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.
As 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.