Cooking Fresh For a Family of Two

Like I’ve mentioned a bazillion and five times, I love cooking. If I lived in a bigger city, where cooking classes were readily available, I’d find a way to make the cost of attending fit into our budget. I’d learn how to make fancy, foreign dishes that are both a challenge to cook as well as pronounce. Then I’d wow the taste buds of anyone willing to try my exotic cooking because I know I’d be darn good at it.

But since I don’t have this option, nor the money to go out and buy the rare expensive ingredients that are harder to find in good ol’ Montana, I’ve been teaching myself to cook more basic (though still delicious) foods from the cookbooks that have been gifted to me over the years, as well as randomness I find on Pinterest. Therefore, my cooking has been limited to the home-cookin’ you’ll find in Better Homes and Gardens: Bridal Edition or recipes found in a Pinterest search involving the words “healthy,” “easy” and/or “budget-friendly.”

Great film. Makes you want to go out and grow your own produce. Or at least go to your local farmer's market.
Great film. Makes you want to go out and grow your own produce. Or at least go to your local farmer’s market.

Though my desire is to cook difficult and fancy foods, I’m still learning how to whip up some of the basics and am thoroughly enjoying that whole process. I only started cooking a couple of years ago, after I married Mr. FI. Up until then, I was a master of baking and cooking things that came out of cans and boxes. My stomach, needless to say, was made of steel at the time since none of that was very healthy. When I married Mr. FI, I was ready to continue those eating habits, but Mr. Fi’s stomach disagreed. So, I had to learn to make healthier food so that my husband didn’t die…pretty good motivation (I may be exaggerating a tad here…but a sick husband is no fun either).

This meant buying fresh. Looking at labels to determine sodium and fat content. Determining how much artificial crap and preservatives are in foods so we can avoid them, etc. Now, after watching various documentaries such as Ingredients and just feeling better as a whole, I can’t fathom going back. Or even the fact that I didn’t realize how bad everything I was eating really was (it’s like they say…ignorance is bliss and stomach aches). Today, eating something out of a box seems so unnatural, in both habit and cognitively.

On top of our bodies feeling better, our budget is also better off because of the switch. Who would have thought that it might actually be more expensive to eat foods that are bad for you? I certainly didn’t think that way. I’d always assumed that the healthier the foods you bought, the more you’d pay. But then again, I think my mind was associating the word “healthy” with the words “organic” and “gluten free.” While these often can go hand in hand, you don’t have to buy the organic carrots or the gluten free noodles if you’re not gluten intolerant. And that makes shopping “fresh” rather budget friendly.

picture courtesy of joyoushealth.comFor example, Mr. Fi and I often make tostadas (an absolutely delicious Mexican dish that basically resembles open-faced tacos) because they’re simple, easy and cheap. You basically toast/pan fry a corn/flour tortilla, then place whatever you want on top. Mr. Fi and I usually choose cooked refried beans or mashed black beans, followed by a meat, cheese, lettuce, avocado and tomato. Maybe some hot sauce or salsa to top it all off and Spanish rice on the side for filler.

Now let’s look at the cost for this based on our local grocery store’s ads:

Tortillas: $.33 (18 ct for $.99 – we eat about 3 each)

Avocados: $.75 each (we buy the 6-pack from Coscto, otherwise they’d be at least $.99 each – we use about 1/2-1 avocado per meal)

Black Beans/Refrieds: $.85/$.87 per can ( $6.79/$6.99 for 8 packs from Costco- one can covers the tostadas and leaves us with leftovers)

Lettuce: ~$.25 (I only get Romaine b/c I’m super picky like that and it’s $2 for a head of organic/$1 for regular)

Onions: ~$.22 ($.45 per onion – we use about 1/2 of an onion per meal)

Mr. FI's favorite
Mr. Fi’s favorite

Tomatoes: ~$.34 ($.99/lb- we usually get 4-5 at a time when they’re cluster tomatoes and use 1 tomato per meal)

Meat: ~$2.09  (1/2 of one ~1.5 lb pack of turkey meat that comes in 4-pack packages we get from Costco – prices and sizes vary)

*Cheese: ~$.80 ($7.99 for 2.5 lb block from Costco – we will use about 1/2 cup *if we want cheese – I try not to eat too much dairy)

*Rice: ~$.20 ($9.99 for a 25 lb bag from Costco – we make about 1 cup per meal *if we make rice and we often make just plain rice – Spanish rice is a treat)

Total: ~$5.85 (with leftovers)

Then there’s our usual “easy fix” meal that Mr. FI and I will break down and buy when we just can’t resist it anymore…pizza. Pizza is one of the only foods that comes out of a box that still makes me salivate just thinking about it. This is because pizza is bad for you in all the right ways. Cheese+Bread+Convenience = Weak-Consumer’s Worst Nightmare.

