Eight Tips to Make Cooking At Home Laughably Cheap: The Economics of Cooking, Part 2

Our last post tackled the setup costs of building a working kitchen. Today’s post talks about how to manage food and meal costs.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meal costs of cooking because lots of our friends claim that they can eat out more cheaply than they can cook at home.


If done right, cooking at home can be so cheap that it’s laughable, and believe me, you won’t be forced to eat gruel every day. So without further ado, here are eight tips that will help you make cooking at home laughably cheap:

1) Buy generic, especially when it doesn’t matter.
When you make my Chicken Mole recipe (you can find it at the bottom of this post), does it really matter whether you use store brand stewed tomatoes or Del Monte brand stewed tomatoes? (That was a rhetorical question and the answer is “No.” Nobody can tell.) Have you ever purchased your local store brand pasta sauce and compared it to Ragu? You might be surprised to find it’s not only half the price but it tastes twice as good. If you make Mock Wild Rice and use store brand mushrooms, does anyone taste the difference? Again, the answer is no.

I know I sound like I’m dispensing cooking koans here, but these are lessons I’ve learned through years of experience. You can use my experiences now and save yourself the time (and money). You’ll also find the “generic rule” true when you buy most dried pastas as well as most canned items. The only difference you’ll feel is in the wallet.

2) Buy your staples in bulk and load up if you see any staples on sale:
Basic staples like rice, brown rice, sugar, flour, etc are practically free when bought in bulk, and since they can be stored for a long time without spoiling there’s no downside to buying them this way. Even eggs keep for weeks in a fridge. My wife and I buy our rice in 10- or even 20-pound bags, although I will confess I’m a bit scarred for life with an experience we had buying basmati rice one time in a large bulk bag at an Indian food store in Jersey City, NJ. Let’s just say we later nicknamed that rice “bug rice” and diplomatically leave the subject hanging right there…

3) Make recipes that contain fresh produce.
I’ve already talked about how you can get an entire pound of collard greens for 99c, which costs about the same as a couple of Ocuvite tablets and contains more leutein and antioxidants. (Note to self: maybe it’s worth buying Bausch & Lomb [BOL] here at $53?) :) Most vegetables are really inexpensive. Two pounds of carrots? Less than a dollar. Potatoes? Two bucks for 5 pounds. A dozen eggs? $1.59. You get the picture: most raw or basic items in the grocery store are quite inexpensive. You only really start paying through the nose when you buy prepared foods. Which brings us to our next suggestion:

4) Lay off the prepared foods and take-out dinners.
Yes they may save time. But they are high in sodium and fat, cost much more, and usually don’t taste all that good. Do those Hot Pockets really taste good enough that it’s worth ingesting the excess sodium and partially hydrogenated soybean oil? Have you ever made your own pizza (even with an overpriced Boboli crust) and compared the taste to a flash-frozen store-bought pizza? Does it really take that much more time to slice up some peppers, onions and mozzarella cheese and open a can of plain tomato sauce when the result is something much better tasting and far healthier? (Don’t forget to throw in some dried basil, oregano and some crushed red pepper flakes into the sauce…)

Moreover, I would argue that if you practice at getting faster at cooking, you’ll even find that buying fully prepared takeout meals won’t save you that much time, even as they cost you significantly more money. It’s much more time efficient to make just ONE grocery trip a week to the store and make a couple of scalable meals rather than making a habit of picking something up for takeout multiple times a week. And nothing is as easy or as cheap as preparing a meal by reheating something you already made the other day.

5) Learn when different fruits and veggies are “in season” and buy them then.
As you get more experience buying fresh fruits and vegetables, you’ll begin to notice significant price fluctuations in items over the course of the year. But unlike what I’ve found in the stock market, these fluctuations are not only consistent but consistently exploitable from year to year. Grapefruits and oranges usually get cheapest in January and February. Where we live, blueberries become practically free in June. Peaches? Around May and June. Apples are cheapest in October/November if you live near an apple growing region. You get the idea. Try to get a sense of when things get cheap and focus your recipes around those ingredients.

Moreover, the saying “you get what you pay for” holds true for most things in life, but it totally flops in the grocery store. The irony is that when fresh fruits or vegetables are in season and are cheapest, they also taste the best. Go figure. But at least take advantage of it. And don’t expect to enjoy a grapefruit in the summer or expect to make a good blueberry pie in December. You’ll get a sense of the right times and prices to buy things as you start paying closer attention to things in your grocery store’s produce section.

6) Should I go organic? Hell no!
Not unless you want to get bent over every time you go to the store. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t trust the provenance of organic foods in the first place, and half the time the fruits and veggies in the organic section look kind of smushy anyway. It’s also worth noting that the profit margins that grocery stores make on organic foods are double or more what they make on regular produce. You’re not there to line the grocery store’s pockets--you’re there to feed yourself. I would stick with the reasonably priced foods and just be sure to wash and scrub them before you use them.

