On days where I would forget to bring my lunch to work, I’d occasionally get a salad. $9 though? Sweet Jesus. Did Congress raise the rates on six pack tax, too?
When I first moved to New York City, I thought, “Healthy food’s kinda expensive. There’s gotta be a better way to do this that’ll keep me going without hurting my credit card’s feelings.” I went to the Morton Williams on 23rd street and looked around at my food options. “Not bad”, I thought. I did some quick math in my head and some of the food choices wouldn’t make sense. That piece of steak looks great but would wipe my pockets clean. This brought up another question since I was supposed to be studying for the CPA exam instead of walking around the grocery store.
“How am I supposed to have the time to cook healthy food that I can’t even afford in the first place? Shouldn’t I just grab a bowl from Chipotle instead? Steak and guac for days, son!”
Just like that, my grocery store trip was over. I went to Chipotle.
Too bad Chipotle will still add up on your credit card. Unless I was getting overtime meals expensed to my employer, I would never get to have double steak with guacamole burrito bowls. It took me a few months to find a better way. Once I could find a better way, my goal was to simplify it as much as possible.
I got to thinking- what does a burrito bowl at Chipotle consist of?
- Toppings (Salsa, sour cream, cheese, and guacamole)
Simple enough, right? That’s how you deconstruct Chipotle What’s the bare-bones minimum that we can use to make a satisfying meal?
- Beans (In this example, we’re using the slow carb diet.)
Great. We got a three-ingredient meal. The trick is to buy different kinds of sauces for easy variety.
The cost of each meal? Here’s an estimate based on online prices, with the total being calculated from my personal serving size.
- 85% Lean ground beef $5.49 per pound ($2.75 per 8 oz, $1.38 per 4 oz)
- Broccoli: $1.69 per pound ($0.85 per 8 oz, $0.43 per 4 oz)
- Black beans $1.06 per 16-oz can ($0.53 per 8 oz, $0.27 per 4 oz)
Total: $3.45 per meal. Not quite dollar menu type prices, but hey. Consider it part of the six pack tax. Note that if you’re a smaller human being and don’t eat meat like a savage, the cost drops down to $2.07 per meal. Now we’re in business. As a side note, brown rice typically costs less than 15 cents per serving in case you were interested. To reap the benefits of this, you’ll obviously have to cook in bulk too. That’s okay. Let me show you the calculations behind why you save time this way.
Cooking a batch of ten meals takes 60 to 75 passive minutes, which means you don’t need to be eyeing your food like a hawk for the entire time. Call a friend, listen to a podcast, text, tweet, stalk me Chayoot Blog Facebook page, whatever. Anyway, based on this calculation, you’re averaging 6 to 7.5 minutes per meal. That’s even faster than walking somewhere to get food. This type of meal also requires minimum cooking skills. Do you know how to put meat in a large pot and set the stove to medium heat? Yes you do. I believe in you. I’ll outline this process step by step just for you, with the italicized steps being optional.
- Place the meat in the pot. I’ve found that you don’t need to oil the pot if you buy a fattier version of meat. If it still sticks to the bottom of the pot, you can add olive oil, water, chicken broth, butter, or milk. You most likely won’t need it though.
- Sprinkle some salt and pepper in the pot with the meat. If you’re not sure as to how much to put in, err on the side of putting too little seasoning. You can always add more seasoning later. If you want to get fancy, you can add garlic, onion, or lemon juice.
- Turn on the stove to medium heat. You can even set it to medium-low if you like.
- Stir the meat so that the seasoning distributes evenly.
- Cover the pot with the lid. At this point, you can leave it alone for a while. Just make sure you’re not setting your kitchen on fire somehow.
- Rinse the broccoli with water.
- Cut up the broccoli into smaller pieces. I prefer the pieces to be small enough for spoonfuls so I won’t need to eat them with a fork later, but this is up to you.
- Pour the broccoli into the pot. This step is optional because you can just eat it raw.
- Open the can of beans and place it into the pot if you want. The timing doesn’t really matter since you can eat the beans straight out of the can. Alternatively, you can pour the beans in a bowl and put it in the microwave too.
- Once the meat is completely brown, you’re ready to go. As a starting point, you can serve the food at a meat:beans:broccoli ratio of 2:1:1. You’re more than welcome to play around with this. Eat until you’re full and then store whatever you’re not eating in the fridge. Congrats! $3.45 meals that took you an average of 6 to 7.5 minutes per meal.
