Being Frugal with Food When You Don’t Have the Space to Cook

Jennifer writes in:

I live in a single room efficiency apartment. The entirety of things that I have available for cooking are a sink, a table, a microwave, and a mini fridge. I simply don’t have the space or capacity to do dishes or prepare meals or anything like that. I can’t even really eat convenience frozen meals because there isn’t room for more than one or two in my mini fridge. What can I do to keep food costs low? It feels like my only option is to eat out all the time.

This can be a real struggle. For a period of time when I was in college, I lived in a similar situation as Jennifer, with almost no tools with which to make food. I also had very little money at that time, so I had to be extremely careful with my food spending. In fact, I used to “splurge” with a hamburger at the Wendy’s near my apartment once a week, and I still remember going in there on early Friday afternoon, as my last class of the week was done at noon on Friday, and enjoying that burger.

Many of the strategies I used then make up this article, along with some other useful tactics I’ve picked up along the way. Here’s my best food advice for Jennifer, and for anyone who is in a situation where traditional cooking at home just does not work no matter the reason.

Remind Yourself Constantly That Eating Out Is Not the Only Option

When you’re in a situation where home food preparation is extremely limited or difficult, it can be easy to sway yourself into thinking that eating at a restaurant is your only option, and once you begin to establish that as a routine, it becomes even harder to break out of that mindset.

For me, the best way to alter this kind of thinking is to simply adopt a schedule in which you only eat at restaurants at certain times and have to figure out how to eat elsewhere at other times. For example, you might decide that you’re going to set a rule for yourself of only eating at a restaurant once a day or, if you’re really going to push things, once every other day. Don’t worry about the details of how you pull this off for now – we’ll get to that.

It really comes down to forcibly breaking routines that you may have established in your life and finding different ways to do things. When it’s not obviously easy how you can eat without just going to a restaurant, restaurant eating becomes the routine. You have to break that routine if you want to start eating with less expense, and the rest of the tips will help you do that.

Eat One or Two Meals a Day Instead of Three

Rather than eating three meals a day, instead aim to eat one or perhaps two meals a day with some occasional small snacks in between them. This isn’t unusual; it’s a pretty standard dietary pattern in many parts of the world.

There are several reasons why this will cut deeply into your food costs, with the biggest one being that it reduces your need to go to a restaurant to roughly once a day (or perhaps even less often, as we’ll see later in this article). If you’re only eating one big meal a day and snacking a bit throughout the rest of the day, you really only need to go to a restaurant for that big meal and the rest can be small items you carry around in your bag for snacking as needed throughout the day.

Using this strategy makes it much easier to downshift to eating at restaurants once per day for your primary meal, which you then supplement with a few snacks throughout the day.

Drink Water, and Lots of It

Water, water, water. It’s healthy, it helps with feeling satiated, it’s essentially free, and it’s easy to get almost anywhere.

Get into a habit of having an empty water bottle with you everywhere. Spend a little bit of money and buy a sturdy reusable water bottle with a tight-fitting cap. Fill it each day before you leave, drink it throughout the day, and fill it frequently as you’re out and about.

If you’re a person who is used to drinking caffeinated and/or sugary beverages, get into the routine of drinking water with every meal and drinking it throughout the day and as long as you don’t adopt a new routine of buying bottled water, you’ll save yourself a ton of money and likely wind up healthier in the long run.

Eat at Buffets

If you’re eating one meal a day, try to eat at a buffet restaurant if possible.

Buffets you to have a large and varied meal for a single fairly low price. You can eat until you’re satiated and have a wide variety of items to choose from. If you’re concerned about overeating, drink a lot of water with your meal. I usually drink a glass of water with every trip to the buffet if I go to one, and that definitely cuts down on the number of trips.

Also, most buffets offer a wide variety of all kinds of foods, allowing you to easily get in an appropriate number of servings of vegetables. Make your first plate simply consist of a large salad and a variety of vegetables to make sure you’re getting a well-balanced diet.

