Plan Ahead: Eat Right, On the Money
Building a cost-effective meal plan is about much more than rice and beans or mac and cheese. With careful planning, you can enjoy healthy, fresh food on a daily basis without busting your bank account.
Thrifty cooks need a few tools that make frugal food easier and fun. First of all, you will need a crockpot. With a crockpot, you can cook many different foods very cheaply and know that you’re coming home to a fresh, hot meal.
A skillet and pancake turner are necessary, as is at least one sauce pan and a large stirring spoon. A soup ladle is useful, but not a requirement. To start, you can get by with these few tools for quite a long time.
If you have an oven, invest in a lidded casserole dish, a sheet cake pan and muffin tins. Small round cake pans can also be a good tool. Get some aluminum foil to make cleanup easier.
What If You Can’t Cook?
If you’re just starting out, learn to make canned tomato soup. It takes soup concentrate, water and heat. When you learn to notice the bubbling along the edge of the sauce pan and the heat rising from the water, you’re ready to hard boil some eggs.
Use one dish meals and pair them with a salad until you’re confident. Yes, this may mean tuna casserole, chili and egg casseroles. You know why? Because these meals will feed your family well when money and time are tight. They’ll also become some of your favorite go-to meals when your kids get older, and their favorites to fix when they’re on their own.
When you see a new spice in a recipe you’re ready to try, buy some and look for other ways to use it. Shop slowly; spices can be pricey and they fade over time.
No doubt about it, beans are cheap. However, if you are willing to stretch your taste buds, they’re also unique and can be quite delicious. Take some cash to a local Asian market and pick up beans in a variety of colors and styles. To start their preparation,
- put a cup of beans in your collander
- rinse it well, tossing the beans and looking for dirt or sand
- put the rinsed beans in the crockpot and cover them with water with one inch over
Let them soak overnight until the beans are puffed up and rehydrated, then rinse again. Rinse out the crockpot, put the beans back, cover them again with an additional inch of water and turn them on low for at least six hours. At this point, they should be soft enough to eat.
Every bean is different. Generally, the bigger the bean, the slower they are to soften and become edible. As you learn how to handle the variety of beans you get from your local Asian grocer, you can adjust the cooking times.
Drain the beans and let them cool. Now you can get creative.
Pairing Beans with Other Frugal Foods
We’ve all heard about rice and beans, but have you heard of pasta and beans? A fresh cucumber, some cherry tomatoes, a bit of finely chopped onion and celery, cooked whole grain pasta and cooked, cooled beans tossed with Italian dressing make an excellent pasta salad. Split this salad into one up servings, and you have a terrific accompaniment to a cheese sandwich or egg salad and crackers.
Pasta e fagioli is a delicious Italian soup that will warm you on a cold night and go easy on your budget. Once you find beans you like, you can add them to most any dish to boost your fiber intake, stretch your food budget, and increase your access to low fat protein.
Freeze Prepared Food in Small Batches
Once you build a repertoire of one pot suppers, make two on Sunday and split the leftovers into small containers to freeze for the coming week. Let the dish cool completely before you split it out, and leave a little room for the liquid to expand once it freezes fully. You now have ice for the items in your lunch bucket.
Get a Lunch Bucket or Small Cooler
Invest in a lunch bucket you can carry and put your frozen food container in the bottom. To this, you can add small containers of egg salad, small containers or bags of crackers, a single serving of your versatile pasta salad, an apple or an orange in season, a small container of yogurt, and grapes, celery sticks or crunchy carrots to enjoy when you really want to hit the candy machine.
Load it Well
Buy produce in season. Apples are cheap year round, but when do the plums and peaches go on sale in your region? If you like fresh strawberries or grapes, make sure you rinse and split them up as soon as you get home so you lose none to rot or mold. Strawberries can go quick, so wash them, cut or pull the stems off, let them dry fully, and quarter them. To avoid processed sugars, add a can of diced pineapple in pineapple juice to your strawberries; the pineapple will enhance the flavor and the citrus juice will keep it fresh. Enjoy this for dessert at home in the evenings, or take it to work as a treat.
Additional Crockpot Savings
On low, your crockpot will bake a large potato in five to seven hours. Put two potatoes in the crockpot, have one for supper with a salmon fillet that you bought flash frozen and thawed in cool water, toss a bit of spinach with a hard cooked egg and add your favorite dressing. You can make great meals for very little money and in a short amount of time once you learn to use the tools you have.
Planning carefully can reduce the amount of food you have to toss and protect your budget. When planning, give yourself some flexibility; if you find great mushrooms on sale, buy them and find a recipe to get terrific flavor from a wonderful bargain.