I spent $30 at Trader Joe's to make myself a week's worth of meals. Here's what I bought and how I used it.
I spent $30 at Trader Joe's for a week's worth of food to see how far I could stretch my dollar.
I planned several of my meals ahead of time to make sure I chose versatile groceries.
Sweet potatoes and tortillas were some of the most adaptable ingredients that I used.
As a single woman with many bills to pay, I'm always looking for new ways to save money on groceries.
Yet every time I orbit anywhere near my local Trader Joe's, I become like a moth to a flame — a flame that incinerates any form of a budget I had when I got there.
So in an effort to become more disciplined with my own grocery spending, I tried to make a week's worth of meals for myself using a $30 Trader Joe's haul.
Read on to find out what I bought and made, and what I learned from the experience.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in April 2019.
Before getting started, I wrote down different meal ideas and prepped a few of my main ingredients
I've never been much of a meal planner, but I knew that if I didn't want to run out of food, I needed to have an idea of what I was going to make.
Many items at Trader Joe's cost somewhere between $2 to $5, so given that I was trying to stick to a $30 budget, I could either purchase approximately 10 $3 items or 15 $2 ones, prioritizing versatile ingredients.
I wrote down potential meal ideas for the week, and anytime I noticed an ingredient could be used multiple times, I added it to the list.
I'm technically not a vegetarian, but I've found that following a meatless diet is one of the easiest ways for me to save a few extra bucks, so I opted for eggs and plant-based alternatives like black beans to serve as my main sources of protein for the week.
In the end, I settled on these ingredients, which added up to a grand total of just over $29:
16-ounce tub of Greek yogurt - $2.99
10-ounce bag of shredded carrots - $0.99
Two 15 1/2-ounce cans of black beans - $1.58
15 1/2-ounce of chickpeas - $0.79
A dozen eggs - $2.69
16-ounce pack of tomatoes on the vine - $2.99
10-ounce container of mushrooms - $1.99
5-ounce bag of spring-mix salad greens - $1.99
Large red onion - $0.89
Bunch of cilantro - $1.49
16-ounce bag of pasta - $0.99
Bulb of fresh garlic - $0.49
10-pack of flour tortillas - $ 1.79
A 16-ounce bag of shredded mozzarella cheese - $4.49
Three bananas - $0.57
2-pound bag of sweet potatoes - $1.99
Two limes - $0.58
A lemon - $0.39
I didn't include pantry staples like flour, butter, sugar, olive oil, vinegar, or any spices as part of my $30 budget but used them in several of the recipes I made.
Even while working from home, finding the chance to cook two — let alone three — meals per day is still a challenge, so I prepped some ingredients in advance to save time and make the most of them.
Since sweet potatoes were going to be a part of several meals, I wanted to have them ready at all times in case I was too busy to cook, so I chopped half of the bag's worth of spuds into cubes and roasted them on a sheet pan with olive oil and salt.
Additionally, I warmed one can of the black beans on the cooktop and seasoned the mix with garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, and hot sauce that I had in my cupboard since I like my beans a bit spicier.
I then stored the prepped ingredients in glass containers but didn't go as far as portioning out individual servings, so I had to carefully allocate them throughout the week.
I also only bought one bag of about 2 cups of fresh greens for the entire week — easily one of the biggest mistakes I made — so I planned accordingly and divided the spring mix into four 1/2-cup portions.
Day 1: I made a basic omelet, a spring-mix wrap, and a burrito
I kept my first breakfast simple by making a classic egg-and-cheese omelet. I've never been a huge fan of large morning meals, but I was committed to seeing how far I could stretch my dollar.
Providing me with enough sustenance to make it through the morning, this omelet was simple but also genuinely good. No wonder Antoni Porowski is a fan.
For a more wholesome for lunch, I made a wrap by rolling a small handful of greens, thinly sliced onion, shredded carrots, and tomatoes in a flour tortilla.
To give it some added tang, I whipped up a quick vinaigrette using one of the garlic cloves and ingredients from my pantry: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and honey.
I later opted for a burrito with sweet potatoes and black beans for dinner. Since I prepared those ingredients the night before, putting this meal together was a breeze.
I simply warmed up the black beans on the cooktop, rolled everything in a tortilla with some shredded cheese, then seared the burrito in a nonstick pan to give it a warm, crispy exterior.
Taking the time to season the black beans with garlic and other spices paid off, and the melted cheese in between every bite was absolutely exquisite. Plus the sweet potatoes and beans made this meal super filling.
