When Times Are Tough, I Turn to Budget Bytes

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Like many millennials, I spent much of my 20s broke. Freelance-writer, no-savings-account, five-dollars-in-the-gas-tank type broke. And on many evenings during that decade of living paycheck to paycheck, I stirred together cooked spaghetti, brown sugar, and soy sauce to make the effortlessly perfect spicy sriracha (aka “dragon”) noodles from my most beloved broke-era recipe blog, Budget Bytes.

It’s a simple concoction, one that can be spiced up with chili garlic sauce or given heft with crispy fried tofu or ground pork and is one of those dishes that can be made at pretty much any time because it only takes a few minutes and relies on the ingredients you always have in your pantry. But perhaps most importantly, it also allows you to feed as many as three people for just a couple of bucks, depending on the protein and garnishes that you choose. And right now, as I contemplate the fact that even the “cheap” eggs cost upwards of $5 a dozen and everything else in the grocery store feels more expensive than ever, I’m deeply appreciative of both these noodles and Budget Bytes’s overall approach.

For those who are somehow unfamiliar with the blog, Budget Bytes was launched in 2009 by Beth Moncel, a self-described hourly wage worker with a mountain of student loan debt and a real knack for precisely calculating the cost of every single meal she cooked. Moncel started posting her recipes — and cost breakdowns — online, and the blog developed a cult following thanks to its simple, affordable style. Now it’s a full-scale publication that employs multiple editors and contributors to curate its selection of cheap and tasty meals. Alongside each recipe, you’ll find the exact cost of each ingredient that you’ll use (like a nickel’s worth of garlic powder in your sheet pan fajitas or $2.85 in ground beef for unstuffed bell peppers).

It might seem a little over-the-top to think about your garlic powder a nickel at a time, but it really helped me understand the economics of my own kitchen. Back when my own budget was more limited, I could use those cost estimates to roughly calculate how much it would cost to make everything I wanted to cook that week, and it took a lot of the anxiety out of going to the grocery store in a time when I lived in fear of my card being declined for insufficient funds. It also made me a whiz at pricing out my own meals, and there’s nothing more satisfying than learning that the delicious bowl of stew that you’re eating cost less than a stingy dollar-menu cheeseburger.

Some might assume that, because it is so focused on making meals affordable, that Budget Bytes’s recipes are somehow inferior to more “sophisticated” resources, like the NYT Cooking app or Bon Appétit. But this is a website absolutely replete with recipes that you’ll want to make over and over again, like these fluffy, five-ingredient biscuits that you can make in advance, store in the freezer, and bake individually when you need warm bread to go with dinner. There’s also an easy chicken piccata that looks fancy enough for a small dinner party but only costs $8 to make, and a warming red lentil stew with tons of spices that tastes even better when you eat the leftovers the next day.

And even though I’m in a more stable and comfortable financial position these days — I no longer have to do as much math in the grocery store, thankfully — I’m still a little nervous right now at a time when even wealthy celebrities like Cardi B are feeling the pinch at the supermarket. I may not have a whole lot of control over what my grocery bill is going to be each week, but it’s definitely comforting to know that Budget Bytes will be there for me, still churning out new recipes that will nourish my body — and taste really great — on the cheap.

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