I’m writing this post not because I’m an expert on the subject, but rather because I’ve become acutely aware of how difficult this is. Before my husband and I got married, we (I) rarely cooked for just the two of us over a long period of time. Most often, we were cooking for and with friends, family members, or, in my case, for 70-100 people in a ministry the year after high school. But now that we’ve moved into our apartment, gone are the days when we get to share most of our home-cooked meals with others. For now, it’s time for us to plan simple, healthy, budget-conscious meals for the busy weeks ahead.
I’m writing this also because I know we are not alone in this plight– many young (and sometimes not-so-young) singles or couples have to figure out how to eat well within a tight schedule and budget. And, if you care at all about the taste or source of your food (which we do), it adds an additional challenge. Sure, there are plenty of blogs out there about how to entertain with food and drink, how to buy grass-fed beef in bulk for your large family, and how to expand your culinary repertoire when your budget and time are unlimited. I love these blogs too and they are a great source of inspiration, but when it comes down to Monday night dinner, I can hardly order a frozen half-cow or settle for some olives and a Manhattan. Furthermore, if you are at all familiar with the perils of industrial farming and processed food– read anything by Michael Pollan if interested– you have grown extra wary of cheap meats, frozen meals and Wonderbread. We need some real, ethical, affordable, foodie-approved options.
So, what do I have to offer on the subject? Well, I’m working on it almost everyday. As I stumble upon easy, delicious, and healthy homemade recipes or strategies that work at a small scale and budget, I’ll be posting them on this blog. In the meantime, here are some principles to consider:
1. Don’t let others cook for you. By “others,” I mean corporations (frozen meals, instant meals, bottled dressings, etc.), and restaurants. Pre-packaged meals are EXPENSIVE at around $5+ each, for which price you can make a day’s worth of food on your own. And restaurants happily charge you for tossing some lettuce together, often with an unhealthy dose of sodium and high-fructose corn syrup. So learn to cook.
2. Get the basic tools. Just as you can’t go running without shoes, you also can’t cook without some basics in your arsenal. Most beginner cooks enjoy using a non-stick fry pan; a small stock or soup pot; colanders; rubber spatulas, ladles, wooden spoons, slotted spoons; a sharp knife and appropriate cutting board. Purchase high-quality tupperware to store your raw ingredients, weekly meals and leftovers. You can build your arsenal from here as needed.
3. Consider investing in some fixed costs. I know there are people out there who can cook a delicious, large amount of brown rice on the stove blindfolded, but most of us can’t! However, brown rice is versatile, healthy, and keeps well in the refrigerator for 5 days; we own a rice cooker that cooks everything from beans to oatmeal to quinoa at the push of a button. Need some leafy greens in your life but don’t feel like having salad everyday? Consider purchasing a good blender, and throw in some frozen fruit with your kale for a quick green juice. Good blenders can also make things like pesto, peanut butter, tomato sauce and blended soups. Another really wonderful tool is the slow-cooker. Ahh… brewing everything from soups and stews to sauces and broths, the slow-cooker integrates flavors and softens ingredients while you’re busy all day. Slow-cooked meals also keep wonderfully in the fridge, ready to be heated and served over rice or pasta throughout the week. There’s nothing more wonderful to come home to than a slow-cooked meal (except, perhaps, your spouse).
4. Let the meal planning begin! This is the fun part, and also perhaps the most difficult part. What should you cook and eat? How much time and money should you spend each week? How much of each raw ingredient should you buy at once? Is it even possible to eat a variety of foods when cooking for one or two?
All good questions, which I hope to answer in a few months’ time. Here are some suggestions to begin with:
- Prioritize your nutrition. Michael Pollan (who is clearly my current hero) says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Over the course of a month, assuming you’ve already acquired the short-term fixed-cost ingredients (e.g., salt, pepper, your favorite spices, cooking oils), your budget for ingredients might look like this: 50% fruits and vegetables; 50% carbs and proteins. Play with these numbers as you shop, but expect to pay as much for fresh or frozen fruits and veggies as you do for pretty much everything else. This will put prices into perspective.
- Start with the ingredients, then look for recipes. Some people daunt themselves with following recipes exactly, making every meal a certifiable dish from a recognizable cuisine. This often blows up their costs, and they end up purchasing things like saffron, caraway seeds, almond flour, Hungarian smoked paprika, or expensive out-of-season produce. Start with what’s in season and available to you, then integrate it into a recipe that calls for things you already have. Trial and error will help you determine the ingredients you can afford to skip. At the beginning, you can usually get away with just salt, fresh-ground pepper, garlic, and perhaps one or two of your favorite spices.
- Use your refrigerator and your microwave. Most people have more time on the weekends and less time during the week. So you may want to cook 2 or 3 dishes of vegetables and protein to store in the fridge, along with a pot of rice and a pot of pasta. For example: make a tupperware of bolognese sauce, a tupperware of chili verde, and a black bean stew. Each will go well with reheated brown rice or over some pasta. Add some sliced fruit or vegetables as sides to each meal, and you’ve got yourself covered for the week.
- Choose cheap, healthy proteins. Say goodbye to steak and Chilean seabass, unless your budget can take it (and even then, be cautious). Instead, buy high-quality protein that’s priced within your means. This could include: beans, eggs, lentils, organic/free-range chicken, non-GMO tofu, sustainable canned fish (these sardines are great), ethically raised ground beef or pork, quinoa, organic peanut butter, milk, healthy yogurt.
- Snack frugally. That five-dollar bag of chips or granola bars may seem like a drop in the bucket, but if your budget is really tight, it could mean a wasted meal or two. Five dollars can get you lots of rice, two cans of fish, nearly a pound of ethically-raised ground meat, a carton of eggs, or sometimes even two bunches of organic kale. As you learn to cook to your needs, you can figure out what kinds of homemade snacks you want to have on hand (e.g., hard-boiled eggs, bananas, homemade hummus, whole-wheat cookies).
Whew! The bottom line is, this quest for healthy, affordable, delicious home-cooked meals is not easy, especially in portions for one or two. But I believe it’s totally possible! I’m looking forward to figuring this out and sharing my secrets with you.