Quite Frankly: Summer Advice #3

Quite frankly, the amount of time listed under “prep required” on those food blogs? Yeah, lies. 

Just before I sat down to compile the following thoughts on meal planning and grocery shopping, two intrepid culinary companions and I set out to prepare one of the meals I’d plotted for the weekend: a thoroughly hip low-carb cauliflower rice “burrito” bowl. The recipe, taken from a blog predicated on providing recipes which require “10 ingredients or less, 1 bowl, or 30 minute or less to prepare” actually took the three of us over an hour to prep and cook. In my (albeit limited) experience with meal planning and prepping, I’ve learned to double the time required for any given recipe, because I definitely can’t simultaneously chop an onion and a bell pepper while I also sauté cauliflower for two minutes, stirring occasionally.

With the right amount of dedication, planning, recipe selection and realistically managed expectations, you too can cook up a week’s worth of tasty meals that won’t completely decimate your budget, and might even prevent you from getting scurvy while you live away from the sweet, sweet, succor of your All Campus Dining Center. 

Your meal plan and budget need to work together to accomplish this shared goal. Food should likely be one of the larger slices of your budget pie, perhaps superseded only by rent. A good starting point for your weekly grocery budget (subject to change based on prices where you’re living) is in the neighborhood of 80 dollars for one person, or 100 or so for two people. When planning your meals, you should remain budget conscious; pricey items like meat and non-seasonal produce will create a headache. 

Likewise, grocery shopping and meal-planning exist in a feedback loop. Before you go hog wild deciding what to cook, it’s a good idea to run a reconnaissance mission to your local food sources, to get the lay of the land and see what’s available, and at what cost. For instance, if there’s a local Indian grocery with great prices, consider adapting your food plans to that kind of a flavor profile. 

If you’re living in a metropolitan area, odds are there’s at least one good farmer’s market in your area. Common wisdom probably tells you that farm fresh produce is more expensive. However, local vendors actually tend to have rather economical prices on their wares, which are markedly fresher (and thus tastier and healthier). Just try to stay away from the large mark-ups that come with particularly upscale vendors; a regular fruit-and-veggie stand will most likely be worth the price, and will definitely be preferable to the superstore in terms of quality. If you’re like me and love your eggs and dairy, but have immense guilt about how they’re sourced, consider springing for certifiably humane farm fresh options for those staples, as well.

Once you’ve completed your grocery recon, you can start to make some plans. Before you can come up with a grocery list, you first need to have an idea what you’ll be cooking. Going to the store just to see what inspiration hits is almost always a dangerous game; you’ll end up with ingredients you might not use before they go bad, or that might not coalesce into a cohesive dish. A cursory search for simple meal prep recipes may be a good starting place. Videos from Tasty or Struggle Meals can be a helpful start, as well. However, all of these sources will make every recipe sound much simpler and easier than it is, so I would recommend starting with food blogs designed for beginner cooks or fast meal prep. 

When you’re picking recipes to make, you should select based on three criteria: feasibility, nutrition and preservation. 

Feasibility means the actual time, technique and tools required to make the dish. If you don’t have a grater, for example, say goodbye to cauliflower rice (buying it pre-riced is more expensive, and you lose the benefit of eating fresh veggies). If you don’t have a big wok, you’re gonna have a hard time with that veggie-packed fried rice. No cast-iron skillet? No (straight-forward) frittata. One dish that requires a bunch of specialty ingredients? Probably not the most practical idea. Likewise, a dish that requires thinly julienned veggies, but you lack competence with cutting implements? Work up to that. 

Remember that items like spices and sauces need to be purchased in large quantities, so it’s best to avoid any that are too niche. Personally, I really like to cook Asian-inspired dishes, so it’s no problem to splurge for a bottle of toasted sesame oil. But if you’re only going to use it for one recipe that you’re not super excited about, maybe scratch that recipe from your list of possibilities.

Nutrition is pretty self-explanatory. It’s fine to have a junk food meal every once in a while (Who doesn’t love the occasional grease-bomb grilled cheese, which is both cheap and delicious?) but your everyday fare should comprise a well-balanced diet with starches, protein, fruits and veggies at the very least. If a recipe doesn’t contain some semblance of nutritional value, it’s probably not the best investment for your overall wellbeing. Even desserts can lend delicious nutrition. 

Just today, my intrepid crew of wannabe chefs prepared some cookies with banana, peanut butter, rolled oats, honey and chocolate chips that are tasty, yet packed with protein. 

Finally, preservation. If a dish keeps well (for instance, my now go-to chickpea curry recipe) you can make a whole bunch of it on Sunday and eat it for several meals throughout the week, which basically eliminates the worst aspect of cooking for yourself. Recipes that can save in the fridge for a few days are generally a better bet, and they can double as on-the-go lunches for the savvy summer intern. Bonus points if you can meal-prep a set of ingredients that can be combined and prepared in different ways—the ultimate achievement in preservation!

Personally, I’m a meat-conscious, carb-conscious, gluten-free eater, so I end up with a lot of rice, beans and veggies on my list, all of which are perfectly affordable, nutritious and simple to make. Perhaps you’ll fall into a similar niche, with a basic list of dishes you feel comfortable preparing and playing around with. 

Once you’ve got a grocery plan, it’s time to put it into action. Here are my best tips for making that hectic grocery run slightly less awful, which will help you conquer your budgetary concerns. Some of these you’ve probably heard before. But let’s be honest: You could benefit from hearing them again.

  1. DO NOT buy things from the front display of the grocery store. Those are put there by the capitalist overlords to trick you into overpaying. Don’t fall for this. 
  2. Likewise, plan to spend a bit of time at the store, especially if you’re buying for more than one person. The capitalist overlords want you to rush and grab what looks the best, instead of thoughtfully considering your options. Upset the overlords.
  3. Actually take the time to cross-compare prices on the items you’re looking for. Sure, it might not seem like a big deal to spend an unnecessary 40 cents more on one brand of chickpeas over another, but those small differences can really add up. Use that money you save to spring for better produce or proteins, or to make sure your animal products are humanely sourced.
  4. Fresh items are generally rotated to the back of the display so customers will take the older stuff first. If your produce/perishable goods need to last all week, grab from the back. 
  5. Always eat a filling meal before you leave home for the store. Never, never, never, grocery shop on an empty stomach. 
  6. Buy goods like beans (including coffee), oats and nuts in dry bulk. Many major grocery stores have a dry goods section with goods sold by weight. You’ll pay less, and these items remain shelf-stable for a very long time. 
  7. Keep an eye out for particularly relevant coupons and seasonal sales, but only on items you actually need. It’s not really a “savings” if you buy something you wouldn’t otherwise buy purely because it’s on sale. You know this. Don’t let their marketing ploys bamboozle you. 
  8. Plan to eat several all-vegetarian meals per week, and then buy just one or two good cuts of meat for an extra treat, if eating meat is something you like to do. Cheap, low quality meat isn’t tasty and comes from factory farms—a lose-lose. 
  9. Don’t shy away from ingredients that require prep. The more time you invest in raw ingredients (breaking it down, processing, etc), the less  you have to invest at the grocery store. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you need to know, but I hope this primer will help you go forth and blossom into the grocery-shopping, meal-prepping, budget-handling whiz I know you can become.

Next time, hone your adulting skills even further by checking out my takes on how to thrive in an office environment.

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