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Aug 8, 2007 05:32 PM

Conclusion - Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day

If reporters and politicians who chose to spend $3 a day on canned beans are on one end of the curve, I’m the other end.

Somewhere in the middle is the reality.

This was NOT meant to cover EVERY person or imply EVERYONE can do this. Only to show it could be done and done even when shopping at Ferry Plaza.

I have a car, flexible time, really great local markets, no significant family, easy access to a computer, good search skills for recipes, Chowhound input and a passion for food.

There are people who rely on public transportation, have small children, work multiple jobs, are ill, have terrible stores, are not Chowhounds etc, etc, etc.

This was just meant as a view of other possibilities. Some people could take advantage of that. Some can't ... not don't want to ... can't.

Yet still, I believe there are pieces of this that could be used by everyone to eat less expensively and better.

Yes, there are times when life interferes. 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?

My cooking skills are horrid. So a more knowledgeable cook would have done much better.

I was going for as fresh, easy and healthy as possible. So, I could have stretched things more by making muffins and other baked goods. Nothing is wrong with frozen or canned fruit and veggies. I just wanted to point out that even using fresh produce it could be done.

I think this may be the first time I ate 31/3 …all three meals made by me at home for 31 almost consecutive days. Definitely the first time a chocolate bar lasted me a month.

I had to take a day off the plan three days before the finish because a friend needed a sympathetic ear and invited me out to lunch. So I didn’t eat my $3 food on that day and just moved the finish date off one day. One day I did a thank you happy hour for another friend and added 2 oysters, fava beans, 1/2 sandwich and a beer to my 3 meals.

However, I was more faithful to this than any eating plan or diet in my life.

Otherwise it would not have been possible to easily track what I ate. What I reported is what I actually ate.

Portions were average size ... a whole chicken breast, or leg. Soup is a large bowl … at least 2 cups and more than a whole can of Progresso soup from the market. Salads have been rather large so a good deal of bulk comes from veggies.

Some dishes stretched a chicken breast or a piece of meat. The Swiss chard chicken made two LARGE meals out of a single chicken breast. It is surprising how little meat is needed to fill a taco, so one chicken breast or piece of steak equaled two taco meals. I got five meals out of that stupid salmon head.

As far as the hot portions of the meals go they are certainly a lot more than you'd get in a frozen dinner ... especially the veggie part

BTW … I have a really sucky metabolism … I didn’t lose an ounce. You would think I would have lost SOMETHING … sigh … time to reconsider exercise again.

The salads for me were hard. It was … sheesh … gotta make another salad. Yet, they were great fillers. In my leftover list, I blocked the fact that I still have Romaine lettuce left ... lots of it.

I wasn’t only buying food that is restricted to the food stamp program, since I’m not clear on that. However, probably 90 per cent of what I ate would have qualified from the little I know.

I’ve been broke in the past. So the reality is that some less than healthy food like chicken bologna, peanut butter, mystery meat chicken franks, more eggs, canned veggies and cheapo bread would be closer to reality.

So my menus weren’t meant to be a template on what to eat, only how to think differently about what is possible for $3, adjusting for circumstances. You may not like chard. I now know I’m not so crazy about fish heads. It is a matter of accommodating your own taste and adjusting to that. Look for bargains that line up with your tastes and try to make them as interesting as possible.

Eating on $3 a day is hardly easy. Without some food smarts, there is the fallback to the cheapest and worst food. Even highly educated politicians and reporters had no clue what to buy.

Three dollars a day is not adequate for the majority if people.

The first reply is about tips … the long-winded blah, blah, blah version of these tips …

- be flexible
- Take time to store things correctly and keep an eye on them
- Check out ethnic and small local markets
- Get to know the bargain markets
- Shop at farmers markets if possible
- Either buy little or buy big
- Reserve and reuse
- take advantage of coupons
- buy items on sale and pay attention to ads
- try a new item or recipe once a month
- have back up
- seek out and ask about bargains
- if a mistake is made, think of alternatives.
- misc


Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – overview

Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – Week 1 menu and recipes

Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – Week 2 menu and recipes

Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – Week 3 menu and recipes

Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day – Final 10 days

Shopping at Ferry Plaza on $3 a day … and other observations – bombolini?

Ferry Plaza vs. Albertson's (or any supermarket) prices

Raley's $2 organic chicken, 10 cent organic fennel at Giovanni's & other finds

Budget - Eating like a Chowhound on $3 a day … well, $3.35 … actually $2.85

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  1. TIPS


    Make a shopping list, but throw it out if the bargains are elsewhere. I had definite plans on what I would buy at Ferry Plaza … summer squash, summer fruit, etc, etc. However the bargains were the first fall apples, melons and peppers. I went with that.

