Updated on 07.30.09

How Low Can You Go? Vegetarian Burrito Bowls

Trent Hamm

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled “How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Finished burrito bowl - enjoyed with a Dos Equis XX

Sarah and I were looking for a very simple “How Low Can You Go” recipe that we could actually use for a picnic at the park. It had to be quite simple, something that could be mostly prepared at home with only minimal prep at the park, and it had to be easy to transport.

We were intrigued by the flavor in Kenzie Crosley’s vegetarian burrito bowl submission to the “How Low Can You Go” contest, but we didn’t want to use the amount of prepared food suggested. Here’s Kenzie’s recipe:

1 box Archer Farms(find at Target) Cilantro and Lime Rice
2 Cans Black Beans
Sour Cream
black olives
Queso (Rotel and Velveeta)

Prepare rice as directed on box. Boil black beans in a small pot. Melt 1 can rotel and velveeta in a small dish in the microwave. If family of 4, bring 4 bowls out to serve individually and lawyer as follows. Rice at the bottom, black beans, queso, quacomole, sour cream, olives on top.

These are all things I love-so I just threw them all together for a yummy and easy meal for my husband and I. We have lots of leftovers!

Velveeta? An Archer Farms boxed meal? Hmm… why don’t we just do it from scratch? So that’s what we did.

Here are our ingredients:

Ingredients for vegetarian burrito bowls

Our guacamole spice packet is just a mix of various herbs that’s really tasty and pretty much everything else is from base ingredients.

You’ll notice no black beans are present – that’s because we boiled up some dried beans:

Cooking the beans

The guacamole was simple to make. Simply peel and core the avocado, then add some spices – salt, a bit of black pepper, garlic, cumin, and/or cilantro. We just used a packet that had this stuff already in it that we had in the cupboard:

Guacamole on the way!

Since our daughter is a little iron-deficient, we chose to add a little bit of ground beef that we had in the refrigerator to give her a little extra iron. Not a requirement at all, just something we keep an eye on.

Anyway, we packed up everything into two reusable bags, with reusable bowls and containers:

Picnic bags

Once there, we assembled the bowls. Here’s Sarah (who handled most of the prep work for this meal), scooping beans into each of four bowls:

Making the burrito bowls

And here’s my finished bowl, enjoyed with a bottle of Dos Equis XX:

Finished burrito bowl - enjoyed with a Dos Equis XX

The best part about a picnic at the park is that it can immediately be followed by fun on the playground equipment.

Playing at the park after eating burrito bowls

Everyone loved it. The bowls were devoured with only a bit of leftovers. It helps that my children love black olives, which made the overall meal seem better than it otherwise would have been.

Our cost for this was about $9, without many leftovers. All we wound up with was leftover black beans, which we intended to use in another recipe later on. So, the cost per bowl was about $2.25 – a little high, but it was very easy to prepare, pretty healthy (aside from the sour cream), and portable enough that it could be eaten at a park.

Changes I Would Make
Obviously, we weren’t strong fans of the prepackaged original meal, so we modified it big time. Here’s what we did instead, which turned out really well.

Trent’s Vegetarian Burrito Bowls

1 cup dry black beans
1 1/2 cups dry rice
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cilantro
1 avocado
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup black olives
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
sour cream to taste

Cook the black beans according to recipe. Cook the rice according to recipe, replacing half a cup of water with half a cup of lime juice and the cilantro. Cut up the avocado, add the salt, garlic, and black pepper, and blend into a paste to make guacamole. Assemble the bowls, starting with rice, then beans, then cheese, then guacamole, then sour cream, then black olives on top. Enjoy!

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  1. Anya Weber says:

    Sounds delicious, Trent! FYI, this exact kind of burrito bowl sells for about $7.00 at a chain restaurant near my house in Boston. So it’s inspiring to see how much more cheaply (and pretty easily) this can be done!

  2. Kat says:

    Don’t take this as a criticism, but if you want to have a successful food blog, you need to either get a new camera or learn to shoot better quality pictures with the one you’ve got. Food blogs are often very visual, you need at least one good pic of the finished product, and many blogs have pics of the steps as well. If you are starting a food blog, a beginner photography class, or if you can find something specifically on shooting food pics, may be worth it.

  3. Kevin M says:

    Looks good, we did something similar last night in a pan without the rice. Kinda like a 7 layer deal.

    I think your recipe is wrong though – it says lemon juice, but in the directions it says to add lime juice.

  4. Andy says:

    Guacamole has to be one of the greatest foods ever invented. I like mine with some red onion and tomato.

    With regards to food pictures, I’d check out making your own light box. It can be really cheap (just a big cardboard box and tracing paper, or you could go with wood and some see through fabric) and helps if you want nice lighting with the seamless background look. That’s the best my photos ever got (though they were never up to the standards of the really good foodblog photos which had all sorts of nicely colored props and such).

    Lightboxes work too with cheap desk lamps which is nice. Just google it – there are a few tutorials. (Obviously I wouldn’t have dragged the box out to what looks like a very nice picnic.)

  5. Eden Jaeger says:

    I’m going to give it a try. Thanks!

  6. Ryan says:

    The Simple Dollar is….the most interesting blog in the world.

    Stay thirsty, my friends.

  7. Lilli says:

    If you add some lime peel to the white rice while it’s cooking it gives a super yummy subtle flavor! You might have to switch out the dos equis for coronas though – that way you can use up the rest of the lime :)

  8. brooke says:

    I absolutely love cilantro lime rice,except I cook my rice and add cilantro and fresh lime at the end. And if you like these flavors, start using fresh lime and garlic as a chicken marinade with a bit of salt,pepper, and oil and you will be pleased. This is my fav marinade for the grill. As for fresh guac, my hubby got this recipe from a friend in culinary school, and you can adjust to taste. All that is in it is 1/3 red onion, a plum tomato (no seeds, just flesh), 1/4 jalepeno (no seeds), fresh lime juice (about 1.5 tablespoons for 3 avocados), salt and pepper. We add tabasco sometimes, but otherwise, this guac is so fresh you won’t even miss the spice packet!!

  9. Matt says:

    You shouldn’t be using that guacamole spice mix. It’s far more than a mix of spices. The primary ingredients in it are sugar, salt, food starch, and dry milk powder. I’m surprised that, at least, it doesn’t seem to contain any MSG. You should be able to make a fresher-tasting guacamole using your own spices, and if you amortise the cost and have a good source for spices, it’ll cost less.

    And the cilantro – I’ve found that dried cilantro has no flavor. Same goes for dried parsley. Honestly, you’d get the same result, and save money, if you just saved your lawn clippings. Lime-cilantro rice needs fresh cilantro. It’s a totally different flavor.

    My guacamole: avocado, minced red onion, garlic powder, lime juice, minced jalapeno, salt and pepper, cumin, and chopped fresh cilantro.

  10. anne says:


    i always make rice w/ saffron- i’m kind of in a rut, even though it’s a good rut (basmati rice, real saffron, etc)

    i can’t wait to make your rice. i really can’t!! and i’m kicking myself right now (ouch!) because i have every single ingredient in your recipe in my kitchen right now, EXCEPT THE RICE!!!!!!!

    i was in the grocery store this morning, and i looked at rice, and i left it on the shelf, thinking i’d get it in a few days. i’m so mad at myself!!!!


  11. beth says:

    As much as I love avocados and guac, that’s probably the biggest hit to your budget in the whole meal– at least in Iowa. :-) If I were still living 2 time zones away from avocado country, I would probably have made the recipe with just a glob of salsa instead of the guac. Not the same flavor, definitely, but would probably take 20% off the cost.

    That said, it looks tasty enough that I might need to make that sometime soon and force the no-beans kids in to eating a couple bowls! Definitely with a salad on the side for some more veggies.

  12. Karen M. says:

    I firmly second the “dried cilantro is worthless” comment. I’m not sure why someone who wants to start a food blog would use dried cilantro. Cilantro at the grocery is less than a dollar for a huge bunch, and one can use it to flavor so many things! Especially if you are making fresh guac– throw those pre-fab spice packs away and use fresh cilantro, garlic, lime, jalapeno, onion, and tomato. Delicious.

    To make great cilantro lime rice, squeeze the juice of a lime INTO the rice cooking water. It permeates the rice with wonderful flavor.

  13. George says:

    What is the point of saving all this money? You’re not getting any younger, so why don’t you use it for something beneficial right now. The reason you have money is to receive the highest amount of pleasure in your life. You are trying to save money by eating crappy food, thus taking away one of the major sources of pleasure in your life. FOR WHAT? It’s money…why are you giving it a life?

  14. Jenny says:

    I love your food posts, and especially the photos! I am so tired of glossy, phony professional photography of food; your photos look like they really would when prepared. Keep posting recipes with photos; you inspire me so much to try new dishes.

  15. Tom says:

    That’s a pretty sweet picture of you and your son!

  16. deb says:

    I am SO GLAD you substituted the Velveeta with real cheese! Velveeta? Eeew.

    Looks good and tasty! I very much agree about the photography tips from other posters. Food is all about the photos. Good luck!

  17. Like it, and the bear on the side doesn’t hurt either.

  18. tightwadfan says:

    This looks so good. I too am soooo glad you didn’t use Velveeta!!! but were you using plain dried black beans or some kind of partially cooked beans? Because black beans take AGES to get tender and you have to soak them overnight too. I usually get canned for the convenience.

  19. NMPatricia says:

    I think what I liked least about this post are the comments. I love this series about what you have done to the recipes. I might do things a bit different – but then again, I probably have different tastes. Thanks for the ideas and possibilities.

  20. anne says:

    #12 nm patricia- i’m curious- what didn’t you like about the comments?

    just wondering. i really am!

  21. Michele says:

    Yum, it’s 6am and now I want a Dos Equis and and this Vege Burrito bowl. I haven’t been following the food stuff on The Simple Dollar but this one stood out. Thanks!

  22. Leigh says:

    This looks super tasty. I do something like this that I call Southwest Scramble. I’m linking below, but basically I add in a can of whole kernal corn and a little bit of chipotle peppers in adobe sauce and whatever fresh veggies I have on hand. Unfortunately Mr. Gross&Net doesn’t like avocados so usually no guac for us. I am definitely going to be trying the cilantro lime rice – sounds yummy!


  23. littlepitcher says:

    I’m told (haven’t tried it yet) that you can substitute up to half the avocado with pureed fresh or frozen green peas–no canned, please. Cuts the price a bunch.
    Seconds on the comment on powdered cilantro. It’s just too easy to grow in a pot. Purchasing your own in non-Hispanic areas is iffy, since even the smallest stale or rotten leaf edge ruins it. When fresh can’t be had, make do with green onion tops chopped fine, or a combination of chervil and chives if you grow them.

    The sour cream will be healthy if you get fat-free. Not a bit of difference in price.

    Small black beans take longer to cook than the large ones, and all of them get harder with advanced age.

  24. Maria Ortiz says:

    I really love this newsletter the food recipes are awesome and I commend the writer
    way to go Amigo”””

    Maria Ortiz.

  25. de says:

    There is NOTHING that can really take the place of “unhealthy” sour cream for texture and flavor, but if someone really needs to cut down on animal fat, yogurt or cottage cheese pureed with a little lemon juice will come close. Fat free “sour cream” is nasty. Great recipe!

  26. Pat says:

    Your ‘recipe day’ is my favorite and my husband is always curious what you have cooked up. I’ve been saving them up to try and this week’s will definately have to wait until winter since right now avacados are almost $2 a piece here in Mich but only $1 each in winter. Not sure why that is but they do freeze well so I tend to really pig out in winter and freeze my guacamole in batches for later use. Great post Trent! (I don’t see anything wrong with your photos either)

  27. Reem says:

    You really inspire me Trent

    am not a great fan of avocados but will sure try adding my fav stuff (frozen peas , different kinds of beans,left over meat or chicken, canned tuna,..etc)

    I’m freezing some baked lazania & other cooked dishes as am pregnant and hope to use these meals later when the baby is born to save money on ready made ordered meals…do you know exactly for how many months they can be freezed?

  28. tammy says:

    forget the recipe! You’ve inspired me to seek a park today!
    nature and food just go together. Don’t know what I’ll whip up to take, but love your ideas!

  29. Jess says:

    FYI–Cheese is not vegetarian…

  30. Johnny H says:

    Have you lost weight, Trent? Keep it up, looking good, bro!

  31. Michelle says:

    I make cilantro rice (always fresh, grown in a pot on the window sill) with cilantro, lime juice and a bit of cumin. I think the cumin adds a nice smoky flavor. We pair it with pinto beans, cooked in the crock-pot and mashed with some homemade salsa. I’ve also done black beans with tomatoes and cilantro. Mexican food is so versitile! Any frugal cook should learn as much about Mexican food as possible!

  32. Brittany says:

    Dried beans do take forever to cook, but they only require a little planning and basically zero actual effort. The morning before you want to eat them, rinse the the beans and dump them in your crockpot. Cover them in water and let them soak all day (without the crockpot turned on–they’re just soaking in there so you only use one dish). Then, that night before you go to bed, turn the crockpot on low. Volia! Cooked beans for a fraction of the cost and additives of canned beans. Then, pop them in the fridge until you’re ready to use them (or freeze them if it will be a couple of weeks).

    As a side note, plain, non-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt is way better than sour cream. And healthier. But mostly just better tasting.

