She's shifted both her shopping and cooking styles amid the pandemic to keep herself safe and well fed from her studio apartment’s tiny kitchen.
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aly walansky
Credit: Courtesy of Aly Walansky

Aly Walansky lives by herself in a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York. As a food writer, she's often out and about at events and openings — eating dinner and drinks around town, and at someone else's expense. Or, at least that was the case pre-pandemic.

"I've been holed up in my tiny studio apartment, all by my lonesome, since this whole hot mess of a pandemic started," Walansky explains. And that means she's shopping, cooking, and eating entirely solo. But it's a challenge she enjoys, as a food lover and home cook getting creative with a modest weekly grocery budget of about $50 in what she describes as a "tiny" kitchen.

"My budget is pretty tight, to be honest," Walansky explains. "As a freelance writer, my already erratic income has seen a dip since the pandemic started. When your main gig is writing about dining and travel, there's less need for you when no one is dining and traveling."

But Walansky has celebrated the opportunity to develop her cooking skills in her apartment. "The good news is I've been able to focus on cooking at home, and being creative with what I have in my pantry," she says.

Shopping Exclusively Online

When the pandemic hit, many shoppers moved to a hybrid model including shopping online and sparingly making in-person trips to the grocery store. But Walansky took her shopping exclusively online.

"I have some pre-existing health concerns that make me not want to mess around at all right now with catching COVID. And I also have to keep my parents' preexisting conditions in mind — the only time I ever leave my home is the occasional weekend visit to theirs," she says. "So I've been shopping entirely online, using both Instacart and Amazon Fresh."

She picks her online store after browsing sales on various sites to determine which is offering the best deals on the items she needs. "I try to limit my grocery spend to about $50 a week, but some weeks I'll go over it if I see a family pack of chicken on sale," she explains. "And if I see shrimp on sale for $6 a pound, I'll buy three pounds and put it in the freezer. This strategy allows me to throw [sale-priced proteins] in the freezer and not buy it for a long time after."

However, while online shopping serves a purpose in the pandemic, it isn't quite the same experience for people who enjoy the process of shopping in an actual grocery store. "I haven't been to a store in months and I so badly miss being able to browse," she says.

Choosing Power Staples

Walansky says she stocks up on canned tomatoes as well as beans whenever they are on sale. "I have literal cases of those right now in my closet," she says. "You can use them in so many ways, they last forever, and they are so affordable."

Another power grocery staple for Walansky: roast chicken. It's affordable, nutritious, versatile, and makes great leftovers. 

"I love to make a roast chicken once a week," she explains. "A whole chicken runs me maybe $7. I throw it in the air fryer with some root vegetables and I have a gorgeous dinner that night."

For the rest of the week, she uses the leftover chicken as protein on top of salads for lunch, as well as in sandwiches and wraps. Plus, she uses the carcass to make stock. "This past weekend I took it a step further and removed the skin and used it to make schmaltz," she sasy. "It's just endless how much you can do with one $7 chicken."

Splurging Where It Counts 

While Walansky knows the money-saving power of canned tomatoes and whole chicken, she also budgets for the splurges she considers personally essential to a good life filled with indulgent eats. She cites cheese as her biggest splurge overall. 

"I don't care about organic groceries, and I'll usually buy the rice and beans and pasta that are a good price," she says. "But I love good cheese and it makes all the difference. And I'd rather have no goat cheese or no mozzarella than the ones I don't like!"

She also says she simply "can't fathom" bad olive oil or coffee — so she makes room for those in the budget, too.

And she won't compromise when it comes to freshness or quality — although those don't necessarily have to come with a higher price tag. "Something can be inexpensive and still be fresh and good quality," she says. "But I get so disappointed if I order groceries and the greens come and are already bruised and wilted."

Get Inventive With Leftovers

In Walansky's assessment, leftovers don't just save money and effort, they're also an opportunity to try your favorite ingredients in new ways — an opportunity she welcomes.

"I think the best leftovers are those that you can repurpose in several different ways, like that roast chicken," she says, but "everything else" that's leftover after a meal can be creatively repurposed, too.

"I had leftover rice a few weeks ago, and I mixed it with some ground beef and made it into the best fast and easy stuffed peppers," she says. "I could have done a million other things with it, too."

Her top tip: "The best way to enjoy leftovers is to make it into a new thing. No one wants to eat polenta for three days straight, for example. But leftover polenta made into polenta cakes or polenta fries? That's fun!"

A Satisfying Money-Saving Tip

Walansky says her favorite way to trim her grocery spend is to grow fresh herbs at home — something even someone living in a small studio apartment can do. "I've saved so much money during the pandemic by growing fresh herbs on my window versus buying them," she says. "It's so annoying to spend $3 on fresh basil and $2 on fresh cilantro every week, and then see it go bad."

Instead, she grows these herself now, and says, "My pesto and chimichurri have never been better!"

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