In C'mon, It's Just 7 Days, members of the Food52 team share what it was like to take on a personal challenge for one week: skipping caffeine, going plastic-free, and more. (Spoiler alert: We all survived.)
Let me be clear: I did not volunteer to spend $0 for seven days. In fact, I thought it sounded so difficult that when a colleague pitched the idea for our C’mon, It’s Just 7 Days series, I cheered a little bit, like a sports coach at the beginning of practice.
And then, when it got assigned to me, well, I stopped cheering.
My concerns were aplenty:
For one, I questioned whether it was really possible. Even if I was nominally spending $0, what about the portion of my rent that accounted for the week in question? If I went to an in-network doctor and had no co-pay, wasn’t I still technically spending money on my health insurance?
Luckily, I had just shopped for the week’s recipe developing, plus a few staples (an overall cost of about $40), including chickpeas, some chicken thighs, lemons, various greens, scallions, two bananas, an apple, almond butter, and canned tomatoes. (My editors also suggested I arm myself with a $20 subway pass, which I did.) I had a pretty decent store of pantry staples, like half a bag of brown rice, olive oil, hot sauce, a bit of mayo, red wine vinegar, a few old potatoes, various condiments, spices, and basic things for baking—but my inventory was erratic (hi, empty jar of Dijon I found in my fridge door).
With all of this in mind—and, after reflecting on how grateful I was that spending $0 for seven days was a choice, not a necessity—I decided to go for it, to see what I could learn about my habits in the process.
Day One: Sunday
The highlight: Discovering the life-changing deliciousness of chicken thighs glazed in a combination of lemon juice, salt, and Huy Fong Chili Garlic Sauce—a pantry staple that I keep in my refrigerator at all times, and therefore already had half a jar of—then roasting until suuuuuuuper crispy.
The lowlight: I saw this on Instagram and had to physically restrain myself from walking over to Bo Ky Restaurant and ordering the exact same thing immediately. While that was completely bratty, I do think it reminded me why I tend to spend money in the first place, beyond the situations in which it’s necessary for survival: to feel like I have some semblance of control over my mood. If I’m feeling anxious and want to get out of the house to distract myself from whatever’s running through my mind, I tend to do so by creating a sort of errand or mission for myself that usually involves procuring an item or meal. I would have to invent new coping mechanisms for temporary mood relief, at least for the coming week.
My thriftiest moment: Physically staying in my apartment all day to write, rendering me unable to spend any money.
The highlight: Feeling very virtuous when I meal-planned and packed lunch for the rest of the week. Packed items included: one leftover chili-garlic-glazed chicken thigh and brown rice, leftover aglio e olio with sausage I was recipe-developing that day (plus a wilted arugula salad I’d served for dinner along with my test batch), a fork-smashed chickpea “salad” I make all the time (chickpeas + minced shallot + mayo + lemon juice + salt + pepper), some black bean soup I found in the scary-back of my freezer and defrosted, two apples, a banana, and some almond butter.
The lowlight: Realizing that I’d forgotten to buy certain ingredients in my grocery run that I needed for my recipe development that day. I had to disregard my preferred schedule and pivot to another recipe, twice-baked sweet potatoes (coming soon to a Food52 near you!), for which I happened to have the ingredients on hand already. Also, I drank the last of a previously purchased bottle of red wine, which was a highlight while it was happening but then a lowlight right after.
My thriftiest moment: Making a killer pesto out of some old kale stems, garlic, lemon, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I would go on to smear this on everything for the rest of the week. (Everything, I tell you!)
Day Three: Tuesday
The highlight: I didn’t have time to eat breakfast at home, so I dumped some oats into a jar, covered them with hot water, and planned to top them with some decrepit, old coconut flakes I’d found in my spice drawer (why?), and the almond butter and banana I’d stashed at work. When I got there, some angel had randomly left a thimbleful of pomegranate seeds on the team kitchen table, so I added those too. It ended up being an A++ breakfast. Also, it was a recipe photoshoot day, which meant that I got to steal bites of our team’s works-in-progress: a verrrrry fudgy chocolate cake, my fellow Recipe Developer Emma Laperruque’s extra-good scones, and a few warm chocolate chunk cookies with olive oil and maple, my latest project.
The lowlight: Coming to the stark understanding that I had only two lemons for an entire week. And remembering that I was out of wine.
