Slashing Our Grocery Bills and Cooking on a Budget

Earlier this month, one of our favorite food bloggers, Beth Moncel of Budget Bytes, released a new cookbook with more than 100 recipes geared towards helping people slash their grocery bills. Beth and her publisher were kind enough to give us an excerpt of the intro to her book as well as one of her favorite recipes.

Budget BytesBudget Bytes is available at many of your favorite booksellers.

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I had just earned a degree in nutritional science for which I’d spent considerable time learning how to create healthy meals on low-income budgets. I dutifully employed the basics, like brown-bagging my lunch, avoiding convenience foods, and cooking meals at home, but it just wasn’t enough. Not only was I bored with the food that I ate, but somehow I always seemed to spend more money and waste more food than I meant to or could afford. Certain that I could do more to ease my money problems, I decided to buckle down and crunch the actual numbers . . . like down to the penny. I had taken many foodservice management courses and, while I didn’t particularly enjoy them at the time, the lessons suddenly flashed through my mind. I thought about how commercial kitchens managed expenses by planning menus, calculating recipe costs, and always repurposing leftovers. Maybe I could do the same thing in my kitchen, I thought. I knew it was going to take some effort and serious dedication, but hey, I love a good challenge and I desperately needed to save some money! I can’t lie—the data geek in me was a little giddy with excitement about the project. So, I started planning, cooking, and calculating.

I initially started with the goal of eating on less than six dollars per day, using Excel to track the cost of every single thing that went in my mouth.

It was pure nerdy fun and I was totally into it. The calculations were extremely insightful from the start. I quickly learned which ingredients burned through my food budget and which helped stretch it.

Putting my newfound knowledge to work, I was soon cooking twice as much food for half the cost.

At work, my delicious home-cooked lunches started to make my coworkers jealous.

While they ate soggy submarine sandwiches, I indulged in stir-fried ginger beef and fragrant jasmine rice. The ooohs and ahhs that erupted as I heated my homemade lunches let me know that I was onto something. On one particular occasion I was so excited about my low-cost creation that I posted about it on Facebook. Friends started asking for the recipe and that got me thinking . . .

Should I start a blog?

Honestly, I barely knew what a blog was, but I did know that the economy had just tanked and I wasn’t the only one who might need low-cost recipes. I also knew that the art of cooking had nearly been lost on my generation. When manufacturers start selling microwavable cups of macaroni and cheese because boiling water is too complicated, you know that there is a need for basic cooking instruction. Maybe I could help, by posting my simple, inexpensive recipes and step-by-step instructions. I decided to go for it.

And thus, Budget Bytes was born.

As it turned out, I severely underestimated the number of people who were in need of easy, delicious, and inexpensive recipes. Just a few short months after I started the blog, comments began to pour in. I got e-mails from all sorts of people who were, like me, struggling to make ends meet, but not willing to sacrifice good food or their whole paycheck to get it. College students, recent graduates, single parents, bachelors, military families, people struggling with medical conditions, and more were all looking for great food on a dime. With every e-mail, every comment, every “thank you” from a reader, I was motivated to create more. The more I created, the more I learned, and the more fun

I had sharing what I learned.

Although my budget today is not nearly as tight as it once was, I continue to live and eat by my Budget Byting philosophy and share my experiences with anyone who is interested.

Budget Bytes: Easy Pad Thai recipe

Serves 4

I’m probably not supposed to play favorites, but this recipe is definitely my favorite. Pad thai is the epitome of simple ingredients creating dazzling flavor. It’s fresh, light, exotic, and faster than any takeout (unless, of course, you happen to live above a restaurant that delivers). Fresh lime is key to creating the unique flavor, but one lime should be enough for a single or even double batch of this noodle dish. Fish sauce, which you can find in the Asian section of most major grocery stores or at Asian markets, gives this pasta a more authentic flavor, but if you can’t find any, skip it; this dish will still rock your world.

