Full-Time Worker, Part-Time Grad Student and Committed to Cooking to Save
In 2013 I made the decision to go back to school and get my master’s degree. But since I didn’t want to take two years off (fear of lost income and long-term damage to my salary history beyond that of just “being a woman”), I decided to go part-time and continue my full-time job. I thought, “I’m good at multitasking. How hard could this be?”
Ha! It’s funny when people are terribly, terribly wrong.
While I knew that graduate school would take almost all of my free time, I was also determined to limit my takeout, delivery, and purchased meals. I was going to make my own breakfasts, lunches, and dinners all day, every day. It was both a cost-saving and health-saving measure; I was spending far too much money on salty Thai food. I felt good going into this. I was going to save so much money! And then spend it all on school!
Eventually it became untenable. The platitude is that we should be making our own meals because it’s cost-efficient and healthier. Pinterest is full of boards about not only making your own food, but making it all from scratch and without heavily preserved, shelf-stable convenience products. And in the face of student loans and early-stage hypertension at 30 (what can I say, I’m an overachiever), I bought that rationale hook, line, and sinker. But there is truly no such thing as a free lunch, and there were many unforeseen costs that came along with my tenacity about making my own meals. There were the front-end costs of having the tools for the job and the groceries, and the opportunity cost of time with friends, time for school, and time to just do nothing.
I’ve since finished the degree, and with the benefit of two years of academic and professional gulag behind me I’m finally ready to take stock of how it all actually went down. So here are some tips, tricks, musings, and so it’s not just solely my kvetching, recipes that were 1) tasty, 2) cheap and 3) kept me from food-induced boredom, for the most part.
This one is a no-brainer. It costs money for food. And the more meals you make on your own, the more it’s going to cost. A key lesson is to use as few ingredients as possible, and whatever is used has to pull double or even triple duty. Have you ever noticed that at most diners, meals basically consist of the same ingredients? The chef salad is also the club sandwich, just with a different presentation and accoutrements. It’s much easier and cheaper to put in the same order for supplies each week and just make do with what’s on hand. So to make this work, I had to get clever about what I bought. Not only because of cost, but because I now lived in a neighborhood with no grocery store nearby and my apartment had a laughably small amount of storage space. Shredded chicken became salads, stews, and slathered in barbecue sauce. Black beans would show up in everything.
Stupid-easy black bean soup
Makes enough for 1.5 meals; dinner one day, side soup the next.
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed*
- 1.5-2 cups chicken or vegetable broth, adjust for your preference
- ½ Tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp cayenne
- ¼ tsp paprika
- Dash red pepper flakes
- Handful cilantro (optional if you’re like me and believe it is a vile, vile weed that must be destroyed)
- Cheese and sour cream topping, optional (but is it really?)
If you have a blender or stick blender, blend together the beans and broth until desired consistency is reached. You can also go whole-bean here. Add all other ingredients in saucepan and heat over low-medium until cooked through, or until impatience sets in and you eat it out of the pan regardless of temperature, like a sad cartoon bachelor. It’s best to let the flavors cook through, though.
It can cost a lot to keep a pantry supplied. It takes an initial investment, even in the basics: onion powder, garlic powder, cumin. But as many people have noted, ethnic grocery stores are your friend in this and many other circumstances. Most of my spices are almost exclusively the Badia brand commonly found in the Hispanic grocery aisle. Most stores don’t put them next to the McCormick and other brand-name spices, so it pays to wander a couple of aisles over and go to town. I debated buying spices online in bulk, but packages kept getting stolen from my stoop as it was, and god, the rats. I don’t even want to think about what rats would do to it. I found that Indian food held my attention long enough at the office and after class so I wouldn’t be tempted to buy elsewhere. Smitten Kitchen’s chana masala makes a regular mealtime appearance in my life. The full recipe makes enough for a week when paired with rice, couscous, or my personal pick, quinoa (again, shop in the Hispanic foods aisle here because everything else is highway robbery). The amchoor powder and cumin seeds can be left out; the jalapeños and lemon juice, not so much.
Another thing people don’t talk about when they harp on “Make your own food or you’re throwing your money away!”: kitchen equipment. This can be a huge investment, especially for those without a lot of capital in the first place. Good cookware is not cheap, and bad cookware is not worth the inevitable repurchase in the long run. This is why a wok is one of my favorite things because it can be used as a 1) wok (obviously), 2) fry pan or 3) sauce/soup pot. Multi-use, cost-efficient, and uses less space. Knives also fit into this category. You absolutely need good knives. Thankfully you can buy good ones at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s for cheap, but really: you need good knives and a knife sharpener. It’s time consuming, demoralizing, and dangerous to hack away at a vegetable with a dull blade. And if you’re making your own food from scratch, odds are you’ll be hacking at a lot of vegetables.
WHY IT DIDN’T WORK
The tradeoffs involved in making all of your own meals really aren’t discussed as a whole. We forget just how social meals can be until you find yourself agonizing over the lunch you shopped, prepped, and schlepped, versus the opportunity to go out for tacos and mingle with colleagues. Or forsaking the dinner you have simmering in a crock pot at home (which WILL become gross if left on for 12 hours, trust) for an impromptu dinner with a friend.
I found that I was less spontaneous when I had everything meticulously planned, and I resented it. It was easy for me to compute the cost for making my own meals versus buying; it was a lot harder to quantify how much social time I was losing in the process. I also realized that even though I brought my lunch, I still needed to take a lunch break for my sanity. It’s healthy to get up and let your brain recharge, and it’s a much more forced action if you brought your lunch than if you stepped out to grab something. I have a friend who refuses to bring his lunch for this very reason: without having to go out and buy lunch, he never gets the opportunity to leave his desk, period.
The opportunity cost of time is also important to consider, and equally hard to quantify. It’s a lot more time-intensive to shop, cook, and clean up than it is to go out and pay someone else for the privilege. If you choose to have your groceries delivered (and you don’t live in a building with a door person or reliable package reception), that also comes at a cost of waiting time, extra money for the delivery, and in many cases, the ability to price shop or adjust for sales/product availability. I’m not saying “Don’t bother making your meals, you’ll hate it!” but more that, like anything else, moderation is key.
Additionally, especially for the budget-conscious out there, it’s easy to fall into this trap of, “If I pay $15 for lunch today it means I have failed at saving money, ergo I am a failure.” Money is a charged topic, and it’s hard not to turn it into an opportunity for value-driven judgment. It’s taken me a long time to realize this, and for a lot of things in life (e.g. dieting, paying down debt), that it’s not a zero-sum game. The absence of an action is not necessarily a failure. Just because I bought an overpriced turkey sandwich at the deli downstairs doesn’t mean that I’m not dedicated to living within my means or putting my health first. It’s just a turkey sandwich.
But I will try to bring my own tomorrow.
This story is part of our food month series.
Danielle Witt lives, works, and agonizes over the cost of things in Washington, D.C., and tweets at @uncorkeddc