I recently ran across an article in my Facebook feed, about a reporter taking the “Food Stamp” challenge. He attempted to eat only what he could purchase with the “average” food stamp allotment for an able bodied adult with no dependents, which is $29.69 a week. I had a bit of a rant about it on my personal Facebook page, pointing out that SNAP (the new name for food stamps) stands for SUPPLEMENTAL Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s not meant to be your sole source of nutrition if you are an able bodied adult. I also pointed out that the reporter had made some poor food choices, such as prewashed salad greens and nutritionally empty white bread. I proudly claimed that while it would be tight, I could certainly do much better nutritionally, and that I could ABSOLUTELY feed myself for $30 a week.
Well, I became a bit obsessed about it. I actually went so far as to write up a menu for the week, made a shopping list, and then went to the store and priced everything out. My first attempt was rather ambitious. I included homemade yogurt and granola, among other things. The weekly price for that menu? $78. OK, I was WAY off. It was also way too much food for one person. Turns out the allotted amount from the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion thrifty-cost food plan for a women between the ages of 19 and 50 is $38.40 a week, or $166.30 a month. These numbers are what the SNAP program benefits are based on. Which means the US Government is expecting an able bodied low income adult to contribute some 31% of their income to their own food costs. Ahem. That would be that “supplemental” part of the SNAP acronym.
A list of the foods that are found in the thrifty-cost food plan can be found here. It’s based on the USDA’s food pyramid and newer My Plate nutritional recommendations. I did NOT base my own menu on these suggestions. I based it on my own knowledge of nutrition and what I like to eat. Your own menu would vary. (For instance, I HATE hotdogs, so did not include them – you might love them, in which case they are a pretty cheap source of protein, eaten in moderation.).
I’ve been a broke college student, twice. I’ve done my fair share of eating on the cheap, even when I wasn’t growing and preserving a lot of my own food. I’ve never been on any kind of public assistance. Some of this is work ethic. Some of it is being born into the right era (I do think its much harder to find entry level jobs now than it was in the 1980’s). Some of it is my winning personality – I interview well, I’ve never been fired from a job, and I really am a fast learner, so my references are always excellent. I started working when I was 13, and have had a huge variety of jobs since; some that paid well, some that barely topped minimum wage. I’ve lived with crazy roommates in cheap apartments in bad neighborhoods. I’ve lived without owning a car (it’s amazing what you can carry on a bike when you have to). I’ve shopped at scratch and dent canned food stores. I’ve kept lists of common grocery items and their prices so I KNEW when something really was a good deal. I learned to stock up and store extra toilet paper under the bed when it went on sale, and use $1 a bottle Suave shampoo. I never felt deprived. In fact, I treated it like a game that I wanted to master, and for a while, I really was very good at grocery shopping on a budget.
But its been a long time since I’ve done that. So in researching this topic, I relearned some lessons that I’m sure most people living on a tight food budget or those in agencies that assist them can rattle off with ease.
First and foremost, and really the whole issue with the reporter in the JConline story, and many many people living on a budget, or not, in this country, is YOU NEED TO KNOW HOW TO COOK! Start with simple soups, simple casseroles, simple dinner salads and pastas, a pot of beans, a loaf of bread…healthy filling inexpensive food. But you need to know how to cook it in order to both eat healthy AND spend less.
Eating cheap means eating a lot of inexpensive carbs. This does NOT mean they need to be highly processed carbs! You can buy brown rice and a bag of whole wheat flour and a pound of spaghetti for the same price (or less than) a bag of white rice and a loaf of white bread and a package of ramen (which are deep fried noodles and really pretty terrible for you). Pasta and potatoes and rice and beans and oats are your new best friends!
Protein is expensive. A “cheap eats” diet is going to be high on plant proteins (beans, maybe some tofu), eggs, chicken and maybe a few sausages, with a bit of dairy thrown in. It will be low low low on more expensive cuts of beef, pork or chicken. Most seafood is probably out of the question, unless you happen to live on the coast. Any meat you do eat will likely play a supporting role in your meals, not be the star. Welcome to a more healthy vegetarian lifestyle!
