Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Preparing to Prep - Living on a Minimal Food Budget

There have been a number of people posting about eating off the equivalent money they'd get on SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) to highlight how hard it is to eat healthy and economically on public assistance.

This post isn't about the habits of those on public assistance, as it's easy to criticize.  But I wanted simply to give an example of how, with a little planning, you can feed a family for much LESS than the amount of money normally allocated in such programs (about $194 per person per month) even assuming you contribute nothing of your own money towards your family meals.
Banana bread

This weeks food  - $50 for the two of us, including a sweet bread and some cookies.   I've rounded everything up to the nearest half dollar.  I do the bread baking on Saturday and make cookies or some other baked treat.  I make soup or stew on Sunday and chopped and Tupperware the veggies so there's little time to prepare them on a work night. Many meals are meat free, with beans and grain for complete protein. Nothing is wasted, so there's always little bits of peppers or chilis or such in the freezer to add to soup and beans dishes as well as some bones with a little meat on them for soups. Any leftovers not immediately eaten are frozen for lunches the following week. We have  brewed iced tea, not pop, and I'll make an "energy drink" out of a splash of fruit juice mixed with 2 Tablespoons of Braggs apple cider vinegar and lots of water and carried in a recycled glass beverage bottle.
Both of us pack our lunches and have a water jug AND a thermos and do not buy coffee or soft drinks at work or on the way to or from. I'll make muffins to have as a mid morning treat for coffee or tea. Plus - when a local Sears went south, we picked up a deep freezer for $100 for the basement.

So total food and treats if one is closely watching the budget and has essentials on hand in bulk already -  $200 for the month for two adults.

We are blessed with a good education (I paid for mine 100% on my own, my husband was blessed with parents, having done so themselves, were able to help him significantly). With that, we have jobs that pay very well  But being raised by parents that understood a budget, mine growing up in the Great Depression, we are quite fine eating on a budget so that there is money available for unexpected expenses, helping family members and charities, including 100% of all the sales of the Book of Barkley and Saving Grace to animal rescue. That's important to us.
Yes, we have some extra splurge meals with more expensive ingredients (Amish Bacon!  Scotch!) I'ts because we are blessed to where we  can and we usually eat out once a month, someplace cheap and fun like Thai.  But we also know that if money was really tight we could eat VERY well, with adequate protein and minerals with a little planning and some time in the kitchen.  Even with treats, an adult beverage on the weekends and sometimes extra dairy from a local dairy farm we spend less than $300 a month on food, that extra money going to help my Dad or others in need.  I've stood in line at Walmart and watched someone with a cart full of prepared and prepackaged meals and junk food spend that in a week for a small family.

There have been years we've gone in with others for a 4-H cow, the cost per pound being really low, but this year, with a move, and remodeling, we just watch for sales.
Range "MackMuffin" with whole wheat sourdough bread rounds.

But it takes planning - don't wait until you lose your job before establishing a larder of bulk supplies. Do it when times are plentiful, and you'll have less to worry about later, because it's vital that you have certain items stored up to make a super cheap meal plan work.  You will need to spend a months worth of food budget minimum, laying in supplies if you want the absolutely minimum cost on dried and bulk items, not something that's practical once the emergency strikes.

Bread - I make it from scratch, using a sourdough starter made out of wild yeast in place of commercial yeast and a food processor, it takes minutes to prep, then just the rise and bake time for a couple of loafs and a batch of muffins or rolls. An hour of prep, time to rise, and a couple of hours to bake up everything, and I've got bread products for the week for a couple of bucks.
Wild yeast sourdough starter

Shopping - I will hit 3 stores if it saves me 3 or 4 bucks, as long as the gas to go there doesn't eat up the difference. I regularly check ads to see what's on sale where and I'm not afraid to clip a coupon. Make sure you look at your receipt - I've been charged other than the sale price at a couple of the big chain grocers.  I make a list.  If I see something super cheap not on the list, I will pick it up to add to the larder. I will NOT buy something just because "it looks good!" if it's not on the list,

On hand:
Home canned: salsas, applesauce (I trade bread/cookies for huge bag of apples each Fall with non baking colleague who has a bunch of trees), some veggies, barbecue sauce
frozen soup bones from previous roasts
sourdough starter
powdered milk, vegetable oil, peanut butter, pasta
vinegar and spices in bulk
rice and dried beans - in bulk
flour and sugar - in bulk
water - we take refillable thermoses to work, the tap water here tastes good and frankly, half of the bottled water is from a tap in some other city plus we keep a minimum of  3 months of bleach treated water, per person (including the dog) with prepping supplies.
4-H cow burgers with homemade buns

Cost - About $50 for the week for Partner and I and that included a number of meals with meat and eggs.

