“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” ~Jim Rohn
It’s 6 pm and you’re getting home from work. You’re exhausted, irritated, and hungry. It feels like lunch and breakfast occurred in an alternate universe and your stomach could go concave at any moment. This is a recipe for disaster and you know it, but you pass a cheap burger place on the way home and you can’t resist. You end up ordering a greasy dinner for yourself and eating it with your laptop balanced on your belly while you watch Game of Thrones. It isn’t a pretty sight.
Hopefully the above scenario doesn’t describe you, but it definitely describes me … and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
Eating healthy is especially challenging when you’re a perfect storm of almost broke and super busy. If you’re in the middle of job searching, working in an entry level position, working as an intern, or just live in a really expensive city, it will seem a lot easier to buy $1 pizza slices after work rather than cook a healthy meal — Unless you have the right knowledge about cheap, easy dishes that can be made in advance.
At some point you’ve probably heard the term “meal prep” which usually refers to the process of making one large dish that can be eaten throughout an entire week. The term gets tossed around in the blog community and in real life, but how many people are actually doing it? From my quick survey of the interns and young professionals I work with, not very many. Meal prepping and eating on the cheap seems so good in theory but few people want to do the research necessary to figure out how to do it. Well, as previously mentioned, I’m broke and busy, so I did the research for us all.
The first thing you need to know is that not all cheap foods are created equal and not all expensive foods are created equal. For example, if you’re looking to buy a cooking oil for meats and other items, you might feel inclined to reach for one of the cheaper options like a generic vegetable oil. This is actually the wrong choice, however, because a bottle of olive oil will do a better job flavoring your food and you can use it to make dressings for salads as well — say goodbye to overpriced, over-caloried Ranch. You also have to pay close attention to sales. Sometimes an item seems cheap (like an out-of-season fruit that has been placed on sale) but it actually still costs more than another option. You might reach for the sale item because it seemingly makes sense and then end up walking away from the register with a frown because your groceries were more expensive than you imagined as you were shopping. To fix this problem, remember to compare sale prices on fancy items to the regular prices on regular items. If strawberries are on sale for $3.50 but apples always cost $1.50 .. well, you can do the math.
Next, you should know that canned foods are not the enemy. We all know that canned foods are cheap, but most people don’t consider them healthy. However, you can often modify canned foods to be healthier than the nutrition label. For example, you can buy canned beans and rinse them and drain them in the sink to remove the excess salt for a healthy meat substitute when you can’t afford fresh, lean meats.
Lastly, you should know that some foods seem “fancy” but they’re actually cheaper than you think. Growing up, I always thought edamame was a special treat reserved for the girls who came to lunch swinging a Vera Bradley lunchbox that matched their monogrammed backpack. I was wrong. You can buy frozen edamame for the same price as a lot of frozen vegetables and toss them in salt for a healthy snack or a side dish without breaking the bank.
So once you have this information, you can start thinking about meal prep. If you want to really make the cheap life convenient, you’re going to have to learn to cook some basic meals in large quantities. This may seem daunting at first, but it’s really not so bad. To make things simple, think about your meals in terms of a base, a middle, and a top. Your base is the bulk of the meal that fills you up and it’s typically a grain (pasta, rice, tortillas, quinoa). Your middle is what makes your meal interesting and it’s typically fruit, veggies, meats/beans, and cheeses (cheap options include chicken or beef bought in bulk, broccoli, oranges, canned tuna, nuts, there’s tons of options!). Your top is usually a sauce or literal topping like guacamole or hummus and it’s typically the most expensive purchase of the three. When you shop, you should be buying your bottom in bulk, your middle on sale, and your top as a little luxury item. You can create all sorts of combos with your options that can translate into different meals throughout the week. For example, I can make a ton of pasta with chicken and alfredo sauce on my day off and turn some of it into a casserole later in the week by adding an extra middle or two and throwing it into the oven.
Of course, this guide is by no means comprehensive, but I’m mainly just trying to explain that eating on the cheap and meal prep isn’t as difficult as it may sound. If you’re looking for recipe ideas, there’s tons of sites available, and some of my favorites are here and here.
Good luck and happy (cheap) eating!