a mighty (frugal) menu

I love cooking grand things, but the reality is the only adjustable expense in our budget is groceries (trickier to negotiate car payments, tuition, insurance). So I still cook grand things, just with minimal ingredients. Of course you can find recipes aplenty on this blog with less than five ingredients.

Feast on the Cheap is a stellar blog that calculates each meal expense for readers. No time to do that here, but I do want to share a few ways we have managed to keep eating healthy, delicious, fresh meals. You know, on top of paying the bills.

I know frozen meals are cheap, but I simply won’t compromise health for “easy”(ouch, look at those sodium counts). Meals often need to be homemade if controlling fat, calories, salt and nutrients is important to you. But I’m a super, super busy full-time grad student this summer, so I’m looking for do-able and delicious budget meals. A few thoughts…

Keep the cabinet/fridge/freezer stocked with the basics. Like ravioli.

It’s amazing how much you can make with ingredients from your cabinet alone. One of our favorite Indian meals is mostly canned goods (beans, tomatoes) with ingredients from our spice rack and a scoop from our basmati rice supply. Click here for my cabinet basics. When truly stuck, roasted garlic linguine is always a favorite and delicious possibility.

Plan your meals for each day of the week.

This also includes days you know you will be going out or provided dinner somewhere—less meals to purchase/plan for the week! This seems easy enough, but for me this requires sitting down for about 20 minutes with a few favorite cookbooks/cooking blogs to decide what is compatible with ingredients we have + meals for which I have time. Oh, yes, and the double task of planning ways to make each meal vegetarian/carnivore-compatible. 20 minutes is truly sufficient with a pen, paper, and some inspiration. Easier to make meals you’re excited to eat. This saves tremendous time when you know what you will have each night of the week—nothing so expensive as indecision. Indecision is the gateway to carry-out.

Double-duty ingredients.

Have a plan for all your perishable ingredients. Do something interesting and different with chicken on both nights, make small salad variations to use up your romaine (or grill it!), use mushrooms in a pre-made sauce one day, on pizza the next. Have a plan for all your food so it won’t go to waste, and freeze what you can.

Cook and eat smart.

Preheating the oven when you don’t have to? Not in our hot apartment. Quick methods make for time-saving meals (one skillet; salad in a single bowl). We cook on this stovetop grill to save time and cook our non/vegetarian meals simultaneously. Plus grilling is fun. We also do leftovers for lunch, so our sandwich supplies tend to last us through the weekend.

Know what is in your fridge at all times, and clear out leftovers every week. Eat leftovers within four days, according to the mayo clinic’s food safety recommendation. I find a stuffed fridge unappetizing.

Buy wisely.

We keep our weekly grocery store bill to $70 a week. Not intentionally, it just almost always happens this way; the more expensive weeks are when we let our “stock” items get too low and we’re desperate.

I do not do coupons because they are often for processed/unhealthy stuff I wouldn’t purchase anyway.

Now, there are only two of us, yes, but $70 each week gets us both meals for the week on top of the basics to re-supply (milk, OJ, cereal, olive oil). We find Trader Joes far more affordable than the grocery stores more geographically convenient, but worth the drive when we’re paying nearly half. Really.

What does this look like?

Last week’s plan (all purchased at Trader Joes to complement current cabinet supply):


cookout with family and friends for the Fourth

I contributed this completely free-from-the-pantry appetizer


burgers (him) and mushrooms (me) on the grill with Indian potatoes

bought whole-wheat hamburger buns (freeze the rest for free meals in the future), beef patties, bag of baby red potatoes, pre-cut baby bellas


grilled pepperoni (him) and mushroom (me) pizza with cantaloupe salad

bought whole-wheat refrigerated pizza dough, small whole cantaloupe, head of lettuce


chicken (him) and eggplant (me) on the grill with Indian corn

bought free-range chicken thighs, small eggplant, and one bag frozen corn kernals (student time saver)


chicken (him) and paneer-mushroom (me) masala with cumin-basmati and naan bread

one jar curry sauce (me), one jar masala sauce (him), frying cheese, frozen naan


breakfasts, snacks, desserts

bananas, apples, strawberries, whole-wheat pretzels, almond-flaxseed butter, assorted juices, milk, eggs (French toast is a bi-monthly go-to), whole-wheat sandwich bread, sliced turkey, cheese, yogurt, nuts, bag of lemons, coffee, tea

This week:

Dinner with Andrew’s family

Greek salad with flatbread

Grilled cheese quesadillas with corn-scallion sauté

Stir-fry with rice

Improvisation on Artichoke in A minor

Barley with corn and basil

Cold pesto tortellini salad

(free! frozen tortellini + lots of windowsill basil)

frugal Fridays: happy hour picnics at a vineyard just 6 miles from our house. free music! cheap wine!

What’s cooking at your place?


Filed under budget, dinners, health, here to share, lickety-quick, the basics

6 responses to “a mighty (frugal) menu

  1. Barri

    Lindsey, you are an inspiration! I am actually looking forward to my trip to the grocery store this week!

    • Barri, what a lovely thing to say. The grocery store (well, TJs especially) is usually a very enjoyable trip for us—and that’s because we’re excited by our menu, not overwhelmed by options. I hope you find this to be the case in your future, and do let me know what you’re cooking!!!


  2. Lynette

    This is one of my favorite blogs to date!!!

  3. I just started meal planning again, in an effort to save time, money, and watch calorie intake. I do a lot of what you have mentioned, but need to get better about using up all the perishables.


  4. Did you see this post I did? I made a weekly menu planner with a shopping list you can download. Check it! http://littleanilia.blogspot.com/2011/06/wellness-wednesday-in-kitchen.html

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