Eating Gourmet on a PBJ Budget

Eating Gourmet on a PBJ Budget

All you need is $6 a day per person and a willingness plan ahead and to cook. For a young urban couple, eating four to five dinners at home during the week is pretty good. But, if you really want to save money, work up to six days a week. I do not believe in cooking seven days a week, that is what Thai restaurants are for!

One of the best ways to ensure that you cook at least four to five quality dinners a week at home is to plan the meals ahead. Eating at home not only saves money, but also helps you eat healthier. I have a friend who writes her weekly menu on a big chalkboard and it is very cute. I do not have a place for a chalkboard so I just have a dollar-store magnetic white board on the side of my fridge. This is also a great way to construct a shopping list which saves money, and I keep my shopping list right next to it. Unless I have leftover money in our grocery budget, I only purchase items on the list. I only put items on the list that will be used to make meals on my plan or will be used for breakfast, lunch and one snack food per week. I only try a few new recipes a week, and as you will notice in my sample menu below, I repeat ingredients (especially meat). Also, I have a few throw-it-in-a-crock-pot meals, toss-it-together-in-20-minutes meals, and one-or-two-hour-long-process meals. If I did not like to cook, I might never take an hour or two to make a meal, but I love my life when I take the time to slow down and cook a few times a week.

The last key to meal planning is your freezer. I used to cringe looking at my mom’s freezer with unidentifiable leftovers in Tupperware that might show up on my plate the next day, but she was onto something. I prefer not to freeze meals that are fully prepared, or actual leftovers, since my husband and I enjoy eating leftovers for lunch the next day. However, I do freeze ingredients such as meat, vegetables, and even homemade pizza dough. My major exception is soup because soup is always better the second time around, although I am not sure why. Below you will find one week of my meal plan, along with links to recipes and notes regarding freezing. I have also included preview of a second week of menu planning, recipes to follow.

For a more organized motivator and instructor on menu planning check this out:

Week One:

1.     Matt's Tortilla Soup (see recipe below, this time made with shredded chicken left over from last week)

2.     Whole Wheat Pasta With Fresh Tomato Sauce & Spinach Apple Bacon Pecan Salad (recipes below)

3.     Slow-Cooked Chicken Mole (without the raisins and using a whole chicken), brown rice, Bell Pepper Salad (except I was going for Mexican rather than Mediterranean so I omitted the cucumbers, olives and feta, and added a little cilantro and store-bought pico de gallo)

4.     Butternut Squash Soup topped with apple bacon crumbles and a dollop of Greek yogurt with a hunk of fresh bakery bread

5. Chicago's Jambalaya (see recipe below)

 Matt's Tortilla Soup

 You will need: chicken (either a whole chicken or four breasts), two small cans of Rotel (chili peppers and tomatoes), a box of chicken broth, a tablespoon of cumin, a huge bunch (or two or three) of cilantro, chopped, an avocado, chopped, grated cheese (pepper jack is great on this), cooked rice and Fritos (optional)

Directions: boil chicken in chicken broth (if using whole chicken, cover in half water-half broth). When chicken is cooked, shred chicken with two forks and put chicken back in broth. (If using whole chicken, discard skin and freeze carcass so you can make more broth, or even Matt's Tortilla Soup another time). Add Rotel, three-fourths of the cilantro, and the cumin. Cook for at least 20 minutes so that soup is infused with herbs. Matt always put rice on the bottom of bowl, ladled soup on over rice, and topped with avocado, grated cheese, and Fritos. We usually skip the Fritos and the rice to make it a little healthier.

Soup can be refrigerated for a few days, or frozen for a month.

10-Minute Fresh Tomato Sauce

You will need: three to five ripened to over-ripened tomatoes, a can of Italian-style tomatoes, one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar (optional)

Directions: throw tomatoes in a food processor (or chop) and add can of Italian-style tomatoes, without draining. Sauté garlic in olive oil, add chopped tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and salt, pepper, and sugar to taste.

Apple Bacon & Pecan Wilted Spinach Salad

You will need: four strips of bacon, 1/4 cup pecans, one tablespoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon raw sugar, four cups of spinach

Directions: fry bacon. Remove bacon and set aside but leave bacon grease in pan over low heat. Toss pecans in grease and add sugar (pecans will caramelize). Then add vinegar. Nuts should sizzle.  Remove from heat and add spinach. Toss or stir until spinach is coated in hot "dressing."  Break bacon into pieces and add to salad. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Chicago's Jambalaya (Spicy or Sweet)

You will need: six bratwursts, two bottles cheap beer (or water), one crunchy apple or one jalapeno (use apple for sweet taste and jalapeno for spicy taste), six to eight mini sweet peppers (three large red, orange, and/or yellow bell peppers will also work), one small onion, one tablespoon maple syrup, two tablespoons vegetable oil, salt

Directions: slice onion into rings, put in pot with brats, pour beer over brats and onion, and bring to a boil. While brats are boiling (20 minutes), slice and core apple (if using), remove stem and seeds of peppers, and chop into rings. If using jalapeno, chop finely. Then heat oil in deep pan. Add beer-cooked onions followed by peppers, apple or jalapeno. When oil is starting to boil off, add syrup and spoon small amounts of the bratwurst beer. Add salt to taste.

Spicy Version: When peppers are beginning to look, measure remaining brat-beer liquid. If it is less than two cups, add water until it reaches two cups. Pour two cups of liquid over peppers, then add one cup of brown rice. When the rice begins to boil, cover and reduce to simmer until rice is fully cooked.

Sweet Version: In a separate pot, add remaining brat-beer liquid. Add water if less than two cups along with one cup of brown rice. When rice begins to boil, cover and simmer until rice is fully cooked.

While rice is cooking (it can take up to 45 minutes), grill brats either on the stove or outside (depending on weather). Next, slice brats. When rice is fully cooked, mix everything together. 

Preview of Week 2:

  1. Ahi Tuna, Fried Rice, and Spinach Salad
  2. Chicken Enchilada Mole
  3. Steak Strips over Kale, Pear and Walnut Salad
  4. Grilled Chicken, Fettuccine Alfredo and Baby Broccoli
  5. Sausage and Spinach Deep-Dish Pizza

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  • I know you probably wrote this mainly for other housewives or mothers, but as a bachelor living in Lincoln Park I can say this is a great thread. I'm always looking for cheap ways to cook for my females while at the same time making it look expensive and gourmet.

  • Glad you found it helpful... Actually one of the all time stand out dates I have ever had was when my then boyfriend (now husband), set up a romantic dinner in his bedroom (away from housemates), it was steak, cheesey potatoes (from scratch), & asparagus: a meal I'll never forget.

  • Another guy here.... These are great tips for anyone. I think I am going to try them as well. Thanks for sharing! Glad I saw your blog in the Chicago Now Highlights email.

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