Book Review

Budgeting for good food

How to shop and cook real meals for pennies

By
February 1, 2012

Which do you value more: time, or money? It’s an age-old debate that usually gets decided in favor of whichever commodity is more available. Got plenty of cash? Chances are, you’re gonna spend it on things you’d rather not do — cleaning your house, changing your oil — in order to have time to do the things you want to do. Got more time than dough? You’re gonna be the one washing the windows and tinkering under the hood.

Of course, many — most? — people feel like they don’t have enough of either commodity, and struggle to compromise. For decades, publishers have churned out cookbooks aimed at impoverished housewives with too many children and chores on their hands. Those books emphasized ease, speed, and tons of convenience foods, selling efficiency at the expense of quality.

The recent Betty Crocker Money Saving Meals exemplifies the genre, with its middle-America recipes (Cowboy Casserole, Italian Chicken Fingers) and an entire chapter of Bisquick recipes.

Even current celebrity cook Rachael Ray, with her 30-Minute Meals brand — ubiquitous via her books, TV show, magazine, and website — often relies on prepackaged, premade whole foods in order to hurry things along. And despite this, her promised 30-minute meals still each take about an hour to put together.

If an hour each evening seems daunting, consider the whole DIY food movement of recent years, which calls for domestic empowerment via foraging, gardening, harvesting, drying, fermenting, preserving, canning, freezing, butchering, and the like, before you even get to the dinner prep, which might involve simmering stock for half a day and then making soup for a couple of hours. Hungry yet?

In our house, we dabble in DIY, but don’t dedicate our lives to it. After all, it’s hard to pay the bills if no one works outside the home, and if we had to feed ourselves entirely from our yard and local farmers’ markets, we’d starve. (Hm, is that prosciutto hanging in the basement ready yet? Nope, got another few months to go.)

So the birth, over the past few years, of a new genre in cookbook publishing — the budget-minded book that emphasizes whole foods and kitchen skills over processed junk and kitchen assembly — is heartening. Can you really eat well on a budget without giving up your day job? The best of these books show you how to do it — although you may feel like reworking your life to make budget bliss happen is a temporary new day job.

First up: The $7 A Meal Cookbook, by Linda Larsen. This 2009 book, written by a woman billed as a “Pillsbury Bake-Off® recipe tester,” comes closest to the Betty Crocker default model, with a heavy emphasis on meat (including chapters focused on beef, pork, chicken and turkey) and midcentury favorites, such as King Ranch Chicken Casserole and Mom’s Turkey Meatloaf. Most recipes call for nothing more objectionable than canned tomato sauce, although some do rely on the sketchier members of the processed-food family (American cheese slices, Pillsbury refrigerated dough). And each recipe gives a total-cost breakdown, such as $6.89 for Crescent Ham Salsa Sandwiches. (Prices were calculated using online grocery-delivery services, including SimonDelivers (now CobornsDelivers), YourGrocer, and Peapod.)

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Larsen provides a brief introductory chapter outlining the budget basics: cooking at home instead of eating out, picking cheaper (and bulkier) cuts of meat, reading the unit-pricing fine print on each product, sticking to a grocery list, buying in bulk, avoiding food waste, and oh, yeah, learning how to cook from scratch. (She also takes note of coupon-clipping, which she sensibly says can save you some money but favors processed foods and can become a full-time job in itself.)

If you’re trying to switch over your daily diet from constant takeout and restaurant meals, The $7 A Meal Cookbook could be a good intro to easy budget cooking. If, however, you already like to cook (or if you’re used to fancy cheffy foods), you’ll probably find Larsen’s recipes a little unexciting.

For the slightly more adventurous eater, 2009’s The Frugal Foodie Cookbook is a logical next step up from Larsen’s primer. Written by Alanna Kaufman and Alex Small, founders of the food blog TwoFatAls, this book promises meals that ring up at $7 per serving, not $7 total, so the “frugal” here isn’t quite as skinflinty. In exchange, you get simple recipes that are more appealing and creative (Chai Muffins with Figs and Oats), feature more seasonal and local fresh produce (Honey, Thyme, Pear, and Goat Cheese Sandwiches), and range farther afield in cuisine (Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad). Kaufman and Small provide both a total price and a price per serving (those muffins, for example, total $10 for the ingredients and 85 cents per serving).