That being said, much of this depends on what buffet options are available in your area. In my area, there are a bunch of different buffet options – there are multiple pizza buffets (most of which have a salad bar and a general “buffet” bar, too), multiple Asian buffets, and a couple of other general buffets as well. All of them are pretty reasonably priced, too.

If Not At a Buffet, Order Large Portions and Use Takeout Containers

If you don’t want to eat at a buffet or don’t have one available to you, there are some things you can do at traditional restaurants to save money.

For starters, never order a beverage besides water. Beverages at restaurants are extremely overpriced. Just avoid them.

When you’re ordering your meal, order a huge entree with the intent of only eating a third or a half of it. The rest should be take with you in a takeout container. When you’re home, stow it in your fridge and stretch it to one or two additional meals.

The reason is that the price gap between a small entree and a large entree at most restaurants is actually pretty small, much less than the difference between a small entree and nothing. For example, at Noodles and Co. (a chain pasta restaurant), most of the “regular” servings are twice the size of the “small” servings (roughly) but cost only a small percentage more. Order the “regular,” eat half of it, and take the other half with you in a container.

Similarly, if you’re at a restaurant where they assemble food to order (like, say, Chipotle), look into tips for that specific restaurant on how to get the maximum value out of your order. For example, I’ve learned that with Chipotle, you get far more food in a burrito bowl than in an actual burrito, enough so that I can usually stretch a burrito bowl into an additional meal of leftovers.

This doesn’t mean that you should order add-ons like appetizers or extra salads or things like that. Those end up being more expensive than they’re worth. Stick to water and a huge entree and you’ll get maximum value from most restaurants.

Now, let’s turn to the food you can actually have and use and prepare in a small apartment without a stove.

Try Lots of Low-Cost Pantry Foods and Lean In on Ones You Like

When I lived in a one-room apartment for a while, I kept a lot of shelf-stable foods in a large plastic tub that served as my “pantry.” It included things that I could easily turn into simple meals with basically no kitchen equipment at all or, in some cases, things I could eat directly.

Things that were usually in that container included a loaf of bread, peanut butter, dried fruits (raisins, dried cranberries, and so on), a lot of dry cereals, fruit and protein bars, ramen noodles (don’t make this a regular thing, but it’s perfectly fine to boil some water in the microwave and have ramen on occasion), beef and turkey jerky (my parents used to make or acquire this and give me a lot of it), and cups of pudding and applesauce.

I didn’t have a whole lot of money at the time, so I would typically buy these things in significant quantity when I found them on sale. The only tools I needed for eating these things were a microwave-safe cup for heating water, a fork, a spoon, and a bowl, all of which were easily washed in the sink.

Another thing I highly recommend keeping in your “pantry box” is pre-made meals that are room temperature safe and able to be microwaved, like canned soups and many of the Trader Joe’s Indian Fare meals. You can find inexpensive and healthy options for these things and all they typically require is a microwave, a bowl, and a spoon or fork.

Eat Oranges, Bananas, and Apples

Oranges, apples, and bananas are perfect foods for the situation Jennifer finds herself in. You can just sit them right on the table in a bowl or even just out loose on the table and they’ll last for at least a week, often more. They can be eaten at room temperature whenever you like. They’re incredibly healthy. Most people like at least some of them. And they’re really cheap, too.

A lot of other fruits have a more … specialized taste or have a higher cost or don’t last as long on the tabletop. For example, I used to eat a lot of grapefruits because they could sit out on the table for a while, but not everyone is a big fan of grapefruits.

The point is that it’s pretty easy and pretty cheap to get fruits into your diet. Just buy some fruit that can last on the tabletop for days and eat them at your convenience.

(Plus, orange peel can make your apartment smell wonderful. Trust me.)

Eat Whole Rotisserie Chickens

One of the best bargains in food, in my opinion, is the whole rotisserie chicken, which many grocery stores sell. They’re whole chickens, already fully cooked and seasoned, at a really nice price.

Just buy a whole chicken, take it home, and take it apart as you eat it. It’ll most likely fit in a mini-fridge – if not, break it down further and put the pieces into smaller containers that will fit.

