How a Librarian Eats for $50 a Week in Grand Forks, North Dakota
Welcome to Kitchn’s Grocery Diaries, where a real cook like you shows us what they bought, cooked, and ate over the course of a week.
Location: Grand Forks, North Dakota
Number of people in family: 1
Household income: $56,000/year
Weekly grocery budget: $50
Ingredients to use this week: Quinoa, a bag of onions, a head of cauliflower, some green onions, one spaghetti squash, salsa
Grocery store of choice: Natural Grocers and Walmart
*Not her real name. All of our participants in this series use pseudonyms for privacy.
Day 1: Wednesday
Breakfast: My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. and I drag myself out of bed. I make some tea and scramble two eggs with green onion and cheese and warm up a tortilla to eat it with. I’m running a little late so I try to eat quickly before grabbing my lunch (packed the night before) and a banana to eat while I warm up the car.
Water break: I go to put away my lunch and grab a cup of water from the staff lounge and discover that’s not an option right now. Whoops. I’d forgotten there were construction workers coming in to start asbestos abatement in the staff lounge today. Luckily the reference department has a fridge in their meeting room and some plastic cups. I’ll have to remember to bring my own water bottle tomorrow.
Lunch: I packed rice with black beans and sweet potato for lunch — essentially this recipe served over rice instead of in a tortilla. Somebody brought in Special K bars over the weekend so I help myself to one for dessert. A coworker e-mailed earlier asking if anyone wanted to play board games over lunch so I join in on two rounds of Biblios as I eat.
Snack: I snack on a carrot muffin. I made a dozen of them Monday morning in an attempt to use up some carrots that had been lingering in my fridge for awhile. It’s good but a bit oily. If I make them again I’ll reduce the amount of oil in the recipe.
Grocery shopping: It’s grocery shopping time! On Wednesdays I teach a citizenship class for our local refugee integration organization from 5 to 6. It’s pretty close to Natural Grocers, the local organic grocery store, so I do my shopping after class each week. I pick up eggs, milk, and a load of produce.
I head over to Walmart to get a large pizza pan and some ingredients for a pizza I’m making Sunday. While I’m there I notice the halal burgers are discounted. I wasn’t planning to buy burgers, but now that I’ve seen them I can’t resist the urge to change my dinner plans immediately. The cauliflower in my fridge can stand to wait another day.
Dinner: I’m glad I decided to grab those burgers — the cauliflower salad I’d planned on making would’ve taken awhile to put together and I want to be on my couch watching The Magicians on Syfy in half an hour. I wrap two burgers for the freezer and fry up the other two to eat with whole-wheat bread and American cheese. There are some grapes in my fridge on their last legs so I wash those as well and watch The Magicians while eating dinner. I’m super full when I finish but it was definitely worth it.
Day 2: Thursday
Breakfast: I woke up very tired at 9 a.m. today — maybe it was having all that meat last night? It probably doesn’t help that I got caught up reading and went to bed late. I’m not in the mood to make myself anything, so the freezer comes to the rescue: I heat up two chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and pull out a container of frozen mac and cheese to pack for lunch. I also pack two mandarins and a banana for snacks. It’s not the healthiest set of meals, but I’ll make up for it at dinner. My morning cup of tea helps clear my head a little.
Snack: I eat a banana at my desk.
Lunch: The staff lounge is still out of commission so I walk over to the student union to eat lunch. It’s pretty nice weather for North Dakota and I enjoy stretching my legs. Lunch is mac and cheese topped with broccoli, balti chicken, and green onions. The chicken recipe is from a friend’s cookbook that I don’t have on hand, but this balti chicken in saffron sauce recipe looks similar. I eat a mandarin too.
Snack: I’m finished eating and tell myself very sternly that I do not need a Dove dark chocolate bar. I had chocolate chips in my breakfast today already! Unfortunately this argument proves ineffective and I buy one from the union corner shop before heading back to work. They don’t give me a receipt, but it’s $1.38. I eat half of my chocolate bar and put the rest in my desk for later. It’s out of sight and now hopefully out of mind.
Snack: I eat a mandarin while working at my desk. I’ve been taking an online professional development course and this is my final week — I’m determined to finish this week’s assignment before heading out for the day.
Dinner: I’m not hungry when I get home from work so I doof around on social media for awhile. By 8:15 I know it’s time to bring in the big guns — I call my mom to chat as I start chopping my cauliflower. This is our shared solution when we’re being lazy about cooking; she called me yesterday for the same reason. Alas, she’s taking a nap so I settle for a YouTube playlist instead. I prep a Mason jar of golden milk overnight oats for breakfast tomorrow as I wait for the quinoa for the salad to finish cooking. I sit down to a bowl of roasted cauliflower and quinoa salad, pleased with the knowledge that I have enough to feed me for several days. According to the comments on the recipe it freezes well, so I stick two portions in the freezer for later.
