A Guide To Eating Well Without Spending A Fortune

Recently, Dave left the following comment in response to my discussion of an ultra-frugal May:

I’m really curious about your meals; I easily spend $400 to 600 on food a month — for just me! Please give us some more details about the food aspect; what did you eat? What did you buy? I’m really interested in more ideas about meal planning and eating well without spending a fortune. And yes, I eat out a lot.

I spend far less than $10 a day on my own food and I eat quite well. There are several things I do to keep my spending this low.

First, I taught myself how to cook well. The biggest frustration that people have when learning to cook at home is that the recipes that look delicious in books, when tried at home by a person without much practice, usually take forever, are confusing, and often don’t turn out all that well. The problem is that most people jump into the deep end of the swimming pool without learning how to swim first – if you’ve only prepared eggs at home a few times, beef burgundy is going to seem like a nightmare that you don’t want to repeat.

Cook AllAs I discussed before, if you’re not real adept in the kitchen and even fairly simple recipes seem challenging, pick up a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. This book starts off with the absolute basics of technique (the first recipe is how to make popcorn, which is about as easy as can be) and also includes a lot of recipes that were designed to produce good food and also slowly teach technique as well as you go through the book.

It’s going to take practice, and you’re going to mess things up a few times, but that’s fine. An intuitive sense of how to cook in a modern kitchen is a skill that is incredibly valuable, as it can save you money and impress people over and over and over again, and it’s something that anyone can learn.

Once you get started with teaching yourself, you’ll soon find that you need to outfit your kitchen. There are simply some tools that you need and a lot that you don’t really need (especially when you start).

First, stock your kitchen with staple foods. This will probably be a $40 bill at the grocery store (depending on your specific choices, of course), but as you delve into preparing food, you’ll find that you keep using a small assortment of things over and over again and you’re better off simply having them on hand at all times.

Next, get some quality cookware for your kitchen. Do not – please, for the love of God – go out and just buy a big box of cookware for $99 at Target. You’re better off spending that $100 on two or three quality items that won’t frustrate you time and time again. I made this mistake when I first started out and it almost led me to give up until I tried a few true quality items. I usually recommend the nine-piece hard anodized Calphalon set for those who have nothing in their kitchen, but spending that much on a set just to get started might cause some people to panic. If you are really lost, read my guide to getting started with kitchen equipment. I’d also take a look at the art of slow cooking, especially if you’ve got a family.

Once you’ve got the skill and have the equipment, then it’s time to really start saving money and also increasing the quality of your food. The big step here is to start a garden; you can start a basic one even in an apartment. A couple of tomato plants with adequate sunlight can provide tons and tons and tons of tomatoes, for example. I’d also learn about local farmer’s markets and just seeing what they have available. Around here, I can usually score some stellar deals at farmer’s markets, especially in the summer.

Another technique is to prepare lots of meals in advance, burning an entire weekend day to do this. Just get lots of baking pans and Tupperware dishes and do all of the food preparation in them on one day, then stick them all in the freezer. Then, on a busy day, you can just yank one out, toss it in the oven, and it’s ready to eat an hour later or so. I do this with lots of foods – for example, I tend to make batches of 36 breakfast burritos at once, Saran Wrap them, freeze them, then yank one out about every other morning to start my day off right with a delicious item that’s relatively healthy (after all, I know exactly what’s in it).

Eventually, you’ll find that it’s often convenient (and it saves money) to prepare significantly more food than you’ll eat in one sitting and then eat the leftovers. For most people, leftovers is a four letter word, but it’s usually because they don’t know how to really make them pop. There are several tricks to awesome leftovers, but the biggest trick is to add more herbs and spices before reheating or else completely remixing the meal (using leftover spaghetti as the basis for a casserole, for example).

When you’re doing most of these things, you’ll find your food bill dramatically decreases by a few hundred a month, and you’ll wonder where all of the money came from.

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  1. originalgeek says:

    You’re spot on about buying quality cookware. When I first moved out, I purchased a set of Revere Ware because my grandma used it. 20 years later, when the Revere Ware was looking pretty grubby, and combined with my nutritionist’s recommendation that I get some non-stick cookware, I decided to pick up a $200 set of Circulon (hard anodized cookware) at Costco.

    The difference is amazing. The new cookware provides more evenly distributed heat. Because of that, I burn things a lot less. The saucepans are wider and lower, so the contents heat up faster. The non-stick surface on these pans not worn a bit after two years, of course I have handled them with care by not putting metal instruments in them, even when the pans are in the sink. I get the reduced fat benefits of being able to use a cooking oil spray instead of (or as a supplement to a lower quantity) of cooking oil.

