Adopting simpler cooking and eating habits can help you get through January's financial squeeze.
January can be a tight month financially. It's the time for reckoning with excessive holiday spending and paying off one's credit card bills. For many Americans the situation has been made worse this year, due to the government shutdown that is withholding pay checks. Needless to say, it's a month for hunkering down and making do with less.
One of the best ways to save a considerable amount of money is to embrace a simpler form of cooking. Many other cultures know how to cook delicious, nourishing food with low-cost ingredients, but this skill is harder to find in the United States, where low-cost eating is commonly associated with processed, prepackaged, and/or fast foods. Look at countries like Italy, India, and Brazil (among many others), and you can see budget-conscious eating in action, without it being really obvious. If you were to implement the lessons observed from these places throughout January, your bank account would thank you by the end of the month. So how does one go about cooking on a serious budget?
1. Plan all of your meals.
Sit down once per week and figure out what you're going to eat for the next 5-7 days. The more doubling up of meals, the easier and cheaper it will be. Plan the meals around what's on sale, what you've already got on hand, and what you'll be buying for other dishes. Or you could be really Brazilian and just eat the same thing every day – black beans, rice, and some sautéed greens on the side.
2. Eat less meat and dairy.
Meat and dairy are very costly relative to other forms of protein, so they should be used sparingly if you're trying to save money. It's better for the planet, too. Go veg at home for the month and see how that feels. Get your protein from alternative sources like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, eggs, and nuts (when on sale).
3. Choose your recipe sources wisely.
This has a huge effect on what I want to cook and eat. When I'm trying to save money, I look at budget-conscious websites and cookbooks. I avoid books that call for expensive ingredients. A great resource I've recently discovered is Budget Bytes, which offers recipes, meal planning tips, and a guide to calculating the cost per serving.
4. Use cheap flavor boosters.
By cheap, I don't refer to quality, but rather the bang you get for your buck when you add spices, herbs, and aromatics to dish. You'll hardly miss the expensive cuts of meat and the fancy olive oil when your lentils are wafting heavenly garlic and cumin. Beth of Budget Bytes also advises, "Expensive ingredients are often the most potent so you can use them sparingly and still get a great flavor (think sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, walnuts). So, choose your recipes based on the ratio of expensive ingredients verses inexpensive ingredients and use potent/expensive ingredients sparingly." For example, pairing ground beef with rice and beans can make a burrito filling go much further.
5. Do the math.
It's worth taking the time to calculate per-serving costs, as it can be eye-opening. You don't have to do it indefinitely, just long enough to get a feel for which dishes save you money and which do not. You may find yourself losing appetite for the meals that gobble up a significant portion of your food budget. Here's how to calculate serving costs.
6. Do a white-box challenge (the white box being your refrigerator).
The idea is to come up with ways to make dinner using five ingredients or less, based on what's already in your fridge or pantry. See a list of ideas here. Try to stay away from the grocery store as long as you can.
7. Give up alcohol.
It's not technically food, but it goes hand-in-hand with it, and contributes to the grocery bill. By choosing not to drink for the month of January, you can really kickstart your savings (and any fitness goals you may have set).
8. When in doubt, make soup!
True peasant food, soup is one of the best ways to make multiple meals at very little cost. It's also a perfect comfort food for January's frigid temperatures. I make vats of bean soup, curried lentil soup, butternut squash soup, and beef-barley soup that do for several dinners, packed lunches for kids, and freezer meals.
9. Exercise portion control.
You could be eating more than you need to. Be strict about dividing up the food you've made so that it can last for more meals. This doesn't mean you should go hungry; stock up on nutritious snacks like almonds, apples, hummus, peanut butter, and bread to fill those between-meal voids.
10. When you see a deal, buy it.
If you come across great food deals at the grocery store, you should snap them up, even if that particular item isn't on your menu for the week. Just be sure to plan the following week's menu around it.