Grocery Diaries

How a Medical Lab Tech Feeds Herself on $100 a Week in Chicago

updated Nov 7, 2019
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Credit: Photos: Shutterstock, Design: Kitchn

Name: Christine
Location: Chicago, IL
Age: 35
Number of people in household: 1
Occupation: Medical lab tech
Household income: $30/hour
Weekly grocery budget: $100
Ingredients to use this week: My aunt’s garden vegetables (somehow wasting homegrown produce makes me feel more guilty!) and some defrosted TJ’s lime chicken burgers
Grocery store of choice: Local ethnic grocery store, TJ’s, Aldi

Day 1: Thursday

Morning: I typically don’t eat anything at home before work. I pack some homemade cold brew in my Thermoflask (I highly recommend; it hasn’t leaked despite being bounced around during my bike commute) and some free shumai for lunch. A relative works for a restaurant supply wholesaler and sometimes the restaurants give him free food. Score! 

Lunch: I hurriedly eat lunch so I can see some sunshine (the lab has no windows). One of the perks of working on a college campus is the beautiful green space. I stumble across some leftover charcuterie spread outside one of the lecture halls. Why was I never bribed with food to attend lectures? One of the staff encourages me to take some and that was all the permission I needed! I take a small plate of sesame crackers, hummus, and marinated eggplant outside. 

Dinner: After work, I meet a friend for dinner at the Chicago French Market, a food hall within the commuter train station. It’s hard to keep in touch with friends in your 30s with full-time jobs and kids. We’ve moved this dinner date twice because she got sick and then her baby got sick. I buy two macarons to share ($5.02) and a tuna poke bowl for myself ($9). 

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Logo: Whole Foods, Design: The Kitchn

After dinner: Whole Foods is a few blocks away from Chicago French Market and I pop in to buy some organic fruit and vegetables to steam for my baby nephew. I also get a sleeve of everything bagels to finish up the cream cheese and smoked salmon I bought last week ($9.29). I wish Whole Foods carried chorizo, because I wanted to use up some garden tomatoes in a chorizo chili. I’ll have to go to another store. When I get home, I blend some almonds that were soaked overnight to make almond milk. Are nut milk bags dishwasher-safe? I rinse it in the sink and then throw it on the top rack for later. 

Day 1 Total: $23.31

Day 2: Friday

Morning: There’s more coffee-drinkers working today, so everyone shares a pot of coffee. I listen to an audiobook while I work. Currently, it’s a book on minimalism called  Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki and it’s probably my fifth time listening to it. I’m hoping the message will sink in! 

Credit: Christine

Lunch: Lunch is some Asian-style short ribs I made in the Instant Pot last week. It was a slow cooker recipe from a now-defunct blog that I adapted for a pressure cooker. Kalbi-cut short ribs (1 pound), 6 cloves of garlic, 3 slices of ginger, a quartered white onion, 1/2 cup of soy sauce, 1/4 cup of rice wine, 1/4 cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar into the Instant Pot insert at high-pressure for 20 minutes. Then, quick release to stir the contents and add some cut-up carrots and shiitake mushrooms for another 5 minutes at high pressure. The vegetables get too mushy if they’re pressure-cooked for too long. If you don’t mind the texture, you can cook everything in one step. I made a batch last week split into 6 servings (approximately $3.67/serving). My aunt gifted me some green beans from her garden and I added that to two of the servings. 

Dinner: I microwave some more short ribs with a side of basmati rice ($4). Two more servings left!

After dinner: After dinner I peel and slice the pears, apples, and asparagus that I’m steaming for my baby nephew (Instant Pot, steam setting 1 minute). I eat the peels. I make more basmati rice to go with the short ribs from last week. I also pre-soak some pinto beans for the chili I plan on making next week. I start another batch of cold brew that I make in my Sowden softbrew pot. I use a Hario handcranked burr grinder to coarse-grind the beans (usually Trader Joe’s “Joe”) and steep them for 12 to 16 hours. 

Credit: Christine

I excitedly dig into the new Trader Joe’s high-protein chocolate peanut butter ice cream based on Kitchn’s recommendation. Chocolate is usually the best flavor when it comes to low-fat ice cream. Like Halo Top, it is hard as a rock and takes a long time to soften enough to scoop. I like the little chewy pops of peanut butter (1 pint: $3, scoop ~ $1). 

Total: $0, $8.67 in ingredients from last week

Day 3: Saturday

Morning: I decant the coffee from the softbrew pot into a large Mason jar to store in the fridge. I pour some over ice mixed with homemade almond milk for my morning cup.

