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Jan 2, 2010 12:22 AM

cooking/grocery shopping/MEAL PLANNING is a lifeskill I just do not seem to have. Advice on frugal(ish) HEALTHY options?

I am not sure why I am having such a hard time picking this up. I live with people who can do it but they eat so differently than I do that the skills haven't rubbed off. I get the concepts but how to translate it into something I can use??? ugh. Out of 3 roomates 2 of them cook. However one of them lives on fried/pizza/chicken wing/mt dew and the other lots and lots of pork which I hate. Both of them do not cook with health in mind.

I think I just need to bite the bullet and learn how to do it myself from scratch. The problem isn't lack of information. The amount of options that come up with a simple search is so overwhelming I just don't know where to start.

I cannot afford to spend 20$ getting together the stuff for one meal. I can follow instructions but I lack basic cooking skills and often a recipe will assume that I have them. Basically after reading a list of 20 different things that I dont have on hand and mentally calculating the cost I run into stuff I dont know how to do. Makes it seem pretty risky and I just give up and go back to my normal habits.

Add to this the health angle. Also so much information out there your head will spin and much of it is conflicting. You get to the point where you feel that you can't be right no matter what you do. I do not want to count calories, I believe that if you eat real whole foods that you will be satisfied and do not need to obsess.

Here is the criteria. Any and all advice, even if it is pointing me to something to read or learn, would be MUCH appreciated. I have read through other posts regarding frugal living, and I feel bad that I am having a hard time with the amount I have when they are trying to live off of 10-20. I also find that it doesn't exactly translate as I do not need to be that restricted.

I think the one thing I need most help with is the concept of meal planning. Finding a theme and being able to buy all the stuff for that theme that will make meals for a week.

food budget (cooking just for me) 50$ a week or 200$ a month.

Healthy as humanly possible using only regular grocery stores

no butter and a min of oil (olive)

Love vegetables,beans,lentils etc. and willing to experiment with exotic grains.

Don't know how to cook fish but would prefer it as a main protein source along with low fat turkey and occasionally chicken. I only use lean ground beef to flavor chili. Dislike pork.

full time student so breakfast needs to be fast and healthy and lunches need to be portable in an insulated lunch bag. leftovers are ok.

Access to fully stocked kitchen as far as garlic/onions/potatoes/condiments(basics) and cooking utensils.

I am willing to do prep work if I knew exactly what to do.

All of this put together should mean that I could eat almost like royalty (for a student) but because of my lack of skills It all goes to waste. That bothers me more then anything else. The waste of it. So please, any advice at all would be welcomed.

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  1. In your shoes, I'd start cooking a few basic recipes that are easy and that you think you'd probably like, before investing time/money in complicated techniques/recipes. A place like might help you, because the recipes are pretty basic and there are lots of reviews to guide you away from the clunkers. Also check out There are great, easy recipes there with plenty of explanatory photos.

    One dish idea for you is a basic, fairly healthy greens-based soup:
    -1-2 cans (16 oz.) cannellini beans [drained
    ]-1/2 large bag kale (pre-washed), large stems removed if necessary (could also sub. bagged spinach, but add just before serving)
    -1 onion, chopped
    -2 cloves garlic, minced
    -1 lg. box chicken stock, plus 1 tablespoon chicken base or one bullion cube
    -salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
    -1 lb. turkey kielbasa/smoked sausage
    -olive oil

    optional: fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, sage

    1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onion.

    2. Cut the kielbasa into thin slices, then quarter. Brown in olive oil with the onions. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant.

    3. Add the remaining ingredients, and simmer until kale is tender.

    Serve with crusty bread or a bowl of quinoa (rinse 1 c. quinoa in hot water, strain, and simmer with 2 c. water approx. 20 min, or until tender but still al dente).

    Try it once. If you like it, try it again with some changes/substitutions. You could add a small can of diced tomatoes or swap out sauteed turkey breast chunks for the kielbasa, another green for the kale, add sweet potato or tortelloni, etc. Maybe an "Asian" twist with a splash of sesame oil, frozen dumplings, and sliced baby bok choy.

    Good luck!

    1. Also, I totally understand your hesitation with cooking fish. Here are three good, pretty easy techniques to have under your belt:

      1) Baking fish wrapped in an aluminum foil/parchment paper pouch:

      2) Roasting whole head-on fish in the oven:

      3) Poaching fish fillets on the stovetop or in the oven in a sauce: (If you don't have an ovenproof dish, rather than moving the fish to the oven, just continue cooking on VERY low, covered, on your stovetop until done. Worked perfectly for me).

      1. As Christina points out, soups are cheap and nutritious. She lists a soup with canned beans, good--but dried beans are cheaper and will take you farther budget-wise. One pound of dried beans can be soaked overnight, then cooked ... cooled and frozen for use during the entire week. Maybe devote a weekend night to soaking the beans, next day cook them (they only take 40 minutes or so to cook), then plan to use them during the entire week. CHOW had a segment on "Beans for a week" or something...will try to find the link. ALSO, don't forget the same idea for "Roasted chicken for a week"--roast a chicken on Sunday or Saturday....then use it in various ways for the next week, works really great!

        EDIT: here's the link I was talking about...on the right, you'll see a link for the chicken ideas too:

        1 Reply
        1. re: Val

          How about using a slow cooker - and slow cooker recipes?

        2. In addition to the good advice given by others, you say you have access to a fully stocked kitchen with basic spices.

          Buying spices can be expensive, but a little goes a long way and they last a long time (properly stored - try the freezer for rarely used items).
          Once you build your stock of spices, your $20 ingredient list will become much cheaper (methinks).

          Your love of beans and grains will be very helpful as they are cheap, and easy to work a week of diverse meals, backed up with a few spices and things like onions, tomatoes, garlic, etc.

          Suggestion: buy a 1/2 bag of dried beans you like (e.g. kidney, or garbanzo, or ... )
          Soak them on the weekend, and fully cook, with salt (and maybe a pinch of turmeric).
          Keep this in the fridge. Maybe freeze half. It will make a huge quantity.

          Have spices, tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes, on hand in pantry. Have parsley and cilantro in fridge.

          Have 1-2 fresh veggies in fridge, and 1-2 in freezer (e.g. frozen spinach).

          During the week, take out 2-3 cups full of the cooked beans, and make (as desired) an Italian soup, or a Mediterranean stew, or chili, or or chana masala / rajmah masala, any other appropriate dish that you have spices for. (pre-made, specific, spice mixes are your friends, bought cheaper from ethnic markets or mail order).

          Eat with rice, or tortillas, or barley or whatever grain you have on hand. Make a veggie 'side' from your fresh / frozen supply.

          These dishes meet all your criteria above.

          1. First, here's an article detailing how to keep greens fresh after a a weekly trip to the store.
   I mostly follow that advice now and it works well.
            Also, here's a dish from the blog 101 Cookbooks called "Big Delicious Quinoa Bowl" --
            A recipe like that can be changed around so easily depending which add-ins you like/have on hand. (Quinoa is a source of protein, too.)