Kristen Swensson, the writer in charge of the Cheap Healthy Good blog, recently got through a week in which she cooked all of her fiance’s meals with a total budget of $24.99. The hardest parts for the 205-pound man at the center of the experiment: no beer (!), and no bacon (!#@!). He also had to do the dishes.
With an average budget of $3.57 a day, Swensson managed to pack in 2631 calories into her fiance’s daily intake. He never went to bed hungry.
After the week was over, Swensson answered my questions:
How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?
The blog itself began in July 2007, after I dropped a decent chunk of weight. I felt like I was paying too much for healthy foods, and set about fixing that situation.
The $25/Week challenge kicked off about a month ago. I lost my job last year, and have since become acutely aware of my finances, which of course, extend to food. I knew I could feed myself cheaply, but wondered if I could feed a full-grown, meat-eating, beer-loving male on the same budget. Fortunately, my fiance RS fit the profile, and was up for the experiment.
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), and what are your criteria for something to be considered “cheap,” “healthy,” and “good”?
The challenge lasted for seven days. During this time:
We couldn’t go over a total cost of $25 (or, about $3.57/day).
Every meal had to be prepared from home, and RS couldn’t sneak snacks at the office.
We had to cram sufficient produce in his daily diet, and keep his calorie intake at or above that of a healthy, full-grown male. For his height, size, and age, that was about 2600 to 2800 calories per day.
Pantry items were allowed, but were added to the final cost.
I cooked. He did the dishes. I consider this a fair trade-off.
We’re water drinkers, so the beverages didn’t factor in much. As for the cheap/healthy/good aspect, it’s kind of subjective. We tend to cook from scratch and with a lot of produce, which usually fits the bill.
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?
1. Roasting vegetables concentrates their flavor, and makes such a difference in the end product. After a lifetime of boiled produce, it’s like discovering Oz. A little olive oil and a 425 degree oven will do wonders.
2. Peanut butter is inexpensive, full of protein, and tastes good on everything, up to and including your own finger.
3. Bananas are more versatile than you think. They’re cheap treats on their own, but go equally well in oatmeal, quickbreads, and pancakes. Monkeys knew what they were doing with this one.
4. Flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder: pretty much any baking ingredient goes a long way. You can whip up a muffin at home for a fraction of the retail cost, with absolutely none of the weird additives or preservatives. Plus, people like people who bake.
5. Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are must-haves. They create flavor and amplify it in other dishes. For pennies, that’s not too shabby.
Tell us about some of your experiments in the kitchen aimed at saving a buck. What worked? And what didn’t?
WHAT WORKED: Big breakfasts, an unending pot of chili, lots of fruit, and baking were all super helpful. However, the biggest success was slow-cooking a big hunk of meat in the beginning of the week. Our three-pound pork shoulder stretched to fill tacos, top sesame noodles, and more.
WHAT DIDN’T: I bought a few brand name items (oatmeal, syrup, etc.), thinking they wouldn’t make much of a difference in the final cost. (Duh.) Canned beans were way more expensive than dried legumes, as well. Finally, there was a pasta dish on Day 2 that I’ve blocked from memory. Man, it was bad.
What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a supertight budget?
The biggest one: RS couldn’t grab snacks on a whim. We’re both used to taking food whenever we want it, so that inability to graze was a real drawback. Also, he missed the freedom of getting a beer and going to eat with friends. Since food is so social, you skip a lot of opportunities when you don’t have the cash. Finally, we live in a small Brooklyn apartment, meaning storage is minimal, at best. Buying in bulk, which could have saved mad dough, wasn’t an option.
What were you dying to splurge on and eat during the week?
By the end of the experiment, RS wanted beer, bacon, and a salad, not necessarily in that order. The guy ate a LOT of starches over the week, which tend to be the cheapest calories. It’ll be awhile before he wants a potato again.
When you told people about your food budget, what sort of reactions did you get?
Most people were pretty interested in the process, though our roommates thought we were loco. One or two friends were like, “No beer? No way. Get out of here, heathens.”
What’s interesting is there are many, many people – with kids, no less – feeding themselves on far fewer ducats. Comparatively, we’re amateurs.
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?
A few things:
Cooking is absolutely necessary for eating inexpensively and well.
Eating whole foods will almost always be cheaper and healthier than buying prepackaged food products.
Including produce was harder than we thought, and that made us more sympathetic to people of limited means.
It’s easy to overindulge on food when you’re afraid you’re not getting enough.
The freedom of eating what you want, when you want it is a hard thing to lose.
MORE FOOD Q&As:
How to Eat Well on $50 a Week
How to Cook with Under a Buck: A Talk with the 99-Cent Chef
How to Cook Like a Gourmet — When You’re Broke
How to Really Stretch a Dollar: The 15 Meals for $15 Challenge