Friday, August 22, 2008


The Simple Dollar had a piece about Cheap Supper Night: Hacking One Meal a Week to Save Money.

The concept is simple, and old as the hills. Just about any long-time LBYMer will know about it in one form or another…most of us practice it in a way that is as automatic as breathing. The idea in a nutshell is that you replace one “orchestrated” (read as, ‘I specifically bought things for this menu tonight’) meal with a super-cheap one. Even if you’re already eating cheap, this one meal is to really kick the cheap up a notch and be as close to free as you can get, without getting arrested.

Now, my first moment of taken-aback-ness came when Trent informed me that the book he’s reading right now calls it a ‘soup and bread night,’ and claims that since it’s only one meal it’s going to be OK to focus on cheap over taste.

Uh…really? Cheap over taste, huh? Welllllll…oooookay…but, um, guys…you do know that “cheap” and “bland” are not like, you know, “hand” and “glove,” right…?

And then I had a real giggle-snort when Trent enthusiastically said, The single best method I’ve found for creating a cheap supper night is to check the grocery store flyer before I go to the grocery store. Almost every grocery store has an exceptional produce deal or two for the week that you can use to center your meal around. At our local grocery, there’s usually some form of fresh vegetable on sale for as low as $0.29 a pound and usually a fruit near that level as well. A pound of a particular vegetable forms the backbone of a very healthy meal.

Heh. Rookies. Gotta love ‘em.

I know, that’s not fair. There are lots of ways to go about the uber-cheap meal…and making that one meal around the cheapest thing in the supermarket is certainly one way to do it. This is one of those philosophical differences, and I am about to share my own personal faith with y’all, you lucky, lucky things!

In my humble opinion (uhhh…your what opinion, there, Tama?) (shut up, can’t you see I’m pontificating over here?), the rest of your meals should be around those items, while the ‘backbone’ of your super-cheap meal should be something that otherwise might hit the trash bin.

For example. Let’s say I’m going to make soup. First, I need stock, which I’ll make with ‘throwaway’ stuff. The tops of celery, the limp carrots, shoot, even carrot tops can add flavor to a stock. All stuff you usually would toss, right? Take the oldest onion you’ve got out of the crisper, caramelize it in a bit of oil, add everything else. If you’re a meat-eater, save up those bits of meat you usually let go, the tiny shreds clinging to bones, the slightly burnt bits, even the skins we don’t eat anymore because we are conscious of the whole fat-thing. Cool the stock and skim the fat right off the top…but keep some of that intense flavor in the liquid, yes?

Personally, I don’t throw away very much meat. If I’ve got some ‘good’ chicken, but not enough for a soup or casserole, I dice it and stick in the freezer. Give me a couple whole roasted chickens, and there will be enough for a meal in there.

One to two cups of cooked beast, a little butter, a little flour, a cup of milk and a cup of water (or wine, if I happen to have some open) and whatever veggies (fresh, frozen or canned, this isn’t the time for pride, folks) and viola. It’s a casserole! Otherwise entitled, How to feed six people until they are stuffed on less than one cup of meat, OTHER than paying $30 at McDonalds.

That’s where the backbone of my “cheap” meals comes from – the stuff that otherwise might have been merely a snack, or {horror!} thrown away.

And let’s say I don’t have enough leftovers and other oddbits to make a traditional meal for cheap-eats night (which is almost always one of those ‘extemporaneous’ deals anyway, since I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to have in advance). That’s fine. Do I have eggs, milk, flour and shortening? Then there’s always quiche – I can whip out something with nothing more than some eggs, milk and maybe an onion. Give me some herbs and I can really go to town with it.

I can make the infamous Breakfast For Dinner, churn out some waffles or maybe a Dutch-style baked apple pancake for the family to share.

Shoot…I could even make a big batch of oatmeal, set out bowls with raisins, brown sugar, cinnamon, the nutmeg grinder and the honey. Of course, most of the Denizens will set up yowls of dismay because they are changelings, because obviously no child of MINE could possibly dislike OATMEAL, one of the most basic of Inherent Goods in the Cheap Eats Catalog, for crap’s sake aren’t normal, not even one bit all that fond of me oatmeal.

(Seriously…I don’t get this. They all loved oatmeal when they were babies. They loved it when they were toddlers. And then suddenly, around age three-ish…wham. “I don’t liiiiike thiiiiiiis!!” Only Boo Bug still likes it.) (Hmm…come to think of it…she’s also the only kid of mine who has my blue eyes! Coincidence?! I think not!!!)

The one thing I do not do is make special purchases, no matter how cheap they may be in the weekly circular, for my cheap-eats night. I might plan other meals around the circular specials, regular meals…but my cheap-eats are all about preventing food from going to waste.

