My girlfriend makes fun of me for having “no tastebuds”. She’s right - on my own, I tend to eat real bachelor food. Stuff that’s cheap, easy to eat and prepare, and pretty bland.
Between moving out of my parents’ house and moving in with her, I basically fed myself on about $150/month. Every time I went to the store, I spent maybe about $30-40 on food, and this would last me for the week. Some months I would splurge and eat salmon a few extra times a week, so it might cost me closer to $200 or a bit higher than that.
Notably, this was during a period when I bulked up from 170 to 200 pounds. My activity levels were extremely high and my metabolism was too. So, I did this while eating a LOT more calories than most people need.
The strategies I used aren’t glamorous. I ate cheaply and I’m a terrible chef. My cooking method was usually (boil or bake) + (add seasoning) + (mix with one or two other food items). It's not pretty.
But having a bit of free money in the budget can make the difference between spending all your money on groceries or having a bit of extra money to save or spend. I managed to save up quite a bit of money that year (I ended up spending it all a couple years later, but that's another story).
I also won’t hesitate to admit that I had the privilege of living in a situation that made it easy to get the cheap food I needed. Depending on where you live, it may be harder (or impossible) to eat the way I did. I was also lucky that I had the time to prepare food - but I also used lots of time saving methods to cut down on this. These options may not be ideal for you, but you should at least be able to get some ideas.
Most importantly, I don’t have tastebuds. (Not really, but I've always had a poor sense of smell and a poor sense of taste.) I ate a lot of bland food because I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure just from eating food. Trust me, my coworkers also mocked me for the kind of food that I ate on a regular basis. At the same time, I was saving money, so I can’t complain.
Here are my tips and tricks. Judge away.
Certain foods are just pretty cheap. Here are some ideas:
Ramen Noodles, Dried Pasta in general
Plain White Rice
Potatoes, white or sweet
Beans (dried or canned)
Frozen Vegetables (easily microwaved)
Frozen Mixed Fruit (usually to make smoothies)
Frozen Juice Concentrate
Milk and dairy products
Ground Beef or Ground Turkey
Frozen Chicken Thighs and Chicken Breasts
Frozen Tilapia Filets
Nuts (Almond, Mixed, Peanut) bought in bulk
Other cooking oils
Together, these foods (with some variation) made up the basic staples of most of my meals. Preparation varied, and I would often use different spices and seasonings to help add variety to meals. I might occasionally buy avocadoes if they were in season, for example, or buy different fruits and veggies than usual to snack on or add variety to meals.
I’m a lazy cook. Here’s some of the methods I used to make homemade meals without spending too much time on them.
Rice is my favorite carb. Toss some rice in a rice cooker, walk away, and fifteen minutes later you have a steaming serving of rice. My rice cooker also doubled as a steamer for frozen veggies (or you can usually toss them in a microwave, but the results are slightly more gross).
Since rice is also astoundingly cheap, this was one of my easy staples. Prep some rice and some kind of meat with some kind of seasoning or sauce, mix them together, add some veggies, and go.
One of the huge problems with frozen chicken is that it tends to be quite a bit tougher and less juicy. My favorite method of chicken prep was simply to toss some into a crock pot with some stock and let it stew for a few hours, occasionally breaking up the chicken a bit. Add carrots, potatoes, and celery to make a simple stew, or mix with barbecue sauce, beans or salsa to add some flavor.
Crock pots are absolutely magic, and there's no limit to what you can do with them. Toss in some kind of meat and some kind of sauce or broth, cook for a while, add to some kind of carb base, and you're set with minimal effort. You can also search online for plenty of very easy crock pot recipes.
A cheap blender is another life saver. Toss some frozen fruit and a bit of juice (from concentrate is cheapest, and you won’t notice that it’s a bit blander since it’ll be mixed in with other flavors) in a blender to get a quick smoothie. Add yogurt or vanilla protein powder for a bit of protein and texture. You can also add some leafy veggies or other fresh fruit without impacting the flavor too much, although too much non-frozen fruit can create a lot of pulpy fiber that gathers at the top of the smoothie, making it chunky and somewhat gross.
Likewise, a bit of protein powder and milk makes a good shake. Add peanut butter for more calories and a different taste.
Simple Cooking Prep
Most of my other prep was a bit longer, and usually for proteins. I would brown some ground beef in a pan and add some spices, peppers, onions, or canned tomatoes to switch up the flavor. When cooking fish, I would simply bake tilapia or salmon on a baking sheet with a bit of cooking oil to prevent it from sticking. Add some lemon juice or some pepper and salt to flavor your fish.
Investing in a good set of tupperware saves you hours of prep time simply because you can store more of it at once. Why bake a fish when you can bake five? If you cook more at once and store the remainder for the next few days, you’re saving yourself a lot of prep time. Some foods may get a bit less appetizing if you keep them in the fridge for too long (carbs, usually) so try to store only the stuff that keeps well and supplement it with freshly prepared portions.
Tupperware has the added benefit of being portable, allowing you to take your food to work. Store it in a work fridge (if available) until ready to eat. If no work fridge is available, I recommend getting smaller tupperware containers to take with you (less to go bad at once) and maybe investing in a small cooler or lunch bag that can keep food until ready to eat. When storing smoothies, I typically used shaker bottles since they’re large and cheap and make it easy to store liquids.
Buying in Bulk
Whenever possible, buy in bulk to save money. If you have access, bulk retailers like Sam’s Club or Costco will allow you to make big savings. This can help offset the cost of slightly more expensive food staples. I used to be able to get a 50lb bag of rice at Sam’s Club for about 15$, which would last me for 6 months even though I ate a lot of rice. Bulk purchase also made it easy for me to get potatoes, meat, milk, juice, and other staples as cheaply as possible.
When making meals, the typical pattern was simple: a carb, a protein, and a vegetable.
Typical carbs were rice, potatoes, or beans.
Typical proteins are chicken, ground turkey, fish, or ground beef. Fats were often reserved for snacks (nuts, cheese, peanut butter on a few crackers, an avocado here and there) or through cooking oils.
Veggies were often frozen mixed veggies, peas, carrots (the only vegetable I really enjoy the taste of), or leafy vegetables.
When on the go, smoothies are usually the best option since you’re getting a lot of fiber and carbs already, you can add protein via added protein powder, and you can easily carry around a big shaker bottle or two full of smoothie.
It’s not flashy, but it works - I generally consumed a cheap, balanced diet with minimal prep time. I mostly ate from home or work, avoiding going out for food unless eating socially or after a long work day when I didn't feel like cooking.
Using these tactics, I kept my food expenses to a minimum, which enabled me to (especially in the first years after college, when I had little income) have more spending money for the times when it counted. I would say that I spent no more than a half hour a day on food prep. Often, I would spend an hour or two but come up with enough food for several days (so long as I spread it out with other foods so that I didn’t get sick of eating the same thing repeatedly).
You do not need to spend a ton of money to eat healthy. Cheap food options are just as healthy as more expensive options like organic or non-gmo foods. As I’ve discussed previously in my writing, it’s not about what food you’re eating, but about your balance with and relationship to your food. You can do that just fine on a budget - even with a high metabolism.
- Programming Your Macros Part 1: General Health and Wellness
- Programming Your Macros Part 2: Gaining Muscle
- Programming Your Macros Part 3: Weight Cutting and Weight Loss
- Weight Management: A Simple and Comprehensive Guide
- Understanding Your Actual Metabolism
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