The Cost of Keeping Our Bellies Full

I was a little iffy about writing this post since I struggle with an eating disorder and often try to avoid the subject of food, but this topic is definitely worth discussing and I could use some new ideas.

Let me start by reiterating something I’ve learned in recovery – there are no good or bad foods. It’s just important to eat a variety to get what you need. This is something I’m trying to work on, but it’s difficult when money is tight.

Is it even possible to spend less than 200 dollars on your weekly grocery trip anymore? Many weeks we spend more than that.

What’s worse is my husband and I don’t like to cook. I tried so hard to cook after I left treatment, but it’s just not something I’m into. Maybe I’m a little lazy but I don’t like the process or hassle, and I definitely don’t like the pile of dirty dishes after dinner. Sometimes I’ll cook simple things like spaghetti, a roast in the crockpot, or hot dogs. I think one of my favorite simple meals to make is taco salad. 

This means my husband and I depend a lot on take-out and delivery. Pizza once a week. We are also familiar faces at the nearby Chinese restaurant and Subway. As much as I want to eat a variety, unfortunately, when we’re struggling, fast food is the cheaper option. I know there’s nothing wrong with eating fast food, but when choices are limited, it can get old pretty quickly. 

The price of different foods leaves me flabbergasted. There’s a grocery store next to the office where I work, and I walk over there every day to grab something to drink. I often buy a twenty-four-ounce bottle of Faygo pop for just a dollar, but when I want to switch it up with flavored sparkling water, it comes in a much smaller fancy glass bottle and is nearly three dollars. I don’t understand why water is more expensive than pop and why does it have to come in a fancy bottle? What’s up with that?

Even produce is expensive when we go to Kroger. Bananas and grapes for my daughter’s lunch box. Romaine, basil, carrots, and yellow bell peppers for our two guinea pigs, Nibbles and Nugget. (Have you ever had a guinea pig? They are eating and pooping machines!) Watermelon and sweet corn are definitely family favorites when they’re in season. But why does it cost so much?

It’s no secret that people struggle where we live. In desperate times, my husband and I have had to visit the food pantry at our daughter’s school. The food at the pantry isn’t the most appetizing but it doesn’t matter. You do what you gotta do and I am grateful for their help. This is very common where we live. Even the school’s parent’s page on Facebook lists locations and times of local food pantries. I love this community because maybe we’re struggling, but we also help each other out.

My daughter’s school offers free breakfast, most of the kids qualify for free or reduced school lunches, and after school kids can go to the library a block away from the school and get a free sandwich, fruit, and milk for dinner. The library offers food to every single kid who walks in – no questions asked.

My daughter is a picky eater and we always pack her lunch, and when we can we send her to school with extra food – extra packs of Goldfish and fruit snacks and an extra applesauce – so she can give it to her friends if they want it or need it.

With the cost of food where it is, do you guys have any money-saving tips or very simple, cheap meal ideas to share? I’m sure the real solution is to overthrow the capitalist pigs that run this country, but does anyone have any ideas in the meantime?

A little health update…I am on a new medication and there is now a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like a fog has been lifted and for the first time in a few weeks, I have a clear head. I am not 100 percent yet, but I’m getting there. I will post more about it soon.


  1. brightmoon says

    They don’t even sell family packs of chicken and hamburger meat in my neighborhood any more. I hate that because I hate to go shopping. I’d rather buy a pack with 20 pieces of chicken or other meats and separate it into meals when I get home before I freeze it. I microwave damn near everything because I hate to cook . 2 hamburgers or chicken thighs. takes less than 10 minutes in the microwave . I’ve made macaroni and cheese ( the real down home stuff not that Kraft crap) in the microwave. You can roast and boil most things and it’s faster.( I still have to go to Popeyes for fried chicken )

  2. brightmoon says

    I’ve been also looking into eating “ weeds” . I was shocked to find out that common garden weeds like purslane , lambs quarters and mugwort are edible . Poke salad is too with a caution. Purslane sorta tastes like spinach with a hint of sourness. It grows in my houseplants so I didn’t have much problem tasting it. The others I haven’t tried yet because we have too many dogs in my neighborhood and they haven’t volunteered in my houseplants.
    Make sure you know EXACTLY what you’re eating and sometimes when it’s safe to eat. Some weeds can be eaten when young but are a little toxic when older( poke salad definitely falls here)

  3. Trickster Goddess says

    I love putting the crockpot on slow cook before heading out in the morning then coming home on a cold winter evening and opening the door to the smell of a delicious hot dinner ready to eat.

