Eating Well on Nearly Nothing

April 15, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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If you had less than £3 per day to spend on food, what would you eat?

That’s a situation faced by the more than 45 million people in America on food stamps. The benefit provided by the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works out to about $4 per day per person (about £2.80 at current exchange rates). If that weren’t dismaying enough, the government pamphlets that offer advice for grocery shopping on such a restricted budget tend to be flyers illustrated with clip art and little in the way of real tips – “include meatless meals to extend your protein dollars” is about as creative as it gets – and zero inspiration for nutritious meals with colour and flavour.

Image RemovedLeanne Brown decided to change that. As the thesis project for her masters’ degree in Food Studies at New York University a few years ago, she wrote a cookbook based on a SNAP budget called Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day. When she made it available as a free PDF, it suddenly went viral: it was downloaded more than 100,000 times in a few weeks. Brown decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to make printed copies available to people without computers. That initiative was also more successful than she envisioned: instead of the $10,000 she asked for, she received more than $144,000, allowing her to get about 40,000 copies of the cookbook printed. These have since been distributed to more than 980 food banks and other community organisations in the US and Canada to pass on to their clients. The free PDF, meanwhile, has been downloaded nearly 1 million times now.

And no wonder: Good and Cheap challenges every assumption one might have about eating on a budget. The pages are filled with photographs of luscious-looking food, while the recipes themselves are built around the creative possibilities of cooking rather than the limitations of funds. Often the recipes incorporate the idea of multi-purpose ingredients, or variations on a theme, such as Oatmeal Six Ways (including a savoury version with cheddar and scallions). “I called it a cookbook but I think of it as a strategy guide,” Brown says. Here’s how those strategies translate into shopping for food as well as cooking it.

What’s the key to eating well on less money?

Leanne: It’s really about developing different sorts of habits. What are your go-to meals? How do you frame your visit to the store? If you are looking to spend X amount, and make X number of meals out of that, then adding in considerations like raw ingredients versus prepared is important. There is a bit of an investment in time at the beginning of the process, but over the long term, this kind of planning can actually save time because then you will have the food in your pantry that you want, the groceries you won’t regret.

Then there are things like never buying drinks, either in the grocery store or when you’re out. The way our economy is structured, restaurants and stores make their money on drinks rather than food because they’re very cheap to make but can be sold at a high margin. You can save a lot of money by having coffee at home, or making “health drinks” yourself with water and a little fruit juice.

What are the top multi-use items you recommend always keeping on hand?

Leanne: Number one, eggs. (“With these babies in your fridge, you’re only minutes away from a satisfying meal,” she writes in the book.) Then, either butter or coconut oil because you can use them for baking or frying, high heat or low heat, and they add flavour to food. Next, cans of tomatoes because they’re so useful for making sauces and basic grains taste good, and pre-made sauces are five times the price! Also, grains: oatmeal, quinoa, rice – the staples that there are 50 uses for. Finally, you always want to have fruits and vegetables around, but buy seasonally as much as possible.

Do you have any strategies for countering the psychological hurdles to cooking, i.e. when you’re tired and hungry after a long day at work and don’t feel like embarking on another ‘task’?

Leanne: That situation of coming home late and wanting to just order something is tough. What I try to tell myself is that I’ve never made food – instead of ordering it – and then regretted it. There’s something about taking care of yourself that makes you feel better. It’s not just the satisfaction of using the groceries that you purchased, but you also have this experience of accomplishment that’s better than sitting on the couch staring at the wall waiting for your food to be delivered. It’s so ingrained in us that cooking is a chore, when actually there is something deeply human and joyful in it.

In the introduction, you write, “Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food.” Could you talk about how that idea shaped Good and Cheap?

Leanne: Cooking is such a simple and wonderful process that it sells itself, and the discovery of that is a magical experience. As readers, I’d like for people to say ‘I know how to cook, I know how to shop.’ I want them to have the confidence and courage to make things. The food is almost secondary to the creativity that goes into it, because it’s personal. I don’t think my recipes are necessarily the best version of everything. I want people to make it their own, using what is cheap and available wherever they are, what their neighbour’s garden is full of, what they and their family like.

People on these budgets are rarely discussed or consulted in the world of food. There is so much work done on issues like food deserts or better access for underserved populations, and that’s extremely important, but there’s a zillion different ways in which there are inequalities besides those as well. I want absolutely everyone to be welcome at the table.

Photograph: Julochka

Tags: cooking from scratch, Reskilling