Even though I had eaten a tortilla with my lunch, I was perfectly fine with having another one because this felt like a totally different meal.
Day 2: I enjoyed another basic omelet and salad wrap but also whipped up a mushroom quesadilla
I am the kind of person who doesn't mind doing the same thing twice if I truly enjoy it, so for the second day of the week, I cooked some of the same meals and made them even better.
Omelets are seriously the real deal when it comes to budget-friendly breakfast food, as they consistently kept me feeling satisfied until my next meal.
For lunch, I whipped up a fresh take on yesterday's salad wrap by adding a few small chunks of roasted sweet potatoes to make it more filling.
And for dinner, I decided to revisit one of my favorite budget-friendly meals from my college, a cheesy quesadilla.
I upgraded the easy meal by adding mushrooms sautéed with garlic and chili powder, a lime crema I made using Greek yogurt, lime juice and zest, and pickled red-onion slices.
Pickled onions are a game-changer since they add a huge burst of flavor to meals and are super easy to make. I threw together my own batch in under an hour by placing the slices in a jar and letting them marinade with pantry staples like white vinegar, red-pepper flakes, water, and honey.
This quesadilla was one of my favorite meals of the week, as the combination of melty cheese with the savory mushrooms and tangy onions was superb. It reminded me of something I would order from a happy-hour menu.
With a more flexible budget, I would have opted for an additional cheese to add another layer of flavor, but the mozzarella was honestly satisfying enough.
Day 3: I enjoyed a banana-topped waffle and made a light salad and a sweet-potato wrap
If you've followed any of my other stories on Insider, you'll know I'm always down for a good waffle, so I tried to get some use out of my iron.
I already had most of the basic ingredients like flour, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, and baking powder on hand. I just needed eggs and a topping.
Plus water works as a perfectly fine substitute for milk in typical waffle batter, as long as there is butter in the mix.
Since I was so full from breakfast, I didn't feel compelled to whip up a complete lunch. I ended up taking a long walk during my work break and eating (but not finishing) a very small salad with black beans, mixed greens, carrots, and tomatoes.
I didn't let those ingredients go to waste. That evening, I used the remaining greens from my lunch along with the rest of the roasted chickpeas I had in the fridge to build another salad wrap — amazingly, I was still not sick of them.
To make this one a bit different than the others, I whipped up a sauce by mixing a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt with minced garlic, lemon zest, and pepper.
I would have made tzatziki if I had bought a cucumber as part of my haul, but my lemon dip turned out to be the perfect complement for the paprika-spiced chickpeas in the wrap.
Day 4: I opted for a lighter breakfast by eating yogurt with honey and enjoyed tomato pasta for lunch and dinner
I was occupied with work all morning, so I didn't have the time to cook. I also might have been burnt out from prepping full breakfasts this week — it's really not my thing.
I still had a good amount of Greek yogurt left in the tub, so I ate a small serving of that with a drizzle of honey as a light morning meal while I worked.
By the time I got a free moment, it was well past my typical lunch hour, and I was ravenous.
Feeling slightly impatient, I threw together pasta with tomatoes, garlic, red-pepper flakes, mozzarella, and olive oil since it was the most basic meal I could think of.
It looked pretty dull, but one should never underestimate the power of fresh garlic and tomatoes — they can make almost anything taste incredible.
It would've been nice to add fresh basil and Parmesan, but I still enjoyed everything about this dish since it's fragrant, fresh tasting, and filling without relying on a thick, creamy sauce or too many additives.
Day 5: I made banana pancakes, enjoyed some leftover pasta, and attempted a sweet-potato mash for dinner
I still wasn't feeling anything super egg-y, so I decided to make banana pancakes for another sweet breakfast.
Using a banana, a bit of flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and an egg, I formed a thick batter and poured it into a hot frying pan.
The result was a thick, yet fluffy pancake that was super filling and had a sweet touch to it. I've always loved banana pancakes, but I appreciate them even more now knowing how easy and cheap they are to make.
I felt motivated to test out another new recipe for dinner, but my weekly supply was starting to dwindle. I had already used up my salad greens and chickpeas and only had one tomato left.
But rather than focus on what I didn't have, I tried my best to think of new ways to use what I did. Since I was working with fewer ingredients, I figured the most effective way to vary my meals would be to experiment with texture and seasoning.
I decided to cut up the last sweet potatoes I had to switch things up. I put a few slices aside for the remainder of the week and baked the rest until they were soft.