  4. Katydid says

    Ashes, when you’re struggling, everything just seems so hard. I’m so glad you’ve found something that’s starting to work and I sincerely hope as your levels balance, things will seem easier.

    My biggest piece of advice is, if your struggling with affording food, stay away from fast food. It’s expensive and terrible for your physical and mental health. I know, easy to type on a keyboard, right?

    You mentioned a crock pot–you can use yours to make lots and lots of healthy meals that are so much healthier and cheaper than fast food. Check online or in your local library for recipe books and spend an hour or two considering what meals you might like, that can last you more than one meal. For example, ground beef can be used to make hamburgers on the stove, but chili and/or homemade spaghetti sauce bolognese in the crockpot.

    Another easy way to stretch the budget is by buying loss-leaders like a whole rotisserie chicken–my local supermarket sells one for $5, when you couldn’t even buy a raw chicken for that. Something I do is as soon as I get it home, I separate it into different meals and collect every shred of it, then toss the carcass into the crockpot with some veggie scraps and water to make chicken stock for later. For example: Day 1 is chicken with a bag of frozen veggies, steamed in the microwave. Day 2: the bigger slices of chicken with a green salad. Day 3: chicken noodle soup using the broth, chicken shreds, and chicken stock you just made. Day 4: chicken salad with the remains of the shreds, with a side of steamed vegetables. None of those meals take very long to put together, they’re nutritionally balanced, and they offer variety.

    Keep your chin up–you’re so resilient, I know you’ve got this!

  5. Bruce says

    I agree that using the crock pot is both healthier and more cost effective than anything fast or ready to eat.
    The short answer is that sugar, starch, etc are the most profitable to the store, and the worst for people’s health.
    If your family can invest like $90 in an Instant Pot, it is like a modern pressure cooker version of a crock pot. But because it keeps the pressure, it keeps the moisture, so it cooks foods much faster and keeps them from burning or drying out. So you can buy big roasts at a cheap price per pound, cook them quickly, then eat them over several meals. I start with any grease or oil in the bottom, put in the meat, add some frozen vegetables, and cook. No stirring, no attention needed while cooking at all. Then eat. Cleanup is easy. And it is energy efficient. Good luck.

  6. Some Old Programmer says

    I empathize with the struggle to find a balance for a family meal. I use a couple of tactics for our family of four (16yo twins, so food goes fast). If I’m out of time or interest, I go with something simple that shouldn’t create a kitchen disaster, like grilled cheese sandwiches. Slightly more ambitious, pancakes or waffles. Another tactic is to make a bit of a mess, but with leftovers that will last for days, e.g. spaghetti and pasta, or a roasted chicken and rice. Of course YYMV, but if you can find some baseline meals your family likes, it’s very helpful.

  7. says

    I definitely don’t like the pile of dirty dishes after dinner

    Sounds like you want one-pot meals. You can get very far with stews and soups. I personally recommend kitchari (various spellings, if you’re googling). It’s the first Indian recipe I ever learned and it’s super-simple. At its most basic, it’s just rice, dahl, and seasoning. Throw it all in a pot with some water, cook, and you’re done. Don’t be intimidated by specific recipes, it’s very forgiving. You can add almost any veggies or spices you have handy and the traditional ghee can be replaced by oil or butter with no trouble. I haven’t yet found something that doesn’t work with it.

    I have to second the chicken broth approach. You can get so much more out of a chicken than just the meat. Boil off the leftover bones and skin and you’ll have a great stock. Let the stock cool, skim off the fat, and you can turn any random pile of veggies into a banquet.

    Also, home-made bread is way easier than some people let on. Eat the bread fresh when it’s made and then use the leftovers to soak up the stews, soups, or other dishes. Delicious and cheap.
    Here’s a quick intro with some variations. In my experience, the basic recipe doesn’t change much. The same proportions will give you a standard loaf, a round bread, long baguettes, or small dinner rolls. They might not be perfect, but you’ll still end up with something at least as good as what will cost you twice as much in the store. You can add a handful of the cheapest seeds available for extra nutrition and variation. Personally, I like sunflower and flax.