Daily Goal  - 3 servings of protein
5 servings of fruits and veggies
A treat (usually a cookie, sometimes a piece of pie when fruit is plentiful and cheap)
3 servings of whole grain carbs (my husband may eat more, the bread is super cheap to make)
2 servings dairy


Use of the bulk items for the week (spices, flour, bones, powdered milk, dried beans, oil, vinegar) $6.00
coffee or tea for the week (made at home and carried to work)  $2
Oatmeal $1
One small package chicken thighs (sale)   $2
package of boneless breasts (for sandwiches)  (free - this was a buy one get one from the previous week)
1 pound ground beef  $4 (if money was extra tight, I would replace with lentils for meat sauce or sloppy joes on the homemade bread)
Fresh Green Beans - $2
Fresh squash  - $2
2 Cucumbers (great with rice vinegar and a dash of honey as a salad)  $1.50
2 bags of apples (Aldi)  $5
Veggies: a number of cans purchased on  scratch and dent clearance  $4 total
Carrots:  2 bags on sale for $1.50
3 pounds oranges (sale)  $2
eggs - free - bartered with homemade bread for someone that has chickens but doesn't bake
bananas  .50 cents for a bunch on sale
Tibetan curried lentils

Potatoes 5 pound bag on sale .99 cents
2 onions   $1.50
package of  whole romaine for sandwiches and salad  $1
1/4 deli pound swiss (sale)  $1
1/2 pound mozzarella  $2
Canned mushrooms (sale).50
Bag of peppers  (Aldi sale) $2
Big tub of cottage cheese (or plain yogurt) $5
Bag of frozen dried berries (for oatmeal and/or muffins)  $2
Generic  boxed mac and cheese  .50
Butter (free with $25 grocery purchase)
Ham and Bean soup

Even better,  there will be some soup and beans to be frozen for a lunch the next week
Any leftover cheese  or chicken will be mixed with leftover pasta for a casserole or stuffed baked potatoes the following week.

Menu for the week:
Breakfast - work day oatmeal (with some powdered milk and cinnamon mixed in)  and tea or coffee or egg with toast or a homemade muffin
sourdough raspberry muffin

weekend - hash-browns with any leftover onions and scrambled eggs or omelette  or pancakes made with leftover plain yogurt and a fried egg

Lunch - For Partner:  peanut butter or chicken sandwich (sliced or chicken salad with veggie or fruit bits left from the previous weekend) with Swiss and homemade mayo and an apple
Homemade baked potato chips (400 F. oven, lightly coat 2 rimmed baking sheets with non stick spray.  Slice potatoes super thin with food processor and place 1/4 inch apart on sheet.  Season and bake, rotating halfway trough until golden brown - about 30 minutes)
extra fruit for afternoon snack
homemade peanut butter or oatmeal cookie

For me:  baked potato with a bit of salsa and cottage cheese with some carrots,  applesauce for dessert


Cottage cheese or leftover soup or casserole from the freezer with a slice of bread and a small apple
an extra fruit for a snack
Lebanese herbed rice - with homegrown herbs and bulk cow, less than .75 cents a serving

weekend lunches - boxed  mac and cheese to which I've added a little leftover corn, a little leftover chicken or ground beef, a little pepper and salsa, topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked
canned green beans

Leftover barbecue shredded chicken served on homemade rolls with extra sauce and canned corn.

Baked potato stuffed with  leftover veggies, salsa, cheeses, whatever bits are in the fridge.

leftover soups or stews (frozen)

leftover pizza


(1) Split Pea Soup (from Scratch) with potatoes and onions (beef bone to add seasoning)
Cornbread from scratch

(2) Meat Sauce and Pasta (made with  from scratch sauce from previous week, adding peppers and ground beef).
Canned corn
Garlic toast (homemade bread, a little oil and garlic powder toasted in a pan)
Lasagna bread

(3) Baked potatoes stuffed with meat sauce with a sprinkle of cheese or lasagne bread (meatsauce, 3 cheese stuffed day old rolls)
Can of peas and carrots
Fresh green beans

(4) Homemade lentil soup (beef bone and spices for seasoning)
leftover cornbread
carrot sticks

(5) Chicken with  homemade canned barbecue sauce
Steamed rice
Canned corn
Remainder of fresh green beans

(6)   Pizza Night - deep dish this time, homemade. topped with  homemade Canadian bacon (much cheaper than the store bought), leftover veggies bits  and cheese
Romaine salad with cucumber and homemade vinaigrette.  Croutons made out of older bread.

