On the Cheap

How to Eat Well on a Budget

August 24, 2013

There are so many great conversations on the Hotline -- it's hard to choose a favorite. But we'll be doing it, once a week, to spread the wealth of our community's knowledge -- and to keep the conversation going.

Today: Ideas for cooking good meals without breaking the bank.

How to Eat Well on a Budget, from Food52

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Cooking on the cheap requires creativity and resourcefulness. We know it's possible to eat well on a tight budget and stretch simple ingredients into a special meal, but that doesn't mean it's easy. A small budget is challenge enough -- add in an additional obstacle, like being a college student with a less-than-perfectly outfitted kitchen (or no kitchen at all), and creating tasty affordable meals can become even more daunting.

Luckily, our community has some great ideas to help Natalia and the rest of us get the most bang for our buck. Here are some of our favorite ideas so far:

  • Cooking with others to pool resources, and building meals around beans, lentils, grains, and pseudo-grains like quinoa. 
  • Pierino recommends a college student staple: burritos
  • Monita suggests buying seasonal ingredients, and Kristen W. advocates for growing herbs to elevate all sorts of dishes.
  • Keeping a few good staples on hand, like olive oil and Parmesan cheese, from nutcakes.
  • Using a small appliance to expand meal options. Either a slow cooker, or as Hilarybee suggested, a hot pot -- for making rice, noodles, tea, and even hard-boiled eggs.

What are your best tips for eating well on a budget? Add your two cents to the question on the Hotline here or continue the conversation in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • chocolateandvegetables
  • Mark Lunden
    Mark Lunden
  • Aliwaks
  • kattykathy
  • Age136
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


chocolateandvegetables August 28, 2013
Planning your meals and batch cooking (if you have the freezer space--I'm guessing a college student might not) are key for us. Batch cooking is very conducive to cheaper dishes like legume-based soups, casseroles, etc. We do a big cook day every couple of months so that we will have a freezer full of meals or meal components. Then, on a week-by-week basis, I will typically draw up a rough meal plan for the week before I go to the grocery store/market, so I know how much I'm expecting to spend. If I arrive and there's a huge unexpected deal on something, I will often change up the meal plan, but having the plan/list and the total bill estimate keeps me from picking up stuff just because it's there. I keep a running mental tally of my estimated bill while shopping, and if it starts to edge over what I was planning to spend, I stop and evaluate whether I really need everything in my basket. It's so easy to be seduced by good foods or produce, but I just remind myself that there's only so much we can eat in a week!
Mark L. August 26, 2013
Rotisserie chickens are basically free. Hard to buy/cook one for the price...can easily feed 4-5. If you use the bines to make stock, you can easily get 3-4 qts of homemade stock, which is $2-3/qt, and not as good.
Aliwaks August 26, 2013
I have found planning ahead and finding ways to resist temptation to be the most effective, our weekly food budget is btw $100- 120 , for 2 people and that includes cat food & papergoods & cleaning stuff. It was as high as 250-300 for awhile and that was mostly because on the way home from work I would stop in whole foods for an ingredient and walk out with $100 worth of stuff...after grocery shopping for the week.
Basically I treat my home kitchen like I did a restaurant kitchen I have par and I take inventory. I stock up on things like canned tomatoes, beans, pasta, rice etc when it's on sale, and I buy bulk when I can ( I try to got to Whole Foods with Cash so I have to limit what I spend)

Now I use an online grocer for the bulk of what we need, and pick up the remainder at farmers market 1 or 2 xs a week, and I try to get there at the end of the day when I'm more likely to get a deal.. Plus I grow my own herbs, .make my own stock etc

So I fake shop all week putting stuff in my virtual cart that I think I'd like to cook, then when Thursday comes around I do an inventory of my fridge, and I look at my list and trim it down to the amount I want to spend. An example this week went like this:
Saturday: Caprese Salad, Grilled Sausages, Onions, Peppers
Sunday: Mussels + Practice Wings for next weekends wing competition + Homemade Fig Ice cream and "The Bambino" ( recipe soon to be found on Food52)
Mon: Turkey Burgers w Gorgonzola & Oven fries
Tue: Spinach fettuccine (fresh)Bolangnese - Butter lettuce Salad w figs (from our tree!!!)
Wed: Veg Enchiladas + Avocado Salad
Thurs: Chicken Milanese
Fri: TBD
Not an exciting week this but next week is Holiday + Holiday so taking it easy on the cooking. Plus everything from Monday on has leftovers for lunches and I make egg sandwiches ahead of time and freeze them for a quickie breakfast to go.

