I would say, for American witches, reality check your budget against the USDA food plans. I think it's easy to say "we're spending too much on food" because unlike, say, the mortgage, it feels discretionary. But we still have to eat to live and there is an amount you have to spend to be able to nourish yourself and inflation is real.
If you access to Costco their rotisserie chickens remain one of the best deals to be found anywhere. Huge and cheap, they can be made into endless meal possibilities. You can also use the carcass to make stock or soup (very easy to do in an instant pot). One of my favorite ways is a ‘recipe’ that was in Bon Appetit a few years ago called Cuban chicken. You shred up a bunch of rotisserie chicken and squeeze some lime juice on it, letting it marinade at least 15 min (and up to an hour or so). The you slice up an onion or two and sautée them in olive oil over medium high heat. Your looking to get some color on them. After the onions start to get brown, add the chicken and crisp it up. You can serve it with rice (I like to add some olive oil that I sautéed some smashed garlic cloves in to the rice before cooking it) and avocado (if ripe and not $$$). So flavorful and easy.
I will also say that having a rice cooker (you can get a decent one for like $40) is also great, as rice is cheap and filling and even a child can safely make it in a rice cooker.
High value newsletter! Witches, your comments are so good and useful and funny. I lol’d and was reminded of HOW MUCH WORK WE ALL DO. My contribution: popsicles all day every day. It’s not a meal but it’s the treat I never have to think or worry about. Also sliced cucumbers. Adding cucumbers to a meal makes me feel like it’s all fine. (I know these are not meals but still.)
Two budget meal tips I swear by
1. Sardines! An acquired taste, perhaps, but if you persist they are inexpensive, good protein/low mercury, and canned so they are shelf-stable. We like them on toast as an open faced sandwich, or tossed in pasta with olives and tomato sauce. Huge savings if you like seafood.
2. This is more cost up front but has brought huge savings in the long run - get a garage chest or upright freezer if you have the space/budget for it. We waste way less food now, and actually to have the space to take advantage of shopping deals and batch cook. Kid eats half a banana? Toss the other half in my massive freezer bag of bananas and periodically make banana muffins. Random leftover veggies at the end of the week, even tiny amounts I would have thought not worth saving previously? Toss them in the freezer and when you’ve built up enough defrost them and make a kitchen sink quiche or frittata. Massive sale on ground meat? Buy too much and make and freeze bolognese sauce for easy weeknight dinners. It’s a system that works really well for me, although it does require periodic batch cooking time investments (that pay off later).
Here's one of our favorite quick and cheap and delicious Smitten Kitchen recipes, though you'll likely need to double or triple it (feeds 2 or so):
Want to plug Struggle Meals, a show on a channel called Tastemade, where a young man finds cheap ways of making many many kind of dishes, priced out to the penny. Also: I have a standby recipe (made it today) we call "peanut noodles" based on an old Mark Bittman Minimalist recipe for "cold peanut noodles" and I've minimalized it even more. You can expand this or shrink it, but for 3 generously: Boil half a box of spaghetti (or linguini or similar, can use soba but don't overcook it--almost any long noodle, gluten-free work great) , and while it boils, put in large bowl: 3/4 cup or fist sized glob of peanut butter (any kind, we use natural crunchy) , and then equal parts (let's say 2 T each) soy sauce/tamari, cider or rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, and fish sauce. Whisk till all blended--it starts to separate but keep whisking till it is thick and combined. Taste. It should be very tangy and umami from the fish sauce and vinegar; adjust any ingredients for balance. When pasta is done and well-drained (and it can be already-cold pasta from yesterday, or the fresh, hot but handleable pasta--just not too watery) get a small glass of hot tap water ready (OR pot water if you remember to save but no need) and dribble it in, whisking till as Bittman wrote "the consistency of thick cream" --it will get lighter and a bit runny. Then add the pasta by handfuls and toss with a clean hand (cheffily) or a fork gently to combine and coat evenly and somewhat thickly, but not gloppy. You may not use ALL the pasta; you don't want too-little sauce. Better to make an extra batch of sauce to accommodate all your pasta. Serve! with assorted toppings: chopped herbs/onion (cilantro/basil/mint/scallions) , sesame seeds, shredded (leftover) chicken or other meat, tofu of any kind, kimchi, chopped cucumber. And obviously you an expand/contract ingredients depending on the size of the crowd.
This can in my experience hit the spot at any temperature: cold after the beach! hot after sledding! and can be made in the morning and eaten later, or the next day. You can make the un-thinned sauce and boil the pasta all ahead, or make and combine at mealtime. The sauce (thinned or unthinned) is also good as a homemade peanut sauce for whatever else. It is also pretty rich and filling--even if there is no additional protein. And for peanut-safe crowds, it's good for kids and adults--like grain bowls or tacos, people can doctor it to their liking. If I am fancying up the sauce, I add black pepper (in original recipe) or grated /minced garlic and ginger. You can also try adding honey or maple syrup, sriracha, chili crisp, etc. Also: this is a great pantry recipe, or one for after travel, like when fetching up at an unfamiliar airbnb. You can get most everything at a convenience store/truck stop (fish sauce even, though worcestershire even might work) and I have made it with soy sauce packets in a pinch. It's a very salt/fat/acid/heat recipe! I feel very smug whenever I make it and I hope you try so you can as well. Also I really like eating it.
I got influencered in to following The Bean Institute on IG and their recipes look pretty great: https://instagram.com/thebeaninstitute?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
My first three reactions have already been listed by amazing witches. But two other thoughts.
First, purchasing some things in advance helps me keep from fretting too much over specific items. (More of a thing of it’s a case of not actually spending too much, just think you are.) CSA box isn’t available everywhere, upfront costs are significant, and truly only worth it if you are the type to eat all the greens (and other vegetables). But means that my list for the produce section during fruit +veg season is usually limited to onions, garlic, and maybe one other item.
Second, cooking to intentionally reduce food waste. I’m not sure it necessarily reduces our overall costs that much, but it keeps the guilt at bay. Some of the things it looks like for us:
All the green tops from that CSA box end up being cooked,
Stock bag in the freezer filling with veggie scraps to make a flavorful base for soups and such,
Snacking on roasted seeds from melons right now and squash in the fall,
Kale stem pesto,
Very random pickle flavors (currently have fennel, chard stems, and brined watermelon rinds)
The cookbook Scraps, Wilts, and Weeds has been my favorite of the use it up genre, possibly because it was my first. Lindsay Jean-Hardy’s column on Food52 is a great resource. And my most unexpected reference was Ikea. They put out a free pdf cookbook “The Scraps Book” a few years back.
I was similarly skeptical when I first encountered it (it was a wedding present) but now consider it a essential appliance. It was great for my kid to be able to make himself rice at midnight as a teenager too.
Tuna is also a great budget protein. If you get the water packed and drain and squeeze thoroughly, most of the fishy taste is gone and you can mix with a lot of other things that don’t have to be mayo.
I love that gif but can’t remember where it’s from?