The Absolute Cheapest Food Strategy in the Universe for the Starving Musician

I don’t sleep much and I’m pretty active, so by way of compensation I eat enough food for two or three people per day. I’m also solar-powered, but I’ve found you don’t really need more than ten minutes of direct sunlight to recharge the battery cells. Anything more than that and I start to hear my DNA complaining.

I’m also constantly, exceedingly, headcrushingly broke at all times. Besides rent, my biggest expense by a long shot is food, but I’ve been able to pare that down quite a bit by developing a short list of basic and efficient foods. There are a lot of cheap ways to skimp on food for a while, but few are long-term, and this one will actually provide everything you need to sustain life and sanity for a much longer period of time than a month. What most people consider to be “absolute cheapest” either taste terrible or are really bad for you, so they’ll cost you in the long run. This makes them inefficient.

To be efficient, a food must meet three criteria:

  1. The food must taste good.
  2. The food must satisfy a daily nutritional requirement
  3. The food must be modular.

By modular I mean that it must have the ability to interact with as many other foods as possible. For example, a grapefruit would meet requirement 2, and some crazy people even say it meets requirement 1. But you can’t really do much with a grapefruit besides cut it in half and stick a spoon in it. Which, trust me, only sounds like fun until you’ve tried it.

By contrast, let’s check out a crowd favorite: Peanut butter. Otherwise known as Deus ex legumica, nine point nine out of ten imaginary people agree peanut butter is delicious and a little magical, because no matter how many times you tell people, no one really believes you can just ground up the figure eight things and get an oily paste. Peanut butter is popularly known as a good source of protein, but it also has iron, some nice oils and a little bit o’ calcium. We’ll get to the oils in a bit.

As you’re probably already thinking, peanut butter is quite modular. Of course it goes really well with jam and some bread, but it also goes with apples, vegetables, and if you get the natural kind you can seriously eat the stuff on a spoon for a quick pick me up. And, while all the foods I’ll list here are going to be cheap, peanut butter is really cheap, clocking in at about 16 cents per ounce at Ralphs. It’s little light brown gold, s’what it is. Never buy so much as a carrot stick from Ralphs unless it’s on sale, and anything you buy from Whole Foods that doesn’t require black plastic tongs or a ladle should probably be shunned with vehement scorn.

The following is a list of other efficient foods I’ve taken a liking to, and they all fit in my minifridge, which I bought off Craigslist for $35. I’ll talk about each individually, but the basic guidelines are fiber in the morning, many snacks throughout the day, a well-rounded lunch, and a heavier dinner.

Cereal – If I can afford it, I buy Kashi Go Lean because it has more fiber, iron, and protein than many of the other cereals combined. It’s an efficient nutrient-per-dollar purchase, you see. I dole it out sparingly, and to make it last even longer I cut it with the (much cheaper) flavor of the week, which tends to be generic versions of cinnamon toast crunch, raisin bran, apple jacks, and frosted mini wheats. Just make sure none have corn syrup (Trader Joe’s is your best bet if you’ve got one). Never buy Go Lean Crunch, because it has less of the aforementioned nutrients. I really suggest you rotate regular milk (Vitamin D has the most nutrients) with soy milk and almond milk, because no matter how much research I do it doesn’t seem like one is particularly better than the other, only different. Almond milk is the most expensive of the three, but if you buy the boxed stuff you can store it for months, so you can live off of one payout for much longer. You can also make your own granola, which frankly is still more expensive unless you make it really boring or make a lot. Oatmeal works too, although I personally can’t stand the stuff.

Yogurt – I buy the Mountain High 2lbs Original Style vanilla. I’d buy other flavors, but they’re pretty hard to find. Most of the world laughs at America for its addiction to low fat yogurt, and I’m right there with ’em on this point. I do count the pounds, but the other way. I try to get as much fat out of my foods as I can. Perhaps this is because I exercise and rarely eat fast food. I might be wrong, but I’m probably not. I mix honey, jam, an available berry, or all of the above with my yogurt, which is so good for you I won’t even bother to explain why. Eat yogurt every day, and later come back here to thank me.

Apples and bananas – You gotta have fruit. Buy other stuff when apples go out of season. Bananas are always in season. ’Nuff said.

A massive block of cheese – For whatever reason, the two pound block of Tillamook Sharp Cheddar is always on sale at Smart ‘n Final, and it lasts even me two weeks. It goes on crackers, sandwiches, salads, soups, and most things you’d have for dinner.

