Cooking Healthy on a Budget in NYC

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This past month, I attempted a cash fast on my food spending, limiting my budget to $400 for the month. While this was definitely a cutback for me, I recognize that my budget can easily feed me comfortably, depending on the regularity of home cooked meals, as well as general food costs. This budget also included some weekend trips I had coming up, so cut me a little slack!

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I’ve found NYC restaurants/groceries to be considerably more expensive than the Northern VA/DC area. I also prefer to eat at least moderately healthy, which means using cheaper carbs like bread and pasta is generally avoided.

For our slow cooker meals, I got inspiration from this super useful cookbook. As convenient as online recipes are, I feel like you have to know what you want to make before you can find the right recipe. Better to have at least one or two things you can flip through to get ideas from.

Here are the meals that sustained a household of two this month:

 Our (Sometimes) Breakfast Go-to: Banana Berry Smoothie

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For the past month or so, Ian and I have been enjoying these breakfast smoothies. It’s not something we do every day; we’ve been averaging about 3x a week so far. On other mornings, we’ll just fry up an egg or two and be on our way. I like to sleep as long as possible in the mornings so I don’t have time (nor the inclination) to sit down and have a full meal in the mornings.

The makeup:
2 bananas, 2 spoonfuls of almond butter, a spoonful of cocoa powder, 2 handfuls of frozen mixed berries, ice, and water make up this simple smoothie for us. We’ve experimented adding additional ingredients like carrots and papaya, which obviously change the average cost per serving (which is a 16oz glass in this case).

The cost breakdown:
When we first started making this, we were buying almond butter from the store. Individual jars gets pretty pricey. After the first jar, we decided to purchase the almond butter in bulk online to reduce costs. If I can find it for under 50 cents an ounce, I’m pleased. Frozen berries also fluctuate in price from store to store; the variable costs have been accounted for in the cost per serving calculation.

Total number of servings: 2. Total cost per serving: $2-3

 

Our Dinner Go-to: Chopped Salad with Mustard dressing

The makeup:
This is a dinner go-to for us. Sometimes I make extra so that Ian and I also have salad for lunch the next day, which lets us pat ourselves on the back for being extra healthy. The base is always romaine hearts, red onions, and tomatoes, always finely chopped/diced. I also often put in diced cucumber, and a stalk of finely chopped celery to add some crunch. When avocados are available (aka within a reasonable price range), we’ll toss in one of those as a treat, it makes the salad automatically feel creamier. The dressing is super easy as well. A tiny dollop of olive oil, a large amount of red wine vinegar (we like our salads to be tart), and a small spoonful of stone ground mustard (the whole30 kind!) packs a lot a flavor into a simple salad. Sometimes I’ll add in some Italian herbs, or Ian will throw in some lemon pepper. Lately, as a treat, we’ve been adding in a handful of crushed parmesan crisps, which I bought online at a reasonable price. This is our dinner most of the nights of the week; since we’re trying to make our dinner meals lighter, smaller, and earlier.

The cost breakdown:
One serving of salad is usually between $2.50-3.50 for us, depending on how many ingredients we’re using on any given day. I realize that’s more expensive per serving than some of my lunch meals this month; I’m attributing that to the expense of regularly eating fresh produce.

Total number of servings: 4. Total cost per serving: $3. It’s a little cheaper when I prep for 4 servings instead of 2.

Chicken “Risotto” aka Chicken and Rice

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Doesn’t this look like comfort in a bowl? Too bad the rice was still kind of crunchy…

I based this off a recipe that looked good in a Williams Sonoma slow cooker cookbook – originally I was supposed to use barley, but neither of the 2 stores I checked had it, and farrow/quinoa (acceptable alternatives for me) was just so expensive that I couldn’t justify the cost. I feel like a hypocrite for saying I avoid carbs and now I’m making a rice dish. Ugh.

The makeup:
1 box of mushrooms, half an onion, 4 cups chicken stock, 1 pound of sliced chick breasts, 1 can of diced tomatoes, 2 carrots, half a leek, 2 cups of basmati rice, a spoonful of tomato paste, a handful of parmesan cheese (trying to cut back on dairy over here), and plenty of garlic/salt/pepper. Not bad, right? Basmati rice was the only grain I had on hand that worked well with this dish, so I just rolled with it.

The cost breakdown:
The chicken was the most expensive part of the meal – it cost me $9 for 1 pound! Ian is far more focused on buying organic/free-range/natural items from the grocery store than I am, but because I’m a bit of a dictator in the kitchen I let it slide (..this time). Many of the items I already had on hand. Accounting for those costs; however, I’d estimate that this dish cost me $23 to make. We shared one serving for dinner and then split out the rest into small containers to eat throughout the week.

Total number of servings: 8. Total cost per serving: $2.88. THAT’S CHEAPER THAN COFFEE.

Beef and Veggie Stew
AKA, WHY IS THIS BROWN MUSH

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I’m not even going to let you all see a real picture of this dish, so what you get is this teeny tiny one with lots of stuff in the way. You can even see the little baggies of bacon bits that I attempted to make, which were utterly BURNT TO A CRISP. I’ve never made bacon before, EVER. So why did I try? Because someone complained about my cooking not having enough ‘texture’. I guess I was successful in adding a crunch to the stew, even if it just tastes like charcoal.

