Tag Archives: cheap meal ideas

Best Black Bean Soup

My whole life up to this point, I have thought “Bean soup? Why would anyone just eat pureed beans?” I’ve read dozens of black bean soup recipes and thought either that it sounded way too simple, so how could it possibly be tasty, or that it was too complex because “toast your cumin seeds lightly  until fragrant and then grind in a spice grinder”; ain’t nobody got time for that.

But then one day, I had a big batch of fresh slow cooker black beans and several jars of slow cooker chicken stock in the refrigerator at the same time. And I thought to myself, self, broth based soups are very good for you and low in calories, and so are black beans.

Why not give it a try?

Lo and behold, with some very simple staple spices, I put together a black bean soup that was out-of-this-world tasty. You can probably pull this together in minutes at any time with what you already have in your home. It would also be very easy to adapt to a slow cooker, just add everything and cook on low for a few hours. Additionally, it would freeze beautifully to be enjoyed at a later date.

I wolfed down half a batch, felt guilty, checked the calorie count, and felt guilty no more, because the whole thing will cost you less than 1000 calories total. And it’s super filling because of all the fiber from the black beans, so you can easily get 3-4 bowls from this recipe.

I used chicken stock that I made in the slow cooker from a whole chicken carcass. I recommend using homemade because you can control the amount of sodium, or add extra flavors you like such as bay leaves, lemon juice, or jalapenos to the broth while it cooks. If you want to keep it vegetarian, just make vegetable broth by putting a bunch of veggies in a slow cooker with some water for hours, and then strain it.

I also usually add a can of stewed whole tomatoes to my broth, and I loved that one tomato got added into this broth. I think it adds a nice layer of flavor, but your black bean soup won’t suffer without it. Feel free to leave that part out, or add more based on your taste buds.

This recipe makes a little more than a liter of soup, enough for 3-4 good sized bowls with some chunky bread and/or a salad on the side, or two really hearty meals. It takes approximately 10 minutes total, which does not include cooking time for the beans themselves or the chicken stock if you make that as well.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups cooked black beans^
  • 2 cups chicken stock*
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp dried chopped onion
  • Optional: 1 whole tomato, quartered
  • Optional: 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Step 1: If cooking your own beans, soak them at least 8 hours, then cook them on low overnight or over 6-8 hours, and drain. If using canned beans, drain 2 cans but don’t rinse. Add the vegetable or chicken stock and the spices to your beans in a large bowl.

Step 2: Use an immersion blender or an upright blender to blend the soup to your desired thickness. I enjoy a few beans left whole, so I just pulsed it several times, but you can also blend the crap out of it until totally homogenized.

And that’s all there is to it! Since I regularly cook up large batches of dried beans on the weekend, I think this will become a standby recipe in my repertoire. It is super healthy, low calorie, very filling and crazy cheap.

Price Breakdown

Black beans: $8.84 for 12 lbs
2 cups dried = ~.66lb = 4 cups cooked
$8.82/lb /12 lb * 0.66 lb = $0.48

Chicken stock: I consider it free because most people throw away the carcass after eating the meat. But if we consider the cost of the whole chicken just to make stock: $3.61 + maybe $2 of other ingredients (1 jalapeno, 1 can tomatoes, 1 onion, spices) = $5.61
This makes approximately 1 gallon stock, 1 cup = $5.61/16 = $0.35

Onion: $5.98 for about 96 tbsp
1 tbsp = $5.98/96 = $0.06

Garlic powder: $8.94 for about 96 tbsp
1 tbsp = $8.94/96 = $0.09

Whole chicken 5.47 lb 3.61
12lb Black beans 8.84
Minced onion 5.98
Garlic powder 8.94

 

Total: 0.48 + 0.35 + 0.06 + 0.09 = $0.98! Total!

Therefore, even if you only get 2 bowls, that’s $0.49 per serving. Not too shabby at all.

^You can use 2 cans of black beans, drained but not rinsed, if you don’t want to make them from dried.

*You can also used canned or boxes of chicken stock if you don’t want to make your own, or use vegetable stock, to keep it vegetarian/vegan.

