Adulting for Autistics: Feeding Yourself on a Budget

With all the talk of quarantine and self-isolation and all that surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized that a lot of people may not be experienced in feeding themselves for an extended period without breaking the bank.  So today I’m going to talk about some ways to feed yourself and your household on a budget while making sure you get real nutrition.  I know you can live on ramen at something like $0.35 per serving, but that’s not very nutritious (and I have such an aversion to the smell, I can’t even be in the same house where it’s been cooked). 

All these ideas are equally useful if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, living on a fixed income, having emergency houseguests, or even if you’re just a broke college student.  They’re also good for anyone who hasn’t developed a lot of kitchen skills yet.  This isn’t just cooking for a crisis, it’s a perfectly good way to live, so take it to heart!

Easy Staples

First and foremost, anything you can buy in bulk and keep in the pantry or freezer is a great way to get a lot of food for a little money.  Rice, dry beans, dry pasta, frozen fruits and vegetables are all good things to keep on hand.  You can make plenty of quick and easy meals from the pantry.

Sandwiches – Do not discount the power of the humble sandwich!  If you’re really broke, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter (or almond butter or sun butter, whichever you prefer) can be a saving grace.  I know, I’ve done it.  Sandwiches make great lunches to take to work or school, and having that covered for a week with a couple of cheap purchases can free up your budget to buy more nutritious food for dinners.  And you don’t have to stop at PB&J (jelly or jam always makes peanut butter that much better)!  Lunchmeat or deli meat can be had at several different price points, from $0.50 a pack that will make about two decent sandwiches up to about $8 for a couple of pounds of “premium” meat, and cheese comes in blocks or slices at similar prices.  You’re not stuck with unsatisfying meals just because you’re putting them between two slices of bread. 

Pasta and Jarred Sauce – 1-2 pounds of pasta can be had for a couple of dollars, and a jar of sauce can be as little as a dollar or as much as $5.00, depending on your taste.  You can get 4-5 servings out of that, which might be a meal for the whole family, a week of dinners for a single person, or one dinner and lunch the next day for a couple.

Beans and Rice – I come from Louisiana, where I think red beans and rice is our official state dish (Note: I checked – it’s actually gumbo).  Here we usually use red beans, but other cultures traditionally use black beans.  Add some sliced sausage (the cheap stuff is fine, I used to use the kind that was basically a hot dog on steroids), maybe a can of diced tomatoes, and some good Cajun seasoning (I recommend Tony’s), and you’ve got a very tasty meal that gets better the longer it sits together.  For a single person, this is a week of meals; for a family, there will probably be leftovers for lunches or a second dinner.

If you’re really pinching pennies like I was for a while when I was eating on $25 a month, lentils are even cheaper than beans!  As a bonus, lentils take to pretty much any spice palate you want to put on them, so you can make an Italian-inspired lentil soup with tomatoes, oregano, and basil or Indian-spiced lentils with curry paste, garlic and ginger, and turmeric. 

Soups and Stews

This is probably my favorite way to cook once and eat several times.  And it’s a great way to learn your kitchen skills and hone your seasoning technique, too.  If you over-season a soup or stew, just add water to thin it out.  If you over-salt it, add a sliced potato to soak up the extra.

A soup or stew is very simple to make.  It’s the same basic steps every time. 

  1. Choose your meat (if you want it and can afford it) and brown it.
  2. Add broth or stock or water with bouillon added.
  3. Add vegetables – frozen packs are great, canned is also ok, fresh is always good if you have it.
  4. Season – there are pre-mixed blends like Tony’s and Mrs. Dash, you can start easy with the basic salt/pepper/garlic, or you can get more involved with basil and oregano or marjoram and tarragon.

If you don’t include meat, just throw veggies in a pot with some broth and season.  Cook until done.

Potato soup is a particular favorite of mine.  There are loads of recipes to choose from online, but they’re all basically the same.  Chop up some potatoes, boil them in water or broth with seasonings until they’re soft and mash them roughly into the soup, leaving some chunks for texture.  Add some shredded cheese to amp up the flavor and add protein.  You can customize it to your own taste: leave it thin with big chunks of potato or mash them in so it’s more like a potato milkshake, add stuff like crumbled bacon, chives, or even fried eggs (so I hear – I don’t eat eggs myself but I know folks who swear by a fried egg on top).  All the ingredients are cheap, it’s a very filling soup, and it can be as quick and dirty or as gourmet as you want it to be.

If You Have a Slightly Bigger Budget

Protein is always expensive, so if you have a little more to spend, the first thing you should look at is adding protein to your meals.  Add sausage to your beans and rice, add some ground beef or turkey to your pasta sauce, start your soups with beef or pork stew meat or get some bacon into that potato soup.  There’s nothing wrong with going meatless, but your health will suffer if you don’t get enough protein, so make sure it’s in there in some form.

If your budget allows, you can also add bread to your meals. This is more about feeling like you’re eating a full meal than it is about nutrition.  You can add garlic bread to your pasta, make soda bread or rolls to go with soup or stew.

Another good place to put your budget to work is in your staples.  Stock up on the dry goods I talked about before as well as seasonings.  A well-stocked spice cabinet can make cheap food delicious!  Pick up some curry paste and turmeric from a local Asian market (they’re both much cheaper there), make sure you have plenty of garlic (try it first when you think something needs salt), and remember that sage, oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary are all good for everything from vegetable soup to roast chicken.  

Adulting for Autistics Feeding Yourself on a Budget pin

What’s your favorite budget-friendly, cook-once-eat-several-times recipe?  Do you have a version of potato soup that you swear by?  What budget cooking tips did I miss?  Anybody want to start a recipe swap in the comments?

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