Cooking when you’re really broke

You probably know the basics.  Here’s a bunch of bullets for your enjoyment.  I am SO glad we don’t have to do these anymore.  (Though I am making some leek and potato soup right now!)

  • Split pea soup, dried beans (the price of these has gone up during the recession… still, a bag of beans is well under a dollar), rice, potatoes, eggs. Breakfast for dinner (eggs, pancakes etc.).  Cereal is a pretty cheap meal.  Oatmeal (rolled oats, storebrand) is even cheaper, and healthier in many cases.  Keep some raisins around to throw in.
  • Some cuisines lend themselves more to really cheap cooking than others.  Look at Mexican, Italian, Indian cuisines for cheap and different meals.
  • Don’t let anything go to waste. Make sure to cook/process all those vegetables before they go bad. If they start to look wilt-y make a stir-fry (vinegar and sugar make an excellent sweet and sour sauce) or a soup or an omelette. If your library has The Victory Garden Cookbook, it is an excellent resource. (Another set of favorites for cheap healthy pantry meals: Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen! and Faster! I’m Starving!)  Spoiled milk can be used to make biscuits or pancakes.  (#2 says: yuck.)  (#1 says:  it’s just clabbered milk… but I probably shouldn’t tell you about the pancakes I used to make DC…)
  • Frozen produce is often less expensive than fresh.  Same with frozen berries.  Shop seasonal produce.
  • Spices are often cheaper in the ethnic food aisle than in the regular spice aisle.
  • Yeast is often the most expensive part of making bread… you only need to buy it once.  Keep a starter or a piece of old dough for yeast.
  • Use white vinegar in place of almost all your cleaning products– you don’t need rinse aid for the dishwasher, or dowell bathroom cleaner or even windex. You can even add some to laundry in place of colorfast bleach. It smells while you’re using it, but the smell goes away when it dries. It actually works better than most cleaning solution and is healthier too, IMHO.
  • Chicken– used to be leg-thigh combinations and wings were cheapest.  Right now there’s a glut of breasts on the market.  Whole pieces (with bones) still less expensive than boneless skinless.  Stew the meat and repackage it into smaller packages and freeze so you can add a little meat to daily meals.  Bacon is great to keep in the freezer– a few pieces at a time will brighten many dishes.  Think of meat as a flavoring, not a main component of the dish.
  • Some grocery stores have heavy mark-downs on things close to their expiration date.  Sometimes these items will be in with the regular items, but sometimes they’re in special areas of the grocery store.  Find out which stores do this and where, and check those bins.  Sometimes you can score enough avocados for guacamole that night for under $2 or meat and cheese ends to brighten up whatever egg or bean or rice dish you’re making that night.
  • Try to get some red meat on occasion, unless you’re committed to strict vegetarianism. If you lose your ability to digest red meat, to regain it start with processed sandwich roast beef, then move to ground beef, and only then venture back into steak. (Of course, my vegetarian roommate in college had an English Breakfast after 8 years of vegetarianism with no effect… 8 months of graduate school living and I throw up after eating a steak…)
  • Shredded cheese, store brand, large container is the best way to get cheese back in your diet. Make quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches etc.
  • Save some money to buy a lot of groceries around Thanksgiving. They have amazing loss leaders during that time and it’s a great time to stock up on things like flour, butter, and sugar.
  • In general unprocessed food is much less expensive than processed– making your own bread, etc. However, macaroni and cheese casserole is one of my favorite meals– use one or two packages of mac and cheese (on sale– you can never spend more than 50 cents a box… though these days I splurge and spend a dollar to get whole wheat), a can of tuna and some frozen mixed veggies or peas (#2 says: how very midwestern!)  (#1:  I like salami filled with cream cheese too… and french onion dip).
  • Use your freezer. When you make things from scratch you often end up with a lot more than you can eat. Don’t let things go bad. Get tupperware or just ziploc bags (possibly tin-foil). It’s worth the investment.
  • Look up on the internet Pantry menus (or Pantry food…) Pantries are wonderful because you keep basic items around (flour, canned tomatoes, pasta, beans, etc.) that allow you to use store specials etc. to throw together a great meal. Additionally, when money is short you can eat off your pantry with various creative meals.
  • When grocery shopping, always compare the cost per pound or cost per item, not the absolute price. And do look at the prices.
  • Often at farmer’s markets you can get good deals when you go late… but you have to process the food right away when you get home because it’s been sitting out all day and if you need to pick out the stuff that’s already gone bad and make sure the rest doesn’t go bad.
  • Add sour cream to guacamole.  (#2 says: NOOOOOOOO000000000!)

