Hint: It involves a pen!

By Alesandra Dubin
January 11, 2021
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Credit: Courtesy of Annie Nguyen

Home cook and content creator Annie Nguyen lives in Seattle with her boyfriend Andrew and their dog, Mochi. And like so many others amid the economic fallout of the pandemic, they find themselves working with substantially less income now than they had in flusher times. 

"Since I was laid off in March 2020 due to the pandemic, we are a one-income household," she explains, "Our overall food budget is very tight since we have bills and rent to pay."

That means the couple tries to keep to a streamlined weekly food budget of $50 to $100 — ideally shooting for the lower end of that scale, and dispersing any leftover funds to future weeks. But with a savvy approach to shopping and storing, and a lot of creativity in the kitchen, Nguyen's household stays eating well — including plenty of organic, sustainable, and indulgent-feeling meals. Here's how she does it.

Be a Thoughtful Planner

To stay on budget and keep meals varied and interesting, Nguyen takes a mindful approach to menu preparation.

"When planning the week's menu, I always like to take a look at my fridge and freezer to see what I have," she says. From there, she writes down ideas for what she'll plan to prep, and makes notes for other items she will need to supplement a recipe. She also makes notes about portion sizes based on whether she plans to stretch a particular ingredient into multiple meals, and how many.

"Another thing I like to do is spread my menu out — meaning that I will do chicken on Monday, fish on Tuesday, pizza on Wednesday, etcetera," she says. "I like to make sure that my menu is alternating and that I will not be bored of what I have."

Turn to Trader Joe's

Like many shoppers who live within shopping distance of Trader Joe's, Nguyen is a big fan of the cult-favorite grocery chain. Shopping at TJ's (as it is affectionately known) helps her score great deals on high-quality fare, including plenty of fresh and organic ingredients.

"Since we live near a Trader Joe's, we mainly shop there in person for our produce, meat, fish, dairy, egg, and toiletries," she says. "It's very affordable for the amount of food and items we purchase, and it has great-quality products."

At Trader Joe's, she's also able to score fresh, organic produce at a value price, for use in many flavorful and nutritious meals throughout the week. "Living near a Trader Joe's, we get great organic produce anywhere from $1 to $3," she says. "And it's a great portion size too!"

Make Splurges Count

Nguyen is happy to expand her shopping outside of Trader Joe's in order to score some of her favorite ingredients that also fall in line with her values — including environmental sustainability and supporting local businesses. 

"My grocery splurge would be MSC seafood that you can find at Whole Foods because I love knowing that I can have great quality and still be able to support sustainable practices," she says. "Doing this, I know that future generations will be able to still enjoy seafood."

She supports local bakeries by buying freshly baked bread whenever she can. And she'll also splurge on organic meat and eggs, noting that these are among the quality products that "not only help our body but also [support] the environment, too."

Affordability Meets Versatility

Part of her strategy involves always having a solid supply of produce in the fridge because there are so many different ways to use them: veggie pizza, stir fry, fried rice, and on and on.

To that end, Nguyen and her boyfriend have an easy breakfast go-to that's as satisfying as it is cost effective — and they make it stretch beyond just that one meal, too.

"Our morning routine is omelet," she says. "I use all the veggies we have — spinach, onion, mushroom, garlic, red bell peppers, bacon or ham, and cheddar cheese — and cut into portions that are enough for us two to eat."

Using what's left after portioning out the meal for two, she creates a soup for future meals, adding additional protein like ground beef or shredded chicken. "Sometimes I even add in pasta to make it more hearty," she says.

Play the Dating Game

Among Nguyen's top tools for grocery budgeting? A pen. That's because "freezing and dating your leftovers is the best tip I can give anyone," she says. "Knowing when you prepare the meal and freeze it helps you organize your leftovers and eat first what has spent longest in the refrigerator."

She takes a similar approach with fresh items, too, and recommends it to others with small households: "When purchasing bread for example, portion half the loaf and freeze the other half and date it," she says. She also likes to make a big batch of soup, storing it in reusable containers, dating it, and freezing.

Shop at Home First

You can't shop smartly unless you know what you already have, so Nguyen takes inventory of her fridge at the beginning of every week. "From there, write down what you can create using the items you have in the refrigerator and pantry," she recommends. "Then create the menu and write in detail what you will add and how that will play with other recipes for the week."

She also references store apps as well as circulars to familiarize herself with the best available deals. But with just two members of her household, she's careful to avoid buying in bulk even if it seems like a great deal — because doing so can actually end up being both an unnecessary expense and an unfortunate waste of food.

"Buy enough and never over-buy because you will have food waste if you can't eat it in time," she says. "You can always go back to the store when something runs out."