Cheap Eats- by Foxfier
Keep meaning to do this, so snagged quotes from the comments in one of the recent blogs to spin off of; they’re down at the bottom after my blather, and I’d appreciate if folks would share their own tips, tricks, must-haves or recipes.
This started with the “Challenge”: feeding four for less than twelve dollars.
I would, sadly, fail this challenge; I can’t cook for less than about 8…. although twelve dollars is rather extravagant for a normal meal. I am using Walmart as a baseline, because they are pretty much everywhere, are almost always on a bus line and have fairly consistent pricing for staples.
I would suggest as a bare minimum when cooking for a family and don’t want to go insane, that you have a rice cooker, an oven, a baking dish, a stove-top, a large/high sided frying pan (can double as a pot), a knife that is not a paring knife and a cutting board. Tin foil is also handy, as are plastic baggies. The quality you can get from a goodwill is acceptable, although you might prefer the slightly higher cost of Walmart just to be sure it will last. I am quite sold on the value of the multi-purpose “automatic” rice cookers which will function as a slow cooker, a steamer and generally have settings for at least white and brown. Our 7 person family has a 4 quart/20 cup Aroma Pro Plus that set us back $40 at Costco, and I’d advise a similar rice-steam-slowcooker over a traditional crockpot. (This is nearly heresy for my family.)
For spices, I would go with salt, pepper, garlic salt, lemon pepper and an Italian Seasoning mix; these are each 50c at WalMart, although you should probably get the huge 75c salt container if you have a salt shaker. If you can get it, the dried ranch mix in a big spice container is also very nice, though closer to five bucks. Decide how much it is worth to you.
For oil, canola is a good low-flavor, general-purpose oil for everything from using to make a cake to frying eggs. I like to have olive oil for savory uses, although it costs slightly more and I actually like the olive flavor of non-extra-virgin, non-cold-press oil.
If you are going to cook with butter, either have room in the freezer or get salted, it keeps it from going off as quickly. Likewise, eggs are an inexpensive protein that can sit in the fridge and not go off for weeks. (At $3 for a five dozen box vs 80c for a dozen, this can matter.) Cheese that is going to be cooked with can be frozen, which is very nice when a store has a sale on the two pound bags of shredded cheese for less than tastes-like-plastic block cheese. Frozen veggies are awesome, and canned veggies are often fresher than you could ever get at a store for heated applications, as well as being partly cooked already– if you just got home, are tired and don’t want to wait for an hour plus while dinner cooks, this is awesome.
If a recipe calls for pork, you can use chicken, and the other way around; their flavor profiles are very similar. (In not fancy talk: if it tastes good on chicken, it will probably taste good on pork.)
Beans are very inexpensive, but both take some planning and most types must be boiled as part of the cooking; they have a toxin that can make you ill at worst, and tastes nasty anyways. I tend to get around this by following the “quick soak” instructions on the back of the bag, then draining and freezing the results for use in slow cooker recipes. Canned beans are best for anything that has a short cooking time.
An inexpensive way to add flavor is to make any water you add into broth; in practice this means adding as much broth powder as the recipe would call for to match the water you’re using. You can also substitute the broth powder for salt in savory recipes.
If you are cooking very small meals, you can sometimes save money by doing freezer meals (this is a post series of posts all of its own—there’s a reason we own a chest freezer) using the larger, less expensive containers and breaking them down into single servings before freezing.
When buying store brands, just get one or two cans. Sometimes they’re awesome. Sometimes you’d rather go hungry. (This is my reaction to every inexpensive cheese I’ve tried, honestly– including Kirkland brand. Bandon or Tillamook loafs, Lucerne shreds for us.) If you find a store brand you like, keep an eye out for sales and stock up.
Don’t be afraid of buying in bulk when it’s something you use. Sure, the 20lb bag of rice is kind of obnoxious to pack in, but you only have to do it once in a while.
Make sure that the prices are actually cheaper– I’ve noticed that the bulk rice in the Mexican isle here is more expensive than the cute little WIC eligible bags in the primary isle, by weight. Since I usually shop when dead tired but my phone has a calculator, I just divide the price of the little one by how many pounds are in it, then multiply by the pounds in the big container. If the price you get is lower, buy the little container; if the price you get is higher, buy the big container.
Ramen cups are about 12c each if you buy a box of six, for an example of “bulk” that is more like “what you’d be buying anyways, but all the same flavor”– add an egg (20c) before microwaving and putting a serving of frozen veggies to one side (.40c at ~5 per 1lb bag which sells for between $1.40 and $3, depending on what veggies you can stand) makes a generous lunch, for less than a soda. If you need more flavor I really love adding about a half a teaspoon of Quoc Viet Foods Thai Tom Yum Flavored Soup Base, $8.25/10oz, costing about 7c.