    Honestly, I’ve never been able to buy bread with as nice a crust as what I baked myself after just a bit of practice. As in: Six months ago, I had barely baked a loaf of bread in my life and now I’m consistently making something better than I can buy in any store within a mile radius.

    These are the approaches I’ve used for my own cost-saving measures. Hope it helps.

  8. SailorStar says

    The Standard American Diet is carbs, carbs, carbs–most of them empty calories. A lot of people feel bloated and foggy-headed when they have too many carbs. Foods you cook yourself are almost always more nutritious. Frozen vegetables are your friend–they were picked and frozen near peak ripeness, keep in the freezer for months, and they’re often on sale in the supermarket. As Bruce pointed out, chicken or beef broth made in the crockpot add flavor and variety to different vegetable side dishes so it doesn’t feel like you’re eating the same old thing every day. A little bit of butter can mellow out cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower for picky eaters. Find a meat that your family enjoys, and think of different ways to cook once, serve leftovers.

  9. Marissa van Eck says

    I do have one, yes: Instant Pot.

    The Instant Pot will pay for itself inside of a month, because it lets you buy bulk staples (steel-cut oats, dry beans, pearl barley, etc) and turn them into delicious meals with essentially no effort beyond putting things in it, turning it on, sealing it, and waiting. You can also make bone broths amazingly quickly in it. Chicken bones take only an hour, beef or pork 90-120 minutes.

  10. tbrandt says

    Fruits and vegetables can be very expensive at supermarkets. There may be specialty produce shops that are much cheaper, depending on where you live. Produce Junction is one in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware; they are typically about half the price of a grocery store. Asian supermarkets can also have inexpensive produce. Spices can also be outrageous but are often a fraction of the price in an ethnic foods aisle compared to the spice aisle (and are often very cheap at an Asian grocery store).

    One inexpensive crock pot thing I like to cook is pulled pork. You can buy about 6-8 pounds of pork butt (should be around $3 a pound, and you can wait for a sale), cube it, and layer it with onions, salt, cumin, a little garlic, paprika, dried bay leaves, and the juice of one lime, and cook it on low for 10 hours. There will be a lot of liquid from the meat and the onions. You can portion it out in takeout containers and freeze the pork in the liquid; it keeps great and defrosts easily (take it out a day early). Then heat it on the stovetop to evaporate most of the liquid, pick out the bay leaves, and you have great pork for tacos. Soft corn tortillas can also be very cheap (about $2 for 30 where I am) and can be warmed in the microwave with a damp towel on top or in a covered container. Add in a can of refried beans and you have pretty good tacos.

  11. Katydid says

    @tbrandt has great advice to shop at different stores. For example, fruits and veggies are often cheapest at ethnic markets. There’s an Asian market near me that has a wide variety of foods–including noodles–cheaper than the supermarket. The Hispanic markets have lemons and limes cheaper than the supermarket, and they often have foods out of season for us, but in-season for South America. Middle Eastern markets are great places to pick up spices and coconut milk and even desserts. You’re near a city, so you should have a lot of options, plus it’s fun to experience how different cultures cook.

  12. Jazzlet says

    Slow cooking in a crockpot or similar as mentioned is useful and cheap – you don’t want the more expensive cuts of meat, you want ones that benefit from the low and slow approach. But another thing is how many things can be cooked quickly and cheaply in the microwave, so do your pulled pork or whatever in the slow cooker, then pop frozen veg in the microwave. Frozen veg are nearly always fresher than even fresh veg, but if you can get good fresh veg locally they can be cooked in the microwave too, and are mostly all the better for it as no vitamins or minerals are washed out.

    But really you need to decide what you like to eat first of all, then you can work out ways of making that more cheaply. You can save a surprising amount by cooking several meals worth of eg pasta sauce in one go, and freezing what you don’t use immediately, this also means there is one lot of mess to clear up for several meals.

