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.
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.
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.