I recently got a question from a reader, Jen. I wanted to give some hopefully helpful tips for her (three frugal overarching tips, a list of frugal whole foods, and Asian Market finds), but I also would love for you all to weigh in and give her some advice. So please, leave a comment and share your tips! Here’s the question.
I’m a bit of a lurker, but today, I realized I have a question for you. I’m a young single gal, with an extremely limited budget (seriously, $100/a month would more than double my monthly food budget–and my roommate and I share quite a bit of the food that I buy). What advice could you offer someone in my situation? I normally cook for one (and am hesitant to spring my…shall we say developing??…cooking skills on anyone else in the guise of blessing them), and have the aforementioned limited budget, but I’d like to do better for myself than frozen dinners and canned soup.”
Hi Jen, thanks so much for the question. First, let me just say, I am amazed that you can eat on so little! Maybe I have been feeding a family organics too long, but feeding one person on less then $50 dollars a month seems very limited! So kudos to you for being able to make it work so far!
I am assuming that there aren’t other expenses you can cut to up your food budget? One reason we can spend a little more on our personal food budget is by cutting other expenses. But I imagine you already have done that.
So, with a deep breath, here I go with what advice I have to offer!
Three rules of thumb
1-My goal is to always eat as nourishing as I can, and not to worry about the rest. We all have limitations. For some it’s money, for others, it’s time, and for many it’s both. All to say, there is always something more that we could be doing but just can’t-financially or with time limits. Don’t let it bother you, just do your best.
2-Know your own territory. Everyone is going to have different advantages depending on what’s near them. There is one little market down the road from me, who during peak growing season will have wonderful, amazing deals on both local and organic food. I’ve seen organic cucumbers being sold for 25 cents, for example. That really only takes place for a few months, but when it does, I try to jump on it! There’s another produce outlet where I can snag some great deals. It’s a hit and miss type of place, but I have found some wonderful items there. Grocery outlets can also have some pretty good stuff too. There are also farmer’s stands on the side of the road where I can get reasonably priced produce.
If you have a Trader Jo’s in your area, you will find some of their items well priced, you may have to skip the organic stuff however. I don’t think that you would be able to get all of your grocery shopping done there since you are very limited, but you may find some nourishing choices there in your price range.
Obviously that’s a lot of different places that I buy things from, the only way I make that work is by stopping by them when running other errands or when in the area.
3-Eat Simply- Be okay with eating simple meals of whole foods (instead of frozen pizzas) and you will be getting more nutrition, less junk, and hopefully save some too!
So there are three overarching rules of thumb for me, do my best, and know my territory, and eat simply. Here are some examples of high nutrient food that is also fairly cheap.
List of Frugal Whole Foods
Even if you can’t afford the best type of eggs, they are a nutrient rich food! Full of very important protein and nutrients, you can’t go wrong with eggs.
Dried beans expand a lot when they are cooked. They are cheap to start with and then they double or triple in size when cooked! Definitely a frugal girl’s best friend. Use them by themselves to make lovely bean soups, refried beans, taco salads, etc, and also use them to stretch ground beef. And they are full of fiber and other healthy nutrients.
One of the cheapest meats around. If you see a good price, you can buy more then you need and easily freeze some. Meat is much more nutrient dense then grains or legumes, plus they contain important vitamins, like B 12 that’s hard to get on a vegetarian diet. So try to include some meat in your diet when you can.
Fish contains important fatty acids, and if you buy it canned it will be cheap too. Canned tuna is a typical frugal choice, but it’s an important one too, in my opinion. If this was the only fish choice I could afford, I would do it! You can even often find canned salmon for a decent price too (and eat the bones, if they are in there. They have important calcium). Sardines have a bad rap taste wise, but they are environmentally friendly caught fish that are super good for you. And you can buy them really cheap too. I find I actually like them. (Surprise, surprise!)
Your favorite, right? Well, maybe not, and it’s not mine either (though I am coming around). It’s both cheap and very nutrient dense though. Hide it in ground beef, and you probably won’t even notice it’s there.
Pasta and Potatoes
Yes, they are starches, but truthfully I find I do better with plenty of carbs in my diet anyways. And they are CHEAP! You gotta get full, and they will fill you up. Both pasta and potatoes are versatile, there are so many ways you can fix them. A better choice pasta from Trader Jo’s (if you have one near) is their Organic Rice Pasta which is two dollars a package (12 ounces, I think). It would last you a few meals, I imagine. Get it if you can afford it, otherwise just do your best to get what you can.
Talking about cheap deals, this is it! We have sometimes had oatmeal almost every morning, and it saves a great deal of money. We like it too. To get more nutrition out of it, soak it like this recipe, and you can sweeten it with raisins instead of sugar for a better, frugal sweetener.
Make them out of leftover veggies, leftover beans, leftover meats, leftover anything! I notice a huge cost savings when we eat more soups. They are filling, easy to digest, and delicious too! They can also easily use whatever leftovers you have on hand. Don’t try to follow Gourmet magazine’s recipes, because it will cost you more, but instead make up your own soups using leftovers.
One last important tip, check out your local Asian Markets, seriously! They have some of the cheapest food around. Here are some of the food I buy there that would definitely qualify as cheap and nutrient dense.
Dried anchovies. We eat these little salty fish plain, but there are a variety of recipes out there that make them into all sorts of lovely dishes (I plain on trying some soon!). They are extremely good for you (better then canned), and very nutrient dense (they are dried so they are concentrated nutrition, like dried fruit) and the three ounce package I get (which is more than you think) is only $1.50.
Young Coconuts-I get these for about one dollar and they are extremely good for you. Don’t just drink the juice but make use of the yummy coconut meat “jelly” inside too. This is probably a luxury item on your budget since you may not find them filling, but they aren’t expensive at Asian stores and are very good for you.
Dried Seaweed-In the large Asian store we go too, we can only find two brands that don’t contain MSG in it. Avoid MSG when at all possible. But seaweed is very good for you. We get the toasted kind, which we cut into squares and eat with plain brown rice (often with fried eggs on the side) for a simple meal. You won’t find a better deal than here.
Palm or Coconut Sugar-Very cheap sweetener which is loads better then cane sugar, one of my favorites! Once again, you can buy it very cheap at Asian stores.
Other things to look for: Chicken parts (like chicken feet) to make your own chicken broth. Very cheap here, and you can find odd parts, like the feet (I know, a little gross, but very traditional to put into broth) to make a delicious and very, very nutritious broth. Consider it. Other finds: produce, fresh and dried fish, big bags of legumes and rice, white rice pasta.
So there are some of my thoughts. I hope they prove helpful! Now it’s everyone else’s turn! What advice do you have for Jen?