    I also recommend the use of a vacuum sealer for packing leftovers. I don’t have the time to cook and plan a meal every night, and large quantities of food would spoil on me before I could eat them. I use a Foodsaver vacuum sealer, and make single-servings of food and store them in the fridge and the freezer. I usually microwave them to re-heat, but definitely poke a hole in the bag to allow expanding air to escape. I also found a third party on Amazon that sells knock-off bags for a fraction of the price that Foodsaver charges for their bags. Also, this particular third party makes a 1-pint bag, which is perfect for a single-serving meal.

  2. tiffany says:

    More strategies:
    * Look at how much you’re spending on wine or beer. When I buy, I tend to buy two bottles at a time which can add $20 – $40 to a grocery bill.

    * Buy and consume less meat. Do you really need to eat *TWO* pork chops for dinner? Eat more grains and veggies. Bonus: it’s healthier and you’ll (probably) lose weight.

    * Learn how to make a kick-a** pot of chili. It’s usually better the next day anyway, so you won’t mind eating the leftovers.

  3. Rob in Madrid says:

    HI Trent I was in the exact boat as Dave it seemed that I my wife and I spend much more on food than anyone of our friends that had large families to feed. The way I cut my shopping bill in half was by doing two things.

    First a detailed shopping. this is a must (your post on that was a huge help). This forces you to actually think about what your buying. I realized I was buying loads of food that I never ate, half the fruit and veggies I bought got thrown out. For example I stopped buying peppers because we usually didn’t eat them (normally I’d buy 3 or 4 and throw them out when they went bad) The first time I went shopping with a good list I walked out of the store with less than half the items that I bought the previous week. It felt like sooo weird a half empty shopping cart!

    Secondly and much more importantly I only go once per week shopping. This limits the impulse purchases. I used to do the once a week big shopping plus several trips to the store to pick up things I wanted.

    What will happen is you will be forced to eat what is in your fridge. First week I did this I ran out of eggs and cheese rather than rushing off to the store I simply ate something different. Savings 10 bucks or so.

    One other thing I do to cut down on my shopping is to buy the cheapest of each and every item and then work my way up the food chain till I find things I like. I buy no name toilet paper but Heinz is the only ketchup you’ll find in my fridge. I was able to replace 75% of the brand names with no name cheaper products.

    This along with knowing your prices cut my shopping budget in half. That’s money that I didn’t have earn!

  4. boomie says:

    Check out top quality but inexpensive cookware from Wolfgang Puck. It’s the same as All Clad stainless steel for 1/4 the price. A 6 piece set from All Clad could cost you over $800 while a 10 piece set from Wolfgang is only $149! Consumer Reports rated Wolfgang’s stuff the best! You can buy Wolfgang Puck off of HSN.com or sometimes get pieces at a discount at Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx. You can even get his knife set (on par with Henckle?)for $39 at a discount store.
    Check him out. Wolfgang Puck rocks!

  5. Jeff says:

    Another good source for finding good cookware is your local kitchen/restaurant supply shop. Most medium-sized cities have them (e.g. in Sacramento, we have 4 or 5).

    Alternatively, on Fridays, Amazon usually has a housewares sale and they sell Calphalon items among others at substantial discounts. Of course, there’s no sales tax and shipping is usually free, too.

    I’ve also become a big fan of Le Creuset cookware. They’re cast iron so retain heat for long times, can use the lids in the oven so you can brown meats on the stove and then add liquids and put in the oven without changing to another cooking vessel, and you can find slightly cosmetically damaged ones on Ebay or unwanted ones at garage sales at a substantial discount from new.

    Another good idea is to subscribe to a local farmer’s harvest program. For a fee usually every month or quarter, you are given a box of fruit and produce that was harvested recently and locally. One month you might get a bag of apricots, some beets, a few heads of lettuce, and tomatoes. It depends on what is in season. The taste is unlike anything you can get in the supermarket and you support your local community farmer. localharvest.org is the best source for farms all over the U.S. If the fee is too steep or the amount of food too much, you could always share with other family households or neighbors.

    Bon appetit!

  6. chris says:

    There needs to also be a guide for people that are not sufficiently motivated to cook regularly or to prepare their own lunches, which I think is applicable to a lot of bachelors.

