As promised, for 1 week I spent less than $4.13 per person, per day on food for an internship assignment. In fact, I ended up spending just $3.80 per day. (*Throws out shoulder patting self on back*)
And I have to say, it went great!
Until it didn’t.
Here’s how the week went down…
Monday & Tuesday
We discovered cool cooking hacks and cheap eats
At the beginning of the week, Jeff and I were both excited for the cheap-eating challenge. I, however, was also terrified we might go hungry. However, by shopping at Aldi, we scored way better deals than I thought we would, as you can read in my last post. In fact, we were able to buy a extra 1-pound tub of spring mix and 3-pound bag of apples we hadn’t planned for. Go us! In fact, you can see exactly what we bought and how much it cost in the table at the end of the post if you’re curious.
We also learned 3 cool new tricks:
1. You can cook dried beans in 30 minutes in an instant pot…and they taste ah-may-zing
We may never buy canned beans again now that we know how easy they are to make in the instant pot! They come out tender with just the right amount of toothsome bite, and almost no broken beans. Brown rice comes out perfect, too. So do whole potatoes—you can steam them on the rack included with the pot. And everything’s done in 30 minutes!
I’m convinced everyone on SNAP should get an Instant Pot with their first benefits card. No, the Instant Pot people didn’t pay me to say that, but if you buy an Instant Pot one through this Amazon link I’ll get a small commission at no cost to you, plug, plug! 🙂
2. Chili costs less than $0.50/serving…and you can put that $#*t on everything!
Any combo of onions, beans, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and chili powder makes a delicious, versatile chili. It works as a salad topper, sweet potato stuffer, taco filling, or bowl base with a scoop of brown rice and fresh cilantro. I’m hungry just thinking about it!
3. Cooked potato + waffle iron = Fast, cheap, healthy waffle fries
Steam or microwave a couple of small russet potatoes, smash them in a nonstick waffle iron for ~3 minutes, and voila! Giant waffle fries for pennies.
Om nom nom…
We got our 5-to-9 servings of fruits and vegetables and never went hungry
Thanks to careful planning, Jeff and I each got at least 5-6 servings of fruit and non-starchy vegetables daily. (1 serving = 1 small piece of fruit, ½ cup of cooked veggies, 1 cup of raw veggies, or 2 cups of salad greens) We also scored another 2-4+ servings of starchy vegetables in the form of potatoes and sweet potatoes. And we never, and I mean never went hungry, thanks to lots of oatmeal, peanut butter, beans, and carrots.
Here’s a typical day of food:
- Oatmeal with raisins, ground flax seed, a little protein powder, cinnamon, and an orange (only half the orange is shown, but believe me, I ate the whole thing.).
- Breakfast fruit and veggie total: 1.5 servings (1 orange and 2 Tbsp raisins)
- Hot cocoa and half a cup of generic apple-cinnamon Cheerios (not shown)
- 1 medium Russet potato smashed into waffle “fries” topped with homemade pinto beans and sauteed onions (and ketchup, not shown)
- Plain romaine lettuce salad, not shown (I ate it before realizing I needed to take pictures, whoops. But it was as boring as it sounds, lol!)
- Since I was still really hungry, I also had a bowl of peanut butter raisin oatmeal, with about 1/5 scoop of Vega protein powder (stirred in)
- Lunch fruit and veggie total: 2.5 servings (2 cups lettuce, ½ cup sauteed onions, and 2 Tbsp raisins)
- I had a plain baked sweet potato and another cup of almond milk hot chocolate, which I also forgot to take a picture of. Bad blogger! 😉
- Romaine salad with fig vinegar
- Curried pinto beans with onions, spinach, and brown rice (I had seconds on the curry)
- Dinner fruit and veggie total: 2 servings of veggies (2 cups salad greens, ½ cup cooked spinach/onion in curry)
- $0.25 Peanut butter & jelly tortilla. Who says dessert has to be expensive?
That gave me 6 servings of non-starchy fruits and veggies for the day overall. If you count just some of the beans, potato, and/or sweet potato, I’d be up around 9 servings of fruits and veggies for the day. Not bad.
I met my nutrient needs and then some
I recorded what I ate in MyFitnessPal to ensure I was meeting my basic needs, like protein, carbohydrate, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. With the exception of one day when I skipped my almond milk hot chocolate (the horrors!) and fell short on calcium, I met my needs—and then some—every day.
Here’s the nutrient info for the day of food shown above:
Wednesday – Friday
Boredom set in
I didn’t think eating the same thing over and over would bother me. I mean, I eat hot cereal with frozen organic blueberries every morning and love it (although I rotate my grains).
Boy, was I wrong! Oats, potatoes, pinto beans, and peanut butter get old, no matter how creative you are. And not only did repetitive eating get tiresome, I felt like I wasn’t getting nearly the variety of nutrients that my body was used to.