INGREDIENTS
8 ounces pad thai or lo mein noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 1 medium lime)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 green onions, sliced
1/4 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped, unsalted peanuts

INSTRUCTIONS
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the noodles and cook for 7 to 10 minutes or until tender. Drain the noodles and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until tender.

Whisk the eggs lightly with a fork. Pour them into the skillet and cook just until they solidify, but are still moist, moving the eggs around the skillet slightly as they cook so that they lightly scramble. When the eggs are cooked, remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, and red pepper flakes. Pour the sauce into the skillet with the scrambled eggs. Add the noodles and toss to coat in the sauce.

Sprinkle the green onions, cilantro, and peanuts over the noodles. Toss lightly to combine. Serve warm.

BUDGET BYTE: Pad thai noodles have a unique flavor and texture, but if you can’t find them in your area, try substituting another flat pasta like linguine.

CHEF’S TIP: To get the most juice from your lime, roll it on your countertop while applying pressure before cutting it open. This causes the juice capsules to burst and release more juice.

 

Reprinted by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © BETH MONCEL, 2014.

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26 Comments / Post A Comment

Allison (#4,509)

I’m glad that we are all joining the cult of Budget Bytes. Even if the recipies need about triple the amount of garlic she calls for.

aproprose (#1,832)

@Allison Every recipe ever needs triple the garlic!

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Allison Seriously, I would join that cult if she actually formed one in a heartbeat. No other food blogger or cookbook does as good a job as she does. She never lets me down!

Allison (#4,509)

@aproprose this is true!

erinep (#4,236)

After making about a dozen recipes from the site and loving all of them I bought the book. LOVE the pasta e fagoli recipe. Anything that starts with cooking bacon for a base is a winner with me.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

BETH!!!! I love, love, love your website and bought your book last week! I want to very sincerely thank you for helping me to become an actual cook and not just someone who eats crackers and scrambled eggs and calls it a day.

Meaghano (#529)

Ok now I want pad thai

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Meaghano I totally forgot that I used to make this recipe and loved it, and it somehow slipped out of my mind… gotta be better about that!

sherlock (#3,599)

Another huge Budget Bytes fan here! Beth, your recipes are slowly taking over my entire cooking repertoire. At this point, I would say at least 50 – 60% of the recipes in my regular weekday dinner rotation are from your blog!

I also have come to realize that, in addition to the fact that they are fast, delicious, and cheap, I really appreciate that so many of your recipes rely heavily on pantry staples with only a couple “one-time” ingredients required. This obviously helps make them more affordable, but it also cuts down on the amount of stuff I need to carry back from the grocery store, which is a godsend for a car-less person!

Oooo at the budget-friendly price of $12 I might actually have to get a copy for myself and my sister (instead of just her). And I just did my Friday estimate too, oops.

la_di_da (#1,425)

No joke, my boyfriend got me this book for Valentine’s day. I think we’ll try the pad thai tonight. :)

BornSecular (#2,245)

Hmm, I know they can’t give everything away because they want us to buy the book, but I’m not getting a feel for how this is a budget meal. Does the actual book give a cost range of each dish and/or a time length to make it? Are there suggestions for other meals to make with any ingredients not entirely used by a recipe? I love love love cilantro but never ever buy it because I can only seem to use about half before it goes bad. I know it’s cheap, but I hate the waste. So, just being nit-picky here because I am not part of the cult. ;-)

sariberry (#4,420)

@BornSecular Can’t comment on your BudgetBytes question but I do have this recommendation for frozen herbs: http://mydorot.com. They sell them at local grocery stores in NYC – not sure where you are. Highly recommend them to avoid herb waste.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@BornSecular The last time I had leftover cilantro I put it in my food processor with lime juice and mayonnaise. So good. Actually, I must confess: that was the second-to-last time I had leftover cilantro. The last time, I forgot about it and it went bad. So I feel your pain.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@BornSecular Yep, her website breaks down – to the cent – the price per recipe.

editrickster (#279)

@sariberry They sell these at Trader Joe’s also.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@LookUponMyWorks YMMV though. Following the blog, the prices she pays for meat and produce are around 1/2-2/3 what they are at my local grocery store, and the servings aren’t man- or athlete-sized either. That said, food is just more expensive in some places, but she’s as thorough as she can be given her experience.

