Money’s been tight for me lately. Despite having steady work for the time being, I’m still pretty much living check-to-check — and well, when rent came, a little less than that. It was almost easier on unemployment because 1) I had no where to go during the day, so I ended up eating basically one or two main meals a day, and 2) I did happen to get a rather nice tax refund this year which helped out a lot.
It’s amazingly easy to take it for granted, being able to go into a grocery store and just buy whatever you want. But of course, that’s not always a possibility. But you know, rather than despair and go “oh woe is me”… I’m treating it like a challenge. How can I still eat good food when my options are extremely limited?
I can tell you, it is possible.
First things first. All of this assumes that you already have a good stock of spices and condiments. When you have a steady income, or they’re on sale, you should definitely load up on whatever you consider your essentials in these areas. (Also, pride be damned, if your city/town has a discount grocery like Aldi’s, hit that sucker up. I walked a mile to get to mine and spent half of what I would have at the place right behind my apartment.)
I dip into my big bag of spices every day. Simple things like garlic, chili powder, or a basic “Italian” spice mix can go a long way… As does curry powder, ginger, and those fun specialty blends. Also, in my fridge I almost always have: mustard, soy sauce (though I’m out currently), bbq sauce, ranch dressing, honey mustard dressing, and a big bottle of lemon juice concentrate. The surprise condiment I find myself using a lot: worcestershire sauce.
After you have your spices and condiments under control… it’s time to talk about real food staples. In my house it’s (almond) milk, parmesan cheese, rice, pasta, canned beans (generally black or white), and frozen vegetables (corn and peas being the main two). Sometimes eggs, canned soup, mashed potatoes, and bread/bagels too. I’m not purposefully being a vegetarian during these times, but for the most part, meat just doesn’t fit into my budget.
The main trick I’ve learned for handling this situation of not much food but still want to eat “well”… is to learn flavor profiles and sauces/toppings. Then use sort of a filler as a conduit for said flavors and toppings and sauces. So, yes, it does mean I eat a lot of rice and pasta dishes. But I’ve found adding a cup or two (or three) of rice can make other foods go much, much further.
Case-in-point: my white beans + kale recipe. Adding a bit more rice helped this meal last an entire week. Also, in terms of sauces… I’ve found for a really light lunch, I can add my curried honey mustard to some rice and it works just fine for me. Or: take tomato soup, add in black beans and corn, chili powder and cumin, then serve over rice.
When I make pasta, I add in frozen veggies. Same when I make mashed potatoes (though I also add my rosemary ranch sauce to that too — and generally eat an entire pot in one sitting). If I don’t have a pre-made pasta sauce, I use olive oil + parmesan cheese with some garlic or Italian spices. If I just want corn, I can load it up Elote style with mayo, parmesan, chili powder, and a tiny dash of lime if I’ve got it.
Is any of this fine dinning? Nope. Not at all. But it’s those tricks you have to learn so you won’t be all “oh, ramen again?” every day. I went through that phase, it’s not fun. And it’s not like I’m eating rice every day for every meal. I’m able to switch it up.
These aren’t the only tricks out there for cooking on a budget. But this is how I make it through when my fridge and cupboards are fairly bare. Like I said, it’s definitely possible.