(7) White beans with ham shank and spices
Garlic toast made with homemade bread, sprinkled with a little cheese
Carrots or canned veggies of choice.
Cookies for dessert and some sweet tea sitting out on the front porch

So whether you are budgeting or just learning to be more prepared, start getting creative in the kitchen and with your meal prep and prepping.  It might save you more than a little money some day.


  1. Do you garden as well, or barter for your fresh veggies? About the only thing I manage to can each year is green chili (I use it as a base for many of my recipes) and green beans, the ingredients for which I buy at a farmer's market by the bushel. We do garden a bit, but we haven't had enough in recent years to put up. I do love my fresh-from-the-garden lettuce and spinach.

    1. Our back yard is VERY tiny (100 year old neighborhood in the city) so no gardening. I do barter. I have colleagues who have land for veggies and eggs, but aren't fond of baking, so they are happy to trade my muffins and breads and rolls for some. Baking for me is like reloading, a very Zen like activity I find totally relaxing and will happily spend most of a Saturday in the kitchen.

  2. How do you obtain wild yeast? I have the recipe book of a well known bakery in Seattle and for some breads they obtain their wild yeast from bunches of grapes.

    1. http://mausersandmuffins.blogspot.com/2016/03/diy-baking-yeast-free-bread.html

      I started my first batch with the Azure Standard Starter (they're in Oregon) and the second batch, I just made from spores collected from my garden. It's takes about 3 weeks for it to really take off to where you can bake something other than a door stop, but the flavor is incredible and I make it with just whole wheat flour so it's extra healthy.

  3. The "Take and Bake" pizza chain headquartered in Vantucky (where else) accepts EBT/SNAP. $194/person/month works out to $20+ worth of take out every night for a family of four -- two pizzas *and* crazy bread!

    It took me about a year of living in Vantucky to figure out the "Take and Bake" secret. Here in Texas, they can't give their product away.

  4. The only word I have for this post is "inspiring"! thank you, sometimes we all get stuck in our routines of the same things day in and day out and that can be expensive in itself. Your post reminds us of other option and shows how it can be done. We like to prep things, have some basics at the farm, but as we're in town more often, I neglect to keep that up. Thanks again!

  5. Great post, Brigid!

    Concerning rice in bulk, do you know if brown rice is commonly available?

    I greatly prefer it over white rice, but I'm ashamed to say I've never bought rice, beans, or flour in bulk.

    That will be changing after our move to Colorado!

    1. Brown rice has a short shelf life (about 6 months) due to the oil content found in it, so it will go rancid quickly unless stored in the fridge/freezer. Unopened White, wild, arborio, jasmine and basmati rice all have an indefinite shelf life, when kept free from contaminants.

    2. Thanks!

      I'll look into bulk "wild rice", which I've read is actually closer to grass seed than it is white rice.

  6. Preach it, sister....

    As you know, we do a similar (but somewhat less rigorous) thing, and spend less than $300...

    We only splurge a little for guests!

    1. Yeah - but Midwest Chick's bread is better than mine - so you're lucky :-)

  7. A lot of work for food. I think if that kind of effort is applied to all of life SNAP might not be necessary.

  8. Very good meals here! Too bad a copy of this article can't be given to everyone on public assistance. Sadly, I expect those numbers to grow much larger in the near future.


  9. One thing you didn't mention. Rochester, and I'm sure many other towns and cities, have Public Markets, where you buy direct from the farmer. You are getting fresh, wholesome fruits, vegetables, fish and meat at very reasonable prices. I, too, have been in the grocery store and seen shoppers fill their cart with processed food and high calorie items with little or no really nutritious items. Usually, these carts are being pushed by someone that weighs 300 lbs.

  10. All great ideas! It was the hardest thing about moving here that there is almost no space to plant a garden. Thankfully I have family & friends that are willing to trade their produce for my sporting clay biscuits...

