As ever, the blogosphere represents an infinite store of inspiration for smart ways to save money without selling yourself short. We find a shining example in blogger Beth Moncel of Budget Bytes. On her blog, Beth routinely offers up delicious, inexpensive recipes—think hearty pasta dishes, soups, stir-fries and more—each one featuring a detailed cost analysis, so you know exactly what you’re spending (and saving).
In honor of the fast-approaching February 4th release date of Beth’s first cookbook, Budget Bytes: Over 100 Easy, Delicious Recipes to Slash Your Grocery Bill in Half, we caught up with her to pose a few of our burning questions.
Smarty Cents: What inspired you to develop the Budget Bytes blog?
Beth Moncel: After graduating college, my student loan payments were far outweighing my entry-level income. My budget was stretched to its limit, and I was faced with either eating ramen every day or going further into debt. I love to eat, and nutrition is fairly important to me, so that solution wasn’t going to cut it. I decided to challenge myself to eat well (both in terms of flavor and nutritionally) on less than $6 per day. I got so excited about the results that I posted about it on Facebook. The response from my friends made me realize that there were probably a lot of people out there who could benefit from the results of my little experiment.
SC: We love the Budget Bytes tagline: My wallet is full, and my stomach is too. We find that so many people think they need to sacrifice flavor and even nutrition in order to cut costs. What’s your response to that misconception?
BM: There is a little bit of a learning curve to using herbs and spices to make a meal flavorful, but in the end it’s very easy and extremely inexpensive. Using just a few ingredients I can turn plain white rice into something that will knock your socks off. The same technique can be used to flavor rice, pasta, beans, or any other inexpensive staple ingredient. So, my formula is to build recipes based on an inexpensive staple ingredient (rice, beans, pasta) and use a variety of herbs and spices to make them delicious and interesting.
Those same staple ingredients are also very nutritious (whole grains, beans, lentils, and some pastas). I balance out the meal with either fresh or frozen vegetables. Fresh vegetables are very affordable when they are in season or local. The less distance the produce has to travel, the less expensive it will be (and the more delicious it will taste). I also try to stay stocked with frozen vegetables like spinach, broccoli and peas, because they’re an easy and inexpensive way to increase the vegetable content of soups, pastas, pilafs, pizzas and more.
SC: Do you subscribe to the process of detailed advance meal planning? Or do you tend to take things one recipe at a time?
BM: I do a little of both. I think it’s very important to have recipes picked out and a list made before you go to the grocery store, but I only plan a week in advance at most. I like to pick my recipes based on what I’m craving, so that I know I’ll actually eat it all and look forward to the leftovers. That makes planning too far in advance impossible, but having a plan of action before going to the store is crucial for preventing aimless shopping and wasted purchases.
SC: What are your essential dos and don’ts when it comes to meal planning?
- Do know what ingredients you have on hand. That way you won’t double-purchase something, and you can pick recipes that use ingredients you already have available.
- Do check the sales at your local store. Knowing which ingredients (especially meat and produce) are on sale that week can help you choose recipes that will be less expensive.
- Don’t cook more than you and your household can eat. If the recipe makes a lot of servings, make sure it’s something that you will enjoy eating the next few days as leftovers, or make sure that the leftovers are freezable.
- Don’t rely on your memory when going to the grocery store. Make a list or use a smart phone app to write down every ingredient you need so that you won’t have to make multiple trips to the store.
SC: Can you share your must-have budget pantry items that pack the most punch for the cost, speaking both in terms of flavor and nutrition?
BM: I always stay stocked with rice, beans (dry and canned), lentils and pasta. These are the cornerstones of my meals. Everything is built on these simple, shelf-stable ingredients.
Vinegars, oils, dried herbs and spices are all very shelf stable and allow you to customize meals with unique flavors. I always keep olive oil, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, sriracha, honey, Worcestershire sauce and balsamic, apple cider, red wine and rice vinegars. The important thing to remember is that this pantry full of ingredients can be built up slowly over time. Buy only what you need as you need it and before you know it, you’ll be well-stocked.
Refrigerated items that I like to keep on hand include: eggs, butter, milk, grated Parmesan, Dijon mustard, plain yogurt, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Most of these have a long refrigerated shelf life and can be used to make a variety of sauces or baked goods. I find myself buying green onions, ginger, fresh cilantro or fresh parsley almost on a weekly basis because they are very inexpensive and add a lot of flavor and freshness to meals.
I keep my freezer stocked with frozen vegetables like spinach, broccoli, peas and corn because they can be stored for a long time without going bad and can be added to just about anything. Pasta, soup, stew, salad, pizza and pilaf can all benefit from a handful of frozen veggies tossed in. The best part is that you can use part of the package, wrap up the rest, and keep it in the freezer to use later. No more rotten veggies in the bottom of the crisper!
SC: Are you a coupon clipper?
BM: No, they generally don’t make coupons for the type of food that I buy. The majority of coupons are for convenience foods—like boxed dinners, snack foods, sodas, juices and frozen meals. They simply don’t make coupons for fresh vegetables, beans, rice or fresh meat. These items usually go on sale within the store and don’t require a coupon.
SC: Your recipes are solid evidence that when we opt for quick-service dining or takeout, we are actually just paying (a lot) extra for the convenience and not much else. What advice do you have for breaking our reliance on ‘foods of convenience?’
BM: My best advice for breaking the habit of eating out is to start small. Habits take time to change, and if you try to go cold turkey, chances are you’ll cave and end up dialing for takeout. Start by cooking dinner at home one night per week and taking the leftovers for lunch the next day. Then increase to two days, then three, and so on. Ease yourself into it, and you’ll have time to appreciate the fun parts of the change without getting overwhelmed. Also, be adventurous and try a variety of recipes to keep things exciting and avoid settling into a rut. Trying to recreate your favorite take out food is a fun challenge that will squash your cravings and open your eyes to just how much you were over paying.
SC: Do you entertain often? And if so, how does your philosophy translate to pleasing a variety of tastes while staying within a budget?
BM: Entertaining is something that I wish I could do more of, but unfortunately I live in a one room apartment with no dining space (ironic, right?). But I think it’s very important to eat communally and definitely think it can be done on a budget. Many traditional recipes from around the world—soup, stew, paella, jambalaya or red beans and rice—are designed to feed a lot of people for very little money. That’s how most of the world eats, and I think that concept has kind of gotten lost in our culture. Hopefully that trend will return!
SC: Personally, what are your favorite resources for budget-savvy tips and inspiration?
BM: The Internet is such a wealth of information! I love browsing Pinterest for ideas. Sometimes I don’t even have to click through—just seeing a picture will spark an idea or give me an “a-ha!” moment. For all things kitchen-related and group think message boards, I love websites like TheKitchn.com or SeriousEats.com. And blogs, let’s not forget about the blogs. You can entertain yourself for days just with blogs. There are too many to list!
Read more from Beth at budgetbytes.com.