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What's your "cooking budget?"

In trying to save money for a new home, my husband and I laid out a monthly budget that we try to stick with. We rarely eat out and have set aside around $250/month for me to spend on food (cooking). This is definitely do-able for just the two of us (ends up being about $8.33 per day) but makes it difficult to build up a good spice collection, for instance, or to splurge on any higher-end ingredients. Keeping healthy, nutritious meals on the table (3 per day) on that budget can be a challenge!
Note: we were married recently and are starting from scratch here... very little in the way of "staples" in our cupboards.

In browsing these boards, a lot of great ideas come up that I'd love to try (my husband will eat anything and I LOVE to experiment with new foods) but simply getting the ingredients I'd need for many of these things would be too costly. For example, one indian dish could mean I'd need to buy lamb, fresh veggies, curry powder, cumin, fresh ginger, etc... none of which we have in the cupboards because there's normally no room in the budget for them. Those items could add up to way more than the $3 or $4 I have to spend on dinner. So I typically resort to pasta, homemade soup, chili, sandwiches, etc, which are fine, but not very exciting.

I'm wondering two things:

a) Any thoughts about how to continue to cook 3 healthy, balanced meals each day while also trying to expand our culinary horizons and stock the cupboard with an increased number of ingredients to always have on hand?

b) What is your "cooking budget," and how do you generally split up your spending to cover day-to-day needs (getting a meal on the table) and building your stockpile of ingredients?

One more note: This post is not meant as a complaint. I relish the opportunity to cook for my dear husband and try to look at the budget as a fun "challenge" rather than just a restriction. Just looking for ways to do this better! :)

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  1. I'd say a great start would be to grow an herb garden. The seeds are a lot cheaper than buying dried herbs, and fresh herbs make almost every meal better.

    Look for sales and buy extra when the deal is really good. Learn to love your freezer. If there's a great deal on a particular veg or meat and you know you won't use it all before it goes bad, freeze it. A well-stocked freezer is a huge help in cutting weekly costs.

    Compare the 'per ounce' cost for each item and you'll be surprised how much you can save. Sometimes the store brand is cheaper. Sometimes it's not. I've been spotted using the calculator on my cell phone. No shame in being frugal.

    Maybe each trip to the store you can treat yourself to one spice. That couple of dollars will continue to pay off.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mojoeater

      Thanks! These thoughts are really helpful. Yes, I am obsessive about comparing unit prices on items... Mom taught me well.

      Going to start an herb garden this month, I think. That should help some. Those little plastic containers of "fresh" herbs in the grocers are ridiculously over-priced!

      Thanks for the ideas.

    2. You've asked some good questions. I think the answer you are looking for is "thoughtful planning".

      Buying spices and one time ingredients will fill up your pantry, but at a high expense, and offer little return on investment. - there was a good discussion about a month ago that talked about how to stock a pantry- you might want to search for it.

      Initially, I'd say plan an Italian month, then a Mexican month or Indian month etc. Since most national cuisines share some common ingredients you'll be able to spread the cost across a whole months meals- depending on how tightly you budget, and if you can spare to spend lets say$5 each day at the end for a higher up front cost of buying the elements, you might be able to make it work.

      Once you have the staples in your pantry, you can shop for your fresh ingredients when they come on sale, or when you see a good bulk price.

      Last bit of advice, if you can avoid it- dont buy your spices from the grocery store- unless you need extra glass really bad. Most 'ethnic' food marts have spices in bulk or small plastic bags that will save you money if you dont have a spice merchant in your area.

      Happy Chowing!

