I know I am. As a freelancer in the gig economy, I try to be prepared for money hiccups. When I lost my biggest client late last year, I told myself not to panic. This is what my emergency fund is for. Then a surprise five-figure tax bill slipped through my mail slot and swallowed that money, six months of living expenses, whole.
Like most Americans, when I look at my expenses, most of them are fixed. I can’t cut back my monthly mortgage, health insurance or student loan costs. I don’t have cable TV or other low-hanging fruit in my budget, so the need to save money leaves me staring down one big adjustable line item: food.
After taking the obvious first step of cutting way back on restaurants and prepared food, I had to look at my grocery receipts. As a writer and recipe developer, food is central to my work. But even if it weren’t, I would still spend a lot of time in the kitchen because I love to cook. And when I’m not careful, I can really overspend on groceries. Last year, $14-per-pound exotic mushrooms, $20 pastured chickens and $50 bottles of olive oil were not uncommon purchases. Coming into 2019, I know this can’t go on.
In America, we don’t have what the Italians call cucina povera, a shared poverty cuisine passed down over millennia (though we certainly have regional cuisines shaped by slavery and economic inequality, like those of the Reconstruction-era South and Appalachia). “There isn’t a long history of famine here. But most other places in the world, across Europe and China, people know how to eat well with less,” said Andrew Coe, a food historian and co-author of “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.”
During the Depression, he said, most Americans, accustomed to a bland, meaty diet, followed the advice of the new Bureau of Home Economics. “They advocated a whole new way of eating that focused on getting the most bang from your buck nutritionally,” he said. Flavor, however, was not a consideration. Recipes published by the bureau included baked onion stuffed with peanut butter.
Immigrants, on the other hand, leaned hard on their traditional food cultures to enjoy meals even without much cash for ingredients. “Italians gathered wild dandelion greens from vacant plots, stewed them with olive oil and garlic, and served them over toast,” Coe said. Sounds like a 2019 restaurant dish to me.
I’ve always been inspired by my Italian roots. My mother-in-law recalls her own Italian grandmother foraging for greens. So it’s no surprise that as I started meal planning on my new budget, the dishes I made skewed toward cucina povera.
Though my food budget has, ahem, changed, I don’t feel deprived at mealtime. Fancy ingredients are wonderful, but I haven’t always had them. As I started to shop on a newly strict food budget — $80 a week for my family of two, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “thrifty plan” — it brought me back to my first journalism job, when my husband and I moved in together. We lived on our entry-level salaries making those early, painful student loan payments. We were on the thrifty plan without even knowing it, and it never occurred to me to feel deprived.
This was the time I first fell in love with food, in fact. We shopped at discount grocery stores and cooked special dinners from scratch together. When I started to cut grocery spending in late 2018, I reverted to meal plans that mirrored what I cooked in my first kitchen back in 2003: simple, mostly vegetarian comfort food.
Back then, our date nights revolved around homemade pizzas. Everyone loves pizza, but it is a special favorite of experts in thrifty treats, including Beth Moncel, author of the blog Budget Bytes and the book “Budget Bytes: Over 100 Easy, Delicious Recipes to Slash Your Grocery Bill in Half.”
With a degree in nutritional science, Moncel said healthy cooking and budget cooking overlap more than most people think. Pizza is the perfect example. “You want to really control how much of the expensive stuff you use,” she said. “With homemade pizza, you can use half the usual amount of cheese and not even notice.”
My homemade pizza indeed calls for less cheese than many other recipes I’ve seen. The dough I make is nearly half whole-wheat flour, and I like plenty of vegetables for toppings. All these choices make pizza night an affordable, wholesome way to splurge.
Here are other ways to cook well on a budget:
Cut down on food waste. It costs the average American $38 a month. When it comes to making pizza, I strategize to ensure that any leftover ingredients are portioned for long-term storage. For example, I buy decent mozzarella by the pound from a cheesemonger. I cut the block into five roughly 3-ounce pieces, using one for pizza now and wrapping the remaining four tightly and storing in a zip-top bag in the freezer for later.
I start with a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, blitz them with my stick blender, and divide into five one-cup containers, using one and freezing the rest. Even my dough recipe makes a spare ball to freeze for later.
Over the years, I have come to refer to this as “the pizza system.” It means I almost always have what I need to put a cheese pizza on the table without a trip to the store, and I never throw ingredients away. I try to apply this systematic, use-it-up thinking to all my meal plans.
Be flexible. Pizza is adaptable, and if you have stray veggies in the fridge, chances are they will taste good on a pizza. But if I don’t have anything on hand, I follow Moncel’s advice in the produce section. “Stick to hearty vegetables that don’t spoil fast,” she says. Delicate, tender basil, arugula and baby spinach are out; robust kale and stout button mushrooms are in. But a bunch of kale and an eight-ounce package of mushrooms are more veggies than even I can fit on a pizza.
Enter the frittata, a dish that will run you about $1.25 per serving. This easy, economical, open-faced omelet rescues a wide variety of crisper rejects from the compost bin. Frittata is good for breakfast, lunch or dinner; hot or cold; alone, with a salad, or in a sandwich. I don’t think one bite of frittata has ever gone to waste on my watch. Almost anything you like on top of pizza, you will like married with eggs in frittata form.
Enjoy making the best of things. Another budget meal very close to my heart and heritage is pasta. I often think about the prison dinner scene Ray Liotta’s character described in the movie “Goodfellas.” It made me realize that, in movies at least, good meals are a kind of shorthand for a good life no matter what else is happening. Each inmate brought a level of technique to their cooking. Garlic was shaved to translucent thinness with a razor blade as the proper ratio of onions in sauce was debated. Even in jail, characters made the best of their situation and enjoyed themselves through the power of cooking.
Pasta is somehow luxurious, even though it costs only loose change per serving. Adding a little sour cream — the poor man’s creme fraiche — to your tomato sauce enhances that impression. So does a light flurry of salty Romano cheese. It costs only 83 cents a bowl, but you would be lucky to find better at your neighborhood Italian joint.
If I need to, I can make even cheaper food than pizza, pasta and frittata. Lean times in graduate school, for example, taught me my way around a pot of rice and beans. But spending the absolute least amount of money possible, no matter what, isn’t my goal right now. As long as I stick to a thrifty budget while my emergency fund recovers, I can still enjoy one of my favorite parts of life: cooking and eating well at home.