This Thrifty Blogger Dishes on Her Least Expensive Meal

Beth Moncel of Budget Bytes was cooking with what she had before the quarantine

With grocery store shelves cleared off across the country, the chances of finding every ingredient on your shopping list are slim. COVID-19-related closures and social distancing are changing the way we shop, and a lot of folks are stocking up on pantry staples for the first time.

The bean market is booming, even though a lot of people don’t seem to know how to cook or serve beans; people are stocking up on bottled water for no identifiable reason, and people are hoarding frozen meals and pizzas. While the food media boom has taught us how to prepare complex dishes with the advice of professional chefs, we’re less adept when it comes to cooking with what we’ve got.

Food blogger Beth Moncel has been ahead of the curve with Budget Bytes, a website dedicated to easy-to-prepare, budget-friendly cooking. The project launched in 2009, shortly after Moncel graduated from college with a degree in nutritional science and quickly started “losing the battle with adulthood.” Looking to cut all discretionary spending from her budget and unwilling to live off packaged ramen noodles, she started tracking every penny and developing recipes on her blog that were cost-saving and delicious. Those recipes can be found on her website, in her cookbook, or the Budget Bytes app.

Heated’s Sam Hill reached out to Moncel to chat about what she eats, her food budget philosophy, and underrated meals and ingredients that are shelf-stable and won’t break the bank.

Heated: Can you walk us through a day of eating in your kitchen? What have you been eating lately?

Beth Moncel: Most mornings, I’m at the gym, and then I come home, and it’s straight to breakfast, which is usually one of three things — an oatmeal bowl with whatever toppings I have on hand, all sorts of fruits seeds and nuts. Or I do an egg scramble with vegetables I need to use. And sometimes I go with a toast, just straight peanut butter or a fancier avocado toast. I always check to see what I need to use up in my fridge or pantry, and what I eat is typically based on that.

I do make little meals or snacks throughout the day if I’m particularly hungry. But I approach it the same way I approach breakfast — this mix-and-match meal prep approach to make sure I’m not wasting any food. So I might do a small salad one day, or a hummus plate with vegetables that need to be eaten. Sometimes I’ll do a quick quesadilla with whatever vegetables and cheeses I have ready.

After cooking and tasting all day, usually around 3 p.m., I’m stuffed, and I can’t eat anything else. Usually, I don’t even eat dinner. If I do, it’s generally just going to be a light snack.

On days when I’m not in the kitchen cooking, and I’m working on other parts of the business, I’m just eating leftovers from what I cooked previously. I’m all about doing leftovers.

A lot of your recipes fall under this mix-and-match category — here’s a base recipe, but you can use whatever you have on hand and make it your own. For a lot of folks, the concept can be a little daunting. How do you learn that skill of being able to throw together recipes and pick ingredients that complement each other?

It’s a lot of experimentation. It is going to be different for every person, but you kind of just have to learn to be fearlessly experimental in the kitchen. I picked this skill up while working at Whole Foods at the pizza station. I kid you not: We made pizzas out of whatever we had in the kitchen that was leftover. Learning how good and unexpected things can be when you put them together makes it a little bit less scary to try new combinations in the future. I think pizza is really a great one for people to start out with if they’re kind of scared of trying new things because literally, anything is good. So grab whatever you have in the fridge, throw it on the pizza, see if you like it, and then once you get comfortable doing that, you can move on to stir-frys and bowl meals. Those are all great catch-all meals that take just about any protein or vegetable you have.

What’s the strangest pizza toppings you’ve come to love during this kind of experiment?

I think the strangest thing I’ve added to a pizza is pickled vegetables: like a giardiniera or something like that. But it’s so good — that vinegary, sharp pickle flavor is so good with the cheese and everything. Try it, I promise. Well, you might hate it, but it’s all about experimenting.

Are there any specific ingredients that you’ve been focused on?

I’ve definitely been focused on cutting down the amount of pasta and rice in my recipes lately. They’re cheap ingredients, but as I’ve gotten older, my body just doesn’t handle those foods the same way anymore. Plus, I think this is a food trend in general right now. People are really looking to eat more plants in general, even if they’re not necessarily going to try to be vegetarian or vegan. I’m experimenting a lot with substituting my pasta and rice with different types of inexpensive vegetables. That means a lot more lentils and beans, complex carbs that are still really inexpensive.

I don’t get into the whole cauliflower rice or zoodles things. I’m just not into it. I like to make these substitutions organically. I made one cauliflower rice recipe for the website, and it just didn’t work for me. I would rather just have a cauliflower floret than break it down into rice. It doesn’t taste like rice. It’s not fooling me. I don’t like to pretend vegetables are meat either — it’s just not up my alley. If I’m going to eat a meat-free meal, it’s going to be a meat-free meal organically.

What underutilized, cheap ingredient do you think people should be using more?

Lately, I’ve been really into cabbage. I think cabbage just has a really bad rap as being stinky and gross, but it’s so versatile. It can smell when you cook it, but I think the flavor itself is really neutral. And the fact that you can use it both raw and cooked also means you can use it in so many different things.

You can use it in raw salads, or you can put it in a stir fry where it’s kind of half-cooked, or you can put it in a soup or something where it’s like really, really cooked. You can use it with Asian flavors, Eastern European dishes, just basic American stuff like barbecue — it just goes with everything. And it’s so cheap; it’s absurdly cheap. And it lasts a long time in your fridge because it’s just such a hearty vegetable.

Do you have any favorite cabbage-centric recipes?

I love this beef and cabbage stir-fry — it’s super simple and comes together really quickly. The sauce is really quick and easy because it’s just soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, sriracha and brown sugar. This is a great recipe if you’ve got leftover ground beef or another protein from another recipe that you aren’t sure what to do with — same thing with the vegetables. The recipe calls for carrots and green onions to add a bit of color to the cabbage, but you can use whatever you have in your fridge. You can slice up some mushrooms, bell peppers, throw in some snow peas. It’s a good base recipe that can take on whatever you want to add.

What’s the cheapest meal you’ve posted on the blog?

One of the cheapest and simplest has definitely been the spicy-dragon noodles. This was one of my first recipes to go viral, and I think it’s for that reason. The sauce is literally just Sriracha, brown sugar, and soy sauce and you throw it on noodles. I put an egg in there for some protein. That’s the whole dish and it’s so freaking good. And takes like 15 minutes to make it.

That’s also the recipe that made me realize, “OK, those are the types of foods that I need to start focusing on with the blog. Not all this DIY stuff. Yeah, just really cheap. Really simple. Really good.”

There are two types of food blogs in that regard — ones that are basically food porn but are things people would never think about attempting to make at home, and then simple recipes that people will actually make. That’s what I like to work on.

Are there certain meals you’d rather go out and have prepared for you instead of making yourself?

It’s funny because I definitely have a shortcut, at-home versions of all of my favorite meals. If you like something out at a restaurant, you definitely need to at least try making a substitute at home. It’ll be fun.

But yes, there are definitely some dishes I would have done the right way by eating out. Ramen and pho are at the top of the list because the broth for those soups is a labor of love. And they take 12-plus hours to make correctly, and I’m definitely not about to do that at home. And then any Indian food, because really good Indian food takes a lot of really fresh spices — ones that I don’t keep on hand and it wouldn’t make sense for me to keep on hand because I don’t cook with them enough.

Sam Hill is a freelance journalist living in Portland, Ore. He’s written for Digital Trends, Outside Magazine, Serious Eats, Boston Magazine and other outlets.

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