  33. collin says:

    I love the comments, and the sour cream in moderate amounts.
    I believe that life won’t be longer if I’m deprived of little treats like a little sour cream, it will just seem longer.

  34. Pat says:

    I love reading the comments too. I get more ideas. I reckon those that are complaining about the photos are not hungry. I am very hungry right now and your photos look great. Can’t wait to make this.

  35. spaces says:

    When I see food titled like that, I tend to think: Ooh, burrito bowls with vegetarians on top! I wonder if they’re sauteed or baked?

  36. Sue Shaw says:

    I enjoyed the ideas from your recipe. And I like the pictures in this type of newsletter. Of course, any time we can improve what we do it’s great, but this works and gives me the feeling of hearing from a friend with some great ideas I can use as is, or alter to my likes. This sounds like something our family would enjoy (grandma, grandpa and 19 yr old grandson bound for college in our town). Only we like tortilla burritos so would probably save the dishwashing and stuff it in a tortilla. I agree with the fresh cilantro and guacamole suggestions to use fresh onions and tomato diced fine, and seasonings you enjoy. thanks for the ideas!

  37. David says:

    You might want to consider fresh cilantro for this dish, it’s cheap and has way more flavor.

  38. dsz5463 says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll add shredded lettuce and scallions for a summer dish and serve it hot with non-Velveeta con queso and tortillas during football season. I’ve got to agree with the fat-free sour cream comment. I’d rather use less cheese and a small amount of full-fat sour cream, but that’s just my taste.
    I had to chuckle at the Dos Equis (Dos Equis XX is redundant) as we bought some solely because of the ‘most interesting man’ commercials. It’s not bad, but for the money I’ll stick with Sam Adams.
    I think the photography is fine. The photos while not artistic are clear and I like the homespun character and that the dish is shown the way it would look in most kitchens, not staged as it is in glossy food mags.
    Here’s a pet peeve of mine, tho. In the photo with the beans, is that a piece of paper on the rangetop? I know just the area under the pan is hot, but still-it’s close enough to the heat to scorch and it’s a bad example for the kids. We were always ‘cooking with gas’ so it was more of a hazard for us, but it was a hard and fast rule that nothing went on the surface of the stove that wasn’t a pot or pan and certainly nothing flammable. Especially with little ones in the house, they do what they see. Not trying to be critical, Trent, just want to keep the babes safe.

  39. Michelle says:

    I second #19. Great job on the weight loss, Trent!

  40. SoCalGal says:

    Love the post Trent. I especially loved the thought of a portable meal & the ability to make it meatless. I do not understand the gripes about the photography. As a professional photographer, I have no problems with your photos. Keep up the good work!

  41. Vikki says:

    The cost per serving goes down A LOT for SLOW west coaster. I was able to get my $/serving down to $1.23.
    I have my herbs in the window, and got limes and avocados from the farmers market for pennies. I think I spent a bit more on a small block of my preferred cheddar, $1.98 for 1/3 of the block (self shredding is tastier, but less portable). Beans/rice in 20 pound bags, so the cost per cup is about a dime (unless I’m totally forgetting what I paid). I’m also very fortunate regarding the olives. I know someone who grows and cures her own well enough to get some as gifts/trade for my jam, reducing my cost to about fifty cents.

    SLOW, btw, is the acronym for Seasonal, Local, Organic and Whole.

  42. Money Funk says:

    So, its like eating a 7 layer dip w/out the meat and tortilla chips? I’m all for it! Love my veggies!

  43. LYG says:

    You can greatly increase the volume of guacamole by adding water to the whole mixture. Try a few tablespoons per avocado to start until you determine the consistency that pleases you. This is a time-honored tradition among my very Mexican family and helps a little go a long way!

    And I agree with everyone else trumpeting the merit of fresh spices (especially cilantro). Get some seeds and grow a pot in your kitchen – it can’t be beat.

  44. BirdDog says:

    Looks like you’ve lost a good bit of weight, congrats!

  45. Jo says:

    What a delicious looking recipe; kudos, too, because it’s vegetarian. I C&P’d it to Word, saved it after I printed a copy of it for a meal this week. I DID keep your name in the title.

    This works excellently in my menu planning, as I am trying to reduce my food inventory due to an upcoming out-of-state move. There’s nothing worse than toting along one’s foodstuffs, unless it’s non-“spoilable.” But it does add unnecessary weight; we are paying completely out of pocket for the movers – minus the packing. This we are doing to save money. But I digress….

