A New Normal
Our world has been upended and our lives disrupted. Without work, many people suddenly find themselves in the unusual position of not having enough money to buy food, and expensive habits that were once casually embraced must now be discarded in favor of frugality. Where it was once possible to hit up a fast food drive-through for a quick fix of calories, now we have to excruciatingly calculate the value of that meal. Do you spend $10 on a hamburger and fries and feed yourself once? Or is that money better spent on bread and milk? Perhaps even bread and milk is too expensive, and that money would be better spent on instant noodles? Many people who have never had to worry about such things before are suddenly acutely aware of just how precious $10 really is, though in most cases, they lack the experience to know how to utilize that money as efficiently as possible.
You Don't Have To Go Hungry
Over the past few weeks, I have watched as many people who never had to worry about their next meal are suddenly plunged into a situation that, for me, has long been my "normal". As someone who grew up in poverty and spent the majority of her adult live teetering on the brink of it, I have always had to monitor the cost of everything I do down to the last penny. When I buy something, I don't just consider how much the item costs--I think about all of the other things (often food) I could purchase instead for the same amount. It is a habit I have retained even as my economic situation improved, and now I see other discovering this thought process for the first time as their money runs out and their pantries dwindle.
Sadly, I cannot put money into anyone's pocket. I cannot stock anyone's cupboards, nor deliver meals to their doors, but what I can do is share the skills and knowledge I have gathered over decades of making do, often on less than 50¢ per meal. Over the years, I have found multiple tricks and strategies to rounding out my diet, even when money was hard to come by. I didn't go hungry, and you don't need to, either.
Tip 1: Focus on the Staples
The first thing to do when you know you are going to have to eat on an extremely tight budget is to stock up on inexpensive staples. Rice, beans, potatoes, lentils, and eggs are all relatively cheap, have a long shelf life, and can be used to fill out meals to take the burden off of more expensive ingredients. It's important to note that these food items won't do you any good if you won't eat them or don't know how to prepare them, so don't buy something if you realistically aren't going to be able to cook or eat it.
Rice is a staple throughout the world, particularly in low-income areas, and with good reason. It's cheap, filling, and depending on the variety you get, can be very nutritious. Cooking rice is an art form that can be simplified by purchasing an inexpensive rice cooker, though if that isn't in the budget, it can be prepared in a regular pot on the stove as long as you are diligent. If you prepare rice on the stove, it is imperative that you pay attention to it until it is done cooking, or you could end up wasting it when it goes up in smoke.
As mentioned, there are several varieties of rice. For most recipes, you will want a long-grain white rice. Brown rice has more protein, fiber, and calories than white rice, but takes longer to cook (typically an hour or so), and has a shorter shelf life. Research the varieties of rice available in your area and pick on that works for your cooking style, tastes, and needs.
Once purchased, your rice should be transferred to an air-tight container to prevent infestation by pests. Some insect eggs may already exist in the rice, but the risk of them hatching is reduced if they remain sealed up and dry. Before cooking, rinse the rice off in a wire strainer until the water runs clear, then prepare according to the instructions on the package.
Rice is a versatile staple that can be prepared according to a wide range of flavor palettes. Fried rice utilizes east asian flavors, while curried rice borrows from the Indian subcontinent. Spanish rice can make a delicious side to homemade tacos or burritos, while rice pilaf pairs well with inexpensive fish fillets.
Beans and Lentils
Many novice chefs are intimidated by the process of cooking beans and lentils, but you shouldn't be. With countless varieties to choose from and endless recipes to try, these are two staples that you shouldn't pass up.
Beans are more familiar to the average household than lentils. They are the main ingredient in refried beans, baked beans, and many versions of American chili. The most daunting aspect for many is the time it takes for them to cook, which should be less of a detriment for those who are spending their day at home anyway. The "Quick Soak" method is the best way to prepare beans for cooking, and seems to reduce the, shall we say, aromatic consequences of a bean-rich diet. Simply clean and sort your beans, immerse them in water, bring them to a boil for two minutes, and then remove from the heat and allow them to soak for an hour. Next, drain the liquid off, replace with fresh water, and add your seasoning and other ingredients according to the recipe. Cook until the beans are tender. This may take a few hours (old beans take longer to cook), so leave plenty of time before dinner is due to be served.
Lentils are similar to beans, but smaller, cook faster, and don't seem to produce as much flatulence as their familiar counterparts. Like beans, lentils are rich in protein, nutrients, and flavor, and can be utilized in a wide variety of recipes. Lentils cook up well in slow cookers like a Crock Pot, and pair well with the flavors of ham and root vegetables. If in doubt, a quick online search for recipes will demonstrate just how easy it can be to cook up a delicious meal using lentils.
Like rice, beans and lentils should be stored in an airtight container to keep pests at bay. Additionally, do not allow children or animal to eat dried beans, as they are toxic until they have been cooked.
The humble potato is a familiar friend in American diets. We bake them, fry them, boil them, mash them, stick 'em in a stew...