      1. i'd also make friends with your local co-op grocery where you can buy stuff in bulk, most notably for you, SPICES!!! you can buy weensy amounts of herbs and spices by weight (label carefully and seperate strong-smelling spices, such as cardamom, when storing). you will save big bucks vs prepackaged spices, and as a bonus, your spices will be super-fresh. as someone who has literally bought 3 cloves ($0.02, with tax) when traveling at a co-op, never undrestimate this resource!

        you can purchase one pretty glass bottle/week at the same store and fill with your new favorite herb/spice, and you'll soon have a servicable spice rack. Also buy just as much as you need of more pricy bulk items, like wild rice, basmati, dried organic fruits. . .

        i don't know about your diet preferences, but it makes sense to skip meat when on a tight food budget. learn to make some great veg dishes with great flavor and nutritional profile and use meat, depending on how much you love it, only for one or 2 meals a week (not counting leftovers), or only for one meal/day (breakfast meats are cheapest), or only when you can afford something FABULOUS. deborah madison's vegetarian cooking for everyone is a book absolutely every cook should own, imo-- but i bet your local library has a copy--it is a great book for the basics & also has thrifty tips for baking, soup making, etc. Good luck and don't forget to report back!

        3 Replies
        1. re: soupkitten

          I'll second the bit about bulk spices - if you buy small quantities at a time in bulk, you get the freshest spices and spend 30 cents here, a dollar there, etc. 10 bucks could stock a spice cabinet.

          Co-ops are great for this, as are local ethnic markets, esp middle eastern or indian ones.

          1. re: andytee

            I'm intrigued about these co-ops. How does one go about finding where they exist? (I'm in Manhattan by the way).

            1. re: eatfood

              good place to start: click on "co-op directory service listing"

              http://www.coopdirectory.org/

              co-ops are grocery stores that generally fall under the "health food" category, that are cooperatively owned by their members. the co-op acts as a buying club, sourcing natural & organic ingredients, local foods, bulk grains, pastas, spices, soaps, etc. the co-ops are open to all shoppers, and the co-op members pay a nominal, and often sliding, yearly household fee and in exchange typically get discounts on some items, can special order some items in bulk or by the case, and often get a dividend check at the end of the year (based on their total purchases) in the event that the co-op profits.

        2. If you have an asian market near you, I highly recommend that you shop there for your produce and spices. You'll find they are much cheaper than your normal grocery store. You can also buy noodles there, and usually Indian ingredients as well. Most, if not all, cheaper than your regular store. It's where I've started to do most of my spice and produce shopping. It also definitely expands your horizons!

          I can't say I have a cooking budget, but I don't think we spend more than 250 a month on groceries. That factors in the cost of a Costco membership. We buy most of our meat in bulk from Costco, then repackage and freeze. That saves us some money. The asian grocer saves us some money. Milk, bread, butter, etc are usually what we have to buy on a weekly basis, along with maybe a few other things here and there. We'll get most of that at Wal-Mart, or I'll check the flyers and we'll hit the stores that have what we want on sale. It may be just a few bucks here and there, but over a month it really adds up.

          1. We once tried to estimate our food costs and arrived at a number of about $9 per day for both of us so we're at about your level. We have a big freezer, good grocery stores and eat at home most of the time. If you want to save, you need some capital so you can take advantage of savings by buying on sale, or buying in bulk. As an example we bought a whole pig and a whole lamb from local farmers. The cost ran around $160 for the lamb to about $300 for the pig. Both animals were butchered, cut up to suit our needs, and frozen. This has supplied just about all our red meat for about 18 months and we still haven't gotten to the bottom of the pork.

            Shop carefully, always make a list and stick to it. Right now my only regular purchases are fresh produce and cheese because we have just about everything else, so our grocery bills are really low. When I see a good sale, I stock up so I buy coconut milk by the case, or chickpeas by the kilo.

            I like the suggestion of eating from the cuisine of one region over a month or so. That way, you'll use the spices, condiments etc. and also get a good feel for how that cuisine arrives at its distinctive flavors. Learn to cook ethnic foods from countries less affluent than the US. Most people eat meat only occasionally. We eat a lot of bean, lentils and other pulses which I make using Indian or Mexican or Middle Eastern recipes. It's a healthy alternative to the meat-heavy American diet. I also make just about everything we eat from scratch. I think we eat better as well as more cheaply because of it. DH doesn't like restaurant food as much as he enjoys meals at home because our meals are tastier.

            Get cookbooks from your local library. Our library is part of a fairly large consortium and their selection of cookbooks is vast. I just picked up Diana Kennedy's book on Mexican cuisine (still trying to get the hang of this) yesterday.

            Cooking on a budget doesn't have to be dull, it will stimulate your creativity.