  13. VolcanoMan says

    I actually do have a solution that has helped me keep food costs down – investing in freezing capacity. I own two massive chest freezers, with a combined internal storage area of slightly over 30 cubic feet. So I can buy ingredients in bulk at a place like Costco* (usually waiting until there’s a decent deal), split them up into individual recipe portions (e.g. I store chicken breasts by the 3’s), and leave them in the freezer until I need them. Granted, there is a limit to how long something can remain in the freezer before it starts to develop undesirable flavours, but in my experience, for meat it’s well over a year. And I’ve been doing this for butter ever since a pound of butter would be sold on sale for under $1.50, grabbing dozens of lbs and sticking them in the freezer (I’ve used 3+ year-old butter in many dishes over the years, without it ever developing weird flavours).

    But freezing store-bought ingredients as-is is just the beginning. I am in a fortunate position to have access to garden space, and I use it to grow some tomatoes, red bell peppers and chiles (however, if I didn’t have access to a garden plot, I would still get these ingredients from stores and farmers’ markets at a time of year when they are plentiful and cheap, so personal gardening is not necessary here**). Now, obviously you cannot eat 100+ lbs of tomatoes before they go rotten, so I roast most of them with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil (and a touch of salt), keeping them in the oven, cut-side down at a moderate temperature (350 °F/177 °C) for 3 to 4 hours, charring the skins and evaporating a lot of their water (the overall mass of the tomatoes decreases to about 45% of its starting total). These get turned into sauce with a crank-operated sieve (the crank turns a corkscrew which forces juice and pulp through the sieve while retaining skins and seeds…motorized versions are available too), and frozen in 500, 600 or 750 gram portions, to be used throughout the year in a plethora of recipes (anything from chili to manicotti to butter chicken…tomato sauce, without any other vegetables or meat, is incredibly versatile). Some years I get so many tomatoes that I end up making 15 to 20 kilos of sauce – I am currently using sauce I made in 2021, and the quality is nearly as high (95%) as it was the day I froze it. As for red bell peppers, I will use a few fresh, but the rest get oven-roasted, de-skinned, and frozen as well. And I dry some of the chiles, while freezing the rest whole.

    Finally, I generally make recipes in bulk…cooking on the weekend, and making a LOT of one of a varying cast of dishes which all provide me with 10 to 15 individual meals (most of my recipes have been scaled up in quantity to achieve this). Of these, I freeze half (if possible – I choose to cook things that usually CAN be frozen, but not everything freezes well), and spread the other half out over the lunches and suppers of the following week (interspersing them with sandwiches and other quick-to-make meals). For example, a few weeks ago, I made spaghetti Bolognese, and froze half of the meat sauce (noodles take almost no time to cook, so I just prepared what I was planning on eating that week). I took this 3X to work that week, and ate it 2X for supper as well. Fast forward to this past week, I pulled the remaining frozen part out, boiled some noodles, and used it for another few lunches and suppers. Cooking at scale like this has always enabled me to keep my costs down. And while you might not want to eat the same thing for 5 (or more) meals in a single week, if you’re always cooking on weekends and freezing at least half of what you cook, you will eventually have a diversity of home-made food in the freezer that enables you to not repeat meals too much (provided you individually-portion the food before freezing it…and you can usually do this without freezer bags, if you’re creative enough…if freezer bags are used though, they can still be re-used once or twice, which is what I do to limit my consumption of petroleum-based products).

    These are just my personal ways to keep costs down with my freezers (both of which are among the most energy efficient options, btw). The take-home message here is to do extra work when you have the time to spare to do that work, and buy extra food when that food is inexpensive. Make a plan on how you will go about converting food items bought in bulk to delicious meals, and then stick to it. Working at a larger scale will save you a LOT of time and money, but it requires a bit of discipline.

    *Costco can be a dangerous store for many people, due to their large selection of prepared foodstuffs (not all of which are healthy, and few of which are inexpensive). So I have to make sure that I’m not spending the money I am saving shopping there on these products. For me, Costco trips are generally made when 3 or 4 of the things I really like to cook with are on sale at the same time, and I limit my time in the store to ensure I am not distracted by their less-healthy prepared foods. Also, there are other stores which do not have a membership model that sell food in bulk, so Costco can be avoided if necessary.