It is very likely that you already have a bag of potatoes in your kitchen, but even then you may be undervaluing their potential. Not only can they make delicious soups, sides, and snacks, they are also extraordinarily easy to grow! Simply save a piece of a potato with an "eye" and let it cure overnight, then plant it in loose soil. Do the same with old potatoes that have sprouted before you could cook them, and in a few months, your potato bin will be restocked. Need to plant them off-season, or don't have a yard? No problem at all. Simply take a large dog food bag, place a layer of soil at the bottom, and plant your potatoes in that. As they grow, add more soil until the bag is full. When it's time to harvest, simply dump out the bag, collect your potatoes, and nourish the soil for the next batch. An online search can fill you in on the growing period, time to harvest, and how to fertilize the soil for optimum growth, but they are so easy to grow, you're likely to get decent results even if you are a novice at gardening.
Eggs are a must in the kitchen, both for their value as a food item themselves, and for their properties in baking and cooking other recipes. However, not all eggs are created equally. The most inexpensive eggs you can buy come from hens kept in cramped, sunless cages, and the quality of the eggs suffer as a result of their diet and living conditions. It's not just the flavor that is harmed: factory-farmed eggs are actually less nutritious as a result of these conditions.
It will cost more, but you will get more nutrition for your buck by buying eggs from a small-scale farmer who lets their hens forage on pasture. Pastured eggs are higher in nutrients and lower in bad cholesterol than their "battery farm" counterparts. Plus, even when you consider the extra cost, the eggs are far cheaper pound-for-pound than meat, making them more practical for someone on a tight budget.
As for how to use them, there are so many more recipes out there than the familiar friend/scrambled/hard boiled/etc most people are accustomed to. Shakshuka is a traditional African dish that poaches eggs in a spicy tomato sauce, while tamago kake gohan exploits the virtues of truly fresh, quality eggs by cracking them raw over a hot bowl of rice. Tea eggs are a traditional New Year treat in China, while eggy-in-a-basket neatly packages a fried egg inside a nest of crispy toast. With so many ways to use your eggs, they could easily serve as your primary source of protein, at a fraction of the cost of a cut of meat.
Tip 2: Learn Kitchen Scrap Gardening
I touched on this a little bit above with the potatoes, but there's actually several vegetables that you can regrow from scraps. To name a few: potatoes, bulb onions, green onions, romaine, bok choy, fennel, celery, and lemon grass can all be recultivated after using them in the kitchen.
To go into great depth on this subject would require an article all of its own, but if it seems like something you would like to try, an online search for "kitchen scrap gardening" will yield a bounty of results. It's definitely something to consider, since growing your own produce is a great way to ensure you'll have access to crucial nutrients, even when you run out of money to buy fresh groceries. In particular, I always keep a pot flush with thriving green onions on my windowsill. They are tough, resilient plants that take root readily and produce an abundant crop of green in short order. Diced and sprinkled on soups or other dishes, they create a pop of color and flavor that nourishes the soul as well as the body.
Tip 3: Stock Your Spice Rack
When you're feeding yourself on just a few dollars a day, you'll find you eat much the same thing, meal after meal, day after day. To prevent this from descending into soul-crushing monotony, make sure to have a wide variety of spices, sauces, stocks, and bouillons on hand to flavor dishes with.
It may take time to build up a good stockpile of seasoning, but dollar for dollar, it's well worth the effort. Focus on flavors you know you like, so for example, if you love Italian food, start with basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and rosemary. If Mexican food tickles your whiskers, cumin, chili powder, cilantro, and cayenne should reside on your spice rack. Every kitchen should be stocked with basics like garlic, onion (powder or flakes), salt, pepper, and paprika, but customize it from there based on your personal tastes.
In addition to herbs and spices, you will want to keep bouillon or stock on hand. These concentrated servings of flavor are available in virtually every savory incarnation you can imagine, including chicken, beef, pork, seafood, and even vegetarian. Cheaper and more versatile than broth itself, bouillon and stock may seem expensive at first, but a jar of concentrated stock will pay for itself within a few meals. I recommend "Better Than Bouillon", or a generic counterpart. One teaspoon can make a cup of broth to flavor soups, rice, and more.
Finally, choose your sauces. It's been a long-running joke in the low-income community that "Sriracha masks the taste of poverty", but they're not wrong. A shot of hot sauce in a cup of noodles can really liven it up, though if spicy isn't your thing, consider splurging on your favorite flavor of mustard or dressing. A little treat here and there will make it feel less like you're living a deprived existence, and prevent you from succumbing to despair over your diet.
Tip 4: Cheap Meat
If $10 seems like a lot of money to you right now, then the price of beef probably makes you feel like crying. Meat can seem like an exorbitant expense when money is tight, but there are ways to round out meals with animal protein without feeling as though you have sabotaged yourself financially.
To start with, look for meat being sold in bulk. Although the price tag is higher, you get far more for your money, and can freeze the excess for a later recipe. (Just make sure to research safe freezing and thawing practices). Large bags of cut-up chicken are often available for cheaper than the cost of a single chuck roast, and a whole turkey can be cooked up and made into multiple meals for pennies per pound, depending on the season.
