A writer shares her wildly affordable cooking plans for eating organic on a budget, inspired by a national challenge to eat on a food-stamp budget.
I began my experiment in thrifty, delicious eating when the philosophy of food ran smack into the politics of food in the summer of 2007. On the philosophical side, Michael Pollan linked the supermarket’s middle aisles to the obesity epidemic, citing research that showed “the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly—and get fat.” On the political side, several politicians took the “Food-Stamp Challenge,” living on the average national food-stamp allowance of a dollar a meal. I was irritated by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s slap-dash approach, with his aides throwing 2-ounce bags of coffee into his cart and the Congressman skipping meals. When airport security seized his stash of peanut butter and jelly, he was looking at 36 hours with nothing but cornmeal. He wound up cheating with Dunkin’ Donuts, peanuts and a pork chop, blogging “It is nearly impossible to make [do] on this amount of money.”
Nonsense, I thought. A dollar a meal is tight, but it doesn’t mean we have to pick Cheetos over carrots. I found myself chuffing in the grocery store: “Look, this whole bag of dried beans is only 79 cents a pound. That’s about eight cents a serving.” I was garumphing at the farmers market, too: “Here’s a flat of delicious local strawberries for $15. That’s about 50 cents a serving. Why do people insist that people who don’t have much money can only drink soda and eat potato chips?”
That night at dinner, I broached an idea to my husband, Bruce. What if I tried the food-stamp diet for three weeks, eating on $1 a meal? But what if I moved the source of our food around to show the options? What if we did week one at Food Lion, week two at Whole Foods and week three at the farmers market? At the end of that time, we’d know a good deal more about eating organic on the budget our government allows.
My husband looked only mildly horrified. “You can eat extra if you want,” I said.
“No, I’ll do it with you. Might as well see just how hungry we get,” he said. You can see why I love him.
In the last few days before we started, we ate or froze the perishables we had on hand. I studied the supermarket’s flyer and drafted a menu for week one. I couldn’t know what we could afford until I checked prices at the store, so I set priorities: Core nutrition came first—enough protein and carbs to keep us going. Add vegetables and fruit to balance the meals and then bring in nutritious desserts to keep everyone happy. These rules came out of all that thinking:
Budget is king. Nothing can make us spend more than $1 a meal per person.
Nutrition is essential. The menus must provide balanced nutrition, including enough protein and five fruits or vegetables each day.
No crazy cooking. I’ll cook from scratch but not go overboard. Homemade ravioli may be inexpensive, but it fails the reality test.
Get some satisfaction. Meals must be tasty and satisfying enough to let us resist the siren call of chips and packaged cookies.
Be ourselves. I would only buy food we would ordinarily eat—no trans-fat–filled sausages, no matter the savings.
Be honest. Report our actual experiences, good or bad.
On the first day of our experiment, I worked an eight-hour day and went grocery shopping on the way home with $42 and a sketch of the week’s menus. I started in the center aisles, getting essential beans, rice and flour. My first surprise came right away. Even the cheapest white rice was 79 cents a pound. I was used to spending 10 bucks for 15 pounds of top-notch basmati at a buying club. Mediocre rice, bought a pound at a time, cost 18 percent more than excellent rice in bulk.
And on the surprises went, through beans, pasta and condiments. Yet I tallied my buys and saw that it was looking good. This is a snap, I thought. I might be able to afford the tea and ice cream at the bottom of the list.
But the dairy department slapped the smugness out of me. The smallest amount of butter I could buy was a half-pound, two sticks, for $1.99. Store-brand eggs were $1.79 a dozen.
Clang! I was over my limit and hadn’t even hit the produce section yet. I was tired and hungry after an hour of shopping. I returned food I couldn’t afford, reworked the menus, and headed for produce.
I’d reclaimed nearly six dollars of my budget, enough for a pound of carrots, cabbage, garlic and five onions. I checked the last item off my list and went to check out. I asked the cashier if food-stamp recipients had to pay taxes on food.
“Yeah,” she said, giving me the suspicious glance I would get with any inquiries about food stamps. “And we charge a 50-cent processing fee, too.”
“A fee? For taking food stamps?”
“That’s right. You got your card?”
