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Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – overview

The most valuable lesson I learned on Chowhound is don’t settle ... demand deliciousness … no matter what your circumstances … how little or much money you have … despite time and health restrictions … seek out … be passionate about … eating the best in your situation.

So partly my month-long experiment to eat the best I could on $3 a day is an homage to that.

It really was two fold

- too many people … hounds and press … complain that the SF Ferry Plaza Market is too expensive and precious

- inept politicians and reporters who spend a week on a welfare budget … $3 a day … and report back they are forced to eat junk food.

Neither is true. I wanted to document that.

I was tired of the constant arguments … yes Ferry Plaza is too expensive … not it isn’t … well, here’s proof that one can eat deliciously and healthily for $3 a day … even at Ferry Plaza.

I’m not only eating what is allowed by the government food stamp program, only sticking to that $3 daily budget.

However, when grocery shopping I noted much of what I bought was food stamp approved. There are labels in California markets on what is approved by the local food stamp program, WIC. Also many farmers markets take food stamps. So I would guess 90 percent of what I bought was within food stamp guidelines.

I didn’t take advantage of food give-away programs like churches or food banks. I am not taking food out of the mouths of the needy, no matter how briefly, for my experiment.

Every circumstance is different.

Some neighborhoods have absolutely no decent markets. Some people don’t have a car. Some people have very little time, though I tried to address that. Some people don’t have the health to shop or cook. Some people don’t have enough food education to put together recipes.

It helped that I had internet access and could plug in ingredients into Google and search. Some people don’t have a computer or easy internet access.

However, I’m going with the 90 percent rule. This could be possible for most people given some food education.

And you know what? It was an education for me. I found I could cook deliciously despite limited skills. Also left to my own, my menus would have been a lot less varied and creative. I can live for months on oatmeal for breakfast and chicken soup for dinner.

That is fine, but then I look for something interesting to eat … baked goods, ice cream, snack foods.

I’ve always struggled with diet, yet this week I actually had trouble eating all this food. The variety satisfied my cravings and I was often full and satisfied. I actually dropped some planned items because it was just too much food for me.

So if nothing, I educated myself about eating better.

Also I tried to focus on fresh produce and healthy meat and fish. No salt-laden gloppy tuna casseroles with canned soup, cheap boxed mac & cheese, hot dogs, spaghetti, bologna sandwiches, bargain cookies.

I’ll post a weekly menu and ‘recipes’ (they are simple and hardly recipes). At the end of four weeks I’ll post the month’s grocery list with prices.

This is a bit about week one shopping as an example of strategy …

Raley's $2 organic chicken, 10 cent organic fennel at Giovanni's & other finds
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/420167

Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – Week 1 menu and recipes
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/420877

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  1. Not to be overly critical of you, but there are other factors that make eating on $3/day problematic: long work hours, caring for family members, living on $3/day week in and week out.

    How many hours a week do you work? I've always assumed that you focus your free time on food, but you do seem to have an inordinate amount of time to scout out food resources. I think that there's a big difference between eating on $3/day for a week voluntarily and doing it because you don't have any more money than that. I'd guess that someone forced to eat on $3/day, is a lot more concerned about other problems than how to eat well.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chocolatetartguy

      " I'd guess that someone forced to eat on $3/day, is a lot more concerned about other problems than how to eat well"

      Not if you are a Chowhound.

      I did say in the OP that it would be a 90 percent situation. However, don't throw out the baby with the bath water ... hmmm ... maybe better ... don't throw out the fish stock with the fish heads.

      I tried to address the time issue ... mainly because I can't stand cooking. Despise it.

      I spent the first Saturday shopping, packing, cooking and freezing. I spent another half day putting together meal plans.

      For the next two weeks I will spend exactly 2 hours a week on food. I did all the heavy lifting that first day.

      Each Saturday will be the food trip ... Giovanni's on the way to the El Cerrito farmers market. Back to Grocery Outlet and home. That will mainly be for lettuce, veggies and fruit. If the weekly ads for Raley's, Safeway, Albertson's, Walgreen's or Longs turn up anything exceptional, I'll make a pit stop. The ads get delivered to my house on Wednesday and take about 10 minutes to scan.

      Scouting out food has been a something I've done over the years. In two years in this area, when I had time I stepped in every market near me ... almost. In those 10 minute stops I know where to get the best area deals. Food Barn was a recent find. I passed that place for two years and never knew how great it was in there.

      As to time, there are farmers markets every day of the week. Markets like FoodMax are open 24/7. The latter would not be my choice, but there is decent enough food there at a discount.

