Budget Bytes Shares Her Week of Inexpensive Dinners (Plus How She Got Started)
Welcome to Kitchn's series A Week of Dinners, where we show you how our favorite cooks put dinner on the table.
My New Year's resolution is to be a little more like Beth Moncel in 2019. She's the mastermind behind Budget Bytes, a wildly popular blog-turned-Instagram-turned-app born out of an aim to bust the long-held myth that cooking on a budget means eating canned beans and ramen noodles every single night.
Beth's dishes are flavorful, inventive, and colorful. Since she got her start in 2009, Beth has been teaching people how to eat delicious food made with a multitude of ingredients. Her trick? She analyzes the cost per amount of ingredient used for every single recipe she makes — a technique she learned while working at the prepared foods counter at Whole Foods. In fact, she calculates out price per recipe and price per serving so you know exactly how much you're getting and what it'll cost you (i.e., this vegan winter lentil stew will cost you $5.08 for the entire pot, and $0.64 cents per serving). Worth it? I think yes.
We got a chance to chat with Beth to find out what a week of dinners looks like for her, where she chooses to cut corners, and the one thing she likes to splurge on (when she lets herself!).
A Week of Dinners from Beth Moncel
In general for weeknight meals, Beth goes for things that either cook in one pot or pan, are fast, or are mostly hands-off (like roasting). Most importantly, they have to have plenty of vegetables! Here are her five picks, in her own words.
I love how fast and easy this dish is, and the fresh vibrant flavors it has. Plus, the leftovers hold up really well for meal prepping your lunch the following day.
Total cost: $10.01 recipe / $2.50 serving
These cute little meatloaves are so juicy. I love that everything cooks on one sheet pan, because no one wants to spend an hour cleaning on a weeknight.
Total cost: $6.27 recipe / $3.14 serving
Simple pasta dishes are always a winner for me on weeknights because they're uncomplicated, filling, and totally comforting. I like this one because you get a dose of fresh vegetables, pus extra fiber and protein from the beans.
Total cost: $6.45 recipe / $1.61 serving
I love this dish because I can make it year-round, even when it's too cold outside to grill. It has plenty of vegetables, but we still feel like we're eating comfort food.
Total cost: $9.11 recipe / $1.82 serving
This has been my go-to for almost 10 years because it's extremely flavorful even though it only has a handful of ingredients (most of which are pantry staples)! I keep these ingredients on hand so I can always whip up these chickpeas with no planning.
Total cost: $4.68 recipe / $1.17 serving
Food Budgeting Questions (and Beyond!) with Beth Moncel
What inspired you to start Budget Bytes?
It all started as something I was doing for myself to figure out my finances in 2009 right after the recession. I had recently graduated college and was working a job that wasn't paying much at the Whole Foods prepared foods department. I was not spending any extra money and still had a hard time making ends meet.
My first degree was in nutrition, so I wasn't okay with eating fatty, cheap food. What I learned at work was how to make something really good a little bit less expensive. I started paying attention to how they used ingredients and did a cost breakdown and learned to tweak things to work for my budget. I started posting on my personal Facebook like "OMG I made black bean soup for $3," and people started asking me for recipes. So I started learning about blogging and never thought anyone would see it. Then it just took off.
What's your meal planning strategy?
Nowadays it's a little different because I do so much cooking for the blog. But back when I was still working my day job, I would spend my off day planning a couple of big-batch meals — usually a pasta, soup, or stew. That way I only had to cook one thing and could portion it out into single-sized containers to stretch it out and make it last throughout the week.
I would also stick one to two portions in the freezer so I had a rotating stock of meals. If I ever got tired or ran out of time, I would have a backup plan. A lot of people have problems with eating leftovers, but I find that if you're hungry, you won't have a problem with it. Or maybe you just haven't found a recipe that you love yet. I like to stick to things that are so good that I'm kind of sad when they're gone.
Where do you grocery shop — and how often?
I really love Aldi! It's so incredible because they have many really good-priced items and a huge selection of organic foods. Whatever I can't get there I get at Kroger or this little natural food market. Whole Foods also has really great prices on basics and produce. I used to try to shop once a week, which would force me to plan out my week. When you do that you spend less time (and money!) in the grocery store.
Do you have a favorite aisle?
The produce aisle! It has the most texture, color, and flavor variety.
Spice that you can't get enough of?
Smoked paprika! I like to add that to things that are Cajun-inspired. I put it in soups and stews, use it to season meat and veggies. Everything.
What about vegetables?
I am obsessed with sweet potatoes. They're cheap and you can use them in dishes both sweet and savory.
What's the first thing someone who wants to start a food budget should do?
First, do a cost breakdown of a typical meal. I have a tutorial on my website: You go over your receipt and see how much the ingredients cost compared with how much of them you used. It really puts things in perspective. For example, if I use this much of a certain kind of cheese, that doubles the price of a recipe. Try to see how much you're spending on an average meal before you start budgeting. From there, tweak one recipe you really love to make it cost-effective.
Read more: How to Calculate Recipe Costs
What's the hardest thing about sticking to a food budget?
I think the biggest mistake people make is trying to go all in from the beginning. It's a very individual process and you have to find out what works for you. You should start slow by making one thing per week and then see how it works in your schedule. You have to find a balance of convenience and price. Some people like to cook completely from scratch; some people need shortcuts or to eat out every now and then. Start slow.
What are some other food budgeting mistakes to avoid?
People think that the only foods that qualify as "healthy" are the ones that are really trendy and expensive, like açaí for example. But really, you can get basic fruits and veggies that are not as expensive and also really good for you. I always recommend looking at the cost for the amount of food that you're getting to get the most bang for your buck.
What are some things you splurge on?
Feta cheese for sure! Although I always make sure that if I am splurging on something that the leftovers can be saved or frozen, and that the rest of it isn't going to waste. You have to plan for splurges.
Are there any kitchen gadgets you swear by?
I try to keep my kitchen tools, gadgets, and appliances really basic. A chef's knife is absolutely necessary. And people have been cooking for thousands of years without an Instant Pot. I do love slow cookers, though. You can get a really basic one for $25 and use it to slow cook meats, dried beans (which are less expensive than canned), soups, and stews. I also use a basic cheese grater for a lot of purposes like shredding vegetables, grating ginger, and mincing garlic.
What type of pots and pans do you use?
I have been cooking with a set that I got from Calphalon for almost a whole decade now, the Calphalon Classic Nonstick Set in anodized aluminum. It's one of their budget lines (10 pieces for $199), but it's really good because it's thicker and a bit heavier than other brands, which is what you want. You don't want your cookware to be really thin aluminum.
What are some things that are always in your pantry?
I pretty much always have flour and sugar for baked goods and sauces. Pretty much every recipe you'll need a little bit of brown sugar. Oils and vinegars for pan sauces and salad dressings. I also consider my freezer to be like my pantry; I always keep broccoli florets, spinach, peas, and corn in there. Oh, and leftovers.