The Penny Pincher’s Guide to Eating Cheap (a.k.a. Notes From My Mother)

Senior health editor Anjula Razdan offers advice on how to eat well without breaking the bank.

 

I’m sitting across the kitchen table from my mother, who was born and raised in India, as she patiently sifts through dried black beans looking for small stones. And, having just been lectured yet again about what my mother considers to be my ungodly grocery-store bill — she visibly blanches when she witnesses my grocery-store process, that is, throwing things, willy-nilly, into the cart with no regard for prices or meal planning — I’ve decided to devote this blog to a few of the thrifty food lessons I’ve learned from my mom:

  1. Use dried beans. I am an inveterate canned-bean lover (so convenient!), but dried legumes are one of the biggest bargains in the grocery store. Bonus: You won’t be exposing yourself to the toxic chemical BPA (bisphenol-A) found in most canned products. Do take the time to sort those dried beans, though; my mom is at eight small stones and counting.
  2. Don’t throw away stalks, stems, and the like. What other people see as compost, my mother sees as dinner. Broccoli stalks, peeled and sliced or diced, add a hearty texture to any dish, as do the stems of dark leafy greens.
  3. Embrace dried spices. Long recipe lists can be both daunting and expensive, but my mother, who cooks almost exclusively with fresh whole foods, achieves great depth of flavor and brightness by simply using what my husband calls “the Indian spice gun” — that is, turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, and asafoetida powder (available at an Indian market). Whatever your favorite flavor profile, dried spices and herbs are a cheap and easy way to jazz up any meal.
  4. Make your own yogurt. It’s better-tasting, better for you, and you can make it in huge batches. Easier than you think, and you don’t need a fancy yogurt maker (just a little yogurt culture, some milk, a big bowl and an oven).
  5. Butcher your own meat. You can save a lot of money by not buying boneless, skinless cuts of meat. Equally important, you get the actual bones, which impart a deep, rich flavor to stews and soups.
  6. Buy in bulk, especially when things go on sale. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Although I have to say, when I opened the door to my mother’s spare refrigerator yesterday and saw six heads of cabbage, I did think that went a little too far and/or seemed to me to be a sign of the apocalypse. My mother’s defense: “Cabbage was only 19 cents a pound because of St. Patrick’s Day!” (I also draw the line at the whole concept of a spare refrigerator, at least until I turn 65).

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