I’ve been away for a few months now; life was just getting a little too crazy in the midst of a breakup while struggling to pay for grad school and working at a mental hospital. I am now happily single, and no longer working at a mental hospital, which are both positive changes. Alas, grad school is still very expensive.
I had a professor once look my class of twenty-year-olds in the eye and say, “This is the happiest you will ever be poor.” And he’s right! There is definitely a novelty to being twenty, broke, and completely independent. I have absolutely no savings and I’m only making a dollar more an hour now than I did in high school, even though I am halfway through my Master’s degree. I count my loose change to take the bus to and from work. I penny-pinch my grocery budget every single week, and I’m constantly trying to find new ways to make grocery shopping a fun bang-for-my-buck challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, I am inherently upset about the cost of living and feel constantly crushed by the weight of not being able to make a living wage. But if I’m going to eat poor, I might as well have fun with it, right?
The only reason I can afford to eat such delicious, colorful, “expensive” looking meals on poverty level wages is because I have spent years trying new ways to get my grocery bill down, and I think I’ve finally figured out some hacks that really work. For example, if you can get it frozen or canned instead of fresh, it’s almost always a good idea to go for the former. I will typically buy 2-3 bags of frozen mixed vegetables, which are only a couple of bucks each, and keep those in my freezer as a super simple lunch or dinner side. I’m also a huge fan of salmon (which is high in protein and healthy fatty acids) because it keeps in the freezer fairly well. All I have to do is thaw the salmon the night before, steam my vegetables in the microwave, maybe make some pasta roni as a side, and ta-da, I have lunch prepped for 3 days.
Salmon is probably the most expensive ingredient I purchase at the grocery store; that, or Impossible meat. I usually alternate weekly between cooking a fish entree and a fake-meat entree. Last week, I made “chicken” broccoli Alfredo using freeze-dried Alfredo mix, frozen broccoli, and vegetarian chicken substitute. It’s okay for me to splurge once a week on an expensive source of protein, because I know how to balance it out with cheap combinations, like frozen veggies and instant pasta.
Here’s my take. I can usually always afford to have boxes of pasta or rice or frozen veggies on hand. So if I am going to buy fresh produce, I want to get as much out of it as I can. I like to make recipes that share fresh ingredients; i.e, using leftover cherry tomatoes from my tomato asparagus ravioli to brighten up a pasta salad.
For breakfast, I am a big fan of instant oatmeal, specifically the fruit and cream variety from Quakers. It’s also usually on sale, so I can buy 2-3 boxes at once and be set on oatmeal for the month. There are so many different ways to customize and curate oatmeal, but my favorite oatmeal preparation is 2 packets of banana and cream oatmeal, a can of peaches, cinnamon powder, maple syrup, brown sugar, and walnuts. Healthy? Maybe not. Filling, quick, and delicious? Always. Note how I opted for canned peaches over fresh produce, which is another way to significantly bring down the cost and improve shelf life of my groceries.
We’ve covered breakfast, and we’ve covered easy make-ahead lunches. Now, what have I been making for entrees?
I will be sure to link all of the recipes I use for dinner entrees, and note that any time something calls for chicken or beef, I am substituting it with a vegetarian version. However, you obviously can tweak these recipes to your eating habits.
One of my favorite comfort dinner recipes to make is cheeseburger pasta. It tastes indulgent and rich, but it’s actually pretty cheap for me to make, since I already have so many of these pantry staples on hand. I usually skip the green onions and double the sweet relish for my variety, and I use Impossible meat instead of ground beef. I am absolutely obsessed with this recipe; it is currently my favorite meal. There was a time in my life when I was literally making this recipe every single week for an entire month.
Tomato asparagus ravioli is also amazing and full of gorgeous colors and textures. Again, you can lower your grocery bill on this recipe by buying frozen asparagus instead of fresh asparagus. I normally am not a fan of parsley, but it was actually amazing when combined with these flavors.
Cheese enchiladas are a staple for any vegetarian. SO CHEAP, SO EASY, and you get SO MUCH food from one tray, so you’ll have leftovers for days. Enchiladas are one of those dishes that taste even better the next day. I like this recipe because it’s only three ingredients. I particularly like the Trader Joe’s brand enchilada sauce.
This caprese pasta salad was pretty good, but I would recommend adding in some dijon mustard to give it a little bit of a kick.
On the topic of caprese, I went through a phase where I made this one pot caprese pasta every day for a week straight. It is another dish that tastes even better as a leftover. The red pepper flakes give it a really nice kick.
My mom and I both love this sun-dried tomato and spinach gnocchi, but I make mine without the chicken. It tastes so luxurious and flavorful, without being too heavy. It is another example of using versatile kitchen ingredients to create a dish that is interesting and full of unique flavor.
Cheesy broccoli quinoa casserole is actually more of a breakfast dish, but it is SO much more healthy than a regular broccoli cheddar casserole, without compromising taste.
On the topic of breakfast for dinner. Lox. Lox. LOX. Otherwise known as the New York breakfast.
I love this chicken pesto pasta, sans the chicken and substituted with LiteLife chicken. However, it is a super duper heavy entree, so you will likely need to take a nap after eating this.
Lemon ricotta pasta is the lighter, healthier younger sister of chicken pesto pasta! And the peas add such a nice burst of color to the dish. I like to garnish this dish with slices of lemon.
For you vegans, I made this saucy vegan ramen every day in undergrad until I was absolutely sick of it. Soooo good with green onions if you can afford the fresh produce splurge.
Another vegan recipe I love (albeit, a bit of a splurge and labor intensive to make) is this recipe for vegan stuffed shells. It’s a bit healthier than a traditional stuffed shells recipe, because you are using ground-up cashews instead of real ricotta cheese. However, it tastes nearly identical. Even my mom, who is usually not a fan of vegan replacements, loved this recipe and couldn’t tell the difference.
And lastly, for when you really feel like impressing for plant-based friends: vegetarian Philly cheesesteaks. I used Impossible beef instead of regular meat, but besides that, I followed this recipe exactly as described, with the addition of fresh green peppers. It was a huge hit. However, the ingredient list can get a bit pricey, since you’re using fresh produce AND a pricey protein.
Bonus: Dessert! Churro cheesecake bars are so easy to make, so delicious and fancy-tasting, and they will go like HOT CAKES at any social gathering. However, you intestines may never forgive you.
Miscellaneous tips: The Dollar Tree brand of Spanish instant rice is actually really delicious, and cooks right in the bag, if you’re out of dinner ideas. Dollar stores also typically sell a small selection of Goya brand items, so you can get a bag of rice and a can of beans for a couple of bucks, and then splurge on fresh avocados to add color and additional nutritional value.
That’s everything I have been cooking and some of my favorite recipes that I keep on hand for everything from weeknight dinners to date-night dishes to impress a cute girl. Let me know in the comments if you try any of these recipes because I’d love to know what you think!