With ever-increasing food costs, what are you doing lately to save money on groceries? There are many ways of lowering your grocery spending, but one of the simplest ways is to simply plan menus based on cheap eats, foods that are always inexpensive. This way, you don’t have the stress of couponing or catching sales, and you’ll probably eat healthier too.
Base your meals around foods that are always inexpensive. This is one of the major takeaways I got from the Tightwad Gazette books. (These are some of my favorite books on radical frugality.) Here are some examples along with simple recipes.
Cheap Eats Staple Food: Potatoes
Ya gotta love the humble potato. The potato was responsible for a population explosion in Ireland in the 1800’s, because they were cheap, easy to grow, and provided a lot of nutrition. Some shy away from potatoes, saying they have too many carbs. But they’re good, complex carbs – the kind that boost serotonin levels and make you feel happy. (Potatoes, not Prozac)
Easy Potato Hash
First, melt a little butter in a cast iron pan and throw in some chopped onions. Then add some diced bacon, ham or pancetta. Let everything get soft and crispy in there for awhile.
Add a few sliced potatoes, about one per person. Let the potatoes cook until they are a bit crispy on the bottom, then flip them over to cook on the other side. Sprinkle with a little garlic salt and pepper on them. Once they’re cooked, add about a cup of grated cheese. (The French name for this dish is pommes Anna. Those clever French folks do know how to make potatoes and other frugal vegetables extra delicious!)
The kids love this dish.
When our family gets together, my mom makes this potato soup and it’s always a big hit.
Chop potatoes, one per person served, into a large dice and put them in a large soup pan, along with diced celery and onions. Cover with water and simmer until soft. Then add chicken broth, and lots of salt and pepper. Add milk, then reheat until hot. Sprinkle with a little cumin if you wish.
It’s ultimate comfort food on a cold or rainy day. I also sometimes add a grated carrot just for a little interesting color.
To make this you slice potatoes thinly and put them in a large casserole dish. Use one that’s larger than you think you’ll need, or they’ll bubble over and make a mess in the oven. Of course a sensible cook might put the casserole dish on top of a cookie sheet, but I always forget that step.
Make a white sauce with butter, flour, and milk and pour on top of the taters. Add lots of salt, pepper and garlic (optional). Then top with cheese. Cheddar is great, especially sharp, but last time I made this I had a little mozzarella that I didn’t want to go to waste, so I threw that on top with the Cheddar and it was out of this world. Another dish that kids really love. If you have leftover ham or bacon, throw that in too.
Fried potatoes are another favorite. To make these you simply slice potatoes thinly. It’s best if they’re partially baked. (Reminder: To save on energy, throw potatoes into the oven when you have it on for some other reason, because there are so many things you can do with them.)
Pan fry them in butter or coconut oil (or a little of both) until as crispy as you like.
I love them made in a cast iron pan, with sauteed onions. My favorite breakfast is fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. When you eat those two foods in the morning, your blood sugar stays on an even keel all day.
Fried potatoes are also delicious with pinto beans. Cook your pinto beans with a little bacon or chicken broth to give them flavor. Add salt and pepper and serve with hot fried potatoes and you have a simple, cheap and delicious meal that is quite nutritious and very filling. With all that fiber, you won’t have any trouble with constipation either!
Keep your potatoes away from apples, as the gas that comes from ripening apples makes potatoes go bad faster. Store them in a dark, dry place. Light causes potatoes to turn green. If they do turn green, no biggie, just peel them well. Unless you’re pregnant, in which case you should probably not eat greenish potatoes.
Cheap Eats Superstar: Rice
Rice is another staple of the cheap cook. You have to love a food that’s nutritious, goes with anything, and is so affordable. You can get a 20 pound bag of it for under $15.
Lately I find myself serving rice almost daily. It’s wonderful to have it on hand for always-hungry teenagers (at this point I have 3 of those). I have a rice cooker and while I’m not a big fan of appliances, this rice cooker has been well worth it because it makes perfect rice every time. I have a habit of getting distracted and letting my rice burn when I cook it on the stove, leading to big stinks and big messes.
