I Tried Cooking Dinner All Week On A $30 Budget

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Five meals, one grocery list.

BuzzFeed's food crew is always trying new recipes, routines, and meal prep ideas — and we decided it was time to start sharing some of them with you. Each month, we'll ask a different staffer how they'd tackle a week's worth of dinners for $30 or less.

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Hey! I’m Hannah. For me, living in NYC, it’s very temping to eat out or order delivery most nights.

Hey! I'm Hannah. For me, living in NYC, it's very temping to eat out or order delivery most nights.

It's convenient, it's fast, and it's one less thing to worry about after a long day of work. But admittedly, the cost can really add up, and it's a habit I know I need to curb.

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So when I was asked to make a week of homemade dinners for $30 or less, I knew it’d be a challenge for me.

So when I was asked to make a week of homemade dinners for $30 or less, I knew it'd be a challenge for me.

I've definitely been trying to make a conscious effort to cook more at home during the work week, but I still typically spend at least triple that on my weekly grocery run.

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Since I was most unsure about the budget, I worked backwards. First I wrote a list of several of my favorite ingredients that I knew I could use in different ways — then browsed around for recipes with them.

Since I was most unsure about the budget, I worked backwards. First I wrote a list of several of my favorite ingredients that I knew I could use in different ways — then browsed around for recipes with them.

During a typical week, some of my staples are vegetables, eggs, grains (like quinoa or pasta), seafood, and chicken. I very rarely eat red meat, and I try to eat a vegetarian meal at least one night per week.

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Then, I edited down the list and tracked down prices ahead of time via Google. Here’s what I ended up with:

Then, I edited down the list and tracked down prices ahead of time via Google. Here's what I ended up with:

There were a few ingredients where I wasn't able to find the price online, but I did my best to estimate what it might cost. Also: my meals were for one person/serving, but most ended up being enough for two — or for leftovers.

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Then I hit the store on Sunday.

Then I hit the store on Sunday.

I usually shop on Sundays so I can have time to meal prep and make a cooking schedule for the week ahead. My grocery store of choice was Trader Joe's, since it's often one of the cheaper options in town.

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My total for everything? $27.95 — which was within a dollar of my estimate. 🙌

My total for everything? $27.95 — which was within a dollar of my estimate. 🙌

It's also worth noting that TJ's doesn't take coupons and NY prices aren't always the norm. (AKA: You could probably do this for cheaper.^)

I had some staples already in my pantry like rice and pasta that I could have used this week, but for the purpose of this experiment, I only used what I bought at the store — except for olive oil, seasoning (salt, pepper, red pepper flakes), and soy sauce.

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

Jenny Chang/BuzzFeed

At home, I laid out all my ingredients and figured out what I could prep ahead of time.

At home, I laid out all my ingredients and figured out what I could prep ahead of time.

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

Jenny Chang/BuzzFeed

Here was my menu for the week. With Sunday’s prep, no meal took longer than 30 minutes to make.

Here was my menu for the week. With Sunday's prep, no meal took longer than 30 minutes to make.

My Meals:
1. Orzo fried rice with fresh veggies & egg
2. Crispy chicken thighs with orzo
3. Green shakshuka
4. Stuffed sweet potato with black beans and avocado
5. Lemony chicken and orzo soup

I ordered these recipes based on what I thought I'd be in the mood for as the week went on — starting Monday really easy (pre-cooked orzo + veggies), breaking up the week with vegetarian options, and doing a big batch of soup leading into the weekend.

But you could mix and match these any way you wanted. You would just need to adjust small things. For example: I bought a slightly underripe avocado, knowing I wouldn't use it until Wednesday. And I froze half the chicken, because I wouldn't use it until Friday.

Here's how the week went!

Jenny Chang/BuzzFeed

It was the last night of cooking, and I was feeling surprisingly confident about the week had gone so far. Friday night happened to be absolutely freezing, so I couldn’t have been happier about making a piping hot bowl soup for dinner.

It was the last night of cooking, and I was feeling surprisingly confident about the week had gone so far. Friday night happened to be absolutely freezing, so I couldn't have been happier about making a piping hot bowl soup for dinner.

My meal planning worked out really well, and I was down to my last few ingredients… exactly what I needed to make my soup. (Note: For this recipe, I thawed the last of the frozen chicken in the fridge the night before.)

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

Jenny Chang/BuzzFeed

While the $30 is less than I normally spend, it turned out not to be an issue. Most meals made two portions (or leftovers), and for the ones that didn't, I could have easily fed both me and my boyfriend for just a few bucks more. And the best part is that after cooking at home for a week, I had zero guilt about splurging on a nice meal out on Saturday night.

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1. Put thought into planning your grocery list: ✍🏻 If you go to the grocery store without a plan, you'll find yourself buying lots of extra ingredients and items that don't necessarily work together. Fine-tuning your grocery list before you shop will help you stay organized, focused, and within your budget.

2. Mix in a few vegetarian meals: 🥕 When it comes down to it, meat is usually the most expensive thing in your grocery cart — so it helps to have some great vegetarian staples on hand. While you probably won't be able to buy fancy cuts of meat or fresh seafood on a budget, there are also lots of affordable meat options to consider adding to your grocery list like ground meat, canned tuna, frozen cod fillets, or frozen meatballs.

3. Meal prep as much as you can. 🥣 If you know one night of your week tends to be busy, try preparing as much as you can ahead of time to reduce your cooking time. Chop any veggies, make any grains in advance, and even cook meat the night before so you can re-heat it on a busy night.



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