      Currently I have the luxury of working from home. I spent years working long hours while taking care of a family member getting two hours sleep. There was the year on Thanksgiving that I was sadly shopping at Safeway at 4 am for Thanksgiving that day worrying how I was going to defrost the frozen turkey in time for dinner that day.

      I've had long broke stretches. I hate Don Pedro coffee to this day because at one time it was all I could afford ... $3 a can on sale at Cala Foods ... used a double-off $1 coupon ... can of coffee = $1.

      My grandmother ... who was a better woman than I will ever be ... raised 3 children, worked in a factory 10 hours a day six days a week ... not only made all meals from scratch ... even stuff like pierogi which to me is a major pain ... she GREW all her own veggies, canned them, took care of chickens ... and the family never had a car until the kids grew up. Lets discuss the good old days. Miracle woman? Hardly. She once said that sometimes getting up at 4am to get things done, she would have to hold onto the wall because she was so exhausted and dizzy.

      Yes, there are times when life interferes. I said that. Even living on the edge and planning well there is that month where there's an emergency or illness and it throws off your life for months. If lucky, you get back on track.

      This doesn't work for everything and everyone. But why not explore how it can be done rather than finding all the obstacles. Better to see how to get around the barriers, no?

    2. rworange...I salute you...AND I think you should (I try to avoid this word with people other than my own sons, heh-heh!) go forth and TEACH people who NEED to know all of this...how to go about it? Not sure. Do you even want a new job? Not sure. Very inspiring...thanks!

      Wait, chocolatetartguy...but eating well is the key (or one of the keys) to GOOD HEALTH! right? We all benefit when we and others eat well! <stepping down off soapbox>

      15 Replies
      1. re: Val

        Well, I did post it on Chowhound which might help a few people look at it from a different angle.

        Actually, I'd like to get involved in some sort of volunteer activity helping people to learn how to eat better.

        There's a woman in Hayward who owns Curry Corner and says you can make delicious meals by using five ingrediants. So far she talks to the teens who drop by the restaurant and tells them how they can easily make their own meals. She said for some of those kids, raised on junk food, it is a revelation.

        She wants to eventually find a place to teach free cooking classes to low-income families so they can eat better. I guess I'd like to get involved in some sort of program on showing people how to shop better. Or getting together something that gets people to the good food. Maybe setting up rides to markets. I know I could make shopping fun, interesting and delicious. Lots of people just don't know.

        Like you, how to go about it. Not sure. Actually there are a few programs I know of. Maybe its time to give them a call and see what I can do.

        1. re: rworange

          Have the Haywayd lady contact Mary Risley at Tante Marie's Cooking School in SFO to get help and steered in the right direction. Mary Risley is very active in all areas of food social policy. Risley was one of the earliest founders of programs that pick up "extra" food from restaurants, hotels, etc and deliver it to social service agencies (battered women's shelters, drug re-hab programs, etc) to free up the agency budgets for additional programs while providing delicious meals. Here in Phoenix, ours is called "Waste Not" and Risley was a great help getting the very early nuts & bolts in place. Years ago, I taught low-cost cooking classes to small groups - usually women - through a private social service group (Interfaith) that served as a safety net where AZ's programs do not reach. Grocery shopping was one of our most productive and soughtafter lessons. A particularly useful lesson was taking the money a bag of chips and Big Gulp costs and turning it into dinner for four. Good Luck, this is a great project.

          1. re: Sherri

            Thanks for the tip. I will definately pass it on.

          2. re: rworange

            I'd like to do the same thing! We've had a project going here to address the causes of poverty and help bring people out of poverty. We decided one of the things we'd like to do is help people learn how to cook good food on a limited budget. We have a little task group set up, myself, my church organist who just retired about a year ago as the hospital's dietician, and a friend of mine who is a retired nurse and also a diabetic. But that's as far as we've gotten at this point.

            My husband's 17-year-old grandson has been with us again this summer. last summer he was here from the end of June until mid-August, and he and I cooked together almost every day. One of the things I taught him when he was first here was how to make mac & cheese from scratch. He went home last summer and made it for his family. He's one who is going to benefit from learning how to make stuff from scratch because he's the only person in his family who cooks, and he is being raised by a single mom with two other kids, so there's not a whole lot of cash to throw around.

