Cheap and yummy

Another school year has started, and I’m back cooking at Home Away. I’m looking forward to cooking old favorites and trying out new recipes this year.

I’m cooking for about 12-14 this year, which is a few more than I’m used to, but we’ve lost a some big eaters, and there are some picky freshman girls who I’m determined to convert. The budget is around $40-60 a meal, but I try to shoot for closer to $30, which I can do if there are good staples in the kitchen like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and butter. I try for $3/person for a healthy, mostly organic dinner, includes seconds and hopefully dessert.

A few ways I save money while cooking mostly organic food:

  • Vegetarian! Much cheaper than meat dishes.
  • Unprocessed: I always chop all of the veggies, and grate my own cheese. It’s really not that hard.
  • Trader Joe’s. Lots of cheap organic options, as long as you avoid the processed food, which are expensive.
  • Dry beans instead of canned. It takes a few days of prep, but it is cheaper and avoids a source of BPA.
  • Farmer’s market. We’re so spoiled in California to have such delicious produce year-round.

My menu last week was vegetarian chili, white rice, fruit salad (grapes, cantaloupe, strawberries, and plums), and cornbread. It’s great because the chili is loaded with vegetables and beans, including mushrooms I sneak in, and almost no fat. So, even when they pile on the cheese and low-fat plain yogurt (leftover from the cornbread), it’s still not bad. I could have made brown rice, but I figured all the beans are providing plenty of fiber.

This week I’m going to make tuna noodle casserole, trying out whole wheat pasta for the first time. Along with that there will be a green salad with pomegranates and pecans, and another fruit salad, this time with figs, grapes, and strawberries. Total grocery bill from TJ’s including some staples like flour and the nuts I’ll use for months: $44. So we’re still around $3.00.

The kids are really into trying new foods and love exotic and spicy foods. However, they are teenagers, and while they are much more adventurous than I ever was at their age, they aren’t exactly going to be diving into a bowl of steamed broccoli. Some pick out veggies and (such a waste!) pine nuts. While I don’t exactly try to hide vegetables, except for mushrooms, which they don’t realize contribute so much to vegetarian dishes, I don’t make it too easy to eat around them either.

Salads are almost always on the menu. Fruit salad is something I’m going to try to do more of this year. Green salads are standard issue and most of the kids will eat some. Some really like the standard mixed green salad with balsamic dressing. Instead of veggie toppings, I tend to use nuts, feta, dried cranberries (hugely popular), and the like. I usually make my own dressings, but I do get the spicy peanut dressing from TJ’s to toss with romaine. Greek salad is always a hit, and I’ve tried coleslaw and carrot salad with less success. But I am always putting new vegetable dishes out there because you never know what they’ll like.

Protein: I use lots of beans, lentils, quinoa, and split peas for protein. I was worried at first that the kids wouldn’t like them and I’d have to hide them, but it’s never been an issue. I try to do fish every few weeks: frozen mahi mahi from TJs or canned tuna. I’ve occasionally done other white fish, but cooking fish for a group can be a challenge and expensive. In the winter a special dinner is fresh crab, which you can still do in the $60 range for 14 people. I never do pork or beef, and I sometimes do chicken: either a whole organic TJ chicken that I make a broth with and then shred the meat for the dish, or two packages of boneless skinless chicken thighs, which I also shred for the dish. I never serve chicken whole because it goes farther mixed with other stuff.

Fat: I don’t worry about it. I use whole milk, butter, and olive oil without reservation. It’s all about the whole food, and most of the time I don’t use a lot of dairy, so when I do, I use the real stuff. Whole milk tastes so much better. And olive oil is healthy, right?

Here are some dishes I’ll be making again this year:


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