The makeup:
I STUFFED this dish with veggies. 1 Red onion, a stalk of celery, 2 zucchini, a box of mushrooms, three potatoes, and one red bell pepper. Then I tossed in a pound of beef, some beef broth, and set the slow cooker to boiiiillllll. Just kidding, I set it to low heat for 10 hours (I know that’s crazy long but it was an overnight dish and there was no way in hell I was getting up before 6 to finish it so maybe that’s why it’s so brown).

The cost breakdown:
I’m estimating the entire dish at roughly $30. So expensive! The beef alone was one-third of the cost, plus a little more for BACON (first time I’ve ever bought it in a grocery store – it’s more expensive than I thought). The quinoa was also pricier than I normally like (Ian got it, otherwise I wouldn’t have purchased it). Split into 6 servings, that made the final cost per dish $5. Oof. The silver lining? This brown mush is hella delicious. I’m super relieved the taste is way better than the appearance.

Total number of servings: 6. Total cost per serving: $5.

Sausage and Barley “Stew”

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Oh, look! MORE BROWN MUSH. Thankfully it’s slightly greener than the beef stew. I know I’m still new to using the slow cooker, but I really need to get better at making my dishes look more visually appealing. Oh well, that’s why this is a budgeting blog and not a food blog. Although it looks somewhat decent in the photo, by the time we were down to the last few servings, I ended up dubbing this dish “sausage slop”. Not appealing.

The makeup:
Vermont may have made Ian and me sausage converts… we had amazing breakfasts that incorporated spiced sausage both mornings during our trip, and it inspired us to experiment with this dish. Ian picked out andouille sausage at the store (I was definitely the hesitant one here), and it really supplied the bulk of the flavor for this dish. I also finally found pearled barley, which, I discovered, turns your dish into the texture of risotto when cooked for a long time. Potatoes, carrots, an onion, kale, and a box of beef broth made up the rest of this simple dish. I would’ve tossed in celery if I had had any more room in the pot.

The cost breakdown:
This is the winner of the month (winner cost-wise; it definitely wasn’t the best-tasting dish)! The entire dish cost $18 to make (round up to $20-ish if you include the cost of potatoes that were gifted by kind parents). Adding in grains really stretched out the number of serving sizes – so much to the point that I didn’t have enough individual containers to put this in! I’ve approximated 10 portions for this dish, although we could even stretch to 12 – I just don’t remember the exact number. That gives this dish a maximum cost of $2 a serving, but could actually be lower.

Total number of servings: ~10. Total cost per serving: $1.80.

Chicken & Squash Pasta

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A day after photo… it looked much better straight out of the pan

The makeup:
Because we were at the end of the month, I relaxed my pasta policy for this dish in order to save on costs and still create a filling meal. Because we breaded the chicken, obviously this dish ended up being tastier than some of my other meals (refer to failed slow cooker attempts above). The pasta sauce used was one with low sugar. If you’ve never looked at the nutrition labels of pasta sauce jars, it’s time to start. Some of them really pack a punch in added sugar. Yellow squash, zucchini, button mushrooms, and of course an onion make up the vegetable contents of the sauce.

The cost breakdown:
Our total grocery trip for ingredients cost $21. There were already noodles and bread crumbs in the pantry; those were the only two ingredients that I didn’t have to buy. Despite that, this still ended up a little pricier than other dishes I made this month. It’s been so long since I’ve bought pasta sauce that I forgot how pricey it can get, especially when trying to avoid the high sugar brands. Everything else was decently priced, so I wonder if the lack of additional liquids prevented me from stretching out this meal into more portions.

Total number of servings: 5. Total cost per serving: $4.20

 

Other meals that we made that I forgot to take photos of:

Shakshuka, which is an Israeli tomato and egg dish that’s typically served with feta and naan (or red quinoa in our case). Our meal served 6, and cost approximately $4 per dish. I think we can remake this dish at a much cheaper cost per dish price. I’m just approximating/rounding up here just in case since I didn’t buy the ingredients for this one.

Indian Breakfast potatoes with Turkey Keema and Raita. We didn’t actually have to pay for the ingredients here, which was wonderful. One of my favorite dishes from my boyfriend’s dad, for sure (I’m always the sous-chef when he cooks). We ate the leftovers for two breakfasts.

So, was it a healthy month?

Overall, I’d say yes. There were grains in most of our meals, which I would like to further cut back on in the future. All of our cooked meals were at or below $5 a serving. If you’re only cooking for yourself, eating healthy meals on a budget is definitely more of a challenge – I don’t feel comfortable with refrigerating food longer than a week, and we pushed that rule to its limit with every meal. For the most part, however, I didn’t buy goods in bulk, and all of our food was fresh (where possible). I didn’t lose any weight, but on the plus side, I didn’t gain any either! I still ate out plenty during the month, and I’m still adverse to exercising, so weight loss isn’t exactly a top priority. In my cooking, I’m far more focused on cutting out sugar and fat from my diet (this month’s sausage meal being the exception). Ian may call that robbing food of all taste (I’m light-handed with spices too), but I say it’s better for the body.

Bonus: Me, a few months back, with a pizza that I may or may not have eaten entirely by myself.

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I’m fairly certain ate the whole thing, and enjoyed EVERY MINUTE of it. After all, they say it’s all about balance, right?