Was charging a fee even legal? (It’s not, I learned later. Was this clerk mistaken, trying to discourage customers from food stamps, or pocketing the fees? I’ll never know.)
I found I’d been holding my breath while the cashier rang up the last items. Phew! My total was $41.92. My stomach rumbled as I rolled the cart to the car, two hours after I’d entered. Clearly, shopping on a budget was harder than it seemed.
When I finally got home, I made our standard low-energy worknight dinner: rotini with bottled sauce and fresh-grated Parmesan, frozen peas with vinaigrette and garlic toast. I had the last two glasses in the last bottle of wine in the house. We split an apple and then polished off the last of a pint of yuppie ice cream—altogether a typical meal, but enriched by a certain nostalgic air. Ah, the last wine! The last ice cream!
While Bruce washed the dishes, I made split pea soup to cook overnight in the slow cooker. Then I set up the bread machine to make French bread. After setting the timer so the bread would be ready when we got up, I staggered upstairs to bed.
When the alarm went off at 7 a.m., I trotted happily back to the kitchen, looking forward to toast made with homemade bread. First thing: coffee. The store-brand grounds were chunkier than the drip-filter grind I was used to, but it smelled okay. While the coffee perked, I went to check on the bread.
Where was it? I looked across the kitchen through the domed glass lid of the machine, expecting to see a crusty dome of bread underneath. I lifted the lid and looked inside. Quelle horreur! The bread—she was flat! I twisted the cylindrical bread pan to release it and then tamped out the bread. Just at that moment, Bruce came in the kitchen.
“What’s that?” he asked, seeing me hold a cylinder of bread that was eight inches wide but only two inches tall, not the good foot-long loaf that I’d expected.
“We’re already doomed!”
After the bread disaster, the day continued badly—the toast was small and flat (though tasty), and there wasn’t enough to accompany lunch. Replacing my usual tea with water left me with a lack-of-caffeine headache all day at work. Dinner was the first bright spot in our diet experiment. My original menu had called for high-protein rotini with tomato sauce and whatever had been the cheapest dark-green vegetable at the store. But even a small bag of frozen spinach had been too costly. What to do with cabbage? I simplified a recipe for braised cabbage, which turned out to be surprisingly rich and sweet. After dinner I froze the remaining split pea soup into three double-serving packages for use later in the week and started a pound of pinto beans in the slow cooker. I felt full of hope about the rest of the week.
That dinner turned out to be the first of many good meals that week. I figured out how to make bread with the new type of yeast. We had what would become the basis for the menus: bean stews, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dessert every day.
On the last night of week one, when we were enjoying a ginger-glazed carrot cake, Bruce said the words dreaded in marriages everywhere: “Honey, we’ve got to talk.”
Oh no, I thought. He’s had too many carrots, too much cabbage and onions. He wants a woman who will give him cheesecake!
“I’m feeling really good. The food’s been great, of course. But I’m also sleeping less and more alert. I’m in a better mood. And I’ve even lost a couple of pounds without feeling hungry.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m feeling better, too—brighter, more energetic. And I’ve lost a couple of pounds, too.”
“I don’t think this should be a short experiment. This is how I want to live: on real food cooked from scratch. If our food can be this good for a dollar, what can it be like for a little more?”
We revised the experiment and tried variations for three more months. First, I raised the budget to $1.53 a meal, the actual amount of food stamps then allotted in North Carolina for a couple. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as rich as I did at the start of the second week, when I took my extra 53 cents a meal to the farmers market and loaded up on peaches, tomatoes and peppers. Because food stamps are allocated monthly, I managed our budget on a monthly rather than a weekly basis, making “bulk” purchases such as a pound of butter or a large bottle of mustard sensible again.
After that first terrible day, we never felt hungry or deprived. I learned which yeast to buy and began developing no-knead bread recipes that don’t require a bread machine. I learned where to scrimp and where to splurge. I scoured old cookbooks and interviewed older cooks, looking for easy, thrifty recipes made from basic ingredients. And I kept refining my cooking style to make the best use of everything: food, time, energy and other resources.
