Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On What Food Stamps Buy and Cooking for One

Welcome to week two of the hunger challenge! Here's what my fridge is stocked with this week:

(from left): Apples, celery, broccoli, red peppers, peanut butter, milk, eggs,
butter, bacon, cheddar cheese, coffee, corn flakes, spaghetti, hot chocolate,
cream of chicken soup, cornbread mix and brown rice.

Everything pictured above (and everything I'm eating throughout this challenge) are things that I would be able to buy if I were paying with food stamps. So what can you buy on food stamps? Most food items are fair game, including fruits and vegetables, milk, cereal, yogurt, meat, frozen foods, etc. Even cookies, candy, snack crackers, chips and soft drinks are eligible. "Is it food? Then it's covered." is a good rule of thumb until you get to ready-to-eat food. If it's something you're eating in the grocery store or a hot food item, it's not allowed. No rotisserie chickens or soup from the salad bar. Alcohol of any kind is also out. Energy drinks are ok as long as there is a nutrition facts label on it. If it sports a supplement facts label, it's not considered a food item.

You can see while there are restrictions, there is room for choice. Generally, it's more expensive to purchase fresher, healthier foods than their processed counterparts, but there is opportunity to strike a balance if you're thrifty enough with your choices. However, I'm not yet ready to make any claims that I'm eating as nutritionally as I was before. That determination will come in once the month is complete and I can see my temporary diet in a bigger picture.

For the record, I'm following this challenge as if the cash I am using is a food stamp card. I am only buying items that would be eligible for purchase with food stamps, not eating out and not purchasing any alcohol.

I think the hardest part of this whole thing is that I'm cooking more or less for just one person. Economies of scale in the kitchen make larger recipes potentially more cost effective, especially when you're using ingredients you have to buy a minimum amount of. For example, bacon is on sale for $2.50 for a 1 pound package. I have to buy the whole package to get the sale price, but I only need half of it. Sure, I can freeze the other half for later use, but I had to spend $1.25 extra at that moment in time to get the bacon in the first place.

Now, I could take on this situation a la Steve Martin in Father of the Bride, but on account of not wanting to end up in jail, I pay for the entire package of bacon. However, when you're on a budget that is so tight, not having that $1.25 right then can make a big difference in what you're able to buy. Right now, $1.25 is more than I've paid for a can of beans, a loaf of bread or a box of cereal.

The same goes when you buy from bulk. I buy a lot of spices from bulk because it's cheaper for how much I need. I don't want to buy an entire jar of celery seed because the 1/2 teaspoon I need for this recipe is probably the only celery seed I'll need for six months. Why spend $5 when I can spend 5 cents and get the actual amount I need? See, bulk bins are great, right?! Great for some things. The half cup of flour I bought from bulk last week only cost me 15 cents. A 5 pound bag costs less than two dollars. At that rate, buying a bag's worth of flour from bulk would cost me around $5.62, almost triple what it would cost me to buy an equivalent 5 lb. bag.

So what does that mean for how I'm eating? It means my meals are repetitive. I make a casserole that serves 8, because it costs less per serving than making one that serves 4. Even if I freeze half of it, that's still 4 servings of the same casserole that I'm chowing down on day after day. Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful to have the casserole at all. But it's no wonder cooking isn't doing it for me so much these days. To help combat that, I'm trying to find creative ways to use leftover meals or ingredients. I've come up with  few so far and am excited to share them with you at the end of the month?

What are your ideas on using up leftovers? Any suggestions on reincarnating ingredients from the night before into the next night's dinner? Share them if you've got them!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hunger Challenge 2011, One Week Down

For those just tuning in to my posts on the Hunger Challenge, here's the Reader's Digest version of what's going on:

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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hunger Challenge Recipes: Quesadillas

The hunger challenge keeps rolling on. There's not a whole lot I truly feel is missing from my diet, but the requirement to stick to whatever plan I created during the week creates a small sense of panic everytime I feel my stomach growl or someone else is helping me eat my food. Snacking really can't happen right now. If I eat between meals I'm eating something meant for a meal. I don't normally do a ton of snacking, but I'm learning I do enough that it makes a difference when it can't happen.

I miss tea. And I miss butter.

Despite my culinary longings, there are a couple of non-chili dishes I've whipped up this week. The quesadillas I made were good, though turned out to be less than ideal from a cost perspective. I wish I'd had some protein in there other than the cheese. I'd imagine if a can of black beans were tossed into the mix, they'd be a bit more on target. The zucchini and corn cakes hit the spot from both a taste perspective and price point. I found a couple of vendors at the farmers' market that had oversized zucchini being sold very inexpensively, so I snagged one for the cakes. It uses shredded zucchini so the baseball bat-sized ones that don't really taste good on their own work perfectly.

