How To Save Money On Food

Today, The Simple Dollar is featuring a guest post by Jerry Kolber. Jerry is an award-winning writer, producer, and executive producer of film and television including Inked and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He is a long-time reader of The Simple Dollar and recently launched a site offering insights into eating great food on a budget at

One of the most interesting things happening as a result of our economic downturn is that grocery stores are thriving, farmer’s markets are doing great, and seed sales to individuals are up 25% this year. It seems like the whole country is following Trent’s advice at The Simple Dollar to cook at home more. Over the past couple of years, Trent’s writing has also influenced me to spend more time in my kitchen, and I am now more likely to have friends over for dinner than go out to eat.

After spending nearly a decade producing shows like Inked, Confessions of a Matchmaker, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this year I’m actively making a point to do more of the work I love, writing and producing around the issues of social justice. Trent’s own journey to doing the work he loves – and his writing about the usefulness of being frugal and smart about money along the way – has been an inspiration to me and I look to him for both philosophical and practical advice.

One place I draw the line on cutting costs is on the quality of the ingredients we buy to make our meals. Eating is the only time that you voluntarily select pieces of the “outside world” to take into your body, and the energy of the food does quite literally affect the energy of your thoughts and body. Every time you buy or grow food, you are making a choice about what kind of food system you want to support with your money.

When going to the grocery store, it’s easy to be seduced by the best deal for your wallet. Though I am as much of a food bargain hunter as anyone, I’ve come to learn through years of research into nutrition, the food supply, and self-observation that sometimes the cheapest food actually has hidden costs. Meat, dairy, fruits and vegetable produced on “factory farms” can not only contain chemical residues of antibiotics, fertilizer, and pesticides, the production of these products is also one of the main causes soil and water pollution in America.

The mainstream conversation around “healthy fresh food” is mostly spearheaded by apparently affluent people who seem to have time to pick fresh arugula from their garden each evening. Yet I’ve found that even in Manhattan, the most expensive place in the world to shop for groceries, I can create delicious meals built around fresh, chemical-free ingredients very cheaply. Everything from stuffed burritos, to jaw-dropping macaroni and cheese, pasta with feta cheese, awesome chili, noodles with vegetables and peanut sauce – I’ve come up with simple and quick recipes that let me cook luscious, filling meals for less than a quarter of the cost of a fast food meal.

Earlier this year many people started encouraging me to share this information, so that other people on a budget could see that there was a way to join the food revolution without breaking the bank. With stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes offering cheap generic organic options on everything from beans to pasta to vegetables, and the rise of farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture (CSA’s) and food coops, it’s never been easier to make an affordable shift to a more traditional diet. And with sales of seeds for home gardens increasing 25% this year, it’s clear that many people are going to rediscover the joy of getting a 10 to 1 return on investment from their own patch of fresh fruits and vegetables. With all of this in mind I wrote a cookbook and guide about how to affordably join the food revolution that is quietly happening in America.

The cookbook – Three Dollar Dinner – explains how I came to care about what I eat. Unlike many voices in the “food movement” I don’t tell you what to do; and I don’t offer recipes that include anything you would consider “gourmet”. I just offer my own perspective in a gentle, fun way. I’m just a regular guy who likes to eat and have figured out how to do it in a way that is delicious, good for my wallet, and good for the planet. I don’t discourage any kind of food. I even include detailed shopping lists for two weeks of recipes.

Regardless of whether you get started with my cookbook, Trent’s recipes here at The Simple Dollar, or wherever you may choose, don’t be intimidated by trying organic and natural foods – you CAN afford to be a part of the real food revolution, and there’s no better time to join in then right now.

Here’s a few recipes from the book to get you started. Note that although I encourage you to experiment with organic ingredients (and have priced them that way) you can make them with whatever you want or have available. I include costs per serving for each recipe; you can simply halve the recipe for two, double for a party of eight, etc. The costs are based on Manhattan prices, so hopefully you can do better.

Chinatown Express Noodles with Peanut Sauce
Cost per Person: $2.12
Total Work Time: 14 minutes
Total Time: 22 to 25 minutes
Total Cost for Four People: $8.48
Calories per Serving: 640

This is a tasty, hearty noodle dish with a sweet and salty peanut sauce. It’s a complete one bowl meal with protein, carbohydrates, fats and even a generous serving of fresh vegetables. With snap peas, it has a nice crunch, or for a more traditional preparation used washed and dried greens like kale or spinach.

