For a month, I am eating on a budget of $4.46 per day ($31.22 per week), roughly the same budget a person in Bloomington, Indiana receiving food stamps would have to work with. Why am I doing this? Two main reasons: 1. To attempt to gain a tiny understanding of what it's like to eat on such a limited budget. 2. To force my culinary skills out of their comfort zone, make this budget work, and in turn teach others how cooking on a restrictive budget can happen for them.
I'm just over one week in. Obviously, this isn't an easy task (nor did I expect it to be), but I have never had such feelings of desperate attachment to things in my refrigerator. I've been trying to keep my eating relatively normal for how my cooking and meals usually run. Over the weekend I get some ideas for what I'd like to cook, check the fridge and pantry for what is already on hand, make a menu and then head to the store for a list of remaining ingredients. Invariably, this plan will change throughout the week. Worked late one night, picked up takeout on the way home. Had colleagues in from out of town, went out for dinner with them. Just didn't feel like cooking much so I whipped up some quick pasta instead of the meal I'd planned. Those days of tossing the plan are so over. For my time on this challenge, at least, my menu is my lifeline. That's how I know when I look in the fridge and see leftover chili and ketchup, I know I've got a plan for how to eat the rest of the week.
If I didn't already know how to cook, this would feel impossible. While shopping both this week and last, I had to do some last minute ingredient substitutions because of unexpected prices or lack of stock in the grocery store. If I wasn't able to do that on the spot, a skill I only have because of copious amounts of time spent in the kitchen and with my nose in cookbooks, I would have panicked. I would have ditched the recipe and reached instead for something I knew how the heck to make and had all the ingredients for or even something that I knew I could add just milk or water to for a meal.
This week's meal line up went a little something like this:
- Chili and cornbread kicked off the week. Easy and comforting, this wasn't much of a departure from how I was used to these turning out. Though I did make some substitutions to keep the chili cheaper, they were unnoticeable in the finished product.
- Next up were quesadillas. I'd wished I'd had more protein, but the peppers I had to use were great, so I didn't mind much.
- Then came the zucchini and corn pancakes. I had to alter the recipe because of a serious lack of flour and ended up with cakes that felt undercooked because there was so little flour to balance the eggs. Perfectly edible, but not terribly enjoyable.
- Then the pasta I meant to toss in olive oil, but realized I had next to no olive oil left for the week. I made it work, but was also much hungrier than usual with the cumulative effect of repeated 1400 calorie days that I wolfed down the entire thing, accidentally eating what was meant to be tomorrow's lunch.
- Then there was the lunch when all I ate was carrots. See what I mean by panic setting in when I stray from the plan?
Rather than continuing to post recipes as I go along, I'll be posting recipes the week after this challenge concludes so they are a better balance of low cost, little prep time and excellent taste and can hopefully be more useful to more people.
I'm heading into week two with some things on the menu that I'd normally be excited to make (Mom's broccoli and rice casserole), but cooking is beginning to excite me less and less. Nervous that if something goes wrong, I'll have wasted precious ingredients that I really, really needed. Feeling that if I have a craving, I can't try to ignore it, I have to. There's no margin for error when I'm in the store shopping and no room for exceptions when I'm cooking my meals. Sure does put a whole new perspective on cooking.
A couple of words on what it's like going to the grocery store:
Before I go shopping, I've been checking ads to determine where I will shop for the week. I make a list before I go, mark prices where I know them and estimate them when I don't. When I walk through the aisles there's a constant number in my head. "30.25," "29.00," "27.50" as I count down the amount of dollars I'm left to work with on any given trip.
But when I get to the checkout, I pay with cash and seem no different than most others in the store to the cashier or patron in line behind me. However, for those actually on food stamps it's not cash they pay with, it's a preloaded debit card that effectively identifies them as a food stamp recipient. When I hand over my cash, there's no judgement from anyone around (at least, not on how I'm paying for my purchase). When someone is actually on food stamps, there's no guarantee the cashier or person in line behind you won't make a snap judgement or utter a condescending remark. It's a part of the food stamp reality I am luck enough not to have to learn firsthand in this simulated exercise. There's an excellent post by food blogger Beth Sheresh on her blog kitchenMage about what she remembers from her days on food stamps and why this challenge isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. I found it quite impactful and helpful as I continue to gear up for the coming weeks of the challenge (especially this post on how to better make the challenge more like reality). What fantastic perspective this woman has and how grateful I am that she shared it. I encourage you to read it.