Cheap Food February

We made it through the first week of February! I’m still reeling from the fact that it’s even 2016…but time marches on, whether we’re ready or not.

Like I said in an earlier post, we’re going to explore different monthly challenges. This month was going to be vegan month, but it came up so quickly and our budget wasn’t quite ready for all the vegan exploring we wanted to do.

So naturally, we came up with Cheap Food February.

Cheap Food February

What we mean by cheap food

I don’t mean that we’re going to eat dollar-menu takeout every day. I also don’t mean that we’re going to be eating Instant Ramen or macaroni and cheese.

The goal for the month is to fill up on healthy, inexpensive foods like beans, potatoes, eggs, rice, frozen and fresh veggies, and certain fruits. We’ll be eating chicken occasionally, but since I’m not a big fan, it will probably be once every week or two.

We’re exploring new recipes and planning carefully to avoid food waste.

How much are we going to spend?

A middle-of-the road food budget for two is around $550. I think there have been months where we get close to that, but typically we’re under $450. It can be difficult to determine exactly because the bunnies cost us around $50 in fresh veggies each month, and we often share their kale, parsley, and cilantro.

For the first week, we planned to spend $80. We have spent $68.41, but we’ve also had a lot of dry ingredients and leftovers from last week that have helped keep it low.

For the next three weeks, we’re going to vary our costs:

  • Week Two: $70
  • Week Three: $65
  • Week Four: $60

None of these will include rabbit food expenses or booze expenses. We’re only planning on going out for food once (maybe for my birthday on the 18th, but I actually might prefer to stay in and cook).

Also worth noting: we are using cash only for groceries so that we can keep a good tally of what we’re spending and to avoid going over our budget. It’s new for me, since I’m surprisingly not a very mindful grocery shopper.

What we ate this week

So, what did we buy with our $68.41?

  • Kroger brand olive oil
  • 4 packages of frozen cauliflower
  • 4 packages of frozen brussels sprouts
  • 2 lbs zucchini
  • 4.5 lbs sweet potatoes
  • 5 lbs golden potatoes
  • 1.5 lbs on-the-vine tomatoes
  • 1.25 lbs leeks
  • 2 avocados
  • 2 green bell peppers
  • 1 orange bell pepper
  • 1 gallon coconut milk
  • 2 lbs chicken breast
  • 2 cans mixed beans
  • 2 cans organic crushed tomatoes

We didn’t need rice, oats, eggs or any spices this week – that’s the key to this. Stock up on bulk dry goods and spices when you can, then you can eat kingly foods on a meager budget.

I could have saved a bit more by just buying bulk dry beans instead of the canned ones, but I didn’t get my act together in time to soak and cook them before dinner.

Here’s what we’ve made and links to the recipes we used:

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Super simple mixed bean chili

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Roasted veggies are my life

I also made a couple of egg and rice dishes to get through ingredients before they went bad, but no recipes worth sharing.

We supplemented everything with green smoothies made from frozen spinach and fruit that we had on hand.

Next week will be more interesting because we’re running low on existing supplies! Plus, I want to add in a few more raw things like salads and more spiralized goodness (we just got a spiralizer with my husband’s birthday money, and it was well spent).

What are your favorite healthy, inexpensive recipes?

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Simple, Real Eating

This post is not about how to use fewer pots or less ingredients. This post is not about fast, easy ways to feed a family on the go.

This post is about taking back real food and re-learning the joy of cooking. It’s about taking simple ingredients and turning them into something healthy and magical. Yes, magical.

I just finished devouring a bowl of stir fry made from all fresh vegetables over rice. Broccoli, green onions, cauliflower, cabbage, red pepper, carrots all lightly cooked with some cashews tossed in – sounds complicated, right? Not at all. It was as easy as throwing all of those ingredients into my wok.

Simple Stir Fry

How minimalism has affected my diet

Since I began simplifying my life a couple of years ago, my diet has changed too.

I used to eat simply in a different way: spaghetti and marinara sauce was my go-to meal for most meals. I was always tired, always grumpy. But then I started learning more and watching food documentaries.

It started with buying only organic mac and cheese and whole wheat pasta. Then I discovered organic canned vegetables and how simple those could be. I discovered organic soy milk and ate that with organic cereal.

Those cans and boxes were technically simple, but they weren’t the basics. As I’ve explored going back to basics in many aspects of my life, my food choices are following the same pattern. By basic food, I mean I choose the groceries with the fewest ingredients (want an easy tip? Fruits and veggies are only one ingredient).

