Eating Cheap Can Mean Eating Well

October 27, 2015 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Food Economics, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

When a famous movie star (in this case Gwyneth Paltrow) takes a Food Stamp Challenge, and fails to eat for 7 days on the $29 food stamps provides, it makes the news. But I’m not sure if many of you missed a story about Leanne Brown, a Canadian masters student at New York University who did her thesis project on How to eat for $4 a day, or close to it.

In short this is the story: Brown tried to find a nonprofit that would make use of her thesis project; a cookbook of cheap, tasty, easy-to-follow recipes benefitting low-income families and/or those looking to slim down their grocery bill. It was a disappointment for her that no one supported her project; so she posted it online – anyone could download it for free. A few weeks later it hit Reddit; there were so many downloads it crashed her website.

There is so much that I like about what Brown did. One is; instead of seeing the high demand as a way to make a bundle for herself, she designed a buy-one-give-one away model; each purchase enables an additional copy to be sent to a family on a tight budget.

She tried to raise $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, but instead raised $144,000, which lead to publishing more than 40,000 copies of the book, most of which were donated or sold for $4 each to nonprofits. It’s amazing to me that she kept the download free on her website. By the way, it’s been downloaded more than 900,000 times.

The Washington Post interviewed the altruistic Mrs. Brown; she said that she has “always been into social justice.” No kidding? There are many of us who want social justice, but Brown really knows how to put her work where her heart is. She’s amazing!!! She definitely is teaching people “how to fish.” I say hip hip hooray for Leanne Brown!

Brown suggests that ‘embracing cooking’ and ‘buying food that you can use in multiple ways’ as two of the top tips to cutting the food budget. She has a huge list of tips in her book. Not throwing away usable food is another surprisingly underused concept. If you’ve purchased a chicken, for example, why throw away the part that is left after the family has a meal. Yes, I realize it will not feed the family for another full meal; unless, you make it into stir fry; cook your rice with it or turn it into soup or plain stock; and, you do not waste the food or the money it cost. You have a head start to another meal.

I was blessed by being raised by a grandmother who raised 5 children during the Great Depression. She definitely was a proponent of the principle: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Really, it’s somewhat comical that all the decades later, I’m still doing some of the habits witnessed at my grandmother’s knee. Many of them are a true benefit to me. I don’t need to be on a strict food budget like the years that I was raising my three children, but some of the skills developed turned out to be healthy alternatives. On a very small scale, I feel like I try to do our part (just two people) in not wasting food nor adding to the environmental impact – both the impact of growing/raising animals and the potential burden of waste management due to excess and wasted food remains.

Another of the great features that I like about Brown’s work is that she’s made some fantastically flavorful recipes in her quest for budget meals. When people get some of the best budget foods, they don’t know what to do to make them taste delicious. She has really helped with this issue. For example, you may not think that quiche is a budget food, but she has published her recipe for crustless quiche. Then she takes the next step by helping the reader discover ways to use leftover ingredients in the quiche to extend the budget.

Dried beans are among the most economical of ingredients. It’s a matter of getting bean cooking into your routine. My son-in-law makes wonderful, flavorful black beans from dried beans. I’ve watched him; it’s really not hard at all, but it’s not in my routine. I froze some of his cooked mashed black beans; they were a tasty and nutritious addition to our taco lunch a few months later. I want to make a goal to cook a pot of beans and freeze them for later use and make it a routine. I must admit freezing is one of the easiest ways to support a low food budget. Cook it once and have several meals. You don’t have to be on a super tight food budget to utilize some of the budget techniques. There’s more than one reason to eat cheap. Cooking at home is much more economical than eating out, but it also reduces the additives and gives you control over what ingredients you choose to consume; you know what’s in your recipe and therefore, in your body. You have control of how much of an ingredient is in your recipe; for example, how much salt is added to the beans.

One issue as related to the food budget is buying fruits and vegetables in season. Not only is the price better, but often the quality is at its peak. Right now, we’re getting locally harvested Honeycrisp apples. The price is incredible and they are the juiciest, crispiest, apple with a touch of tang. Yum. I made a little batch of homemade Honeycrisp applesauce with a touch of cinnamon – special treat. At the regular price of Honeycrisp apples, most families would probably not choose to make them into applesauce, but when you stumble upon a great buy, that’s the time.

Whenever I come face to face with processed food; understanding what their labels mean, with all those unpronounceable chemical names and deceitful practices of separating sugars out so they will not be listed first (which means they contribute the greatest weight), I am reminded why I cook most of our food. Just this past weekend I had a big Halloween party for the children and grandchildren. I picked up a couple bags of candy corn to sprinkle on the tablecloths. I noticed in quite large font on the front of the bag, “Made with Real Honey.” Just for fun, I looked to see where the honey was on the ingredient list. You guessed it! Way down at the bottom, down between food coloring and flavoring. Good grief! There were several different types of corn syrup and other sweeteners, and honey was almost non-existent!!!! I think we don’t look at the ingredient list very often. We’ve done this little experiment a few times during this past week (e.g. raspberries generally end up near the end too); every single time, the highly advertized, tasty, and popular ingredient was at the end of the list. When you make it yourself, you know how much of it you are getting. If you make something with mango, for example, you know it has mango. When mango is in bold letters on the front of the container of mango salsa, you may discover that it is really apple juice, grape juice, and peaches; and the actual mango holding up the rear of the list after the spices. In my experience, so much of the processed food is made with lots of stuff; you might call ‘fillers’ – truly cheap stuff, which is frequently not the most nourishing food. It’s very sad for me that people who aren’t cooking for themselves are habitually eating this lesser quality food.

There are a lot of people (over 46 million) on food stamps; in addition, there are those who won’t sign up, seniors on a fixed income, students, and families with an income, but struggling to make ends meet. In addition to this list of those needing low cost food, there are those of us, for whatever reason like to control what goes into our food. There are many good reasons to utilize the work that Leanne Brown so generously shares with any/all of us. Mrs. Brown, we appreciate your work – thank you.