How to Eat on a Dollar a Day

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The next post in the continuing frugal gastronomy series features a pair of schoolteacher-writers who gave themselves the toughest of all restrictions: All their food had to cost no more than $1 per day per person. Amazingly, if they invited guests over to eat, the guests’ food had to be covered by the $1 allotment. You’d have to really like the guest, I suppose.

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, which started the entire conversation. The responses will be posted here to keep the conversation going.

Up today are Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard, whose food budget averaged $1 per day per person for 30 days. They write the blog OneDollarDietProject.com, and their book, currently titled On a Dollar a Day, can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com and Borders.com.

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?

Christopher Greenslate & Kerri Leonard: Right before the worst of the recession hit, Kerri and I were in the checkout line at our local natural foods store and by the time the checker was finished ringing us up we stood in shock (and mild desperation) at the cost of our groceries. We were spending about $100 a week on groceries for the two of us, not including things like shampoo and dog food, and we felt like we were being priced out of our store. On the way out to the parking lot Kerri was exasperated and said we had to do something in order save money. Half joking, I said, “about a billion people live on a dollar a day … we could try that.” Over the next couple of months the idea simmered and finally we decided that we would try it. We would eat on a dollar a day, each. We started the blog so that our friends and family could follow along.

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).

CG & KL: We had five rules for our experiment.
1. All food consumed each day must total $1 for each of us.
2. We could not accept free food or “donated” food unless it is available for everyone in our area (i.e. foraging, samples in stores, dumpster diving).
3. Any food we planted, we had to pay for.
4. We would do our best to cook a variety of meals; ramen noodles could only be prepared if there is no other way to stay under one dollar. (We had six packages and would buy no more.)
5. Should we decide to have guests over for dinner they must eat from our share; meaning they don’t get to eat their own dollar’s worth of food.

Some of the rules didn’t end up applying, like number three; as schoolteachers starting up a new year, we simply did not have the time to start gardening.

In order to stay at a dollar or less, we only had to pay for what we actually cooked and ate. This gave us the ability to buy in bulk and pay the lowest price per ounce for everything we ate. So we bought things like a 25 lb. bag of pinto beans for $15, but an actual serving would cost us seven cents, and something like rice would cost 11 cents. For things like homemade tortillas, we would have to calculate the cost of the flour and shortening and figure out the cost of a batch. Then divide the cost of the batch by the number of tortillas we could get from it. They ended up being about five cents each.

The thought of dining out never crossed our minds; we simply assumed in was not possible. If we had gone to a place like Taco Bell for lunch and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, Triple Layer Nachos, that would have cost 79 cents, leaving us almost nothing for breakfast or dinner. The dollar menu at McDonald’s would have given us only a salad for the whole day. What you’re getting at those places is pretty expensive when you consider how we ate. What you’re really paying for is convenience. So eating out was out of the question.

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?

CG & KL: The basics like salt, pepper, and garlic were our biggest go-to seasonings. If you like things spicy, Jalapeños are usually cheap. Spices are pretty expensive though. The best things you can do to save money on food are: plan menus in advance, buy in bulk if you can, plant something, prepare food from scratch (especially things like bread), and don’t let anything go to waste. Most people don’t have the time, money, skill, or interest in doing things like this, but if you’re serious about saving money of food, you have to start somewhere. You stretch yourself, and do what you can.

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?

CG & KL: The hardest things we dealt with were: finding time to cook, getting bored with eating the same things frequently, and overcoming urges. Right now I would love to have some Peanut Butter Bomb Vegan Cheesecake from Gianna’s in Philadelphia, but that be an unnecessary and costly batch of calories. For me, it’s those sweet and fatty comfort foods that are hardest to stay away from. Which is true for lots of people. Nutritionally speaking they’re outrageously expensive, but they are also delicious. I would love to have a root beer, but it would cost my wallet, and my body. I would be better off having some fruit salad, and a small glass of soymilk, which would be cheaper and more healthful.

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

CG & KL: People were pretty stunned, which is why we ended up doing interviews with the New York Times, People Magazine, Fox & Friends, and NPR. I think what was most fascinating was the fact that millions of people heard about what we were doing and each person had a different response. People said things like, “They proved you could eat well on a dollar a day,” and others would say, “They proved you couldn’t eat well on a dollar a day.” People would read the exact same thing and come to completely opposite conclusions. It has been truly fascinating.

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?

CG & KL: The best part of this whole thing is that a lot of folks visit our blog and share their own stories with us. We hear from moms in the Midwest who are struggling to feed their families after being laid off, and from middle-upper class fathers who want to get involved to help with hunger issues. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, but I think that’s because more people than ever are in need of help, and regardless of competing ideologies, at our core we don’t want to see people suffer. Our project to eat on a dollar a day assisted in bringing some of these issues to the surface. Everyone needs to eat, but not everyone can afford it. There are innumerable paths to choose from for people who want to get involved in food issues, like cost, or health, or safety, you just have to start where you’re at. For us, that meant our kitchen. We still have a lot to learn, which has prompted some new experiments in the economics of eating well, all of which will be recounted in our forthcoming book on Hyperion in January.

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