Hot rice (cooked with milk instead of water) is delicious and comforting for breakfast. Add some butter and a tiny bit of sweetener of choice, and the kids love it. If you want to get really fancy you could sprinkle a little cinnamon on it or even a bit of orange zest.
Of course, rice as a side dish is self explanatory. But to make it tastier and healthier, I cook it with a couple tablespoons of butter and a little homemade chicken broth.
Fried rice is a great way to use up leftover bits of meat and veggies. All you need is leftover rice, an egg and other odds and ends. Serve with soy sauce or tamari.
Easy Kid Friendly Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice
Cook pieces of chicken in olive or coconut oil then set aside.
Mix pineapple juice (from a can of chopped pineapple), ketchup, a little soy sauce and a little garlic together to make a sauce. Add this to the chicken, then add veggies. Sliced red pepper, green pepper, mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, water chestnuts, whatever you like or have on hand.
Cook until sauce thickens. Serve over rice. I promise your kids will love this!
Cheap Eats: Beans
No conversation about cheap eats is complete without discussing beans. I buy my beans in bulk to save money and reduce waste, then cook a slow-cooker full of them to save time. I portion out family-size servings and freeze them so I always have “easy beans”.
Now what to do with our beans? How about Hoppin’ John (spicy blackeyed peas with rice)? It’s a complete meal. Red beans and rice (cook the rice with chicken broth and add Cajun spices to the beans). Black beans with coconut rice (cook rice with coconut milk instead of water and add a bit of cayenne to the beans), and I already mentioned fried potatoes with pintos. Another favorite meal of mine is collards and beans with corn bread.
Southern Collard Greens and Beans
Sometimes I make up a big pot of this and we’ll eat on it for a couple of days. Delicious and so healthy. To make it:
I usually buy my collard greens in those prewashed bags, because I’m lazy. Washing greens is a huge job and requires several changes of water, then you have to cut out the stems and chop them, which is a big job. The bags are a cinch.
In a large stock pot, saute a handful of chopped onion in olive oil or coconut oil. When soft, add the collard greens and then enough water to just barely cover. Cook on low/medium heat until they’re the texture you like. I usually cook mine at least a half hour. Check regularly and add water if needed.
Greens will “cook down” fast so don’t worry that you will have a huge pan of food. A large bag of collards, once cooked, will be enough to feed several people a couple of times over.
Once the greens are soft you season them as you like. I typically add a slice of bacon to the boiling water. You can also use chicken broth. At the very least, add a little garlic. Then add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes (unless you have little ones who will protest), and a little more olive oil.
And this part is very important – a splash of apple cider vinegar! The vinegar makes this dish and it also helps your body extract the calcium from the greens. I love greens served with “chow chow” which is a southern style naturally pickled relish, but if you can’t locate any, just use the vinegar.
Serve with cornbread and pinto beans.
If you’ve ever seen cauliflower for $5 a pound, you know that all vegetables aren’t cheap all the time. Sometimes bell peppers are more expensive per pound than beef!
But for the most part, onions, cabbage, carrots and zucchini are always cheap. These vegetables can be used to fill out a meal and stretch the main dish. Cabbage is delicious pan-fried in butter with a splash of cream added at the end. So decadent and tres French!
Try starting most recipes with a mirepoix (diced carrot, celery and green bell pepper). Almost any soup is made better with this trio. Try serving meat on top of a bed of shredded cabbage. It fills you up with fiber and water and helps keep you slim as well. Zucchini noodles are easy to make and very inexpensive. What’s more, they’re better for your waistline than pasta (a traditionally cheap food that I can’t recommend because of its effects on blood sugar).
I have to give a final shout-out to eggs. Lately, eggs are around $1 a dozen. Omelets, frittatas and egg-based casseroles are far more affordable than meat, with just as much high-quality protein.
What are your favorite cheap eats?