A student at Reed College, Savannah Naffziger is a Culinate intern. For more of Savannah’s musings, check out her food blog.

Do’s and don’ts for eating well on a budget

A foodie disguised as a college student shares ideas

August 6, 2008

I recently saw a magazine tabloid promoting an article titled, “Woman feeds family of five on $10 a week. Find out how!”

I am not that woman. I will probably never be that woman; I have neither the ability nor the desire to eat on $10 a week.

But in my life as a foodie disguised as a college student, I’ve learned a few lessons about shopping and eating on a budget. Know how to spend your money. A small budget doesn’t go far, but there are ways to make it go farther.

First off, avoid prepared and excessively packaged food. It’s called “value-added” for a reason. In effect, you’re paying other people to do the relatively quick and easy tasks of chopping, stirring, and setting on a burner. My rule is that if I’m not hungry enough to cook, I’m probably not very hungry in the first place.

Good-quality pasta with Parmesan and garlic can be dinner.

If you don’t already have them, teach yourself the basics of cooking. I’m not talking anything five-star, but knowing how to work with whatever’s in the kitchen instead of needing to follow a recipe will pay off. I’ve been the person who decided to make the pepper pizza exactly as I read about it, and had to buy the peppers, and the basil, and the feta, and the Parmesan, and the capers, and the pine nuts, and . . .

Don’t be that person. Rudimentary cooking skills will help steer you away from packaged foods, and you’ll only get better as you go along. Having the skills to improvise with what’s in the kitchen also means you won’t waste what you’ve already bought.

On that same issue, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that eating well has to mean complex “gourmet” dishes at every meal. Some of the best and most delicious things you will eat are the simplest: in-season vegetables roasted with olive oil and a smattering of salt, a perfect piece of fruit eaten fresh, or good-quality pasta with only Parmesan and pepper. If these don’t satisfy you, make sure you’re buying quality products. If they still don’t, keep trying and wait for your tastes to change.

You don’t need most of the drinks you’re buying. If you’re buying water, take that money and buy a good filter for your faucet instead. Juice doesn’t have nearly the same nutritional benefits as eating the equivalent piece of fruit, and soda has absolutely nothing going for it. I will stand by coffee and the occasional six-pack of beer or bottle of wine, but beyond that, buying liquids is a waste of money.

Find a store with a good bulk section. Spices are key for tasty food, but they go stale quickly and usually come in huge bottles that can’t be used up for years. Bulk spices can be bought by the 1/8 teaspoon or by the cup, so you can try new things and get only as much as you need. Bulk sections can also provide precise amounts of other foods, like nut butters and vinegars. I probably don’t need ume plum vinegar often enough to justify buying an entire bottle, but being able to buy a few tablespoons in bulk at my co-op means that I can use it just when it’s needed.

Lastly, think about planting a low-effort garden. Some plants (lettuce, carrots, squash, beans) are easier to grow than others (peppers, broccoli, basil). When planted from seed, they will cost basically nothing, except for a few hours of your time a week. Invest also in a small windowsill herb garden, since the prices for fresh herbs are generally very high.

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1. by giovannaz on Aug 6, 2008 at 2:13 PM PDT

Thanks--this is great advice even when you’re not on a student budget. Eating perfect foods in their basic states can be the most delicious thing ever. And when you have quality foods--be they produce, cheese, or pasta--they really satisfy.

2. by janelle on Aug 6, 2008 at 5:23 PM PDT

I have been cutting back on the food budget too, here are a few ideas I have implemented:

1. Instead of buying a daily one-or-two latte, I try to make my own at home (at least a few times a week!).

2. Use up all my goodies in my pantry, in my cupboard, before buying more.

3. Shop at Trader Joes and Costco instead of Whole Foods and my other, more expensive grocer.

4. Sigh, buy budget wine. It kills me, but I keep the table wine on budget and splurge only occasionally on the good stuff.

5. Pick less expensive proteins. Not the uber expensive salmon, but the small pork loin.

6. I made my own strawberry jam!!!! Read about my budget saving here: http://www.talkoftomatoes.com/2008/07/04/grandmas-strawberry-jam/

I am sure I will come up with many more!

3. by Deb on Aug 6, 2008 at 9:00 PM PDT

My family’s biggest invisible food expense is waste! If you make too much of something and throw half of it out, the whole batch cost twice as much. We are trying to attack this on two fronts: to both cook what we will really eat, and to occasionally cook twice as much so we can freeze half. That way we get convenience food exactly as we like it, available at the drop of a hat. We also have a hierarchy - if something isn’t eaten quickly, it becomes part of soup. If it is too stale/wilted to go into something like a soup, we give it to our chickens. And the chronic repeat offenders, like the half baguette that sits in the refrigerator joined by another and another, waiting to be made into breadcrumbs - got to wean yourself off purchasing it as a regular item. Special use only!

4. by anonymous on Nov 7, 2010 at 4:46 PM PST

Great post! I’m looking to make some changes in my own eating habits, so I appreciate your insight a lot! Thank you. I recently stumbled upon this blog like I did yours and I thought your readers may appreciate the advice of this couple: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/food-for-thought/

I’ve started to look for their stuff more regularly and I think I’m going to add your blog to my list as well. Thanks for the post!

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