Have you heard about the latest food trend sweeping the nation? It’s called “whimpering over your grocery bill.” In the early days of 2023, Americans are spending 70 percent more on eggs than one year ago. Chicken, dairy and bread prices outpaced inflation as well, increasing by double-digit percentages. What’s an adventurous home cook to do?
The answer is Budget Bytes, a website I first turned to as a broke twenty-two-year-old with a galley kitchen in Queens. I didn’t know, before an acquaintance tweeted a link to a coconut vegetable curry, that you could make a tasty, filling meal, complete with leftovers, using almost entirely canned or frozen goods. Budget Bytes taught me to cook.
Though my income has mercifully increased in the past decade, I’m now paying off a wedding, and my student loans shadow me like the Grim Reaper. And that was before inflation decreased my real wages and the avian flu drove egg and poultry prices into the stratosphere. Now, Budget Bytes comes to my rescue again.
The staff of Budget Bytes has grown since its inception in 2009, along with its popularity. But its basic patterns have remained the same. Each recipe calculates the cost of ingredients per serving, down to the penny. The main food groups are soup, sandwiches, pasta and rice, and the basic flavor profiles are Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean and BBQ, with occasional forays to Morocco and Santa Fe. Repeat ingredient pairings include chorizo and sweet potato (in chili, enchilada, or skillet form), pork and pineapple (sandwich, kebab, skillet), and ground beef with cabbage (soup, stir fry, skillet). While not subtle or sophisticated, these combos are crowd-pleasing and nutritious. And, of course, cheap.
While I started with the simplest meals the blog had to offer, like Curried Chickpeas with Spinach and Spicy Sriracha Noodles (cost per serving: $1.25), I eventually graduated to staples like Fish Tacos with Cumin-Lime Slaw in the summer and a Moroccan Lentil Stew I crave at the first chill of winter. Try it with preserved lemon, if you can find a jar. I still use Budget Bytes recipes for evergreen basics like Seeded No-Knead Bread (cost per serving: $0.17) and Pickled Red Onions, and a browning banana on the counter is a thrilling excuse to whip up Yogurt Banana Bread ($0.46 per slice). Sundays often find me meal-prepping weekday lunches like the addictive and adaptable Spinach Chickpea Quinoa Salad ($1.57 each) or Mediterranean Hummus Bowls ($2.48). Inflation may have increased the exact prices by 7 percent or so, but you get the idea.
Not every recipe will find a place on your roster. Budget Bytes has never met a protein it couldn’t cumin-lime, honey-sriracha or teriyaki into oblivion. It’s created a few Frankensteins along the way, like Beef Taco Pasta, Ranch Broccoli Pasta and almost anything involving pumpkin purée.
Nonetheless, this blog has much to offer home cooks. M.F.K. Fisher may offer philosophical inspiration, but look no further than Budget Bytes for tactical advice in lean times.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2023 World edition.