Thursday, June 12, 2014

Getting started on a budget {A Three Things Thursday post}

With $40 in my hand as I pushed the cart, I was testing the definition of a tight grocery budget. I looked for the cheapest cuts of meat and then tried to find packages that were marked down further. I skipped the name brands, then the store brands and stocked up on the value products.

I was 14, and my parents were recently separated. My dad was lost, unsure of what to do with two kids - much less how to do it with the debt of two adults and one income. He wasn't a cook or a shopper, and his attempts at stocking up for a week's meals left him frustrated and upset.

So I volunteered.

In the six months that followed, I did my best to find the most amount of food for the least amount of price. I wasn't worried about health, quality and sourcing. I was worried about making sure everyone, most importantly my dad, had enough to eat.

Those days, and constraints, may be far behind but the memories are vivid. (I can still taste the canned ravioli that Dad watered down so it could go further.) It's not the case for some and it can be why I scoff when people will say that eating healthy isn't expensive. Sure, the grocery bill doesn't have to be outrageous when you put your focus on eating better but when just eating is expensive, the added pressure of "healthy" can be intimidating.

But it can be done.

Here are three meal ideas - breakfast, lunch and dinner - that come in under budget.

1. Breakfast: Eggs. Simple as that. I was recently listening to a Vinnie Tortorich podcast, and a guest said that eggs are one of the most complete proteins. They are also filling and affordable. A dozen of non-organic eggs at my Kroger comes in just under $2, and I buy the 18-pack carton for $2.99. You can hard boil the carton and eat two with salt and pepper. Make a frittata, using frozen veggies, and cut into individual portions. Or, if you have time, poach a couple and serve with toast.

2. Lunch: I can easily spend upwards of $10 on lunch supplies for a week's worth of quote-unquote healthy lunches. It's not so bad when you consider that's what I spend when I got out but it's double what cheaper frozen meals cost. My solution: Dried beans, lentils and brown rice. For about $1.50 and a little prep time, someone has the building blocks of a nutrient dense, affordable lunch. Rice bowls are also insanely easy and versatile - add frozen or fresh veggies, choosing based on a "theme" (Mexican, Japanese, Indian) and it's done. Don't like bowls? Add some broth and turn it into soup. The beans and lentils serve as affordable protein options although one could easily use tofu or meat found on sale.

Bonus: You can prep lunch on Sunday and just grab and go throughout the week.

3. Dinner: The rule here is to keep it simple. It's fun to try new recipes and keeping the flavors fresh can help with adherence. However, a lengthy ingredient list can significantly increase the grocery bill. Some of my affordable favorites are Salsa Chicken - as a salad or wrap; homemade chili over a sweet potato (save on meat and add more beans); taco soup; and one-pot pasta.

This post was inspired by a beautiful friend who is starting her own journey. So give her some encouragement and share your budget meals!


  1. Aldi! Aldi, Aldi, Aldi!!! I love shopping Aldi because (most of the time) things are cheaper. Like red peppers- right now, Martin's has them $1.29 each, while they were 69 cents at Aldi.
    Another thing I tend to do: if I don't know what I"m going to cook for the week, I simply buy building blocks- like ground turkey, frozen chicken breast, and some basic veggies. I can usually turn that into a meal by scrounging through the pantry.

    1. I almost forgot about Aldi! I have been using a credit card to earn points and haven't been going. I did see that they have blueberries for a good price. I will need to check out some of the other stuff!

  2. Income in the last little while has been a bit sparse for the primary breadwinner of our family, so it's required a LOT of creativity in the kitchen. I had to do with very little produce this past week until a check came in. One small beef roast gave us three meals: one night was the roast beef, a sweet potato made into oven fries, a cabbage drizzled with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled with chopped garlic and S&P roasted in the oven, and some quinoa with a tiny bit of onion and a few raisins included. It wasn't our usual meal, but we made do. The next night, I took the leftover roasted cabbage, a rather scrawny orange pepper, and a tiny onion and combined them with the shredded leftover beef. With homemade BBQ sauce and homemade buns, we had sandwiches with an apple and 1/2 orange split between three of us. Two small pieces of leftover chicken cut into small strips gave enough flavor to a homemade alfredo/pesto pasta dish with carrots and green beans that it didn't feel as sparse as it really was. And the next night, the tiny bit that was left was tossed into a beans and rice mixture that we put in homemade tortillas. (making our own bread products saves a fortune, but does take time)

    I've learned that saving money for when the farmer is going to offer a 1/4 beef or when another farmer will have strawberries ready for the picking makes all the difference in how we eat. It's been the frozen beef in my freezer and the frozen fruit and veggies that have kept us during the times when there is simply no money for fresh food. Spending $60 on strawberries as soon as I get grocery money this week and taking the time to individually freeze them means we'll have fruit through next spring, or even an opportunity to turn some of them into jam later on if desired. For us, the saving is learning to invest in bigger quantities when we can find it local and in-season. Granted, we're blessed with a big freezer that enables us to put up food "for the winter" (which I've discovered can also mean a season of little income), and I know not everyone has that available. It's a bit hard to shell out $500 at one time for all the meat we'll eat in a year, but when we total up what we would have spent had we bought it as needed, it ends up saving us a fortune and lets us enjoy cuts of meat we'd never be able to afford if we bought them in a store whenever we wanted them. So we save up for fall butchering and summer harvests.

    I've been learning to use every little bit of something, whether it's making broth out of bones, or "hiding" leftover veggies I'd rather not see again inside spaghetti or pizza sauce. And learning to make convenience foods like BBQ sauce, tortillas, hummus, and beans has saved us a ton too. It just takes time......lots of it.

    1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment and sharing your experiences. People aren't always open about their struggles but it's so important because you don't know who you will help. My thoughts are with you and your family during this time.

      You are very right about saving money on convenience foods and doing it from scratch. Hummus, especially! A bag of chickpeas is less than $1.50 and makes enough hummus to feed a family for a week.

      We've considered buying meat in bulk as we have a freezer, too, but have balked at the upfront cost. It may be something we need to budget for as fall comes.

  3. Frozen vegetables are cheaper a lot of times and last longer (and have nothing added to them like canned).

    I like to make soup and the put it in canning jars to grab all week for lunch.