Dessert: Still a little hungry. I eat a carrot muffin.
Day 3: Friday
Breakfast: I turn the kettle on and pack lunch while it heats — the cauliflower salad from yesterday, a few grape tomatoes, and two mandarins. Breakfast is the overnight oats from last night topped with a sliced banana and some sliced almonds. The accompanying cup of tea should go without saying.
Snack: I eat two squares of Dove dark chocolate. Odds are good the whole bar will be finished by the end of today. In fact … I think I’ll just finish it now. Can’t tempt me if I’ve already eaten it, right?
Lunch: Munching away at my cauliflower and quinoa salad and grape tomatoes while I work at my desk. Someone’s brought in donut holes so I help myself to one as a bonus dessert. I really like the seasoning on this quinoa; it reminds me of my mom’s yellow rice.
Snack: I follow up lunch with a mandarin.
Snack: Another mandarin down the hatch. I’m kind of counting down the clock at this point; I can’t wait to head home for the weekend.
Dinner: I’m in the mood for sushi but when I check my pantry I see I’m all out of nori sheets. Boo. I stick it on the grocery list for next week and settle for scrambled eggs and hot chocolate instead. I make the unfortunate discovery that the cap on my milk jug was not as sealed as tightly as I thought when I give it a shake and milk goes flying everywhere. Dinner is temporarily delayed as I clean up. I finally sit down to eat and watch an episode of The Great British Bake Off.
Day 4: Saturday
Morning baking brainstorm: It’s Saturday and I’m enjoying lingering in bed. I’m heading over to a coworker’s birthday party in the evening and debating what to bring — I always try to have treats when I’m invited somewhere. Maybe I could buy some half-and-half and make caramels? I did that for another friend’s birthday awhile back and I still have half a bottle of light corn syrup left over. I’ll decide over breakfast and pick up anything I need while I run errands in the morning.
Breakfast: With that out of the way, I start working on breakfast. I want to use up some of the older ingredients in my fridge so I cut up two carrots that have been there awhile and toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper to make roast carrot fries. While I wait for the carrots to roast I make yogurt dip. I have a little bit of dill that didn’t get used last week so I chop it and add it to a half cup of yogurt along with some lemon juice, salt, and garlic powder. I’m not following a recipe, just adding things and taste testing until I’m satisfied. I also put a spaghetti squash in my slow cooker for lunch later. Once the carrot fries are done I take a handful of grape tomatoes and a cup of green tea. It’s 10 a.m. and breakfast is served!
Grocery shopping: I’m at Walmart to get some photos printed and decide to get my nori sheets so I can have sushi tomorrow. I also buy chocolate chips for a quick batch of cookies just in case the star bread doesn’t work out. It takes me a tad over budget but oh well! I’ve barely eaten anything out of this week’s purchases yet so I don’t expect to need much next week.
Snack: Finished running errands. I’m home and hungry. I eat a mandarin to tide me over while I start preparing lunch.
Lunch: That spaghetti squash took awhile to cool down! It made more than I needed for the Southwest spaghetti squash bowl I’m eating now so I’ll have to figure out something to do with the rest later. I’ve put three other bowls in the fridge for the next few days.
Snack: I need to wash my dishes and start the star bread soon but I’m feeling a bit lazy. Obviously the only solution is a motivational inside-out chocolate chip cookie. Happily I have a bag of premade cookie dough balls waiting in my freezer for just such an occasion. It’s true what they say — a freezer really is a single girl’s best friend. I do my dishes and clear my dining table while the cookies bake. I have basically zero counter space so whenever I make bread I clear off my dining table and replace the tablecloth with a plastic sheet to give myself room to knead and shape the dough. In unsurprising news, I eat two cookies.
Baking project: WELP. I have something of a misadventure involving yeast not blooming, accidentally melting plastic on my stovetop burner, and lots of Googling on how to address both. My dough is now rising as it should be, though, so we’ll leave all that in the past.
Dinner: Dinner is a mishmash of odds and ends: cauliflower salad, pieces of star bread (I baked the bits I cut off from the bread while shaping it), and a small omelet (leftover egg wash and spaghetti squash). I’m really just passing the time until the bread’s out of the oven and I can head out to B’s birthday party. Now the bread is out of the oven and looking beautiful! Totally worth all the mishaps. I put most of my cauliflower salad back in the fridge and hustle out the door.