I put the menu up on the fridge and its actually released some tension in our household (not only because I am not randomly spending money on stuff we don't need) but my husband likes knowing whats for dinner . I'm keeping then menus and will probably find a way to chronicle the first year of our marriage with recipes.
kattykathy August 25, 2013
Shop the ads and sales and farmer markets, BUT remember car gas is an expenditure. I ride a bicycle (1 speed with dual baskets) so the food itself is the gas (both ways).
Age136 August 25, 2013
Batch cooking is a big one. But more importantly, I shop based on my grocery store's specials, then build recipes around my purchases instead of vice versa.
Caroline August 25, 2013
I find rice and black beans Cuban-style is a wonderful way to eat well and not break the bank. I flavor it with a sofrito of onion and tomato and add cumin and cilantro for extra flavor and it can be the side dish or main (beans are protein) for the week. Always a hit in my house and so inexpensive.
SBox August 25, 2013
Apart from what's already been said:
-Using meat/animal products to flavour a dish instead of using it as the "main event"
-Eggs! Extremely nutritious, quick and affordable.
-Buy in season
-Buy seconds - fine for soups/stews, banana bread, etc.
kimmy August 25, 2013
Cabbage is cheap, filling, and delicious. You can find many wonderful cabbage dishes online or in cookbooks. And use coupons
Socalgal52 August 25, 2013
Thick slice cabbage, boil it in milk, then use it as noodles. Much healthier as well as inexpensive
Matt August 24, 2013
Batch cooking with lots of leftovers. I'll cook once and get 4-6 meals out of it. Be smart about it; stews, soups, casseroles reheat well. I'll cook 3 times in a week for approximately 14 meals worth. 3 pounds of meat ($10-15), 6 pounds of veggies ($6-10). 1 pound of rice ($2) and a few pounds of potatoes ($6) - $30-35 for a week, plenty of room for pantry items and fats.
Tokyo Y. August 24, 2013
Shop at Asian markets! We have a large H Mart which is a Korean chain close by, their vegies and fruit are incredibly fresh and close to wholesale price. It may be a little overwhelming with things you haven't seen, but well worth exploring. Same goes for the fish and butcher departments. Also, most markets sell thin sliced beef and pork - a 4 oz serving per adult is plenty when mixed with veggies and noodles or rice. (One more note - if you have food sensitivities or allergies, it is better not to purchase processed foods there - food labeling from overseas is not always as accurate as in the U.S.)
Chef B. August 24, 2013
Food 52 is absolutely right about having the staples....the core in your pantry and ice box. I subscribe to the same as a chef and being from the ghetto of Washington and being on welfare as a child, you learn very fast to find food that's filling but cost effective. I currently have 12 episodes called - No BUdget Gourmet on a You TUbe channel called Alright TV. It's REAL info for REAL folks that are working with limited funds. Search No Budget Gourmet on You Tube. You'll love it. Thanks Food 52
ZombieCupcake August 24, 2013
Brown Rice has to be one of my favorites cheap and versatile. You can have it with cilantro, lime, and tomatos or make it into a breakfast rice pudding with apples and walnuts
Hadi I. August 24, 2013
I would hate to be a showoff, but I think my company's product. $20 fo Dinner for 2 delivered. PeachDish.com is a great way to eat healthy on a budget. The way we can offer such great value is to keep it season. Alice Waters told me to keep it seasonal.

Margit V. August 24, 2013
This is a really important topic! There are so many of us with limited income, yet we want to eat healthy, delicious food so that we can stay well and enjoy life to the fullest. Some of my "survival" tactics include the following: grow some food even if you have limited space ( I have three 4x8 elevated beds, one foot deep, filled with organic compost; it's amazing how much you can grow in an elevated bed the size of a twin-bed for sleeping!), baking bread several times a week--which I share with friends, supplementing my garden by buying veggies and fruit in season from organic farms, from these I cook lots of soups and other meals, to freeze for Winter as well as enjoying them in abundance while fresh, shopping and cooking smart: some veggies, like green cabbage, are way cheaper than others, and I use dried beans, lentils, split peas, chickpeas, etc. rather than canned, not only because they're usually much cheaper, but also to avoid the BPA in cans. It's a continuing daily adventure to eat as well as possible! It helps tha I love to cook and bake. Also, I learned a great deal from my mother, who kept us alive during during war-time before we were fortunate to immigrate to America with ingenuity and practical wisdom, creating meals from flour, an egg, rabbits we raised, and foraged and gleaned food.
Socalgal52 August 25, 2013
Use wood pallets (free) as tiered planters. Really good for limited spaces and easier to reach
LittleKi August 24, 2013
Contrary to a lot of advice, I try to not overstock my pantry or fridge. I know there are people who are good at planning weekly menus and using their pantry to good effect, but I am not one of those people. It usually results in stuff being forgotten and thus money just sitting there wasted on shelves. I try to buy just as much as I need and no more. It keeps my wastage way down.
Ollie Z. August 25, 2013
Agreed! I find that shopping frequently but lightly helps me as well. That way, I'm eating fresh and not feeling guilty about throwing away rotten produce.
aobenour August 24, 2013
I will recommend sticking to one cuisine each week. A pound of dried black beans and a batch of good homemade salsa can get my household through a full week of Mexican feasts, an enormous batch of jasmine rice holds lots of possibility for a week of Chinese, and a huge pot of tomato sauce and a pound of pasta can become many interesting things, too.
Good D. August 26, 2013
I like this idea. You could make it fun for kids, by talking about some fun facts for that country during the week as you sit down in China, Mexico, India.