It's easy to eat cheaply and with no effort -- just buy from the dollar menu at your favorite fast-food place. Or you could stock up on ramen noodles and other staples of a college student diet, and supplement with a cheap pizza or two.
But with not much more effort, and about the same amount of money, you can eat so much healthier.
The secret? A big pot of lentils and rice you make at the start of the week and then a few supplements added in for some variety.
Why lentils and rice?
That's easy -- they are cheap, easy to prepare and super nutritious. According to MyFitnessPal.com's recipe analysis tool, a serving of the basic lentil and rice recipe listed below contains:
Protein: 36 percent (18 g)
Vitamin A: 124 percent
Vitamin C: 50 percent
Calcium: 15 percent
Iron: 38 percent
*The Percent Daily Values based on 2,000 calorie diet.
The Base Recipe
The ingredients list is short and inexpensive (see the complete shopping list and cost details below). This recipe, which is adapted from one found on a package of Bob's Red Mill red lentils, is also super easy. All you need is a knife, a peeler, a measuring cup and a big pot. It makes 8 to 10 cups or 6 to 8 servings.
2 tablespoons olive oil (or other vegetable oil)
1/2 cup onion, diced (about one medium)
1/2 cup carrots, peeled and diced (about two medium)
1/2 cup celery, diced (about two stalks)
3 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and minced
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup white rice
1/2 cup lentils
3 cups water
3 cups vegetable stock
12 ounce package frozen chopped spinach (or 2 cups chopped fresh)
Heat oil over medium high heat. Add onions, carrots and celery. Sauté until softened. Stir frequently.
Add garlic, and continue stirring about a minute until fragrant. Don't overcook the garlic, or it'll turn bitter.
Add crushed tomatoes, including liquid, stir. Add rice, lentils, water and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, or until lentils and rice are tender. Add spinach, and simmer until spinach is cooked through.
Now let's turn this into a week of meals.
Day 1: A basic bowl of lentils and rice
A bowl of lentils and rice, a hunk of bread flavored with olive oil, a simple salad of greens, chopped carrots and sliced onion.
Toss the carrots and the onion in bowl with a couple tablespoons of vinegar, and salt and pepper. The brine will soften and pickle both the carrot and the onion. To dress your salad, just add some olive oil.
Save the rest of the baguette for later in the week (bread freezes really well and thaws fast).
Day 2: Lentil and rice burritos
Split a cup and a half of your rice and lentil base and wrap into three or four white corn tortillas. Add additional flavor with Parmesan cheese. Parmesan cheese has lots of umami, so a little goes a long way.
Romaine lettuce goes well as a filling here, but some cabbage, pickled a bit in vinegar like the onions and carrots from Day 1 works too. Add salsa to taste.
Day 3: Pasta and lentils and rice
Any pasta will do. Shorter pastas like elbow or rigatoni are easier to eat than spaghetti or fettuccine.
Cook pasta according to the package instructions, drain. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Top with a scoop of lentils and rice. Serve with another simple salad.
Day 4: Lentil and rice nachos
Load a plate with store-bought tortilla chips (included in the shopping list), sprinkle liberally with Parmesan, top with lentils and rice. Add salsa, and enjoy.
If you have access to an oven or toaster oven, make your own chips by baking three or four of your corn tortillas, and then break into chips.
Day 5: Lentil and rice dogs
Thaw your baguette from Day 1. Slice lengthwise. Next, add a chicken sausage to the baguette, and top with lentils and rice. You might also add some Parmesan and more delicious pickled onions. Serve with simple salad.
Day 6: Basic lentil and rice chili
What's left in your fridge or pantry? You should have a serving of rice and lentils, some tortillas and salsa, some celery, carrots and onion, some chicken sausage.
Chop the onion, carrots and celery, and sauté in a tablespoon of olive oil. Slice your remaining two chicken sausages and add to the aromatics in your pot. Stir in the last of your rice and lentils, and add a couple spoonfuls of salsa.
Serve with tortillas.
Day 7: Leftovers
There are still lentils in the bag and more rice, too. Make another batch!
Shopping List and Cost Analysis
Here's what to buy and what six days of meals will cost you. All prices are based on Safeway.com from Aug. 25, 2014.
Olive oil, one 17 ounce bottle: $4.99
Lentils, 16 ounce bag: $1.69
Long grain white rice, 32 ounce bag: $1.29
Yellow onions: 2 at 82 cents = $1.64
Carrots, 1 pound: $1
Celery, 1 pound: $1.99
Garlic, 1 head: 79 cents
Diced tomatoes, one 14.5 ounce can: $1
Vegetable stock, one 32 ounce box: $2.50
Frozen spinach, one 10 ounce package: $1.20
Fresh baguette, 1 whole: $1.69
White corn tortillas, 30 count: $1.50
Parmesan cheese, shredded: one 5 ounce bag: $2.99
Elbow macaroni, 7 ounces: 59 cents
Salsa, one 16 ounce jar: $2
Chicken sausage, package of 4: $5.50
Romaine lettuce, 2 heads, bagged: $2.19
Tortilla chips, one 15 ounce bag: $2
Total: $36.55 or $6.09 per meal for six meals.
-- By the end of the week you should have enough carrots, celery, lentils, rice and olive oil for another batch of the basic recipe, which will significantly drive down the cost of food for the following week.
-- A few alternative choices (or just plain smart grocery shopping) will yield even more savings: pork sausages instead of chicken, powdered Parmesan instead of shredded, skip the tortilla chips and make your own instead.
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