How to Eat Well on a Budget

Beth Moncel, founder of food blog Budget Bytes, shares tips and an easy weeknight recipe
TIMEJanuary 31, 2020

Good food doesn’t have to break the bank. Beth Moncel has made it her mission to prove it.

Moncel is the Nashville-based food blogger behind Budget Bytes, where she shares money-saving tips and hundreds of simple, quick, and budget-friendly recipes—all broken down by price per ingredient and cost per serving. A skillet of creamy tomato and spinach pasta, for instance, will run you $0.93 per serving; slow-cooker sesame beef brings it up to $1.71. And for dessert, you can have fudge brownie pots for $0.52 each.

Moncel started the site in 2009, as a recent college graduate with a degree in nutritional science but a mountain of student debt. Struggling to make ends meet, but determined not to settle for a diet of instant ramen, she began tracking her food spending down to the last penny, finding ways to cut costs and experimenting with new recipes to satisfy her stomach, taste buds, and wallet.

Her blog started simply as a way to document her progress and soon found an enthusiastic and grateful audience. Budget Bytes now reaches millions of readers each month.

Moncel’s philosophy? “Good food doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy to be enjoyable,” she said. “Keep it simple and enjoy fresh food that costs you less, is better for you, and that you can be proud that you made yourself.”

Here, Moncel shares some of her best tips for eating well while spending less.

Beth Moncel
Beth Moncel. (Beth Moncel)

The Epoch Times: What are your favorite low-effort, high-reward money-saving tips? Are there any that you found especially life-changing?

Beth Moncel: Definitely batch cooking! I learned this early on, after watching how large commercial food operations worked. Cooking in large batches gives you more output with less man-hours.

When I was basically working two full-time jobs, I would cook on my day off and eat the leftovers throughout the week. I stuck to recipes that hold up well in the refrigerator or could be frozen, like chili, soups, and casseroles. Having that food already prepared, portioned, and ready to reheat really cut down on the temptation to order out or buy prepared food when I was tired and hungry.

The Epoch Times: On the first step of cooking—shopping for ingredients—what should people be mindful of at the store? How can you tell if you’re getting a good deal?

Ms. Moncel: This is really a learned skill. Always pay attention to prices and you’ll actually start to memorize the general cost of certain ingredients, so you’ll know if they are running more or less expensive that week.

If you stick to whole grains, beans, and basic vegetables, though, you’ll definitely always be getting a good deal. Compared to meat, dairy, and prepared or packaged foods, whole grains, beans, and simple vegetables are always a fraction of the cost per pound. And they also tend to be the healthiest ingredients in the store!

The Epoch Times: What are some ingredients people most commonly overspend on, and what are good alternatives?

Ms. Moncel: “Fancy” produce. There is this idea that to be healthy you have to consume these trendy “superfoods,” but that’s just not the case. You don’t need to down pomegranates, açai berries, broccolini, and other fancy produce to be super healthy. Run-of-the-mill vegetables like carrots, onions, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and celery are every bit as healthy and are usually around $1 per pound. Fill up on those under-appreciated produce items and you’ll be doing your body and budget a favor.

The Epoch Times: On the other hand, what is worth spending more on? What are your favorite splurges?

Ms. Moncel: I’m a sucker for cheese. I will spend a little more on a good cheese, but I make sure to use it sparingly. Cheese is one of those items it’s easy to go overboard with in your meal, but when you use it mindfully, you can still get a big flavor punch without going crazy. I always freeze my leftover cheese, too, so it doesn’t go to waste. It’s too expensive to let it go moldy in the back of my fridge!

The Epoch Times: Do you have any other tips for minimizing waste in the kitchen?

Ms. Moncel: That is something that is very important to me. Not only is reducing waste good for the environment (food waste is one of the largest contributors to landfills), but it’s great for your wallet, too. Every time you throw food in the garbage, it’s just like throwing dollar bills away. When you think about it that way, it becomes easier to be more diligent!