    **And actually, while growing your own veg and fruit is a good way to ensure quality, it is not something that will generally save you money. For example, I’ve grown potatoes before (for 4 or 5 straight years actually), and at the end of the season, I generally end up with about $35-40 worth (that’s the full, out-of-season grocery store price based on purchasing 10 lb bags; in-season, it’s more like $25-30), after having spent around $30 on seed potatoes+fertilizer+water (not to mention the not-insubstantial time I invest in them).

  14. John Morales says

    Of all the things to skimp on when times are hard, food should be pretty much towards the end of the list. And healthier food should be prioritised.

    For me, there’s fancy cooking and then there’s regulation cooking.
    I try both, but then I’m retired. But cooking can be damn easy.

    I mean, toasting some sliced bread lightly, putting sliced cheese on top of the toast and grilling that for a couple of minutes is technically cooking.

    Slicing an apple or two into cubes, putting them in a microwave-proof container with some sugar and a bit of butter and some cinnamon and nuking them for a few minutes is also technically cooking. (mmm with ice-cream)

    That sort of thing.

    Can be cheap and healthy and relatively easy.
    And you know exactly what it is you’re eating.

    Sometimes, less of a hassle than actually going out.

    • John Morales says

      Re “Bananas and grapes for my daughter’s lunch box. Romaine, basil, carrots, and yellow bell peppers for our two guinea pigs, Nibbles and Nugget.”
      I do hope you and your family partake of the Romaine, basil, carrots, and yellow bell peppers too!

  15. Katydid says

    I agree with John Morales that cooking can be fancy or simple, and his examples of cheesy toast and cinnamon apples are great, inexpensive, and something your daughter can help with–that can be a creative, fun outlet for the two of you at the end of the day or on a weekend morning. There are also kids’ cookbooks (check your library or go online for examples) meant to be simple and pleasing. I remember when I was about 6 years old and scrambled two eggs with a little bit of milk and a dash or six of black pepper. Nothing ever tasted as good as those eggs because I had made them myself! Another plus, you’re spending time with your daughter and you’re both learning to follow a recipe together, and showing her that food is nothing to be afraid of.

    Also, don’t be afraid to include leftovers in your daughter’s lunch–if it’s something she helped cook, that’s even cooler and she can show her friends. I echo everyone’s suggestion to find something you like and cook a big batch, freeze some, and repurpose the rest as part of meals.

    You can make a game of sharing veggies with the guinea pigs. Split up the produce: a baby carrot for your daughter’s plate, then she puts one on the guinea pigs’ plate. She gives the guinea pigs’ plate to the guinea pigs and eats from her plate.

  16. ashes says

    I just have to share…

    Our friend told us about a really awesome fruit and veggie marker just across the state line. (We live in Ohio but our house is only a mile from Michigan.) We visited it yesterday and you would not believe all the food we got for only twenty bucks! We (as well as our guinea pigs) are very pleased!

    After reading my post, a relative gave us an Instant Pot that was gifted to them but never used. We’re excited to try it out.

    Also, we live in Toledo, right in the thick of it, and there are restaurants, markets, and businesses all around us. We discovered an Asian market right around the corner from our house. We have always been curious about it but have never visited. We plan on checking it out soon.

    Thank you all for your wonderful, wonderful, wonderful tips and suggestions! And so the journey begins…

  17. Jazzlet says

    It would be great if you came back to us with your experiences, good and bad, we can celebrate the good and may be able to offer suggestions to change the bad to good. I learnt to cook at my mother’s side, but my brothers didn’t and all of them taught themselves to cook well, mostly with the help of cookbooks and the occasional TV series, so it is possible! I also think that once you have a few more recipes under your belt you will feel more confident, and be able to make them with less mess, partly because you’ll know when there is simmering that can mostly be left to it’s own devices, meaning you can clean up as you go.

    • ashes says

      I am feeling a little better and I’ve been meaning to give you an update!

      I’ve tried a couple recipes with the Instant Pot and both turned out really well. One was chicken noodle soup. It was really cheap to make and there was so much! We couldn’t even finish all the leftovers.

      The second recipe was orange chicken and I think it was the best thing I’ve ever made! It was so good! It had a lot more ingredients and steps but it was delicious. I think I’m going to make it again this week. It didn’t make as much as the soup so maybe I can try to double the recipe so we have more leftovers.

      I really love the Instant Pot. I used my Crockpot last week, too. 🙂

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