 

Best Black Bean Soup

Yield: 4

Best Black Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cooked black beans
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 whole roma tomato, quartered
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp dried chopped onion
  • Optional: 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. If cooking your own beans, soak them at least 8 hours, then cook them on low overnight or over 6-8 hours, and drain. If using canned beans, drain 2 cans but don't rinse. Add the chicken stock and the spices to your beans in a large bowl.
  2. Use an immersion blender or an upright blender to blend the soup to your desired thickness. I enjoy a few beans left whole, so I just pulsed it several times, but you can also blend the crap out of it until totally homogenized. 
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My Favorite One Dollar Lunch

When I’m not meal prepping mason jar salads or bringing in leftovers, I am usually rotating through a small handful of standby recipes for lunch. These include things like my salmon salad, classic PB&J, chicken salad, and tuna salad.

On our journey to save more and spend less so we can trade our money now for time later in life, one of our top strategies is to reduce spending in all areas of life. This means buying less home than we could “afford”, driving older model cars with good mileage, avoiding unnecessary “beauty” products, and many other small savings strategies.

In America, according to CNBC, our average yearly spending on alcohol has slightly decreased from $575 in 2004 to $463 in 2014, likewise food spending has decreased from $7,245 in 2004 to $6,759 in 2014. This is due partly to rising costs of education, and people are spending more on housing and entertainment.

This is not necessarily a good thing. There are so many factors that go into food prices, including locality, seasonality, processing and packaging, distribution and supply chains, how far the food travels to you, the international prices of commodities, and more. Sometimes, cheap price = cheap ingredients, and your health will pay. Sometimes, you get a great deal at the farmers market because they don’t want to lug home a hundred baskets of potatoes.

One of the strategies we are adopting towards food (this blog is half about money and half about food after all) is the $1 per meal strategy. Essentially, if you use smart grocery purchasing strategies and employ a meal plan, eat your leftovers and rotate food to avoid spoilage, it is possible and even easy to average $1 per meal per person over the course of a week or month.

Check out these article for more inspiration on the $1 strategy.

Using the ‘$1 Per Meal’ Strategy to Save Big Time on Food Costs

How to Eat on Less Than $1.00/meal

Some days, the meals will be more like $5 each, and some days a meal might cost a few pennies. But if you focus on an in-season, whole food, mostly plant based diet, this is definitely doable. Dried beans are quite cheap per pound, as are most whole grains like brown rice, millet, oats, or quinoa. Making your own staples like biscuits, bread, and pizza dough costs maybe $1 compared to double, triple, or more at the store.

Shop the sales at your store, or visit farmers markets towards closing time to scoop up bargains. Grow your own food, or trade services with someone who does. Try the store brands rather than being brand loyal. Use coupons, but only on things you would buy normally. Give frozen fruits and vegetables a try, they are basically as nutritionally sound as fresh.

Your Wallet Will Thank You

If you can average your meals out to $1 per month, 3 meals per day, 30 days per week, that is an average monthly spending of just $90! Compare that to that average per adult spending of $563, and you are saving yourself almost $475 per month, or $5680 per year!

Your Health Will Thank You

Many studies show over and over again the health benefits to eating vegetarian or vegan meals. Even if it is only one day, or one meal per week. Cutting meat and/or dairy will take a huge chunk out of your grocery bill (though maybe that trend is reversing), and you can only benefit from eating more beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Another way to keep the price per meal down is to limit portions to reasonable sizes (which we are SO bad at estimating!) and eating properly sized portions of food has scores of health benefits too.

The Planet Will Thank You

Eating a plant-based diet is much easier on the planet, because it takes far less land and water to grow an acre of corn, soybeans, squash, or lettuce than it does to feed several dozen acres worth of produce to an animal which we will then eat. Animals are pretty inefficient at using plant calories to produce muscle.

And the protein levels in legumes versus meat is pretty comparable. A 3 oz serving of chicken has about 21 grams of protein, which is the same amount found in:

  • 1.5 cups chickpeas
  • 1 cup + 3 tbsp lentils
  • 1 1/3 cup black beans

At the American average of 185 pounds of meat per year, just having one meatless meal per week could cut meat consumption by about 26 pounds per person per year. Imagine all the land and water saved, and the greenhouse gas emissions no longer emitted.

The journal Frontiers in Nutrition did a study in 2015 which concluded that  a diet that is vegetarian five days a week and includes meat just two days a week would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and water and land use by about 45 percent.