After letting the sweet potatoes cool, I mashed them using a fork, then blended them in a stand mixer with butter, smoked paprika, salt, and cayenne. I also roasted some of the remaining mushrooms with garlic, diced onion, butter, and dried thyme for a savory topping.
This meal was absolutely delicious, and I may be a full sweet-potato convert now. The smooth mash had a nice heat to it and made the perfect base for the slightly chewy, meaty mushrooms and onions.
I wasn't necessarily trying to stick to a vegetarian diet, but I found this meal just as satisfying as typical meat and potatoes.
Day 6: I ate sweet-potato toast with a poached egg as a late brunch and nachos for dinner
I woke up with a craving for poached eggs — partly because of the taste and partly because my photo app reminded me of a brunch I attended years ago.
I didn't have all of the resources to make anything close to full-blown eggs Benedict or avocado toast, so I decided on a sweet-potato base.
I've been obsessed ever since the first time I had sweet-potato toast a few years ago since it combines two of my favorite flavors and looks striking on a plate. Plus it's relatively affordable and easy to make at home once you get the hang of poaching eggs.
I roasted potato planks with chili powder, salt, and olive oil until tender then arranged them into a circular stack and topped them with a poached egg that I seasoned with salt and pepper.
Ever since I learned how to poach an egg, my life has never been the same, and the perfectly cooked whites and runny yolk tasted amazing with the sweet potato.
Feeling inspired by my brunch, I decided to try something new for dinner and whip up nachos. Since chips weren't a part of my haul, I had to make them on my own.
This process was easier than I thought it would be, as I just cut two flour tortillas into triangles, brushed them with oil, and baked them in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until browned and crunchy.
Once they were crispy but not burnt, I added shredded mozzarella and let them broil until the cheese melted. I topped it off with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, black beans, and onions.
Even though the ingredients were nearly the same as those I used in my quesadilla, simply changing the texture of the carb transformed this into an entirely different meal.
Day 7: After enjoying some tasty carrot fritters and a basic quesadilla, I caved on my commitment when it came to dinner
At this point in the week, I had used nearly all of my produce but still had the majority of my shredded carrots left, so I turned to my phone for inspiration, determined to not waste anything I bought.
Instagram's algorithm must have read my mind, because I scrolled right past a photo of a potato fritter that led me to wonder how carrots would taste instead.
I followed a recipe I found online, making a simple mix of flour, egg, coriander, and ginger, folding the carrots into that, and forming patties that I fried in hot oil for two minutes. I then topped the fritters with Greek yogurt and cilantro.
This was my first time eating anything like this, so I didn't have high expectations for how it would taste, but the coriander and ginger gave this dish such a yummy, unique flavor and the carrots retained their crunchiness but still had a nice chew to them.
It wasn't quite the same as a traditional potato fritter, but it was still delicious, and I'd absolutely make it again.
Come lunch, I didn't have many ingredients left. Determined to not cheat, I made another basic quesadilla.
However, that evening, I completely abandoned my commitment and ordered takeout instead.
Although I didn't successfully finish the week, I was still impressed with what I accomplished and learned
I had low expectations going into this week. Without my usual arsenal of dips, sauces, and instant meals, I had to push myself to actually peel, chop, and cook things rather than press buttons on a microwave.
The $30 did not get me a lot of groceries, even at a budget-friendly store like Trader Joe's, so getting through this week was definitely not impossible but difficult nonetheless.
I think I did a decent job picking versatile ingredients — sweet potatoes and tortillas turned out to be incredibly flexible foods that I will consider grocery staples from now on.
But during the initial meal-planning process, I didn't anticipate how quickly I would run out of vegetables, so if I were to do it over again, I'd use the money I spent on cilantro, citrus, and shredded carrots on more substantial items like cucumbers or bell peppers. I'd also purchase rice instead of pasta, since it can go much further.
That said, the fact that I ended up liking even some of the meals enough to want to make them again was a huge victory. I'm genuinely amazed by how many different dishes I was able to create with the same ingredients.
I figured out three new ways to consume sweet potatoes that weren't pie or fries, discovered that quesadillas are completely transformed by adding mushrooms, and learned that Greek yogurt works as a topping for pretty much anything.
I also became more mindful of the food I bought, which helped me avoid wasting it.
I normally would've viewed having fewer ingredients as a limitation, but now I see it as an opportunity to get creative with cooking — I was excited to think about the different ways I could change the texture of a food and transform it into an entirely unique meal.
Although I'm not sure whether I'll stick with this $30 budget going forward, I know for certain I'll at least be more thoughtful when it comes to getting the most out of my dollar.
Read the original article on Insider