Since we just moved into a new apartment this month, I’ve been slacking on grocery budgeting. Our fridge shelves look roomy and the potatoes, yogurt, and leftovers that do occupy the shelves are so decayed they look like science experiments gone awry. While I’m going through my fridge and tossing out unfortunate tubs of yogurt, I’m also thinking about how my husband and I will set up this new home, and what our food budget might be like. I’ve budgeted for food in the past, I’ve learned much from friends, and the future is looking frugal and scrumptious. Here are a few of my plans and recipes.
Plan #1: Cultivate a basil plant (and maybe other herbs, too).
Buying a potted herb not only brightens the kitchen, but also saves money. I can pull off a leaf or two when I need it, and the plant continues to grow. If I do need to buy fresh herbs, I’ll freeze the herbs I don’t use up (there are always more in a package than the recipe calls for). Chopping them up, adding a little water, and freezing them in an ice cube tray works well.
Plan #2: Buy a whole chicken.
The price per pound is much less, I can make stock from the scraps, and there is usually some meat left over to freeze. I can save up scraps for stock as I go, and I freeze scraps of celery, carrots, and onions whenever I’m chopping them so that the stock is ready to go. The Joy of Cooking has a great section about how to cut up a whole chicken, complete with helpful diagrams. Seeing diagrams like this and chopping up chicken has also changed the way I think about meat. It’s hard not to think about how the slippery and tough but fragile carcass was once a live bird. It makes me want to use it carefully, and sparingly, not just for my household’s frugality, but for the sake of living things themselves. Its bones are not too different from mine. I want to respect that and use it responsibly.
Plan #3: Make as many things myself as possible. Whenever someone else does part of the cooking or butchering for me, I know I pay the price at the check-out line. Thus, whenever feasible, I’ll make my own bread, my own pizza dough, my own pie crust, my own taco seasoning, and hopefully soon my own applesauce. I’m always up for trying new do-it-yourself solutions, but I’ve had a few small disasters, too. My own hummus is never creamy enough. My home-made yogurt stays runny. But I’ll keep trying.
Plan #4: Set aside meal-making days. With the radio or a CD playing or a friend to share the enterprise, an afternoon of meal-making goes by quickly and fills the freezer with go-to meals for busy days. This takes some experimentation, but I’ve found great recipes for fried rice and baked ziti that have become freezer-ready standbys. A meal-making day can save time in the long run, too, because I can have, say, a salad-spinner out and use it for five different veggies before it hits the suds and gets put away, rather than washing it five times.
Plan #5: Read recipes carefully and assess what we like. I feel defeated when I’m on a strict budget and recipes don’t turn out’or when I try a new recipe that leaves us gagging. Case in point: I attempted a new recipe that involved both pasta and Yukon gold potatoes. For some reason, I thought this sounded delicious. It tasted like Grape-Nuts doused with pasta sauce. And it made enough to serve the state of Rhode Island. We ate it for two dinners and then we couldn’t do it anymore. From this experience, I have learned that maybe I should look at a recipe and ask the following: 1. OK, I love pasta, and Yukon gold potatoes make tasty hash-browns, but do I really want to mix the two? 2. And by the way, will my husband like this? 3. And how many nights will we be forcing this down the gullet if it doesn’t turn out? A dash of the new usually benefits the household menu, but on a budget, I need to proceed with caution.
Plan #6: Compromise frugally. Too many dinners of disastrous experimentation or predictable platters and we head for Chipotle. A little Chipotle or a pizza now and then won’t break the bank, but it helps if I make meals that we actually like at home! On rushed nights, a good compromise might be a ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken (usually under $5) with a nice salad.
Plan #7: Make these recipes: I’ve been making huevos rancheros regularly since we first got married. It’s easy on the budget, a good mix of protein and fresh ingredients, and it’s quick. We don’t use up the whole package of tortillas for this recipe, so we might need to have tacos before the tortillas become a casualty at the back of the fridge.
- Corn Tortillas (1-2 per person)
- Eggs (1-2 per person)
- Cheese (jack or cheddar), shredded
- Mix-and-match Ingredients:
- Tomatoes, chopped
- Avocado, sliced
- Green onions, chopped
- Peppers, chopped –
- Black beans or kidney beans
- Toast the tortillas using a toaster oven or skillet. Keep them warm in the oven, wrapped or covered with foil.
- Cook the eggs the way your family likes them. Traditionally, huevos rancheros eggs are fried, but I turn them into a tiny omelet.
- Assemble small portions of egg on tortillas and top with cheese. Place them on a baking sheet in the oven until cheese melts.
- Pull them out, top with desired ingredients, and serve.
A friend sent me this recipe recently. We ate it once with grilled cheese and a few nights later with cornbread. Delish! After that there was still enough left over that I froze the rest. I unfroze it in batches and it has been the perfect comfort food for rainy fall days.