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Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, you can make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety.
In my dream culinary life, I'd spend entire mornings shopping at the greenmarket and afternoons cooking in a sprawling kitchen with unlimited counter space. My fridge would have two fully-stocked cheese drawers at all times. I'd also have an adorable, well-behaved dog that I adopted from Petfinder.
In the real world, I live in an old walkup in Brooklyn that hasn't been renovated since the '70s, with three roommates and a crazy super. My kitchen is only slightly larger than my body. If I shut my fridge door too quickly, the freezer door pops open, and vice versa. Checking my bank account balance online is an experience that ranges from slightly painful to full-blown-panic-attack-inducing. I don't have a dog.
Living at the intersection of broke and busy can be a gastronomical challenge, but I am still able to eat well without sacrificing nutrition or burning through all of my income. I realized pretty quickly that cooking a meal from scratch will almost always cost less than buying dinner -- and that the first step to eating well on the cheap is having a well-stocked kitchen. If your pantry currently consists of a few boxes of cereal and a jar of peanut butter, fear not. You can stock everything you'll need for under $100.
Shelf-stable pantry items:
Grains: flour, oatmeal, rice, quinoa, pasta, polenta (or grits)
Seasonings: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, mustard, sea salt, black pepper
Canned goods: beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, tuna
Other: sugar, baking powder, vegetable stock, peanut butter, raw nuts, dark chocolate
Spices: Luckily we don't live in the Middle Ages, where these were luxury items. Here are 10 versatile essentials for every kitchen.
Thinking outside the traditional grocery store is a quick way to keep costs down and get more for your money. If it's an option, look into a food cooperative -- I drank the (artisanal, small batch) Kool-Aid and have never looked back, especially now that I'm paying less for better quality.
I always keep these basic perishables on hand:
In the fridge: eggs, butter, Greek yogurt, and milk.
On your counter: lemons, onions, and good bread.
Fill in the gaps with a lot of produce -- the more the better. I like to buy kale and bananas every week as a starting point; from there, I eat seasonally. Not only is seasonal produce more affordable, but it will always taste better. (One exception: avocados. I eat them every day, year-round.)
If it's possible, spring for a CSA share. And it's always, always worth swinging by a local farmer's market to look for deals. Don't be fooled by the myth that farmers market produce is always pricey; shop for the cheapest items, and don't be afraid to ask the farmers for "seconds" -- those are the discounted fruits and vegetables that may be a little bruised, but taste just as good.
I make sure to leave a little bit of my overall grocery budget (around $50, or just over $7 per day) on hand for the extras - strong cheese, a great piece of meat. Balancing basics with indulgences is what keeps a broke kitchen frugal without being austere.
What do you stock in your pantry to keep your meals affordable but exciting? Tell us in the comments!