If you’re heavily reliant on Seamless, or even the bodega around the corner, to provide most of your meals, you probably know by now that you’re throwing a way a huge portion of your hard-earned money on take-out. If you’re not a cook, even preparing a few basic recipes (that don’t really require actual cooking) can help you save a bunch of cash, and be healthier!
You can do that with help from Leanne Brown, who wrote and developed recipes for Good and Cheap: How to Eat on $4/Day, a free guide to eating well on budget. While the book itself is a free PDF, Brown has also raised over $70,000 on Kickstarter to print hard copies of the book to sell to non-profits that work with SNAP families and other low-income people who might otherwise not see the book. Brown talked to us about how the project got started, how you can still buy organic on a budget and what to start off making if you think you lack culinary skills.
How did this project start?
LEANNE BROWN: It began as my Master’s project at the NYU Food Studies program, which encouraged doing something that you’re passionate about. I was interested in the SNAP program (people are given a certain amount of money and budget for food). I wanted to make something that would have an impact outside of the classroom.
How did you calculate the $4/day budget?
I picked a neighborhood in NYC to survey the grocery stores. I chose Inwood, because it’s diverse, with low income families, but not a food desert, and plenty [of food] is available there. I made a huge list of pantry items that are really good cheap foods like grains and dry beans as well as basic vegetables and fruits. I then made a spreadsheet with average price per pound or kilogram to find the cheapest solutions.
$4/day is $28/week. How is that possible?
You need to strategize. You can have something cheap in the morning, like a grain, and then you can splurge on a kale salad for lunch or dinner.
That sounds perfect, but not everyone has time to survey all of their neighborhood grocery stores. How do you suggest we save money while grocery shopping?
First of all, don’t buy drinks, they’re a waste of money. Even juice is a waste because it isn’t satisfying. Milk is alright though. I always says that cooks are the ones who create the value. Buying something like prewashed spinach is much more expensive than bunch of spinach on the stems, and you can cut it and wash it yourself — and get a lot more for your $4.
What are some cheap stables to keep at home, and how much do they usually cost?
Eggs! They vary a lot, and can be as cheap as a $1 a dozen or as much as $6 for the organic/local ones, but they’re worth paying a little more for. The way conventional eggs are farmed is hard on the environment and pretty horrific for the chickens. Even at $6 we are talking about only $0.50 per egg and the quality is way higher. It’s still great value for money.
Dried beans are an incredible value and so are grains like oats, rice and quinoa. Dried beans are usually about $2 per pound and they expand to 4 times that size when they are soaked and cooked. So you are really getting 4 lbs of beans for $2. As for grains, they vary in price. White rice is incredibly cheap, especially if you buy a large amount, but so is brown rice and other more nutritious whole grains when you think in terms of value for money.
And is it possible to buy organic and healthy food on that budget?
It’s more difficult, but definitely possible if you prioritize it. Think in terms of value rather than sticker price. For example, buy a big tub of plain organic yogurt rather than the single serving containers of the sugary fruit flavored stuff. Essentially, if I had to choose one bit of advice for buying organic food on the cheap it would be to buy organic whole foods, not organic snacks and processed foods. Organic veggies, fruit, cheese, eggs and meat are expensive, but organic frozen waffles, or bags of already popped and flavored popcorn are REALLY expensive and aren’t good value. Buy organic popcorn kernels and pop your own. Add some grated Romano and a little salt and pepper and you’ve got a snack that would cost $4.50 from a bag for $1 at home—even if you buy organic.
Your book has a lot of recipes, but even the word recipe can be intimidating to non-cooks. How can they start to use your book?
Start really simple, like with a sandwich or panini. If you can make a sandwich, you can make a salad. Recipes without exact measurements are tougher to mess up. When you get the hang out that, you can move on to something a bit more advanced.
“Good and Cheap” is available as a PDF and can be downloaded straight to your computer, for recipes for everything from breakfast to dinner and plenty of bites in between. And follow Melissa for more ways to both eat and save money at @melissabethk