    I look forward to preparing it. It has the kinds of ingredients I enjoy using when in the mood for something Mexican. I will be using brown rice, however. And there’s nothing like preparing Guacamole from scratch. It’s one of my weaknesses. Thank goodness it’s healthy. Avocados are one of the top-ranking good fats.

  46. Vanessa says:

    Great idea – but what is up with the prepackaged, pre-shredded cheese in your photo?!?!?! Have you not posted in the past about the incredible price per-gram difference in cheese blocks vs. the packaged, grated stuff, and it essentially amounts to paying someone something like $80 an hour just to grate the cheese for you?? I’d rather grate cheese for a few seconds than soak beans.

    Ditto to the comments on guac. spice mix – massively cheaper, healthier, and tastier to make your own.

  47. Tuimeltje says:

    Looks nice!
    As I was reading the original recipe I was a bit surprised at the mention of the special rice until I read the rest of the post. :)

    As far as I’m concerned, you don’t really need any fancy equipment to take pictures worthy of a food blog. I have only a basic digital camera and not much skill yet I enjoy a bit of food blogging when I have the time. Though I must admit, it’s not something I do professionally. I don’t make restaurant-worthy food, just easy and mostly tasty things.

    One of the supermarket chains around here has a 2-for-1 deal on avocados next week. I think I might be making some guacamole as well. And go to the market before uni to see if I can get me some fresh cilantro. It’s only about 1/4th of the price of the tiny bits sold in supermarkets around here.

    As for the sour cream, I’m not sure about the fat content or how it compares to dairy sour cream (haven’t had that in ages), but I’m quite fond of soya cooking cream.

  48. SP says:

    IMO, shredded cheese can be very comparable to block, depending on the sales and store.

    Anyway, this one looks like something I’d eat for sure. I agree fresh ciliantro is 1000 times better (same for nearly all spices), but I do hate that I use a small bit of it and the rest goes bad before I am inventive and efficient enough to use it.

    On the photos — I do agree that the very popular food blogs have incredible photos. You probalby know this as I assume you read food blogs. (?)

    I imagine you have a point and shoot, and you will struggle to get stunning food photos out of it. I’m not sure what your motives for the food blog are — hobby or profit? You’ll get a decent readership just from TSD’s success, but if you are running it a business rather than a hobby, you’ll want more striking food photos. I’m not an expert in the least, but your composition seems fine, it’s more lighting or camera settings or… yeah, not an expert.

  49. Foxmom says:

    Silly man, you don’t use a mix for guacamole. Just mix some of your favorite picante sauce, maybe a dollop of sour cream if you’re really feeling adventurous. That’s Texmex for ya!

  50. Karen says:

    Going to have to try it – my tummy is now saying “feed me feed me”!!! Might be good to make for a football game. Go Texans!

  51. Blair says:

    Invest in a food processor with grater attachment for quickly shredding large blocks of cheese (and veggies to add to rice) quickly. Best thing ever.

  52. kate says:

    Here’s my favorite fast-food variation. I call it a California black bean bowl.

    *cook rice (or, if you have a rice cooker with a timer you can do this in the morning).
    *Heat a can of Goya black bean soup
    *shred some lettuce or use pre-washed…(I like romaine)
    *shred some cheese (I like cheddar)
    *chop a tomatoes
    Optional other items: chopped avocado, sour cream, hot sauce (I love sciracca sauce on everything).

    Just put the salad in your bowl, top with rice, then black beans, then cheese, then tomatoes, then sour cream, avocado, sciracca sauce. good, fast, cheap. I’d rather eat this then go out.

    We do variations of this with other Goya beans in sauce. When you put them on rice with a bunch of other stuff, they are very tasty, and they cost $1.00/can, or less.

  53. Mary Nasfell says:

    You give the price per serving for the original recipes, but not for your revised version—
    could you include the revised price? I always expect to see it and am always surprised it isn’t there.

  54. Jessica says:

    The recipe says to use lemon juice, but the instructions say to use lime juice. Which did you use?

  55. Ryan Anthony says:

    Trent – I think the recipe looks excellent, but I have a feeling I’ll be substituting a little salsa for the sour cream (my girlfriend doesn’t like the stuff – works out healthwise too). I’m going to try using the slow cooker method for the beans from comment #21 as well. And, as a lamely nitpicky comment, I think “Dos Equis XX” is a bit redundant :) Thanks.

  56. Katie M. says:

    I tried this recipe with instant brown rice and lime juice and ack! the rice was so sour it was inedible. It has been so long since I made regular rice…do you rinse the liquid away as opposed to instant rice where the rice just absorbs the liquid? At any rate, don’t make the same mistake unless you want to throw away a pot of rice!

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