I developed ASW (acute salad withdrawal)
Also, on Wednesday morning, our carefully rationed spring mix ran out. By evening, I was craving leafy greens like you wouldn’t believe. Honestly, I would have just about traded my soul for a 1-pound tub of baby spinach.
As strange as it sounds, I felt physically unwell without my greens. Maybe it was because I’m used to eating 3 big salads daily, so 2 smallish salad with mostly iceberg or romaine just didn’t cut it. Maybe it was because I don’t metabolize folate well, so I need more folate-rich leafy greens than most people. (One of the many things I learned from 23andMe genetic testing.) Or maybe it was because I was tired and stressed trying to meet multiple deadlines, so I needed my salad boost more than ever!
On top of the salad DTs, I could only afford half the fruit I was used to. You can see why I was feeling run down, no matter how great MyFitnessPal said I was doing.
In fact, I had the foreboding feeling that all was not well in my world.
Saturday & Sunday
I cheated with a tall, dark stranger
Saturday morning, with two days of my cheap-food challenge left to go, I woke up feeling as limp as a wet washcloth. I went for a walk with Jeff, hoping it would revive me, but putting one foot in front of the other felt like a Herculean task
In fact, we were headed home when I spotted a tall, dark stranger.
And I decided right then and there to cheat with him.
I met him out by the side of the house, in a long-forgotten garden, and he was utterly delicious. (Yowza!)
His name was kale.
You see, Jeff and I typically let whatever kale we don’t harvest in the fall hang out in the garden until spring. Kale can handle ice and snow, and some greenery makes the otherwise naked garden look a little less sad. Then come spring, we rip the plants out and toss them, since they’re pretty sorry-looking after a winter of neglect.
However, this winter was mild, and those kale plants were perkier than usual. Their deep, dark leaves called to me, thick and luscious. I just knew they were packed with nutrients I’d been yearning for all week. Despite the fact that they weren’t in the budget, I couldn’t resist their siren song. I made a beeline for the garden and greedily grabbed a salad’s worth of leaves.
I even ate a clean-looking leaf right there in the garden. (Because I am that classy.)
And despite the fact that it was bitter and chewy and the tiniest bit hairy the way overwintered kale gets, never has anything tasted quite so delicious.
Ah, the pleasures of forbidden
Welcome to flu-ville 🤒
Unfortunately, my moment of bliss was short-lived. After breakfast, it was all I could do to collapse in a pile on the sofa. I proceeded to spike a 101°F fever, which I kept for the next 3 days, along with a headache, body aches, sore throat, and cough.
Yep, even though I’d had my flu vaccine, my doc was pretty sure I’d come down with the milder version of the flu you get when you’ve been vaccinated. Apparently her whole office had gotten the flu from a patient despite being vaccinated, and their illness looked just like the one I was experiencing.
To be fair, I’d also been shorting myself on sleep all week. While I’ve gotten away with that at times throughout my internship, during the cheap-food challenge, I was commuting on Metro with 5,000 of my closest friends (and their germs) just when I couldn’t eat the immune-boosting fruits and veggies that normally help me fend off germs.
Thanks to free kale, some oranges we’d held off on, and Jeff’s excellent care, I survived until Monday, when the challenge ended! I celebrated with a salad so big I had to eat it out of a mixing bowl, and topped it with overpriced sunflower microgreens and pure joy.
Looking back over the week, I’d realized I’d learned some valuable lessons.
- It’s possible to eat healthy on an itty bitty budget. However, IMHO, eating the same thing over and over risks nutrient shortfalls, even if you’re technically meeting your needs. So buy as wide a variety of healthy food as you can afford.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. Budget eating can help you get creative with cheap yet healthy ingredients.
- Shop at Aldi. You can thank me later.
- Cook at home and savor every last bite of food.
- Nix most of the junk, if possible. For example, there’s no room for soda on a tight food budget. Seriously, it blows me away that nearly 10% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) dollars are spent on soda and sweetened beverages. It’s hard enough to get healthy food on the average SNAP benefit of $4.13/day! (Update: The maximum SNAP benefit for a 2-person household is $5.67 a day. That’s better, but still really hard to live on—especially without good access to a grocery store.) Personally, I think SNAP should cover healthy basics, and people can pay for junky stuff with their own money, just like alcohol and cigarettes. Rant over. 🙂
- Paying more up front for nutritious food up front saves money in the end. An extra $15/week spent on leafy greens and fruit would have been a lot cheaper than missing multiple days of work, a doctor visit, NyQuil, and Tamiflu. To say nothing of diabetes and heart disease down the road.
- Fruits and vegetables are a luxury on a tight budget, but they shouldn’t be! Can we stop subsidizing beef and corn and start funding fruits and veggies already? That would make me so, so happy.
Bonus table: Exactly what we bought for the week
In the end…
Am I glad I did the cheap-food challenge? You bet!
But I sure won’t be doing it again anytime soon.
- What would you have done differently on a cheap-food challenge?
- Do you get sick less often when you eat healthy? Or does it not make a difference for you?
Can’t wait to hear from you!