Late night pizza prep: Back home from the party. I had snacky food — cheese and crackers, a few strawberries and blueberries, chips with cheesy dip, and a slice of birthday cake. I had a really good time but I am SLEEPY. I want to get the pizza dough for tomorrow started before I go to bed, though, so I mix that together quickly before going to sleep.
Day 5: Sunday
Breakfast: I woke up at 5:45 in the morning today and despite my best efforts wasn’t able to fall back asleep. At the moment I’m Skyping with some friends trying not to yawn too often (we catch up on Skype every Sunday at 11 for a few hours). I never really want to eat when I’m tired, but I set a cup of rice in my rice cooker for sushi anyways.
Lunch: Eating sushi. I don’t have a recipe for this — I call it lazy sushi since all I do is make a cup of sushi rice, season it with with a tablespoon rice vinegar, and spread it over some nori sheets with canned tuna, green onions, and an avocado as filling. One cup of rice will make four sushi rolls and the filling will do eight rolls total. I eat two rolls and wrap two in the fridge for tomorrow.
Snack: I’ve finished up on Skype and snack on a banana. I’ve got laundry to fold and a pizza to make but I’m going to read for awhile first.
Dinner: I spend the evening switching between reading and half dozing. I don’t manage to 100% drop off to sleep but it helps. I’ve got a bag of onions that are getting old so I chop up six and start caramelizing them. I’ll use some of them in a caramelized onion and mushroom pizza and freeze the rest for future use. I eat the last of my cauliflower salad while periodically getting up to stir the onions.
Meal prep: Pizza is finished! I pull it out of the oven and portion out the rest of the caramelized onions into 2-tablespoon servings to freeze. I have a sink full of dishes but I’ll let them soak and handle them tomorrow — it’s late and I want to get some rest.
Day 6: Monday
Breakfast: I woke up far too early again today and have a tiredness headache. Tea is the only thing that can save me now. For breakfast I eat the two sushi rolls I wrapped yesterday and a banana. I pack two slices of pizza, the last of my grape tomatoes, and two mandarins for lunch.
Lunch: I have lunch at my desk. I hope they finish working on the staff lounge soon — I really miss having access to plates and a table.
Snack: I kind of want dessert but I haven’t packed anything. I find a stick of gum buried in my bag and settle for that.
Dinner: As soon as I get home I start preheating my oven and pull out a Southwest spaghetti squash bowl to microwave. I have a cross-stitching group that meets every Monday at 7:30, which I’m definitely going to be late for but if I eat quickly I can at least minimize how late I am. The oven is on so I can bake two inside-out chocolate chip cookies — it might have taken three hours but I intend to satisfy my dessert craving.
Day 7: Tuesday
Breakfast: I woke up at 4:55 a.m. but I was able to fall back asleep this time. Progress! I barely even have a headache this morning and it’s quickly banished with breakfast which consists of four chocolate chip pancakes and a cup of green tea. I pack two slices of pizza and two mandarins for lunch.
Lunch: I have a working lunch at my desk. I have a book club today that I’d forgotten about so I can’t stay as late as I’d initially planned which means pizza is getting paired with website work today.
Dinner: I get home and gulp down a spaghetti squash bowl quickly. My friend will be by in 10 minutes to pick me up for book club. We’re discussing Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say.
Snack: Over half of us read the book this time which is pretty good for us! I snack on grapes, cheese and crackers, a small slice of vegan chocolate cake, and cookies as we chat.
1. How did you set your food budget?
I moved to North Dakota from Canada about two years ago and noticed the amount of money I was spending on groceries shot up substantially. I’d (incorrectly) assumed that food would be cheaper here — North Dakota is farm territory, right? When I realized I was regularly spending about $80/week on groceries I decided I wanted to halve that amount immediately. I started comparison shopping between all the grocery stores in town and planning meals around whatever produce was on sale that week. I also cut out most processed foods, started using more frozen produce, and learned how to make bread (way easier than I thought it’d be!). Nowadays I stick to two stores for my weekly trip: Natural Grocers for organic eggs, milk, and produce, and Walmart for everything else. I still check the produce ad for sales but I’ve changed my habits enough now that I usually fall under $50/week without having to think about it much.
2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can’t live without?
Oatmeal, eggs, rice, onions, lentils, soy sauce, olive oil, and green onions are all staples for me — if I even look like I’m getting low I stock up immediately. I’ve got a sweet tooth and bake regularly so while I COULD live without flour, butter, vanilla, and sugar, it’s a rare occasion where I don’t have them on hand.
3. What’s the budget recipe you always rely on?
You read about one of them! Lazy sushi is cheap, quick, and tasty — everything I like in cooking. Variations on scrambled eggs and baked oatmeal also serve as my default budget breakfasts.