    Buy what is the least expensive and figure out what to do with it at home. I never bought fennel in my life, but when Giovanni’s was selling organic fennel for 10 cents … I snapped it up and used it


    Glass Jars will keep berries, many herbs and other produce like summer squash fresh for weeks. One cut onion lasted two months in a glass jar.

    Celery will keep crispy for weeks wrapped in aluminum foil

    Keep an eye out to see if something is starting to go bad. A cucumber was looking iffy, so it was marinated it to make it last for a while. Take out any leaves on herbs that are wilting or yellowing. When some produce looks sad, cook it and freeze.


    Some of the biggest bargains were at local Mexican markets. The quality was equal to and often better than the supermarkets.

    Also check out the ethnic aisles at supermarkets. The same spices in the baking section are a fraction of the price in the Mexican section of the market. Cinnamon, oregano, etc is about 89 cents a bag. Thanks to Ruth Lafler for that tip.

    The Mexican section also has pasta that is absurdly inexpensive ... 39 cents for a 8 oz package. One week it was 5 for $1. It tastes like any other elbow macaroni, etc. . Pimento in the "regular" section is $1.29 for four ounces, in the Mexican section they have 7 ounce cans for 99 cents

    The other thing is that some of the Mexican food uses sugar instead of HFCS.

    Panaderias can be WONDERFUL for rolls and baked goods. Freshly made rolls are 25 cents each and slices of cake, scone-like muffins, sweet rolls, cookies are usually 3 for $1.

    Giovanni’s is a small neighborhood market that had some of the biggest bargains … 10 cent organic fennel, plums for 49 cents a pound … etc, etc.

    I thought I knew my local markets until this month. I really learned to appreciate Rincon Latino where small avocados were 25 cents, good onions were 3 lbs for $1 and pristine garlic was 79 cents for 5 bulbs. I’ll probably add this market to my regular shopping rounds.

    It never hurts to walk into a nearby little market that you've passed a zillion times when time permits and look around. Almost every place has something wonderful to keep in mind for the future. Look closely. There might be some real treasure.

    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.


    Most aren’t. However, finding a gem like Grocery Outlet has saved me major bucks.

    It is surprising that the stores you would think are least expensive ... aren't. FoodMax, a discount supermarket in my area, isn't much less expensive that the Safeway's, Raley's, etc ... and the quality still is lousy. Smart & Final ... not so smart. Yet FoodCO which isnt't that far away ... if you have a car .... is much better for overall shopping. The real deal in this area is Grocery Outlet has absurdly low prices but it can't be used for all shopping since the produce quality isn't that great and they have no meat counter.

    Pharmacies like Walgreens and Longs in my area have GREAT discounts on groceries like coffee, sardines, tuna, dried fruit, eggs, tomato sauce and other canned goods.


    Usually the prices are better than the supermarkets. More importantly, the produce is so much fresher and will last a lot longer. It isn’t rotting because it is being sprayed with water every hour.


    This is not conflicting info.

    Buy small quantities if something like a spice isn’t going to be used often.

    Buying small quantities is a way to add diversity to meals without adding a lot of money.

    Deli counters will sell a few slices of cold cuts or cheese. That allowed me to make some antipasto salads using a few slices of salami and cheese. Get a few olives from the olive bar. Butchers will sell the exact amount of meat needed. When I wanted a single slice of bacon, I didn’t have to buy a pound.

    I bought two or three pieces of five different types of dried fruit that allowed me to add variety to my oatmeal … one day it was oatmeal and dried peaches and another it was oatmeal and dates. A few walnuts from the bulk bin would have given me another option without a major cost.

    Spices in small quantities are incredibly inexpensive and add variety. A knob of fresh ginger was 9 cents. Two jalapeno peppers for taste were 7 cents.

    Although bulk goods aren't necessarily cheaper than pre-packed, you only have to buy as much as you need, which when you have a limited amount to spend on a weekly basis, helps meet the budget.

    The small eggs are a savings over the large size, sales excepted. I think that is why the organic eggs I bought were so inexpensive. I forget what size they were, but they were not large and most people want large eggs.

    If something is priced per pound, then buy smaller sizes to go for diversity. A small apple is just as tasty as the same apple that is bigger. Instead of one huge apple that lasts for one serving, buy two small apples, different varieties, for two servings.

    For items that are used often, buy the big size. A 20 quart box of powdered milk has a lower cost per serving than an eight quart box.

    If all the lettuce is $1, then find the largest. Watermelons on sale for $5 each … ditto … buy the largest.


    Sometimes I cut the crust off sandwiches to make croutons. I saved little bits of tomato and onion for salsa fresca. When I made sausage and peppers, I reserved a few slices of peppers for use in green salads. I had mushroom juices from sautéed mushrooms that I used to sauté a chicken breast which gave it a pleasant mushroom taste.