Sadly, the book’s index is woefully incomplete, making it hard to find recipes by ingredient. And the tips section is remarkably brief: just 10 suggestions for being a frugal foodie, including using expensive ingredients sparingly and buying cheap wine for cooking. This isn’t really a book about overhauling your grocery-shopping or cooking lifestyles; it’s a book about cooking easy, tasty dishes with a minimum of fuss and worry and not too big a grocery bill.

If that seems a bit thin, check out 2010’s Eating Well on a Budget, from the editors of Eating Well magazine. The recipes here are a mix of American standard (brisket, taco salad) and inventive (Turkish Pasta with Bison Sauce, Barley Risotto with Fennel), the color photos are big and lavish, and the tips sections (at both the front and the back of the book) are much more extensive. Going meatless, at least occasionally, is advocated, and the pantry suggestions emphasize wild fish, whole grains, and minimally processed foods. Recipes aren’t broken down by price, but the book’s subtitle promises “Amazing Meals for Less than $3 a Serving.”

Equally, 2010’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Well on a Budget, by Lucy Beale and Jessica Partridge, offers the by-now-familiar format of a single not-too-tricky recipe per page, plus a surprisingly large chunk of space (the first nine chapters, or more than a third of the book) dedicated to the details of shopping and saving. The book’s lists, charts, and strategies actually walk readers through the process of figuring out, say, what your weekly grocery budget should be, and how to plan ahead for meals, cooking times, storage, and assembly. The authors go beyond the usual bulk-and-coupon tips to include shopping for cooking equipment and storage containers, as well as saving money when you have to eat out instead of at home. Their straightforward and thorough accounting of the how-tos makes this book worth at least an attentive skim.

Hardcore foodies will likely prefer Tamasin Day-Lewis’s 2010 book Supper for a Song, with its rich, hearty dishes drawn from cooking traditions around Europe and the Mediterranean. Alas, the recipes don’t quite exemplify the book’s lyrical title; you may find yourself wailing, not warbling, once you see the bill for, say, Spanish Chicken with a Saffron and Almond Sauce, with its insistence on spendy ingredients (saffron, Marcona almonds, and fino sherry). Of course, you don’t use too much of any of these ingredients in the dish, but you’ll have to pony up for them in the first place. Good luck, too, buying the blood sausage called for in Stuffed Pork Fillet with Figs and Marsala; squeamish Americans seldom, if ever, consume this particular specialty sausage, and if you don’t make it yourself, you’ll need to find a high-end butcher who does.

Day-Lewis offers no section on organizing, budgeting, or otherwise being frugal in the kitchen; her book simply asserts that cooking traditional foods in a thoughtful way will do the trick. You may dine very, very well indeed from her book, but you won’t come out counting all the pennies you’ve saved.

The most comprehensive books in the eat-better-for-less genre may well be Leda Meredith’s 2010 The Locavore’s Handbook and Linda Watson’s 2011 Wildly Affordable Organic. Meredith’s book is a succinct wrap-up not just of the locavore movement (eating only, or mostly, foods from your local foodshed) but of the DIY gardening-and-preserving movement, with tips especially for singletons trying to go local in a tiny urban apartment. (She’s summed up her book elsewhere on Culinate; for a memoir with a similar focus, check out 2007’s Plenty.) The Locavore’s Handbook includes no recipes; instead, its chapters revolve around such topics as sourcing local food on the cheap (or even for free), saving the planet via local food, eating seasonally, planning ahead, and gardening, foraging, preserving, and storing your food.

Wildly Affordable Organic, on the other hand, emphasizes the benefits of organic food over local food, or food that’s certified as being cleanly produced instead of being grown nearby. There are pros and cons to both; organic food comes with a production guarantee, but local food, because it’s generally fresher, retains more nutrients. If you go organic, you can still buy fresh food year-round, because it’s shipped from all over the world; if you go local, you’ll have to preserve summer’s bounty for the winter and skip out on many fresh foods during the cold months, but you’ll feel good knowing that your carbon footprint is small.

Like Meredith, Watson uses her personal experience attempting a new diet as the basis of her book — but instead of chapters giving general tips, her book is most similar to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Well on a Budget, divided as they both are between precise strategies and simple recipes.

Watson’s book is for the eat-better number-crunchers: the folks who want to know not just how to clip coupons but how to stretch their food stamps at the hippie food co-op or farmers’ market, the folks who want to know not just what but exactly how much to buy of each ingredient each week or month, the folks who want not just recipes but elaborate daily planners arranging those recipes in a palatable, varied, and affordable fashion.

budget books
Recent budget-minded cookbooks offer a variety of strategies.