    I think that most people can find a few basic foods that they wouldn’t mind eating almost every day. For me, it is cheese and tomato sauce quesadillas, peanut butter on triscuts, yogurt, and lunch meat eaten straight. Everybody also needs variety, of course, and I tend to get that for lunch. I work and live in a downtown area, and there are lots of places where you can get a sufficient meal for $2.50 to $4. I should eat more fruits and vegetables, admitedly, but I do drink a couple of those green smoothies each week. However, I don’t drink sodas or coffee — I generally stick with water, and that keeps food costs lower. (Drinking beer a couple nights a week is not especially helpful, however.)

  7. Kitty says:

    I agree with Rob. I live alone (OK, not counting the cats). Once every 2 weeks I sit down and make out a menu of exactly what I plan to cook for the next couple of weeks. Based on that menu I put together a detailed shopping list and I do not deviate from it when I go to the grocery store. Because most recipes serve more than one person I find I can usually survive for 2 weeks on about 5 meal plans. I freeze the extras or make sure I eat the leftovers within a couple of days. My monthly grocery bill is about $200 and this includes things like laundry detergent, shampoo, toilet paper, cat litter . . . And yes, I do eat healthy, nutritious food.

  8. I recently took note of my own food spending when my girlfriend put me on a vegetarian diet. I hadn’t noticed before how my fast food habit had crept up in recent years. It’s amazing how much I was spending on average each month. Cooking and dieting definitely have side benefits.

  9. Jenny says:

    99% of people spend most of their salary on food. Thanks a lot for the excellent guide.

    Jenny
    http://www.spaml.com

  10. Single Income Parenting says:

    That $400-$600 cost blew me away. Our little family of three has a strict $300/month budget which we rarely go over. We eat lots of organic food, belong to a Community Supported Agriculture farm, buy in bulk when we can and never feel like we have to eat just beans and rice.

    We do a lot of planning and spend a good amount of time in the kitchen, but that’s also fun to do with your family. It does take work to make it happen, but we have made a single income family our priority.

  11. Alex says:

    Can we please have a recipe for those breakfast burritos? They sound like they might be a tasty and quick option for us on-the-go types.

  12. mary says:

    We have found some great heavy all stainless steel pieces of cookware at Marshalls for $20 each. Try to figure out what pieces you actually need and stick to your list.

    High quality cookware makes all the difference.

    We eat mostly organic and all range-free, steroid free, anti biotic free chicken for about $100 week for two of us – this also includes our cleaning and paper products. But we aren’t buying cokes, Little Debbies, chips and other crap. We buy produce, whole grains, high quality organic bread and the chicken I mentioned.

    We also stopped getting sick – I haven’t had a medical prescription filled in over 5 years. The savings just multiply – this is something that is worth your time and effort to learn.

  13. The Beer Bum says:

    Its ironic that I stumbled onto your post. It hits on a ton of good points. As a college student I have had a hard time eating well until fairly recently. You can make a hearty and healthy homecooked meal for a fraction of what it costs to eat out. The problem is that it takes a decent amount of money to stock up on the things you need to cook which is one of the reasons some people find it so hard.

  14. Ben says:

    A good thing to look at is not what you buy, but what you throw away.

    If you are throwing away lots of food because you don’t eat it in time (ie it spoils/passes sell-by), or you cook too much… then clearly what you’ve written hear definitely applies.

    However there is also something to be said for spending a decent amount of money on *quality* food. I know that the food bill for my wife and I is probably the same as a family of four – but then we choose to buy organic or local produce where we can as I believe it is healthier. I could save money buy buying frozen vegetables or cheaper cuts of meat but then I believe our diet would suffer for it. I’m not sure whether you can eat healthily for $10 a day, certainly not in an expensive city.

    Fresh fruit juice, good cuts of meat, cooking in Canola/Olive oil (saturate free) etc does cost money.

    I’m very fortunate that we can afford to do this, and I appreciate not everyone can. But the person who suggested buying cheap no-name brands might find it a false economy in the long run. Cooking in vegetable oil is really bad for you – buying Canola/Olive oil is a really good way of cutting your saturated fat in take but it costs money.

    To me, the best way to cut down your grocery bill if you need to is to remove alcohol and ready made meals (which are taxed too in some states).

  15. Joel says:

    Originalgeek: I think you’re overspending on wine. Discount stores have good deals…you may waste $2-3 on barely drinkable wine sometimes, but sometimes you find really good stuff, and can buy a case. I talked to a gourmet chef last night, who thinks no wine should cost more than $8.