Credit: Christine

I head to my favorite Hong Kong-style bakery, Chiu Quon, on my way to visit my sister and her toddler. I pick up 3 Portugese milk tarts (pasteis de nata) and a coconut filled sweet top bun ($5.57). The lady behind the counter shoots me a look of disapproval when I forget the Cantonese word for coconut. Fun fact, the words “coconut” and “Jesus” (Christ) sound very similar (and confusing the two gives me anxiety). Being American-born, I’m used to Chinese people being disappointed in my poor language skills so I brush it off. When I was small, I would pick off the sweet top to eat and leave the rest of the bun for my mom. 

Lunch: My sister and her 13-month-old son greet me in the front yard. They were practicing walking and he is just too cute to handle. We dig into the pastries and try to get the toddler to eat some of the custard in the milk tart. He takes a tiny bite and refuses the rest. He also refuses to eat the asparagus, just lovingly cradles a spear like a pet snake. Oh well! I successfully feed him a steamed apple. I love watching him eat the food I “cook.” He takes the cutest little chomps. We eat lunch as he goes down for a nap. I brown-bagged a lunch (yes, more short ribs and rice, $4!).

Afternoon: I get home from my sister’s and scrap the idea of grocery shopping. The heat sucks the energy out of me. Chicago has two seasons: blazing hot and subzero (aka construction and winter). Still planning on my chili for next week, I make pinto beans in the Instant Pot. I cut a dishwasher tablet in half, throw one half to run a full load. The Costco Kirkland is the most economical and I stretch it even more by cutting them in half. The nut milk bag survives the top rack of the dishwasher. Score!

Dinner: More short ribs and rice ($4) and a serving of TJ’s chocolate pb ice cream ($1). 

Total: $5.57, ($9 in ingredients from last week)

Day 4: Sunday

Credit: Christine

Morning: It’s not raining yet so I bike to the local ethnic grocery store that sells Mexican, Chinese, and Middle Eastern products. It’s so empty — I should shop in the morning more often. I buy the beef and pork chorizo for the chili which I can’t find at mainstream stores. Why do mainstream stores not sell chorizo? Have other Americans not caught on to how delicious chorizo is? I like the brand V&V Supremo; it’s not as greasy as other brands. I also pick up organic tomatoes to supplement the ones from my aunt’s garden. I try to buy organic when I see it offered at small stores to encourage them to continue stocking it. They also have Jarritos in glass bottles so I pick up two to share with my roommate (grocery total: $18.81). When I get home, I mis-en-place the tomatoes and onion for chili-making later.

Credit: Photos: Shutterstock, Logo: Cermak Fresh Market, Design: The Kitchn

Lunch: I meet up with my cousins for a family lunch potluck so I pick up some Nashville hot chicken and sides from Big Boss chicken ($34.41). They put an interesting twist by using Chinese spices in their sauce. They have four levels of hot and I go with medium to play it safe. It’s delicious, but I think I’ll go hotter next time. My cousin passes along more of her mom’s garden vegetables, including the last of her tomatoes for the season.

Credit: Photos: Shutterstock, Logo: Big Boss Spicy Fried Chicken, Design: Kitchn

Afternoon: I finally get around to making the chorizo chili using one tube of beef and one tube of pork chorizo. I portion it into five containers and give one to my roommate. The other four will be for my work lunches (approximately $2.50/serving, cheaper than usual because of the gifted garden tomatoes). 

Dinner: I cook more of my aunt’s garden vegetables for dinner (green beans and kabocha squash). I dress them with a drizzle of olive oil and some Maldon salt. I “toast” a bagel in the airfryer. In an effort to KonMari my kitchen, I donated my toaster and toaster oven. I set the air fryer to 275 degrees F for 5 minutes. I pull it out sooner than that (as soon as I smell the garlic toasting). I purée the majority of the squash for baby food.

After dinner: I binge-watch GBBO on Netflix while munching on my roommate’s potato chips. This is a terrible habit!

Total: $53.22

Day 5: Monday

Morning: I sleep in because it’s my day off. It’s the first day of fall and I treat myself to an apple cider donut my cousin brought back from the apple orchard. Pro tip: Throw it in the air fryer! 

Lunch: For lunch, I sauté up some pork chorizo, mushrooms from my roommate’s grocery stash, garden green beans, and a fried egg. I definitely want my own garden someday. 