7) Don’t buy or eat junk food.
Okay, everybody gets an occasional craving for salty snacks. My two personal weaknesses (besides dark chocolate which I consider more of a pathology than a weakness) are Cooler Ranch Doritos and Hint of Lime Tostitos. But these types of foods are terrible for you, high in salt, make you feel lousy the next day and they cost much more than they’re worth.

8) Stay away from obscure, overpriced ingredients (and complex recipes) for now:
When you pull out a recipe and see that it calls for “saffron” or some other totally overpriced, hard-to-find ingredient, or if it calls for a zillion separate steps, just put that recipe down and slowly back away. Stick with mastering simpler recipes for now. This is especially true while you are still in learning mode about cooking. There’s no need to waste your patience, time, or money. The optimal recipe is one that is relatively easy to make, doesn’t have a lot of steps or obscure ingredients, contains inexpensive in-season produce, and can be doubled/scaled up to last for a few meals.

You can easily drop $200 or more for a fancy dinner out for two if you hit one of the Zagat top 50 restaurants in New York City. You pretty much CAN’T get a restaurant meal for two for much less than $20 anywhere these days. But most of the recipes we make in our kitchen cost $10 or less and can feed us for multiple meals. And the soups and vegetarian dishes we make often cost $5 or less (look here for some of my favorite veggie cookbooks). When you cook vegetarian meals it’s so cheap that I almost feel like it’s totally unfair to the food service industry.

My Easy Split Pea Soup recipe, which you can find in this post, costs about $2.00 to make in TOTAL if you make it vegetarian style, and maybe $3.00 or $4.00 if you make it with some chicken strips or other meat. I mean, that just makes me laugh out loud!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking eating out and I’m not even knocking junk food too much. I’ve already recommended some sites to go to if you need somebody to tell you to cut your own hairto save money so you can retire someday. My wife and I love to eat dinners out, not just in nice restaurants but in our neighborhood hole-in-the-wall places and different ethnic restaurants, etc. That’s where I get cuisine ideas, new recipe ideas, learn more subtleties about presentation and different taste combinations, and most importantly, get a night off from cooking. I’ll talk more about this when I cover the dreaded subject of “cooking burnout” sometime down the road. And yes, we have our late night ice cream/Doritos runs to the store on occasion. But we do our best to keep this stuff to a minimum.

There are many places you can learn more about frugal cooking that are beyond the scope of this blog. You can start by going here, here and here.

Start cooking! What are you waiting for?

Related Posts:
How to Make Your Own Inexpensive Sports Drink
Quite Possibly the Easiest Lentil Soup Recipe You’ll Find Anywhere
The Crockpot: A Siren Call for Single People
The Limping Dinner: Spicy Brown Rice


Ellen said...

Great post! One of my favorite tips is "don't pay for water." Canned beans versus dried beans, for example. Fresh juice (usually just reconstituted) versus frozen concentrate. Anyway, thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

OK, you've got a "taker" for the split pea soup. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never made it, but really enjoyed eating a bowl from time to time when I was a kid. Sounds delicious. GP

Daniel said...

Thanks for your comments! Always appreciated.


Anonymous said...

A good source of cheap ingredients is an asian grocery store.

They have the 20 pound bags or rice for around $10 and they are now packed with ziplock tops to keep out the bugs. That is less than 25 cents per serving. Use a rice cooker and it is easy.

I notice most shoppers at the asian grocery are buying mostly vegetables. So, maybe that is a good idea. I like meat.

However, I do load up on 59 cent bags with a pound of noodles. Again that is less than 25 cents per serving. Lots of kinds of noodles.

And, $2 bottles of not-too-spicy condiment sauces that can fix 10 to 20 dinners that didn't turn out so tasty. Lots of other ready mixed flavorings too.

But, definitely, don't buy asian ingredients at a normal american supermarket--you'll pay four times as much.

Mijo said...

Ok, I'll be the first one to bite on the organic comment. I really question whether you can scrub pesticides out of your produce, but I'm sure we can agree that you can't scrub a strawberry at all. And you can't scrub the hormones out of your meat and dairy products.

Here are the things I try to buy organic, in order of importance: dairy (because my son eats more dairy than any other food group), meat, eggs, produce with permeable skin (e.g. berries), produce with non-permeable but still edible skin (e.g. apples). These should all be self-explanatory. Really, it's the meat and dairy hormones that scare me the most - especially beef. Jeebus, that's some creepy stuff! I'm no purist, we eat non-organic meat all the time when we eat out, but why not minimize our exposure to it?

Of course if you can't afford it - and honestly, I often can't - then you can't. That's cool.

Also I only started caring when I had a kid. My body is so full of nasty toxins, who cares? But his is just starting out, you know?

