$20 until Thursday; How to Enjoy a Good Meal on a Tightrope Budget

And so it goes, here it is the third week of the month and the storm of obligations is rising. The town water bill is due on the 31st, as well as the phone utility. The mailbox gave a renew auto registration notice and I’m still trying to save money to replace the washing machine which died in November. In balancing this month’s income with expenses, the funds are there to cover the bills, but I didn’t count on the electric and cable bill to rise and forgot the health insurance expense is now $10  extra every week. The saying used to be nickel and dime, now it’s five and twenty dollar fees, fines and I know not what. The car needs gas and after everything is laid out on the table, there is an almighty $20 for food until next Thursday. Is it possible to eat well on $20 this week? How far can I stretch the dollar? Dang it. This scenario is not unknown to many a working person. Having been in this situation too often, I thought it might be interesting to take $20 to the grocery store and see what I could do.Piggy Bank

The Pantry

To clarify for the reader, I am a foodie and stock a pantry with a few essentials. One goal in life is to live simpler, saner and self-sufficient. A good pantry might have: bread crumbs, butter, carrots, flour (King Arthur), eggs, garlic, milk (soy or almond), nuts, oatmeal, pasta or egg/noodles, peanut butter, rice and shallots.  I also assume salt and pepper are on hand. For sugars, honey and/or a less processed variety is best. For herbs, an Italian blend is helpful along with chili powder, cinnamon, ginger, thyme and vanilla. For oil, I highly recommend only Olive Oil from Italy or California. Italy regulates the Olive Oil industry and 100% of product is in the bottle. California does not regulate production, however, they do not blend other oils into the bottle. The only other ingredient that might be on hand is soy sauce. A simple marinade in soy sauce, ginger, garlic and pepper is fab for chicken or pork. For all ingredients, I highly recommend stocking better quality products as it is important to enjoy the meal and feel nourished even if the budget is tight. If it costs less, something in the making has been substituted. Grocery store labels are often the same quality without the advertising budgeted in to the cost. Try to buy products that are made in USA, Canada or Italy. Better still, if you have an ethnic market in the city, stop their first. I am blessed to have a Mediterranean and Italian Market nearby. Overall, I find Italian products to be of higher quality. Italians seem to be natural foodies and prefer homegrown products.

Grocery List

Cheddar Cheese Blend 2.59
Chicken Stock 1.99
Frozen Vegetables 1.69
Half ‘n half 1.19
Indian Foods 4.00
Mineral Water 1.39
Pork (2 bone in thick cut) 4.05
Rice Pilaf 1.25
Tea 2.49
Yams 1.07
Total Cost 21.71

As the list reveals, I went over budget. Eliminating the tea and mineral water would bring it to less than $20. Also, I live in Massachusetts and transportation costs may be higher than in other parts of the country.

Meal Plan

This meal plan could last for 4 – 5 servings for one person. While it can be a little dull to eat the same foods for every meal, the meals are wholesome and tasty. My pantry stocks saved the day. I prefer to drink tea with breakfast and sparkling mineral water with meals. I had a bag of oranges and apples on hand.

Breakfast – Toasted homemade cinnamon bread with peanut butter

To start, I baked a loaf of bread blending in a cup of milk and an egg to give it a higher amount of protein and enhance the flavor. As cinnamon is on-hand, I made a butter rub of cinnamon mixed with raisins and rolled this into the loaf on the last rise. This is done by rolling out the dough and using a spatula spreading the mix on top and rolling together. The loaf is placed in a shaped bread pan for the last rise before baking. Click here for a more detailed recipe.

Breakfast – The other alternative is oatmeal from the pantry. Mix with milk and honey, blend in raisins and cinnamon for delicious flavors.

Lunch – Homemade Vegetable Soup, Macaroni & Cheese

A good base for any soup is diced carrot, garlic and shallot. In a soup pot heated with oil, add the aromatics along with salt, pepper and herbs of choice. Sautee until the shallot is clear, about 3 minutes at medium heat. Add the chicken stock, add the pasta or egg noodles and bring to a boil slowly. Cook pasta to al dente or about 9 minutes. At the end, stir in the thawed frozen vegetable blend and beans. The liquid in the beans will thicken the broth. If you prefer rice, cook the rice separately and blend into the finished soup.

Macaroni & Cheese is easy to make. First, cook two cups of elbow noodles al dente. Drain in a colander but reserve ¼ cup of pasta water. Butter a baking dish large enough to hold the noodles comfortably. In a large pot, melt 2 tablespoons of butter on medium heat, stir in 1 ½ tablespoons of flour with black pepper. This is a roux. Add the half and half to this mixture and cook slowly until thickens. About 8 minutes. Blend in the cheese and stir until it is all melted together. Pour the noodles into the baking dish, blend in the pasta water if the noodles are dry, pour the cheese over the noodles and blend together well. Sprinkle with a light coating of bread crumbs. Bake in a 350◦ oven for about 30 minutes or until it just starts to turn light light brown.

Dinner – Cooked yams with pork and rice

Cut two pounds of yams into chunky bites. I do not peel the yam, only wash well. Blend together ½ cup orange juice, ¼ cup honey and ¼ cup brown sugar. Pour over potatoes and stir. Drop about 6 tablespoons of butter on top.  Slow cook in a crock pot for at least 6 hours. If you do not have a slow cooker, these yams can be baked in the oven in a covered pot at a low, slow heat of 300◦. Add extra liquid.

The pork is cooked separately, after marinating in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and pepper for at least 24 hours. Bake the pork on parchment paper turning once until done. Pork can be bone in or not. The bone may be frozen and saved for part of a soup stock.

Rice, Near East has a nice, inexpensive rice pilaf mix which can be enhanced with celery, slivered almonds, etc…

Dinner – To add variety and finish out the extra days meals, I purchased pre-made Indian foods. I simply had to boil rice or noodles for the base of the meal, boil the pouch in water for five minutes and pour over rice or noodles. This is a vegetarian meal packed with fresh flavors and an unusual blend of spices. One pouch was enough for one meal.  Or, if you are very frugal, it could be stretched to two. The varieties were Kitchens of India and Kohinoor. I enjoyed Red Kidney Bean Curry and Awadhi Aloo Mutter

I am quite sure there are many variations on this idea. The key component to success is a general enjoyment of cooking and food. As much as possible, I prefer to cook from scratch. The foods came from the local Hanaford’s Market and/or Ocean State Job Lot. These are vendors easily located in Massachusetts.

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