Recently, I have been obsessed with simplifying my lifestyle. I don’t make an extravagant living, but noticed I was spending like I do.
I’ve never been one to fall for media hype: never taken part in Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Waste-Your-Cash Wednesday, or whatever other marketing monikers have been used for holiday sales; nor have I been one to get sucked into getting store credit cards for coupons and discounts and special shopping days for the privileged card holders. So where was all my money going?
Nowhere. Everywhere. I don’t freakin’ know.
This is the problem with not having a budget. It became the impetus for me to seriously adhere to the 5 Piece French Wardrobe concept (read more here), which has, in turn, become the premise for my own foody spin on that model: The $25 Weekly Grocery Challenge. I tend to be dramatic, but only sometimes.
The model is simple:
The Pantry Basics
Milk (dairy or non-)
Dried spices (unless specialty/pricey; fresh herbs are not part of this list)
Cooking oils/condiments (unless specialty/pricey)
These are the items that should be in your kitchen (always) and are not counted as part of the $25 per week budget. Replenish as necessary, and adjust accordingly for your own dietary needs/choices.
If I find I am missing one or more of these ingredients, my recipes will just not be complete. One could argue that garlic/onions/shallots could be part of The Basics, and I wouldn’t disagree. With the exception of desserts, I’m pretty sure I put one or more of those three in pretty much everything I make. It would fit well under “spices.”
Now… let’s get to the fun part!
I know, you’re wondering what fun there is in only spending $25 per week on food. It is seriously challenging to:
a) adjust your food spending habits;
b) adjust what you chose to ingest;
c) choose food wisely as opposed to impulsively.
Here’s an example of my recent trip to Trader Joe’s. I can’t afford Whole Foods and because I try to eat organically as much as possible Trader Joe’s fits the wallet-friendly/belly-friendly requirement nicely.
This particular shopping trip created:
4 stuffed artichokes = 4 meals
Roasted Brussels sprouts = 5 side dishes
Bananas for breakfast/snacks = 7 portions
Dirty Rice with black beans and caramelized onions = 5 meals plus 2 sides
Almond milk = a week’s worth of milk for my tea (many cups) and morning oatmeal
Various pastas in chicken broth with fresh lemon juice & grated peel = 3 meals
All those meals made by adding $15 worth of groceries to things already in my pantry (pasta, rice, oatmeal). A week’s worth of meals on $15!
You may be certain I eat like a bird, or have an eating disorder, or count calories. A resounding NO! to all of those and whatever other kooky things you may be thinking. I’m Italian; I LIKE FOOD. I just know how much fuel my body needs to run efficiently and healthfully. And I don’t eat junk food. It is a rarity to find chips in my cupboard unless I am craving guacamole or fresh salsa (which I make myself).
I do have a predilection for cookies: the term “cookie whore” has often been used as an accurate moniker. I allow myself a bag of chocolate dipped almond biscotti a couple times per month. Hey, it’s part of my breakfast along with a banana and cup of tea, or as a “dessert” with my evening cup of tea. We all have our Kryptonite.
I’m not presenting this list to preach about how fantastic my diet has become. It surely wasn’t always this good. I’ve had some serious health issues over the past three years and have looked to dietary changes to alleviate as much stress on my body as possible. Once my palette adjusted, I was hooked!
Staying within the $25 weekly food budget causes you to make wise food choices, as well. I don’t buy things that are full of empty calories. When I need snacks, it’s nuts, seeds, dried fruits, regular fruits. They’re full of proteins, fats and the good carbs we need to stave off hunger and fuel us throughout the day. As an added bonus, fruits are cleansing for the body and therefore perfect for breakfast. And honestly, I eat the nuts and seeds like crazy because I don’t really have to limit the amounts I eat.
Don’t go crazy here. I’m not encouraging eating a pound of peanuts with an entire hand of bananas. Good grief, how could that possibly end well?! Common sense here, folks. Common sense.
In addition to this $25 weekly food run, I would encourage a few other key purchases. If you are in the crock pot court, by all means get one. There are so many advantages to crock pot cooking, especially if you have a hectic schedule. It does most of the work for you while you’re gone about your day. I don’t have a crock pot because, well honestly, in my mind, Italian girls don’t use crock pots. It’s totally irrational. I bet lots of Italian girls have them… just no one I know.
If you are like me, a non-crock-potter, get yourself either a French/Dutch oven or a braiser, at least 4-quart sized. These are cast iron beauties that cook like a dream, either on the stovetop or in the oven, or a combination of the two. They heat evenly throughout the entire cooker, creating a perfect temperature for whatever you are making. I use mine at least once per week.
I can offer a few suggestions of these products:
The industry standard for crock pots are, you guessed it, made by Crock Pot®. Target® carries many designs and sizes, but I have to tell you I love this one. If I were to buy a Crock Pot®, it would be this saucy minx! 5 Qt slow cooker, retail price: $30.
As I am of the braiser/Dutch oven variety, here is the product I use religiously. It’s a 4-Qt covered, cast iron braiser by Giada De Laurentiis for Target®, retail price $60. The red is stunning and the enamel finish wipes clean with ease. The best feature on this braiser is the lid, which is littered with pea-sized nubs. The moisture that inevitably collects on the inside of the lid whenever cooking with liquids is funneled toward the nubs which redistribute the condensed water back into the pot. It is its own baster! Careful though: even the handles get hot, especially when coming out of the oven!
If you are one of the fortunate folks who can afford the Aston-Martin of slow cookery, for the love of all that is foody, go for the Le Creuset® braiser or French oven, aka Dutch oven. A French company is not going to refer to it as a Dutch oven; they’re just not. They’re French.
This company has been making fine cast iron cooking products for almost 90 years. Folks, this is the real deal if you can afford it. This 3.5 Qt braiser retails for $250. It’s an investment, but one you will have for a lifetime.
Here are some of my favorite dishes you can make using very little money but yielding great culinary results. By the way, many of the following can be made in the braiser or crock pot.
More slow-cooking recipes here
Budget-friendly recipes over here
As always, I tend to tweak them and make them my own, especially Jacques Pepin’s beef bourguignon. I only use 2/3 the bottle of wine and make up the rest of the liquid with stock. Hey, you need some wine to drink with dinner, right?!
I encourage you to play with these recipes and adapt them to your tastes. They’re just a framework. Think of them like going to see a model home that’s fully decorated. You may like some of the décor, but some things have GOT to GO, if you know what I mean. Cooking is no different.
The goal here is to be eating healthfully on a budget. I should also mention that I do allot an additional $20 per month for a meal or drinks or coffee out with friends. You can’t be hold up in your house like a hermit! People will start to talk.
If you don’t use the $20 by going out, a nice bottle of wine and a dessert is an awesome treat for yourself, especially since you’ve been alone… in your house… all month.
Have fun with this $25 a Week food challenge. It’s pretty easy to do for one person. If you’re shopping for two, you probably don’t need to double it, but push it up to $40. A family of four, that’s another story, but try it! Let me know how it turns out. And share your recipes; I’d love to try them!
February 1st is right around the corner. Why not start the challenge with me!
Good luck, and may the gourmet gods guide you to gastronomic goodness!