Eating On $20 For One Week

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Last Sunday, after a day of blissful gorging at Yelapa Playa Mexicana and Zelko Bistro, I realized that I needed a break.

Even when I'm not eating for work, I find myself eating out far more than I eat in, rarely cooking for myself anymore these days. Like many other people who enjoy food as much as the social aspect of a meal, the carefully cultivated atmosphere of a restaurant, or the ceremony and ritual of a multi-course dinner, I often find myself eating for entertainment.

And while I'm not fully ready to acknowledge that this isn't a terribly healthy approach to food or eating, I was certainly ready to acknowledge that I needed to step back and reassess the reasons I was going out for nearly every meal -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and see if I could justify all the money and calories spent each time I sat down at a table.

Over on my personal blog last week, I explained my reasons for choosing the $20 figure and why I needed a break more fully:

The decision to eat on $20 and what's in my pantry (as you will see, I've gotten better at keeping supplies on hand) was borne out of this, but also out of a desire to eat and live more simply and yet more creatively. One day into the project, and I've already rediscovered spices and vinegars that were hidden away in my pantry -- which, as you'll see, is already very small to begin with -- and use them to my advantage while cooking. Washing dishes, trimming fat, blooming spices, zesting fruit, et cetera: All are things which make me more mindful of the food I'm eating and which provide me with a very needed sense of calm and simplicity.

The project was also borne out of a desire to truly look at the money that we're spending on food as entertainment, not food as nourishment or food as a connection to our dining companions. $20 may seem like a difficult sum of money to eat on for an entire week, but that's a budget that millions of people -- here in America and in less wealthy portions of our world -- have to adhere to every week of their lives. If they can do it, so can I and so should I. Forcing yourself to consider other perspectives and circumstances is crucial for leading a more enlightened, more considerate, more gracious and more thankful life.

What I learned in that very short week, with the $19.54 worth of groceries I bought at Fiesta, is that eating well on a small amount of money isn't as difficult as I'd thought it would be.

In the coming days, I'll elaborate some more on the meals I threw together out of some pantry and grocery staples -- I did plan out my meals for the week, but I didn't use recipes -- as well as some useful tricks for anyone else wishing to trim their food budget (and waistline) by cooking at home more often.

I learned a lot during the past week (i.e., don't leave bread crumbs unattended under the broiler for even ten seconds, or you will very nearly burn your house down), but here are the 10 most important things I took away from the experience.

10. Chicken thighs are underappreciated. As are most cheaper cuts of meat. In the case of chicken thighs, I got five plump thighs for $3.29. In other words, that's five servings of protein for dinner right there at a cost of 66 cents a serving. No, they aren't as healthy for you as chicken breasts, but they taste better. Ditto goes for cheaper, tougher cuts of beef that require long periods of delicious, delicious braising.

9. You don't need all those eggs. I went kind of crazy in the butter-milk-eggs aisle at Fiesta after this thought crossed my mind: YOU'LL GO THROUGH THOSE CHICKEN THIGHS IN TWO DAYS AND DIIIIIIIIIE. And so then I freaked out and bought 18 eggs (that's a dozen and a half) because they were only $1.99 and I figured I could live on hardboiled eggs like some train-riding hobo if it came right down to it. That was ridiculous. I've now had to find excuses for using the eggs, putting random fried eggs atop dishes unnecessarily. Although it does taste good. Lesson learned: Don't overestimate your needs.

8. You will find a use for that one tin of anchovies you'd forgotten about. One of the best things about this entire week has been looking through my pantry when I didn't feel like adhering to the little meal plan I'd drawn up and making something on the fly instead. I had a tin of smoked kippers that I was planning on using for a weekend breakfast (with eggs, of course) but I remembered an Italian "comfort food" dish that uses nothing but bread crumbs and anchovies with pasta, olive oil and salt and decided to make that instead. It was magical. More on that later.

7. You can't get by without butter/cooking oil or salt. You should always have butter in your fridge and/or some kind of cooking oil in your pantry. Ditto for salt. I honestly don't know how to cook a decent, tasty meal without these basic staples. And please buy real butter.

6. Rice and pasta will get you through the leanest of times. Don't like rice or pasta? Get some orzo or some quinoa. Just get some grains. Especially whole grains. They'll keep you full, they're nutritious, you can horde them for long periods of time in anticipation of having some poor days/weeks and they're endlessly customizable. Your pantry should have at least a box of spaghetti or some Minute Rice in it.

5. Fresh fruits and vegetables aren't that expensive. One of my best purchases was a bundle of spinach that was 77 cents. Used in place of lettuce on tuna salad sandwiches, the dark green leaves are much healthier and tastier. The leaves can be cooked into an omelet for breakfast or wilted into some pasta at dinner. That one bundle of spinach will go a long way if you just use it properly; I ate on mine all week.

4. Buy vinegars. Lots of them. Vinegar is very inexpensive and has an almost indefinite shelf life. It's already oxidized, after all, so the taste doesn't change over time. It may become a little cloudy after a year or so, but you can still use it! Vinegar is a fantastic means of pumping up a dish's flavor, whether used as a marinade, a dressing or to deglaze a pan and make sauce. Herb-flavored vinegars like the tarragon vinegar I keep on hand are a good means of incorporating the flavor of that herb without having to buy a fresh bundle of it for only one meal. Sherry vinegar is good to keep on hand when you can't afford sherry itself. And rice wine vinegar makes any Asian-inspired dish pop. You should really always have some white vinegar on hand anyway.

3. Use all of everything you buy. Don't just buy an orange, eat the flesh and throw the rest away. Use that zest to flavor marinades, dressings, baked goods -- anything that could benefit from a citrus zing. Zesting the orange takes a minute at most (although you'll need a microplane grater for that). Don't just throw away the chicken skin and bones from those thighs. Make your own chicken stock out of it and freeze it for later use. Chicken stock is expensive(-ish) in the store and never tastes nearly as good as homemade. Bonus: You can cook down your rice or quinoa or orzo in that homemade chicken stock and think you've died and gone to heaven.

2. Frozen vegetables are a lifesaver. I always keep a few bags of frozen veggies on hand in the freezer. Peas are my personal favorite and they taste better than fresh (or canned) peas any day. Another favorite is edamame, especially for snacking and impromptu salads. You never know when you'll need some veggies and can't make a run to the store.

1. Keep a well-stocked pantry. I honestly couldn't have done this $20 a week thing nearly as easily if my pantry wasn't already stocked with all manner of rices, pastas, tinned fish, frozen veggies, vinegars, oils and spices. None of these staples are expensive, and all of them keep very well. If you have a well-stocked pantry, grocery shopping for a few fresh items each week (depending on your household size, of course; I'm single and only have to cook for myself) becomes much easier, as does throwing something together at the last minute.

What are your tips for keeping your cooking budget down and your pantry stocked? Sound off in the comments section below.

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