It’s bizarre to me that buying myself $10 of cheap vegetables can feel decadent.
Maybe I’ve never been quite this poor before.
In college there was student loan money every semester and free pizza at club meetings or free food left in the Fine Arts office.
In graduate school I didn’t have to drive my car unless I was going grocery shopping for the most part and I wasn’t paying my own car insurance yet.
I think if I could get ahold of a couple hundred dollars extra somehow I’d be okay, but as it is I keep dipping into my savings and trying to pay it back later.
Maybe I should just consider that $200 a casualty of war.
I probably won’t be able to volunteer at the local farm where I’ve been getting a CSA of free vegetables again until late August, so I’m trying to tide myself over with cabbage, green peppers, and apples.
When times are tough, I’m glad that I’ve learned how to keep a stocked pantry.
I used to watch Food Network a lot in high school and college. Melissa D’Arabian did a show called $10 Dinners. The trick is, in order to only spend that $10, she was assuming the viewer had a stocked pantry. I love food and cooking, so I’ve made that a priority for myself, but I know it isn’t for a lot of other poor people.
It’s possible to just spend an extra dollar or two at the grocery store each trip, however, and after a couple of months, to have a pantry which can facilitate cooking a variety of cheap meals a lot more easily.
For starters, I try to always keep some kind of frozen vegetables in the freezer, whether that’s just a couple green peppers I’ve cut up or a bag of frozen spinach. That way, even when money is tight, I can throw some frozen vegetables into some sauce or something and know I’m getting some vitamins along with my carbs and protein. Frozen vegetables have a lot less sodium than canned, and aren’t really more expensive in my experience.
I also make sure to keep rice, pasta, and a few kinds of beans on hand (dried or canned), as well as broth and canned diced tomatoes (the one canned vegetable I do use on a regular basis). Plenty of meal options can be made out of those items alone.
Perhaps more importantly, I’ve built up a pretty good spice cabinet over the years. If you buy one spice at a time it’s not so overwhelming. I’m sure some of mine are old, and I got a spice grinder gifted to me by a friend, so I hope to start switching over to whole spices I grind myself as I run out of my current stock.
For me, fresh ground black pepper is a must, as are red pepper flakes and garlic cloves. Beyond that, start with some Italian seasoning, cayenne pepper, or cumin. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves will go a long way in spicing up desserts or baked goods. I also enjoy Asian food so I keep ginger root on hand, which is cheap if you’re willing to peel and grate it yourself.
Back when I was using recipes, if I found three recipes I wanted to make that used a spice I didn’t currently have on hand, I would buy it on my next trip to the store. Places like Central Market also let you buy bulk spices, making it possible to buy $1 of spice instead of the $3-4 which would be spent on one of those jars in Kroger or HEB.
It’s also good to have things like flour, cornmeal, and breadcrumbs on-hand. That way you can bread and fry things or thicken sauces or make quick bread or polenta. Eggs are helpful for a lot of applications, too, including making a frittata or quiche with some of those frozen vegetables.
And cheese. I always have at least Parmesan for pesto and pasta, and usually at least one other kind for snacking, grilled cheese, or to grate over just about anything.
It might go without saying, but I always have oil and butter around, too. Olive oil is a must, and I keep sesame oil around to use sparingly in stir fries or fried rice for extra flavor. Canola oil is cheap and better for deep frying foods or popping popcorn on the stove as a result. My most recent investment is coconut oil, which is good for foods which will be cooked at higher temperatures as well.
I also keep several types of vinegar around. In addition to being able to make your own vinaigrette salad dressings, a splash of vinegar or lemon juice can brighten up a lot of sauces.
I also grow several fresh herbs in my garden, which you can do in pots if you can’t keep stuff in the ground. Grocery stores want to charge several bucks a pop for a bit of fresh herbs, but I paid a couple dollars for a thyme plant and now I have more fresh thyme than I know what to do with!
Potted herbs to plant are usually $4 or less, so even just picking one or two varieties you would use frequently can really make a difference. Fresh mint can be brewed into tea, and my sister said she’s used some of her thyme to good effect in lemonade.
You can also grind up fresh basil and mint with salt, pepper, garlic, and nuts and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then, pop one or two out and add some of that olive oil and parmesan you have around now and Voila! fresh pesto. (Which reminds me – I always keep walnuts and/or almonds around, too. Good for putting in bread, oatmeal, or adding extra protein to just about any dish).
Finally, I keep one or two quick meals in the cabinets or freezer, like mac n’ cheese or pierogies, for the times I’m too busy or exhausted to cook. That way I’m not spending money eating out.
Though I mostly eat vegetarian now, once a month or so I crave a cheeseburger. So last time I went to the store I bought some cube steak to put in the freezer, which will still end up cheaper than buying a hamburger out. (Jamie Oliver’s pink slime explanation has freaked me out too much to ever buy ground beef in a store again).
If there’s something you crave on the regular and you’re on a budget, figure out a way to have it around the house for cheaper than it would cost to pay someone else to cook if for you. Then, you can still go out if you like, but you have another option available.
If all of this feels overwhelming, remember that this process can take months or years to accomplish, but I know I’m better off keeping up with it. A full pantry means you’re less likely to order pizza or Chinese food.
Buy some olive oil, whole black peppercorns to grind, a garlic bulb, and a bag each of rice and pasta. Even that’s a start.