Anyone Can Make Healthy, Delicious Meals on a Food-Stamp Budget
January—the month of new beginnings. You may decide to kick off the year with a cleanse or other detox regimen, or a resolution to eat clean, or to cut back, for the umpteenth time, on sugar. Go for it!
Or not. Like a number of people I connected with over the holidays, you might not be all that interested in giving things up, in restricting your diet, but rather broadening it to include a greater variety of foods. This also makes room in your life for a modest-sounding but very sustainable goal: kicking the restaurant and take-out habit and instead buckling down to cook healthy, delicious meals—and saving your hard-earned money in the bargain.
I’m very fortunate in that I love to cook and often work from home. I can have a pot of soup (one winter favorite is chicken and brown rice, the ultimate throw-together) simmering on a back burner while I’m typing as fast as I can. That said, I don’t have the time or wherewithal to produce complicated meals. So during the week, I rely on easy dishes that don’t require much attention (see above parenthetical) or quick scratch suppers that keep body and soul together—broccoli rabe with pasta and olives, for instance. Generally speaking, weekends are for slightly more ambitious food, whether a company dish such as Chicken Marbella or something that yields dividends in the form of leftovers—a big batch of turkey chipotle chile, say. A few quart containers of that in the freezer is like money in the bank.
It’s true that cooking budget-friendly meals at home requires a certain skill set—it helps to feel at ease in the kitchen; have a sharp, decent knife and a few other basic tools; and collect a repertoire of accessible, affordable recipes that are both dependable and lend themselves to improvisation. But it can be done, even if you came to cooking late in life and/or are limited to a paltry $4 a day per person to spend on food—about the size of the budget allowed by SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), which averaged nearly 45.5 million participants in September 2015. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Untold millions more—in particular, retirees and students—live under similar constraints,” writes Leanne Brown in the introduction to Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, a bright, beautiful, welcome addition to the earnest yet all too often uninspiring (or worse, condescending) culinary literature geared to people of extremely limited means. “There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes. Money just needn’t be one of them.”
“Eating on a limited budget is not easy, and there are times when a tough week can turn eating into a chore,” Brown continues, adding, “I hope the recipes and techniques in this book help make those times rare and tough choices a little more bearable.”
Brown’s book originally appeared as the capstone project for her master’s degree in food studies at New York University. After she posted a free PDF on leannebrown.com, it went viral, and so far it has been downloaded more than 900,000 times. Brown also launched a Kickstarter project to fund a print run, using a “get one, give one” system (à la TOMS) so that people who bought a book for themselves could donate another copy to a family in need. More than 5,000 generous contributors enabled Brown to include 20 new recipes and self-publish the first edition. The book on my desk, a second edition published by Workman, boasts 30 more recipes, and donated books are distributed through food charities, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Chapters range from breakfast to dinner and include ones on soups and salads, snacks and other small bites, drinks and desserts (caramelized bananas costs a mere 70 cents for two), and big-batch recipes that reach beyond the usual tomato sauce and chili to spicy pulled pork and pierogis. There are sections on developing supermarket strategies; stocking the pantry with inexpensive staples such as onions, garlic, canned whole tomatoes, pasta, whole grains, and rice; and giving leftovers a lift. “Ideas” pages delve into the improvisational nature of simple, taken-for-granted foods such as toast, oatmeal, or popcorn, and “Method” pages familiarize readers with processes a home cook can use over and over again, such as baked cornmeal-crusted vegetables—a great substitute for frozen french fries out of a bag that, with a easy dipping sauce, can also work as a pre-dinner bite.
One of the things I really like about the book, though, is that it’s a terrific reminder of how varied and various our diet should be, and that cooking from cultures all over the world does not have to be expensive or difficult.
In Peanut Chicken and Broccoli with Coconut Rice (total cost $9; serves six), a homemade peanut sauce ($3/cup) and nutty, fragrant coconut milk elevate a basic chicken and broccoli stir-fry. Indian Chana Masala—total cost $3 for two servings, and about $1 more if you use canned chickpeas—turns a bowl of rice into a protein-rich meal. Tofu Hot Pot (total cost $7.20; serves four) is fresher and better than what you’ll find at your local take-out joint, and the addition of toasted sesame oil adds complexity (I’d stir it in at the end of cooking for more depth of flavor).
And I was delighted to see a version of Filipino Chicken Adobo (total cost $10.40; serves eight), contributed by Tony Pangilinan, who grew up on food stamps after his family immigrated from the Philippines “with nothing but four suitcases and a lot of dreams.” Culinarily speaking, the Philippines is one of the world’s great melting pots, with Malay, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and indigenous influences, and the great thing about an adobo (Spanish for “preparation” or “sauce”) is that it acts as a marinade, cooking liquid, and, when thickened, a tangy, clean-tasting sauce. Fabulous bang for the buck, in other words.
Brown is also a proponent of spending money, if you can swing it, on ingredients that are worth the price, such as good-quality eggs, butter, and extra-virgin olive oil. I’m reminded of something the great food writer Laurie Colwin wrote way back in 1987, in the introduction to Home Cooking, a compilation of essays first published in Gourmet: “These are the accessories of cooking, the culinary equivalent of the beautiful handbag or wonderful shoes that make everything else look better.”
And so what’s for supper this evening chez Lear? We’re having one of the easiest, most economical suppers I know—spaghetti with onions. Aside from some of that good olive oil, salt, and pepper, it requires just two ingredients. We’ll eat well tonight, and for next to nothing.