About two years ago, I started the Cook for Good experiment as a response to the Food Stamp Challenges so popular that summer. Good people working to end hunger and strengthen sustainable food systems were trying to eat on a dollar a meal … and failing miserably. One congressman in particular formed the chorus for this song. He approached the Food Stamp Challenge in a slap-dash, center-aisle way, with his aides throwing in two-ounce bags of coffee into his cart. When airport security seized his stash of peanut butter and jelly, he was looking at thirty-six hours with nothing but corn meal. He wound up cheating by eating bags of airline peanuts.
Nonsense, I kept thinking. These people must not be cooks. A dollar a meal is tight, but it doesn’t mean you have to pick Cheetoes over carrots. The goal should not be maximum calories but maximum nutrition. But could I really get by on a dollar a meal? Could I enjoy it? One night at dinner, I broached the idea to my husband. Bruce looked only mildly horrified. “You can eat extra if you want,” I said. “I’ll just cook for both of us to that budget.” “No, I’ll do it with you. Might as well see just how hungry we get.” (You can see why I love him.) “Well, at least we’ll lose some weight.”
The Results: Saving Money Leads to other Savings
We did lose weight – about 10 pounds each over a three-month period. But except for the first day, we were never hungry or felt deprived. In fact, we were surprised to find that not only was it possible, but that other good things happened when we did eat so cheaply. We started feeling more energetic after only a week. Our moods improved. Our recycling and trash went down to almost nothing. I learned skills that will help me get through the panic if I ever do have serious money trouble.
The first week was so good that we revised the experiment and continued on for three more months, beginning and ending with a week of $1 meals. For two months we kept under the actual food-stamp allowance in North Carolina, then $1.53 a meal. The final month, we followed the thrifty menu from the previous month but ate nearly all organic, sustainably raised, locally grown foods. Amazingly, those “green” meals averaged just under $2 per person.
I was so excited by the great food, my new-found energy, and my nearly empty recycling bin that I knew I had to share this way of shopping and cooking with others. After another year of cooking, tracking prices, and planning menus, I had it: the Cook for Good plan. It provides menus, recipes, and shopping lists with current prices to help anyone eat well on a budget. Folks at DrGreene.com will be most interested in the mostly organic green option, of course.
In June, 2009, the average green Cook for Good meal costs just $1.57 per person. That’s 42 cents less than the food-stamp allowance in North Carolina, where I gather the prices. Even the “cart cost” for the green ingredients comes out to just $1.87 a meal, 11 cents less per meal than the food-stamp allowance in North Carolina. The cart cost shows how much you’d actually have to spend at the grocery store buying everything on the shopping lists, even though you will have some ingredients left over, such as part of a bottle of oil. The regular plan, using conventionally raised food, costs even less at just $1.15 a meal.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about a cheap, tasty food that appears in some form nearly every day on the Cook for Good menus and give you an easy recipe too.
Today, let’s talk about what your favorite tip is for cooking healthy food while keeping your budget on a diet. Are you cutting back on meat? Cooking from scratch?