Cheap Eats Diary

In May I fed my family of three for $129.99. I kept this diary during the month to write my article “Real Life Hunger Games,” which was published on xoJane in June. Here’s a more day-to-day look at how I pulled it off.

May 1

Goal for this week is to not spend any money at all.

We went shopping three days ago and spent $35. Breakfast: banana with p.b. Lunch: leftovers. Dinner: I made spaghetti sauce with tomatoes I bought last Saturday. One pint left. Not cheaper than buying a jar. Three pounds of tomatoes, $3. Oh well. Delicious. Running out of milk.

Andy says (seriously) he wishes there had been kale or cabbage in the sauce. He says it really adds a lot of “body” to a meal. Vow to buy Andy a cabbage at next shopping trip.

Audrey eats a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, p.b. sandwich and apple for lunch, Cheez-its for snack, spaghetti for dinner.

The food cupboard: Before

May 2

Buy non-organic milk for $1.79 at TJs. Ask Facebook if they would use a can of sweetened condensed milk marked “best before September 2005.”

I made “recycled cookies” out of instant oatmeal, millet puffs, cheerios, crumbled Ritz crackers, two sample boxes of cereal, coconut flakes, butter, the old sweetened condensed milk. They were delicious! Saved some for future book club.

 

May 6

On May 4 I made lentil & sweet potato stew with French lentils I found in the cupboard. I also made a Russian apple charlotte using two old frozen raisin or blueberry bagels, saved up apple slices, dehydrated milk, remnants of two jars of jam.

Andy buys $7 of salad greens and feta cheese for his lunches.

Yesterday we bought $1.79 candy and popped popcorn at home, brought it to see Secret World of Arrietty. Made buttermilk caramel flan and took it to Gina’s for cinco de mayo dinner—chile rellenos. Audrey ate beans, rice, chips, and salsa.

Tonight we ate leftover lentil & sweet potato stew. I made chocolate chip cookies. I’ll freeze some and bring to a book group.

 

May 7

Up three pounds! The experiment has not even been going on a week. Gaining weight is not part of the plan; I wanted to maintain. Maybe I shouldn’t have made a bagel bread pudding, buttermilk flan, two batches of cookies in  six days.

Breakfast: oatmeal with rice protein powder I’ve had sitting in the cupboards since 2006.

Cooked old dried garbanzo beans. Accidentally let cook way too long! Still taste good. Hope Audrey will eat them.

Veggie box arrived today! $33. So week one: $47. Last night Andy stocked up on kale and spinach. Today ate spinach, radish, carrot, pickled onion, garbanzo bean salad. Try not to spend anything in week 2.

 

May 8

I have way more food tucked away in my freezer and cupboards than I imagined. I guess because I wasn’t viewing most of it as food anymore. Not actively searching for a way to eat up crushed Ritz crackers and frozen jar of pinto beans, but not wanting to throw anything out, either. Eventually they’d go bad and I would then feel okay tossing them. This represents a lot of money from the grocery store, taking up kitchen real estate, into the compost bin (or landfill!).

For breakfast: oatmeal with rice protein powder. Last of the slivered almonds. No dried fruit because I’m out. Maybe I’ll buy raisins.

Lunch: Leftover spaghetti, mac and cheese, parsley. Not very filling. Ate four chocolate chip cookies, polishing them off.

I am packing Audrey’s lunch lighter. She never ate all of it, so I’d throw away half-eaten but unsalvageable sandwiches and apple slices. Now she eats all of the smaller lunch and feels proud of herself. She’s maybe even eating more than before. The “large” lunches proved too daunting.

Tonight I will make pinto bean-chard-leftover salsa and spaghetti sauce chili with crushed tortilla chips and the remnant of frozen shredded cheddar. I think it will be better than it sounds. Okay, I made it. I used leftover spaghetti sauce, remains of two different things of salsa, Audrey’s leftover carrot sticks, defrosted pinto beans, chard, onion, spices. Served with corn bread. Made at least four servings, I think.