            1. re: rworange

              I am a social worker that works with early adolescents. It amazes me how many are happy when I bring fresh apples or watermelon as a treat. Not to mention, I had students one time make homemade pizza as part of a recreation activity. I will have to say that they were the most well behaved, attentive group. Sure I bought the TJ's $1 fresh dough and the pizza sauce, but allowed them to see what other toppings they wanted (many wanted mushrooms, olives, peppers, ham and pineapple) and to cute up and top themselves. When I did that activity as a "reward" for students, they were excited about what would be next. Many children, let alone adults, don't have the time, patience or skill to cook dinner. Many just want help with where to begin, such as with menu planning, where to find the best deal on foods, budgeting, how to handle raw chicken, etc. I wish home ec was back in the schools in some way. I still remember making something in 6th grade home ec with powdered milk... anywho, I also went so far as to have the students plan, budget, and prepare a thanksgiving dinner for their families (like making mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, biscuits, salad, etc).. it became an annual tradition for about 4 years where I last worked. It didn't take much on my part, but it was amazing to see how much the students gained in that one activity. so, off my soap box.. I have seen some programs for adults/children on planning, budgeting, etc, but again it is an issue or time, priority and availabilty... I still will continue to see what you do each week and see what I learn, and what I can pass onto the families that I work with. thanks for your time and effort in this project.... (kind of reminds me of the book "Julie and Julia")

              1. re: Mel

                There have been a number of comments about mothers with small children being too overwhelmed to shop and cook well. I agree with you that kids like being involved in some part of the process.

                Make it a game. I glance at the small markets as I drive by to scope out any bargains. Make that a game. If kids enjoy playing 'spot the license plate' why not 'spot the bargains' on the ride to the market. Yeah, silly and won't work with kids under reading age. However, it keeps them occumpied and might result in savings.

                Some of my menu is a little prissy and wouldn't appeal to kids ... I was going for healthy and varied. I wanted to get beyond the mac and cheese bargain mentality. I'm still on the look out to have an amuse buche for one meal for my own ... amusement.

                So if there are kids and a budget there is the reality of peanut butter. But why not involve the kids in that too ... who can make the most interesting and tasty peanut butter sandwich by upping the deliciousnes ... peanut butter & raisin sandwich ... peanut butter with chili powder sandwich ... I don't know ... let the kids think of what they could do with what is available in the house.

                One lunch this week I had tea sandwiches ... it involved three slices of bread, cream cheese, marmelade, some radishes, a slice of ham. Tea sandwiches could work well for little girls with different types of toppings of their choice. Then you have lunch and a little tea party.

                Stuff like that. Just off the top of my head. Instead of looking at the kids as barriers, include them as a helpful part of the process by involving them and making it sort of a game.

                1. re: rworange

                  My thoughts about moms (or dads) with smaller kids wasn't so much about being overwhelmed as it was about getting their kids to eat certain things. (And please, please, please I don't want to get off into one of those tangents about picky eaters and parents, etc etc...lets just stipulate for this discussion that sometimes smaller kids don't want to eat certain things.) IE, you found the bunch of swiss chard for (i think it was) $1. You were able to use that find but a parent with, say, two kids under 6 years old might run into a situation where the kids refuse to eat it.

                  I'm not saying there may not be equivalent kinds of things and values like the swiss chard around...just that as soon as one starts adding other mouths and other people, it starts to get very much more complicated very quickly.

                  I applaud this effort of yours to learn more and to help educate the rest of us about some things and I'm following it with interest.

                  1. re: ccbweb

                    Really wasn't taking about you, ccweb. If you read through the multiple threads on this subject that comment comes up over and over.

                    Yeah, I definately agree about adding mouths would require different menu considerations. If my SO had been included, I would have had to go in a totally different menu direction to please his tastes. It would have been in budget and healthy and using fresh veggies, but a lot more basic.

                    There's nothing wrong with using frozen or canned veggies either. Just for the purposes of this experiment I wanted to see what I could do with all fresh.

                    Looking for some sort of recipe or another, I stumbled across this mac and cheese recipe that was made to get kids to eat some veggies. It is a healthier, high fiber, high calcium meal.

                    If I used elbow macaroni from the Mexican section of the market, the mac part would be 40 cents. Powdered milk, which wouldn't be noticable in this recipe would be about 40 cents. Have no clue about the cost of frozen brocoli but I remember buying it often on sale in my broke college days. There are cheese sales where shredded cheddar cheese is 3 for $5. Don't think this would use the whole package and the rest could be used for English muffin pizzas. Plain mustard could be used instead of dijon and white pepper ain't necessary.

                    8 ounces whole-wheat elbow noodles (2 cups)
                    1 10-ounce package frozen chopped broccoli
                    1 3/4 cups low-fat milk, divided
                    3 tablespoons flour
                    1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
                    1/2 teaspoon salt
                    1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
                    3/4 cup shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
                    1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
                    1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

                    Re-stated directions

                    Add pasta to boiling water and after cooking 4 minutes add package of frozen broccoli, cooking about 5 minutes more until mac & broc are tender. Drain

                    Simmer milk in another pot and add combined flour, garlic powder, salt and pepper, stirring until thickened. Remove from heat and add in cheeses and mustard until melted.

