I pretty much always eat cheaply at home, but every now and then I have a budget emergency and have to pull out the big guns of frugality. If you've lost your job and your savings are dwindling, or you're a student and your part-time coffee shop job is barely paying the rent, or you're saving up for something big, you might have to make a few panic-driven sacrifices in your budget. When you don't have enough money to indulge in, well, anything at all, it's really easy to throw healthy eating out the window, and survive on cheap, refined sugar and greasy, simple carbs. But while you're rationing out your tater tots and custard creams, consider that these foods are not only not good for you, they are actually doing damage to your health. You're paying someone to make you sick, which makes even less sense when the only thing in your wallet is a coupon for a free coffee. Also, you will feel like crap if you eat these foods, and feeling like crap makes acquiring more money a whole lot harder.
Eating healthy food in the middle of your own financial meltdown is completely possible, it just takes a little ingenuity. Below are a list of foods and secrets of the truly cheap to help you through it.
Emergency food #1: The Potato
Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes! I love them so much! They are incredibly cheap and incredibly versatile. They are also very nutritious, and the starch in them has been linked to protection against colon cancer, improved gluten tolerance, supressing appetite, and reducing fat storage. As you probably have already noticed, one medium-big potato can go along way in satisfying your hunger, and doesn't need very much to make it palatable. Potatoes can be roasted, boiled, mashed, baked, and fried, and can be the foundation for soups, stews, casseroles, bakes, croquettes, curries, patties, and...I could go on but I'm getting tired. They seem to have acquired a bad rep in terms of what they will do to your figure, but that's just nonsense. They will not make you fat, and they might even make you skinny. Ok, if you load them up with cream and cheese, they might make you fat, but people on emergency budgets don't have money for cream and cheese anyway. Search around your supermarket for the cheapest, biggest bag you can find.
Emergency food #2: Lentils
People think they don't like lentils, but they're wrong. You like them. Yum. There is so much that you can do with lentils with so very little effort. The main kinds you will come across will be red split lentils, brown lentils, and Puy lentils (also known as lentilles vertes). Lentils are a fantastic source of cheap protein, iron, fiber, folate, and B vitamins. They are also very filling and very easy to prepare. You can use them to make salads, soups, stews, dahl-type concoctions, curry-type concoctions, on their own with some seasonings as a side dish, casseroles, pasta sauces, and croquettes (why do I keep bringing up croquettes?). As I said in the Art of Shopping blog, make a note in your grocery store of where you can find them priced most cheaply; sometimes you will find them at twice the price in one aisle to the next.
Emergency food #3: Yellow Split Peas
Yellow split peas can do pretty much the same things lentils can, so I wont go on about them, except to say that they are a great source of fiber, protein, manganese, folate, vitamin B1, potassium and phosphorus. They are often even cheaper than lentils.
Emergency food #4: Pasta
Duh. Everyone knows pasta is stupidly cheap. And everyone knows what to do with it, so I won't tell you. Pasta is another food that has a bad diet rep, but only because idiots are allowed to say whatever they want in diet books. Italians have the lowest rates of obesity in Europe, and last I heard, they were kind of okay with pasta. Again, don't load it up with cream and cheese. We all know whole-wheat pasta has a better nutritional profile than white pasta, but your body still processes white pasta as a complex carb. So don't feel too badly if you really can't spend the extra few pennies, but do remember that the whole-wheat pasta also contains more fiber and other nutrients.
Emergency food #5: Barley
Barley is so cheap its just silly. And yet, I never see anyone but me buying it. But it's everyone else's loss, because not only is barley comfortingly chewy and satisfying, it's amazingly healthful. Barley is high in fiber, and has been traditionally used to support the gallbladder, digestive, and nervous systems. Barley also helps prevent dietary cholesterol absorption. Amazing! Barley might sound a little bland at first, but can be used in lots of different ways: soups, stews, casseroles, as a side dish, pilafs, and even as a substitute for rice in risotto.
Emergency food #6: Brown Rice
Yeah, white rice is a little cheaper than brown rice, but the difference in nutrition makes it hard for me to recommend buying white rice instead. And white rice may be cheaper but brown rice is still pretty dirt cheap. Brown is a source of protein, fibre, calcium, irion, B vitamins, and zinc. It can be used as a grain accompaniment for countless curries, stews, stir-fries, sautes, and can also make fried rice, pilafs, mock-risottos (real risottos require arborio rice or something similar), and...croquettes. Your best bet for getting it cheaply is to look for the biggest bag in the wholefoods section.