Additionally, check your store's refrigerated section for discounted leftovers from their hot case. Cold rotisseries and fried chicken are often available at a discount, and both can be reheated to their former glory by popping them in the oven or re-frying them in hot oil, respectively. A cold rotisserie chicken can also be picked apart and made into several meals over the course of a week, including soup, chicken salad, tacos, and fried rice. What feels like a meager amount of meat if you are eating it as the main course can be transformed into multiple, fulfilling meals at very little expense.
Finally, shrimp. Yes, shrimp. Although it's treated like a luxury item, and people on food assistance are often accused of wasting taxpayer dollars on it, shrimp is actually a very affordable source of protein, and the flavor can revitalize dishes that otherwise would be unappetizing. The trick is to avoid the large and jumbo shrimp, focusing instead on the small, tiny, or "salad" sized options. These shrimpy shrimps are often already de-tailed, pre-cooked, and ready to add to a recipe, and they're typically $5 or less per bag. Toss a few thawed shrimp into a cup of noodles, fried rice, soup, or other dish for a quick, easy, and inexpensive pop of flavor and protein.
Tip 5: Beware the Price of Convenience
I admit, cup noodles are a guilty pleasure of mine, but the packets of instant noodles are another story. Although cup noodles include something resembling vegetables that reconstitute when the noodles are prepared, packet noodles offer only a pouch of MSG-flavored salt and a brick of noodles that always seem to cook up feeling like glob of mush. The real sin however, is the price. For the price of a flat of "top ramen", a discerning shopper could purchase dried pasta, bouillon, and Mrs. Dash, and make their own, better substitute.
It's not only instant ramen that bears this shame. Most processed and pre-made meals charge extra for convenience, while loading up on salt and suffering on flavor. That's not to say that they're all bad, but if you're on a tight budget, you should limit yourself to two or three of these meals a week, and focus on preparing your own food from scratch the rest of the time. When you do splurge on pre-made meals, get something higher-end, preferably a recipe that you aren't able to make yourself. This way, you'll not only get the literal nourishment of the meal, you'll also add variety to your daily life that you wouldn't otherwise get to enjoy.
Tip 6: Frozen Vegetables
When you are counting pennies, fresh produce is often a luxury you can't afford. Frozen produce on the other hand is not only cheaper, it has a longer shelf life and is often more nutritious! Spend a little extra to buy in bulk, use what you need as you need it, and then pin the bag closed and return it to the freezer until it's needed again.
Green beans, peas, corn, leafy greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and vegetable medleys can be purchased frozen and added to recipes as-needed, whether it's cooking up a side to go with the main dish, or sprinkling some peas and carrots on top of a bowl of rice. Additionally, frozen fruit is also often available cheaper than fresh, and can be used to make inexpensive smoothies, shakes, and desserts at home.
Tip 7: Use Real Butter
Butter. I know, it's expensive, so I don't blame you for holding off on getting it, but it really is worth the splurge. Although cheaper, margarine simply isn't a substitute when it comes to cooking and baking, and it will impact not only the flavor, but the very chemistry of whatever you're making. Although there are places you can trim back on expenses (such as buying cheaper cuts of meat), don't try to save a dime by buying fake butter.
Tip 8: Research Wild Food
When you're on a tight budget, nothing is better than free, and as luck would have it, we're surrounded by free food. The oft-maligned dandelion is just one example of dozens of edible, nutritious weeds that call our yards home.
If you are serious about trying your hand at foraging, I strongly recommend joining a group or forum on the subject so that you can double check that the plants you harvested are what you think they are, and that they are safe to eat. Although dandelions are ubiquitous, easy to identify, and completely edible, other plants have poisonous look-alikes, have only certain parts that are safe to eat, or are only edible at certain stages in their growth. This is especially true for mushrooms, which can be either a delicious delicacy or an unwelcome trip to the ER, depending on your skills at identifying them.
If you do pursue foraging for wild greens and fungi, you will be astonished to discover just how much wonderful food we have trampled underfoot or even attempted to eradicate in favor of inedible grass lawns.
Tip 9: Grow a Garden
If you have a patch of earth that you can till, you should consider growing a vegetable garden, and if you don't, you should consider growing vegetables or herbs in your windowsill. Don't expect immediate returns, and don't be discouraged if your plants fail to thrive. Gardening is a skill that takes time and research to master, but it is one with vast rewards.
For those new to gardening, focus on quick-growing plants that don't have to fruit out and don't require a lot of care. The specifics will vary depending on your soil, climate, and how much sunlight your garden/windowsill get. Herbs are a great place to start, as fresh herbs are often nutrient-rich as well as being flavorful, and many of them are tough plants that are hard to kill.
Start out with realistic expectations, but do your best, and try to master growing at least one thing. It is a skill that will reward you many times over in the days ahead.
Mitara N from South Africa on April 13, 2020:
Interesting article, comes in handy during this period where every cent counts, but still want to fill the tummy rumble.