FOOD

I Survived On A $25 Trader Joe’s Haul For An Entire Week. Here’s How.

by Angela Andaloro

This week, the powers that be threw down a gauntlet I honestly wasn’t sure I could handle. The challenge? To survive on just $25 worth of food from Trader Joe’s for an entire week. This represented quite a few difficulties, as this particular week has been absolute chaos. I’m in the process of moving and was about to pack up my kitchen when I got this assignment. 

The other issue is that, due to the stress and chaos of moving, I’ve become reliant on all that Seamless and Uber Eats have to offer. The idea of cooking every day was a little exhausting, but I am a professional, so I set out looking for recipes.

Luckily, I’m no stranger to cooking on a budget. I knew exactly where to go to look for delicious, low-cost recipes. A few clicks of ye olde keyboard later, I found myself in a Budget Bytes recipe hole. I noticed some patterns right off the bat. Mexican and Italian food kept popping up, along with plenty of vegan options.

I settled on five recipes, which honestly doesn’t seem like that many considering they’d have to sustain me for an entire week. The goal was to make those five recipes stretch over the course of three meals a day for seven days.

I’m not going to lie; this challenge was especially difficult not only because of the tight budget but also because I’m a person who only eats breakfast on rare occasions — and sometimes forgets lunch. Oops!

I was up for the challenge, however. So off to Trader Joe’s I went.

The Recipes

These are the five recipes I chose for the week:

I sought to keep things simple. I figured that recipes that repeated ingredients in smaller quantities would help keep my costs down. I also took advantage of my pride and joy: my super-stocked pantry. Having some essentials on hand is crucial to being able to whip up a last-minute meal. That goes double for a well-stocked spice cabinet.

Spices and Pantry Items Used

Spices and Pantry Items Used
  • Baking powder
  • Butter
  • Chili powder
  • Cracked pepper
  • Cumin
  • Flour
  • Garlic
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Rice
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Taco seasoning
  • Vanilla extract
  • Yeast

The Numbers

The Numbers
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Ed. Note: If you check out the recipes, you’ll see my shopping lists aren’t an exact match. I used the recipes as jumping-off points, but I tinkered with the measurements and removed/added products to my own tastes. If you’re used to cooking, feel free to improvise as well. If you’re new to cooking, do yourself a favor and stick to the recipes. It’s hard enough getting it right without ad-libbing, and as you’ll see, it doesn’t always work in your favor.

Now it’s time for a little light math. Do all of these groceries really cost less than $25? When broken down by recipe, the numbers are sound:

Blueberry Banana Baked Oatmeal: $2.96 ($0.42/serving x 7 servings)

Hearty Black Bean Quesadillas: $4 ($0.80/serving x 5 servings)

Taco Chicken Bowls: $4.99 ($0.71/serving x 7 servings)

Creamy Chicken Fajita Pasta: $9.57 ($1.37/serving x 7 servings)

Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pizza:  $3.06 ($0.44/serving x 7 servings)

Total amount spent: $24.58

I ended up having extras of some ingredients. If you do, get crafty and see how you can make them stretch!

 

Recipe 1: Blueberry Banana Oatmeal Bread

Recipe 1: Blueberry Banana Oatmeal Bread
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The ingredients and prices:

  • Bananas ($0.75)
  • Eggs ($0.46)
  • Milk ($0.49)
  • Old-fashioned oats ($0.30)
  • Frozen blueberries ($0.96)

I decided to take all day Sunday to meal-prep for the week. Since I planned on eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch all week, I began my budgeted culinary adventure with this hearty Blueberry Banana Oatmeal Bread.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

I was stoked that this recipe was easy to make. Like, really easy.

It was also arguably the prettiest thing I made (once it was done baking, obviously). In my opinion, aesthetics really count when it comes to food. I also learned a neat trick: When adding frozen fruit to a recipe, leaving it in the freezer for as long as possible keeps the color of the fruit from bleeding into the rest of the ingredients. I happen to think the blueish-purple trails of the blueberries are kinda pretty, though, so I wasn’t too concerned. 

If I were hungrier, the 45-minute wait time for this to bake would have been insufferable. Luckily, this is where my aversion to breakfast paid off. Once it came out of the oven, though, it was game over. I cut a nice-sized piece, keeping in mind that I needed to make this stretch over seven days. After just a few bites, I was astonished at how full I was. The baking process had made the oatmeal super dense! The banana gave the dish just the right amount of sweetness, and the tartness of the blueberries balanced it all out. Since I’m not generally a huge fan of sweets, this was a huge win for me!

Recipe 2: Hearty Black Bean Quesadillas

Recipe 2: Hearty Black Bean Quesadillas
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The ingredients and prices:

  • Black beans ($0.50)
  • Frozen corn kernels ($0.11)
  • Yellow onion ($0.89)
  • Shredded cheese ($1.75)
  • Taco-size tortillas ($0.75)

I’d hardly begun to digest breakfast before I started making lunch. The recipe for Hearty Black Bean Quesadillas is simple, and it’s one I’ve thrown together before, so I knew it wouldn’t be too labor intensive. I also knew the results would be delicious.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

My quesadilla-folding skills could use some work. I made only two for lunch the first day, as that’s the recommended serving size. I didn’t have enough room in my freezer to assemble and make the rest of the quesadillas, so I had to freeze the filling and throw them together each night to cook for the following day.

