How to be not cheap about food when you’re on a strict budget

Gather round, everyone! I have a rule of thumb to impart. 🙂

As I’ve previously mentioned about 6000 times, I really like to eat, and I like to eat well. If I were truly in the poorhouse, I could eat for probably about $25 a week (basing my diet around dried beans at $1 a pound and cheap vegetables and fruits.)

But usually I spend substantially more than that — but not anything like as much as many people who eat a much less delicious diet than I do. (I know, because I watch people ahead of me in the checkout line!)

Here’s the secret:

I buy expensive versions of cheap ingredients, not cheap versions of expensive ingredients.

In practice, this means being largely vegetarian is a good idea. Instead of buying meat (which, if raised correctly, is resource-intensive and therefore costs a lot) I focus on high-quality beans, lentils, and grains as the centerpiece of most meals. I generally add sparing amounts of something else (cheese, bacon, an egg) to round it out, and cheese and bacon are some of the most expensive items in my regular rotation. But really good farmer’s market bacon is about $6-7 a pound, and I can make a pound last for a month or even two, by cooking just a few strips at a time to crumble into salads. Eggs are amazing; I buy them at the farmer’s market for $2.25 a dozen, so if I have two for dinner, that’s $.37 for the centerpiece of a meal.

As for the beans, etc: I love the beans from Rancho Gordo. They are expensive, yes: $6 a pound, six times the cost of the beans on my “broke and unemployed” shopping list. But that’s the basis for about 12 servings of soup or bean salad or whatever. And they are good, fresh and creamy and interesting.

I use green lentils (sometimes called French lentils or lentilles de Puy) a lot for salads. They’re more expensive than the ordinary brown lentils, but they hold their shape well (which is what makes them so good for salads and for soups if you’re not going for something that falls apart.)

I buy high-quality wheat flour and make my own bread. Last year I was lucky enough to have a local mill I could buy flour from, and man, it was good. Typically, however, I buy King Arthur organic whole wheat flour at the supermarket. It’s twice as expensive as the supermarket brand, but it’s noticeably better, and since I’m making my own bread rather than buying bread, I think I still save money overall on this one.

Ditto on cornmeal. I like to buy it local when possible, but Bob’s Red Mill makes good cornmeal too.

Once you have flour, cornmeal, beans, and lentils, if you add some spices, vegetables, and good olive oil (I buy it from California Olive Ranch because studies of olive oil have shown that anything on the inexpensive side is usually adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils, and California Olive Ranch, while not the absolute cheapest thing on the shelf, is apparently the real deal. It’s available in most supermarkets) you are in good shape.

Meanwhile, the other side of the equation is avoiding buying cheap versions of expensive things. No point in being frugal only to eat badly. I avoid cheap versions of “parmesan” [real thing only!], balsamic vinegar [I would not have believed how much of a difference it made until I finally tasted the real thing last year. Farewell, $5 bottles of random something or other calling itself balsamic], meat [seems unsafe and unethical as well as not good tasting], olives, etc. If I want to eat one of these things, I either have to wait til someone gives it to me as a gift, or until I’ve created room in my budget for it.

Just for fun, here’s my grocery shopping for this week:

Farmer’s market (all from local growers):
$2.25, 1 dozen eggs
$4.00, nectarines
$6.00, tomatoes
$5.00, cucumbers (to pickle)
$0.75, three ears of corn
$1.00, red onion

(total: $19.00)

Grocery store:
$0.59, scallions (locally grown)
$0.99, dill (for the pickles) (locally grown)
$0.50, garlic
$0.99, 1 lb brown sugar (stocking up)
$2.19, 5 lbs regular sugar (ditto)
$3.69, 2 lb bag of lemons
$1.58, 2 cans of chickpeas (store brand, not organic; if I hadn’t been running so close to the line this week, I would have paid about another $1.00 for the organic version)
$3.99, Cabot cheddar cheese (on sale) 
$1.69, quart of milk

(total, $16.47, including tax)

(grand total: $35.47)

Notes: I still need to buy green lentils before I can call this week’s shopping “done”; that will probably add another $3 or $4, bringing me pretty close to my budget of $40 for this week. Cheddar, which is a basic cheese for me (I put it on sandwiches and in scrambled eggs, etc), seems weirdly expensive here; even the store brand, which I won’t buy, is $6. I guess I just have to keep an eye out for sales, since it keeps well. The only thing I’m not happy with here, quality-wise, is the milk. For years I’ve bought milk mostly at the farmer’s market, but this one doesn’t have anyone selling milk. So I’m stuck with a variety of less than great options; this is just the store brand, as nothing else there seemed noticeably better. I don’t like it, though. I’d rather be spending more.

More notes: Things I didn’t buy this week because I was using cash include: ice cream, chocolate bars, more fruit than I could realistically plan on eating, more tomatoes, kale. I probably kept myself from spending $10 or $15 more, just by sticking to my pair of $20 bills.

7 thoughts on “How to be not cheap about food when you’re on a strict budget

  1. Great post made me analyse my own grocery shopping. Like you I don’t eat meat (well I do eat some fish) and I love beans. I am a beanatarian, I can eat them every day of the week. I COMPLETELY agree with the whole ethical and environmental issues of meat, I am glad I don’t contribute to that. One thing about your grocery list is that most items are not processed, which is great. I think this impacts your overall total since, maybe you do the whole staying out of the inside aisles and only shop the perimeter where the fresh/healthier foods are located. I have given myself $30 a week for groceries but I do like beverages like soy/almond/coconut milk and they are not cheap. But the absolute budget breaker is cheese. Damn you delicious cheese, I have a hate/love relationship with you. Who am I kidding it’s all love.

    1. Yeah, I do eat meat, I’m just very sparing about it. Luckily I like beans and other things quite well! And yeah, I mostly try to avoid the processed stuff, especially now that I’m trying hard to save money. I’m not really strict about it or anything, but it is more expensive to buy pre-made foods, and often they don’t taste so good either.

  2. I agree cheese can be so expensive! My grocery budget is usually around $300 for two people and I wish it were less! I think building a better pantry would help keep grocery costs down.

    1. Cheese is crazy, but soooooo delicious.

  3. Cheese is killer expensive! Even for the generic Kraft block it’s ridiculous. But I like good cheese. It’s a trade off. I wish I had access to your farmers market, those prices are awesome. Sadly I wouldn’t get anything at that price here. Ah well. 🙂

    1. They are good prices! I live in a cheap place 🙂 But I also tracked down all the cheapest farmers. Like, the corn I bought was 25 cents an ear, but I saw it selling for 50 cents an ear at most stalls. And most people selling eggs are selling for more like $3.50 a dozen. I just walked around the whole place looking for the least expensive stuff before I bought. This is why my strictly limited cash thing is helping so much — it’s really making me be more creative about my shopping.

  4. We eat a lot of eggs and lentils around our house. They’re so versatile and we can change things up pretty easily so we don’t get too bored. Also a big fan of King Arthur products – flour goes a long way so I don’t mind spending a little more on the good stuff. I use their website for all of my sourdough recipes too. I guess I’m really into brand loyalty. 🙂

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