While we love the taste, we still don’t like the price. The best deal we’ve been able to find for a frozen pizza that doesn’t taste like cardboard is when the Circle pizza’s from Albertson’s are on sale for $3.99 a piece. This price only happens once every few weeks (if not months) and we could easily eat two of those pizzas because we love them and because we’re fat people trapped in skinny people’s bodies. It is not because they’re tiny pizzas – that would be completely against my frugal nature.

The healthiest thing that involves "cooking" out of a box
This one is my absolute favorite. Add some grilled chicken on top and proceed to salivate.

Anyway…

In an effort to make these pizzas go further, we often split one, in hopes to “rationalize” the purchase. This usually leaves us a little hungry, so we often opt to add a salad on top of the main dish to fill in the cracks. So let’s estimate the cost:

Pizza: $3.99 – $4.99 ($7.98 – $9.98 if we decide two pizzas should make us feel worse)

Salad: $.50-$1 (We usually eat half a head of lettuce if we’re having salad, and add toppings as well)

Total: ~$8.48 (and no leftovers)

Conclusion:

The best bang for the buck is making something from scratch. In the fight of Tostadas v. Pizza, Tostadas win with roughly $2.63 in savings for each meal (if not more, given the leftovers) coming out to a savings of $81.53 if we could only choose to eat one or the other for the entirety of May. This stuff adds up! Not to mention the added benefit of improved health. Because of this, Mr. FI and I will continue to cook and eat fresh!

How about you? How do you stay healthy and in budget, simultaneously? Any go-to, healthy meals to recommend?

Comments

  1. Engineer Cents (@engineercents)

    I don’t think it’s possible to eat healthily and cheaply where I’m at, unless I take a 30 minute bus ride to the discount grocery store. For the groceries stores near me, that tostada meal would average around $12-15.

    My favorite “cheap eats” (I say because nothing here is actually cheap) include mujadarra and this awesome sweet potato, wild rice, cashew, arugula salad I found on Pinch of Yum (you can nix the cashews to make this REALLY cheap).

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Wow!I’m not sure where you live but that is crazy-expensive food. Do you have farmer’s markets in your area that provide produce that’s a little more affordable since your grocery stores don’t? Also, have you ever considered making homemade tortillas? Sometimes I make tortillas from scratch (which is actually a lot easier than people think) but it obviously takes a little more prep time. It certainly saves on the cost of tortillas, though. If none of those options are available to you, I just googled mujadarra and that looks plenty delicious itself! 😉 I’ll have to give it a try sometime! Thanks for sharing!

  2. our next life

    Love that you guys have made an effort to be healthier and eliminate most of the processed food. We’ve saved a ton of money by cutting out just about anything with an ingredients list, and shopping almost totally from the produce section and the bulk bin section. It is definitely a little more work, but we tend to cook big batches of things (soup, chili, pasta dishes) and then freeze most of it, so that we’re not having to cook from scratch every day. In our case we care a lot about organic and gluten free, and are willing to pay a bit more for it, but even then, food doesn’t have to be as expensive as people think. We buy what’s local and seasonal, which is almost always cheaper than buying some produce flown in from the southern hemisphere!

    As for our cheap meals, we love making a million versions of beans and rice, using dried beans instead of canned beans (saves more money still, plus avoids the BPA in can liners, and avoids using the resources of making and recycling the can, since we can buy dried beans in the bulk bin), and then dressing it up with all sorts of things — salsa, salad dressing, tomato sauce, all kinds of homemade sauces — plus loads of seasonal veggies.

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Buying local and seasonal is the way to go! Besides, the food tends to taste better and last longer I’ve found. We try and shop mostly organic, but we don’t always hold to that. It really depends on the food and where we get it. I’m looking forward to the farmers markets that should be opening up soon here in MT so we can shop REALLY local and will (most likely) be eating more organically than we currently are.

      As for the not eating out of cans, Mr. FI and I have discussed this and hope to be rid of canned foods someday soon. However, since I am the cook in the house and have been a little lazy about cooking dry beans, we’ve just been going the Costco route of buying our beans and tomato products in cans. I especially want to make my own tomato paste, sauce and diced tomatoes instead of buying them in cans because I hear their acidity mixed with the can liners is not a healthy combo. Someday I’ll learn how to can and hopefully just have mason jars full of delicious, BPA-free foods 🙂

      Thanks for your comment and suggestions!

      1. our next life

        One extra note — tomato products are almost always available in glass jars (paste, diced, sauce, etc.). Maybe not at CostCo (haven’t shopped there in years), but definitely at grocery stores! Canning tomatoes is a lot of work, so we sometimes buy them in glass jars and then repurpose those jars for other items when we’re done. 🙂 Hope your week is off to a great start!

        1. Post
          Author
          Mrs. FI

          Whaaaaaat??? I don’t think I’ve EVER seen these jars…then again, I wasn’t really looking because I didn’t know they existed! I’ll have to keep an eye out. Thanks for the heads up!