I mentioned rice twice already, so here’s a quick translation guide:
Long grain rice is usually enriched (added nutrition- that’s good) and it’s what most Americans grew up thinking of as “white rice.” It is very nice for using as a bread substitute and serving similar to mashed potatoes.
Medium grain rice sticks together much nicer, and is generally identified as “sushi rice.” It is very nice for making rice balls (oni giri, in Japanese) in the very simple method of mixing the still hot rice with whatever “salad” type sandwich filling you feel like. Egg salad, tuna salad, etc. You will want plastic gloves for this, and aim for a size no bigger than half as big as a baseball. There are lots of suggestions for fillings that you can find by searching for “oni giri”– we had smoked oyster with cheese, also cheese and pickle, last week; it was really good. Eat hot; wrap leftovers in plastic to store in fridge, very crumbly if not hot.
Brown rice has not been polished– the thing that held it to the stalk is gone, but the skin remains. (for lack of a better way of putting it) This makes for higher fiber and greater structural integrity; very handy if you’re going to be using it in a slow cooker, not so good if you are eating in twenty minutes. The texture can be an issue, even after hours of cooking.
Generally, you don’t have hours to cook, unless you’re setting up the slow cooker in the morning Pasta is easy, but I always find the boiling water to be a pain– so I’ll do things like make a pound (or two) of rotini in one evening, according to the directions. (Although I use garlic salt instead of plain salt in the water.) Drain, add half a stick of butter per pound into the bottom of the pot, and dump the pasta back in. Stir until the butter is melted and spread all over the pasta, sprinkle with a little garlic salt, Italian seasoning or anything else that complements the dishes you’re going to do. It can now be refrigerated in a sealed container up to a week without any changes, which means you are actually only cooking whatever sauce goes with it; Walmart’s Alfredo sauce is rather good for using with the “chopped broccoli” (that’s the stuff that has a lot more of the stalks than the tree looking bits), add in a bit of leftover meat if you’ve got it. Slicing or chopping is a good idea to get the flavor spread out more; if you are going without meat, cheese (mozzarella is our go-to, due to the kids loving it) is a good bit of protein to make it much more filling.
On to the meal ideas!
Hmm… we could be generous and still come in under budget really easily:
2lb chicken leg quarters (1 leg quarter each): $2
2 bags generic stir fry vegetables: $2.50
3 bags generic cauliflower to make mashed cauliflower: $3
Add another very generous $2 for the meal contribution of some condiments, seasonings for the meat, butter and milk for the mashed cauliflower.
Total: $9.50 and it is also low carb so maybe the father can do something about his Type II diabetes.
For this experiment we’ll need grits, and egg or two, and a can of salmon. Salmon and grits – yum. Also cheap.
Breakfast for supper can also be cheap. Then there’s fried cube steak and gravy, served with rice and garden peas. Don’t like fried? Try making pressure cooker cube steak and serve with the same sides.
College. Egg & Cheese toasted sandwich. Got tiring, but 14 meals (Brunch & Dinner) 7 days a week. Today’s cost that is <$20/person. Cheddar cheese is the most expensive item. For variety, leave off the egg for grilled cheese.
1lb pork, diced, $2/lb.
1 can Cream of Chicken Soup. $1 if the store is high priced.
3 cups rice over estimating at $0.50
1 onion, very large $1
Spices at a generous $0.50
In a couple of years I anticipate that just feeding our family of 4 one meal (growing boy who’s looking to take after the VERY tall Scotts side of the family, and his sister who is a portable hole will be using a fork by then.) There might be enough for me to take for lunch the next day. Up the rice to 5 or 6 cups? Yup, left overs for certain. So $5?
Addition from Foxfier:
If you swap in pork chops, mix the soup with half as much water as you’re supposed to, mix that with the spices, onion and rice, put it it in the bottom of an oven-safe dish and lay the pork chops on top then cover with tin foil and bake an hour at 350, it’s “no peek pork chops.”
Cheap, reheats nicely; you can either mix in a bag of frozen mixed veggies ($1.50) or have a salad on the side. I have five of these sitting in my freezer right now as “it’s three, I don’t want to cook, just chuck it in the cold oven and it will be done by 5” meals. Re-used foil baking pans, too, so if it gets too nasty I just throw the mess away.
From B. Durbin
I do “ramen with stuff in it” for the kids. Two packages ramen, one with the “Oriental” flavoring (which Top Ramen is renaming “Soy”—and that honestly never occurred to me it was the flavor), a heat-proof bowl and a cover. Boil water, pour over ramen (no spice packets) and cover. Fry up a little ground beef with one spice packet and some onion powder; scramble a couple of eggs. Throw some frozen peas and corn into the bowl with the ramen; drain once heated. Mix in beef and eggs and serve immediately.