    Chris: you might want to read “The I Hate to Cook Book”, by Peg Bracken. It’s kind of old, but has an attitude that resonates across the decades.

  16. Matt says:

    I second the request for the breakfast burrito recipe. The idea of making them in bulk is quite intriguing but I can’t imagine what’s in them if they are able to be frozen. Frozen eggs?

  17. c. s. says:

    I’m going to have to echo the others: vegetarian is the way to go if you really want to save money. Meat is expensive, so when we do buy it just for a little change of pace, it’s only 2 chicken breasts per week and bacon to put on top of baked potatos.

    Here’s some other things you might not know:

    If you only use milk for cooking (we don’t drink milk at all), switch to soy milk. Unless you’re buying the stuff that has been sitting on the shelf for forever, the expiry is usually a month away.

    Ground soy can be purchased cheaper than lean ground beef and also has a long shelf life. If you’re using it in something like tacos/burritos (we combine ours with taco seasoning according to the package, refried beans, and rice), lasagna, or chili, you probably won’t notice the difference.

  18. Kelly says:

    Something I’ve found to be very difficult with food shopping is assessing whether something is being sold for a decent price. I especially overspend on produce because I can never remember either what I spent on it last time or how much it cost at the Trader Joe’s/Farmer’s Market/Co-op/Whole Foods/conventional grocery. I am certainly willing to spend more for quality produce, but I don’t want to be swindled! Do you have any suggestions?

  19. Amy Haden says:

    This is what I’ve done since last December to cut our food bill by about one-third.

    I shop at 1 store, once a week. I have a store card so that I can take full advantage of sales. I do have a small chest freezer & closet pantry.

    I make a big dinner on Sunday afternoon & then pack the leftovers as my lunches for the week (2 of my favorites — spaghetti w/ meatballs that I made & froze in bulk when hamburger was on sale – and a jar of 99 cent sauce on sale; broccoli, leftover chicken breast & a jar of alfredo sauce over rice).

    Save your store receipts for a few months, then create a list of the items you like and buy most often. (I later organized my list by the store’s aisle numbers to make shopping more efficient).

    Learn your prices – keeping a price notebook works great.

    Realize that sales occur in cycles (approximately every 3 months).

    Every week the store should send out a sales flyer (or post one on-line). If something you buy frequently (on your list) is on sale, buy a bunch to last you until the next sale (coffee regular $9.99, on sale for $4.99, I buy 3 months’ worth). Meat on sale – buy one for a weekend meal, pop one into the freezer. I plan my eating & meals based on what’s on sale (or what’s in the freezer).

    Some things I don’t have space to store or they don’t go on sale often enough – look for alternatives. Buying oatmeal in 1-serving packets? Check out the bottom shelf at the store for a big box of store-brand oatmeal & add your own brown sugar. In fact, check out all of the bottom shelves at the store – that’s where they usually hide the less expensive stuff.

    Just clipping coupons from the Sunday newspapers saves me $5-$10 (usually more) a week, and I only spend half an hour clipping while I’m watching tv (and I only use coupons for things I’d ordinarily buy).

    I still don’t think you can beat frozen veggies – they’re flash frozen to retain nutrients, you can keep a variety on hand, most contain no additives & they won’t go bad quickly.

    For dinners on week days when I’m cooking just for myself, I often microwave a potato, microwave some frozen veggies, and pop a piece of frozen fish (or chicken) into the toaster oven. 20 minutes later I have dinner.

    And a bunch of people mentioned getting quality pots & pans, but I find that the most useful tools in my kitchen are the microwave, toaster oven & crockpot. If you love soups and stews and casseroles, you can make a lot of cheap food easily & freeze a lot for convenience using a crockpot.

  20. Subbarao says:

    One thing I found about food expenses is to cook small quantity which will last about 3 or 4 days without getting boring. I was cooking for a week but got bored with the dish in 2 or 3 days, then start going out for lunch. This was beating the main purpose of trying to save money by cooking at home. If my cooking turns out bad, then you suffer (by eating it) for only 3 or 4 days instead of the whole week.

    Another realization was the morning coffee expense. Just by the store brand instant coffee and make your own coffee at work. $1.25/day for a large coffee is a bit too much for me now.

