Thursday, January 20, 2011

Live it up

The professor of my social welfare policy class assigned us to spend a week living on the amount you can get from food stamps. In the mainland US it’s $200 a month for a single person, $367 for a couple. The purpose of the assignment is to show us how difficult it is, and my classmates seemed duly worried.

I’ve been irked about food ever since last week, when someone I know complained that Toby Ord’s plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime sounded very dreary “living on beans and rice and never going to a movie.” I plead guilty to not paying for movies — though in a college town there are more free screenings and performances than I could possibly see. The beans and rice is definitely a myth.

Jeff and I average $170 a month on groceries for the two of us – less than half what we would get for food stamps. Including meals out, candy, tea, and other nonessentials, we average $215 a month.

So here is my primer on cheap eating. There are lots of sites out there with advice, but they're mostly aimed at stay-at-home moms of large families. This is aimed at someone with less time and less ability to get around - i.e. working people without cars or a lot of freezer space.

Note that the focus here is only on cheap, tasty, and reasonably healthy, not ethical. If you have an opinion on the ethical food vs. cheap food dilemma, I'm happy to hear it.

Love food
If you don't like cooking, of course you’ll eat out more. Get interested in food. Read food blogs. Check out cookbooks from the library. Try making new things.

Read unit prices
Please tell me you knew this already.

Get equipped
A $10 slow-cooker from a thrift store will make your life easier. A pressure cooker will, too, though they’re harder to find used. If you find an old one it will probably need a new rubber valve, which only costs a few dollars. I also love my used breadmaker. A hot loaf or batch of pizza dough when I come home from work? Yes, please.

Go easy on the meat
Use plant foods (whole grains, legumes) as staples and meat as supplements.

Shop where poor people shop
Unfortunately, this is often the corner store. I don’t mean that. Tofu is expensive at ritzy stores, but not in Chinatown. Check out ethnic grocery stores. Check out the international aisle in the regular supermarket – Goya usually sells beans and seasonings cheaper than American companies.

Pack your lunches
Make too much for dinner. Pack leftovers and refrigerate or freeze them. Do this at night, not in the morning when you’re rushing. If you don’t have containers, look in other people’s recycling bins for takeout containers.

Plan for snacks
You don't have to totally change your life. If you know you’re going to get a soda or candy bar from the vending machine at 3 pm, buy them at the store and bring one with you each day. One, so you don't eat them all.

Invest in seasonings
Or your food will be boring and you won’t want to eat it. For savory cooking, I wouldn’t be without:
Lemon juice
Vinegar (in a big jug to use for cleaning as well as cooking)
Olive oil
Broth powder or paste (for grains and soups)
Parmesan (the good kind in a wedge, not dust in a can. This is not cheap, but it is essential to my culinary happiness.)
Hot sauce / chili paste / something else spicy

Know your grocery store
Mine sells dried cranberries both in the raisin aisle and the produce area, and the ones in raisinland are cheaper. They also have a shelf in the back where they sell dented containers at a markdown.

Comfort food is important
I don’t skimp on ice cream.

Here’s a recipe to start you off. This made enough for two dinner servings and three lunches.
Asian beef and vegetables
1 lb. quick-cooking meat like London broil or pork chops (or tofu)
2 cups uncooked brown rice
½ head cabbage
1 carrot

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
dash red pepper or other spiciness

Combine the marinade ingredients and put the meat in. Use a plastic bag or a small container so the marinade coats the meat. Refrigerate it and let it sit overnight (or 15 minutes, or whatever you have).

Put the rice on to cook.

Put a skillet on medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, take the meat out of the marinade and cook it 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove from pan.

Pour the marinade into the pan (remember, it has raw meat juice in it) and bring to a simmer. If you want to thicken it, dissolve a teaspoon of cornstarch in a little water and simmer that with the marinade.

Slice the cabbage thinly. Microwave in a dish two minutes (or until it’s as tender as you want). Grate the carrot and add to the cabbage.

Cut the meat into pieces and toss with the vegetables. Serve over the rice with the marinade as sauce.

Time: 50 minutes, less if you use white rice.
Cost: I’m assuming you start with some things (ginger, garlic, sugar). If you buy a cabbage, a pound of carrots, a bottle of soy sauce, a pound of rice, and a pound of meat, that’s $12 at my local grocery. You have almost a bottle of soy sauce, half a cabbage, and some carrots left over.
Yield: two dinners, three lunches (if you eat a little more than us)
Cost per serving: $2.40

Not boring! Not expensive!


Mary Harvest Kitchen said...

To which I would add, make your own stock! Veg stock is easy (see recipe in moosewood)--just save tasty scraps like onion skins, apple cores, carrot ends and peelings, herb stems, and more. At HK we make a batch at the end of every cooking day, but at home we save our stock scraps in the freezer, make a big batch of stock on the weekends, and freeze the stock for use in soups later.
Chicken stock is also easy and uses the non-useful parts of the chicken (necks, backs, carcasses, etc). Given the price of fuel, it may not be cheaper than broth powder or Better than Boullion, but at least you know what's in it and have control over the additives and sodium.

Of course, I also have thoughts on the ethics of food, but I don't think that "good-for-the-world" food should be the realm of the wealthy only. And there are less expensive (grow your own, eat beans, etc) and more expensive (take out from Whole Foods!) ways to go about obtaining it. Even Farmer's Markets are different. Here in MI, I'd say shop at the Farmer's Market in Ypsilanti for good values, over the A2 market, where farmers charge more because the market can sustain it.

laurab said...

hi julia! this is laura boyle--i went to bryn mawr too, and i found your blog through anna mueser. it is so inspiring! too bad we never got to know each other well in college--your posts are so thoughtful, careful, and loving in every good sense. i am living on a pretty stringent food budget at the moment-- thanks for the tips!

laura b.

YBoris said...

Great post - thanks for sharing!
Here's a blog about cooking cheap but delicious food: comes with cost-per-meal and process and final-result photos.

Julia Wise said...

Thanks, Boris, that's a good find!

Leamington Malfoof said...

Hi Julia, I know it's 4 years since this post, but I just came upon your blog. While I agree with your general principles here and am enjoying the reading, the math doesn't quite work out. In 2011 you spent $170/month on food for two people. Assuming 2 people x 2 main meals per day x 30 days, that's 120 meals per month. If this meal cost $2.40 per serving and is typical, that gets you to $288/month without any breakfast.

Julia Wise said...

2.40 per serving was on the high side for our meals at the time. The budget in this post was our actual grocery spending, not something extrapolated by multiplying one meal cost by 120.

Julia Wise said...

2.40 per serving was on the high side for our meals at the time. The budget in this post was our actual grocery spending, not something extrapolated by multiplying one meal cost by 120.

Julia Wise said...
This comment has been removed by the author.