This is not primarily a cooking blog but I referred to reducing costs of some basic preparations in last week's "food & money" post and I wanted to expand on that. Because that's how I roll.
The simplest way to add nutrition and lower the cost of a meal is ... add vegetables.
Very serious about this. Some of the most nutritious vegetables are among the least expensive. Carrots, beets, and other root vegetables are chock-full of fiber, not to mention vitamins that are much more accessible to the body than anything out of a jar.
They are very satiating as well - they fill you up. They keep a long time - a long time - and they all cook at roughly the same rate as long as you cut pieces of roughly the same volume. You can do a giant load of roots in the slow cooker for almost no labor, and have veggie sides all week.
Peppers are delicious, but they have a very high water content and often a high sugar content as well, which means when cooked you don't get much volume of food - so they're not as satisfying as roots - and the calories you do get are mostly sugar. Just as celery is a great transfer device for cheese and peanut butter, I recommend bell peppers as a crunchy, beautiful, tasty, and nutritionally favorable option to potato chips or crackers for the transport of (e.g.) hummus or dips.
A bell pepper does not actually cost more than a bag of chips, and once you have eaten a bell pepper with hummus you are going to be satisfied, because you've just had some food.
Unlike eating a bag of chips, which just leaves you feeling kind of greasy, not to mention thirsty. You won't be thirsty eating a bell pepper, because hey - it's full of water! So you won't be tempted to reach for a soda or a beer. Win.
I am not a big greens eater, and here's the reason: as good as they indisputably are, nutrition-wise, you do not get a lot of food for your money; they are lamentably subject to contamination; they're often quite a lot of work to get clean; not everyone likes them raw, and some of them can't even be eaten raw; and it's not all that easy, in my opinion, to make them taste sufficiently good that the average person is going to use them instead of, say, rice or potatoes.
I am a lazy cook and I don't want to spend more than 45 minutes, total, in my kitchen on a weeknight. Greens are excluded from my produce boxes because they take too long. I'll give anyone else the same pass. I get my greens at restaurants, or in the form of frozen spinach - great, by the way, to add to red sauce or pizza or chowder or chili.
Last week I outlined two pot roast preparations that used only two vegetables apiece (carrots and onion) and came out to roughly $3.15 (average) per serving. You can feed a lot more people for almost no more money per serving, just by adding two more pounds of root vegetables to the slow cooker.
If someone is serious about trying to eat well on a budget, my sincere #1 piece of advice is to buy a big slow cooker and fill it with at least equivalent weights of meat and vegetables.
In other words, if you want to feed a family of four twice in a week, use a 3.5-lb roast and 3.5 to 4 lbs of vegetables. Plan accordingly and get the bigger cooker. It's a bargain.
My #2 piece of advice is to embrace cabbage. Cabbage is something I've come to love because I've learned how to make it delicious. It takes a tiny bit of getting used to, because you are used to eating starch.
The sensory receptors love starch. They know, you see, that metabolically it's the same as sugar, and that they are about to get a sugar rush thanks to that pasta you are forking in.
Sensory receptors are all about instant gratification, and they will mess with your head.
Cabbage has resistance, because it has fiber; it has an actual flavor, because it is a live product. It plays well with onions and fennel, and it is superb with almost all cheeses, that I've tried at least (probably not with brie or camembert, but those are made for schmearing on bread). I have found cabbage a completely satisfactory substitute for spaghetti (with red sauce), fettucine (with cream and cheese sauce), or egg noodles (as in beef stroganoff).
A head of cabbage costs roughly the same as a box of noodles. Add onions or fennel as you sauté the cabbage, and increase the volume of your dish - therefore feeding more people - for negligible additional cost.
That's enough on that. If you are interested, I have a lot more similar bloviation in the "In the Kitchen" archive. And for more serious food writing from someone who is a better cook than I am, visit Dan at http://casualkitchen.blogspot.com/. Eat on!