Oh. And ‘bland’? “It’s OK to be bland just one meal a week”? Excuse me, but do you have SPICES on your world?!

Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it has to be zzzzzz. C’mon. You’ve probably got an impressive arsenal of herbs at your disposal (they came with the cute display thingee) (yes way, you’re supposed to cook with and eat them…geesh…). You’ve got salt and pepper, right? Maybe some oregano, oooh, even rosemary! Tangy, bright rosemary! Hey-hey-hey, how about this: Got some lemon juice in the fridge?

Take your basic boring-bland soup and throw in a crazy twist like that on your palate. Cook your rice with broth instead of water! Go really nuts and stir in some Parmesan. Lookout, it’s a WILD THING COOKIN’!!!

The flavor is already right there, in your kitchen! You’ve just got to let it out!

There is a world of good tastes out there, and a delicious meal does not necessarily require “special” ingredients. Spice it up, make it spicy or savory or zesty. A little vinegar, a little honey. Try adding diced potatoes to your quiche, or sprinkle a simple slice of bread with some cheese…maybe even an assortment of cheeses! I have one tablespoon each of five different things, let’s mix them and see what happens!

It doesn’t have to cost an extra nickel at the supermarket, or be the ‘bland but tolerated in the interests of frugality’ meal of the week. And while I am completely against eating uber-cheap and sacrificing nutrition all the You know what? Having waffles one night a week instead of a carefully balanced orchestra of nutritional values is not going to kill me or my kids. Shoot, I’d rather they had my homemade waffles (with the sneaky quarter cup of wheat germ, unbleached flour and real maple syrup) then a kid’s meal from a burger joint, any day of the week.

And that is that. End of pontification, y’all.

May your own cheap-eats be healthy, cheap and oh-so-delicious.


Anonymous said...

I do all those things too. Leftover meat is also good for stir-fry (with celery, onion, carrot--everyone has those on hand) and lots of rice & soy sauce. Scramble some eggs in a wok, add onion & fish sauce, then rice & soy sauce. Top with chopped peanuts and cilantro. Soy sauce is good for lots of stuff.

Michelle F said...

We do bottom on the drawer soup a-lot - I like to use Penzey's concentrated Chicken Stock at $8 per 1 cup jar it takes up less space in my cramped cupboards/freezer and is cheaper and more time effective for me. Their spices are very fresh and economical compared to grocery store prices plus retail stores

Anonymous said...

We are fond of leftover "whatever burgers". Generally bean or rice based, with leftover veg, salad greens, sauces or "whatever" smooshed all together with an egg and oatmeal binder, shaped into smaller patties for lunchboxes, larger patties for sandwiches, and then lightly fried until brown in just a skim of oil. We can dress them up with a big of gravy and potatoes, or almost cheese sauce and noodles. We can throw them on homemade bread or buns with whatever each person fancies for all in one sandwiches. Add carrot sticks, pickles, and something fruity for dessert, you've got nutrition and great taste.

Lisa A

17th stitch said...

My husband's specialty is Mysterious Pasta Sauce: one old onion, one can diced tomatoes, one pound box of pasta, a little grated cheese, and everything in the fridge that looked like it needed to be eaten. It's delicious!

Yarnhog said...

As far as I'm concerned, "cheap eats" means eating at home instead of a restaurant. Anyone who disagrees is welcome to do the cooking around here.

(Nope, I'm apparently still not over my work-stress-induced bad mood.)

Jeanne said...

"Cooked beast"—LOL! Love the description.

I've marked this post Keep New for reference because you've given me a lot of great ideas! As a single person cooking for one, everything I make produces leftovers and I don't always finish everything in the fridge before it rots (hence the moniker "Food Mortuary" for my fridge). Some of these concepts should help me save food.

Or, you could always just come cook for me... please? Pretty please? :-)

Kris said...

I remember eating pancakes a lot for dinner when we were kids... Hmmmm I may just have to intitute that around here when dh works evenings (he's not a fan of breakfast at anytime of day)

Too warm to bake a quiche? Try using whatever leftover pasta that you have, sauted onion and garlic and any veggies you want to add. Use your eggs as a binder and cook omlet like on the stovetop.

Anonymous said...

It might be pertinent here to realize that ALL of the world's great cuisines have - at their heart - po' folks food. Low cost is NOT a synonym for no flavor.

I hate to be sexist, but men seem to have NO idea about using up the odds and ends in the kitchen to make a REAL meal.

Lydee said...

good inspiration. sometimes the simplest of things can be the best.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I do a lot of the same things. It's instinct by now. I hate to waste food and rarely have to throw out anything. Here's something you might find find interesting.
This dude creates meals out of whatever he finds at the 99 cent store. They are pretty decent recipes. You'll enjoy browsing his recipes I think.