The Five-Dollar Dinner: It's Possible...And Good
By Kelsey Miller & Lexi Nisita, Refinery29
It happens every year. We hit the perfect storm of holiday travel, gift shopping, and suddenly everyone gets engaged. Everything costs money. Oh, and it's your mom's birthday. And, rent is due. In the next month we'll spend more cash than any other time of year - and somehow, we still have to eat. Realizing that a person cannot live on party snacks alone (we tried that once; it was a very bloated season), we challenged ourselves to come up with some real meals we could make on the cheap. We're not talking about microwave meals or basic, bland staples either. We wanted solid, healthy, sustaining dinners that would carry us through the season feeling healthy, satisfied, and not so poor.
Turns out, it wasn't so challenging after all. If you shop just a little smarter, and think outside the microwave you can come up with some great stuff. We asked the pros for tips on how to up our grocery-store game and then whipped up four fabulous dinners, each with a net cost of $5 or less per serving. All of these recipes met the cheap challenge at the supermarket and taste test on the dinner table. These are your holiday season lifesavers, in more ways than one. Please, put down the menu and back out of the drive-thru. There's a better way.
To help us get started, we reached out to Cooking Matters for their tips on how to shop smarter, and keep our kitchen well stocked on the cheap. This great organization pairs chefs with low-income families to help them cook healthy, delicious meals on a budget. Never mind Seamless, you're probably losing thousands every year on wasted groceries. Sounds extreme, but when we hit the supermarket with the Cooking Matters team we learned a lot about buying and storing food that had simply never occurred to us before. Here are 10 (ridiculously simple) steps to help you shop, eat, and store your food smarter.
1. It all starts with the cart
Wasting less food begins at the grocery store. Live by the motto, "Buy what you need, and eat what you buy." Always have a plan and a list before going grocery shopping. Check your pantry and fridge before you head to the store to make sure you're buying what you really need.
2. Buy fresh produce a week at a time
Buy in bulk only if you will use them before they go bad. If you are able to get to the grocery store weekly, buy only enough fresh produce to last that week.
3. Cook with canned and frozen fruits and vegetables
They can be a good solution if you aren't sure you'll be able to use up fresh foods before they go bad. Bonus: They are often more affordable than fresh and can be even more nutritious.
4. Make friends with the freezer
Freeze bread when it won't be used right away, or if you have some left over from a meal (bread can be stored in a freezer for up to 6 months). Freeze leftover vegetables for use in later soups or stir fries. Chop and store fresh fruits in freezer to use for fruit smoothies.
5. Use up produce before it goes bad
Combine fruits into a fruit salad or top cereal with sliced fruit. Cook berries, apples, or pears into a tasty crisp or crumble. Use overripe fruit in muffins, breads, or pancakes. Add vegetables to soups, stews, casseroles, pastas, sauces, or omelets. Combine vegetables and a little salad dressing for a side dish or snack.
6. Store fresh herbs well To help them last longer, wrap the stems in damp paper towels. Store in a plastic bag in the produce bin of your fridge. Still not able to use up all your fresh herbs before they go bad? Chop them up and throw them in the freezer. Try freezing them in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, remove the cubes and place them in a freezer-safe bag. This way you can pull out just what you need the next time you cook.
7. Transform leftovers into a new meal
Left over mashed potatoes can become a hearty soup by combining them with stock, a splash of vinegar, onions, carrots and any other veggies you have on hand.
8. Fill your pantry with flavor
Vinegars and other condiments, like Dijon mustard, are great for quick, homemade salad dressings. Or use them to make a flavorful marinade for proteins or vegetables. Apple cider, red wine, rice, and balsamic vinegars are all good options. Keep the dried herbs and spices you use often on hand. Use to add taste in place of extra salt or fat.
9. Don't forget fish
Another item you may not think of buying canned is fish. But canned fish is a great secret for getting more heart-healthy fish into your diet in an affordable way. Use canned tuna or salmon to add protein to salads, casseroles, and pastas.
Canned or dried beans add bulk to soups, salads, and pastas. Swap in beans in place of half the meat in tacos or other dishes. They are less expensive and lower in saturated fats. Look for low-sodium or no salt added when buying canned.
Click through above for the recipes!