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

Is there a vegetarian substitute for fish sauce? I have a seafood allergy.

Stina (#686)

@Tripleoxer from the Thai food About.com page
“Vegetarian fish sauce does exist. So far I’ve yet to find it in a Thai food store, but nearly all the Vietnamese food stores carry it. Better substitutes (in my opinion) are Golden Mountain sauce , or just plain soy sauce. When I cook Thai for my vegetarian sister, I use a combination of these two sauces, and the food always turns out wonderfully. For Golden Mountain Sauce you will need to shop at a good Asian food store .

meatcute (#1,430)

I love Budget Bytes — and have cooked some seriously tasty meals inspired by her recipes — but I have to confess: I can’t bring myself to buy budget groceries. Buying dried beans and cooking them at home? Sure. Baking my own bread? Absolutely! Popping popcorn on the stovetop instead of buying pricy potato chips for snacktime? Yum.

But I’m a food snob. I don’t know if I should try to change that or not… but buying organic veggies and locally, humanely-raised meat is really important to me. I’m curious if anyone has tips about being budget savvy while also indulging in some of those areas. Frankly, I often find myself thinking that food SHOULDN’T be cheap; we spend less of our incomes on food than at any other time in American history, and the costs get shifted to other places.

Ugh, I sound obnoxious, I know…

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@meatcute It’s true, many American food industries are subsidized, which keeps costs down on a variety of products, like milk.

If you want local, humanely raised meat, the affordable way to do this without blowing all your money is to 1)eat less meat, 2) buy the offal instead of the nice cuts or 3) go in for a whole cow or half a cow (this requires a lot of storage space and more money up front…but you won’t be buying $25 steaks at the grocery anytime soon). If you’re into game, depending on where you live, hunters may be willing to sell you half or whole deer (local AND free range).

sea ermine (#122)

@meatcute For vegetables, sometimes CSAs and farmers markets can be a really good deal.

This varies widely depending on where you live though. In my neighborhood, aside from the winteriest months where only the fancy stands remain, the farmers market has super cheap veggies (like, fill up a whole bag and it’s magically $2). But the CSAs are expensive. In my friends neighborhood there are no affordable grocery stores or farmers markets but her CSA is really cheap. So I’d recommend poking around and seeing what you have outside of the standard grocery stores.

squishycat (#3,000)

@meatcute We do a share of a local meat CSA. I think it comes out to $150/month but we get a lot, including stock (we’ve gotten beef, chicken, and duck) and sausages and marinated cuts. We know it’s all local and humanely raised/slaughtered, and delicious. The only real problem is they never send stew meat.

pterodactylish (#2,321)

@meatcute CSA!!!! We spend ~$400-500 each year and get POUNDS of fresh veggies and fruits every week for like 4-5 months. It MORE than feeds two of us, with some added meat.

I don’t think that’s obnoxious; it’s spending money according to your values! Doing stuff like cooking dried beans helps save money for quality ingredients. Choosing cheaper fruits and vegetables, like apples over berries and carrots over red peppers, helps too. I don’t eat meat, but only eat dairy from local, humanely raised cows, and I afford that by eating much less of it than I would if it were cheaper.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@meatcute I don’t think that’s obnoxious, but it is true that it requires some tough choices and doesn’t work for all income levels or locations. I only cook meat about once a month so that when I do buy it, I can afford the local humanely raised stuff, which is at least twice the price of grocery store stuff. Unfortunately, the same holds true for veggies (I’m in an urban area and our farmer’s market is priced as “luxury” – they do take food stamps but you just don’t get that much for your money). I’ve tried two CSAs, but one was only 7 weeks in the summer, and the other didn’t even feed two people so I always had to buy more produce. I gave up, I simply can’t afford local produce year-round, so now I just buy whatever’s cheap and seasonal at Stop & Shop.

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