Eating well for less, or, how to be a cheap bastard

So one of my dear friends just asked me, “Can you make me a shopping list?” Now, at first I was a bit taken aback. A shopping list is a very personal thing–especially, for our post-consumerist society in which what you buy defines who you are. If I tell you what to buy, wouldn’t I be standing in the way of your authentic inner being’s expressing itself? Then, I realized, it probably doesn’t much matter as most of us are too broke these days to take the myth of personal identity too seriously anyways–particularly the consumerist-fueled variety of said myth. And, sure enough, upon prodding, it turns out that she was indeed asking me what to buy because she’s noticed what a cheap bastard I am, especially with respect to my somewhat remarkable ability to eat very well on little money. At first, I thought of being offended, but well, I actually am a cheap bastard so I might as well own up to it. Not to mention that it takes a remarkably brave soul to ask another something as personal as what to buy and the courage that it takes to open oneself up to someone else’s advice and opinions ought to be rewarded. So here you go Sabrina, this is for you.

Shopping List

First of all, what you buy should depend upon the kind of markets, stores, etc. you have around you. I’m going to give a list rooted in my own personal environment and you should tailor it to your own. Needless to say, this list intends to be more instructive than definitive. These disclaimers aside:

Farmer’s Market

Of course, ideologically and ethically speaking it’s good to support farmer’s markets. However, I find that a lot of their produce simply costs more than I can afford. If I had more money, I would be happy to pay the difference. However, the fact is that I don’t. That being said, even in hard times, there are a few things that I absolutely swear by getting at the farmer’s market:

Greens. Many varieties are available and all of them are good eating and good for you: kale, red kale, dinosaur kale, collard greens, turnip greens, etc. $1-1.50 per bunch. Chop up and sautee with olive oil, soy sauce, and garlic.

Salad Mix. I find that the salad mixes that I buy at the farmer’s market, while they might cost a little more, tend to last longer and taste better than those which I buy anywhere else. To me, this is very worth it. 1/2lb. for $3-4.

Last but not least, find out whether or not your farmer’s market takes food stamps. If they don’t, then find out who’s in charge of organizing the thing and try to work with them in order to make it a reality.

Trader Joe’s

I’m not that big of a fan of TJs, but if you live in a very suburban location, it’s pretty darn invaluable.

Cheese is generally a pretty good deal here. Don’t buy any of the cheeses in the cute plastic containers as these are generally not as good a deal per lb. as the ones that are just wrapped up. I usually get the following cheeses here: blue cheese (cheap, domestic), fresh goat cheese, parmesan (no more than $9 per lb.), and monterey jack (for quesadillas). Blue cheese and goat cheese are great on salads. Goat cheese is great on omelets. Total cheese price: $16-$20.

Also get: Niman Ranch Bacon. $4.69 for 12 oz. Trust me, it’s worth it.

RBST-free butter. $2.99 per lb.

Hummus is a reasonably good deal here, if you don’t have a local Middle Eastern market and don’t want to make it yourself (8 oz. for $1.99)

The breads aren’t so bad here, esp. compared to the supermarkets. I like the cracked wheat sourdough ($2.69) which is pretty tasty and lasts awhile.

The thing that made TJ’s famous is, of course, the dry goods. Stock up on things like their tuna fish (which is great quality, well worth it at about $1.50 per can), mayo, mustard, coffee (if you have no better place to buy it; organic fair trade coffee at around $7-8 per lb.), and packaged Indian foods ($2 per box–if you’re terribly hungry and you need to eat something decent and you don’t have the time/energy to cook, this is a lot better option than most microwaveable and/or fast food). There are worse places to buy things like rice (buy brown rice! Takes longer to cook, but it’s so much better for you), pasta ($1 per lb.), and pancake mix. Canned tomatoes, great for pasta sauce, are a good value here. This is quite possibly the place to buy olive oil ($6 per liter) and maple syrup (not sure what it runs these days).

If you can’t find anywhere else to get them, get the free range eggs here ($3).

Whatever you do, DO NOT BUY PRODUCE AT TJ’S. It is drastically overpriced and rarely of decent quality. Okay, if you really have no better place to buy produce, you’re allowed to get the 5lb. bag of organic red potatoes, which isn’t that overpriced.

Ethnic Stores

Where to get your produce, if you can’t afford the farmer’s market? If you happen to live in Berkeley, it’s easy: you just go to Berkeley Bowl. Otherwise, I recommend getting to know the small ethnic stores in your neighborhood. Whether Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latin American, these are often the best, cheapest sources for fresh produce that you can find in most American cities and suburbs. Be advised that many times, ethnic stores will sell produce that is closer to its expiration date than you’d find in the supermarkets. They do this because they can buy it for less and they can and generally do pass that savings on to you. Buy the following things:

Onions (should not cost more than $.69 per lb.)

Garlic (preferably garlic NOT from China. $1.50-$2 per lb.)

Roma Tomatoes ($.69 -.99 per lb.)

Avocados ($.89 each)

Potatoes (I like yukon golds pretty well. Reds do all right. Not really a fan of russets, as the peeling adds another step to the cooking process. $.39-.69 per lb.)

Ginger ($1.50-$2 per lb.)

Bananas ($.69 per lb. If you can find organic ones, go up to $.99 per lb. The difference is well worth it)

Oranges (Valencias are great for juicing. Make fresh oj one time and then try telling me you don’t have the time to make it every once in awhile. You don’t have the time not to! $.59 per lb.)

