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Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week are excellent examples of how even the best laid plans can get derailed. By Michael Jackson.

Well, moreso if you work at a magazine, which Brian does. Friday was a marathon day for him due to the King of Pop’s untimely passing (rest in peace, Michael), and while he forgot to bring his leftovers, his office also ordered in food (pizza, I’m told). So I ate grits gratin all day, using up the rest of the leftovers and not cooking anything new. I can’t really calculate what he spent, or count it against my total – extenuating circumstances! But I guess it would be unnatural to assume that we could get through an entire week with no emergency meals, changes of plans, or unexpected circumstances. We’re busy, and we live in New York.

Total for the week plus 4 recipes after the jump!

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I apologize for the blurry picture. The added effort of all this “paying attention” to what I am “spending” on my “meals” has made me lazy about actually taking pictures. But how can I prove the food was edible without photographic proof??

Actually, I’m not so sure this picture proves it was edible, but I promise, Mark Bittman’s “Grits Gratin with Arugula and White Beans” was quite delicious. And the grits weren’t even packed with butter and cheese!!

Today I made the mistake of taking the train to work that drops me off in the middle of the Union Square Farmer’s Market…it was all I could do to not buy bunches of green garlic and golden beets. It made me question the validity of my budgeting, after all, if I CAN afford to buy from farmers and support local agriculture, don’t I have a responsibility to do so? More on this later…

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Day 3: Here’s where explaining things gets a little confusing. I still had black bean soup and some rice left over Wednesday, so that’s what I had for lunch, along with some cornbread. How does that factor into my serving price? I have no idea…it’s like a 1/2 serving of each, but they also had more servings than I originally thought, so my other servings cost more than they should have….oh hell, who cares. No one said this was an exact science.

Also, my linguine for dinner was supposed to have shrimp in it. But when I got to Trader Joe’s, the frozen shrimp I wanted was $8.50 a bag. Even using half the bag would ruin my per serving price. I stood there, holding the bag of shrimp, putting it back, picking it back up again. Finally I put it back and hurried to the line so I wouldn’t change my mind. Suddenly though, I had to come up with something to go with the pasta, which I feared would be too plain all by itself, and the chicken breasts I had in the freezer would take too long to thaw.

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Perhaps it’s a little premature to be doing any sort of reflecting, given I’m 3 1/2 days into my 4 week budgeting exercise. I guess realization number one is that it might be a little obnoxious to call it an “exercise” given I am privileged enough to call it that and not just “life”. It has always made me feel pretty icky, this question of privilege, and while on the one hand I can be judgey mc judgerpants (THOSE shoes with THAT dress? puh-lease) I also fear judging that which I do not understand. Like the choices faced by millions, nay, billions of people across the planet, not about “what should I eat for dinner tonight” but “can I eat dinner tonight?” I’m trying to find the sweet spot between being empathetic but not patronizing, and also living and enjoying my own life. I’m not really there yet, and this endeavor has highlighted that for me.

On the flip side, I feel a bit like the next four weeks are going to be somewhat…editorially boring. Even though the point of this blog is not to impress people (ok, who am I kidding, I want to IMPRESS YOU), “cheap” dishes feel a little inadequate in these interwebs full of amazing food blogs. Is this a personal hang-up about feeling like my food is “rustic” and therefore not “gourmet” enough? Maybe. But then again, I would prefer to leave the molecular gastronomy to the experts and cook eggs the good old-fashioned way.

I think as much as anything, these next few weeks will reveal my personal relationship with food and cooking, and how it may be a window to other things. And I hope along the way it will offer some advice and observations that are useful to anyone who likes to eat or cook mindfully.

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So far, so good. Well, except for the fact that Key Foods doesn’t carry BUTTERMILK. Or I should say the Key Foods closest to my apartment. I hate that grocery store. Truly, Key Foods sucks. However, the incident pointed out one of the pitfalls of budgeted eating. Sometimes the cheapest solutions take the most time. And time is definitely worth something.

