Budget City Cooking

Budget City Cooking

A few weeks ago The New York Times Wednesday food section had a feature story about cooking for 99¢ a day. More than a few home cooks I know were steaming about that piece. One said it best: "It was snide. People are really hurting and The Times treated the idea of low cost cooking as a joke." She was right. If you missed it, the article's premise was primarily about eating from the canned and packaged groceries sold at Jack's 99-Cent Stores.

This is not what I have in mind when I think of cooking on a budget.

Like most city cooks, in good times and bad, I have a food budget. It's not rigid but I always have a general idea of what I expect to spend on groceries each week. This does not include wine or the occasional indulgence, like being on vacation and buying a half-dozen jars of locally made cherry jam (I did this last summer and am still benefiting from that impulsive purchase). A big percentage of my food budget gets spent in a major bring-it-home-by-taxi grocery run that I make every ten days or so. This is when I buy core ingredients (canned tomatoes, favorite frozen vegetables, grains and pastas, baking ingredients, spices and condiments, other things with shelf life, some meats and produce). More money is spent in the good urban habit of shopping daily, as when I buy fish for that night's supper, or bread to have with a supper salad.

But it's clear that food prices are going up. I don't blame my beloved New York food merchants. After all, they're paying more, too. Much of the price rise is due to $100+ per barrel oil prices. It costs more to put gas in a tractor or fishing boat, to run the machines that are used to harvest and process food, and to truck everything that we eat into New York City's markets. Someone has to pay and it's us.

So what can we do to lower our cooking costs but still be able to make tempting and seasonal food? I don't have a way to bring our food costs to that of The Times' useless and smug 99¢ meals (a budget that included stroke-provoking canned chicken sausage and Little Debbie cakes). But there are smart, flavorful and nutritious ways to cook well for less.

Budget Cooking and Shopping Tips


Mostly we can be mindful. Treat ingredients with care, buy only what we need, and eat like Italian and Chinese home cooks, with a little animal protein but lots of lower priced grains and vegetables on our plates. Even when this recession ends and good times again roll, these are good habits to keep around.


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