Cheap Eats: Filling Your Tummy Without Emptying Your Wallet

The budget topic focus for March was food. While most of my clients and support group attendees regularly talk about reducing their food expenditures in an attempt to manage their budget better, I don’t see food as one of the big budget problems. Sure, you can do better and do more with less but that requires planning which requires time; something very few of us have (more on that later).

Here are some things I hear regularly from clients and support group attendees:

  • “I like to buy organic food and it’s so much more expensive.” (There’s typically one spouse who feels organic is worth the investment and one spouse who thinks it’s a waste of money.)
  • “I take care of everybody every day, so I feel I deserve to go out to eat. Then, I feel guilty.”
  • “I don’t like to cook.”
  • “I don’t know how to cook.”
  • “I don’t have the time, we’re all so busy, we end up grabbing something from the drive-through.”
  • “I hate that we throw away so much food, it’s such a waste.”

I think the biggest issue in food budgeting is making healthy – but realistic – choices.

One of my sisters, Jacki Gray, was our featured speaker for the March 5th meeting. Jacki is the kitchen manager at Powell House, a Quaker Retreat Center near Albany, NY. On any given weekend, Jacki has to cook for about 100 people, 50 of whom have special diets (either by ailment or choice, or multiples of both). She has to accommodate everyone and remain within budget. She happens to be a fantastic cook, too. She makes this green tomato soup that makes me glad to be alive. And don’t even get me started on the pumpkin cake with brown butter frosting.

Jacki helped us focus on a few key areas when it comes to food budgeting, eating healthy and enjoying your food:

Learn to make soup. You can do a lot with soup, using up random things (leftover Chinese take-out rice) and veggies that are starting to be past their prime, making stock from bones and vegetable trimmings you keep in the freezer, and using some well-selected herbs (sing with me: “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”) and spices (cumin, chili powder). She claims all soups are made better with a can of rich, creamy coconut milk.

Jacki referenced several of Moosewood’s cookbooks which feature vegetarian mMoosewood Restaurant New Classicseals (she mentioned that it’s easy to add meat to most recipes, as you wish). Soup can be very inexpensive, hearty or light, mostly easy (especially if you happen to own a stick blender) and enjoyable.

While she didn’t talk about this, if you’re a meat eater, buying an entire cow or pig can be very economical, provided you have the freezer space. Otherwise, having meat as a mere addition to or ingredient in the meal rather than the focus is not only healthy for your wallet but healthier for your body. Think stir-frys, salads, soups, casseroles, quiches, pizzas …with a little meat.

Another one of my sisters, Adrienne (the recycling guru), shared several recipes for sour milk. Just Google recipes, you’d be surprised. The most popular is for sour milk pancakes.

Jacki shared one of her industry secrets: Go to a food wholesaler (if you’re in Western New York, check out Desiderio’s, in fact, the group is meeting there for a field trip Saturday, April 2nd at 8:45am) and check out their #2s: These are fruits and veggies that are too ripe for the grocery stores to purchase and can be bought by you (in larger quantities, however, great for parties, showers etc.) for a very low price. Jacki once came to a family gathering with a HUGE crate of plums that I think she got for $10. Everyone, including the mailman, ate plums that week (and she made jam from what was leftover).

Which brings me to the “I don’t want to throw it out” part of the blog. Consider all of the following strategies for fruits and veggies that are past their peak:
1. Can you put it in soup?
2. Can you put it in a smoothie?
3. Can you can/preserve it?
4. Can you freeze it for use later (in soup, smoothies, stir frys etc.)?
5. If nothing else, can you compost it? Then at least it’s like making a deposit to your garden or plants next year.
6. Can you make a pretty centerpiece with it?fall centerpiece

Of course you can avoid throwing away food by not buying too much in the first place. Be aware of the merchandising techniques grocery stores will use. Make a list, respect your list, and shop your list.

If you really want to focus on using everything you have and limiting your expenditures, you have to develop a method – your method– of meal planning. I blogged about my technique here:

But if you’re very busy and/or don’t like to/don’t know how to cook, then perhaps grabbing some prepped items at your local supermarket and then throwing some things together and calling it a salad can work for you. Here are notes from a group meeting a few years ago that talks about food expenditures among other things:


What about farm shares? In my experience, it was challenging to use up the items that were in our bag each week and sometimes the items didn’t match up with what our week looked like. I’d say farm shares/CSAs are a great way to buy produce if (a) You’ve got time to use what you get and (b) you like a challenge (think of the TV show, “Chopped)

Regarding organic, there are some items that should always be purchased organic because pesticide residue may be greater on them. I always direct people to the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen guidelines. In short, if you’re going to eat the peel (apples, peppers, berries) buy it organic. Milk products, too; no sense having all of those yucky hormones and pesticides in your diet when you think you are eating healthy.

One of our regulars, truly one of the sweetest women alive, gave me a couple of very useful links. Budget Bytes is a great blog for recipe ideas, using what you have on hand, shopping smart…all good stuff. You may also purchase her recipe book by the same name.

Leanne Brown is the author of Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 /Day. You may download the cookbook pdf for free but if you like this book enough to buy it, the publisher will donate a copy of the book to someone who needs it. Our joyful budgeter’s endorsement, “I like her recipes because she frequently includes vegetables to boost nutrition and flavor.”

Here’s to joyful eating and joyful budgeting!

About Amy Jo Lauber

I help people who are overwhelmed take control & make good financial decisions with confidence and experience peace and abundance. Are you ready to say goodbye to working hard but not having anything to show for it? Go to "Let's Talk" tab to schedule your complimentary initial consultation and take the first step on the path to financial empowerment.
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2 Responses to Cheap Eats: Filling Your Tummy Without Emptying Your Wallet

  1. Great post Amy Jo! I make a lot of soup and chowder around here. Vegan. Freezes well, so on those days when you don’t feel like cooking (and honestly that’s every day for me but I do it anyway) you can pop a container of it our of the freezer and have dinner in 15 minutes. Mine is usually so full of veggies and filling, we don’t even had a salad with it, but that could be added to get more greens.

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