It is easy to cut back on some expenses. We can cut back on how much alcohol we buy, or the clothes we buy, or our movie club memberships, but it is hard to cut back spending on food. We need food to survive and we like it. At least I do. Hey, we eat three times a day, seven days a week. We might as well enjoy it, right? But enjoying often means spending a lot of money.

College food really taught me how to cook. My first week in college I didn’t understand why everyone complained about the food served in the dining hall. I thought it tasted great. And I could eat as much as I wanted. But as the weeks passed, I began to notice how the food cycled. Every two weeks, on Tuesday night you could count on sliced beef heavy with pepper and green beans with little carrot bites. And as the months passed, I noticed that rather than tasting like mom’s home cooked beef, it tasted as though it was cooked en masse (well, because it was). By my second year, I realized that I was going to have to really learn how to cook if I wanted variety and if I wanted that home cooked taste. And so I learned.

The tricky thing about cooking in college though, is that you have no money. Or if you do, it is earmarked for other things. So I learned how to buy food with pennies and be creative in how to serve it so that it tasted good and people came back for more. Here are three of those recipes to help you with ideas in your own cooking, or just to help you stretch those dollars a bit more and enjoy your dinners.

Pasta. I love pasta and I am not Italian. There is just something very satisfying about that mix of tomato and noodle. And pasta is very cheap. Most of the time you can get a good box of spaghetti (or if the kid in you likes bowties or elbows that works too) for a dollar or less. I cannot tell the difference between the more expensive brands and the cheaper brands, and if there is a difference, much of it is lost by how good my pasta sauce tastes (in my opinion). Some will go for the canned pasta sauce. That works, especially if you are in a hurry to reach that PTA meeting and don’t have time to make your own sauce. If you do have time, or it is Saturday and you are thinking of how you can spend a few moments of quality fun time with your wife, then making your own sauce is the way to go.

Grab one tomato per person eating. One onion and four cloves of garlic. One bottle of olive oil (which normally can last me at least 20 meals). Dice the onion and garlic and heat in oil on medium to high heat until they are brown. The secret here is to cook them at a low enough temperature that they soften and shrink (unless you like chunks in your sauce – I do!).

Now a good pasta sauce for me is chunky. And I like some type of meat in it. It always depends on my mood though. Part of my chunk is mushroom. Part of it is sausage in natural or artificial sausage casings or ham (sounds crazy, but ham tastes great and is cheaper). As the onion and garlic cooks, cut up Italian sausage and put it in (the onions should be brown by now). Then the mushrooms. The last thing you want to put in are the tomatoes. Squeeze them right into the pan with your hands so that they are mush, skins and all. A few seeds will spurt out, but if you have the right husband or wife, that could be a bit of fun or a good chuckle. Flavor to your tastes. I like to put in a healthy dose of salt and a couple pinches of parsley, with maybe a dash of Worchester sauce if I am in the mood. When all is said and done, you have a healthy, filling meal that won’t cost you more than about $8 for two and $10 for four people. Now that beats McDonalds any day. If you want to tinker, a bit of fresh parmesan to sprinkle over the top and loaf of Italian bread with butter will do nicely, as will a salad.

Stirfry. By now, from my other articles, you know that I love Asian food. The American version of this is pretty good too, and that is stirfry. A good stirfry has at least three vegetables, one meat and a healthy dose of sauce. Here are my favorite ingredients and the way I do it quick and easy. For two people, I use one onion, one head of broccoli, and a small package of white mushrooms. My favorite meat is chicken and my favorite sauce is teriyaki. Cut up the onion and broccoli first and get them going in a bit of oil in a saucepan. You can use water instead of oil, just keep adding more as it boils off. With water, everything will be softer, and some of the flavor will disappear. With oil, the flavor will be retained. Add the mushrooms shortly after.

The key to cooking is feel and pace. I always cook things that take longer first, and prepare, cut or peel the foods that take a short time to cook in the meantime. This saves time. You could prepare everything first and then cook, but most of us cook so we can eat, not eat so that we can cook.

The second rule most people fail to realize is that meat takes a shorter time to cook than vegetables. Add the chicken after the vegetables are almost done. It will make the chicken more tender, and tender meat sucks up more sauce. When the chicken has turned white on both sides, circulate the food around the pan for another minute to make sure the chicken is cooked (if it tough, then you have cooked it too long), then pour on the sauce. I use bottled teriyaki sauce. It is quick and easy and a bottle can last at least four stirfrys and I am very generous with how much I put on.

The great thing about stirfry is that there a hundred different ways to cook it. You can put in snap peas, cauliflower, carrots, bok choy, leeks, potatoes, bamboo shoots, peppers, or just about anything that cooks well in a saucepan. You can cook things shorter times so they are crisper. You can have shrimp, or pork, or beef as the main meat. You can even use salad dressing instead of a classic sauce (Italian dressing works great). Sometimes I mix teriyaki sauce and Caesar salad dressing. You can put your stirfry over rice or noodles and make it go even further. And sometimes, I just plain want to try different things and toss in tomatoes or cucumbers at the last second so they warm right up but don’t cook a lot. And stirfry is healthy, especially depending what you put on it.

Cost for my original style stirfry: $10 for two people.

A third great meal is a beef wrap. Most people love beef. But beef is one of the more expensive meats. The key is to have beef, but have it cut thin. I actually believe thin beef tastes better than thick beef. There are those that will argue, and maybe they are right, so the only way to appease this sort is to make it look and taste like there is more beef. Beef wraps do that.

For starters I use green onions. I cut them in two inch lengths. Then I cut up peppers (for those who don’t like peppers, asparagus works well) also in two inch lengths. Then slices of mushroom. For the first two, you want them to look like mini fingers. Have your butcher or grocer cut your beef into strips as thin as possible. Two good sirloin steaks cut into centimeter or smaller widths work great. Put two pepper pieces and two green onions in with a couple mushroom slices and wrap the beef around them. Now you have fat beef fingers with bits of vegetable fingers sticking out. I always spear my fingers with toothpicks to keep them together. Toss them into a fry pan. Maybe some oil, or if the beef is fatty enough, then there is no need. Cook them until the beef is cooked. If you think the vegetables will be too raw, you can always stand them on end, like fingers are growing out of the pan. Then dribble water down into them. This water will steam up through the vegetables while the meat doesn’t cook at all. The last thing you want to do is toss in a bit of soy sauce and pepper to taste. The purpose of this is to flavor the beef a bit. Make sure the skillet is hot so the soy sauce immediately bubbles up. It flavors a little better that way.

Two steaks will serve four people, especially if you have a bit of rice to go along with it or a good pot of mashed potatoes. Since the beef is on the outside, and it is the first thing your tongue tastes, it feels like there is more meat and your mouth thinks so too.

This meal costs $10 for two people.

All of these meals cook up in less than thirty minutes. Excepting the pasta, they are ready in fifteen. And cleanup is one to two pans, a knife, the cutting board, and whatever plates you use. I try to be smart and always cook more than I can eat, so that there is enough for lunch the next day. I also plan ahead and buy the vegetables in packs, so that a pack will provide fodder for three to four meals. A bag of onions costs two to three dollars, but you only use fifty cents of it a meal. In all three of these recipes, I have overestimated the cost. In reality, you should be able to buy for less than I have stated if you shop around a bit.

These are just a couple cooking ideas to help you spruce up your dinner time and subsequent lunches, and make your food dollars go further, while maintaining a great health aspect in your meals.

© Seth Crossman