How to Eat Well on $1 per Meal
or $180/mo for a Family of Two
1. Stop wasting food
If you are wasting food you are flushing money down the garbage disposal. If food spoils or goes bad you have room for improvement in how you buy food and plan your meals.
Part of this is being proactively lazy: making a meal and then eating leftovers the next day. If you do not know how to reheat food so that it tastes good, I will let you in on a secret: to reheat something and make it toasty, use a toaster oven, not a microwave. Or a conventional oven: 20 minutes at 300 degrees F and anything will taste delicious one night later.
Or just put the pot or pan in the fridge with a glass lid and reheat on the stove in the same container.
If you find that you have leftovers but not quite enough for a full meal, simply throw in a smoothie or a salad, or some side or appetizer.
Another tip is to use Rubbermaid, Tupperware, Gladware, or any reusable dish (deli meats sometimes come with one for free) to store half-used veggies or other items. Be prepared to rinse a lot of reusable tubs and lids.
Another tip: refrigerate bread. We buy day-old specialty breads for half off and once you toast them they taste better than the preservative-laden ones from the bread aisle. Cheap stale crusty breads can be used for croutons for salads.
2. Stop eating out
If you are a grown up and you do not know how to pack a sandwich for your lunch, throwing in a treat and a snack and an apple or your favorite fruit, then you are allowing yourself to pay higher food taxes (literally — real food at the grocery store, at least in American, has 0% tax). If you cannot make a sandwich maybe you should stop reading this list and just give up now. (If you cannot eat bread I'm sure you can still make something portable and edible every day.)
Eating out can increase your food bill by an order of magnitude, even if you only buy "affordable" restaurant lunches. Just say no. There: I also saved you time and gas, and you get to avoid the lunch rush of traffic too.
3. Stock up on non-perishable sale items
This is such a no-brainer. Obviously the price of food can vary. Buy when it is cheap. We are talking a savings of 25%-75% sometimes.
Unopened items like cheese, nuts, canned food, pasta, rice, salsa, pickles, condiments, pasta sauce, chips or snack crackers, breakfast cereal, flour, sugar, spices will all last you a year, maybe more. (Many of these will store for ages even after opening.) Frozen meat can last weeks or months with no discernible flavor difference (you do have to remember to get it into the fridge in order to thaw — planning is one cost you pay). Keep all of these well stocked.
Root vegetables (onions, potatoes) keep for months in a cool dark place. Potatoes are so cheap they practically give them away in ten pound bags.
You can even stock up on certain perishable items if you own a freezer. We freeze ripe bananas, mangoes, and berries and make smoothies with them. Extra tasty without ice, just frozen fruit. Speaking of cold treats, buy ice cream in five quart containers and only eat it out of small cups so it lasts for weeks or months.
This leaves a small set of produce that you buy weekly (plus milk, and maybe eggs every several weeks). Fruit like apples or bananas, strawberries, grapes for lunch, whatever is in season. Tomatoes for salads and sandwiches. Buy certain items when they are on sale or in season, like lettuce, carrots, broccoli, squash, celery — for specific dishes during the next week or three.
Also you can review the newsprint mailers sent out by your local grocery chains and make a list of which items, usually produce, are the best deals each week.
4. Be willing to do the dishes
Buy some nice dishes and treat them well and you will be happier cleaning them off regularly. You do not even have to do the dishes every day if you have a small household: just make sure to clean off your knives and throw away your food waste, then get your dishes soaking. If nothing is fossilized the next day, then loading the dishwasher is the easy part.
You might split kitchen duty along the cooking / dishes line. Or trade certain nights, or weekends. If you divide it up and there is some variety in the labor, you can enjoy someone else cooking for you and yet not pay through the nose for the privilege. You can both get better.
5. Learn to bake
Or find someone who will teach you by making you do it and helping you avoid mistakes. Baking is actually usually quite easy, especially if you are not trying to invent recipes, but rather if you simply follow recipes. If you make muffins or cookies, you can eat them in your lunch throughout the week. If you do not know what you want to make, just go to Joy of Baking and try not to drool. All the recipes are winners and are very reliable.
Baking lets you avoid too many pre-made treats. Processed foods have a lot of weird chemicals and tend to be very starchy, salty, or just low quality yet expensive. Raw materials for baking are very low in cost and even quality ingredients like chocolates chips and nuts can be purchased in bulk when cheap and should store just fine. Nuts and flaked coconut can be frozen and frozen nuts can last for years — consult your neighborhood squirrel in the winter.
6. Create your own recipe book
You will never run out of ideas of what to make this week if you start tracking your favorite successful recipes, tweaked to your style and taste and favoring your available ingredients. It gets easier with time, and you can experiment with new recipes as your depth of food experience grows.
7. Meal planning algorithm
One way to plan a menu for the week is to write down a list of possibilities at the beginning of the week, or to keep a running list of ideas that reflect the ingredients you have on hand, so idea generation is less stressful. Another strategy to answer the question, "What do you want to eat tomorrow?" is to choose an ingredient to get out of the freezer, say, beef, and then your partner chooses a meal idea with that item as the main ingredient. Or one person narrows down to two choices and then the other decides what they want, of the two choices. People like to feel like their preferences are being heard, yet being in charge of deciding every night can be stressful too, so make sure to spread the burden. You don't have to plan the whole week, and things shouldn't have be set in stone either.