  21. Mom says:

    My two kitchen friends are a rice cooker and a Foreman grill. On the stove I have two iron skillets ( 8 inch and 10 inch, made in the USA!!) and one good non-stick skillet and two saucepans. I bought the skillets 35 years ago, and they will have to be replaced this year. Have gotten thin, finally. That’s about it. I have three good knives and a fat handle potato peeler and a garlic press. I buy good coffee and Half and Half. Have to say that they are my one treat.

  22. partgypsy says:

    We do alot of the things you suggest, but we still spend $700-900 on food each month (family of 4). I just don’t see how you all do it on $300 a month! We do alot of cooking, eat leftovers, reduced our meat intake, buy in bulk. But we do buy beer and wine, farm raised meat, and also go out to eat. Eating is one of my big pleasures, not sure how low I can go.

  23. Alexandra says:

    I found that I was throwing away a lot of refrigerated produce before I could eat it. I recently purchased two E.G.G.s to absorb the ethylene gas released by fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. My produce is lasting many days longer in the refrigerator without spoiling- the EGG’s have already paid for themselves.

    http://www.4theegg.com/

  24. beloml says:

    Mom,

    What is the advantage of a rice cooker over the standard stovetop method? We eat a lot of rice and it doesn’t seem to take a lot of effort to make great rice the old-fashioned way.

  25. Katy says:

    Another vote for Creuset. These pots and pans are so good, the French leave them to their children in their wills. Really!

  26. Rachael says:

    For Chris, and for all singles and people who hate their own cooking, check and see if anyone in your neighborhood runs a cantina. Two ladies in my building do this. My hubby took advantage of this one week while I was sick. For $25 he got a smashing dinner every night.

  27. Rachael says:

    P.S. last week I entered EPICURE, the much-hyped gourmet grocer in South Beach.
    What did I find?
    Garam Masala, PanchPuran, Hummus, Ceylon cinnamon- all the crap that I ate while growing up DIRT POOR in a third world country.
    All that time we were eating gourmet food and didn’t even know it!
    Americans are duped all the time into buying stuff for which the rest of the world pays much less. Guess what? NOTHING is gourmet.
    Get some books at the library on cooking. These are infinitely superior to what you find at Barnes&Noble with the pretty pictures and less print.

    Check out YOUR local gourmet grocer. write down what you see. Do some research and see if you can’t find this stuff at cheap ethnic grocers.

  28. Steve says:

    Nice post. A big issue for me has been letting things go to waste in the fridge; I have a tendency to overstuff it and overshop to the point where the fridge is just packed with stuff, with unseen things going bad in the back, only to be tossed in the trash. Like one or two of the other posters, I have thrown out more money this way than I care to count.

    However, I’ve turned a new leaf and for the past 3 weeks I have been “eating the pantry” and everything that’s already in the fridge, and finally for the first time ever there is “space” in the fridge. I like it!

    I have veggies in the crisper that I am eating until they are nearly gone before I go get more veggies.

    I have a list of ingredients to use next, and
    a list of prepared dishes that are “ready to eat” so I can use them as either lunches or as components of an evening meal.

    I am using a shorter, more reasonable shopping list for vegetable and perishables shopping as well, so I don’t overload the fridge. Once a week shopping seems to work best for me. I can always eat something else if I run out of a particular item.

  29. Em says:

    We buy and cook in bulk and use the freezer a lot. Instead of making a pot of something and eating it until we’re bored, we eat one fresh meal, pack one serving per person for lunch, and the rest for the freezer. In any given week we’re not eating the same main dish more than twice, although we made a huge potful of it.

    The freezer is more efficient if it’s full, so we keep it stocked with convenience food we’ve cooked. I cook a large pot of beans and freeze some plain before continuing with the recipe. Two weeks later, I can make minestrone in twenty minutes. When I’m preparing a lot of vegetables that will be cooked, I make extra for the freezer. This is especially important when we buy a big bag of onions, garlic, sweet potatoes etc. that might otherwise go bad before they’re finished.

    We eat mostly organic, and all of our meat is humanely raised – that is not optional – but on the inexpensive end. I can’t remember the last time I bought a chicken breast – for not much more you can buy the whole chicken and get several meals out of it, from a wonderful roasted Sunday dinner to chicken salad to stock made from the bones.

    We also make blender quick breads (pancakes, waffles) with whole grains soaked overnight. This is cheaper than buying the same quality of flour and the taste is excellent. This is also a great use for soured milk – just pour over measured grains and refrigerate. In the morning, add leavening, salt, oil and egg, blend and pour.

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