How to Stick to a Weekly $40 Dinner Budget

I live in Canada, and because our dollar is currently sinking in comparison to the US dollar, many of my fellow Canadians are forced to strike the cauliflowers and cucumbers right off their shopping lists. (To say nothing of my dear compatriots who live far north, where a sack of flour can cost as much as $60.)

I suspect, however, that the struggle between affordable and adequate nutrition is something more global. We might abandon fruits and vegetables altogether in order to make room for the centrepiece of our meals: the meat. After all, we need our protein, right? Well, there might be more to it than that.

I’ve made a list of the ways that help keep my weekly dinners under $40. I’ve also recently had my blood tested, and my vitamin and mineral levels, my cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and even my blood pressure have greatly improved since before I started saving money. These are the simple strategies I keep in mind.

1. Make a List and a Plan

Before I head out to grab my week’s worth of groceries, I sit down and make a plan so I don’t overbuy or end up with eight litres of Dr. Pepper. Usually, the process of making this list takes between twenty minutes to half an hour. I sometimes browse the cookbooks I have on hand, but more often than not, I end up on my favourite websites: websites that offer straightforward, healthful, quick, and inexpensive recipes. Some of my favourites include Oh She GlowsThe Post Punk KitchenThug Kitchen (warning for casual swearing), Vegan Sandra, and Happy Herbivore. Between these websites alone, there are hundreds of uncomplicated, tasty recipes that ask for easy-to-find ingredients.

A typical week of meals for me might include a combination of a stir fry with edamame beans (soy beans), a tomato pasta dish, a hearty soup, roasted vegetables and rice, or chilli. I usually start by cooking the stir fry, pastas, and roast veggies types of dishes first, so I can use all of the leftover vegetables in my soup. And this is simple: I toss the half onion, the almost-limp celery, a carrot, a potato or a yam, and literally whatever other veggie I have on hand into a pot of water with some dried red lentils. I turn the heat to medium-high and forget about it for half an hour.

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The gang’s all here.

2. Forget Pre-Packaged Foods

Am I the only one who spent my adolescence eating whole boxes of Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese, only to flip the blue box over and discover that I was supposedly eating four portions of the stuff? There was something notoriously un-filling about it. And this seems to be the case with many pre-packaged fares. Those frozen Hungry Man dinners left me feeling paradoxically hungry and sluggish. And this isn’t to shame anyone who consumes these foods. Sometimes it really is the best option available, and that’s okay. But often, we find ourselves getting in a rut, buying the same lacklustre (expensive) products every week  simply out of habit, unaware that making a change could be so easy.

If it’s an issue of convenience, zapping something in the microwave for ten minutes seems like an adequate solution. But those frozen dinners add up in cost. Buying a bag of dried lentils or split peas (which contain a vast amount of protein, by the way), and some vegetables will last a lot longer, and will take about twenty minutes more to prepare. They will also potentially provide you with more energy, instead of delivering that sluggish feeling that makes one want to collide with the nearest armchair.

The environmental aspect is also hard to ignore. All of that pre-packaged food has, well, so much packaging. The apartment I’m living in doesn’t have a compost or a recycling area, so we need either to sneak our recycling to other places, or be very mindful of the trash we produce.

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I like food that comes with its own packaging.

3. Cook in Batches

My partner, Matt, always makes fun of me because I cook as if I’m feeding the whole town. I think it’s hereditary. My dad does the same, even when he only had to feed me and my sister. But his mom had eight kids, so she really did have to cook for a small village. As it turns out, this isn’t a bad reflex to have.

I give myself some much-needed days off kitchen duty by cooking in batches and eating the leftovers the next day. This way, I only cook about four meals all week, but we have healthy food every day. Since each meal takes roughly half an hour to prepare, this means I only spend about 2 hours per week, or 1% of my week, cooking. This leaves me plenty of time to ponder my existential dread.

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I swear these beans are magic.

4. Be Sale Savvy 

I’m not talking about extreme coupon-ing here, because what better way to negate all of the time we’ve just saved in the kitchen? This is just about taking notice of what might be on sale in your particular grocery stores. It also helps if you can extort a relative who works in a grocery store to tell you about upcoming deals. (Just kidding, my sister works in a local chain and she basically boasts about the crazy sales coming up. She once showed up with six cartons of coconut ice cream on sale for $3.99. If you know someone in grocery, you’ll know about the deals.)

Another option is to sign up for community food boxes. These programs run under different names, but for me, both here and in Montreal, it was called The Good Food Box (or Bonne Boîte, Bonne Bouffe, to be bilingual). This is basically a program that requires a payment between $7 to $16, either bi-weekly or monthly, for fresh, usually local produce. I’ve gotten lettuce, onions, potatoes, bananas, grapes, carrots, leeks, squash, beets, and more in my boxes. It’s a good way to overcome food deserts, where the nearest grocery store might be inconveniently far away.

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The downside: food boxes don’t get delivered. 

5. Forget the Meat and Dairy

Oh, yeah. You may have noticed something missing in this list. All of this talk of vegetables, beans, and lentils took the focus away from those extra-lean chicken breasts. Well, to be honest, I find meat and dairy to be the most costly aspects of any meal. I’ve mentioned my partner, Matt, before. (He’s the one who makes fun of me for my massive-scale cooking operations, remember?) Matt loves his chicken wings, his buddy burgers, and his nachos. And he still eats these things sometimes. (Hey, I’m not the boss of anyone.) But even he has been impressed by how much money we save when we drop those chicken breasts, the bricks of cheese, the containers of yogurt, the steaks, and the ground beef from our shopping list. And according to him, the food I make without these things still tastes good. (Go ahead and ask him to be sure, though. There is the off chance he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.)

“But what about the protein?” is the question I most often hear when people discover I don’t eat meat or dairy. Luckily, in reality our foods aren’t divided by macro-nutrients. That is to say, if we eat whole foods, we don’t really have one thing that’s just carbs, one thing that’s just fats, and one thing that’s just protein. Whole foods contain a mix of everything. For instance, brown rice gives a lot of carbs and a lot of protein. Even steak will give us plenty of fat with that helping of protein (not to mention cholesterol). Oh, and speaking of cholesterol, plant-based foods don’t have any. You’ll only ever find cholesterol in foods that contain something from an animal. You can gorge yourself on chilli and rice and never eat a bit of cholesterol. So by eating a varied diet filled with different nuts, grains, seeds, vegetables, and fruits, we can get all of the protein we need. It’s a good way of getting our greens both on our plates and in our wallets.

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I like my animals for cuddling purposes, anyway.

If you have any questions eating plant-based foods, making the switch to plant-based foods, or thoughts about how to save money on groceries, feel free to leave a comment, or contact me by email at dualmindguides@gmail.com. Happy eating.