Saturday, April 2, 2011

Budget food for the non-cook

My daughter was at a conference this morning, so I'll post tomorrow night about our weekly groceries. On the way home from my exam yesterday, I swung by the retail outlet for the school's ag program and picked up pepper bacon ends and pieces, ground pork sausage, bratwurst, and a package of sausage wraps. I don't have the exact prices on me, but the meat ranged from about $1.90 to $2.25 a pound for great quality and taste. The wraps are, perhaps, slightly pricey, and unfortunately high fat and calorie, but they can be individually frozen and used for emergency meals when I need something that will stick with me.

Which leads me to my topic: budget food for the non-cook, or for when you just don't have time to really cook. When I worked as staff at a university several years back, I used to watch the students, who made barely minimum wage and could only work 20 hours a week, buy expensive fast food for almost every lunch, and often carried in fast food breakfasts as well. I'm pretty sure most of them spent most of their check each week on fast food. All of them told me "I don't know how to cook" and a couple of the guys made it clear that cooking would threaten... something.

There were a lot of options that would have been much cheaper than fast food and even cheaper than the typical frozen dinner. Hot dogs are sold precooked, all you have to do is heat them up and top them. One of the pizza places in town used to sell a large cheese pizza for about $4 on Tuesday nights. Buy one of those and a cheap salad in a bag, and you have supper for about 3 nights for around $1.50 a night, which is a lot cheaper than the $4+ a night they were spending for burgers.

Even better, start looking at the non-frozen-dinnner items in the frozen foods section. French fries, tater tots, and hash browns come in huge bags that are cheap (by the by, hash browns make a good casserole topping). You can also buy bags of pre-cooked hamburgers (check to make sure they're 100% beef, though) and chicken for a reasonable price. Even the most hopeless of non-cooks can manage to turn on an oven, put some fries on a sheet pan and set a timer, then warm a couple of burgers in the microwave.

Another easy one, somewhat healthier, is a baked open-faced sandwich, particularly if you're feeding several people. Buy a loaf of French bread, or something like it. Preheat the oven to about 375F. Slice it in half, long-wise. Put the halves of the bread on a sheet pan. Add sandwich meat and some tomato, onion or pepper (or combination of your choice). Top with cheese. Put in the oven until the cheese melts. Or spread jarred spaghetti sauce on the bread, add some sliced veggies and cooked meat, and top with cheese and bake for a quick French bread pizza.

How about homemade soup? I can hear you saying "But this is supposed to be for the non-cook!" Relax. Buy two large cans of broth and some frozen cut veggies and use a couple of those frozen precooked beef patties. Pour the broth in a large saucepan and warm almost to boiling. Thaw the burgers and 2 to 3 cups of frozen vegetables of your choice in the microwave. Add the vegetables to the broth, then crumble or cut the burgers into bite sized pieces and add them as well. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Serve over slices of bread. See? As long as you don't walk away and forget about it, this isn't much harder than warming up a can of soup. You can use canned vegetables (and canned beans) as well, but those don't taste as good.

These aren't as cheap as really cooking and most aren't exactly low-fat, but all of them should be cheaper than fast food. And look for unusual things like the sausage wraps. Each one is filling enough for a meal, especially with a piece of fruit, and by buying an entire package, I paid about $1.10 each. By thinking creatively, you can find a lot of ways to eat more cheaply than fast food and frozen dinners.

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