One of the biggest complaints I often hear from people who are thinking about cooking at home is that at first glance, it does seem expensive and potentially wasteful, as you may have to buy some items in a larger quantity than you may need. What they don’t realize is that by starting with staple foods, hardly anything goes to waste unless you choose to waste it. Here’s how you can pretty much take any staple foods and eat from them for a long time.
First, make a very simple, basic meal from standard foods, but cook plenty. Let’s say you like spaghetti, for instance. You can snag 16 ounces of Barilla spaghetti from Amazon for $1.55 (Barilla’s a local company here in central Iowa, so we support them for our dry pasta needs) and a huge 26 ounce jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce for $2.99 (I like to make my own, but for many people, that’s not realistic). We like meat in ours (and we have a good supplier of fresh beef), so we get a pound of ground beef to add to the sauce, costing about $3 (we actually get it cheaper, but that’s a special arrangement). We also add a few vegetables to the sauce, say, $1 worth. We cook all of it and have a huge supper for my wife, my son, and I, leaving a huge amount of leftovers (9 oz. of spaghetti, 14 oz. of sauce or so, and half a pound of ground beef). Our cost per head for the meal is about $3, not counting the leftover costs.
The next night, make something interesting out of the leftovers. The next night, we take the remaining spaghetti, chop it a bit, mix it with the remaining sauce and beef, add a few spices to it (marjoram and oregano) and put half of it in a 9″ x 13″ baking dish, pour half a pound of ground Mozzarella cheese on top, then pour half of the rest of the spaghetti mix on top, then the rest of the cheese, and bake it in the oven. It takes about five minutes to prepare, tastes substantially different than the spaghetti the night before, and feeds all three of us again for the cost of a pound of ground mozzarella (about $1.50). Cost: $0.50 a head.
Even after that, you may still have leftovers, so take them to work with you for what amounts to free meals. My wife and I usually have a meal’s worth for a leftover lunch for each of us. Cost: $0.00 a head for that lunch.
The big total? About twenty minutes of prep work and about $10 worth of food makes eight hearty meals. That’s $1.25 and roughly two minutes work per meal on average, or substantially less if you don’t want meaty sauce. Given that the evening meal is usually the most expensive of the day, I’m happy when my entire family can dine on healthy food on less than $4. Better yet, nothing goes to waste.
The key to all of this is prepare the foods blandly at first, then complement and spice them in completely different ways for different dishes. Above, the main portions are the beef, the sauce, and the spaghetti. At first, we just use those three together, but the next night, we mix in several extra herbs and add a substantial amount of cheese to the mix, creating a distinctly different texture and flavor for the food.
Here are some other examples of how to buy inexpensive basic foods and then reuse them in a substantially different meal another night:
Turn loose meat sandwiches into chili. My wife and I will cook multiple pounds of raw hamburger and have loose meat sandwiches one meal. Then we’ll make a huge pot of chili with the leftover meat, and then store the leftover chili in the freezer for future meals. Nothing is left over to be thrown away.
Chicken can become any number of things. Buy a bulk package of chicken breasts and prepare them all, intending to eat some of it as the basis of a healthy meal (I myself love chicken breast with black pepper along with steamed broccoli with a hint of butter). Slice up the leftovers and use them in the next few days as part of chicken florentine, chicken fettuccine alfredo, and so forth.
I even use leftover fish creatively. After grilling some catfish fillets (a favorite here, as we like to eat what we catch), I just take the unused pieces, batter them a bit with ground up crackers, fry them, then eat them on corn tortillas with a bit of lettuce and some mayonnaise – a basic fish taco. Nothing goes to waste – and that saved money goes into the wallet.