Stay tuned for the zucchini cake recipe. In the meantime, here's a recipe for relatively cost-effective and healthy quesadillas.

Hunger Challenge Quesadillas
Serves 3 as a meal, 6 as a side
20 minutes
Cost per serving, $1.76 as a meal, .88 as a side

  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 large bell peppers, diced
  • 1/2 cup shredded zucchini
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 6 burrito-sized flour tortillas
  • 2 cups mozzarella cheese
  1. Heat 1 Tbsp. of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sautee the peppers and onion for 5 minutes.
  2. Stir in zucchini and allow to cook for an additional two minutes.
  3. Remove the skillet from heat and set set vegetables aside in a separate bowl.
  4. Place the skillet back on the stove over medium heat with 1 tsp. of the remaining oil.
  5. Prepare the quesadillas by adding just over 1/3 cup of the vegetable mix off center to one side of the tortilla. Sprinkle 1/3 cup of cheese over top of the veggies and around the veggies. Press the opposite side of the tortilla over to fold it in half.
  6. Place the assembled quesadilla in the skillet and cook for 1-2 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 for the remaining tortillas.
Tips and Tricks:
  • Utilize a non-stick skillet, especially if you're limiting the amount of oil you're using. This can help prevent the tortilla from getting stuck or ripping.
  • If the folding technique isn't working for you, you can use two tortillas laid out on top of one another and double the filling and cheese you use.
  • You can use any combination of veggies you'd like! They should measure out to be between 2 and 2 1/2 cups total.  
  • I served mine with plain yogurt and salsa on the side, adding about 30 cents to the cost of each meal serving.
  • If you want to make this a more complete meal on its own or get a more filling portion from just one quesadilla, add in 1 can of drained black beans when you put the vegetables in a bowl. This will increase the cost to around 2.09 a meal serving, but because of the added calories and fiber, you wouldn't need to eat as much to feel full.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Three Days In with Chili and Cornbread

Three days in. Faring pretty well so far and quite proud that I have five whole cents left over for the week. Though, now, I quite literally do not have two dimes to rub together. Somewhere my mother and her repertoire of folksy expressions are having a good chuckle about that at my expense.

To kick off the Hunger Challenge, I cooked the cheapest thing I know how to make: chili. First, let me say that chili is no where near as cheap as I thought it was (not that I had a dollar amount in mind, but I balked at the extra quarter for chili beans versus black beans). Regardless of my inaccurate perceptions of the cost of chili, this meal can easily be made and served for around a dollar a serving. Now, I am well aware dried beans are a cheaper (and healthier, from the perspective of preservatives) than canned beans, but I was making the chili shortly after I was shopping, so soaking time for the beans wasn't an option. Food stamp recipient or not, sometime there just aren't enough hours in the day to make a recipe as nutritionally ideal as possible.

There's not much of a difference here from how I normally make the chili except that I use more beans and more TVP and use tomato juice instead of sauce and water. Marsh had a BOGO sale on their house brand canned tomato products, so going with the sauce and water was far cheaper than the juice. I needed the extra dollar I would have spent on more beans for something else on the grocery list. As far as the TVP goes, it was the last thing I bought this week and I literally bought all I could afford. All 27 cents worth (about 3/4 cup).

What is TVP you ask? TVP or Textured Vegetable Protein is essentially soy after the oil has been extracted. If that eeks you out a little, I'll let you know you've almost certainly eaten TVP at some point in your life. Imitation bacon bits? Flavored TVP. Some school cafeterias use it as a cheaper, safer (from food borne illnesses), leaner, and a longer-lasting alternative to meats. It comes in lots of shapes and sizes and is available in flavored varieties, though, some of the health advantages over meat go away with those additives. Bottom line, TVP is far cheaper pound-for-pound than any kind of ground meat I would put in chili.

The downside of this recipe is the sodium content. With all of the canned goods, it is through the roof for something that's a standard recipe for me. The best way to reduce the sodium content is to use dried beans in place of canned ones. In the interest of time, I opt to keep the canned beans. If you are concerned about sodium, be sure to make this during a week where you'll be making other recipes utilizing more fresh ingredients.

I am three days in to the challenge. And pretty much all I've eaten is chili. This was a gross oversight on my part. Normally I'm really good at planning meals and spreading out my leftovers, but I somehow with the distraction of a tight budget, I didn't notice I planned chili for Sunday dinner, Monday lunch, Monday dinner and Tuesday lunch. Suffice it to say while I love chili, I won't be terribly sad to see it exit the meal rotation for a little while. I can't fool anyone. I love fall. And fall means chili. And the weather these past few days has been terribly suitable for warm comfort food around the clock. I don't mind that chili has been on repeat.