One of the most helpful tips I have for reducing waste in the kitchen is to shop your refrigerator and pantry before you shop the grocery store. When you’re planning out what you’re going to cook or buy for the week, scan your refrigerator and pantry to see what you have on hand that might need to be used up ASAP. Build your menu based on those ingredients first. It’s the old “first in, first out” method used in restaurants and food service.

And second, I try to freeze whatever I can to give myself more time to use it. Not everything is freezer-friendly, but a lot more foods can be frozen than people realize. I love freezing cheese and whole citrus, because both are less expensive when purchased in larger quantities. Cheese thaws flawlessly, and frozen citrus is great for zesting and juicing (although not great for slicing or garnishing). On the rare occasion that I have leftover wine, it goes into an empty ice cube tray, then gets frozen for use in cooking later.

The Epoch Times: The recipes on your site help prove that budget food doesn’t have to be boring, bland, or repetitive. What are some of your favorite inexpensive ways to add more flavor to your meals and keep them exciting?

Ms. Moncel: Frozen vegetables! I keep a variety on hand at all times, like broccoli florets, spinach, corn, peas, and edamame. Because frozen vegetables are already chopped and prepped, you can toss them into whatever you’re cooking. I add these vegetables into pasta dishes, soup, stir-fries, homemade pizzas, frittatas, and so many more things. It’s like instantly adding color, texture, and flavor to your meal.

And of course, having a well-stocked spice cabinet doesn’t hurt either. I like to keep basic spices like chili powder, cumin, cayenne, basil, oregano, garlic powder, and a pepper grinder on hand, to mix and match different flavors so dinner always tastes new and interesting.

Smoked paprika has actually become one of my most used spices. It adds a deliciously deep, smoky flavor wherever it’s added. I use it in my tacos, chili, soups, dips, sauces, and well, pretty much everything! Curry powder is also quite versatile. You can use it to season roasted meat or vegetables, make cold dishes like curry chicken salad, or add it to soups and stews.

The Epoch Times: What’s your go-to weeknight dinner?

Ms. Moncel: I love a good stir-fry. You can change up the vegetables and sauce each time so it’s always different. They’re always fast and easy, and are a great way to use up leftover vegetables in your refrigerator.

Spicy Coconut Vegetable Stir-Fry

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes

Serves 4

For the spicy coconut sauce:

  • 1 13.5-ounce can full-fat coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup natural-style peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons sriracha
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice (about one lime)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

For the stir fry:

  • 4–6 cups mixed vegetables
  • 1 tablespoon high-heat cooking oil of choice

Optional, for serving:

  • 4 cups cooked rice (or 8 ounces noodles)
  • 1/4 cup chopped peanuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges

In a medium bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, peanut butter, sriracha, brown sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, minced garlic, and grated ginger. If needed, gently heat the sauce in the microwave or in a saucepot to help the peanut butter melt into the coconut milk. Taste the sauce and adjust the heat (sriracha), salt (soy sauce), sweetness (brown sugar), or tartness (lime juice) to your liking.

Chop your vegetables, if not pre-chopped. Heat the cooking oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the vegetables to the skillet in order of hardest to softest to allow harder vegetables, like carrots, more time to cook and to avoid over-cooking softer vegetables. Stir fry the vegetables only for about 1 to 2 minutes, or just until they begin to soften on the edges, because they will cook further once the sauce is added. If using a tender green, like spinach, wait to add it to the skillet until after the sauce has been added.

Pour the prepared spicy coconut sauce over the vegetables, stir to combine, and allow the sauce to heat through (about 2 minutes). If you are using a tender green, like spinach, stir it into the hot sauce and cook just until it has wilted.

To serve, spoon the vegetables and sauce over a bowl of hot rice, or add pre-cooked noodles to the skillet and toss with the vegetables and sauce until combined. Top with chopped peanuts and cilantro, and serve with a wedge of lime to squeeze over the top.

Recipe courtesy of Beth Moncel

Crystal Shi
Food Editor
Crystal Shi is the food editor for The Epoch Times. She is a journalist based in New York City.