Split top wheat bread – It’s very cheap and has plenty of fiber and iron. Various types of sandwiches are an obvious reason, but also spread some butter and jam and you’ve got breakfast toast. Will increase efficiency by sopping up leftover soups and salad dressing. It’s also cheaper than the wheat bread with its top still intact, and no one seems to be able to tell me why, so if anyone reading knows please illumine me via comment!

Jam/Jelly – Goes with the peanut butter, goes with bread, goes with yogurt, and supplies much needed sugar. We dig jam ’round here.

Butter and olive oil – Because not all of us can afford Omega-3. In America it’s the former, in Europe it’s the latter due to all that readily available wine/olive country. You’ve gotta have some kinda fatty oil in your diet, because your body uses those for some incredibly disproportionately important life functions. I always have both of these on hand, basically because olive oil tastes better on salads. You can use these in everything from soups to rice to bread, and leads directly to my next food.

Onions – While these go with stuff raw, I use them almost exclusively for cooking. I’ve yet to find a simple one pot dish that isn’t improved by sauted onions in butter and garlic. Speaking of which…

Garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, chili powder, curry powder, bay leaves – You can also throw in basil and oregano for good measure, but I personally didn’t buy more when I ran out. You can buy these spices crazy cheap from the farmer’s market, and toss them into all sorts of concoctions with wonton abandon. You’ll discover a lot of fun combinations, some better than others, and then later impress people by never measuring anything while you cook. And for the love of all things good and holy, buy the damn cloves and crush them your-friggin-self. Thank you.

Soy sauce, teriaki sauce, A1, worchester sauce, vinegar, etc – There are literally hundreds of cooking/flavoring sauces and everyone’s got their own personal tastes. You can put them on everything from meat to salad to stir fry and buy them in bulk for really cheap. Extremely essential.

At least one condiment – I choose spicy mustard. Don’t judge.

Sandwich stuff – I won’t presume to tell you what to put on your sandwich. Something green and leafy, something proteiny, something cheesy, and the condiment(s). Beyond that, knock yourself out. The protein is usually where you spend most of your money, but I get so sick of processed meats I’ll still occasionally splurge on the deli section at Whole Foods.

Leafy green things – Don’t buy iceberg. Just don’t. It’s a waste of money. All it does is make things crunchy, which broccolli does more cheaply and with more purpose. Whole Foods or your local farmer’s market will have an excellent selection of spinach, spring mix, kale, and arugula in bulk prices that will blow your hungry little minds. Which leads us right to…

Salad stuff – You are going to have to take up salad making. Honestly this is just good life advice in general. I buy whatever greens I want as long as the word “spinach” is involved and throw them in a big pile. Then I add whatever other vegetables are at my disposal. Then I add cheese, and something solid and probably glazed, and then I drench it in olive oil and balsamic. Sometimes I’ll add crushed, hard-toasted, olive oil-soaked bread, or slices of green apples or pears, or carrots, and voila! world’s cheapest delicious salad.

Potatoes – They’re cheap and filling and go with a lot of other things. Plus you get cred in Ireland and Boise, which are two places I feel we’ll need it when the revolution comes.

Sour cream – A list of what not to put it on would be shorter. I was frankly astounded at how many dishes sour cream improves. Also works for dipping veggies.

Rice – I’m sure many of you were waiting for this one. “But, Paul, which one?” you might ask. Well, I’ll tell you: Golden Rose Brown Rice. Good price, good flavor, and most nutritious. Boom.

Lentils, garbanzo beans/chick peas, black beans, red beans – There’s no substitute for a good bean, and these four are what I stick to. If you’re worried about gas you can soak the harder ones for a day, or just put a little GasX powder in there and it should be fine. Beans really are the magical fruit: The more you eat, the more you don’t suffer from anemia and rickets. Mix the various beans with the rice, the veggies, the spinach, the sauces, the bread, the cheese, the sauted onions and spices, and man you can have a different dinner every night for a month!

Cheap whiskey – Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You’ve been doing just soooo good with your food budget, and suddenly it’s Friday and you go out with your friends. Where should we go? How about a bar? Yay, a bar! What a good idea! Boom, next morning you wake up and wonder where that last $80 went. Here’s some advice: Stop frigging going to bars! And if you can’t do that, buy a flask and a coat/purse with big pockets on the inside. Drinking Guinness slowly also helps. Problem solved.

Last but not least, Tea – Like the oily stuff, scientists vaguely think they might know why, but they all agree that drinking a cup of tea every day is definitely a good thing. For the opposite effect, see coffee.