What are your tips for cooking when you’ve got hardly any money at all?


19 Responses to “Cooking when you’re really broke”

  1. Mary Says:

    I’m not usually a big commenter, but I have to mention a great buy. I found something called bacon ends and pieces in the bacon area. It costs about $5 for 3 pounds of odd shaped bacon all kind of smashed together. I just divide it into small amounts and use it to flavor bean and potato soups. It freezes well and thaws quickly to use at the last minute.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    All great tips.

    I still question whether pound for pound if chix wings or leg/thighs are better than breasts. I mean you’re buying all those bones that can’t be eaten, so the per pound meat price is actually quite a bit higher than what you’re paying.

    I always stock up on my baking supplies during thanksgiving. It’s amazing how much more chocolate chips cost the rest of the year.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It totally depends on the chicken meat question. When leg-thigh combinations are 69cents/lb and breasts are $2.29…

      I’m not sure wings are ever worth it unless you really want chicken wings. They’re a vehicle for crispy sticky sauce.

    • Edward - If You Can Read, You Can Cook Says:

      The bones are still good for making soup. They have a lot of flavor to be unlocked.

      I’m not a big fan of dark meat, however, so I only buy leg quarters for soup purposes. The rest of the time, I just get breasts. They typically sell for $2.79/lb around here, but still go on sale for $1.99 which is when I buy and fill up our little freezer.

  3. frugalscholar Says:

    Bulk yeast and spices at health food stores.

    As you note, the “poor cuisines” offer a lot of bang for the buck. Those cultures learned how to wring flavor out of the most humble ingredients.

  4. Money Reasons Says:

    I love guacamole! (but it’s expensive, at least in the restaurants…)

    Every now and then ramen noodles aren’t too bad either. Not the healthiest of choices, but good all the same :)

    If I had a bigger house, I would buy a freezer!!!

  5. Everyday Tips Says:

    I freeze my own berries when they are on sale because frozen berrries are the best for smoothies, and they can be expensive in stores.

    I love pea soup so much, and it is incredibly healthy.

    I am with number 2, I could never add sour cream to my guacamole. That sounds like heresy to me.

    Great suggestions!!

  6. Valerie Says:

    Shop not just the ethnic aisle. Shop the ethnic stores! We get great, great, great deals at the Mexican and Indian grocery stores– rice, flour, dried beans and lentils, spices… you will never spend less to eat so well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Definitely! And some Asian groceries will have big tanks with fish swimming around that you can pick out and they will process for you for cheaper than a pre-fab fish fillet– very little beats fish that fresh.

  7. Link love (Powered by a pinch of fatigue and a whole lot of teamwork) « Musings of an Abstract Aucklander Says:

    […] Cooking when you’re really broke sucks. Here are some tips to ease that pain and stretch the dollar. […]

  8. findingserenity2010 Says:

    Fabulous post. I agree that eating meat should really be an occasional thing as opposed to a regular staple, for more reasons than just money (ever realize how much money/time/energy is put into raising a cow as opposed to a stalk of corn?!).

    I’ll definitely try the saving of scraps for stews and omelets and the like. So much food goes to waste in my fridge because I don’t like to eat the same thing more than twice in a row – my stomach will turn if I eat turkey again tomorrow! Time to find room in the freezer …

  9. If You Can Read, You Can Cook » Blog Archive » Link Round-up: 11/27/2010 » If You Can Read, You Can Cook Says:

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  12. Charlice Eedu Says:

    Thanks nicoleandmaggie,

    Well, most time people are broke and this resource should serve as a succor…

  13. What’s in your pantry? | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] of cooking systems, which includes a brief overview of the pantry system, and a post about what to cook when you’re really broke, but nothing on the basic question.  So the basic question will come […]

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