We weren’t stingy, either. I took cookies to book club, cupcakes to friends who’d had a death in the family, invited friends over for dinner, and brought a dish to community suppers. Best of all, the food was delicious: spicy beans and rice; fragrant tomato sauce on pasta; burritos; homemade pizza, bread and yogurt; and fruit and plenty of vegetables.
I shopped for a month at chain supermarkets and the state farmers market, improved the list, and did it again. Then I took my improved and tested list to Whole Foods and the Durham Farmers Market, buying organic and sustainably raised ingredients. Even this “yuppie” diet was less than two dollars a meal. After three years of refinement, the result is my book, Wildly Affordable Organic.
The results of these experiments were so good they permanently changed the way we cook and eat. I pay the “green” prices shown in the Sample Spring Menu (later in this article) to get mostly organic, kindly raised and local food. I feel more connected with my community and the seasons. I’ve reached my ideal weight and am full of energy.
After years of working in politics, voting with my fork seems direct and effective. We still need laws to ensure people, animals and the planet are treated right, but knowing our shopping habits are not funding brutal factory farms or pesticides that harm workers and the environment feels good. We support farmers who enhance their land and are buying time for society to cope with global warming.
Cooking on a tight budget was hard at first. Cooking from scratch takes time and so does cleaning up. Some nights I stayed up well past bedtime waiting for the bread to cool because I had started baking it too late. I ruined several loaves of bread and many batches of yogurt. But I got the hang of it and you can, too. I was raised in a canned-soup and bagged-bread house where we always had plenty to eat. Cooking from scratch with the seasons and making the best use of every bite was new to me. If this is new territory for you, too, I invite you to use my book (available in the Mother Earth Living store: Wildly Affordable Organic) as a guide to help get it right the first time.
In this sample one-week spring menu, seasonal foods such as parsley and asparagus meet make-ahead staples such as beans and homemade bread. The prices on the left are the organic/sustainably raised prices. The prices on the right are the non-organic/conventional prices.
Breakfast every day, unless mentioned otherwise ($0.46 / $0.28): Two slices of toasted homemade bread with peanut butter, tea
($5.13 / $3.18)
Breakfast ($0.67 / $0.46): sweet raisin flatbread toast with peanut butter, tea
Lunch ($1.27 / $0.76): Cuban black beans, rice, carrots, banana
Snack ($0.69 / $0.39): walnuts
Dinner ($2.50 / $1.58): pizza with mustard greens and spring onions (two slices), green salad with vinaigrette, strawberry ice cream
($5.86 / $3.92)
Lunch ($1.66 / $1.12): Cuban black beans, rice, carrots, chocolate pudding
Snack ($0.41 / $0.39): apple
Dinner ($3.33 / $2.13): pasta with parsley pesto, skillet asparagus, strawberry ice cream
($4.79 / $3.03)
Lunch ($1.93 / $1.03): pizza with mustard greens and spring onions (one slice), broccoli, banana
Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies
Dinner ($2.13 / $1.56): bean burritos, green salad with vinaigrette, orange, vanilla yogurt
Lunch ($1.96 / $1.45): bean burritos, sugar snap peas, orange
Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies
Dinner ($2.43 / $1.56): potato peanut curry, rice, broccoli, vanilla yogurt, strawberries
($5.21 / $3.02)
Lunch ($1.46 / $1.28): rotini with tomato sauce and spring onions, carrots, strawberries
Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies
Dinner ($3.02 / $1.29): green egg scramble, baked sweet potato, banana
($4.81 / $3.79)
Breakfast ($0.30 / $0.26): oatmeal with peanut butter, tea
Lunch ($1.90 / $1.33): pasta with parsley pesto, carrots
Snack ($0.51 / $0.33): strawberries
Dinner ($2.10 / $1.87): bean and tomato stew with black beans, rice, green salad with vinaigrette, apple, popcorn
($3.95 / $3.09)
Lunch ($1.35 / $0.99): soup with black beans, garlic toast, banana
Snack ($0.36 / $0.29): popcorn
Dinner ($1.76 / $1.53): rotini with tomato sauce and spring onions, sugar snap peas, chocolate pudding
Linda Watson is the author of Wildly Affordable Organic, available at the Mother Earth Living store, and founder of cookforgood.com, a website that helps people save money and eat well. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband.