The following is an essay on how two people can eat for two weeks at less than 5 bucks a day, written by Patrick Freivald. Hey: we’ve all been there.
A few notes:
- I tried to make a menu of nutritious and filling items that you can live off of for $50 every two weeks without wanting to hang yourself to escape the monotony. This is not, by far, the cheapest way you can eat.
- Anywhere you see water and Bouillon in my recipes, if you make your own chicken stock (which you really, really should), use it instead of the water and Bouillon, but you’ll likely have to add more salt. (If you eat chicken, save the bones in the freezer, and then make stock once you have enough. It’s delicious and darn close to free.)
- You’ll see a lot of beans and peas in the recipes below. Please note that you can interchange them, and I suggest that you mix it up—use different kinds, and even mix them in different ratios to achieve the flavors and textures you like best.
- If you aren’t already and have the space, start growing your own herbs—even in a window box. Basil, dill, thyme, etc, etc, can add so much awesome flavor and variety to meals, and if you start them from seeds yourself they’re dirt freaking cheap to grow, especially compared with buying fresh or dried herbs in the store. You can share the costs with friends and neighbors—a seed packet gets you way more plants than you’re likely ever to need, and if you save the seeds that the plants produce every season, you’ll never need to grow more. (Perennials are great, too: thyme, sage, oregano, mint, chives, and green onions will come back every year.)
- Shopping around can save you big bucks. I did all the prices below at Wegmans because I’m lazy and could find them online, but you can and will find as good or better deals at Aldi’s, farmer’s markets, and ethnic food stores (which often have absolutely astoundingly good deals on produce and dried goods like beans and rice.) You can save more money than I have indicated below (and thus be able to buy more food, different food, or other non-food stuff, or god forbid save some money for a rainy day)—but be careful that you’re not wasting the same amount (or more) on gas running around! Call to check prices, then go there if the difference in price is worth the gas—try to group things, and shop around while you’re there.
- Ethnic food stores (such as Namaste, The Indian Food Store in West Henrietta Town Line Plaza) often have great prices on rice, beans, produce, and spices. For example, you can get a massive bag of bay leaves for $2—and you’ll have so many you’ll have to throw them away before you use them all, so split them (and the cost) with friends!
- If you’re going to buy meat, learn your local Wegman’s schedule. For example, the one in Perinton has the meat truck come Tuesday morning, so Monday night around 5:30pm a lot of “old” meats go on “Manager’s Special”—they’re still good, but much cheaper. Pay attention to the price per pound—usually larger cuts are significantly cheaper, so buy them, cut them up, and freeze for later use. Whole chickens are almost always cheaper than parts, but thighs/drumsticks sometimes go on sale for crazy cheap, so watch the specials. Chicken breast is almost always too expensive to be a worthwhile buy.
- While I include it in your budget below, it’s very easy to make your own Mayonaisse. Any recipe online should be fine—all you need are eggs, oil, and lemon juice. (And you can flavor it with herbs and spices and stuff, too!)
- I do a little “bulk” buying in the shopping list below, but you’d be better off going in with some friends and buying in even larger bulk. A 10-lb bag of potatoes is cheaper per pound than a 5-lb bag, but if they’re going to go bad before you eat them you’re not saving money. (That 50-lb bag of brown rice at the Indian Food Store is a fantastic deal, as are those 5-lb bags of beans—but you might not be able to afford those things up front and/or might not be able to store them anywhere, so find friends, shop together, and split the savings!)
- My brother highly suggests that you go to MrMoneyMustache.com, start at the beginning, and read the whole blog. The parts about early retirement you can safely ignore for now, but everything about frugality should be helpful.
- Use canola oil, even where I say olive oil in the below recipes. It’s cheap (a bottle for $8 should last you two months or more, and at $0.17 for 650-ish calories, that’s an incredible amount of human fuel). DO NOT BUY IT AT WALMART, because Walmart Canola oil…isn’t. Eventually when it makes sense, mix in some olive oil.
- You can eat to survive for way, way cheaper than what I’ve outlined below.
Example: A can of refried beans ($0.69), a cup of cooked brown rice (about $0.30), and a buck’s worth of mixed greens ($1.00) and you’ve got lunch and dinner for two for $1.99.
Do that, plus oatmeal and half a banana for breakfast, and you’re both eating for $28.00 every two weeks, barely more than half what you told me you currently spend. You’ll get sick of it every day, to be sure, but it’s not only more versatile (you can play around with flavors) and well more filling than Ramen, it’s downright nutritious.
So three filling and nutritious meals a day per person, seven days a week, for $14.00 a week is entirely possible. Let’s see what we can do with $25.00 a week.
- If you’re not already taking a multivitamin, you should be. One each per day is pretty darned cheap, and it’ll help fill any gaps in vitamins/minerals.
You’ll go broke eating boxed cereal, and toast has little nutritional value and can get rather expensive. Your solution?
Buy a great big tub of oatmeal—the bigger you buy, the more you’ll probably save, but be careful and do the math; Quaker brand, for example, is almost always a ripoff. You can get a 42oz canister of Millville brand oatmeal from Aldi’s for $3, and it will feed two people for two weeks, easy. To sweeten it, put in half a banana per bowl—it will fill you up even more, add nutrition, and a bit of sweetness that you’ll want.
Add-ins: Use milk instead of water, add other fruit, honey, maple syrup, etc, etc. Whatever you want, really.
Except for the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich, lunch will consist of leftovers and fruit. Because we’re taking care of all the leftovers in the “Dinner” section, the only costs we’ll deal with here are the fruit. Bananas are crazy filling, sweet, and nutritious, so let’s use bananas, and buy enough to use in your oatmeal, too. (You’ll get sick of bananas every day, so mix it up—but shop smart, because fruit prices are all over the place!)
Beans and Rice
Okay, so this is the traditional, go-to meal for people all over the world. It’s a simple recipe, and is versatile like pasta in that you can add whatever flavors you want to it and turn it into entirely different meals—but it has a major advantage over pasta. Pasta is a carb, by and large empty of anything in terms of nutritional value beyond pure calories—whole grain pastas, believe it or not, aren’t much better. Beans and rice not only have those calories, they’re also a complete protein—eat them instead of meat and you’ll save enormous amounts of money while still getting all the protein you need.
By mixing the kind of beans—sometimes black beans, sometimes white, sometimes red, or the bag of mixed beans—you can vary flavors, colors, and textures while still eating good food on the cheap. Brown rice is of course the correct choice even though it’s more expensive than white rice, for the same reason you won’t peel your potatoes—maximum nutrition.
This recipe makes six servings, so three total meals for the two of you.
1 lb dried beans—they take longer to prepare, but are astoundingly cheap.
2 c. dry brown rice
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepare beans as on package (or 6-8 hours in a slow cooker).
Prepare rice as on package.
Sautee the onion in the oil about five minutes on medium heat, add the garlic and sauté a few minutes more. (If using granulated garlic or garlic powder, skip this step.)
Add the beans and stir around until heated through.
Serve beans on top of rice, or mix together.
You can of course add in any combination of vegetables, spices, herbs, etc. to the basic recipe.
Delicious variations to cook together with your beans and rice:
Cuban: Use black beans and add 2 tsp cumin, 1 diced bell pepper, 1 can diced tomatoes, and a diced jalapeno.
Mexican: Use pinto beans and add 2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp chili powder, 1 can diced tomatoes with green chiles, a splash of lime juice, and 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro. (I don’t care for cilantro and would use basil instead.)
Louisiana: Use red kidney beans and add celery, bell pepper, hot sauce, and a handful of frozen spinach.
Baltimore: Use black-eyed peas, and add 2 cups chopped kale, 2 tsp cider vinegar, 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup frozen corn, 1 tsp old bay or other Chesapeake-style seafood seasoning (which, to be honest, is mostly salt.)
Indian: Use chickpeas and add 1 tbsp curry powder, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1 can diced tomatoes with green chiles, a thumb-sized piece of ginger (minced), 1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro.
Mediterranean: Use white beans and add 2 stalks celery, a small can of black olives, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1/3 cup chopped parsley, and 2 tsp dry dill weed.
Chinese: Use black beans (or adzuki beans, if you can find them) and sauté up 4 medium carrots cut into thin strips with a thumb-sized piece of ginger (minced) and the beans and 2 tbsp juice from your mandarin oranges, then add 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 small can mandarin oranges (juice reserved), 1/2 tsp Chinese Five Spice, salt and pepper to taste. Also good with chopped cabbage, thinly-sliced bell pepper, mushrooms, water chestnuts.
Twist #1: Turn any of the above into a soup by simply adding them to a few cups of hot broth (Bouillon) and adjusting the seasoning levels.
Twist #2: Turn any of the above into a “burger” by adding an egg, giving them a rough mash with a potato masher, forming into patties and either baking or pan-frying in a couple tbsp of oil.
Polenta is an Italian staple, used as a side dish or a “bed” for a main dish, or thickened even further and either baked or fried. It has a mild flavor, so you can play with it and add whatever you want. Essentially a porridge, consistency can vary a lot depending on how much liquid you use, and how much you cook it—anything from a very soft pudding to an almost cornbread consistency is common.
Makes four servings, or two meals.
6 cups water (or broth)
2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal
3 tbsp butter
Bring water to a boil, add salt, then gradually whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low and cook until it thickens and the cornmeal is tender, stirring often. (About 15 minutes). Remove from heat, add the butter, stir until melted.
Add spinach or mixed greens and a hefty whack of garlic.
Caramelize some onions (put onions in a pan on low heat with a little butter or oil, cook for a long, long time, stirring every once in a while, until they’re a dark brown and taste very sweet. If you want to really go crazy with it, add some balsamic vinegar at the beginning of the process.)
I like mine with a fried egg (runny yolk, of course) over the top, and a hefty dash of hot sauce.
Twist: Instead of serving right away as a pudding-like dish (think “mashed potatoes” substitute), cook the polenta until it’s a little thicker, then spread it on the bottom of a greased casserole dish, then bake and chill for two hours or until firm. Invert onto a cutting board, then cut into squares—which you can now eat as-is, bake, broil, or pan fry until lightly browned. Pan-fried polenta squares go great with most soups.
Pro tip: If you have the ingredients to make polenta, with the addition of some flour you can also make corn bread and/or corn bread muffins.
The traditional recipe uses leeks, but onions are cheaper!
You’ll get four good-sized bowls of soup out of this; enough for two meals.
1 large onion, chopped fine.
4 large potatoes, skin on*, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 c water
4 Bouillon cubes
1/4 c butter
Salt and pepper (to taste)
3/4 c milk (or half-and-half if you want to splurge)
Add-ins that are excellent:
Use half and half instead of milk
Sprinkle chopped chives on top
Sprinkle crumbled bacon on top
*Skin-on potatoes will add a texture that some people don’t like, but potato skins are vitamin-rich, and anyone trying to eat on the super-cheap should take advantage of every vitamin and mineral they can!
Directions: Add everything but the milk to a crock pot, cook on low 6-10 hours. Pour in batches into a blender and puree until smooth (or use a stick blender right in the pot, but be careful of spraying boiling-hot liquid around!) Stir in milk, cook 20-30 minutes until hot. Garnish (if garnishing) and eat.
This soup is traditionally served cold on hot summer days, but I like it hot.
Split Pea Soup
One of my favorite meals, easy and good for you.
Six servings, or three full meals.
1-lb bag dry green split peas, picked and rinsed
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, with leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic (or 1 tsp granulated garlic)
1 bay leaf
3 cups water
3 Bouillon cubes
Black pepper (to taste)
Soak peas as per package instructions, drain, rinse, and put in crockpot. Add everything else, cook on low for eight hours.
Add a ham bone (with some ham on it) at the beginning, remove a half-hour before serving, cut up the ham, and put it back in.
Add a ring of sausage (whatever kind you like and can get cheap), sliced into small pieces at the beginning.
You can mix this up a LOT by using different kinds of beans, lentil, and peas—it’s rather amazing how much the overall character of the dish will change, and variety is the spice of life. Try different seasonings, too—a black bean soup with sausage and cumin is a very different animal than a yellow lentil soup with kale and ginger, though essentially the same recipe.
These certainly aren’t “hamburgers,” but they’re delicious!
Makes eight burgers, or four meals.
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 c chopped onion
Salt and pepper
2 tsp minced or 1 tsp granulated garlic
3 cups water
3 Bouillon cubes
1 c dry split peas (we use yellow split peas, just because), picked and rinsed
1/2 c dry brown rice
1-2 tsp spices (use whatever you like, or omit)
3/4 c bread crumbs (plain or herbed)
Serve on hamburger buns.
Add-ins that are excellent:
1/2 cup assorted chopped vegetables (shredded carrots, bell peppers, etc), and/or mushrooms
Fresh herbs (a lot or a little)
Directions: Cook the onion (and optional veggies) in the olive oil over medium heat with a generous pinch of salt. Sweat for five minutes or until onions are soft. Add the minced garlic and cook another four minutes—if using granulated garlic or garlic powder, skip to the next step.
Add the water, Bouillon, (granulated garlic or garlic powder, if using), peas, rice, spices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a simmer for one hour until the rice and peas are tender.
Remove from heat and gently pour into a food processor and process until just combined—DO NOT PUREE. (If you don’t have a food processor, put it in a large bowl and work it for a minute or two with a potato masher.) Pour this mixture into a bowl and stir in the bread crumbs. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Shape the mixture into patties and bake on a lightly greased baking sheet at 375F for 10 minutes per side. Eat them like hamburgers, or with a knife and fork.
Twist: Use any kind of beans instead of peas to vary the flavor and texture, and mix-and-match to find what works best for you.
Baby Pea Soup
Totally different in taste than split pea soup, this is about the most stupidly easy recipe in existence.
Makes six servings, or three full meals.
2 lbs frozen peas (or one 40-oz package)
4 tbsp butter
4 cups water
3 Bouillon cubes
1 large onion, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste.
Combine all ingredients except salt and pepper—if the peas aren’t quite covered, add enough water so that they are, bring to a simmer over medium heat, cook 7-10 minutes. Pour in batches into a blender and puree until smooth (or use a stick blender right in the pot, but be careful of spraying boiling-hot liquid around!) Fun fact: a stick blender hulls the peas for you, and results in a smoother soup—but you have to stop here and there to pick the hulls out of the blade guard!
Garnish with a dollop of sour cream, bacon, and/or a few drops of hot sauce.
Serve with the toasted leftover hamburger buns.
This basic fish cake recipe works with canned salmon, crab, whatever—even leftover chicken if you shred it up good. It’s by far the most expensive recipe here in terms of cost-per-meal, but by and large is still pretty cheap and is too delicious for me not to include.
Makes eight croquettes, or one meal.
2 cans of chunk light tuna in water, drained
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp mayonnaise
1 large egg
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper (to taste—I’d go with about 1/2 tsp and a few good grinds, respectively)
1/2 c bread crumbs
1/2 c. bread crumbs (yes, again)
Combine everything but the last bread crumbs in a large bowl, mix until uniform. Divide mixture into eight little rounds (they’ll look a bit like sliders from White Castle), put them in the fridge for about ten minutes.
Put the remaining bread crumbs on a plate. One at a time, coat the rounds with the bread crumbs.
Get some oil hot in a pan on medium-high, cook on each side until golden brown and delicious.
Serve with, well, whatever you want. Just squeezing some lemon juice over the top is delicious. A little mayonnaise with some dill in it makes a good dip, as does mayo with hot sauce.
A little light for a meal, serve with polenta or beans and rice!
Good for a weekend breakfast or lunch, or even dinner.
Makes four servings, enough for two meals.
1 large potato, skin on.
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp butter
1/4 c onion, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Half a bag of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed (to get the water out)
1/4 cup cheese (whatever kind you like)
Poke the potato with a fork several times, then microwave for four minutes. Dice with skin on.
Melt the oil and butter in a pan on medium heat, add the onions and potatoes. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, until brown.
Meanwhile, beat six eggs together with 3/4 cup milk and salt and pepper, to taste. Throw in the spinach.
When the potatoes are somewhat browned, pour the egg and spinach mixture into the pan. Sprinkle the cheese on top, then put it in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes, until it doesn’t jiggle when you shake the pan. Eat!
Frittatas are great ways to use leftovers or extra things you happened to be able to afford. They’re extremely versatile, so don’t be afraid to add whatever sounds good/interesting/different along with the spinach.
I’m going to assume you already have salt, pepper, and vegetable oil. If not, these are things you’ll have to periodically get more of, but it will amount to pennies per meal at most—buy the largest containers you can afford and fit in your kitchen. As time goes on, you’ll want to stock up on spices, herbs, and other things that can take these same dishes and vary the flavor a great deal.
This list includes the oatmeal, bananas, and enough to make the frittata, croquettes, soups, and veggie burgers once each (that’s all of breakfast plus fifteen meals for the two of you), as well as triple batches of polenta, and of beans and rice (another fifteen meals worth of food), plus four cans of refried beans just because—you’ll also have left-over carrots, celery, spinach, and eggs every two weeks, which you can mix into polenta, beans and rice, etc.
21 bananas — $2.21
7 large onions — $1.99 for a 2-lb bag (or $6.99 for a 10-lb bag, if you can afford it!)
1/4 lb (about one head) garlic — $0.98
5 large potatoes — $2.49 for a 5-lb bag, so you’ll have a few extra
1 bag carrots – $1.29 a 1-lb bag (you’ll have lots of extra to mix in with your rice and polenta)
1 bunch celery — $1.69 (you’ll have lots of extra to mix in with your rice and polenta)
One 42-oz can of dry rolled oats — $3.29
3 1-lb bag dried beans — $1.49 x 3 = $4.47
1 lb green split peas — $1.39
1 lb yellow split peas (you’ll use half per two weeks) — $1.39/2 = $0.69
1 5-lb bag dry brown rice (you’ll use half per two weeks) — $6.99/2 = 3.49
32 oz bag yellow cornmeal (buy from the International Foods section, not the Quaker box—it’s way, WAY cheaper) — $1.69
1 can of Herb-Ox Bouillon cubes (you’ll use half per two weeks) — $2.19/2 = $1.08
24 oz can bread crumbs (you’ll use half per two weeks) — $1.79/2 = $0.89
Bay Leaves (A package will last you a year) — $2.49/12 = $0.21
4 cans refried beans — $0.69 x 4 = $2.76
2 cans of chunk light tuna in water — $0.89 x 2 = $1.78
1 9.2-oz jar Dijon mustard* — $2.49/6 = $0.42
1 30-oz jar Mayonnaise* — $2.99/6 = $0.50
1 32-oz bottle Wegman’s brand lemon juice* — $2.49/6 = $0.42
*All three of these will last you, say, three months or more if used for these recipes.
21 tbsp butter (3 1-lb boxes will last you a month, with a little to spare) — $2.99 x 3 / 2 = $4.49
1 gallon milk (way more than you need; just drink the rest) — $2.59
12 eggs (you’ll have five extra to turn rice/bean dishes into burgers/croquettes, or to just eat) — $1.99
1-lb block cheese (Wegmans brand; a 1-lb block will last you a month if you freeze half for the first two weeks) — $4.79/2 = $2.39
1 Package Hamburger buns–$1.29
40 oz box Wegman’s brand frozen peas — $2.39
1-lb bag Wegman’s Brand frozen spinach (use the other half in another recipe) — $0.99
Total cost: $49.86 every two weeks for two people.
(Note that it’ll cost you a little bit more that first week as you stock up on some long-use things like bay leaves and lemon juice, but will cost you that much less in future weeks.)
As time goes on and you save money, mix in as many more fresh fruits and vegetables as you can—canned (low sodium) and frozen are fine, but fresh is better. When you can afford it, I’d recommend spending another $50 every two weeks just on fresh fruits and veggies.
Other suggestions I’m too lazy to write up complete recipes for:
Buy a Vegetti and make squash (summer or zucchini) into noodles, and serve them as you would pasta (with just butter and a little cheese, or some red sauce, or what-have-you.)
Fresh corn on the cob is dirt cheap when it’s in season. Buy a lot, cook as normal, cut the kernels off the cob, and freeze them for later use in the above recipes.
If/when you buy citrus fruits, zest them and save the zest in the freezer as an awesome seasoning for both sweet and savory dishes.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, Turkeys go on sale crazy cheap ($0.29/lb last year.) Buy as many as they’ll let you in the weeks leading up to the holiday, and freeze them for later use. Mix the meat into other meals for maximum bang-for-your-buck, and don’t forget to save the bones to make your own stock!
Don’t let leftover vegetables go bad! Any carrots, celery, onions, whatever—toss them in a little salt and pepper and roast them on a pan. Then either eat them as a side dish or add them to chicken stock and puree to make a delicious, nutritious soup. (Onions in particular are awesome when caramelized, and if you add stock to them you get French Onion Soup, which is sublime. Just about anything can be made into soup by adding it to broth, and soup is very satisfying—vary the texture by pureeing all, some, or none of the veggies.)
French bread has three ingredients: water, flour, salt. If you’re going to eat bread, learn to make it yourself. It’s a bit time consuming, but you can make quite a bit in one afternoon/evening and then eat it for two weeks. (Goes great with soups, salads, etc. as a textural element, which helps keep your meals from getting boring.)
If you have bananas or zucchini and they’re getting on the old side, make banana and/or zucchini bread. It’s a great way to stretch these ingredients and vary up your eats.
Hummus is very cheap and very easy to make. $10 will get you enough Tahini for a year’s worth, and my recipe is very easy: two cans of chick peas, reserve the liquid. Put in a food processor or blender with some salt and garlic powder (and/or whatever other spices and vegetables you want to add), a heaping tablespoon of Tahini, and some lemon juice if you have it. Blend. It’ll be too thick, so add some of the juice from the can until it comes out creamy and hummus-like.
One of the big killers for people trying to stick with cheap eats is time. When you can afford it, invest in a crock pot—prep meals on your day off and refrigerate/freeze the prepped stuff. Pop it in the crock pot before work, and when you get home you have very little work to do and dinner’s done!