A single rotisserie chicken costs between $5 and $10 and can provide food for several meals for a single person. Not only that, you can use the meat in a lot of ways. For example, take a few spoonfuls of the rotisserie meat and throw it into a container of chicken ramen, or add it to some soup that you’ve made.

Learn to Make Simple “No Cook” Items That Don’t Require a Lot of Refrigerator Space or an Oven

There are a lot of very simple and tasty things you can make that don’t really require much more than a bowl, a cup, a microwave, and a fridge to make and only require room-temperature items. Learn how to make some of them.

One of my favorite things to make in this regard is “overnight oats.” Just put 1/2 cup rolled oats in a large cup, add an equal amount of liquid (preferably milk or almond milk), and then add a bit of sweetener of your choice, whether it’s a bit of honey or some pieces of dried fruit or whatever. Put this in the fridge overnight and you have a killer filling breakfast in the morning.

Another thing I used to make (and still do, on occasion) that really only requires a coffee cup, a microwave, and a fridge is the “coffee cup scramble.” Just spray the insides of a coffee cup with nonstick spray, crack two eggs in there, add just a little bit of milk and salt and pepper, beat it with a fork until it’s consistent, and then cook it in the microwave at 45 second intervals on high until it’s done. If you want, add a bit of shredded cheese on top. It costs about $0.50 and is easy to make with just what you have.

Learn to Make “Dump Meals” in a Crock Pot

This is my final tip, and it’s a big one. Even in Jennifer’s situation, there are still a bunch of meals that can easily be made in a crock pot, with leftovers easily stored in a mini-fridge for later meals throughout the week.

“Dump meals” are meals where you simply put a list of ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, and leave it on all day. At the end of the day, you have a ready-to-eat meal with plenty of leftovers if you’re a single person. That’s it.

If you have a handful of containers for leftovers – Rubbermaid makes really nice and nearly infinitely reusable containers for individual meals, like these, for example – you can just serve up a meal from your slow cooker right onto a bowl or a plate, then put the rest into a few meal-sized containers and pop them straight in the fridge. Eat them as they’re convenient. Clean up the slow cooker in your sink – it’s pretty easy to do – and move on with life.

For example, you can really easily make a “dump” beef stew. Just spray the crock of the slow cooker with cooking spray, then put the following in there: 2 pounds of beef stew meat (you can buy this pre-chopped at the grocery store), 1 packet of beef stew seasoning mix (found in the spice aisle at the grocery store), 1 bag frozen mixed vegetables, 1 pound baby potatoes, 1/2 pound baby carrots, 2 tablespoons dried onion powder, and 1 32 ounce container of beef stock. Turn the slow cooker on low and stir it around a bit. Then go about your day. 8 to 12 hours later, add a quarter of a cup of flour to the stew and stir it thoroughly, then serve yourself a bowl and put the rest in meal-sized containers in your mini fridge. Depending on your appetite, you’ll have four or five meals from this stew.

Like that one? Here are 56 more dump dinners for the slow cooker. Almost all of them consist of just dumping in a list of ingredients in the morning, turning it on low, going about your day, and coming home to a hot meal and a bunch of leftovers, no oven or anything required and only one pot to clean up easily in your sink.

Final Thoughts

If you’re in a situation like Jennifer is, where you have limited options for preparing food, you really have two main goals. One is to minimize how often you actually go into a restaurant by figuring out what you actually can prepare with your limited tools and space. The other is to get maximum value out of every restaurant visit when you do go by eliminating drink costs, utilizing leftover boxes, and taking advantage of buffets.

All of the strategies listed above center around these two core elements. Minimize restaurant visits (while recognizing that you’ll likely still go fairly frequently) and maximize value from those visits. It all boils down to that.

The thing is, once you feel comfortable preparing food with such minimal equipment, when the time comes later in life when you have a full kitchen available to you, preparing food won’t really seem very intimidating. Plus, you won’t have established a routine where the only source of food in your life is a restaurant. It will be very easy to move to a state where you prepare almost everything at home because it really is cheaper and more convenient.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go put some rolled oats to soak in the fridge for breakfast in the morning.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.