You can also replace the ground beef with ground turkey. Chicken thighs also tend to be cheap, but you’d have to cut them up before placing them in the pot. Also, when cooking with lean meats, make sure to use oil or something else to keep the chicken from sticking to the pot.
You can replace black beans with pinto beans, kidney beans, lentils, or other bean options. To save even more, you can learn to cook dry beans from scratch. Starting out, though, canned beans will get the job done. We’re minimizing variables here.
I know that broccoli isn’t an option at Chipotle, so other options you can try are spinach, kale, asparagus, or green beans. Personally, I’m lazy and want something that I can just eat raw. The fewer steps I need to take, the better.
If you’re looking for variety, stock up on different sauces. My favorites are Cholula hot sauce and Sweet Baby Ray’s bbq sauce, but if you’re really feeling the Chipotle theme, sour cream works too. I also love Caesar dressing. This is the easiest way to get variety in. I’m getting hungry thinking of all the options here. Writing this post on an empty stomach wasn’t a good idea.
Assuming that I’m paying for that $9 salad for every weekday lunch, I’m saving $5.55 per meal. That’s $27.75 saved on work lunches alone. To be more realistic, let’s say I grab a BBQ Goudness or a Big Daddy sandwich from Lenwich (bless you, Lenwich) in midtown Manhattan. With taxes included, this amounted to around $13.50 for one lunch. No, I did not save the second half for dinner. As my former senior manager would say, “What is this, amateur hour?” Regardless, that’s saving $10.05 per meal, or $50.25 on working lunches. Awesome.
There are many recipes and other options out there, but this is a sample to get you started. One potential mistake is drowning in choices. Start with the basics. You can get fancy later.
Nutrition is probably the most important part of the whole health equation. You’re going to put food in your body anyway, so you might as well make it something delicious AND healthy. If you nail the nutrition part, you can get lean (and stay lean) without even working out. That’s awesome news if you’re not a gym rat like me. The bad news is that you can’t outrun a terrible diet. Believe me, it will catch up to you eventually.
There are four main steps to healthy eating at home: grocery shopping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up. Since that’s a pain in the ass, what if you could eat healthy without shopping and cleaning? That only leaves cooking and eating. Not bad.
Instacart: Grocery delivery in most big cities! Now you can save even more time. You’re already saving a decent amount of money by cooking your own food anyway, so why not drop some extra money to skip the grocery store run in the first place?
Trader Joe’s: If you live in an expensive city like New York, try shopping at Trader Joe’s. They keep their prices consistent throughout all their locations, which means you can catch a cheap break in some of the more expensive cities.
Paper bowls and plates: I personally don’t enjoy washing dishes, so paper bowls are one option. They cost less than 10 cents per bowl in some cases.
Pyrex Containers: I prefer glass containers over your typical plastic tupperware containers because I’m a princess.
Wow. I think you deserve a medal. You got me to cook at home for the first time in AT LEAST a few years. To give you an idea of how anti-cooking-for-myself I was, I don’t even have salt, pepper, or a can opener (managed to get them beans out with a pocket knife though) in my apartment!
And my meal still turned out ok! I just had to apply copious amounts of Sriracha for flavor ^^;
Thanks for the article and inspiration.
One question — are you supposed to drain the ground beef at all?
Whoa! I think you deserve a medal, sir! That’s awesome!
When I’m lazy and feel like going minimalist on the seasoning, the only things I really have for seasoning are salt, pepper, and hot sauce (I personally prefer either cholula or sriracha). Minced garlic (I’m too lazy to cut it) and lemon are fantastic too and some people swear by it.
As for draining the ground beef, that’s a good question. I personally don’t drain it and store it that way if I wanna cook a ton of meals (word of warning: when you store ground beef this way, the fat solidifies and ends up looking like gelatin. This is normal. It’s because fat and oil in general solidifies at a much higher temperature than, say, water. It also does a little something for the flavor, too. Not everyone loves it this way but I personally do!
Thanks for the info! Minced garlic sounds amazing. I’ll try squirting some lemon juice in the concoction next time, too.
(I found my salt and pepper… apparently I had a whole spice cupboard I just forgot about ^^;)
I appreciate the warning about the gelatinous fat and oil — it weirded me out a bit at first but it tastes great!