Dinner for One, Please: Eating Healthy on a Budget

8 Sep

As of this week, I have officially been living in Boston for one year. ONE YEAR! I can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. I also can’t believe that while living in the exciting city on a budget (let’s just say I won’t be rolling in the dough for quite some time), I’m still able to manage my money. People ask me all of the time how I survive in this expensive city. “Dinner out, cafes everywhere, pricy bars…how do you possibly do it?” 

While I talked about eating healthy on a budget in my interview with Lifestyler last fall here, I thought I’d share some new tricks of the trade now that I’m truly a savvy Bostonian (yay, I can finally call myself that, although I still don’t have the accent). Anyway, back to the point: now that I’ve lived in a city for more than a year and have been able to eat, live and sleep, I think I can offer some valuable advice to you fine folks looking to do the same. 

1. Cook the Perfect Amount: Don’t let food go to waste! I know for me, if I cook too much food, I’ll save it for “leftovers” and half the time end up forgetting about it. There’s nothing tasty nor practical about rotten food! Instead, cook according to your party size. For me, it’s mostly cooking for one ’cause I’m a single girl in the city (unless I treat my roomies here and there). They say “one is the loneliest number” which is true to an extent, but when it comes to cooking on a budget the number one couldn’t be sweeter. Instead of making extravagant 8-serving size pasta dishes, I simply use 1/2 a cup of brown rice pasta just for me. I buy 4 oz. servings of salmon at the market, and sauté just one chicken breast when I’m making a chicken entree. If a recipe calls for 6 large chicken breasts, but you know you’re only cooking for one or two, change things up accordingly!

2. Make Use of What You Already Have! The biggest mistake people make when trying to save money is going on grocery shopping binges, and buying nearly everything in the store. Be sure to check what you have in your fridge before you buy, buy, buy! You’ll be surprised by what kind of ingredients you can find in your drawers, cabinets and freezer. Oooohh yea, I froze soup a few weeks ago! Seriously, whenever you think you have NO FOOD IN THE HOUSE, look a little deeper…I’m sure you do. On a larger note, be creative with what you have in the house as well. Yesterday was the perfect example of a savvy budgeting decision. I planned to make eggplant lasagna (you can find the recipe here) and was going to use a little ricotta cheese for the spinach filling. However, I didn’t have ricotta in the house and quite frankly it would be a waste to buy it because I’d never use it again. That’s when it hit me. I saw the leftover container of tofu from a few nights ago sitting in the fridge. A-ha! I then substituted crumbled tofu for ricotta cheese and honestly couldn’t taste the difference. My roommate even tried the finished product and absolutely loved it (I didn’t tell her there was tofu in it…shhh!). Anywho, I do this all of the time. No walnuts? Use slivered almonds. Ran out of oil and want to make muffins? Use applesauce. The possibilities are endless!

3. Learn to Shop Smart: I have to be honest: when I first moved to Boston I wasn’t the smartest shopper. Of course, I ate healthy, but I’d spend tons of money on healthy meals to go, organic veggies, and pricy fruit. I actually bought a bundle of grapes for $7 once. RIDICULOUS. Never again. Now I like to think I’m much smarter when it comes to grocery shopping. In fact, I keep my weekly grocery budget around $25 to $40 a week, quite impressive considering I rarely eat out. The trick? First, never go shopping when you’re starving or in a “weird” mood. You’ll end up buying things you don’t need or even worse…buying the whole store! My roommate once went to the grocery store with me after a long night out and ended up buying gummy fruit snacks. The next day, she was like “What the hell was I thinking?” The thing is: she wasn’t. On another note, look for SALES. If grapes are $7, obviously go without grapes that day and buy the bag of apples that’s $2.99 for a dozen. If cucumbers are 2 for $1, skip the carrots and use cucs for your hummus dipping this week. Play it by year day. 

4. Check Out Local Farmer’s Markets: I swear by Farmer’s Markets (or any kind of market in fact as you can see)! They are my absolute favorite thing to do. The browsing and sampling alone get me every time. But even better: many of them have sweet sales. I bought my eggplant for my yummy lasagna at yesterday’s Farmers Market and it simply tasted soooooo much better than usual. You can also find cheap, locally grown veggies, fruit, herbs and baked goods galore! The best part about the markets is you can talk to the local farmers and find out exactly where your food is from, what’s put into it, and how it’s made. A guy I met yesterday explained to me that locally grown carrots, for instance, are much healthier than those grown in California because when baby carrots are packaged they add tons of sugar to keep them fresh. Makes sense. Buy what’s local and you’ll not only enjoy the fresh taste, but you’ll also hopefully save a few bucks. 

5. Try to Cook For Yourself As Much as Possible: I actually adore cooking, so this step is easy for me. But for those of you not so fond of putting on the apron and cranking up the stove, start slow. Maybe have a Potluck dinner with your  friends in the area, or make homemade healthy pizza with your boyfriend. Once you start cooking a few nights a week, you’ll realize how enjoyable it is. I love cooking for myself especially because I know exactly what’s going into my food (no hidden surprises or fatty cream sauces snuck in). If you’re not ready to cook a whole meal (or simply don’t have the time) cook half of it. Buy some fresh bread or cheese from your local market, and make a yummy homemade salad with field greens, veggies and olive oil. This way you’re at least saving money on the salad. To be honest: restaurant and pre-made salads just aren’t worth it. They taste old and I usually find them boring. To go with this point, it’s also practical to make your own coffee and tea, etc. I had a major Starbuck’s addiction when I first moved to Boston, which costed me lotsssss of money. Now, I make a few cups of freshly brewed coffee in the morning with breakfast. Best part? My most recent coffee (a cinnamon hazelnut blend) costed only $5.99, and I’ll probably get a good 20+ cups out of it. 29 cents a cup? Not too shabby and beats a $3 cup of coffee any day. 

6. But do Treat Yourself Too! I’m not trying to suck all the fun out of you! If you’re invited to a fun dinner out, of course go and enjoy. Get take out from your favorite cafe when you’re craving it. Have that special drink only your bartender knows how to make! Just make sure to keep in check with your budget when doing so! I loveeee sushi, so allow myself to have it every so often. Better yet? I just found out that the sushi place down the street from me does 15% off Tuesdays. I’M IN! Tomorrow, I’m also treating myself to a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice latte as I catch up with a friend. It’s almost fall and they’re back. How can I resist? 

Hope you found these tips useful! Please share your personal advice for eating healthy on a budget…What are your money-saving secrets? 

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