2 People, 15 Days, 30 Meals, 35 Bucks

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from writing to work on other projects. This was one of the most popular posts in CK's history.

The purpose of today's post is to show a practical example of how you can eat a low-cost, healthy diet over an extended period of time, without having to spend hours in the kitchen every day.

Below is a recipe list, menu list and itemized grocery list you can use to feed two people a wide range of simple, healthy dinners for fifteen days. It can easily be scaled up for larger families, or used as a template for your own collection of favorite, low-cost recipes. And this is no hypothetical menu that looks good on paper but fails miserably in practice. I actually used this exact menu, made these exact food purchases and cooked these exact recipes during an actual fifteen day period a couple of months ago. This was a real 15-day trial carried out in real life.

It's deceivingly easy to assume that eating involves unavoidable tradeoffs: Healthy food has to be expensive. Cooking at home means spending hours slaving away in the kitchen. There's not enough time or money to eat well at home.

Forget all those phony tradeoffs. This 30-meal plan proves that things can be easy: Cooking low-cost, healthy food at home can be done efficiently, with surprisingly little effort and for a tiny fraction of the cost of eating out. Keep reading to see what I mean. At the end of the post, I'll explain some of the behind-the-scenes factors that helped make this trial much easier to execute than we expected.

The bottom line is this: cooking and eating healthy, low-cost meals for weeks at a time can be done--and it doesn't have to be hard work.

Recipe List:
Garden Gumbo - 1.5 batches
Black Beans and Rice - double batch
Viennese Potato Soup - double batch
Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry - double batch
Chicken Mole
Easy Lentil Soup with Chicken

Grocery List:
Produce aisle:
2 Green bell peppers: $2.05
Celery, bag: $1.99
Onions, 3 lb bag: $2.99
Garlic: 50c
Carrots, 2 lb bag: $1.79
Cabbage head, ~3 lb: $2.47
Potatoes: 5 lb bag: $3.49

Canned Foods/Beans/Dried Legumes aisle:
1 14.5-oz can red beans: 67c
2 lb bag brown rice: $1.79
4 14.5-oz can black beans: $2.68
3 29-oz cans stewed tomatoes: $3.00
1 lb dried lentils: $79c

Meat aisle:
Package bacon: $3.99 (note: we used about 1/3 of the bacon)
Value-pack chicken breasts: 5 lbs: $6.91 (we used 1.5 lbs in the Chicken Mole and we added 1.5 lbs as an extra ingredient to the Lentil Soup)

Grand Total Food Cost: $35.11
Schedule of Dinners
Day 1: Garden Gumbo
Day 2: Black Beans and Rice
Day 3: Garden Gumbo
Day 4: Black Beans and Rice
Day 5: Viennese Potato Soup with Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 6: Garden Gumbo
Day 7: Viennese Potato Soup
Day 8: Black Beans and Rice
Day 9: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 10: Chicken Mole
Day 11: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 12: Chicken Mole
Day 13: Easy Lentil Soup
Day 14: Chicken Mole
Day 15: Easy Lentil Soup

A few final notes:
1) Was this your entire food expense for the full 15 days?
No. Just dinners. However, the recipes in this meal plan will also cover quite a few lunches here and there from leftovers--at zero incremental cost. Your mileage (and caloric intake) may vary.

2) No, seriously, you actually ate all this food for just $35?
Look, no way was I going to lowball my costs and then crush the dreams of an excited reader who tried this meal plan but found his costs to be way out of line with mine. Admittedly, the de minimus cost of some common pantry items (spices, olive oil, bouillon cubes, optional white rice, etc) aren't included. More importantly, however, after the trial ended, we still had 2/3 of a package of bacon, about 2 lbs of chicken, most of a bag of onions, most of a head of garlic, several carrots, most of a 5-lb bag of potatoes, 1/3 of a bag of celery and the bulk of a 2-lb bag of brown rice still sitting in our kitchen. Had I calculated the meal costs based on the actual portions of the food we used, the total cost would have been as much as $9.00 lower.

In other words, technically, I could have titled this post Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Twenty-Six Bucks. There are always going to be errors and variability estimating exact food costs, but I made sure my error factor would be from overestimating the costs, not lowballing them. Many readers could do this trial for much less money.

3) Why did you say that the trial was easy? How could it possibly be easy?
Mainly for one reason: we made liberal use of CK's list of Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. Further, we took advantage of the fact that nearly all of the recipes here at CK are extremely scalable, meaning they can be made in double (or even triple) batches for very little incremental work.

One more trick you can use: cook double batches of dinner on two successive nights, and then alternate the leftovers over the following days. Face it: reheating food you've already made is by light years the easiest way to get healthy food on the table. And when you alternate two sets of leftover meals, you won't get sick of eating the same damn thing every night.

You'll notice one more thing about our meal plan. There isn't that much meat in it. Surprise! You've stumbled onto one of the unsung advantages of a low-meat, part-time vegetarian diet. Nevertheless, our protein requirements were easily met with this meal plan.

Finally, this 15-day schedule could easily be repeated with two or three other mini-collections of recipes culled from CK's Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. In theory, you could create a meal template for an indefinite period of time: just rotate in a new batch of recipes every two weeks. Result? Hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year saved on your food bill.

4) I'd feel like a total loser if I had to spend this little money on my food.
Ha! I'll go you one better: I built a spreadsheet to calculate my food costs--just for this post! Set aside your ego for a moment and understand the central point: there's actually no sacrifice involved here. This trial shows that you can eat extremely well for very little money--and even less time spent cooking. Try it, see for yourself... and feel free to spend your leftover money on something else.

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