I’ve been hanging out in the produce section a lot more and can regularly be seen carrying my shopping bags with giant greens sticking out of them.

My diet has become more complex, but it’s because I tend to eat whole, simple/basic foods in new and endless combinations.

But I don’t like vegetables

There are hundreds of excuses to not eat right: I don’t have the time, I don’t know how to cook, I don’t have the right kitchen supplies…

But if you fuel up with frozen foods and sugary processed snacks, how can you perform your best? Treating your body right isn’t difficult, and it makes a huge impact on your life.

And what’s the harm in trying to cook and eat more vegetables?

Vegetables

Rules for simple, real eating

I am not a specialist or a professional when it comes to food, so take my advice into your consideration and do your own research until you find the diet that’s best for you.

That being said, here are my rules for cooking, eating and general nutrition:

  • If it has a package or a coupon, it’s probably not the best option. This rules out a lot of the food in a typical American grocery store. Packages are covered in terms like “organic” and “gluten free” and “all natural” and “no added preservatives” to make you think they’re healthy. None of those terms mean healthy. Seek veggie alternatives to your usual snacks – carrots and snow peas dipped in hummus, trail mix or roasted chickpeas are some of my favorites.
  • Always cook for four. If it’s just for one or two people, don’t try to cook just a single meal. I try to cook at least four servings of everything because healthy leftovers are a cheap, healthy lunch for the next day and help me avoid impulse food buys. Sometimes I cook for six or even eight, but that gets a little hairy if it’s a new meal we may not like. Committing to gross leftovers is bad, but food waste is worse.
  • Get to know your produce department. Spend some more time getting to know what your grocery store has available. This helps you open your mind to new ingredients, and when you try new recipes you’ll know where everything is at. Another tip is to only shop the perimeter of the grocery store – all the healthiest whole foods tend to be on the edges aside from spices, beans, rice and pasta. The aisles are filled with tempting packaged food.
  • Spices are your friend. When we moved, we left all of our spices with family members. So we’ve been building back up! I consider spices an investment since we’ll always have what we need on hand and it opens up a lot more recipes. I like to keep things simple, but I have a lot of spices and wouldn’t change that for the world. Don’t be tricked by prepackaged seasonings like those for tacos and guacamole – with the proper seasonings on hand, you can make them yourself and they’ll taste better and have no preservatives.
  • Get the proper supplies. This doesn’t have to be expensive. First, know your eating habits and what you can see yourself actually doing. Don’t get caught up by this post and buy a blender, only to realize later on that you’ll never use it. But I do recommend a blender. Broccoli, kale, pears, bananas, cucumber, celery, avocados, almonds…all have found their way into my blender for intense and delicious smoothies. I also recommend a wok (and/or a large stockpot) and a good knife or two. I rarely use anything other than my 8″ chef’s knife and the wok or stockpot are awesome for cooking large batches of veggie-heavy foods.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. Browse Pinterest, search for new recipes with your favorite veggies, explore new spices. Just don’t get caught in a bland routine. If you don’t want to spend time and money cooking a specific new dish, order it at a restaurant. If you like it, get all the necessary ingredients and try to recreate it. I’ve learned that it’s so much more fun to stay in and cook than it is to go out to restaurants, so once you’ve got it down there’s no need to go out for it again.
  • And finally, vegetables. Eat vegetables. I’ve come a long way from canned tomatoes and green beans, and it’s so fun to learn new ways to cook veggies I’ve eaten for years.

Some resources to get you going

I’ve been poring over food books and documentaries for a couple of years, but here are some of my favorites.

  • Anything by Michael Pollan. Food Rules is a short and sweet guide to eating right and isn’t preachy or filled with data. If you like data like I do, I loved In Defense of Food. His motto? “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
  • Forks Over Knives is a documentary that focuses on how the standard American diet affects disease. If you’re anti-vegetarian, this film is not for you since it emphasizes a no meat, no dairy diet.
  • I saw Fed Up at the Traverse City Film Festival and realized how much sugar is in everything. This film calls out processed foods and the sugar industry’s impact on the obesity epidemic.

You don’t have to be a nutrition fanatic or a chef to know what to eat and how to make it. Eating right takes patience, practice and a bit of research but it’s worth it.

You’ll lose the cravings for processed foods and you’ll notice little things like healthy fingernails that let you know you’re heading in the right direction.

Of course, occasional pizza and mac and cheese won’t hurt – remember what Emerson says about moderation?

Moderation in all things, especially moderation.

What does a simple diet mean to you?