Credit: Christine

Dinner: I head over to my sister’s and BIL’s to tag along on a live music event at the local library. The toddler lasts for approximately one song before having a mini meltdown. We head back to her house where I feed him steamed pear slices. My sister makes a delicious meal of crisped-up braised pork shoulder with fresh-cut pineapple. She tells me the meat is heritage pork from a new subscription service she signed up for, Butcher Box. It’s the best pork we’ve ever tasted! We make tacos and top it with Frontera tomatillo salsa and Trader Joe’s guilt-free guacamole. She sends me home with some leftover cut-up pineapple.  

Credit: Photos: Shutterstock, Logo: Cermak Fresh Market, Design: The Kitchn

After dinner: On my way home, I dodge a car door near the grocery store. WTF. I pick up tortilla chips (El Milagro, a local brand) and canned condensed soup for my roommate ($6.01).

Total: $6.01

Day 6: Tuesday

Morning:  I pour myself a cup of drip coffee and fire up another audiobook before digging into work. Today it’s The Sixth Extinction.

Lunch: I heat up some chorizo chili in the break room and the lunchtime news informs me that tomorrow is quesadilla day! I briefly consider getting quesadilla ingredients after work, but I should use up what I already have at home. 

Credit: Christine

Dinner: I air fry a bagel and sauté some asparagus. I heat up some jarred queso dip to go with tortilla chips. A quesadilla would be much tastier than this.

Total: $0

Day 7: Wednesday

Morning: I am late for work and as a result, I’ve left my phone at home! Ugh, now I have to work in complete silence! Or worse, listen to my own thoughts. Ugh. I down two cups of coffee. 

Credit: Christine

Lunch: Lunch is more chorizo chili. I practice a mental exercise suggested by Goodbye, Things and silently thank my aunt for the tomatoes that went into my lunch. I set myself a calendar reminder to tell her how delicious they were at my next visit. It’s Wednesday, the start of a new grocery sale cycle, and I browse the online ads to see if anything stands out (nothing does so I put off shopping for the next cycle). I browse Kitchn and see that Aldi will have pumpkin brioche in October. That sounds amazing and make a calendar reminder to go to Aldi in October. 

I stumble across another lunchtime lecture. There’s fresh fruit and boxed coffee. The coffee is all gone but the table is more than half-full of bananas and oranges. I take a banana to go.  

Credit: Christine

Dinner: I survey the fridge to see what’s about to go bad. I still have garden green beans which should be cooked in the next 3 days. I have asparagus I purchased a week ago. I add some to a bowl of instant ramen. I like the Myojo brand, specifically “Oriental Flavor.” My roommate has a bunch of the cold ramen style, but I scrap the flavor packet in favor of a chicken broth flavor I saved from a different packet of instant ramen. I add in a soft-boiled egg (double yolk!) and top it with cilantro, scallions, and Chili Crisp. The rest of the asparagus gets sautéed for future meals. For dessert, I have a bowl of cut-up fresh pineapple (a silent thanks to my sister for gifting it to me). 

Total: $0

Credit: Kitchn

1. How did you set your food budget?

My food budget isn’t necessarily for financial reasons because I’m frugal everywhere else. Eating out should be special; you shouldn’t eat out every day. I limit eating out to twice a week and only do so socially. I take inspiration from Budget Bytes and I like to roughly calculate how much a serving of a recipe costs. Last year, my average monthly grocery costs was $199 and my average monthly eating out costs was $203. 

I typically grocery shop twice a week, depending on the weather because I bike commute. I go to the ethnic grocery store for produce and specialty ethnic foods. For snacks like chips and ice cream, I go to a larger chain store like Whole Foods or Marianos. I have a roommate but we eat very differently and have different working hours. We rarely grocery shop or eat together.

2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can’t live without?

I usually have rice, dried beans, dried pasta, and some canned meats (tuna, Spam, anchovies) in the pantry. Instant Pot beans are so easy to make that I stopped buying canned beans. I love Chili Crisp and Maldon salt. You can put those two things on any vegetable and protein and they will taste good! I keep soft-boiled eggs on hand to add to salads or instant ramen. 

3. What’s the budget recipe you always rely on?

My go-to meal prep recipe is a pressure cooker chicken chili verde from Serious Eats. It’s super easy to make in the Instant Pot. I make a batch and portion it into jars for my work lunches. It also tastes pretty good at room temperature if you want to avoid using the nasty communal work microwave. 

At Kitchn we believe setting a food budget for you and your family is an essential part in getting your financial life in order. Don’t know where to start? We have a guide for that. Want to share your Grocery Diary with Kitchn? See how here.