Eating at the hospital cafeteria lately is an exercise in choice. For one thing, the food is not so wonderful that it tempts me to indulge. (Though it's better than what The Mama's getting on her trays. Who in the world thinks that burned sauces and overcooked meats are going to encourage people to eat?!?) For another, most items are overpriced, for what you get. I have the cash to buy a lavish breakfast or lunch -- but something in my Hollander blood says, "Wait a minute. Can't you use that money to buy [insert here] instead?"
I've found myself slipping back into tricks I used as a poor college student and
newlywed, to keep myself and the Brick reasonably healthy and well-fed. Some come especially handy when you don't have access to a stove, or are making do in a hotel room for a few days.
*Choose your proteins wisely. Right now, beef is expensive -- which means you're often smarter to substitute chicken, pork or fish, instead. Case in point: the sandwiches here. A burger is nearly $5 -- but I can get a grilled chicken or fish sandwich for $2. (Yeah, I know...it's healthier, too.) Now move on to:
*The condiments section -- your friend. Sliced tomatoes, onions and several lettuce leaves gave my sandwich the equivalent of a salad, for no extra cost. The same expanding trick happened at breakfast. A scoop of salsa, generous sprinkling of cheese and cottage cheese alongside turned hashbrowns and sausage patties into a full meal, with more protein and veggies. (I could have transformed scrambled eggs, for even less.)
I am not a fan of stealing packets from the local fast food place -- but you're not, if you're purchasing sandwiches there. (Warning: that means a few packets -- not a handful.) Salsa, chopped onions and salad dressing add zip to plain foods. Lemon or lime juice, with a packet or two of sugar, turns plain water into lemon or limeade. (Try the lemon juice in your favorite soup -- it makes cream soups curdle, though.)
If you're really hungry, a few catsup packets stirred into hot water make a passable substitute for tomato soup -- something The Mama often resorted to during a desperate period in her life. (Her only cash came from picking up pop cans for change.) Add a few packets of crackers for a more filling meal.
*Keep extra on hand. A tube of peanut butter, more substantial crackers, protein bars and yogurt don't take up much room, and will keep you from being forced to Buy Stuff. I also like nut-based candy bars, like Snickers. Keep a set of cutlery in your bag, as well, for quick purchases at the deli and...
--COOKING FOR YOURSELF--
*Use the grocery store...especially if you can find an ethnic one. Better for you -- and cheaper, too. Our local King Soopers was good -- but the Vietnamese store was even better. Not only could we find veggies and fish (much fresher than Soopers!) for less, but we could purchase better-quality. We ate a lot of ramen -- but it was Sapporo Ichiban, infinitely better than the no-name brands. And we got it on sale at five packages for a dollar.
I still hit the Oriental grocery markets in Denver, when I get up there -- but the local Sprouts store gives me incredible buys on veggies (green and red peppers, 2 or 3 for a buck!) and fruit, in between.
*Think basics and sale items. What's the cheapest source of protein? Don't forget to factor bone-in vs. boneless -- though there is a valid argument that bone-in meat is tastier. (In the case of chicken, I figure chicken bone-in breast should be 50% or less than boneless.) In Michigan, we ate a lot of bone-in chicken breast, smelt (a small fish you fry and eat, bones and all), hot dogs, eggs, stew beef...and the best bargain of all -- calamari. (Yep, that's right -- squid. In Michigan.) Colorado's best buys were chicken and eggs, but also rainbow trout, pork chops and ground beef. (The latter is now, sadly, one of the most expensive proteins on the market. Use ground turkey or chicken, or do what my sister Lori does-- mix it with ground beef, 50/50.)
Or whatever was on sale. If it was a rock-bottom price, I bought several and stashed them in the freezer. I made a lot of soups, stews and casseroles, to take advantage of every bite of food.
Then again, if things were really tight, we ate a lot of scrambled and boiled eggs, ham, beans and rice (the ham bone comes in handy here), cheese, tortillas, peanut butter (the Brick had a PB&J sandwich nearly every day in grad school), homemade bread and canned chicken noodle soup. Going vegetarian helps -- but honestly, we like our meat. If money is tight, I just cut down on the amount of meat I use. We also eat hearty things like oatmeal, quinoa and such.
*Think clearance -- or salvage. Make a quick stop at the clearance section part of the trip whenever you use the grocery store. You never know what you'll find -- I've snagged even steaks, fresh oysters and crab legs for a fraction of their cost. Bread, rolls and cookies come in for pennies on the dollar, too.
Look hard for a salvage store in your area. It took me years to find the Friday/Saturday store up in Denver -- but was more than worth it. Goods may be post-dated, but they're still supremely edible. And they're often luxury items: I've routinely bought English cheese, Irish butter, olives, specialty sauces and unusual crackers for less than their everyday counterparts.
Keep your food costs lower, and you've got more to spend on important things. Every extra dollar helps!