                    Add drained broccoli and pasta and cook a minute more until heated.

                    Yeah, it is more expensive than the 3 for $1 mac and cheese, but there is a veggie in there, it isn't salt and preservative-laden, and using sales I'll bet this dish could come in under $2.

                    A kid might not eat a bowl of oatmeal, but most would eat that same oatmeal combined with brown sugar and cinnamon and topping a fruit crisp.

                    So my menu isn't meant to be a template on what to eat, only how to think differently about what is possible for $3, adjusting for circumstances.

                    BTW, I made a KILLER dish out of that Swiss chard ... chicken, rice, garlic & Swiss chard. I was blown away ... couldn't believe it ... Each bite was ... oh my this is good. It was also pretty with the green leaves and red stems.

                    The bonus was this made TWO main entrees out of a chicken breast. When I saw the recipe said 'serves two' ... I thought ... I don't think so. Seriously ... it was two large servings. I had enough chard left over to make three Swiss chard side dishes ... that was one huge bunch of chard for $1.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Oh, I know you weren't addressing anything to me :) I hadn't written on this thread yet. I didn't mean to offer my thoughts as a correction...i meant it literally. And I also wasn't suggesting that you would engage in the picky eaters debate here, that was a general plea to everyone.

                      In thinking about your experiment, I am just also trying to think about how this sort of thing (small budget, etc) would play out in differing circumstances. Not that one is better or worse and not that it means what you're doing has less value, just as a way to think about it all.

              2. re: rworange

                My dad volunteers at Western Service Workers in Oakland. It's an organization to help the working poor; people who have jobs but are barely making it. He has nothing to do with the food side of the organization, but he told me yesterday that people often donate food and then the volunteers have to figure out what to do with it. Yesterday they had a big box of cookies (not really what they need) and another box of very stale, almost unusable, bread. However, they also get veggies from local community gardens. Anyhow, I thought of you. You certainly could give them advice about how to make the most of very little.

                1. re: Glencora

                  Thanks. I'll look into it.

                  I am truly pleased with myself today. For $2.75 I made ... 6 servings of fresh strawberry rhubarb gelatin (it is AMAZING) , strawberry ruhbarb crisp, strawberrry rhubarb aqua fresca ... and for breakfast this morning ... oatmeal meal with fresh strawberries ... oops ... forgot to factor into this the cost of the oatmeal which was 20 cents ... 10 cents worth of oatmeal for breakfast and the other 10 cents for the crisp.

                  And this was with top quality Ferry Plaza fruit.

                  Of course, none of this would work for Western Workers Services, but I'll bet I could figure out some things to do with what comes in. Maybe that was the whole point of this for me personally ... to find out where my passion for eating well would be helpful to others.

                  1. re: Glencora

                    Savory bread pudding or strata. Of you could grind up the bread and use it for bread crumbs to stretch ground beef in meatloaf or meatballs.

                    Is there still government cheese and butter?

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Yes, gov't cheese & butter are still distributed through the commodities program. Gov't cheese makes killer mac/cheese.

                      1. re: Hungry Celeste

                        Yeah, I just got some cheese thru someone who is on public assistance but doesn't eat mac & cheese

                        --before someone calls me an opportunistic bastard, I'd like to state for the record that I give this person lots of garden veggies.

                    2. re: Glencora

                      Sounds like a big batch of bread pudding to me....smash up those cookies, rip up the bread, soak w/egg & milk & sugar (maybe not, 'cause of the cookies). Bake. A delicious dessert with decent nutritional value (eggs, milk, bread is usually vitamin-fortified).