Broaden your horizons with ethnic cuisines. Every country or ethnic group has a peasant cuisine based on what is cheap and abundant. These meals are usually filling, healthy, and if vegetarian, based on ingredients that are nutritional powerhouses when combined. (Grains and beans, grains and dairy, nuts/seeds and beans). Latin America was built on corn and beans (with or without rice). Check out Mujaddara, a Middle Eastern dish that combines rice, lentils and onions with traditional spices and a bit of yogurt. You could probably live on it if you didn’t die of boredom, and it costs next to nothing. India has an abundance of wonderful vegetarian curries. How about some chana masala (chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, spices) over rice? Stir fried vegetables with a bit of soy and peanut butter (homemade peanut sauce) over noodles or rice, anyone?
You’re gonna need to shop around. I priced all of my items at two stores, and checked out the local Grocery Outlet surplus store as well. One store was substantially lower in price on fruit and bulk items, but higher in price on vegetables. Other pantry staples were mixed between stores. Eggs and cheese were least expensive at Grocery Outlet, which tells me they are using them as “loss leaders” to get you in the store. If you have several stores within reasonable distance to where you live, its probably gonna save you some money to shop selectively at all of them. Also, we have several stores who do discounts on certain days (one does 5% off everything on Tuesdays and Thursdays) or certain blow out sales on certain days (Thursday produce blowout!). It can definitely save you some significant money if you plan ahead. 5% of $166 is $8.30. That’s a nice amount to spend on something extra.
Pay attention to those grocery sales fliers that come for free in your mailbox, usually on Wednesdays. Start a list of “typical” prices, and watch for when your staple items go on sale. Get their loyalty card, if they offer one. Any meat for $1.25/lb or less? Stock up and freeze it if you can, or at least take advantage of it that week. Fruit or vegetables for less than $1/lb? Do the same, and preserve some of it if you can (hello apple sauce and pear butter, even if its frozen rather than canned). Most stores also have a MONTHLY sales book of things that are discounted for the entire month, not just the week. It’s also worth checking out. I find that clipping coupons no longer serves me well, as I’m shopping for fresh products, not processed shelf stable products. The fresh products almost never come with coupons.
Get over being embarrassed about writing things down and doing calculations IN THE STORE. Some produce is sold by the pound, but you don’t know how much a typical bunch of celery or a head of cabbage or a bunch of bananas weighs, right? So weigh them and write it down. Put it back if its too much. Its none of your business what other people think of you. Be proud that you are making the very best choices possible for you given your circumstances, rather than being embarrassed that you have to price shop.
Buy in the bulk section. I was SO intimidated by this when I was in my early 20’s. It was a huge milestone the first time I purchased a couple of pounds of oatmeal from a bulk bin. It’s almost (but not always) less expensive to buy in the bulk section. Bring your own containers if they will let you, and get a tare weight on them when they are empty. Otherwise, just bag and tag them. Depending on where you live, this might mean braving your local natural food store. Yes, it smells distinctly wholesome. It’s OK, you don’t have to buy the quinoa or the chia seeds (they are gonna be too expensive anyway).
By ALL of your spices in bulk. A well stocked spice rack can take a meal from hum drum to fantastic. I just priced buying a 1/2 oz bottle of celery seed the other day. Price in the baking aisle? Over $5. Price for the same amount in the bulk section? 33 cents!
Any fruit or vegetable that is priced at less than $1 a pound is worth your energy to get to know and like. A lot of inexpensive produce stores for a week or more in the refrigerator (I still have carrots and cabbage in my fridge from the garden, which ended 2 months ago) or in the cupboard (onions, potatoes, garlic, winter squash). That’s part of why its inexpensive. Because wholesalers can store it for long periods of time off season. These foods are often the basis for many peasant cuisines. They are your friends. Find a recipe for each that you don’t just tolerate, but actually look forward to. Roasted carrots anyone? Yum.
Eating seasonally becomes SO much more important. Fruits and vegetables in season are cheap. Fruits and vegetables out of season are expensive. You need to learn what those seasons are for your area, and stock up in season for eating out of season, if you can. Or, just eat seasonally, and look forward to strawberries in June, and don’t expect to be eating them in November.
Look for the bargain bin in the meat and produce section. Not all stores do this, but if they do, and you know what to do with it, you can get a killer deal on some overly ripe bananas or that piece of round steak that’s about to expire.
You need to plan and budget for the month, not the week. If you want to eat cheap, you can’t go to the grocery store hungry at 5:00 pm on a Tuesday evening and look around for what’s for dinner. A pound of honey or container of peanut butter can be an expensive purchase for the week, but when its going to last you a month or more, it becomes a reasonable purchase. While my reasonable meal plan didn’t quite come in at the “Food Stamp Challenge” monthly amount of $131.48, for an extra $35 a month (which is the Thrifty-Cost Food Plan amount), I could eat very well, both on nutrition and price.
Processed convenience foods? Fuhgeddaboutit. No boxed cereal. No frozen dinners. No prewashed salad greens. No bakery cake or cookies. No jugs of juice or soda. And of course, all meals are made at home, which solves most of the problems with the American diet causing weight gain, just like that.
Eating on the cheap means you’re gonna be spending a portion of your weekend cooking and baking. When I was in college the second time around, I used to cook several main dishes and bake a loaf of bread on the weekend, and then eat them throughout the week, when I was coming home tired after a long day of working and studying. It worked great! Which brings us to…
You’re gonna be eating some leftovers and you should NOT be throwing out food (it’s estimated that Americans throw out about 1/3 of their food. Seriously. There is just NO excuse for that. Stop it! I’ve been known to plan an entire meal around a half avocado about to go off in the fridge.) Eating cheap means making things like big pots of beans, and then eating those beans for several meals. If you expect to have something different every night (and day) of the week, you need to rethink your expectations. It’s also more boring when its just you eating that black bean soap that serves six, for six lunches or dinners. It’s actually easier the more people you have in your family (assuming you get some help with the cooking), because you can work in more variety. And for the women in the JConline story that started this whole thing, who was feeding a family of 5 (4 kids) on $1,184 a month, which works out to $236.80 per person per month, we would eat very very well.
So, below is my one week meal plan. Here’s the whole $166 Month Shopping List.
- Oatmeal – 2 days a week. With nuts, dried or fresh fruit, brown sugar or honey, and milk
- Toast and fried egg – 2 days a week. Honestly, this really doesn’t take but a few minutes
- Fresh fruit with yogurt and granola – 2 days a week.
- Fried potatoes, onions, kale and eggs – 1 day a week
- Alternative – homemade pancakes topped with homemade apple sauce or stewed pears.
- 2nd Alternative – 2 to 3 homemade muffins made with nuts, fresh or dried fruit. Banana bread muffins anyone?
- 3rd Alternative – Toast and peanut butter
- 4th Alternative – fruit smoothie with juice, fruit and yogurt.
- Cabbage chicken salad with fresh apple and almonds. One chicken breast, roasted, from whole bird. Mayonnaise/yogurt/lime juice for the dressing. Mayo wasn’t on the shopping list. I’m gonna assume there’s a jar of it in your fridge somewhere. – 2 days
- Lunch salad with cheese, nuts, fresh sliced fruit of choice, and homemade vinaigrette. Include homemade croutons if you have some bread going stale. Diced hard boiled egg (optional) – 1 day
- Chicken vegetable soup – 2 days. Made with the back/wings/carcass of the whole chicken, vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, starch of choice – rice, potatoes, pasta, and maybe a can of diced tomatoes or a handful of frozen peas.
- Grilled cheese sandwich – 1 day
- Leftovers from a dinner – 1 day
- Piece of cheese and a handful of nuts/dried fruit
- Piece of fruit
- Muffin or quick bread
- Celery and peanut butter
- Carrot sticks
- Hard boiled egg
- Juice or smoothie
- Black Bean Soup – Beans, onions, tomatoes, spices, lime juice, sliced avocado and a dollup of plain yogurt if you have it. Serves 6. 2 days, plus a lunch. Freeze leftovers.
- Chicken tacos – made from the legs and thighs of the whole chicken. Braised in flavorful liquid with onions, spices and can of spicy diced tomatoes, then shredded. Broth reduced down to make a sauce. Corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, cheese, squeeze of lime, hot sauce, plain yogurt if you want. Serve with stewed or refried pinto beans and Mexican rice – if you want more food. – 2 nights.
- Chicken pasta – sauteed vegetables (bell pepper, kale, onion, carrot) and second chicken breast from whole bird, canned spaghetti sauce, mozzarella cheese – 2 nights.
- Huevos Rancheros. Refried beans, fried eggs, corn tortillas, cheese, hot sauce, shredded lettuce, squeeze of lime. Oven roasted diced potatoes on the side. – 1 night
- Baked apple
- Rice pudding (an egg custard)
- Bread pudding (an egg custard)
- Chocolate, vanilla or banana pudding (with milk and cornstarch)
- Left over quick bread or muffins
- Hot cocoa
- Cookies (oatmeal or molasses)
Make on weekends/ahead
- One pound of black beans – for soup – use ham hock
- 1/2 pound of pinto beans – for refrieds – use ham hock or freeze second hock for another meal
- 1 loaf of bread – do a mix of half whole wheat/half white for nutrition. Add sunflower seeds or oatmeal (optional)
- 1 batch of muffins or quick bread
- 1 batch (3 cups oats) homemade granola with nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and dried fruit
- 1 quart homemade yogurt (once you have this going, you use a bit of the last batch to get the next batch going).
- Chicken stock, then chicken vegetable soup. – Serves 4. Freeze any leftovers or eat at beginning of following week.
- Cookies (optional – depending on how much egg and butter is left)
Thoughts on meals for the rest of the month
- Stir fried tofu with vegetables over rice – 2 – 3 servings
- Stir fried rice/egg/vegetables – with left over rice
- Chili – with ground beef – serves 4
- Spaghetti and meat balls – with ground beef – serves 4 – use homemade breadcrumbs from bread in meat balls
- Potato, sausage and kale soup – with sausages – serves 4 to 6
- Corn chowder with bacon, onions, potatoes – serves 4
- Sausage and braised cabbage with apple cider, apple juice and fresh apples – serves 4
- Baked potatoes topped with left over chili and cheese.
- Tortilla soup – chicken, spicy diced tomatoes, onions, chicken stock, lime juice, corn tortilla strips. – serves 6
- Potato/egg/kale fritatta. – serves 2 (breakfast or dinner)
- Stacked tortilla enchiladas – with chicken or vegetarian with beans/corn – or with left over chili. – serves 4
- Homemade tomato soup (onion, carrot, celery, diced canned tomato, chicken stock, milk) and grilled cheese sandwiches. – Soup serves 2.
- Homemade pizza with canned spaghetti sauce, mozzarella, onions and sausage. – leftovers for lunch
- Shepherd’s pie – vegetarian or with ground beef or sausage or chicken. Serves 4.
- Split pea soup with ham hock – serves 4
- Red Bean and rice with sausage – serves 4 to 6
- Corn bread (to go with chili, and also for breakfast)
This would get easier over time, because certain staples (soy sauce and other condiments, oils and vinegars, peanut butter, sugar and other sweeteners) would not need to be purchased every month, and a build up of left overs could be stockpiled, freeing up money for other more expensive items such as a broader assortment of vegetables, meats and bread products.
What would YOUR menu look like?
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2015, where we’re grateful for a well stocked pantry and freezer, and a choice of grocery stores within a few miles. I DO understand that not everyone is so lucky.