The Art of Eating a Lot for a Little: Cooking as an Adventure

Before we got married one of the biggest things on our To Do List had nothing to do with the wedding or reception.  It had to do with how we would spend our money.  Working from the format of Matt’s already existing financial plan we discussed everything from rent and student loans to Netflix and spending money.  It was a long and detailed process that Matt could explain a lot better than I could, but the choice we made that day that still shocks lots of people we know was to budget only $120 for groceries every month, or $30 a week.

We did not pick the number 30 blindly or out of thin air.  We based it on our past experiences and plans.  Matt had been eating well for $15-20 a week for two years.  When I had my own apartment in Germany I lived on about the same (I was able to include brie, chocolate, smoked salmon and other unnecessary goodies and only spent 20 Euro a week).  Doubling that would have made no sense because the more people you have to feed the less each serving tends to cost (through buying bulk and so on–this is the “cheaper by the dozen” mentality that really does hold true in real life).  We thought we would try $30 and, with the flexibility built into the budget, figure it out from there.  With rare exceptions (upping the budget by $10 when my sister came to stay with us for a week, and paying an extra $15 a week for 3 months when we signed up for a local CSA) we have not wavered from that original commitment.  And we really haven’t struggled to do it.  Honestly, even as our time has been restricted by more hours at work and being involved in our community, it’s only gotten easier.

So here’s my advice for eating ridiculously well for ridiculously little: feel confident in the kitchen and be willing to experiment with homemade versions of things you might otherwise buy (like tortillas), get to know your local grocery stores’ prices and sales rhythms, write and stick to a carefully constructed list and get comfortable eating the same meal three days in a row.  In this post I’m going to talk about the first piece of advice: taking the time to feel confident in the kitchen.

When we first were married I did not have a job.  I not only didn’t have a job, I wasn’t volunteering or participating in…well, anything.  To be frank, the only times I left the house were to go grocery shopping and whenever I went out for a run.  I had all the time in the world to learn how to be a better cook, to stretch and experiment and figure out not only how to do things right but efficiently.  I learned and perfected a lot of recipes in a very short amount of time.  Not many people have that kind of free time just laying around, but that doesn’t mean one or two people working full-time jobs can’t make this work.  All you need is decent research skills and a sense of adventure.

Let’s look at one of my favorite things to cook: a whole chicken.  Those things are pretty intimidating when you first look at them, particularly the really cheap ones that don’t keep the innards in a bag, requiring you to scoop them out yourself (yuck).  But they are so, so cheap.  As in, under-a-dollar-a-pound cheap.  And a five pound chicken can feed a family of two for an entire week and sometimes beyond.

So, let’s say that the adventure part of the chicken is even touching the darn thing in the first place.  You’ve taken out the innards, you’ve even rinsed the thing off because you remember your parents doing that in some vague memory or other.  Here is where the research comes in.  It starts with a simple search: easiest way to cook a chicken.  Then things get more complicated because, believe it or not, there are a million ways to cook a chicken and everyone likes to think their way is best.  It’s because of this that sometimes the research part of cooking takes longer than the actual slaving-over-a-hot-stove part.  I like to skim articles and then focus on the comments if I decide the idea may have some merit.  If it seems too good to be true–too easy, too quick–I especially read for other people who have tried it and if no one has I generally don’t.  Like everything else, if a recipe seems too good to be true, it probably is.  The comments on a recipe are honestly your greatest resource: not only do they clue you in to what is good and what is awful, they also provide tips and tricks to make a recipe even better.  I particularly like this website because it has a rating system and a comment system that encourages reviewers to offer their experience and ideas.

For cooking chicken I chose this blog recipe, which I have used and adapted for months.  It explains how to use a slow cooker (which I highly recommend you put on your holiday gift list if you don’t own one already) to not only make a delicious chicken with almost no work, but several quarts of stock as well for no additional cost.  We generally get a chicken, cook it, make stock, and then make soup with the stock or the leftover chicken.  Or shred the chicken and use the stock to make homemade enchilada sauce.  Or cook rice in the stock for chicken and rice.  And all of these meals can be made with the leftover meat from that first meal of chicken and whatever-you-decided-to-pair-it-with (we like to cook up some broccoli and bread or potatoes, all of which is super cheap especially if you get the broccoli frozen).  Of course, each of these new meals means extra research and the adventure to dive in and try to make your homemade tortillas (up to $1 each in the store and mere pennies homemade).  But that’s for you to figure out.

So start with something simple: how do I make bread?  What is involved in cooking cheese sauce?  What can be done with a chicken?  Do the research, and tackle it in the kitchen.  If you mess it up no worries–the whole point is that you didn’t spend much on it in the first place!

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