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons organic sugar, honey, or agave – $0.30
8 tblspns. organic peanut butter (smooth or chunky) – $1.00
5 tablespoons crushed garlic – $0.20
½ cup organic soy sauce – $0.50

For the noodles:
16 ounces organic pasta – $2.49
1 lb. organic snap peas or greens – $3.99


Step 1 (2 minutes)
Fill your large pot with enough water to cover the noodles, plus two inches. Bring to a boil by setting on your stovetop’s highest heat. Don’t put the noodles in yet. While you wait for the water to boil, go to step two.

Step 2 (4 minutes)
Snap both ends off the peas – if someone else can do this you can move to step two. Or if you are using greens, wash and dry them.

Step 3 (4 minutes)
Combine all the sauce ingredients in a bowl plus one cup of water, and mix with a fork until it is completely blended. Start with five or six tablespoons of peanut butter, and add the last couple at the end if it’s not too thick.

Step 4 (1 minute)
By now the water should be boiling. Empty the pasta into the boiling water. Cook it for as long as the box or package recommends – typically between 8 and 12 minutes.

Step 5 (5 minutes)
Heat one tablespoon olive oil in your skillet. Sautee the snap peas or greens for three minutes, then add the sauce and turn the heat to low. Mix well. If it’s too thick, add a bit of water.

Step 6 (3 minutes)
At the end of the recommended cooking time, check the pasta by removing a piece or two with a slotted spoon. Let it cool for a moment and then taste it. If it’s too firm, let it cook for a minute or two more. Pasta gets softer as it cooks, so you don’t want it too soft – “al dente” is the perfect firmness, and it means that it has firmness to your teeth.

When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander then put it back in the pot. Add the peas or greens and the sauce and a dash of chili powder. Toss and stir until the sauce is evenly distributed on the noodles. Serve warm.

Kerouac Stew
Cost per Person: $2.20
Total Work Time: 27 minutes
Total Time: 67 minutes
Total Cost for Four People: $8.82
Calories per Serving: 550

Something about this stew reminds me of the cobblestone streets and charm of the old school West Village (aka Greenwich Village to most folks visiting from out of town) when Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were experimenting with words, life, and spirit. This stew combines vegetables, hearty grains, and rich stock to make a filling one bowl meal. It’s another good weekend recipe since it’s better the longer it simmers. With light, fluffy couscous, it’s vaguely Moroccan. If you’d prefer to serve with rice, or slices of crusty bread, go for it.

1 28 oz. can organic diced tomatoes – $1.79
Bunch (6 to 7) organic carrots – $1.99
8 small (or 4 large) organic potatoes (1.5 lbs total) – $1.50
1 organic onion – $0.60
3 tablespoons Better than Bullion or other bullion – $0.35
12 oz. couscous (one box or 2 cups) – $2.59

1 tablespoon basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cinnamon (not essential, but if you have it you can add it)


Step 1 (10 minutes)
Peel the carrots; cut off ends, and peel with a vegetable peeler. Peel the onion (cut off ends and remove papery outer layers). Wash the potatoes and dry, but do not peel. Now coarsely chop all the vegetables into ½ to 1” cubes and slices (think “bite size”).

Step 2 (7 minutes)
Heat two tablespoons olive oil in your skillet over medium high heat. Add the vegetables and stir for five minutes. Set aside.

Step 3 (3 minutes)
Pour the entire can of diced tomato and juices into your Dutch oven or large pot. Add the skillet vegetables and two tablespoons Better than Bullion and one tablespoon dried basil, plus two teaspoons dried cinnamon if you have it. Stir and bring to a boil, then immediately turn down to a simmer. Let simmer for 45 minutes. Check every five or ten minutes and add a bit of water if it is getting too thick. You can let this simmer for hours – the longer the better, but after 45 minutes check a carrot or potato for doneness.

Step 4 (5 minutes)
After the stew has been simmering for 45 minutes, in a smaller pot or saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to boil. Add one tablespoon Better than Bullion and 12 oz. box of couscous (2 cups). Stir and immediately remove from heat; let sit five minutes.

Step 5 (2 minutes)
After the couscous has sat for five minutes it will have absorbed all the water. Fluff it with a fork, and serve each person a cup of couscous and a couple of generous spoonfuls of the stew.

