No matter where you are on Earth, certain things drive food culture forward- geography, climate, population, social mores, and so on. Right at the heart of it though, from the salt-of-the-earth origins of cuisines all over the world- from the Soul Food of the Southeastern United States to the multifaceted mosaic of Chinese food- is economics, and the single question every cook asks:
“HOW DO I TAKE WHAT’S CHEAP, MAKE IT TASTE GOOD, AND FEED EVERYONE?”
You can imagine where that went- not only was it expensive, but boring, and ultimately depressing. I’m a baker and cook, dammit! I should KNOW how to make a healthy meal, work out the nutrition, and not suck my bank account dry doing it.
That’s when the internet stepped in to help.
Their show, “Hand 2 Mouth” (tagline, “When you can only afford the internet”) and its evolution “Broke Eats,” had a simple premise- cooking healthy meals on the budget of a broke college student.
Well that’s just kinda perfect.
Starting from the most basic of basics- “How to make rice on a hot plate”- they kept the show going to include making pasta, lentils (a go-to legume for me now), breaded portobello mushrooms, and more. Each episode addressed not just how to make healthy food, but how to source the ingredients cheaply: getting giant bags of stuff that won’t spoil, picking up bruised fruit and veggies, and keeping an eye out for special pricing. One suggestion I DIDN’T really take them up on was saving money on condiments by swiping ketchup and mustard packets from fast food restaurants- I had to draw the line somewhere.
With this inspiration, I finally felt ready to let go of the pre-packaged health food route and make my own decent tasting food, and shop for it all on a budget.
With the excellent advice from Ken in the last entry on eating right, I decided this was a perfect time to offer up my own tips and tricks for shopping for ingredients.
For the pictures and prices, I wandered down to QFC- a mid-level supermarket chain out here on the West Coast. They are part of the Kroger empire- which includes Fred Meyer, Albertsons, and a couple other chains. These are not Whole Foods/ New Seasons/ Natural Grocery prices.
As an disclaimer, all the food I’m referencing here is the cheapest I found on the shelf- usually not organic, and the store/generic brand. If you have a special diet/ medical thing going on where you need to keep your eye out for certain ingredients and processes (i.e. allergies, celiac, intolerances, etc.) then KEEP TO THAT. Going cheap shouldn’t kill you.
For Body AND Bank Account
Remember what Ken said about doing meal prep? That’ll make having a list easier. Think ahead for the week and what kind of food you’d like to have around the house. If prepping for individual meals is too much at once, or more of a time investment than you can spare, consider making a large batch of something that keeps. When I was starting out, I would make big 6-8 serving batches of Beef and Guinness Stew or Ham and Lentil soup. That would keep me in dinners for a full week.
Once you have your healthy and balanced meals worked out, figure out the ingredients you’ll need, add them to the list. Include healthy snacks on there too. Once you’re at the store, DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THE LIST. If it’s not on the list, and it’s not a staple you somehow forgot (eggs, milk, butter, etc.) don’t get it.
While we’re on the subject of kitchen skills- if you’re serious about learning to cook your own healthy meals, you’ll be thrilled to know that some ingredients, like stock and tomato sauce, are remarkably easy to make at home. There is a bit of work and time involved, but besides not having to spend money on so much canned/cartoned stuff, you can flavor them however you want!
To Make Basic Stock
– A whole mess of chopped vegetable bits- ends and scraps work great, especially from aromatic veggies like celery, carrots, parsnips, and onions. Keep a giant Ziploc bag in the freezer to save all these odds and ends.
– Bones/scraps from any meat you’d like to make stock of. (Hey, if you still have the carcass of Thanksgiving’s turkey hanging around, that works great! Throw it in the Ziploc too.)
– A roasting pan, if you want your stock to have a roasted, browned flavor.