Another tip - if you are lucky enough to live in a city with farmer's markets, buy your produce (and maybe your meat, bread, cheese, yogurt, cider, flowers, etc) there. The food is way yummier, fresher, usually cheaper (produce - yes; meat - no) and you are supporting struggling, small farmers.

Another tip - don't buy lentils in bulk until you have determined that you actually love lentils. My roommate has put me on Costco-detention because I have a habit of buying things in bulk on impulse, justifying it as "saving money"... turns out buying food in bulks only saves money if you actually EAT the food, which you won't do if it's disgusting.

I just found this blog and I'm really liking it. Very practical, useful stuff.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your commment!

I know there are multiple sides to the organic debate... my angle is that if you want to make cooking laughably cheap, going explicitly organic is NOT the way to do it. But certainly you can often get some great deals on amazing locally-grown food in a farmers market or at your local farm stand.

And I loved your comment on hesitating before buying lentils in bulk... :) That's a keeper.


Amber said...

This is an older post, but I just found it (and your site) and had to comment. This site rocks.

I live in a mid-sized town in NC, with not a lot of dining-out choices. My mom and grandma were awesome Southern cooks. Mama was a teacher who worked from 7am till 4pm but she STILL had time to make dinner at least five nights a week. My boyfriend is from a much larger city in VA and his mom rarely cooked, so he was used to having frozen or takeout meals all the time.

When we moved in together, he always wanted to go out, like we did when we were dating. He never realized the value of stocking up on staples and buying things when in season and on sale!

Sorry about the rant, just wanted to thank you for debunking the whole "eating out is cheaper and easier" myth. In these tough economic times, it's especially necessary for people to remember that you can make an awesome, home-cooked, healthy meal for less than you could eat out.

Daniel said...

Hear hear Amber, thanks for your input.

And thank you for the positive vibes! Glad you are finding value here.


Anonymous said...

I know it's an older post but still very relevant.

I love homemade 'za (and some great local spots too. . . Black sheep if you are ever in MSP, I don't work there just eat there) but frozen pizza has a place in my life

For those times (2-4x/year) when we get home late from vacation, usually jet lagged, starving, with a fridge consisting of ketchup, mustard, and tahini with 3 packs of diet coke to occupy space being able to just turn on the oven, pull out the za and eat in 20 minutes is priceless. I have tried grocery shopping after a trip like that, and all I can say is don't do it. It was a very expensive shop and I didn't get much that we actually needed

Sally said...

I think it was Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough in their book "Real Food Has Curves" who brought up another reason people don't cook at home. It's not so much because they think it's cheaper or easier to eat out or rely on convenience foods. It's because it requires less energy from the cook.

Once the cook has worked 8-10 or even 12 hours, commuted 30-60 minutes one way, then shuttled kids here, there and yonder, and/or picked up equally tired and cranky kids from daycare/babysitter the work is just beginning. Then you're looking at feeding the family, housework, overseeing homework, bath and bedtime. Feeding them is something that can be done by pulling something from the freezer and putting it in the microwave or oven or visiting your local fast/casual food restaurant.

Yes, one can cook big batches of food on the weekend and put those in the freezer. But that also requires a large block of time that most folks don't seem to have. Saturday and Sunday, if they aren't also work days, are spent doing everything there wasn't time for Monday-Friday.

And then we're told we must source locally grown organic produce, shop at ethnic stores and/or big box stores for savings. My hometown didn't -- and still doesn't -- have any of those. Well, there is a farmer's market for 3 months. It's the grocery, grow it yourself or nothing.

The personal economics are overlooked. In terms of our time and energy, it's all withdrawals.

I did this for about 10 years while dealing with another stressful life situation and it (literally) nearly killed me. At the time, no one thought about the food being as much of a problem as the stress with which I was dealing. Looking back, I can see that the food was also a problem.

natascha said...

Fantastic website. I am happy to pay for organics on some things, (ie: meat, eggs), but not for basics. Ever. Then again,sometimes organics are the cheap ones. The other day boring old tomatoes were $8.99/kg! Hell, NO WAY. I nearly had a heart attack (Some shortage or something) yet there was a man selling home-grown produce in a market stall in the CBD. $4 for as many organic tomatoes as I could fit in a bag (3.2kgs)and 1kg each of raspberries and strawberries for $6 (Australian), Loved "Don't pay for water". That goes for bottled water too.

Daniel said...

Natascha, thank you! I agree with you: if you can get your produce from outside of the standard retailing channels (your local home grown produce guy is a great example), you can get great quality stuff--often organic--for excellent prices.

I'll go even further and say that in some instances "organic" is increasingly used by marketers as a way to sell us aspirational products. I'll be elaborating on this concept in the coming weeks by the way.

Thanks for stopping by!