Only a few years after McDonald's became public enemy number one for serving up almost cartoonish amounts of food to American consumers, it's back on top, becoming the recession's shining star of cheap food.
I can't help but feel this is the Walmartization of dining, the biggest bulk buyer of its particular foodstuffs in the world moving ever onward, creeping in as dining options wane in the recession. There's a reason that the poor are among the most obese sectors of society - bad food is cheaper than good food, and bad food, thanks to the creep of fast food, is far easier to get than good food. It goes back to my beef with Sandra Lee - she takes an ethic that should result in affordable, fast meals for people with less means and less time, and makes it the same sort of middle to upper-middle class "gourmet-but-not" ethic that dominates cooking at home.
There's an obvious market niche that's being underserved here, or at least being served solely by the proliferation of fast-food restaurants. Few people like cooking at home every single night, particularly when home doesn't look like a Food Network kitchen set. Little's being done to make home cooking accessible; sure, there are the odd books on how to eat cheaply but they're fairly sparse and largely focused on college students.
Plus, with McDonald's taking over the world, I'm just sad that Demolition Man chose the wrong fast food chain. I thought that movie was the future.
My tips to eating cheaply at home:
1.) Build up a stock of dried spices. You don't need anything fancy, but a basic set of spices like oregano, thyme, paprika, rosemary, cumin, etc. will stretch the same ingredients a lot further. They're also an investment. Four dollars for a spice may seem expensive, but that spice will probably last you a few months. Olive oil is much the same - spending seven to fifteen dollars for something that isn't even the actual food part of the meal seems expensive, but it lasts forever and improves the quality of your food.
2.) Use aromatics. Onions, celery and garlic are still relatively cheap. And they make things taste good. Really good.
3.) Think about how much a meal actually costs to make. McDonald's is cheap, and very cheap at that. But think about what you get for a five-dollar value meal - you get a soda, fries and a sandwich of some sort. Stretch that over four people, and you've spent twenty dollars for sandwiches, fries and drinks. You can feed yourself for less than five dollars, and you can certainly feed four people for less than twenty dollars.
4.) Learn to love leftovers. I used to hate leftovers, for the simple reason that I generally made bad food and by no means wanted to save it. Better food means better leftovers, means your dollar gets stretched further. Below the fold is my staple cheap recipe, black beans and rice. And it makes great leftovers, too. Black Beans and Rice
1 29.5-oz can of black beans ($1.89)
Half of one large onion (Whole onion: $1-$1.50, and save the rest in a plastic baggie, or just chop up a whole medium onion)
One green pepper ($1-1.50)
Four cloves garlic, minced (Sleeve of garlic - $2-3, four cloves cost you about 15 to 20 cents out of that)
2 tablespoons olive oil (Whole bottle: $7 the store, this amount costs you about 25 cents)
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon oregano
1/4 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 cups long grain rice (I use El Preferida, which is about $4 for a two pound bag. In order to conserve rice, I generally just make the rice as needed rather than making a bunch, because old rice isn't quite as fantastic as it might seem)
Chopped cilantro, about a half cup (bunch of cilantro - $1, you'll use about a quarter to a half of the bunch)
Lime juice optional (Limes are the most expensive part of this when they're out of season, about 3 for $2, but they add in acid that really makes the flavors pop)
Chop onion and pepper into medium to small-sized chunks. Mince garlic (simplest way - crush the whole clove with your knife and then chop). Heat your pan to medium-high heat, put in olive oil, and wait for the oil to warm. Once oil is heated, put in onion, pepper and garlic and cook until the onion and garlic start to brown. Drain beans in a colander, saving a little bit of the juice from the can. Put beans and juice in with the vegetables, and let cook for 4-5 minutes. You save the juice in order to make the spices activate; putting dry spices on dry foods wastes the spices and makes the texture weird. Once the juice simmers, add the spices and salt and pepper to taste. Let it cook a couple of minutes longer to let the flavors permeate the dish, then take it off the heat.
You should start your rice before you start sauteeing, as you can just let it cook and then sit while you cook the beans. Add the chopped cilantro and lime juice to the rice and stir. Scoop rice into bottom of bowl, and then place black beans over the top. And then eat.
The actual value of the ingredients used in the meal is less than $10, and it makes a good 5-6 servings. Share your cheap recipes below.