While I did get a little sick of eating the same thing for lunch every day, I’m proud to say my colleagues had me confused for an actual meal prepper at one point. Fake it ‘til you make it, ladies and gentlemen.

It wasn’t until after I’d finished all that cooking that two things occurred to me: I still had to prep for the rest of the week’s meals, and I still had to cook dinner. My roommates steered clear (they tend to regard my marathon cooking sessions as psychopathic) as I headed back to the kitchen to finish prepping.

Recipe 3: Creamy Chicken Fajita Pasta

Recipe 3: Creamy Chicken Fajita Pasta
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The ingredients and prices:

  • Boneless chicken breast ($4.63)
  • Bell pepper ($1.19)
  • Fire-roasted diced tomatoes ($1.69)
  • Cream cheese ($0.85)
  • Pasta ($0.99)
  • Green onion ($0.22)

This recipe had a lot of ingredients involved, so I anticipated that it would keep me on my toes. I chose to leave out some of the hotter spices the recipe called for, since I’ve never mastered the art of eating something spicy and not losing my cool (heh).

Surprisingly, this was another easy recipe to put together, and, to my relief, the prep and cook time was faster than the previous two meals. While I waited for the pasta to finish, I got to work on the dough for the Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pizza (which I was making next), which required a full 24 hours to rise.

Once I popped that in the fridge, I began setting up the chicken for the Taco Chicken Bowls in my beloved Crock-Pot — which was already nestled in its box, ready for summer hibernation, before this challenge came up.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

By the time I’d circled back around to my Creamy Chicken Fajita Pasta, it was time to add the noodles to my creation. It smelled absolutely DIVINE. I was surprised that anything could make me even vaguely hungry after hours of cooking.

I wasn’t ready to eat dinner yet, but when I did get a chance to sit down and dine, man oh man, did I enjoy it! Once I was done eating, I portioned out the remainder of the dish for the rest of the week.

Recipe 4: Taco Chicken Bowls

Recipe 4: Taco Chicken Bowls
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The ingredients and prices:

  • Boneless chicken breast ($1.54)
  • Salsa ($1.25)
  • Black beans ($0.50)
  • Frozen corn ($0.33)
  • Shredded cheese ($1.26)
  • Green onion ($0.11)

I was eager to try the Taco Chicken Bowls. Note that the recipe calls for cooked rice, which I didn’t show during my prep stage because there is always a pot of rice being made in my house. If you’re not constantly cooking rice for no particular reason, it’s easy to incorporate into your prep. Rice is a simple, cheap side dish, so I find it’s helpful to use it when you can!

Once it started heating up, the smell had me excited. As I dug in, I was a little bummed that the chicken had dried out some in the cooking/reheating process. Other than that, the dish was extremely flavorful. If I had to do it again, I’d probably choose milder salsa. Try as I might, my taste buds are just not cut out for that spice life.

 

Recipe 5: Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pizza

Recipe 5: Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pizza
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The ingredients and prices:

  • Frozen chopped spinach ($0.50)
  • Cream cheese ($0.85)
  • Milk ($0.13)
  • Artichoke hearts ($1.10)
  • Shredded cheese ($0.48)

I woke up the next day feeling exhausted but accomplished. To all the habitual meal preppers out there: I salute you. Once I turned off my Crock-Pot and portioned out my food, I was almost done with all of my cooking for the week! All that was left was the Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pizza, which I got to later that day.

For some reason, making pizza always makes me giddy — as does making spinach-and-artichoke dip. To say I was excited about this combo would be the understatement of the century. 

 

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

After the second day of three-square-meals-a-day dining, I wasn’t as hungry as usual come dinner time. I had one slice of the delicious pizza, and later went back for another, but I found that, like the quesadillas, two per meal was just enough.

Another plus: Who doesn’t want to eat pizza for dinner almost every night? This is a dream come true, y’all.

What I Learned

What I Learned
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

And with that, my cooking for the week was done! With my newly adjusted eating schedule, and having really taken care to portion out each meal, I was able to make just five recipes stretch seven days without ever really feeling hungry. And all without spending more than $25 on food for an entire week! While I would’ve preferred a bit more variety, I was amazed I pulled it off at all, to be honest. 

Moreover, I found that some of the things I learned from this challenge would come in handy going forward. I’m working on eating healthier this summer and taking better care of myself in general. Planning ahead, and doing so with a slim budget, will be majorly helpful!

And while cooking everything over the span of just two days was a little intense for someone who has become accustomed to the ease of delivery, I enjoyed not having to cook at all the rest of the week. I’m hoping this experiment was the kick in the butt I needed to help keep me motivated, since I tend to be resistant to cooking through hot New York summers.

I’ll soon be back to Trader Joe’s in pursuit of new recipes — with a fuller stomach and wallet.