Oh also, for those who believe Paleo is all about bacon, our ancestors were probably mostly vegetarian. Just sayin.

Get to the Recipe!

Okay okay, all this to say that I’ve been trying to find ways to reduce meal costs but also to center my diet around whole plant based foods. This is the dirt-cheapest but most delicious recipe I’ve found. Yes, it is “beans and rice”, yes you can roll your eyes and say “oh classic frugal foodie starving themselves”, but I dare you to try it. Just try it, once a week, and see how you feel. Change it up a little, add some bouillon to make the rice tasty, add some frozen veggies to mix it up, pour on some salsa or hot sauce. But give it a fair chance.

Black beans: $2.49/ 2 lb
I usually cook 1-2 cups of beans at a time, and they roughly double in size. One cup of dried beans is about 1/2 pound, so let’s say $1.25. Then that makes 2 cups of cooked beans, and one serving is about one cup. So each 1 cup cooked beans = $0.63

Brown Rice: $2.99 / 3 lb
I also cook 1-2 cups at a time in my rice cooker, and this definitely puffs up to 2-3 times the size. To keep it simple and over-estimate lets just say that one cup dry rice is about 1/2 pound, so $0.50. One cup dry = 2 cups cooked, one cup cooked is a serving = $0.25

Salsa: $1.87 / 16 oz
I only use one or two tablespoons, just enough for some extra flavor. Let’s just say 1 oz per serving, so $0.12

Sometimes I’ll also sprinkle some salt on top from a tiny jar I keep in my desk drawer. The tiny bottle was a gift, so I’ll consider that $0. For my work lunches, I typically bring in 2-4 days’ worth at a time, and take each day’s portion from a larger container I leave in the office refrigerator. The calculations for one serving comes out to exactly one dollar!

That’s it! You can of course get fancy from here, adding spices to the beans like bay leave, pepper, cumin or adding chopped veggies like onions and peppers, or sprinkling shredded cheddar or avocado on top. It’s up to you to decide what tastes you cannot live without, but I find that the simplicity is perfect.

You can get the costs even lower by purchasing the rice and beans in larger volumes, rather than a few pounds at a time, or buying only when they are on sale. The cost will of course go up per serving if you add in cheese, other spices, or vegetables.

If you are concerned about the ‘lack of veggies’, the best option would be to add a cup or so from your favorite frozen vegetable. For example, a peppers and onion mix, or “California blend” can add fiber and nutrients to about 4-5 servings and make it even more filling. You could also buy a large container of spinach or mixed lettuce and have a salad on the side or serve the rice and beans over the greens.

 

Tell me, what’s your favorite $1 or less meal? Have you tried “Meatless Mondays”, or are you full vegetarian? Share your successes and questions in the comments!

Frank-n-Beans Macaroni

 

For a cheap but filling meal, it’s hard to beat boxed macaroni & cheese. Ramen is really the only other college-type staple that comes to mind, and I’ve shown many ways you can jazz up that simple steaming bowl of chickeny salt water.

While I’m all for fancy-schmancy six-cheese homemade mac, and love health-ifying with butternut squash puree or acorn squash, sometimes you just crave that classic boxed taste. But if you’ve eaten it way too often, or just like some variety, I’ve got just the thing. Consider this recipe to be the even-more-broke cousin of my famous chili mac recipe.

If you look for a good sale, you can get store-brand mac n cheese for about 25-35 cents, hot dogs are on sale often for $1 per pack of eight, and beans, especially dried, are always affordable. It is likely you can create two servings or one huge serving for under $1. And with only three ingredients, there is just no excuse to not try it, no matter what your level of cooking knowledge (or lack thereof).

Ingredients:

  • 1 hot dog
  • 1/2 cup beans (dry cooked, or canned)
  • 1 box macaroni & cheese
  • Optional: butter, milk (for mac n cheese)

IMG_6602

Step 1: If using dried beans, bring 1 cup beans per 2 cups water to a boil, and simmer 2-4 hours, until tender. If using canned, simply drain and rinse. Cook the hot dog by either boiling for 10 minutes, grilling it, or microwaving for 1 minute 45 seconds.

IMG_6603

Step 2: Boil the macaroni, following directions on the box. Cut the hot dog into slices, drain the macaroni. If using butter or milk in your mac, add those as well as the beans and hot dog. Mix together and enjoy!