If you’ve noticed, there are things in this list that are not included in this list. That was a weird sentence. Anyway, I call such things “dessert”. You may think of dessert as something bad for you that you eat after every meal, but I think of it as overpriced delicious things. Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes, ice cream, brownies, soft drinks, candy, these will all add flavor to your life, but not much else based on our criteria for efficiency. In this category also goes steak or frozen burritos. However, if you don’t treat yourself to such things you’ll go insane and break down and everything will go to hell, like that time you vowed you’d never drink tequila again during freshman year of college, and then that time you broke that vow later that same freshman year, and drank more with less of a tolerance than you did the last time. Anyhoo.

I tend to try and make my desserts the efficient kind. Glazed walnuts and feta cheese are good examples. A simple chocolate bar or a bunch of berries will usual win out over ice cream, even though I love me some tasty chocolate dutch. But, like the whiskey, swearing off certain things is not only difficult and impractical; it’s just plain no fun. As you can see, I have a lot of fun with my diet, which is nerdy. I am this way because I have to be. Folks, meet the broke foodie.

And, finally, just listen to your body. It’ll tell you what it wants. I used to be a little bothered by the fact that, after a year of not eating the stuff, I literally could not eat fast food without feeling sick afterwards. To guys, this is a big affront to our machismo, since we pride ourselves on our strong stomachs (This is also why fewer women enter hot dog eating contests, among other reasons). I made peace with this fact because, (A) I couldn’t quite get myself back to eating the stuff regardless, and (B) I decided this was an indication that I was more finely tuned. I figured “finely tuned” was macho enough. Just give me that one, please.

This is my method. There are thousands of others. Please feel free to leave yours in the comments, and thanks for reading.

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  • I’m sort of amused by how much you sound like me, but you say “Boom” more.

    Seriously though, this sounds pretty similar to my diet, all the way down to the cheap whiskey.

  • You’ve essentially described a pretty regular persons diet. This is the stuff I buy and eat everyday and I’m not poor and starving.

    When I was poor and starving, I ate chicken that came from a bag with a label that said “may contain parts of chicken not listed such as kidneys, heart, lungs, etc.” I was scared.

  • BARLEY. You can get 25 pounds of barley for like 15 dollars. It tastes SO GOOD too.

    Too bland you say? Add a dash of salt and pepper. Delicious.

  • As a poor college student, generally I avoid buying sauces since they usually have ingredients I do not want (like HFCS) and are more expensive than buy spices and learning how to use them.

    If I get a sauce, it better work on everything.

    Cheese instead of dressing on salad is also a cheap and fairly mobile meal. I’ll put just a small amount of bleu cheese if I can afford it, or feta, or something with a strong taste, onto salad instead of dressing and I’m good to go.

  • Wow, you give yourself WAY to much credit calling this the “Absolute” cheapest food strategy. Cereal in general is pointless, eat oatmeal, or better yet quinoa. Jam/jelly is also pointless and WAY overpriced, use honey. Many of your other comments are just common sense, beans and rice my friend.

  • This list sounds like something that would be supported by my super-kitchen-savvy buddy Keith, who has a letterboard on his kitchen wall with reviews of various spices (i.e. “sage. Not bad. Rosemary. Very, very good.”) The salad sounds like the one my fiancee and I make all the time, and I agree about sale items at Ralphs. Do NOT get caught in the trap of liking something at Ralph’s that’s never on sale. Big, expensive mistake.

    On another note, avocados. They’re expensive, but damn, they make everything uber-yummy, and I could easily see myself going insane without them.

    Good list.

  • You’re dead on right about the whiskey. Only in my case a little greener.

    I find as long as I have pickles, olives, and cheese in my fridge, I’m totally able to deal with the pizza cravings, or ice cream cravings.

  • We did like that aswell, purchasing beef whole from the local farm. I like to support him, even if it is a little more expesnive than the supermarket, because I know exactly how and where it is made, I know I’m not contributing to global warming or something. These meat recipes are great, I found.

  • Stuart Jellinek,
    You are a jackass. First of all there is no such thing as global warming. Secondly, if you think people who raise cattle for food are contributing, your local guy is doing the same thing. It’s no wonder the Democrats and Republicans refer to people like you as “useful idiots”. You believe everything they jam down your throat, and then behave in a way that lines their pockets. Sad. And to the guy who made this food list, it’s the same shit that just about everyone eats. Stop patting yourself on the back.

  • Wow! This is another great post! I’m a “starving” artist myself and you’ve hit the nail right on the head with these food tips. I’ll be linking this to my blog in the VERY near future! I look forward to reading more. All the best!

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