My thriftiest moment: In a jolt of oh-my-god-I-have-to-see-people-I-went-to-high-school-with-next-week panic, I decided I really wanted to do some sort of face-mask and/or body scrub before flying home for the holidays. But I didn’t have one. I considered this, which looks excellent, but I didn’t think I could spare the banana; plus, I only had Mike’s Hot Honey (delicious on pizza; probably rashy in a mask?). So instead I tried the brown sugar–coconut oil number from this, and was pleased with the results.
Day Four: Wednesday
The highlight: I decided to leave my wallet at home, and bring only my subway pass to work. It was oddly freeing, and also very useful. At one point, I almost forgot about the challenge and wandered into a deli for juice, before realizing I couldn’t buy it without a wallet.
The lowlight: Not being able to go get dinner alone after an argument with my boyfriend-roommate. Instead, I was forced to return to our shared apartment after work for sustenance. (This ended up being productive because we resolved our argument almost as soon as I’d had my stir-fried brown rice with most of the cabbage slaw I impulse-bought in my grocery run—plus a sunny-side-up egg.)
My thriftiest moment: Going on a run in icy, wintry weather instead of shelling out $20 for a hot yoga class. And, when the Food52 Ad Sales team put out a generous crop of snacks from a partner, I snagged several yogurts and a container of cream cheese.
Day Five: Thursday
The highlight: It was my coworker Erin Alexander’s birthday and our team celebrated with barbecued pork buns. I ate one and a half. It felt like my birthday.
The lowlight: Primarily that I got caught in the rain sans umbrella, far from any subway stops, and had to trudge home in a downpour. Also, I ran out of the one type of the makeup I use religiously, which is a cover-up situation that makes my skin look less like it’s having a vicious fight with itself at all times. I was forced to ponder why I wear makeup in the first place, which sent me into a miniature identity/control frenzy. (I stopped considering this the moment I realized there were leftover pork buns still up for grabs.)
The highlight: After asking my colleagues via Slack if I could hitch a ride to the airport (crickets), texting my one friend who has a car begging for a ride (he’d already left town), and checking the prices of public transit yet again in case the cost of a trip to Newark had suddenly been diminished to $0 (it hadn’t), I got an alert from a rideshare app to remind me that I had a credit from some earlier refund. It more than covered the cost of an shared ride to the airport, for which I was massively grateful.
The lowlight: Finishing my book one hour into my flight to California, where I was heading to visit my family for the holidays. I spent the next two and a half hours perusing seat-pocket literature (whatever happened to Sky Mall?) until someone took pity on me and slipped me headphones so I could watch Crazy Rich Asians.
My thriftiest moment: Completing YouTube tutorials for morning yoga and breathing exercises before departing for the airport. Packing the rest of my provisions and leftovers as snacks for my trip, and asking very nicely at the airport if I could “borrow” some plastic utensils to consume said pre-packed snacks. (After boarding my flight, I realized I accidentally took two knives, so I had to eat my yogurt with a knife, which I definitely don’t recommend.)
The highlight: Spending $0 in the home of my parents—who had not passed the last six days eating various mash-ups of the same $40 grocery run—felt extremely luxurious. I ate spoonfuls of peanut butter and soft-scrambled eggs with abandon. Also, I went on a $0 hike that was exceedingly lovely.
The lowlight: None! Except maybe wondering if it was cheating to be in this non-$0 household at all, which of course it was.
My thriftiest moment: In a bout of panic upon remembering I’d agreed to go to a friend’s holiday party weeks earlier, I made a batch of Phyllis Grant’s Brown Butter Blondies with stuff I found in my parents’ pantry, “wrapped them” in parchment paper and twine, and begged my sister to add a flourish with flowers she snipped surreptitiously from my mom’s garden. (Sorry, mom!)
Overall, I don’t think I quite nailed it. To my initial concern, I still experienced some non-$0 life that had essentially just been pre-paid in a sense (e.g., taking a flight for which I’d already purchased the ticket).
That said, I observed a few interesting things about myself:
Like, after basic survival needs, I tend to use money as a means of exerting some sense of control. It turns out that finding alternate tactics for the same end goal is not only possible, but sometimes more interesting and satisfying.
Or like the fact that, in some instances, actually leaning into the thing I instinctively try to avoid or run away from can be the quickest path to resolution.
But who knows? Maybe it’s the shockingly delicious stir-fried brown rice talking, again—I just whipped up a double batch.
What's your best go-to dinner made from pantry staples? Let us know in the comments!
Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.
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