The convenience of fast food can be enticing: You walk in to a brightly-lit and familiar mecca, take a look at the menu, and get handed a tray of food that tastes exactly the same as every other burger, nugget, or Mega-Stuff’d Enchirito you’ve ever had. Sure, it’s been processed to the point it barely qualifies as food, but it’s CHEAP. Especially when you take advantage of the dollar menu.
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For only three bucks, you get a complete meal: a drink, a tiny single-patty hamburger, and a child’s size serving of fries. The real thing’s a lot smaller than in the ads, and it looks a little battered and worn, but who cares! It’s a cheap burger! A cheap, salty, sugary, preservative-packed meat disc. YUM.
Listen, you can do better. Yes, I enjoy an awful-for-me Big Mac every once in a while, like any red-blooded American woman. But you shouldn’t eat like that every meal. And your home-cooked meals can be just as frugal. Don’t believe me? Well, I did it. I made three complete, at-home meals that cost no more than three dollars each.
What you’ll need
For this experiment I’m assuming a few things: that you have a kitchen, standard cookware like pots and pans, and some other kitchen staples:
- Olive Oil
- Everyday spices like basil, oregano, red chili flakes (the kind that come with pizza)
- Garlic or garlic powder
- Hot Sauce
If you don’t, nab most of these items for free next time you’re at your favorite fast food or pizza chain. (I mean, haven’t you done enough for them? You deserve that salt packet.)
This isn’t the time to be shopping at Whole Foods, so don’t be an idiot. For this kind of feast you want to do most of your shopping at a Food 4 Less, Aldi, or Ultra. It’s still food, but with less fancy to-do and no probiotic cold-pressed anythings. Most stores will have a weekly flier you can view on their website. This lets you know some of the deals they’ll have in the store and it gives you an idea of what you may want to plan around. For example, the first day I went, a particular brand of pasta was five for a dollar. That’s 20 cents a package, which seems insane.
There are other things that are generally cheap: potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, and a lot of produce. You can also circle the store, taking note of what looks frugal so you can try to build a menu around that, but that approach can be overwhelming if it’s a large store, so I’d recommend looking online first.
Saving at the store
With this pasta in mind, I hit the store. Surprisingly, some people think fresh produce is expensive, but it’s often not. I knew I’d be making a tomato sauce for my pasta but I didn’t want to rely entirely on a canned item, so I was able to pick up an onion for seven cents and a couple of fresh Roma tomatoes that were $1.29 a pound. I weighed them to see they were about a third of a pound, so that would run me 50 cents, max.
To fill out my sauce I got a small can of plain tomato sauce that was only 30 cents.
Next I needed a protein, but with only $1.97 left on my three dollar budget, I know I had little chance of getting much meat. Instead, I went with mushrooms. Not everyone thinks about them first, but with the right marinade they can be flavorful and satisfying. Besides, a box of them was only $1.89.
The damage at the register? Only $2.95.
I did an end zone victory dance that made everyone uncomfortable, but I refused to let my spirit be caged. Now, you might be thinking, “But Janine, at the McBurgerBell, three dollars gets me a main, side, AND a fountain soda. Where’s my soda?” Shut up and drink water like a damn adult. We’re made up of 60% of it and need it to live. You can OD on Surge next time, idiot.
Sorry, was that too harsh? I just worry about you, y’know? So, water it is.
On to making the meal. First, tackle the mushrooms. You’ll be roasting them in an oven, so you should get these started first because they take a while. Dice a quarter of the onion, and wash and quarter the mushrooms. (There’s a ton in the package so one person will eat only a quarter of that box.) Now get a small oven-safe pan and throw in a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard, a dash of vinegar, salt, pepper, basil, and garlic or garlic powder. Toss the mushrooms around in this mixture and throw them in the oven at 375 degrees.
While that’s cooking you’ll move on to your pasta. Fill a large pot with water and a lot of salt, put it on the stove top. Once it’s boiling you’ll throw in your spaghetti, but it’s going to take a while so this will give you a chance to make your sauce.
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In a saucepan you’ll heat some olive oil (enough to cover the pan) and saute a quarter of the onion, chopped. Once the onion is translucent and slightly browned you’ll add a clove of minced garlic, then one of your tomatoes, also chopped. Let them go for a bit then throw in a few dashes of basil, oregano, salt, pepper, and red chili flakes. When they’ve all melded together, you’ll pour in your can of sauce and let that simmer. I threw in a bay leaf because I’m worth it, but it’s not necessary.
Once your water’s boiling, throw in a two-ounce serving of spaghetti. That’s about as much that can fit in your thumb and ring finger if you make an O shape with your first knuckles touching. If that’s confusing, make an O with your fingers and hold it up to your eye until you can just see through it. That’s two ounces, Captain Telescope. The packaging will tell you to boil the pasta for nine minutes. Set a timer for six minutes, or seven at most. You’ll cook it partially in the water and finish it in the sauce so that your sauce absorbs into these carb sticks and makes them tasty as hell.
When your timer goes off, drain the pasta carefully with oven mitts or use tongs to put the pasta into your saucepan. Then cook them together for the final two minutes.
During this last minute, turn your oven on to broil. By doing that, your mushrooms will caramelize and brown and, as my niece says, “get turnt up.” Just keep an eye on them because some ovens broil regularly and others start the fire of Mordor, which will destroy everything in its path.
Once your timer goes off and you plate everything, you’ll have a superb meal. (There’s fresh basil in my photo because I got a fresh basil plant and I like pretty things. I highly recommend them — they’re less than five bucks at Trader Joe’s and give you a houseplant you can eat.)
This is when the real magic begins. Now you have leftovers and ingredients. Do fast food meals give you that? No? Just hellish diarrhea? That’s what I thought.
After this, I was able to go back to stores twice and make more meals that cost less than your greasy mistake.
For breakfast I had mushroom, onion, and tomato tofu scramble tacos. Using $1.49 firm tofu I snagged at Trader Joe’s, 99-cent corn tortillas, and a ripe 50-cent avocado I got back at Food 4 Less. Ba-da-bing.
After that, I cut and baked those tortillas in the oven to make chips. I covered the chips with chorizo I got during a ten for $10 deal, and $1.75 shredded cheese from Food 4 Less, along with my leftover onion, tomato, and avocado. Ba-da-boom.
Now my fridge is stocked with a ton of basic ingredients I can add to and use to make other wallet-friendly meals, like a cheesy chicken and broccoli baked potato (suck it, Wendy’s), chorizo and mushroom quesadillas (try to keep up, Taco Bell), ground turkey bolognese pasta (none of you even serve pasta DO YOU), and rice casserole with sausage, greens, and lentils. In the long-run, cooking at home is better for your health and your budget. Plus, you get to really have it your way without having to worry about a sullen teenager spitting in your food. Happy cooking!