Eating On $20 For One Week

Categories: Recession Tips

Pro Tip: Eating on $20 a week is a lot easier when you keep a relatively well-stocked pantry.
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.

Although my pantry is somewhat well-stocked, I typically don't keep much in my fridge.
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.

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