Here at Greatist, we believe in taking a day off. Instead of our regular programming Saturdays, our writers get a chance to write about living the greatist lifestyle and, basically, whatever they want. This is one of those awesome articles. Enjoy!

When I moved to New York, I decided it was time to grow up. Yeah, I’d been doing my own cooking and grocery shopping for years, but when you’re in college you basically have a four-year eat-whatever-you-want pass, right? (No, just me?) But thanks to my real-world budget, NYC cost of living, and the desire to stop eating pure garbage, it was time to buckle down. And in my n00bz experience, I’ve found that eating healthy, delicious, exciting food doesn’t have to cost the rent.

The key to doing this whole eating healthy for cheap thing is learning to cook. About a year ago, I decided I wanted to know how the heck to cut an avocado, what kind of pots and pans I needed, and how to tell if meat is cooked through. I basically read this book cover-to-cover and still reference it at least weekly. I highly recommend it. And learning to cook doesn’t mean you have to be able to make soufflé— I swear, it’s actually pretty easy and maybe even— dare I say it?— fun.

Step Two: Menu plan. It took time to build up the habit, but once I did, I wasted so much less time, food, and money. Plus I get to think all day about the delicious dinner I’ll be eating later. For some reason, I think most people my age think this is really complicated, but it’s not, I swear. Just to prove the point, I’ll give you the very brief, step-by-step guide to what I do every weekend:

  • I survey what I have. Produce that’s going bad within a few days? Meat left over from another meal? Pasta sauce in the freezer? I brainstorm meals that I can make from what I already have on hand first.
  • I add in seasonally appropriate recipes. Eating in season is almost always cheaper and it may be better for you, too. Many sites allow you to search for recipes by ingredient.
  • I arrange the recipes around my schedule for the week (based on when I’m busy, how long things will last from the purchase date, and how much prep I can do in advance).
  • I make my list, which after the previous steps is pretty short. After investing in a well-stocked spice cabinet, I rarely have to buy much more than produce, dairy items, and meat.

Shop effectively: Beginning to end, smart shopping should take a few hours (just bein’ honest). It’s not exactly what I’d call “fun,” but it is definitely worth it. Once I’ve menu-planned, I hit up the big box stores’ sites first to print/cut coupons. Then I check the more specialty grocery store’s prices on more expensive things like meat and jot those prices on my list. That way, while I’m at Store #1, I know if Store #2 has a better price on pricier items. I also strongly suggest trying store brands. I gave Target’s Archer Farm a shot on a whim, and it is amazing —at least as good as, if not better than, other natural brands, like Kashi.

I also prioritize expenses (do I want organic veggies or the imported canned tomatoes?). And most importantly, I compare prices and clip coupons. I have basically zero brand loyalty, and I think the willingness to bounce between bread brands every week has saved me a pretty penny. And a word on loyalty cards: I was actually really surprised by how much money they save me (an automatic 5% off of every trip to Target and 10% off my gas thanks to Stop & Shop), but only if I’m already headed to that store anyway. Especially here in NY, where you pay for parking (or the train) almost everywhere, I have to factor in transportation costs and the value of my time before trekking all over the city.

Cook Smart: Almost anytime I’m making something time-consuming (soup, pasta sauce), I cook a large quantity and freeze it. It also makes sense to wash/prep/chop/roast the week’s veggies all at once, or cook rice for the whole week on Sunday. It dirties fewer dishes and saves time later.

I also make (at least) an extra serving or two of every recipe I cook. My boyfriend brings his lunch to work every day (mine is provided by Greatist—otherwise I would, too) and saves hundreds of dollars per year by doing so. That said, I do not advocate eating the same leftovers all week – boring! On the other hand, barbecue chicken, barbecue chicken tacos, and barbecue chicken pizza are all delicious and are a great way to repurpose the same protein.

Eat out and indulge: I feel strongly that you shouldn’t go out just because it’s easier. I like to go out because it’s a special occasion (even if that just means my team is playing this weekend and I don’t have cable at my apartment so I have to watch it at a bar and that bar has a minimum food purchase per table…not that I do that every weekend or anything) or you physically can’t eat at home (you’re in another city or out shopping for the day). Then it actually feels like an indulgence when I do go out, so that after enjoying it, I can go back to my regular cookin’ and eatin’ routine.

What do you do to eat healthy on the cheap? Tell us in the comments below!

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