June 26, 2011

Cheap eats

Even though I will still be receiving a regular paycheck until September, I've been trying to live as frugally as possible, pinching pennies everywhere that I can so I can put as much money as I can into my savings in case I need to move out of my apartment - either to a smaller/shared space in Chicago, or back in with my parents on the East Coast. Neither situation is ideal, but I need to be prepared for the worst.

In terms of compensation, I didn't earn nearly what I should have at the university given my qualifications - but it honestly didn't matter, because I was so incredibly happy there. I loved the work and I made enough to pay my bills, eat well, and even have fun once in a while. I like being financially comfortable - you don't have the worry about making ends meet, and you're forced to appreciate things a little more when you have to work hard and save up for them.

I find times like these a little exhilarating - incredibly stressful, yes, but it's also an opportunity to really test myself, to see what I'm made of, to discover what things I truly value. This is an opportunity to refocus my priorities and take full advantage of things we don't always seek out when we're more financially stable. I can't justify day trips or too many nights out, but there are tons of free things to do in the city if you know where to look - concerts in the parks, free admission days to museums, tons of various cultural events, and more. And there's definitely something to be said for a night in, curled up on the couch with some air-popped popcorn and a movie from Netflix or the library.

My cooking has become much simpler these days - first, because it's been warm out and I don't much feel like standing over a hot stove. And second, because I'm trying to stick to basics while still eating as healthy as possible. Last summer I stopped ordering take-out because I didn't have a choice - money was tight (I taught summer school for 4 weeks and had to make the one check last all summer!) and my Chinese binges usually cost around $35 a pop, which is more or less my entire weekly food budget.

I don't have a new recipe this week, per se, but I've been eating pretty well and trying new things. This week has been full of salads - for $15, I get the ingredients for lunches for a whole week. Some favorite combinations: broccoli slaw/blueberries, spinach/strawberries/feta. Salads are delicious, filling, and a great way to maximize calories - I feel much more satisfied after 300 calories of salad than 300 calories of pizza, not to mention cleaner and healthier.

Dinners have been mostly sandwiches: a piece of grilled chicken on a roll, or homemade bean burgers and veggies wrapped up in a Flat-Out wrap. A simple but yummy meal, especially with a side of salad or fruit. I've also been making a lot of mixed bowls: usually a grain, a veggie, and a protein all together. It's inexpensive, delicious, healthy, and can usually last for a couple of meals. My favorite this week was mango, ginger, broccoli slaw, and wild rice. It was sweet but spicy and incredibly filling.

This week, my personal challenge is to find a few new recipes that are delicious and healthy while still low-cost. I love sandwiches and salads, the possibilities are endless, they're super versatile - but I still want to be expanding my culinary horizons a little.

What about you? What's your go-to "cheap meal" - inexpensive to make, but tasty, nutritious, and filling?


Katie Foster said...

My favorite cheap meals almost always revolve around beans or lentils--I love them, and you certainly can't beat the price! My very favorite is Lentil Chili. It tastes just like regular chili only with lentils instead of meat and beans. It's a hit even with hard-core meat lovers.

It sounds like you've got some great meal ideas! The broccoli slaw + blueberries is so interesting. I'm going to have to try that!

Caron said...

We like beans and rice for dinner. Sometimes we add a couple of ounces of lite turkey kielbasa but I like it plain. :)

Joan said...

Homemade tomato sauce: great over pasta (with or without meat), reduce it down if you want to use it as a pizza topping. Finely dice one large or two small onions. Place in microwave safe bowl with 2tsps olive oil and a little salt. Nuke on high for two minutes. Stir, add one crushed garlic clove. Nuke on high for two minutes again. Add two cans of crushed tomatoes, one can of tomato sauce, salt, pepper and herbs to taste (I like to use basil and oregano). Nuke on high power for ten minutes, then at 50% for ten additional minutes. Cheap, fast, and plenty for leftovers. You can add tuna for protein, or cannelini beans, or hamburger/ground turkey... it is very versatile and freezes well too.

Ann said...

I can usually get an awesome meal out of frozen chicken. A bag lasts me weeks and if I sautee with veggies, I can't even tell it was frozen!!!

Denise said...

We eat fried rice. It's not really all that fried (enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and that's it), and we use brown rice instead of white. We usually empty whatever veggies we have in the crisper drawer into the rice - broccoli, carrots, onion... we're pretty boring vegetable people - and add a splash of teriyaki sauce and some cooked protien and that's dinner and lunch for the next few days.

Tip: use cold, cooked rice. It tastes better when all is said and done.

Misty said...

Our favorite is rice...and depending on what's in the house depends on what goes in with it or beside it. My child is a rice addict so it makes her happy to. Chicken and Black beans are my favorite's to add :)

Kelty said...

My new go-to cheap meal are burritos or burrito bowls. I live near a mexican grocery store, so this might be cheaper for me than someone shopping at the usual chain. But, tortillas, black beans, brown rice, fat-free sour cream, corn and salsa are all very cheap and combine to make a delicious burrito. Plus I can cook rice beforehand and then just put it all together very quickly when I have to make lunch.

Anonymous said...

I make curried lentils with carrot, onion and zucchini served over rice (they freeze well). I also freeze portions of brown rice and nuke it for 90 seconds. A good thing to get rid of stray veggies and beans in the fridge is to make a grain salad of like wheatberries, little tomatoes, garbanzos or black beans, corn, cukes, carrots, celery, a stray avocado piece, red pepper,edamame onion. Anything you have Then I add a small amount of cheese to make it a little more rich or a diced chicken breast. Before you know it you have like a week's worth of meals. I make vinaigrette oil, vinegar, mustard, maybe juice or low cal jam (something sweet) and some herbs with salt and pepper - Yum! Plus you can make it kosher : ) You can make it with brown rice too. I also buy while chickens on sale and cook it and eat it all week. Buy what is on sale (like in the flyer) and use a card for the store if they offer it. No coffees out. Saves piles.

I could write a book - looks like other people here could too!

Frank said...

I was wondering how your breakfast set is coming along?
This is the third or forth piece I have seen in the last month that re-iterated a focus on grazing habits and specifically kicking off the day with a high protein breakfast. I have started mixing veggie sausages into the mix with fruits and yogurts. Its another 200 calories but I have noticed a lot less yearnings before lunch.

Tim said...

Gnocchi, green beans, tomatoes, peppers (various colours) and a bit of green pesto :)

Takes about 10 minutes to cook, pretty cheap to buy the ingredients and usually enough to have a couple of portions for the week :)