Instead of walking all the way to the Trader Joe’s and potentially waiting in a long line just for some butter and buttermilk, I went to the pricey grocery store up the street. I payed at least double for the butter as I would have at Trader Joe’s, but the 30 extra minutes for the cheap option wasn’t worth it, partially because the sky looked like it was about to open up. So unfortunately the cornbread I made was worth a little more than I thought it would be.

I also have to admit a little pang as I walked by the Haagen Dazs, because it is about 100% humidity in New York and there were so many happy people eating ice cream. But I figured if I bought some I would have to cop to it here, and I’m sure enough transgressions will come over the next few weeks. Day 2 didn’t seem the right time to throw one in!

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So, official Day 1. My daily allowance for 2 people is $7.14 to equal $50 for the week.

Breakfast: Brown Bread = $.23 x 2 servings = $.46
Lunch: Leftover Arroz con Pollo = $1.58 x 2 servings = $3.16
Snack: Orange (already accounted for cost in scone recipe)
Dinner: Black Bean Soup = $.74 x 2 servings = $1.50

Total: $5.12

The Arroz con Pollo recipe, which I made for dinner Sunday, was supposed to serve 4, but definitely came out to 6 servings (and I think I put in 1/2 the chicken it called for!). So that brings my per meal price down significantly. Here are the recipes and prices:

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Probably the most essential part of keeping to a tight food budget is planning ahead — something that seems nearly impossible in the city. Any night of the week you may be called out to some event or another, sidetracked at work, or otherwise engaged. But as soon as you let last-minute plans take over your life, you find yourself spending a lot of money on quick or portable (and not usually very satisfying) meals.

Compiling a bunch of recipes ahead of time for the week was really difficult for me. I tend to cook on a whim, which of course leads to a lot of impulse buying. For inspiration, I pulled out my copy of How to Cook Everything, and just started flipping through the pages. I think I came up with several inexpensive, delicious dishes to cook, and I will have the flexibility to swap days or delay cooking something if I have more leftovers than I anticipated. Here’s the plan, but I have not assigned days for each meal just yet.

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Starting Monday, I am embarking on an intensive 4-week food budgeting exercise. For anyone who loves food, loves to cook, and / or reads or writes about food all day long, resisting that amazing $10 triple creme cheese or $6 box of fresh farmstand berries is nearly impossible. These days, however, it’s necessary. My goal is 4 weeks, $50 / week, 3 meals a day for 2 people. This is not the most ambitious goal out there — but I think it’s realistic. I am not trying to set myself up for failure, rather, to reorient my thought process when I hit the grocery store or farmer’s market. Ask myself not just “do I want it?” but “do I need it?”. Force myself to be more creative to create delicious food, because if there’s one area I’m not willing to compromise on, it’s taste. Here are my ground rules:

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Welcome to a weeknight dinner. With cilantro, lime, and scallions in my fridge, the most obvious use seemed to be Mexican (I call it “Mexican” but honestly I am not claiming any kind of authenticity here). Chopped salad time!

Here’s what I included:

Chopped romaine lettuce
Black beans
Frozen corn (thawed)
Shredded cheddar
Chicken marinated in chipotle adobo sauce & lime and pan-fried
Chopped scallions
Tomatoes
Cilantro-lime vinaigrette (just lime juice, cilantro, olive oil, and salt in a blender)

Healthy, delicious, cheap, fast. Just how I like it!

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Having fresh ricotta in the fridge demands ricotta dishes. For a sweet, fancy Sunday breakfast, I decided to make crepes stuffed with sweetened ricotta and topped with stewed berries.

I used farmer’s market strawberries and some frozen blueberries, although you could use any berries, frozen or fresh. I didn’t have any powdered sugar on hand, but that would of course be the best finishing touch on top! The recipes below really make enough to serve 4 people, so reduce or increase as necessary.

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