Hunger Challenge Chili and Cornbread
Cost per serving, $1.07
Makes 6 servings (1 1/2 cup chili and 2 corn muffins)

2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, diced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 28 oz. can tomato sauce
1-4 cups water
3/4 cup TVP
1 regular can chili beans
1 regular can black beans, drained
1 regular can kidney beans. drained
2 1/2 Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  1. In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add in the garlic and onion and sauté for 3-5 minutes, or until onions start to become translucent.
  3. Add in the tomatoes, tomato sauce, 1 cup of water and the TVP. Bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce to a simmer and add in the beans and spices and stir to ensure it is well combined. Taste and adjust spices if necessary.
  5. Add additional water if the chili is thicker than you would like, up to three cups.
  6. Continue to simmer on low heat for at least 30 minutes.
Tips and Tricks
  • If you add additional water at step 5, be sure to taste again and make sure the flavor is still right. Adding water may dilute the spices you've put in.
  • Serve with Jiffy Cornbread made according to package directions. For extra crispy-edged cornbread, bake it in a greased casserole dish or (the best way) a cast iron skillet instead of muffin tins.
  • Tomato sauce and water can be swapped out for tomato juice. 
  • 1 packet of chili seasoning is a suitable substitute for the spice mixture listed here, if you have that option.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hunger Challenge 2011, Week One - Prep and Predictions

The Hunger Challenge starts today! Beginning with tonight's supper, I'll be eating on a food stamp budget of $4.46 per day for the next month. You can read all about why and get all the details of the challenge here.

I feel like I'm operating at a bit of an unfair advantage because the official San Francisco Food Bank Hunger Challenge ended this week. I've got loads of blogs, tweets and emails full of trials, tribulations and best practices of fellow food challengers. After reading them over the weekend these are the major points I took away:

  • I'm extremely thankful I'm only responsible for feeding myself.
  • Exercise seemed to be a concern for some because it made them hungrier.
  • I think 32% of food made by food challengers this week was pasta and red sauce.
  • Fresh roasted, local coffee. I shall miss thee. You are so out of my price range.
  • I've never been happier that I don't drink soda regularly.
  • I am determined to not perpetuate boring meals, if I can help it.
There are a few rules of engagement. All of my "extra" kitchen appliances and implements are off limits. The kitchen aid mixer, food processor, immersion blender, etc. are items that will be collecting dust for the next 30 days because it isn't reasonable to expect all of those items to be in everyone's kitchens. The only existing food items in my kitchen I'm able to use are ketchup, mustard and mayo as condiments. Any spices I use from my own stock will be prorated at their bulk price. I could be buying them straight from bulk bins, but am opting to use up what I have.

I'm predicting a few things will happen over the next four weeks:

  • Nutritionally, I think my sodium intake will go up considerably based on the amount of canned items that will replace fresh.
  • As far as calorie sources, I think my carbohydrate intake will increase, fat will go down, and protein will remain relatively the same. 
  • I will spend more time at the store when I grocery shop to ensure I'm picking the right items and getting the best value.
  • My mental math skills will increase exponentially.
  • I will have to pass up opportunities to provide food for something or dine with friends.
  • Whenever The Vegetarian is over for dinner I will watch him like a hawk to make sure he doesn't eat too much of my food. I am certain he will love this. 
  • I will surely screw up at least one recipe and wish I could just order a pizza instead of deal with the ick I just managed to cook. 
  • I will desperately miss fresh roasted coffee.
  • At least one of my normal grocery shopping tendencies from before the experiment will be determined unnecessary. But not the coffee.

I did all my shopping yesterday with six cents to spare. Here's the rundown:

About half is fruits and vegetables. Some not as fresh as I'd usually get (but there was a buy 1 get 2 sale on the baby carrots and lettuce...how was I not buying those?), but overall, not too different from a normal grocery haul. Of the other half of the groceries, protein and dairy made up the majority with coffee, oil and spices rounding out the spread.

The menu for this week is chili and cornbread, zucchini fritters, quesadillas and zucchini with pasta.

Stay tuned for this week's recipes. I'll be posting them throughout the week along with information on price. Food stamps or not, I'm confident there will be some great cheap eats on the site over the next month.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Facebook Page is Up and Running

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Hunger Challenge 2011

Every September the San Francisco food bank sponsors a hunger challenge that charges participants with a single task: eat on a food stamp budget for one week. Last year, that amount was four dollars a day, or 28 dollars for the entire week.