Audrey finished off a Trader Joe’s popsicle that had been in the freezer since last summer. First ate off the stick. Then I made it into a slushie. Made the slushie into lemonade by adding water. She enjoyed the progression and asked me to let her eat popsicles like that again.

 

May 9

Foraging! Ride the bus to Heather’s. Walk a mile to Reed College, lush and green. We snip the tips off of stinging nettles with scissors. Doesn’t damage the plant. Heather shows me other edibles. We find dandelion greens, mustard flowers,  salsify, mint, wild onions, bay leaves, and rosemary.

And then we journeyed . . . into the wild.

Tonight I make a quiche. Time intensive. Blanch the stinging nettles. Crust from scratch. Sautee mushrooms, onions, dandelions, mustard flowers. Dandelion greens are bitter and terrible. Take most of them out. Fingers crossed I didn’t just waste six eggs and a stick of butter, not to mention all day foraging and washing greens.

Interesting how much work it takes to get a bit of food. Lucky we can buy it. Someone grew it, picked it, took to the store for us. So to waste it  . . . terrible.

Bought a gallon of milk for $2.59. A half-gallon is $1.89. I realized I stuck with half-gallons because I didn’t like carrying them (too heavy!) & I was worried about using them up before they went sour. With all this baking, I’m sure I’ll use it up.

 

May 11

I made oatmeal muffins yesterday. Got to stop baking! They’re in the freezer; I can eat them instead of cookies. This morning I had one for breakfast with peanut butter.  This afternoon I had edamame for a snack. It was in the freezer for I don’t know how long. Maybe a couple years? Crusted over with frost.

Edamame looks bad but tastes fine! Good snack. However, I usually don’t crave edamame.

Audrey wanted a hot dog for dinner and I happened to have two old frostbitten veggie dogs in the freezer. Made a bun out of a bread heal.

Tonight I’m going to make “fake-out noodles.” Asian stir fry with lasagna noodles. Broccoli, scallions from the veggie bin. Not the best experiment ever.

 

May 15

Halfway through today! $59.51 left. Less than half.

Last weekend I made a “main course tabouleh” salad that ended up making 7 servings. Used more veggies than recipe—stretches it out and makes it less starchy. Very good garnished with feta and toasted walnuts.

We had Gina over for happy hour on Saturday. Served roasted chick peas, carrots, radishes, celery. Old wine.

Made chocolate ice cream with seven year old cocoa powder. Tucked away, since I have other, newer cocoa powder I’ve been using. Audrey said it was the best ice cream she’d ever eaten.

We spent the most we had on groceries on Saturday: $15. That got us a cabbage, the ingredients for tabouleh, cheese, cream for ice cream. Cheaper to take her to Wendy’s & also we wouldn’t have a bunch of ice cream to finish up . . . but there are worse problems!

 

May 16

Pancakes for breakfast! New recipe, not as good.

Bulgur salad for lunch. Still some left! 7 servings!

Book group—crudités jar. Getting tired of baking cookies!

 

May 17

Audrey ate 6 pancakes!

Brought ½ bag edamame to group–$1.69/2 = $.85

 

May 18

Today I finished off the fried rice, though I thought there were 2 more servings in there. Ended up getting 6 servings.

 

May 22

Week 4!

Milk I bought May 9th is gone after 13 days. Used it up—hot chocolate, ice cream, in baking. May go back to ½ gallons.

Veggie box yesterday includes dandelion greens. Ugh! More greens for Andy’s lunches. Last night ate the rest of that quinoa-garbanzo-green bean salad. That made at least 7 servings.

Running out of tea. Use up old stuff I’ve been avoiding. Might have money to buy more?

 

May 20

Still have oatmeal muffins left. Audrey finished off pancakes. Lunch: leftover mac and cheese + bean salad. Dinner: same. Andy ate a salad. We bought more popcorn and oil. Down to $14 for the rest of the month! Delivery tomorrow.

