In January, I went cold turkey — literally. After calculating the alarming amount I spent on groceries and dining out in 2016, I embarked on a food lovers’ budget plan to pinch pennies while still eating well. A month in, I’ve nixed mediocre cafeteria lunches and dedicated time to meal-prepping cheap meals once or twice a week — including cold turkey sandwiches on occasion — but I leave room for a sushi splurge or brunch with friends.
This first month was about setting a realistic budget game plan for the rest of the year, which meant running around to a bunch of grocery stores to compare prices, learning to love the bulk bins at Whole Foods, and realizing it’s okay to eat nachos for dinner sometimes. I wouldn’t call me your money-saving sensei or anything, but here’s what I’ve learned in a month of budgeting.
It’s Worth Taking Two (or Three) Trips
Grocery shopping in New York City is a balancing act. You don’t want to schlep heavy bags of food home from too far away — which can mean multiple flights of stairs, a subway ride, and then a walk — but the store around the corner might be the most expensive. After some experimentation and receipt-gathering, I’ve decided to travel farther to get the best deal. I’ll trek across town to a plaza with Aldi (my favorite cheap grocery destination) and Target for the closest-to-suburban-store pricing and variety, and then doing weekly shopping at Trader Joe’s or online via Amazon Prime Now. (The latter keeps me from impulse-purchasing things I see when I’m in a store.) I go armed with recipe ideas and a grocery list and try to stick with it as closely as possible.
Don’t Buy What You Won’t Use in a Few Days
I did a light cupboard clean-out in preparation for this budgeting challenge and found a lot of half-used bags of grains and condiments that I bought for one recipe and abandoned afterward. Other than staples like rice or pasta, I’m going to buy experimental ingredients from the bulk bins. In spite of the name, the best part about bulk bins is buying small amounts. I also have a bad habit of over-buying produce and letting it wither away in my crisper, so I’m trying to give myself a three-day use rule, particularly when salads are involved. The same goes for leftovers — I try to eat a dish within three days, which is usually the threshold for getting sick of something. (I learned the hard way by making too much lemony chicken-orzo soup.)
Meal Prep Is Like a Second Job, So Clock In For It
I am a big proponent of big-batch meal prepping once a week and repurposing throughout many meals, but I don’t always practice what I preach. Sometimes I’d rather watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with my roommate or play with my dog than prepare a week’s worth of lunches on a Sunday evening. It’s okay sometimes. But to keep yourself from skipping it frequently because you’re “too busy” or “too tired,” set yourself a calendar reminder for meal prep for an hour or two, at least once a week. This can be shredding up a rotisserie chicken for salads, making rice and beans, or simmering a pot of Marcella Hazan’s 45-minute, three-ingredient sauce. I focus on taking care of lunches first and foremost, because weekday dinners can be scrambled eggs or gussied-up ramen.
Know Your Favorites and Keep ‘Em in a Rotation
So far, my favorite meal-prep move has been making a big batch of simple chicken stock using just an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a few pounds of chicken wings, and salt. I just throw everything in my slow cooker on high for six hours, strain, and then freeze half. It becomes the base of flavorful soups and stews, grains, beans, or whatever inspires me. I also use the slow cooker (or my Dutch oven if I’m home to babysit the oven) to make braised meats like pork shoulder or chuck roast. Next, I roast up a bunch of vegetables — like cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and Brussels sprouts sprinkled with spice blends or sesame delicata squash — and make a batch of grains for lunch bowl bases. Sometimes I’ll mix up some meatballs (like ginger-chicken) and roast them at the same time as the veggies.
You Can Still Have Fun
Gathering people at my apartment doesn’t need a special occasion — I love to entertain. This month, I hosted three times. For the first two, I bought the ingredients and fed people happily, but for the most recent, I had everyone Venmo me $5. This way I didn’t feel obligated to burn a hole in my pocket to host friends, and $5 went a lot further than it would have if we went out to a bar. I tend to save my dining out for the weekends and special occasions, but if I’m bringing my lunch four days a week, I don’t feel so guilty about grabbing pizza on a random Wednesday. Sometimes I buy a wedge of fancy cheese and a baguette from Murray’s Cheese and eat it for dinner. You’re going to slip up once in a while, but as long as you don’t blow your budget every weekend and try to meal prep once a week, you’ll be okay.