          P.S. My week is off to a splendid start, hope yours is too!
          P.P.S The fact that you don’t shop at Costco fascinates me.

        2. our next life

          Perhaps an anti-CostCo post is in order? Just kidding — we’re not anti. It’s just not right for us and what we buy. And the male in the marriage gets a bit overwhelmed by the crowds there. 🙂

        3. Post
          Author
          Mrs. FI

          Mr. FI’s not a fan of the crowds either. Which is why we typically go on a Mon/Tues evening. It’s dead in there at that time on those days AND there are often plenty free samples since there are hardly any people to fight for them 😉

  3. Steve Adcock

    Though I love going out to eat, cooking at home will probably always be cheaper and more healthy. For us, I make a wicked guacamole. I understand that avocados aren’t the cheapest thing in the grocery store, but we don’t care. This guacamole is just darn good.

    When in doubt, my wife and I head towards the taco boats, which are just baked tortilla shells in the form of a large bowl and we load up the inside with guacamole, both refried and black beans, occasional cheese, lettuce, rice and salsas/hot sauce.

    Comes out great every time. We also don’t buy canned beans any longer. We buy everything in bulk, including our beans, and make our own black beans and refried beans with the use of our crock pot.

    Oh the crock pot…what a magically simple, yet absurdly effective, cooking utensil. 🙂

    Nice post, as always! 🙂

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Those taco boats sound awesome. I’ve never tried both types of beans together in one taco…I’ve been living in a very sheltered world where you can only choose one type of bean for your tacos a time. I think it’s time to live a little and try this double-bean taco you speak of. 😉

      Also great idea on crock potting those beans! I never thought we’d eat as many beans as we do but it’s becoming more and more apparent that buying the big bags instead of the cans is probably the way to go.

      From one bean-eating-machine to another, thanks for your comment!

  4. Mario

    As for being more expensive, I’ve found that the thing that costs the most money is convenience. You can definitely find healthy prepared food if you look for it, but you’ll pay a pretty penny for it.

    What’s funny is that I’ve found that the *better* the groceries I buy, the less I spend on food… because I’m extra-motivated to get home to cook them rather than eating out 🙂

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Mario – thanks for both your comments! I love hearing other great resources that readers use as well as more ideas for cheap and yummy foods! I’ve seen the burrito idea before on Pinterest but I was wary to try it because the Breakfast Sandwiches I made and froze didn’t cook through very well. Perhaps the burrito is a better option as far as reheating goes?

      And I have made pizza from scratch and LOVE it. The reason we end up buying packaged pizza is because of convenience (like you mentioned) on those days we feel lazy and also we don’t typically have the pizza ingredients readily available…perhaps we’ll change that 😉

      As for the “better groceries = more motivation” rule, I completely agree. If I’ve spent money on items that are more expensive I will try a LOT harder to make sure they don’t go to waste in the fridge before I use them. Even though I’m very conscious of what’s about to go bad in my fridge anyway, those more expensive groceries certainly do get priority!

      Thanks again for your comments and ideas!

  5. Mario

    Yup. As mentioned before, Alton Brown is a great resource. He doesn’t just give you the recipe and the methods, but explains the reasoning behind the methods so you have better intuition down the line. And he delves plenty into the more exotic dishes you mention.

    I too love making burritos. One way to make them even more frugal is to make them in bulk, then seal and freeze them individually. Then, you have a quick microwaveable meal that’s cheaper and healthier than any competitor you can buy in the store. I have about five breakfast burritos ready to rock in my freezer right now 🙂

    For pizzas, ever thought of making them from scratch? Then you get to make them as healthy and tasty as you want! A lot easier than you would imagine too.

  6. Pat

    To learn more about cooking, I’d recommend an old series called “Good Eats” which is on Netflix now. You can also find some episodes on You Tube. Alton Brown explains the science behind cooking, and gives a great introduction to tons of food with some useable recipes to boot!

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Hi, Pat! Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll definitely have to check that out. Science + good recipes can only = a good thing 😉

  7. Fervent Finance

    Looks delicious! My go-to frugal meal lately is quite simple. 1 cup of jasmine rice. 1 can of any kind of pinto/kidney beans. 1lb of ground turkey. Cook all separately and then mix together, adding taco seasoning and sriracha sauce. Garnish with shredded cheese if I have it. Total cost is probably around $6 and I get 3 meals out of it, so $2/serving.

    1. Post
      Author
      Mrs. FI

      Boom! That’s a great, simple meal! That’s usually what I have for lunch with the leftovers I mentioned in the post. I add some veggies on top, take it to work and tell my coworkers it’s a “naked burrito.” It’s a great name for it and I wish I’d come up with it myself but, alas, Qdoba Mexican Grill came up with it first. Drat. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.