The cookbook author spins budget-friendly veggies into thrilling flavors, and leaves little to waste.
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Pat Tanumihardja
Credit: Courtesy of Pat Tanumihardja

Patricia Tanumihardja lives with her husband and 10-year-old son in Springfield, Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. And those are some hungry mouths to feed — with huge appetites. "They're both tall and slender, but have supercharged metabolic rates," she says. "Plus, they're always squabbling over who gets the last bite!"

Fortunately, she has plenty of culinary know-how and creativity: Tanumihardja is an author of children's books, as well as cookbooks (her two most recent books are Instant Pot Asian Pressure Cooker Meals and Asian Pickles at Home). You might think a cookbook author would require a big grocery budget to collect high-quality and varied ingredients, but that's not Tanumihardja's style: Her weekly food budget is just $200. 

"Our overall budget has wiggle room but we live frugally," she explains. "We eat out only once or twice a week, mostly on the weekends, so most of our food budget goes toward groceries." Here's how she makes her shopping spend go far without sacrificing flavor or variety in her family's meals.

Vary Your Grocery Sources

For fresh produce, Tanumihardja subscribes to a community supported agriculture (CSA) box. "Most people probably don't even think of this, but I think subscribing to a CSA is a great money-saving option," she says. "I prefer organic produce so this is a very economical option as compared to shopping at the grocery store or even a farmers' market. Plus, I'm eating local and seasonal and I'm supporting local farmers."

She also typically shops at Whole Foods Market and Giant, and occasionally Trader Joe's, H-Mart, or Imperfect Foods. "I shop regularly online since the pandemic started, and in person when it's in conjunction with other errands," she says. 

Her grocery splurge is smoked salmon or Copper River Salmon when they're in season. In fact, seafood is the most expensive thing she typically buys. "I try to always buy wild-caught or responsibly farmed," she says. She won't skimp or compromise on quality when it comes to organic tomatoes, either.

But many of her family's diet staples are super budget friendly, especially when she buys them in bulk — such as "tofu and 25-pound bags of jasmine rice at the Asian market."

Embrace Budget-Savvy Vegetable Strategies

Tanumihardja's CSA veggie box includes seven or eight organic veggies and costs only $24 per week. "Yes, it means that you have to eat previously unheard-of veggies and may have to subject yourself and your family to an unending barrage of root vegetables during winter," she says. "However, I see it as a challenge… and helps raise a non-picky eater! [Plus,] the vegetables are so fresh they stay fresh much longer than store-bought."

Another top tip for extending the life of veggies? "Green bags," she says, describing the bags that help keep veggies fresh longer. "They're a life saver. That combined with knowing which veggies to eat first will help with meal planning and reduce waste."

Indeed, Tanumihardja wastes little — thanks to a combination of philosophy and knowledge. "I rarely have to throw out rotten veggies. Buy veggies with their green tops — it's like two veggies in one," she advises. "Beets and turnips can be roasted, and the tops stir-fried or braised, or tossed into soup. Carrot tops [can be] turned into pesto."

In fact, Tanumihardja often likes to use vegetables instead of meat in the traditional Asian dishes she grew up eating — and those swaps can be money savers, too. 

"General Tso's chicken becomes General Tso's eggplant, barbecued pork buns turn into barbecued mushroom buns, mu shu pork is moo shu vegetables," she says. "I'm not vegetarian but I love vegetables. I always add lots of legumes or vegetables to traditionally meat-heavy dishes like meatloaf, lasagna, stews, Bolognese, shepherd's pie. You don't have to use as much meat and provides your family with a balanced diet."

Keep Budget-Friendly Staples Exciting

Tanumihardja cites two ingredients as meal staples she uses many different ways, which keeps the flavors varied and the budget under control.

The first is roast chicken. "We eat the roast chicken as-is, usually with a rice pilaf and salad. There are only three of us so there's always leftovers," she says. From there, "I will turn the chicken meat into at least two more meals: chicken tortilla soup, chicken tetrazzini, chicken salad, or chicken turmeric soup. I make stock with the carcass, or congee [Chinese rice porridge]."

Her other budget-friendly go-to ingredient? Rice. "I make enough rice at a time to always have leftovers," she says. She uses it to make pilaf, fried rice, congee, rice pudding, spam musubi, and rice balls. 

"If I remember, I'll use the rice washing water to water my plants or make soup," she says. "I read somewhere that the rice water is also good for making pickles [and] fermenting. I'll report back when I try it!"

Think Creatively With Leftovers

Tanumihardja learned early how to make leftovers not merely into ho-hum reheated fare, but to reinvent them in new and exciting ways.

"My dad hates eating leftovers, so my mom has become an expert at repurposing them. I've learned a lot from her," she says. "Dinner one night is often unrecognizable as lunch the next day."

Sometimes, keeping leftovers fun and fresh requires a willingness to take risks. "Don't be afraid to experiment and cook out of the box. Just because you haven't seen it done before, or it's not authentic, doesn't mean you can't make it," Tanumihardja says. "This is home cooking — no one's going to be looking over your shoulder telling you can't make sushi with Arborio rice, or risotto with basmati."

Tanumihardja also keeps meals exciting and flavors interesting — even when the ingredients are ordinary and affordable — by cooking cross-culturally. "I often transform a western dish into an Asian one," she says. "For example, my roast chicken is usually flavored with lemon, rosemary, and thyme. I use the carcass and some meat to make congee but I augment it with lots of ginger and green onions and it tastes just like mom's!"

Stay Open-Minded to New Recipes

"Eating on a budget doesn't mean you can't have pricier grocery items," Tanumihardja notes. "Buy more expensive items when they go on sale, especially meats. Incorporate them into your weekly meal planning. You can always freeze for later use, too."

She also suggests getting outside your comfort zone to stay in your budget. "If you're bored with the same old dishes using ingredients you can afford in your budget — like beans or veggies — look to other cuisines," she says. "I recently discovered a Persian stew that uses eggplant, ground meat, tomatoes, and spices — all inexpensive ingredients I had at home!"