    Setting a few strawberries aside, I had those with oatmeal one morning.

    I marinated some mushrooms in oil, garlic and vinegar and then used the marinade as salad dressing.

    A single 20 cent slice of bacon was the gold standard for this. Never did more get done with one slice of bacon.

    The bacon slice was fried and drained on a slice of bread which was used to later make bacon croutons. The bacon was part of a egg salad club sandwich. the bacon fat was then used to fry ham and an egg for a sandwich. Then I threw a sliced sweet potato in and made home fries.


    I had a free 64 ounce apple juice because of a coupon.

    Double coupons are even better if markets in the area do that. ALWAYS use coupons when items are on sale for larger value

    Weekly store ads often have in-store coupons that can be used with manufacturers coupons.


    Items go on sale on regular cycles. Some of it is monthly, others every 2-3 months … like oatmeal or tuna. Mayo goes on sale at $2 regularly. Buy it then.

    Looking at the supermarket ads is a quick way to determine the best deals that week. All major markets have online access to that info.

    So if this was a part of real life ... there would be the month I needed to buy sugar but spread out over the year those long-lasting staples are easily absorbed into one month's budget or another.

    Also, maybe I don't need sugar in, say, September, but if someone has 5 lbs of C & H on sale for 99 cents, I'm buying it then ... seize the opportunity ... and the sugar.


    It makes things more interesting without taking up a lot of time. On my own I make the same thing over and over. For me a new recipe takes a lot of time, but once I have it down it is a no brainer the next time. Over the course of a year that’s a dozen new dishes.

    Buy a veggie or fruit you never tried before and learn what to do with it … especially the lower-priced items. My 10 cent organic fennel was the first time I ever bought it. The deal was outstanding and I learned about a new item.


    If Oatmeal is on sale, buy a couple, if possible so that you don’t run out before the next sale. If that isn’t possible, once half of something is used, start watching out for the sale on that item so you don’t have to buy it at full prices when you run out.


    Lots of bakeries, like the Bread Garden have marked down baked goods at the end of the day. Often a top class bakery mark-down is less expensive than cheap bread in a supermarket. In the SF Bay Area, Citizen Cake sells bread for half price at the end of the day. Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg has markdowns.

    For me, the marked down chicken and fish was the big saver for me this month. Most markets have corners with marked down produce and groceries. It never hurts to look and some is quite good. A local Safeway had bargain shelves where coffee was $2 a can.

    Most farmers markets have discounts at the end of the day.

    I shopped at that Raley's almost two years. If I wasn't checking out the store for bargains I still would have not known about the daily deal on chicken ... because I wasn't looking. There's lots of stuff like that if you look hard ... even in your usual stomping grounds.


    My orange marmalade didn’t work out the first time, but it made a nice addition to some gelatin I was making. I burnt some garlic by mistake. The olive oil was fine but I didn’t want to risk ruining a dish if it had a burnt taste. So I tossed some popcorn in the pot and had some delicious garlic olive oil popcorn.

    - MISC

    Use a spray bottle for olive oil and salad dressing. While it doesn’t spray as lightly as the cans from the supermarket, you will still use significantly less.

    I pulled these tips from other posts on this subject

    - 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

    - Left-overs can save both money and time. 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. 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 noticeable too.

    7 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      congratulations! and thanks for posting all your fabulous tips.

      1. re: rworange

        This is an absolutely amazing and excellent report. The information you posted is immensely valuable - even if you're not trying to live on $3 a day. I have seen too many young people (usually) living on utter garbage because they can't figure out how to feed themselves properly on a limited income. I don't know if you're a journalist or not (sorry - haven't been following your story from day one) but you should consider publishing this somewhere. It's brilliant stuff.

        P.S. Really - congratulations. This project was quite the feat. I am impressed.

        1. re: rworange

          K.... I am in awe of the effort you put into this. Great work.

          1. re: rworange


            I loved your experiment and appreciate your answer to my question about the rebound effect after dieting.

            Great suggestions. Another thing I learned from you is to keep track of prices (a little notebook?), so you know when you're getting a good deal.

            Another tip is to keep a list of what you have at home too. Maybe a couple mushrooms, slice of bacon, sprig of mint from a neighbor's yard is all you need for delicious pasta, sandwich or salad. We tend to think of shopping lists just for staples we need, not ways to use up what's at home. Waste is waste.

            Congratulations and enjoy the pancake crawl.

            1. re: rworange

              RW, this is very inspiring, even for someone who spends a whole lot more than $3 a day. almost every morning I stop at the espresso place in the lobby of my building (not a Starbucks but they use SB coffee which is almost as bad) and get a small latte. Cost: $2. I am going to use this as inspiration for bringing a thermo cup from home. Then once I get that down, will start bringing my lunch at least three times a week. The lunch options near my office are pretty sad, so better to save eating out dollars for the many great places near my home.