Emergency food #7: Beans
Kidney beans, pinto beans, haricot beans, cannellini beans, black eyed peas, chick peas, black beans, azuki beans...you're not going to run out of choices. Beans are fantastic. They are wonderful sources of protein, fiber, complex carbs, iron, and folate. Canned beans are already pretty cheap, but if you really want to tighten the purse strings, buy them dried, soak them overnight, and cook them for about an hour before you plan on using them. Beans are also very versatile, and can be used in soups, stews, casseroles, chilis, burritos, as a side dish, curries (chickpease are best for curries), sautes, simple rice and bean dishes, and, oh yes, croquettes (seriously, I almost never make croquettes). Beans, like lentils, are another thing you want to check various aisles for price.
Emergency food #8: Tinned Tomatoes
Perhaps not the most inspiring ingredient, but incredibly useful. Tomatoes contain vitamin C, vitamin A, and lycopene, an antioxident with cancer fighting abilities. Tomatoes can be used to make dishes with all of the above, plus, they're amazingly delicious! If you have the space, you can sometimes get really good deals buying cans in bulk, otherwise, stop being a snob and buy the basic value option. Many cheap, flavourful dishes will be immediately at your fingertips.
Emergency food #9: Oats
If you are on an emergency budget, you'd better learn to like porridge. There is no cheaper, healthier, more satisfying breakfast out there. If you go digging around the bottom shelf of your supermarket, you will usually find a budget brand of oats for about £0.59 per KILO. That's a lot of breakfasts for very little money. There are endless ways to dress porridge up: with berries, with bananas, with homemade fruit sauce, with a spoonful of jam, with nuts and dried fruit, or by itself with a little dairy-free milk. I'm sure you can think of even more ways yourself. My favourite budget way is a spoonful or two of St Dalfour jam (it's sweetened with fruit juice instead of sugar!).
Emergency food #10: Spices and Condiments
Essential, budget-friendly spices and condiments: salt; pepper; olive oil; any kind of cheap vinegar that you like; soy sauce; veggie stock cubes; dried herbs such as basil, thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, and oregano; spices such as cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, turmeric, and garam masala. The herbs and spices I picked out are the most commonly used and inexpensive choices, and for these, try looking in your local Asian grocery store, as they will usually have little bags that are a better deal than the little bottles you find in the standard supermarket. As with the tomatoes, the cheapest, most basic version you can find of all of the above will do just fine. Coconut milk is another fairly cheap condiment that you might use less frequently than the others, but can be added into dahl or lentil based soups to perk them up, or combined with some curry paste, veggie stock, and veggies to make a cheap Thai curry. Make sure to alternate between using different flavourings! Nothing will kill your budget faster than getting bored with your diet.
Now, if you know your nutrition, right now you should be concerned about the lack of vegetables on my list. So here's the budget veggie advice: if you have one of those cheap markets nearby you that sell bowls of veggies for £1, delve in. If you have an Aldi or a Lidl nearby you, stop turning up your nose at it, and suck it up.
We know that seasonal produce is cheaper, but things that are generally always cheap are: apples, pears, bananas (get fairtrade, they're still cheap), carrots, cabbage (please don't boil it), big bags of bell peppers, brocolli, garlic, ginger, and onions. Sleuth around a bit to find what other good deals they have at the moment. Measure carefully on the store produce weigh scale to make sure you aren't overspending. Frozen vegetables and berries are good deals, and just as nutritious. I like frozen blueberries, corn, peas, and green beans.
Bring a calculator to the grocery store and add everything down to the pence. You'll look nuts, but who cares? If you overspend, PUT SOMETHING BACK.
On eating out on an emergency budget: you kind of can't. Your best bet is to hang around your friends who have more money than you, and make big puppy-dog eyes at them. They'll take pity on you and pay. Trust me. And you can return the favour when your financial crisis is over. If your friends are as broke as you, consider inviting them over for a budget home-cooked meal.
Yellow Split Pea Stew
1 tbps olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1-2 carrots, chopped
1 large potato, chopped into smallish cubes
2-3 mushrooms, sliced
1 generous cup yellow split peas
1.5-2 cups vegetable stock (I make stock using the cubes)
Handful of leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or chard.
salt and pepper to taste
In a soup pot, saute the onions and garlic in the oil for a few minutes until soft. Add the carrots, mushrooms, and potato and saute for a few minutes more. Add the spices and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the split peas and stir until coated. Quickly add the stock, turn the heat up to boil, then lower the heat and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 40 minutes, or until the split peas are cooked, they will be mushy and smushy. You may need to check it occassionally to make sure it doesn't need more water. About 5 minutes before the stew is done, throw in the leafy greens if using. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
This stew can be served by itself, over rice, or with some crusty brown bread.