 

May 22

Stuff left to eat:  jars of pinto beans (could go in Mexican salad), carrots, beets?, two fruity bagels (maybe Audrey will eat them?), a little frozen pizza.

 

May 24

Yesterday I rooted through the cupboards and found two old boxes of mac and cheese, relegated to the back because my daughter prefers TJ’s organic shells & these were Annie’s. She will eat them, though. And I found a jar of hazelnuts! Score! Running low on nuts and getting nervous . . . will borrow nutcracker from Sarah.

Last night made pasta primavera with two different pastas, sunflower seeds and almonds (out of walnuts), sundried tomatoes left over from 1995, olives didn’t know I had, onion, asparagus, carrot. Eating old food hasn’t killed me yet! Must buy some macaroni or something. Could make a huge dish out of odds and ends in fridge, hazelnuts. Get us to the finish line. One week left!

 

May 26

Counting down the days now. Wish I could buy a few things: good tea, more popcorn, puffs.

 

May 28

Yesterday I helped my sister weed her garden in exchange for the thinnings. Felt like a character in the Boxcar Children.  Brought home 1 lb, 12 oz. various greens. Gave some to Andy for his salads to keep him from another kale bender. The rest I’ll throw into some pasta dish or something.

Make carrot cupcakes for Abby’s b-day. Happened to have all the ingredients but walnuts around. Unopened thing of cream cheese we hadn’t used because we had run out of bagels. Made applesauce out of Audrey’s rejected apple slices I’d been saving.

Carrot cupcake: Not the best food photography.

The food cupboard, after

May 30

Just two more days! Yesterday I organized my spices. I think I’ll make a loaf of bread today. Maybe cookies. Baking is out of control.

Yesterday went foraging in Sarah’s garden. Have enough greens to tide Andy through.

Today I might make fried rice again.

Comments

  1. Wow, that is amazing! I think food waste is a huge problem in the developed world. When you think of the time and resources that go into the production of food and the money we spend on it only to have us waste it in the end, it’s criminal. I am trying to bring in only what we can and will eat, but I am sure we have things lurking in our cupboards that should be used!

  2. Brenna, it was eye-opening to try it for a month! Avoiding food waste winds up saving a lot of money. As I said in the xoJane article, the average American lets 25% of the food they buy go to waste. So making an effort to not waste food is really the best way to save on your grocery bills. The average American could BUY 25% LESS food–and then not waste the rest. You’d be eating the same amount; you’d just have to be more strategic.

    Avoiding food waste became my number-one strategy during my month of cheap eating. I am not sure I really expressed that strongly enough in the article. Anyway, it’s sort of my pet issue now! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Heather Arndt Anderson says

    You still had a can of refried beans and black beans at the end of that! I would’ve eaten those right away. Again, I’m inspired. Will cook tonight instead of going out, even though it’s hot and Friday.

  4. Rebecca,
    What an awesome idea. I’ve been on a similar track lately just trying to spend and waste less. We were wasting an ungodly amount of food, and notice that my thinking patterns are similar to the ones you describe. I think I had that same Rice Protein Powder in my cupboards, along with some carob powder perhaps. I also seem to collect dried chilies – I rarely cook with them, but I find little baggies of them tucked away. It is almost like hoarding to be honest.

    I wrote an article about food waste last year, and one of the tips I read is to not panic when your larder looks a little low — it *should* get low. Most of us have too much of a buffer and end up chucking stuff out after 6, 12, 18 months.

    Thanks for sharing, I honestly find it fascinating.

  5. Thanks for the comments! Heather, I wanted to avoid canned food for the experiment since I was attempting to prove that a low budget didn’t necessarily mean a diet of canned beans and rice. I had a bunch of other beans to get through, anyway. I’ll also note that there is a jar of brown beans in that cupboard, but they serve as my pie weights!

    Ingrid, where is your food waste article? I’d love to read it. It has been something I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and I’ve come up with a lot of strategies to avoid it, some of which I’ve detailed here on the Green Baby Guide. Here’s one from 2009: Avoid wasting food and save $100 a month.

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