How to Afford the L.A. Life: Food

In a perfect world we would always buy organic and savor every meal with an uncompromising, price-is-no-object commitment to quality. But you can still live like a gourmet without going broke

9 Things from the 99¢ Only Store

The chain offers more than party favors and toilet paper. It’s a steady supplier of daily staples

The hangover helper is sold for far less here than at the corner store.

Steel-Cut Oats
Packages of pricey Quaker instant have nothing on these.

Organic Raisins
Nature’s (penny) candy.

Raw Sugar
One-pound bags are a sweet deal.

Parchment Paper
Compare to Williams- Sonoma’s $7 roll.

Organic Cherry
Tomatoes Plus abundant conventionally grown varieties.

Bell Peppers
Red, yellow, and green, occasionally in bags of three or four.

Basic Condiments
Ketchup, salad dressings, and Miracle Whip may not be gourmet, but they’re old reliables.

Energy Drinks
Cans of Rock Star at a roadie price point.

The Hi-Lo Foodie

The best way to cut corners is with a Wusthof steak knife

The life of a freelance writer and entrepreneur hasn’t consistently provided the bank account my palate requires. So what’s a hungry lady with a penchant for expensive cheeses to do? I learned to cook. Ingredients cost less per serving than restaurant meals, takeout, or the Whole Foods hot bar. I’m also a part-time vegetarian. Not only is it better for my health and the well-being of the planet, but plant-based meals are almost always cheaper.

I buy my fancy whole grains from the bulk bins at health food stores; organic rice and farro are a steal when they’re not in a box. Another trick: I buy frozen shrimp. There are no shrimp caught in Southern California; those curvy crustaceans at the market have been frozen and thawed out. How long have they been behind the glass? No clue. But at home they thaw in five minutes, cook in a flash, and cost less.

I love to buy meat from indie butchers like McCall’s in Los Feliz or Lindy & Grundy on Fairfax. Pastured organic meat is hard to screw up. House-made sausages and more humble cuts make for a reasonable splurge. Good salt is worth the extra pennies, too. Naturally harvested sel contains trace minerals not found in the table variety. A final dusting of truffle salt on top of that makes everything taste five-star.

Reality Check


Average amount an Angeleno household spends on food per year—roughly $1,000 more than the national figure


Portion of the L.A. County population (1.6 million) that struggles to afford food—the highest in the country

A $10 Candy Bar?

A sampler of “artisanal” products and if they’re worth the extra bucks

What it means
The word artisanal is generally used to define handmade, small-batch, locally produced goods sold at a premium price. This year the California Homemade Food Act further legitimized the trend by allowing people to sell certain canned and baked items.
Why it costs more
To understand why a Hershey bar is $2 while one from Vosges or Mast Brothers is five times as much, let’s start with the cacao beans: Forastero is the most common bean, but artisan chocolatiers prefer the more complex (and costly) Trinitario.
When to buy it
It’s a matter of taste, but a well-crafted consumable has a carefully considered history. The person who made it can typically tell you where the item is from, how it was mixed, chopped, roasted, or ground—and why that makes it good.
And when to pass
Unlike organic, which has a set of specific requirements, there are no legal or regulatory definitions of what artisanal means. Which is why Dunkin’ Donuts can claim “artisan” bagels are “Latin for really, really good.” We know another Latin phrase: caveat emptor.

Your Meal Plan is Served


Cheapo Chicken
Alas, it’s not organic. It isn’t free range, either. However, the $5 Costco rotisserie chicken is delicious—with no MSG, preservatives, or artificial flavors and colors.

Budget Cheese
Rocco’s Italian Market & Deli in Los Feliz produces its own burrata, sold for about $4 a ball.

Cut-Rate Kimchi
The Galleria Market in Koreatown is a premium spot for fermented vegetables, beans, and fish in one epic probiotic section.

Gratis Cooking Demos
Surfas is a low-cost stop for restaurant-grade pantry supplies and kitchen equipment. It also offers free classes—on preparing lobster, canning tomatoes—taught by industry pros.

Royal Feasting
Glassell Park’s Super King is more than a market; it’s a food castle with a butcher section fit for Henry VIII—on a jester’s paycheck.


Shrinking Bags of Coffee
Some high-end coffee purveyors sell a 12-ounce bag that looks a lot like a 16-ounce bag. At $17 a bag, every ounce counts.

Farmers’ Market Food Traps
If you save $10 buying fresh produce but spend $25 on three kinds of hummus, that’s not saving. Keep to the fruits and veggies and you’ll be set.

Costly Chips and Salsa
In a land where delicious, tableside corn chips and homemade salsa are bountiful (and free), charging customers $12 is not hot.

Small-Plate insanity
What started as an interesting American response to tapas has turned into a way for restaurants to charge a ridiculous amount for what are essentially appetizers.

Juice the Cost of Champagne
Recent years have seen raw, cold-pressed juice overtaking L.A. with prices hitting $30. Seriously, $8 is enough.

The Five Foods That Don’t Necessarily Get Better With Money

  • taco




  • doughnot




  • hotdog



Hot Dogs

  • mac


Mac and Cheese


  • pizza




Is it Worth It?

Premium Olive Oil

Answer: Yes

It’s too rich to cook with and too fancy for salad dressing, yet top-quality olive oil earns its keep as a magic nectar for bread dipping and adding flavor to finished dishes. The real waste? Preparing a great meal only to get chintzy at the end. Since you just need a few teaspoons of the good cold-pressed stuff, one bottle can last.

This feature originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine