I’m not a college student anymore, but honestly my budget doesn’t look too much different from your usual broke student (thanks, student loans). Not only that, I don’t have a meal plan or a dining hall anymore either. I know there are a lot of people, not only students and recent graduates like myself, but people in all walks of life that are trying to feed themselves on a pretty (or very!) restricted budget. Let me say something right now: McDonald’s is not the answer!
The Dollar Menu can look really tempting when all you have to spend on dinner tonight is $7, but I promise you your body will thank you if you get a little more creative and find ways to stretch your dollar and still eat healthy. After all, the greatest wealth a person can have in life is their good health, and eating healthy on a budget is possible. So here are some great resources and tips I’ve found for you, my fellow broke grocery shoppers:
1. Start cooking from scratch.
This is the most important tip of all. This is the foundation upon which cheap and healthy eating is based! Even if you’re someone who has barely ever made even an omelette, you can cook. It won’t be Parisian gourmet, but by following some simple recipes anyone can learn to cook. Flip through a few cookbooks, get an idea of the kinds of things you like, and then search for recipes! The book Good and Cheap is a good place to start (and it’s free).
2. Stock up on staples.
There are a few foods that you should always try to keep around, in relatively large quantities. The good news? They’re really cheap. These are things like rice, beans, lentils, flour, olive oil, and vegetable oil. Depending on who you are, peanut butter could also reasonably be called a staple.
You should also try to keep some of the most common spices called for in recipes on hand. It might be expensive in the first place to buy spices, but once you have them you wont have to restock very often. These are spices like cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, and garlic powder. The next tip follows in this vein:
3. Make your seasonings from scratch.
You really don’t need to waste your money on those little packets of pre-packaged taco seasoning, thai spice seasoning, or what-have-you. Generally, those mixes are easy to make yourself with the same spices you keep stocked in your pantry, plus a few others. Check here for recipes for some common seasoning mixes you can easily make yourself.
4. Substitute uncommon/expensive ingredients with cheaper ones.
Sometimes you’ll come across a recipe that looks really good, but it has one annoying ingredient that either you suddenly realize you don’t have, you’ve never heard of, or costs $10 and you’re sure you’ll only use it once. That doesn’t mean you should scrap the idea of making that recipe entirely, instead you can just substitute that ingredient with other, more common ones. Here are some useful ideas for common substitutions.
5. Make large quantities and freeze.
In general, it’s cheaper to buy things in larger quantities. But if you’re like me and you only have a couple of mouths to feed, it can seem silly to buy or cook things in large quantities.
Until you do it, freeze the leftovers, and realize it’s the best idea ever. Because what happens in life is that some days you really just can’t cook. You’re too tired, you’re feeling sick, or maybe you don’t get home that day until 11 PM. Whatever the reason is, there is just now way you’re cooking that day.
If you’ve cooked large batches of meals and frozen them, you’ll have your own healthy freezer meal waiting for days like those, and you won’t even consider the 24 hour drive-through. Some good ideas for food to cook in large batches and then freeze are chili, lentil soup, burritos, pasta sauce, and casseroles.
6. Join a food co-op.
This isn’t something I did, but a friend of mine did when she was living in New York and something like 80% of her income was going just for rent. She was able to eat super fresh fruits and veggies and get spices and dry goods in bulk, all with a discount. Not every city has food co-ops, but if yours does, consider joining. In most co-ops, members have to trade a certain amount of work for their member discount. Usually non-members can still shop and the co-op, but without the discount.
7. Plan your meals ahead of time.
This is also a golden rule of healthy eating if you’re working with restricted funds. It sounds a little Mom-y, but it can help whether you’re an 18 year old student or a mom of six.
If you plan ahead, you’ll realize that with some creativity you can stretch one meal across a couple of days. For instance, if you have grilled chicken one night, you can have chicken salad lunch the next day and use the chicken leftovers to make stock for soup. Or if you have chili one night, you can use the leftovers (plus some veggies) to make tacos.
Planning your meals a week or two ahead of time will also help you when it comes time to shop for groceries. With a meal plan in hand, you’ll be able to clearly see exactly what you need to get, and you won’t come home with a lot of ingredients that looked good and won’t fit together into any coherent recipe. I’ve done that way too many times.
If you’re not sure how to get started planning your meals, here, here, and here are some free meal planning printables that can help you out. Honestly, I just write our meal plans down in my calendar, but do what works for you!
8. Check out these recipes and resources.
My number one recommendation is to check out the cookbook by Leanne Brown, Good and Cheap. She wrote the book with the goal of creating a resource of cheap and healthy recipes that would cost less than $4/day. I’ve made some of her recipes, and they’re delicious. You can get the book as a free PDF here, and also check out her site here for more recipes.
BBC Good Food also has a good collection of cheap and healthy recipes (the prices are all in pounds, but the idea is the same!) here. And to give you an idea of just how frugal you can be while still eating balanced meals, here’s a meal plan for family of 4 – 1 week for just $26. It is possible!