How to Spend Under $75 on Lunches and Dinners for the Week
In the “before times,” when the cost of normal grocery items did not lead us to drop our jaws in disbelief, grocery costs averaged about a hundred dollars a week per adult. Nowadays, though, it seems like a hundred dollars will scarcely allow you to eat protein once or twice, let alone have well-rounded meals all week long. Food prices are up 10% overall since last year, with certain ingredients even more: Meat has risen over 16%, fat and oils by 17%, and poultry by 15%.
Because of the continuously rising costs of ingredients, many people are discovering that their usual shopping habits have become unsustainable. And because restaurants are dealing with the same levels of inflation as home food consumers are, the option to throw your hands up and get takeout instead isn’t a viable one for most of us, either.
If you’ve found yourself frustrated and at a loss for how to meal prep in the current kooky climate, read on for our tips.
Focus on your bases
For a week’s worth of mix-and-match lunches and dinners, the last thing you want is to be working off of a single grain or vegetable all week long. Instead, you’ll be able to eat a wider variety of dishes if you think of various ingredients as bases and accents. Bases should be a selection of whichever proteins, grains, and vegetables are currently the least expensive and that you know your body benefits from eating more of. Accents can be more expensive ingredients that you can purchase in small quantities, that add flavor more so than sustenance, and are often ingredients you won’t use all of in a week.
Here is an example of one week’s worth of bases and accents for one person. With less than $50 spent, you’ve got your basics and some extras that will carry over into the following weeks.
$20 to $25 worth of bases:
- 1 pound brown rice
- 2 heads cauliflower
- 6 zucchini
- 1 package firm tofu
- 1 pound ground beef
$20 to $25 worth of accents:
- 1 jar capers
- 1 bottle Italian seasoning mix
- 1 jar barbeque sauce
- 1 bunch parsley
- 1 bunch cilantro
Mind your sauces
Seasoning is everything, and you can make the same ingredients taste entirely different by putting different sauces or spice blends on them. Purchasing bottled sauces is fine, especially because you’re unlikely to use an entire bottle of anything in a week. On the other hand, if your pantry is already well-stocked, then you probably have plenty on hand to make your own sauces.
Think outside the box of what you normally make, and consider what you enjoy eating out in the world. If you’re a fan of Mediterranean food and you keep staples like tahini, lemon, and garlic in the house, try making muttabal, a smoky eggplant spread that only requires you to buy eggplant to make it. If you love Chinese food, homemade sweet-and-sour employs inexpensive, shelf-stable items like pineapple juice. As a bonus, your version won’t be full of artificial dyes.
Go big (and stay home)
With rare exceptions, raw proteins freeze well. Choose your proteins based on what’s trending less costly this week, and if you can spare the money, buy an extra pound to freeze and thaw a few weeks later. Typically, larger cuts are cheaper. This means consider buying roasts of beef, whole fish, and whole roasting chickens (although pre-cooked rotisserie chickens are still the cheapest thing out there, so consider recipes that start with those as a base, too). If you’re intimidated by the idea of cooking a whole fish, start small with a simpler one, like trout, which you can debone as you eat.
Make soup with what you have.
There’s a reason that soup is a staple during war time: water is as close to free as an ingredient gets. Consider making at least one soup or stew a week with some of your ingredients on hand. In a perfect world, you’ll make stock with vegetable trimmings and meat bones, but even if you’re just going to add a big scoop of Better Than Bouillon to a pot of water, you’ll have the opportunity to create a new dish out of the ingredients you already have.
Easy, healthful tricks are everywhere for making soup more interesting and nutritious, too. My personal favorite for private chef work is to make a vegetable soup, then blend half of it with two to three cups of cooked white beans. Pour the blended mix back into the pot, and you’ve got a protein- and fiber-enriched, super creamy soup — with no cream added.
Choose higher volumes at cheaper prices.
Avoiding waste is always important, but there’s a particularly strong pain felt when throwing away ingredients you paid a premium for. Avoid having to do this by opting for heartier choices. That means boxes of delicate microgreens and spring mixes are out, and whole heads of romaine or black kale are in.
The plus side: buying leafy greens in their natural state rather than those that are zhuzh-ed up is a lot cheaper, and it saves on excess packaging too. If you’re worried about using heartier greens like kale in your salads, steam or sauté them instead, but know that they’re actually amazing for raw preparations because you can dress them days in advance and they don’t wilt.
Look for discounts online.
It’s tempting to be one-and-done with grocery shopping because of the emotional energy and time involved, but some online sleuthing will enable you to have more ingredients in your pantry at a lower cost. Use discount internet health markets like Thrive to stock up on dried beans and legumes, cooking oils, and bulk grains.
One order a month at most is all you need, and it will give you a broader variety of bases at your disposal to choose from weekly. The cost of many items on Amazon is far cheaper than your local grocer, and also lets you go extra niche on the healthiest finds, such as being able to get white chia seeds, which have a higher omega-3 content, for less than you’d pay for the black kind at your grocer.
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