This is the last week on the food stamp challenge. In the end, our bellies are full, we maintained a tight budget – going over by only $1.05. And, while far from optimal, our meals were nourishing, satisfying, wholesome and healthy. Aside from this week’s splurge on conventional gala apples priced at only $0.49 per pound, we maintained our original principles: purchasing the highest quality unrefined foods on our minimal budget. We enjoyed a wide and varied assortment of meals this month: roasts, mussels in broth, salmon, cornish hens, beans with olive oil, plenty of mixed green salads, loads of vegetables and we did so affordably.
That’s not to say such a challenge was easy – far from it. Traveling to the store, shopping, researching brands and pesticide levels, planning out meals and menus in excruciating detail all takes enormous energy and time. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Time is as great a luxury as money.
This month has not been without its compromises. While we never added conventionally raised beef to our basket, we did settle for antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. We didn’t settle for canned goods as the processing reduces nutrient content, and never purchased frozen foods as they’re not as affordable as they seem. We even managed a handful of local foods including winter squash.
What We Missed The Most
In the first week to two weeks of the challenge, I found I missed the luxuries the most – raw milk artisan cheeses and fair trade chocolate. I’d grown accustomed to luxuries and forgotten that luxuries are just that – rare treats, not everyday indulgences. That initial sense of want eventually faded, and we missed more practical things: cinnamon for the oatmeal, chili powder for the beans and other seasonings that can bring a little life to the supper table. And there was simply no room to breathe in a budget this small; don’t get me wrong: our bellies were full and we enjoyed some beautiful, low-cost meals but a little bit of breathing room is a good thing. Lastly, with a budget this restrictive, there’s no opportunity to build a pantry or to take advantage of low-cost, bulk pricing.
Myths Surrounding Low-cost Cooking
The cost food varies from region to region, but, in our experience some of the low-cost standbys fulled false. Frozen foods, for example, are often heralded as affordable foods; however, when calculated on a penny-per-ounce basis, they’re often more expensive than fresh produce on sale. Neither do you have to settle for beans and grains. While they certainly help to round out the menu, beans and grain need not be the staple of a low-cost meal plan. Indeed, fruits and vegetables served as the largest volume of our diet on the affordable menu just as it does on the months when we are watching the pocket book so vigilantly.
What frustrated me the most; however, was that I often spent more money purchasing less than optimal foods at the grocery store than I spend purchasing them through alternative means. Grain-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, while better than standard conventional meats, is a far cry from its grass-fed counterpart. To add insult to injury, it’s more expensive too. I can purchase grass-fed meat for less than the cost of natural beef at the grocery store. Similarly, grass-fed lamb is considerably less expensive when purchased farmer direct than the grain-fed lamb available at the grocery store. Apples, turnips, greens and seasonal produce are far more affordable purchased farmer direct than they are when purchased at the grocery store. The problem, in our area, is that farmers markets, buying clubs and natural foods store do not accept EBT thus making these foods largely inaccessible to recipients of supplemental nutritional assistance program benefits. That is a problem that needs fixing.
Maximizing Nutrition, Minimizing Cost
In the end, while being thrifty in our purchases – focusing on sales, manager’s specials and, to a lesser degree, coupons certainly helped to maintain a low budget; however, the true saving grace was mindful use of the food in our kitchen. Using ever bit is not a novel solution to low-budget cooking, but it is an oft-forgotten one. Bones and vegetable scraps make broth. Bread crumbs season vegetables and meats. Rendered fat adds fat-soluble nutrients and flavor. Lastly, painstaking attention paid to menu planning helps to reduce waste.
A Word on Supplements
Should you need to grossly reduce your budget, be wise as to your nutrient intake. Meals tend to be repetitive and lack variety, thus minimizing the variety of micronutrients that your family can consume. Though whole food supplements can be expensive, it’d be wise to investigate a good whole food based multivitamin and add cod liver oil.
Download This Week’s Meal Plan and Recipes: Week 4