How to Really Stretch a Dollar: The 15 Meals for $15 Challenge

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Business may be booming at McDonald’s during the recession, but this is not about the dollar menu. Not remotely.

Richard Silver, who writes a blog called Can I Get a Sample, and some friends recently challenged themselves to surviving—and eating pretty well—using an average of $1 for each meal. For those keeping score in The Cheapskate Blog’s ongoing eating-on-a-budget conversation, that’s a little more than the vegetarian $15 a Week bloggers, and quite a bit less than the original, controversial 50 Bucks a Week crew.

Once again, I’ll repeat: Eating on a budget is not a contest; it’s a conversation. I’ve asked several other bloggers who write about their low-cost food adventures to answer questions similar to those posed to the 50 Bucks a Week trio. The responses will be posted here to keep the conversation going.

Again, up today is Richard Silver of Can I Get a Sample. Among the takeaways from his experience: The word “hungry” has taken on completely new meaning, and if you’re tossing out the ends of carrots, you’re being totally wasteful.

Cheapskate: How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?

Richard Silver: It all stemmed from a conversation a few friends and I were having about the documentary Food Inc. That and the ridiculous claim one of the friends made about being able to live off of $1 a day. We decided $1 a meal was more reasonable with all the cheap options out there but wondered how healthy we could keep our diet … the $15/15 meals challenge was born.

CS: What are your ground rules? How exactly do you define what’s in your budget and what meets your standards and restrictions? Give us the fine print, including how you deal with beverages and dining out (that is, if you ever dine out).

RS: The rules were pretty simple. Anything we consumed would be counted against our $15 budget for the five days. Whether it was bought at the grocery store, or ate a restaurant (clearly not so feasible), we had to break in at around $1 a meal. The only exceptions were simple seasonings like olive oil, salt and pepper and spices and the big ones, alcohol and coffee. These last two were ruled as exceptions mainly for those around us … wouldn’t have been pretty. Other than that the rules were to eat as healthy as you could and don’t starve.

CS: What are some of your favorite cheap ingredients or spices — you know, the little something that doesn’t cost much but adds a lot to a meal?

RS: I discovered barley during this challenge, which I had never cooked with before. But I really enjoyed its taste, much more than rice, and from what I understand its health benefits are fantastic. But really a stocked spice cabinet is one of the best ways to add that extra something. We all made a chicken stock out of our chickens we purchased but after day two it became pretty boring. With a dash of cumin, or a bit of dried cilantro, the soup took on a whole new profile. The hardest part of the challenge was incorporating variety to combat the boredom and these spices were my main weapons.

CS: What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a supertight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

RS: The things I missed the most were fruits and greens. I don’t even like apples! But all I wanted was a big bite out of one. I was craving something sweet! And the lack of green on my plate drove me nuts as the challenge went on. I think we’ve proved that you eat with your eyes first. But the lack of variety itself was the toughest part. Let’s just say I have more will power than I ever thought.

CS: When you tell people about your food budget, what sort of reactions do you get?

RS: Most people think we are nuts and/or cheaters. I’ll admit to being a bit nuts for trying this, but we were not cheaters! But all joking aside, it was cool to see how many people became interested, regardless of what they thought of the experiment. I updated our progress on my blog daily and the comments and emails came in more and more as the week went on. I think we changed some perceptions, which is pretty great!

CS: In the big, grand, save-the-world sense, what have you learned about yourselves, and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while you’ve been blogging about eating on the cheap?

RS: The two things we all agreed on were how much we waste on a regular basis and how the perception of “hungry” has become really skewed. Many of the meals we created took some creativity but I was thrilled to see how well we utilized parts of ingredients. For example, by using the ends of carrots in the chicken stock I made, I got the great flavor I wanted, but didn’t have to use one of my precious snacks in the process. Or by cutting off the ends of the roll I bought for a sandwich to use as breadcrumbs for meatballs instead of simply filling up on extra bread. Regardless of your budget, being thrifty is a good thing. As for the “hungry” perception, it was truly amazing how when I knew my consumption was limited by my budget, I no longer felt hungry when I normally had in the past. No more late afternoon cravings or late night snacks. I ate a fully balanced days worth of food, ate less than I used to, but felt better than ever! Truly amazing! But I think most importantly, we proved to ourselves that if you want/need to save money, you don’t have to sacrifice your health in the process.