescetarian-ized, or vegan-ized to suit your particular needs and/or politics.
So let’s eat.
First: frozen vegetables, potatoes, bananas and pinto beans are your best friends. You can learn to like hot cereal. And soups/casseroles are a cost-effective, quick, portable, re-heatable way to cook for the week on a budget; time to fall in love with them. You’ll need decent salt (you’ll use less of it than the iodized stuff that raises your blood pressure), garlic powder, Lowry’s seasoned salt, and “Italian seasoning” because it’s way, way cheaper and faster than all the ingredients in that one shaker. You can make almost anything taste good with some combination of those seasonings. If you work a physical job, ignore all the Atkins/carb-free nonsense; your body needs quick fuel just to process complex carbs and you’ll be fatigued without rice/potatoes/pasta. That doesn’t mean spending cash on Doritos is a good strategy (as a habit); but your needs are different than the folks in the diet commercials.
I eat two things every day: a banana for a snack at some point and hot cereal. I’m lucky enough to have access to a really great Trader Joe’s where a bunch of stuff is way cheaper than at “box stores” so I get the cereal ingredients there. You should be able to find it where you are. To 1 1/4 cup water boiling, add a total of 1/2 cup mix with quinoa and rolled oats; reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. During the last minute add some brown sugar. What you end up with is essentially the flavor/texture of Quaker Oats instant maple/brown sugar oatmeal, but with protein, iron, potassium, zinc, B-vitamins and fiber — none of which you’ll find with Quaker. Put some syrup on it if you need more sugar in your first meal of the day. Breakfast for the month for about $9.00.
Bananas are cheap. Buy them. Take them with you. They are filled with vitamins that help fight headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, energy deficits, and more.
World’s cheapest casserole: cooked box of pasta (you pick) + jar of pasta sauce (your choice) + 1 cup of shredded mozzarella (mix about 1/4 in and put the rest on top) in a standard casserole dish covered with foil at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Add ons: spinach (defrosted/drained), mushrooms (canned ones won’t shrivel), fresh green vegetable, peperoni/ground beef (for “pizza pasta casserole”).
World’s cheapest soup: always start with the Better Than Bouillon broth-in-a-jar. It’s cheaper than those pellet things, tastes better, and isn’t quite as salt-packed. Also, dissolves better and faster. Soak for several hours whatever mix of beans make you happy, just make sure you’ve got a solid 1/3 pinto beans in there because of fiber, iron, potassium, and B-vitamins. Boil beans until desired softness, drain, and add to broth (instructions on BTB jar). Cook shell pasta and add to soup. Add tomato paste (I like the stuff in the tube because you don’t have waste which makes it cheaper), salt, garlic powder, Italian seasoning and a bit of olive oil. With about $6.00 of these ingredients I can make two week’s worth, so about $0.40/meal. Great with garlic bread!
World’s fastest vegetable soup: BTB broth + soaked to defrost and drained frozen vegetables + noodles. Add chicken if desired. I make my own noodles: 2-3 eggs beaten with a dash of salt and pepper; add flour until tacky; place on flour pile and knead until you can roll it out (don’t over flour); cut into desired shapes (always squares in my grandmother’s house growing up); drop quickly, a few at a time into broth boiling while covered; replace cover and boil 20 minutes. Those noodles are a family staple, super super cheap, and way better for you than the packaged stuff.
World’s best way to get finicky kids and adults to eat vegetables: Stacey’s broccoli bites. This comes from my cousin who is the best at cooking quick and healthy dishes that kids and adults will both like and are easily modifiable. You can use any frozen vegetable. You can add a couple scoops of cooked quinoa for cheap protein. They reheat like a dream and you can make a whole bunch of them at once super fast. They work like snacks or lunches and every type I’ve made so far has passed “inspection” with glowing reviews.
Buy almond milk instead of cow’s milk. It’s better for you, keeps longer, doesn’t have to be stored in the fridge until it’s open, and is basically the same price.
If you have to have soda, invest in a SodaStream and save yourself a ton of money.
Coffee drinkers: buying whole beans and grinding it at home saves money. If you drink en mass like I used to, it’s worth getting a coffee maker that grinds as part of the process. I was a 10+ cup per day drinker and I could get by on a $14 can of good whole beans at Trader Joe’s (Bay Blend) every month because I have a coffee maker that does a good job utilizing beans and doesn’t waste like a standard drip or french press. Hit up Craigslist; people get rid of things for all kinds of reasons and you can probably get one cheap used.
Get a Costco membership if you have one that’s accessible to you and a vehicle. I just discovered how worth this is. Now that I’m the house shopper/cook, I’m on Z’s Costco membership and everything from my allergy meds to the protein bars that get me through the three doctor’s appointment days when I can’t get home to eat between are SO CHEAP. Soap, cleaner, everything. Got kids? Cheap clothes they’ll grow out of anyway. Not everything is sold in bulk. In fact, a whole bunch of stuff isn’t. Including cheap, decent wine and spirits. (Stay tuned for a “broke people deserve to enjoy things too” post on the wine purchasing.) It’s like $50/year and you can put anyone you want in the second/guest slot. So join up with a friend and split the membership. You’ll make the $25 back the first time you shop there.
Fish defrosts and cooks quickly and often comes vacuum sealed in individual portions for single folks/couples. You can get a lot of tuna steaks, salmon, and tilapia for cheap if you find the grocery store in your area that carries it for the most affordable. My fresh veggie (sautéed usually) + fish + rice (arborio is my favorite) dinner costs about $2.50. You can’t do that every dinner on a #FoodStampBudget, but it’s a super healthy, relatively inexpensive meal.
You won’t die if you have the occasional Ramen and frozen broccoli dinner. Your kids won’t die if they have mac and cheese a couple days in a row. Let yourself off the hook. You’re tired; you’re hungry; you aren’t in the mood to think about cooking.
Use a hand/kitchen towel instead of napkins. Stop spending that money. You’ll adjust.
Viva paper towels, folks. You can clean an entire kitchen with two of them. That includes the sink, stove, microwave, counters — everything. They are about the same price as any other name brand paper towel and will last five to ten times as long which makes them monstrously cheaper. (I owe that allegiance to my ex’s dad; I did a lot of his grocery shopping when he was sick and that’s the one demand I rolled my eyes at and had to admit he was right about.)
Frozen fruit is fantastic. Put it on cereal, put it on yogurt, put it in a blender with yogurt and a couple ice cubes for a cheap smoothie. If you work a sporadic schedule that makes fresh fruit an expensive option that you just end up throwing out and feeling guilty about or you’re single and the store sells that stuff in bigger quantities than you can consume, frozen is your solution. You can get a bag of berries, pineapple, or peaches for $2-3 and that’ll probably be an easy 5-10 servings depending on how you eat them.
(So that wasn’t frozen fruit. You made it this far, you deserved some cats in that gif.)
This was probably mind-numbingly boring for folks without food insecurity issues.
Probably they aren’t still reading; hopefully they’ll come back for the next #GetWell2015. This wasn’t for them anyway. Not everyone lives at every intersection included in this series. If you did manage to read through even though you didn’t need the advice, consider your friends and neighbors who do need it. Maybe post this and other articles/recipes like it on your networks to pull some stigma from shopping on limited budgets. You never know who might need the hand.
I know some of you have strategies that have worked for you over the years; I’m especially looking at those of you who have fed a family on a budget, something I don’t have your experience with. I’d love to get enough recommendations and recipes in the comments to put out a follow-up post. (If you want to do so anonymously, you can say so in the comment and I won’t approve it to keep it private; I’ll leave a comment attributed to anonymous or a moniker.)
Also, if you have something you want to rant about, let people know, vent over, or add to the #GetWell2015 project and discussion, just email me: KatieSpeakMail@gmail.com. I won’t be able to cover everything that’s important because I’m writing from a personal perspective and I haven’t been through everything there is to go through. Pitch me or send me what you’ve got — it can be short or medium-lengthed and I probably am not going to ask for edits. I’d like to include some other voices because poverty, wellness, and stigma affect a massive range of people and experiences.
This post is an entry in my year-long project documenting all the messiness and inconvenience and stigma of trying to get well in our culture. You can subscribe, follow, and join in the journey at #GetWell2015 here and on Twitter.