I was the quintessential starving student in college. During my first year in the dorms, I was forced to purchase my university’s dining plan to my detriment.
Our dorm rooms did not have kitchenettes, so the college conveniently required all freshmen to buy the dining plan. The food was subpar at best. One time, my friends and I saw one of the lunch workers bring in a box that read “premium wet dog food” into the back door of the dining hall. The next day, they served us beef stroganoff. Coincidence? I think not.
Needless to say, I ate a lot of ramen and popcorn that year. We were at least allowed to have microwaves in our dorm, so I could do some basic cooking. After freshman year, I moved out of the dorms and started the hellish process known as adulting. I worked so many service industry jobs but could only afford to pay my bills barely. I still ate a lot of ramen. If it weren’t for multivitamins, I would have been malnourished during this time.
When I finally started my master’s program, I was sick of ramen and popcorn. I had saved up enough money to move into a townhouse with a full kitchen. I also lived alone for the first time, so I really had to watch out for myself. I worked during the day and attended classes at night, so I ate out all the time, which depleted my funds and expanded my waistline. This was when I decided to teach myself how to prepare nutritious food at home properly.
I bought old recipe books at thrift stores and library sales. The internet did exist during this time, but Facebook was brand new, and Pinterest did not exist yet. Online recipes were scant. Using the old recipe books, I learned the basics of cooking and discovered it was not as challenging as I thought. I would cook affordable yet delicious meals on Sunday nights and freeze the rest to eat during my busy week. Over time, I became a halfway decent cook, and my nutrition greatly improved from eating healthier meals. I got in shape, ate well and never felt better. Life was good.
Then disaster struck. I received my master’s degree in May of 2008. As most of us remember, the economy tanked in September of that year, and we entered the Great Recession. I was back to being impoverished on a ramen budget.
This was a challenging time for me financially, but I refused to eat poorly. I could not afford some of the fresh, organic ingredients I had become used to. Instead, I started buying dried beans, lentils and rice from the bulk aisles. I also stocked up on canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. I became a master of mixing and matching random foodstuffs to make my meals. Sometimes I felt like I would magically pull almost empty air from my cabinets to make myself dinner. I was in survival mode.
These days, the economy has improved from those dark times, but I still hustle. I am not rolling in dough by any means, but I do not have to worry about having enough food. However, many of my friends have to work at least two jobs just to make ends meet. Times are still tough for many, and it can be so expensive just to be alive here. I certainly cannot afford to eat out all the time, so I still rely on the cooking skills I acquired during scrappier times.
There are also so many resources available online now to help you find affordable, easy and delicious recipes. There are also some essential staple items that you should always keep in your pantry. These include beans (canned or dry), oats, frozen vegetables, affordable produce, brown rice, eggs, dried spices, flour, vegetable stock, and canned tomatoes. If you keep these ingredients in your pantry, then you can practically make anything.
The challenge can sometimes be finding inspiration. This is when I turn to the internet, specifically Pinterest. You can use such search keywords as “affordable, cheap, quick, easy, recipes” to find hundreds of inspirational recipes. I do this all the time to make the ingredients that I already have stretch as far as possible. You can get the most bang for your buck while having better nutrition than you would be eating fast food all the time. Cooking is also an art that can bring your friends and family together.
I have compiled some affordable and tasty recipes from Pinterest below. Assuming that you have many of these items already on hand, this entire meal can be made for less than 20 dollars. I have made these in the past and can vouch for them. I always invite you to add your own ingredients to make these your own signature creations.
Whether money is lacking or abundant, you should still eat well. Food is life, and your health is your real wealth.
Jordan Callier is an avid foodie and business owner in Glenwood Springs.