When I first learned of this concept, I was intrigued. Frankly, a food budget of four dollars a day didn't sound all that hard. It wasn't until I really gave it some thought that I realized what a challenge this could be. I quickly figured out two things. First, eating cheap for a week has its difficulties, but a month would truly force one to figure out how to make a food stamp budget work. Second, I realized that while four dollars a day didn't seem too low a sum, for me it would be a 24% reduction in my grocery budget every month.

With that, I decided to take on this challenge and for a month, eat exclusively on an Indiana food stamp budget of $4.46 a month.


I am passionate about food and cooking. The way I see it, everyone needs to eat and usually more than once a day. Why not enjoy what could ordinarily be a chore? Why not be immensely satisfied with what could otherwise be mediocre? I can think of no other single experience in our culture that brings people together the way food does. There's nothing I love more than preparing a meal and enjoying it with the people I love.

But that attitude is a bit of a luxury. I have been significantly blessed never having to wonder where my next meal will come from.  For me, meals are an opportunity to be focused and expressive. To experiment and enjoy. My kitchen is one of the places I find incredibly relaxing. However, my attitude would surely be different if instead meals were a reminder of my struggle and an illustration of insufficiency.

So can I, an innovative and creative culinary mind, bridge this gap for 30 days? The tastes and tendencies of a foodie on a food stamp budget. Surely it's possible to eat for less than $4.50 a day. But for now, I can't say how my taste buds, health and spirit will fare.

My goal? To come away with this for an appreciation for what food and cooking are like for a different segment of the population. To understand what is different, what is the same and how I can channel a passion like mine to do more than just make good food.

Check out the San Francisco Food Bank's challenge here. You'll notice their official challenge kicks off this Sunday. I will be kicking off my own month-long challenge a week from tomorrow. I'll be keeping an update on the blog of what I'm cooking and eating and faring overall.

You can probably look forward to some cheap eats recipes being added soon!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Recipe: Sugar Cookies and Decorator Frosting

Check out the new look of Spoonful of Something! In an effort to make the content more organized and the site more user-friendly, it got a facelift over the long weekend. You can look forward to lots of new content in the coming weeks and months, including 30-day challenges that I am very excited to get underway!

As you look around at the new organization and content, let me know if there are any recipes or tutorials you'd like to see. I'm in the process of lining up content for the next few months and would love ideas from readers.

Another exciting development this week? The designed draft of Project Cookbook is completed! I'll be reviewing it over the next couple of days and then we're off to print! I can't wait to share it with you all!

Speaking of Project Cookbook, here's another Project Cookbook recipe I want to share with you all. Specifically at the request of my friend Marsha, here is my mother's recipe for decorated sugar cookies. You can guarantee there will be massive platters of these babies (beautifully decorated, I might add) every Christmas at the Meade household. If you have a favorite set of cookie cutters, this is the recipe you'll want to use it for. Enjoy!

Platter of cookies for a Project Cookbook shoot

For the cookies:

8 hours, 30 minutes (8 hours inactive)
Makes approx. 5-6 dozen cookies
From Mom’s Kitchen

  • 5 cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. cream
  • ½ tsp. lemon rind

1.   Sift flour, baking powder and nutmeg together.
2.   With an electric stand mixer or hand mixer, beat butter until creamy and gradually add sugar. Beat in vanilla, eggs, cream and lemon rind.
3.   Add in dry ingredients and beat until combined.
4.   Chill dough for 8 hours.
5.   Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from the fridge and roll out on to a floured surface.
6.   Use a cookie cutter to stamp out shapes and transfer to a greased cookie sheet, then bake for 10 minutes or until cookies are firm but still pale.
7.   Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. Allow cookies to cool completely before frosting.

For the decorator frosting:

10 minutes
Makes enough to frost one 9x13 cake
From Mom’s Kitchen

  • ½ cup shortening
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ tsp. vanilla
  • 1 tsp. clear corn syrup
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 3 ½ cups powdered sugar

1.   Using an electric mixer, beat shortening and milk until combined (this may take several minutes).
2.   Add in vanilla, corn syrup and salt. Beat the powdered sugar in one cup at a time.
3.   After the last cup of powdered sugar is added, turn off mixer, scrape the sides of the bowl and beat until combined. Do not beat for longer than three minutes.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. If you are frosting and decorating a cake, make a double batch. If you don’t have a very large bowl, make the double batch one recipe at a time.
  2. When adding food coloring, add one or two drops at a time. It is easier to darken a hue than try and fix it after you have added too much color.