              Bummer about the weight loss thing though. Yes, sometimes I think exercise is the only way to lose weight, which can be discouraging for those of us who dislike exercise (though I find cutting out the calories in alchohol sometimes seems to work for me, but that might be because I eat less and exercise more when I don't drink),

              Thank you for the truly excellent work.

              1. re: rworange

                An excellent report. I have been enjoying your posts.

                The tip I have found most helpful is to be flexible. I try and go to the Farmer's Market with an open mind...and buy what's cheap/good. Same with my own local Raley's. Sometimes I will go there with absolutely NO idea what to make for dinner, and look for inspiration based on what's on sale. Yesterday they had some lovely looking boneless pork chops at 1.49 a pound, but they were in packs of eight. The two of us would never eat that many, and I'm not one to open a pack and then rewrap and freeze part. The butcher was stocking the shelves, and saw me admiring those porkchops. "They're really good" says he. Yeah, I answered, but I can't possibly eat that many....So he whisked the pack away and brought me back two, neatly packaged and less than 1.50 total....I bought some bok choy and mushrooms, used peppers from my home garden, and had a lovely stir fry for very little $$

                1. re: rworange

                  "single 20 cent slice of bacon was the gold standard for this. Never did more get done with one slice of bacon.

                  The bacon slice was fried and drained on a slice of bread which was used to later make bacon croutons. The bacon was part of a egg salad club sandwich. the bacon fat was then used to fry ham and an egg for a sandwich. Then I threw a sliced sweet potato in and made home fries."

                  That was utterly beautiful.... even people who don't NEED to lower their grocery bill... should consider the impact on environment, world hunger & sustainability.

                2. This is really great info. Better even than Tightwad Gazette, which I like and tried it for a few months -- until I met my match in a "pork picnic" from the Canned Foods store in the Mission and gave up. How did it feel cooking almost every meal for a month? Was that OK, fun, drudgery? This is a very ambitious undertaking. By the way, I just have to mention (ok, complain) that in New York (where I now live) food often goes bad within a day. Of course it's no news that the general condition of food in New York is aggravating, as is lugging it around on the subway, etc. Thanks again!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: KateC.

                    While cooking is never fun for me, it was satisfying for the most part. Also I was doing new things that kept me distracted. The only unpleasant part was when I was making up a recipe based on others. It was a little never wracking because if I guess wrong I was going to have to eat a crummy dish. Thankfully that really didn't happen.

                    Also, I didn't ruin as much as I usually do because I'm not paying attention. I had to make sure I didn't burn things.

                    Actually I'm more adrift right now. I don't have things planned and it's "now what do I eat?" I'm actually still in cooking mode. I want to make the recipe for egg salad gribiche from Chow with the actual ingrediants, because even the scaled back version was good.

                    However it was nice to hit the farmers market yesterday and buy what was most appealing instead of looking for the smallest sized item and calculating things to the penny. Even so, I made a friend with me comparison shop on the best deal in the market.

                    It was nice to buy that bag of bagged lettuce with edible flowers instead of a head of lettuce ... though I was tempted by a beautiful head of butter lettuce.

                  2. Hah, I hear you on the salads - have never been a salad person but need to eat lots of vegetables. I make a lot of stir fries, vegetables soups/stews, ratatouille, cook eggs on top of the green things, or put them on nachos.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: pepper_mil

                      Thank you for an excellent report, rworange!

                    2. Excellent. Very inspiring and educational. Thank you for all your posts on this worthwhile topic and for your dedication and thoroughness. You've left me with a lot to think about and with admiration for your great work, and reports.

                      1. Wow. Wow. Wow. How resourceful and inspirational. You're one smart Chowhound, rworange. Thanks for this. Just curious - do you still hate cooking? It's hard to believe when you seem to have such an intuitive sense of how to work with food.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: yumyumyogi

                          Thanks for reviving this, YYY; I hadn't caught it the first time around. Remarkable.

                          1. re: yumyumyogi

                            Thanks. Yep. Still hate cooking. Every now and then I'll do it when I get interested in something new. For a while it was lentils. Now it is heirloom beans. As long as things don't get too complicated or take too long I'm ok. However, I still prefer eating out.

                            I'm stuck with those stupid salads though.

                            After a month, eating a big green salad became a habit. Very filling. I am still struggling with the best way to wash, dry and store it. It just takes up too much of my time. I'll post separately about my lettuce tribulations after trying a few more things.

                            And I still will snag a super bargain when I see it. A local store was selling Target 4 liter wine cubes for $3.99.

                            Although I don't do it to the extent I did during the month, I find myself thinking of ways to re-use something that I might have thrown out before this.