Sunshine Risotto
Cost per Person: $1.63
Total Work Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Total Cost for Four People: $6.53
Calories per Serving: 500

Risotto is the unsung sweetheart of the Italian kitchen. It’s not nearly as hard to prepare as some chef’s would have you believe, and I simplify the preparation even further. Purists may disagree with how I am about to tell you to make fast and delicious risotto, but you can’t argue with the golden delicious orbs of creamy goodness that you will soon enjoy.

Risotto is a rice dish that basically makes itself creamy without having to add any cream or cheese, though you can add both for taste and luxuriousness. This preparation with its lightness and splash of lemon makes me think of the summer I never spent in Italy. You can add a half cup of fresh or dried finely diced mushrooms but I make it just as it is below.

Two cups arborio rice (MUST be arborio) – $2.25
Four tablespoons butter or olive oil – $0.30
One cup grated parmesan cheese (3 ounces) – $2.00
Two big handfuls of greens – $0.98
Four cubes of beef or vegetable bullion – $0.40
One organic onion – $0.60

Lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Olive oil


Step 1 (2 minutes)
In a large pot bring six cups of water to boil with the four cubes of beef or vegetable bullion. While waiting for boil, go to step 2.

Step 2 (7 minutes)
Heat one tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in your skillet. Roughly chop the onion (peel off papery outer layers, cut off ends, and discard – then chop). Begin to sautee the onion, for about 3 minutes, keeping an eye on the pot of water.

Step 3 (20 to 25 minutes)
When the water comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Then add the two cups of rice, and your sauteed onions. Continue stirring frequently for about twenty to twenty five minutes, until liquid is mostly absorbed. While this is simmering, go to step 3.

Step 4 (3 minutes)
Toss two big handfuls of greens (arugula is great, but spinach works too) with about a tablespoon of olive oil, a dash of salt and a dash of pepper. Add balsamic vinegar if you want. Keep stirring your rice every couple of minutes.

Step 5 (3 minutes)
When the rice has absorbed the water and is creamy, add one cup of parmesan cheese and mix in along with two tablespoons of lemon juice. Taste and season with salt and pepper to your liking. It should be slightly salty with a hint of lemon.

Serve the risotto with a side of greens. Mmmmm.

Garlicious Mac-a-Cheese
Cost per Person: $2.40
Total Work Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Total Cost for Four People: $9.60
Calories per Serving: 500

Mac and cheese in a box is the classic “I’m eating on a budget standby.” But since you end up adding milk anyways, all your paying for is dried cheese and less-than-excellent noodles. You can make delicious garlicky macaroni and cheese all by yourself at home, for about the same cost and about 100 times the deliciousness and healthiness (yes, even healthier than Annie’s Naturals, though that’s not a bad choice if you’re really in a hurry).

This is called Garlicious Mac-A-Cheese because that sounds like a superhero name, and I’d let this Mac and Cheese duke it out with any other mac and cheese any day of the week.

8 oz. macaroni (whole wheat or white elbows or penne) – $1.69
1 free range eggs – $0.32
1 organic onion – $0.60
1 6 oz bag organic or natural shredded cheddar – $3.99
Three tablespoons crushed garlic – $0.25
1/2 cup breadcrumbs – $0.25
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (3 ounces) – $2.00
1 cup organic milk – $0.50

Salt and pepper


Step 1 (3 minutes)
In a large pot bring water to boil and add the pasta. Cook for as long as box suggests (usually about 9 minutes). Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Step 2 (4 minutes)
Scramble the egg in a large bowl for about fifty whisks. Add the milk, two tablespoons mustard, four teaspoons salt, and all the cheddar cheese to the bowl and mix. Grease your large casserole dish (should be about 9 inches by 7 inches, but exact dimensions don’t matter).

Step 3 (3 minutes)
In a small bowl mix the 1/2 cup parmesan with 1/2 cup breadcrumbs.

Step 4 (35 minutes)
When pasta is done cooking, drain it in a strainer. Now add it to the bowl of milk and cheese and egg, mix gently and then pour into the casserole dish. Top with the parmesan/breadcrumb mixture and put it in the oven for thirty minutes.

Step 5 (3 minutes)
The top should be brown and crusty. If it’s not, you can put your oven on “broil” and toast the top by placing the casserole under the broiler flame for 2 or 3 minutes. Handle with care – it’s hot.

Serve and watch as they pass out from the overwhelming pleasure of Garlicious Mac-A-Cheese.

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