                2. The original comment has been removed
                  1. rworange, I think you might be my hero. This is awesome. I agree with others who have suggested that you share your ideas and strategies with people who really don't know what else to do on food stamps or a limited budget.
                    I agree with the posts below, that that politician was clearly trying to present a very one-sided piece of it, and I totally agree that it is certainly possible, with some cleverness and persistence, to eat very well very cheaply. But I would disagree with the idea that A) funding for food stamp programs should not be increased and B) that if you can't figure out how to feed your family cheaply without resorting to fast food, then you're somehow lazy. Consider:
                    1. Many poor people are working at least two jobs at once, sometimes three
                    2. In urban neighborhoods, a lot of the time those convenience stores that mark up the prices and sell crap are the only places poor people can get to easily if they don't have cars--at the end of a long day, if given the choice between navigating public transportation to a supermarket + carrying back loads of groceries versus walking a few blocks to get a quart of milk or a bag of chips, it's pretty tempting to just go to the neighborhood market.
                    3. Culture is rarely taken into account. Particularly for many immigrant communities, but also for many urban poor, the foods that many families grew up eating were designed for lifestyles in which food was less plentiful and therefore had to be more caloric and where physical labor was more a part of everyday life. In addition, a lot of people from poor or rural areas of other countries can sometimes see buying Wonderbread or McDonald's or whatever as a mark of being a "real American" and so think that eating it is a sign of having assimilated and moved on up.
                    4. MOST PEOPLE AREN'T CHOWHOUNDS. We've had years and years now of processed and convenience foods eroding most people's memories of how to feed themselves. And as someone said in this thread, this is not a problem that is strictly for poor people. The food industry has gone out and tried to make us completely beholden to processed foods, and the result is that many people in the boomer generation didn't really learn how to cook, and thus less people in their children's generation can cook, because who was going to teach them? I think those of us who love to cook and do it skillfully and easily often forget that it IS a skill, and it takes a long time of experimenting and learning how to do it right, which is something that can be really daunting when you're drained of energy from family and work responsibilities. Not to mention that many of the "educational" programs that are in place now are incredibly condescending and basically send parents the message that they're incompetent and bad parents. If I went to a program to try to tell me how to feed my kids better and I was told (probably by someone from a totally different neighborhood than me) that I was a bad parent, I'd probably not want to go back, but that's just me.

                    But the major problem seems to be, on top of everything else, that the food industry has ruined the country's taste buds. Grandparents, parents and children have grown up eating sugary, fatty, empty calorie crap, and so a lot of good, healthy, wonderful food just tastes bad to a lot of people (again, this cuts across class and culture). I'm saying this from the perspective of someone who's been doing work in trying to get kids to eat better at school--it's a nightmare. Particularly children who've grown up eating junk get really pissed when you take away their french fries and chicken nuggets and give them roast chicken and vegetables, and they will dig in their heels and refuse to eat it. If you're a stressed-out parent with little time or resources and you just want to make sure your kid is eating something, you end up giving in (even foodie parents do this in the face of little ones who will only eat foods that are white, beige, or fluorescent orange).

                    So while I agree that people need to re-prioritize, turn of the TV, and invest in some thoughtful time learning how to shop, cook, and eat, I think it's not as simple as just saying people need to take personal responsibility. There are a lot of factors working against many people, and they need to be taken into account.

                    I think having people like rworange, using their energy and creativity to come up with foolproof strategies, and then sharing them with others is definitely a step in the right direction though. This is really, really great.

                    1. RW-

                      Thank you so much for sharing your fine experiment with us! I've been eating well and frugally for a lifetime. I've thought of a few tips you haven't mentioned-

                      - Old cookbooks, especially Depression era cookbooks, will have budget-wise recipes made with "natural" ingredients. There weren't many packaged foods then. You'll learn how to gussy up food for crowds & company and how to use the same ingredients in dozens of different ways. I've a 1935 Sunset's Hostess Handbook for Western Homes that includes stunningly simple recipes and menus.

                      - Left-overs can save both money and time. You mentioned putting food in the freezer - what about the fridge? Cook double the amount of veggies and use the next day - with salad dressing or in soup or omelet/frittada or quesadilla. Leftover bread can be made into croutons, crumbs, bruschetta, toasted sandwiches, bread salad, a fruit betty, cinnamon toast or bread pudding. Chips from pita bread or tortillas (just bake in toaster oven) are tastier and healthier than packaged ones.

                      -If you have a glut of one thing like jumbo zucchini go to the library for a vegetable or squash cookbook. Be sure to look too for ethnic cookbooks that would include the overabundant ingredient. Not all beets need be borscht - pickled beets, beets in yogurt, grated beets with orange and mint. As you mentioned, flavors can be easily changed. Poor people have been doing it for generations. And vegetarian cookbooks often have great ideas for combining veggies with grains and/or beans.

                      - As above - search the net for new recipes before you lose your taste for any overabundant food.

                      - One of the biggest money savers is bringing your own. Don't leave home without a snack. A little insulated lunchbox and a blue ice will save big money. Fill your water bottle or make tea before leaving home and you'll save more.

                      - In fact, over 20% of the family food budget is for beverages. Just switching to water or bulk tea will cut expenses by 20%. And if one cuts out sugar sodas, the health benefits will be noticable too. :)

                      - Of course you won't always want to eat alone - potlucks are a great source of variety. Perfecting the $1 potluck dish would be worth it. I bet it can be done.

                      Thank you for making me think about this fascinating topic.
                      Stephanie