Apples (Organic if you can find them. Granny Smith, McIntosh, Gravenstein, and Pink Lady are all lovely varieties. Organic Fujis can be delightful, but the conventional ones often seem a bit on the mushy side to me. $1.50-2 per lb.)

Limes ($.15-.20 each)

Lemons ($.25-35 each)

Bell Peppers ($.65-.99 per lb.)

Persian Cucumbers ($1.50 per lb.)

Asparagus (when in season, approx. April-June. Spend no more than $2 per lb)

Artichokes (spend no more than $.99 per ‘choke.)


Brussel Sprouts

Ethnic stores are also often the best places to buy your legumes, which are an invaluable cheap source of protein. If you really want to save money, buy them dried and invest the time and energy in cooking them. Buy: garbanzos/chick peas, black eyed peas, lentils (I like the red lentils myself and they cook awful fast too), black beans, etc.

Ethnic stores are also the best place to get spices. At an Asian market, pick up your soy sauce (an investment at $3-4 for a large bottle. look for one with reduced sodium) and sriracha hot sauce (another worthy investment at approx. $3 a bottle). Mexican markets often have plentiful amounts of ground spice packets for $1. At the very least, get: paprika, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, chili powder, turmeric (supposedly hella good for you). Middle Eastern and South Asian markets often sell spice mixes in boxes that are supposed to be used in order to cook particular dishes (e.g., briyani, dal, chana masala, etc.). I buy these and use them liberally and not just for their designated dishes. Great way to add a punch to just about any vegetables or legumes you’re cooking. Read the labels so you know what you’re cooking with, and be advised that if you’re using a spice mix when cooking a dish, you should add less salt than you otherwise would as it’s often a main ingredient in said mix.

Mexican markets are the best places to get: tortillas (particularly corn tortillas. It’s time you try them if you’ve never had them before. $2 for 50.), pre-marinated fresh meat (e.g., fajita mix or something to that effect. $2 per lb.), fresh salsa ($4, or get the mixings for it and make your own), and chorizo ($2.50 per lb. As great with eggs as its reputation leads you to expect. No reason you can’t use it to make pasta sauce as well though).

A must have at Middle Eastern markets for me personally is olives. Way cheaper than Whole Foods, TJ’s or any of those other yuppie stores. If they’re too salty for your taste, I’ve hear that soaking them in water for awhile works. I’ll get back to you once I actually try that–mostly I just want the things in my mouth like now, salt intake be damned. $4 per lb.


Michael Pollan has a rule for shopping at supermarkets: buy things on the store’s periphery rather than down the aisles. This rule makes good common sense in that the fresh meat, dairy, bread, and produce can all be found on the periphery and the aisles generally contain processed products with preservatives and other nasty things. However, I find that most of that fresh stuff can be purchased in better quality and/or lower price at other stores like those discussed above. Given that, there are a few things that it can be good to pick up at the supermarket, even in contradiction to Pollan’s rule.

Flour, all-purpose (for all of your baking needs. Why not make cookies sometime? You won’t regret it)

Baking Soda

Steel Ground Oats

Raisins (hmm… the last 4 ingredients seem to have a theme)

Salt (you might want to get a fancy more expensive sea salt somewhere else for seasoning your dishes sur la table. However, it’s still a good idea to get a big, cheap, industrial package for using in things like pasta water and other things that you boil. $.79-99. If you really want to upgrade in this dept. as well get kosher salt, which is also available at most supermarkets)

Tortillas (if you don’t get them at the Mexican market)


As a means of saving money, generally speaking, you should avoid eating meat as it’s often quite low in calorie per $ ratio. Not to mention, the meatpacking industry is one of the more egregious with respect to its treatment of workers and the environment. Also, the safety of their product is almost always a matter of doubt. If you don’t know where your meat comes from and/or you can’t afford to buy meat from somewhere you trust, then you probably shouldn’t be buying it. Personally, I find that mass market beef and chicken are something that I can live without, even if they’re dirt cheap. If you want to buy some free range meat on a budget then try to buy less expensive cuts (e.g., chicken thighs are often cheaper–not to mention tastier–than chicken breasts. You should be able to get them, bone-in, for between $3.50 and $4 per lb.). That being said, despite my better judgment, sometimes I find it hard to overlook the ridiculously cheap (and admittedly, often quite delicious) pork chops from the supermarket (but I never pay more than $2 per lb.). Sausages can be nice to have sometimes, e.g., with pasta, but they’re often vastly overpriced for what they are. Fish is one of the healthier dead animals, but it tends to be even pricier than other forms of meat. Also, the fish that is cheap is often farmed rather than wild and so doesn’t really taste like anything. According to Michael Pollan, farmed fish is also not as healthy for you as its more expensive wild cousin–he claims that it’s entirely possible that a piece of grass-fed beef will actually contain more omega 3s (i.e., the good fat found in avocados and olive oil that everyone’s so wild about these days) than a comparable piece of farmed fish.

I suppose that just about covers it. This doesn’t tell you how to actually make food from this stuff, but you can’t expect me to solve all your problems, now can you?

Revised: 9/5/2010

About 11again

Used to be an academic... now I'm a washed up academic. I like cooking, blues music, black writers, and morally compromised people of all persuasions.
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