All the numbers and charts can seem overwhelming at first, but, like the Idiot’s Guide, if you commit to trying the setup, the nitty-gritty details will make the transition easier. And Watson claims to beat out even the $7-a-meal book; the book’s second subtitle, after all, is “All on $5 a Day or Less.”

Enthusiastic eaters will likely be disappointed in Watson’s recipes, however, which seldom let you forget that you’re restricting yourself in the kitchen. One of Watson’s go-tos, for example, is the drearily named Stoup, which she defines as “stew-soup made from good extra food collected in a container you keep in the freezer throughout the week or month.” She insists the concoction tastes like minestrone, but the name reeks of the Great Depression.

Unlike all the other frugal foodies, Watson (at least during her initial budgetary experiment) draws a firm line in her kitchen linoleum: she will only buy cheap versions of everything. That means apple-cider vinegar instead of balsamic, plain olive oil instead of extra-virgin. Later, she amends her system for the occasional splurge (such as real balsamic, used sparingly on salads) or exception (such as honey, which is often not really honey at all). But her recipe collection remains frugal in taste as well as budget, with beans, bread, pasta, eggs, and potatoes serving as the base foods. For a book that’s proudly vegetarian, there’s surprisingly little emphasis on whole grains or getting creative with greens. You might indeed lose weight and bulk up your wallet on Watson’s system, but you probably won’t feel thrilled about your meals.

Finally, there’s The Feast Nearby, Robin Mather’s 2011 memoir about living very locally and very frugally, while still insisting on eating well. In 2009, Mather, a Midwest-based food reporter, got laid off and dumped from her marriage in the same week, and chose to retreat and retrench in a rural Michigan cabin.

chai muffins
Chai Muffins with Figs and Oats are a healthy, affordable snack.

Despite the claims of her subtitle — the lengthy “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on 40 dollars a week)” — Mather disposes of the job and the marriage in a few brief sentences, in order to focus on all those DIY techniques and local foods. The Feast Nearby is a pleasantly charming and informative series of anecdotes that goes beyond the subtitle’s list of food-sourcing skills to include brief profiles of local farmers, butchers, and vendors, as well as short reports on, say, the commercial milk industry in the U.S.

Arranged as a series of seasonally themed chapters — snapping turtles, for example, lay their eggs at the same time as the first strawberries are fruiting — The Feast Nearby traces Mather’s domestic activities over the course of a year, from early spring through the following winter. No charts, budget breakdowns, or other accounting suggestions appear in Mather’s book; hers is a narrative, making the case for eating local foods or raising your own chickens through the pull of a story, not the pressure on a wallet.

Like Tamasin Day-Lewis, Mather emphasizes solid, traditional foods (honey-oat bread, oxtail stew, homemade yogurt) dressed up with the occasional spendy or non-local splurge (maple syrup, coffee). This is the book for the eater who wants to curl up with a comforting read, not a lesson plan. And in the dead of winter, sometimes that’s the perfect menu.

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

Related recipe: Vietnamese Chicken Salad with Mint; recipe: Honey, Thyme, Pear, and Goat Cheese Sandwiches; recipe: Honey-Oat Bread; recipe: How to Make Yogurt; recipe: Oxtail Stew; recipe: Chai Muffins with Figs and Oats

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1. by Kathy Hester on Feb 14, 2012 at 5:58 AM PST

I really appreciate your insight into all of these books. But I do have a differing opinion of Linda Watson’s book. I got it last year and recommended her recipes and plans to friends that were having a hard time staying on their budget while eating healthy. I think in the book she puts emphasis on farmers markets and buying seasonally which, to me, means buying local. She even says in the book, “The beauty of cooking from scratch is that you can go as organic and as local as your budget allows.” Her concepts are less about restricting and more about being mindful when you do decide to splurge. The name stoup may not sound intriguing but it is a really great way to have a zero waste kitchen and that makes for a small carbon foot print as well.

2. by Rita Jacobs on Dec 3, 2012 at 5:15 AM PST

I’ve only ever had waste in my kitchen when I didn’t have a dog!

Thanks for the reviews. I’ve decided I need to cook better so I’m hunting cookbooks. The seven dollar meals one looks promising. One of the first things I learned was many cooks use foods I can’t get or can’t afford at all. People will say you can eat cheap here and its some site with no meat meals. GRRRRR!

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