At emergency kitchens across the country, employees and volunteers navigate a larger-scale version of the puzzle that every household faces: How do I make enough nutritious food with the resources I have available?
In my time spent volunteering at an emergency kitchen, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, from how to julienne vegetables to the importance of questioning my assumptions about others. One of the many valuable skills I’ve gained from my experience is the ability to feed myself on a budget.
Thanks to what I’ve learned from my weekly volunteer shift, I’ve been able to take my weekly grocery bill from $55 to $40… in a town where food prices are 35% above the national average.
Here are the top six tips I’ve learned from one of the best kitchen managers in the game:
1. Be Creative
The emergency kitchen where I volunteer once received a large donation of bread. The day before the last few loaves were set to expire, my kitchen manager shredded them, soaked the cubes of bread in egg, and stuck the combination in the oven to make a “French toast bake.”
Not only was the French toast bake a clever strategy to use up the bread before it went bad, but it was also a simple way to make a popular breakfast dish.
To make a delicious meal on a budget, first look at what you already have or could purchase cheaply, and then come up with innovative ways to combine those ingredients.
2. Save Time and Money with Meal Prep
At first, I didn’t think I could apply the recipes I learned at the emergency kitchen to my own life, as I cook for dozens of people at the shelter and only one at home. Then, I realized I could just freeze my leftovers and eat them later.
Preparing meals in advance saves money because I’m less tempted to eat out when I know I have a freezer stocked full of delicious home-cooked meals.
Need ideas? Here’s a list of great recipes for meals you can prepare ahead of time.
3. Think Local to Save Money
Would you expect to see king salmon and blueberries at an emergency kitchen?
The kitchen I volunteer at is located in Juneau, Alaska, and my boss often receives donations of wild berries and locally caught fish. What might seem like expensive foods to many are actually completely free.
I was able to reduce my own grocery bills when I stopped paying so much attention to what people thousand miles away from me were eating on Instagram and started paying attention to the resources I had on hand — including the wild berries I gather from the trail behind my house.
What’s expensive in one location might be cheap in yours and vice versa, so learn to work with what is available to you.
4. Pay Attention to What’s In Season
In addition to researching what’s available close by, you can also research the times of year that your favorite produce is cheapest — and stock up then.
If you’d like to take your appreciation of seasonal veggies to the next level, you can even start your own garden.
The emergency kitchen where I volunteer has a community garden, and my kitchen manager freezes and pickles vegetables to make them last into the winter. Loading up on favorite foods while they’re cheap and making the effort to preserve them pays off months later.
5. Pay Attention to Freshness to Prevent Food Waste
Letting food go bad is no better than throwing away money, and it’s a lot stinkier. The kitchen manager where I volunteer is very careful not to let anything go to waste, despite the high volume of food that cycles through the facility.
Every time we open a container of food but don’t completely use up its contents, we label the lid with the date we opened it. That way, we never have to wonder how long an open container has been in the fridge.
6. Give Second Chances
Second chances apply to people, too, but in this case I’m talking about giving second chances to food. In the emergency kitchen where I volunteer, nothing is ever a “leftover” for long, because it quickly becomes a new meal.
At nonprofit kitchens, leftover ham from breakfast becomes lunch meat for sandwiches, and rice from one night’s dinner forms the base of a pudding for breakfast the next day.
Viewing leftovers as a bounty instead of an inconvenience saves a lot of money, and can save time as well because pre-cooked food can easily be converted into a new dish.
Could Volunteering Help You Save Money?
Now that I’m saving money on my own grocery trips, I have extra cash that I can give back to my community.
If you can donate to your local emergency kitchen or another community nonprofit, that’s fantastic. If your financial situation makes a money donation impossible, then give some time. You might bring home ideas you can apply in your own kitchen!
Your Turn: Have your volunteer experiences helped you save or earn more money? Share your stories in the comments!
Maura Barry-Garland is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She was born and raised in Alaska and will begin an AmeriCorps term of service in Austin, Texas, this September.