Eating Cheap, But Well

Disclaimer: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where access to cheap local produce is a norm. 

  So, as we’ve figured out by now, two of my obsessions passions are living cheap and eating well. First off I’ll  admit, I have some advantages. I live rent free. I realize this is a great advantage, that is rare and privileged. Next, I live in the Bay Area, which is an amazing melting pot of cultures and their cuisines. Thus, I’m able to acquire most ingredients for just about any meal I want to make. Finally, produce is plentiful here, cheap and year round. I have access to year round farmers markets, ethnic grocery stores with amazing produce sections, and restaurant quality produce in unexpected places. When it comes to ingredients, I’ve got it made.

But even with those advantages, I could easily spend three times as much as I do on groceries. But I don’t. How do I do it? It’s not hard, just takes some planning and good intentions.

First, I try to do an inventory before I shop. By taking time to become really familiar with what I have on hand, I can better plan a menu. If I know I have cheese and refried beans for instance, I’ll be sure to add corn tortillas to my list to make nachos, or even better, bean tacos. Trust me. They’re amazing and perfect for a fast meal/snack. Notice the part about a list? Never go to a store without one. 

Next, I have a dedicated routine for my shopping. Time permitting, I hit the farmers market first, followed by Grocery Outlet and sometimes the $ .99 store for produce, yes really. Then I supplement with meat from the Mi Pueblo butcher counter, and specialty items from Trader Joes, such as the Italian wine I like, my Greek yogurt and the TJ’s marinara sauce. I rarely do all my shopping in one shot. As long as I know what I’m getting where, I can split it up over a couple of days. That said, I do avoid single trips. They are bad practice, increase impulse buys and a waste of gas. Thus, the list.

Finally, I save money with better choices. I buy very few prepared foods. Among them are the aforementioned marinara sauce and yogurt (yes you can make your own), bread, but sometimes I bake that myself too, pasta (really don’t have time to make it) and occasionally crescent roll dough in the cardboard cylinder. They make the best dumplings. Sometimes, I get canned refried beans. Mostly because I haven’t worked making my own into my routine yet. Don’t tell my mom.

Everything else I buy is pretty basic. I get 10 lb bags of beans for soup, chili and burritos. They’re a great way to stretch meat, and oh so tasty. I also buy 10 lb bags of Basmati rice, great for all the rice dishes except risotto, which I don’t make. Most of my dishes are vegetable based, so when I think about cooking, I first think about what veggies I have on hand and what I can do with them.

By not buying prepared foods, I eat healthier and definitely cheaper. Now, I realize I have an advantage in that I know how to cook, and I’m really good with ingredients. But guess what, it’s not that hard to learn. With tools like Google and Netflix, there’s no reason to not know how to cook. You could even take it old school with a library card. Betty Crocker’s got game.  Even if you have limited space, you can still do a lot with a crock pot, a toaster oven and an electric skillet. 

Short on time? Yeah, me too. That’s why I make batches of things that will keep in the fridge and feed me for a couple of days or more. Got a freezer? Great. Use it for soups put in individual containers for great lunches. Also, freezing batches of pasta sauce is great too. Those can be quickly defrosted for a mid week meal. I also hard boil eggs, peel them and leave them in the fridge. They’re great for mornings or a quick pick me up shot of protein. Add a banana and you’ve got instant energy. 

There’s thousands more ideas online on sites like Pinterst and Tumblr. But, I learned a lot of this by watching my mom. She grew up very poor, and learned how to get the most out of what few resources they had. I know I’m lucky to have enough to eat, and not have to do it for $27 a week. I spend about three times tha for me and my son. 

Being  poor frugal can be one of the best teachers of good home economics and better life choices. But, that’s an entirely other post. 

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