– A large stock pot
If you don’t want roasted stock, then simply throw all your odds and ends into the pot, cover with water, and set it on high heat. Let it get to a simmer (small, rapid bubbles breaking on top, NOT a rolling boil), and then turn the heat down to about medium low to hold it there. Cover, and let it go for at least 2 hours.
If you want roasted flavors, especially if you are making meat stock, turn your oven up to 425 degrees F. Put all your odds and ends in a roasting pan, and roast until they are VERY browned and fragrant. If there’s stuff sticking to the bottom of the pan, even better. Right out of the oven, pour water over everything- this is called “deglazing,” and the cold water will shock and pull all that tasty browned stuff off the bottom of the pan! Use a non-metal utensil to scrape it all off, then pour everything- water, scraps, scrapings- into the stock pot, and continue as above!
For A Basic Tomato Sauce-
– Fresh tomatoes (or canned, if it’s not the season)
– Fresh herbs (especially thyme, basil, parsley, and oregano)
– Garlic (sliced or minced)
– Crushed red pepper
– Salt and pepper
– Whatever else you like in tomato sauce.
First, peel the tomatoes: boil a small pot of water, and prepare a large bowl of ice water nearby. Cut a small “X” in the bottom of each tomato (not too deep- you’re just slicing through the skin) and drop them in the boiling water. Wait about 2 minutes, and then fish them out and drop them straight in the ice water. The boiling and the swift temperature change should make the skins come off easily. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and set the tomatoes aside.
A quick something to remember- we’re still thinking about economics here, and not EVERYTHING is cost-efficient to make at home. Butter, for example, can be made at home- and it’s delicious. All you need is cream and a mixer/food processor. Unfortunately, beyond the time involved, it simply IS cheaper to buy a pound of butter than to get a pound of heavy cream and render it down into slightly-less-than a pound of butter at home. For more examples of what should and shouldn’t be made at home to save money, look up “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” by Jennifer Reese– another excellent book.
If you look closely at the price tags on grocery store shelves, you’ll see there’s usually two or three different prices: the price for the item itself (usually the big number, what you’ll pay at the register,) sometimes a “unit price,” or what the store paid to get the item as a bunch, and then the “price by weight.” Sometimes for stuff like toilet paper, it’ll be “price by foot” or for eggs, “price each.” This tells you how much the item is for how much it weighs.
For some boxed goods, like breakfast cereals, you might also compare their prices to the number of servings in a box.
Freezers are awesome machines. Used properly, you can get bulk amounts of perishables and keep them for when you need them.
Meat, in particular, is pretty expensive- and unless you’re deciding to unlock Super Hard mode by going vegan on top of this healthy eating thing, you’re probably going to want to get some.
Take a look at the price tags at your market’s meat department- sure enough, they have a price by weight too.
If you feel up to it, and you have the chance to get a good deal, you can buy a large cut of meat and then butcher and freeze it at home. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the portioning yourself, some butcher counters will cut the meat, fish, or whatever for you- often for free, if you ask. Keep an eye out for if the label says “previously frozen” though- if it does, you don’t want to freeze it again! Freeze fresh stuff only.
Fish from the freezer section can be great, too- especially for portion control!
As far as vegetables go, you can totally buy frozen veggies to make preparing easier- or to avoid crap veggies when they are out of season. Just be sure to read the package carefully- no additives, seasonings, sauces, or preservatives. A bag of broccoli should be 100% BROCCOLI.
Oh yes, it’s VERY convenient- and full of crap to make it last in the freezer forever, and expensive as sin for food you could make easily- and better- at home.
Happy shopping, and
P.S. A pro-tip from a couple who knows their own tendencies- don’t go shopping for ANYTHING on an empty stomach! It’s a strange psychological trick- when you are hungry, you will be craving, and EVERYTHING will look delicious to you. Save money and have a little snack first.
P.P.S. If you want to go really hardcore on saving money (or you have no idea what you want to eat,) most grocery stores will have coupons or their weekly sales up online, and you can plan out your meals and list from that!
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