    1. Brighid - I saw a picture of your biscuits with gravy once and they looked pretty darn good. Dad says hi!

  11. I have cooked "from scratch" for over 30 years. My mother and grandmother taught me how to run a budgeted menu plan in my early teens. I taught both my sons to do the same things before they left home.

    We sat down with a sale bill from the grocer, used local farmer's markets for produce in season, grew things we liked with container gardening "vertically" on the patio, baked our own bread and "goodies". We averaged out to about $300 to $400/month for a household of of three adults.

    Like you, I keep a stock of staple items and replenish my pantry, freezer and refrigerator with sale items, buy in bulk and save left overs.

    I write down what to replace when I use something. I plan my menu ahead for two weeks and shop accordingly with the list in hand.

    My family calls this "living within your means". It takes planning and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. We have cash for emergencies and fun things.

    Thank you so much for encouraging others with your blog. I look forward to your posts, even if I don't comment often.

    Warm Regards,

  12. Wonderful! Oh, congratulations on the marriage. It's not like I didn't see it coming, I just have been... hibernating and scruffy ill lately. Still, there it is. :) Lucky ducks. Jealous, but in the best of ways.

    Back to food? Ah, I have been trying, myself, to really watch what I eat, cook, and such. I can't quite swing meatlessness. Then again I often only eat a meal a day, sometimes less. So I could probably still afford meat, per meal, every meal. Although, a trick to meat, for me, is buying it on the hoof, sort of, and picking it up off the bone. I have a hog this month, and a beef next month, if I share out good portions. Cuts into profits, but makes for good friends.

    If bread gets a bit much, or you want a change? Tortillas! I don't want to eat those daily, but four batches for a couple weeks works for me. I am figuring things out that way too. Just... saying hello, offering cheers for your new full-time partnership, and sharing out notions about other ways to save or do.

    I don't know about you, but I am loving the food. Chicken stock recently, and then made fresh homemade from scratch chicken and rice soup. Beef bone broth when I'm feeling up to it. But lots of things, like dutch babies or crapes or burritos from scratch to fill things in. Good cooking, loving, and life.

    1. Thanks Doom - and I'm glad to hear you're still out thre and doing well. We had our second anniversary, and outside of needing a bigger gun safe, merged our homes pretty effortlessly. :-)

    2. Second? Wow. Then again I am rather spotty in my old age, and you don't, probably, always indicate in even every few posts, that you are married now. As to the gun safe, I am quite sure that is a blessed problem to solve. Sorry to be so off-script but glad to see youall settled. It's a comfort.

  13. Super post! I think you hit the sweet-spot with regard to the amount of detail. This is a HUGE topic and deserved more than just skipping across the tops of the waves.

    Once again, you delivered.

  14. Brigid, forgive me if you are already aware of them, but Penzey's Spices (https://www.penzeys.com) sell spices that are much better than Schillings or McCormack, and most of them are far cheaper as well. They are fairly liberal, but I hold my nose when I place an order because the quality is even better than their prices. I've got a deep larder of a wide variety, from arrowroot to wasabi. Their Vietnamese cinnamon, while more expensive than their Ceylon or Indonesian cinnamon, is really superb (their cinnamons are more expensive than chain stores, but there is no comparison in taste).

    Having a "vague" idea of how much you enjoy cooking, I think you would enjoy looking through their offerings in the way of curries, vindaloo seasoning, grilling spice combinations, etc. Curried cabbage is one of our favorite side dishes.

    My wife does a large garden every year and I have been many a five gallon bucket filled with artisan flours from Honeyville, beans, peas, rice, etc. I've even laid in some Yoder's canned bacon, in case we get snowed in as sometimes happens here in the mountains. While pumping well water (230 feet down) is the first concern, our solar system is also there to keep our freezers running come hell or deep snow. Would you believe 200 pounds of butter in our big freezer, bought when it came on sale for $1.50 - (now) $2.00? I'm not sure I would want to live if I didn't have butter to cook with and eat! If things get nasty, I'll get a Dexter or two, so I don't have to do without milk, butter, and cheese (prefer clean goat's milk - raised Toggenburgs before - but getting butter out of goat's milk is hard work, though it can be done).

    If the folks on food stamps would buy staples instead of "fast food" and packaged meals, they could eat much better by cooking their own, as you amply demonstrate.

    Any time you talk about cooking, I salivate like a son-of-a-gun, knowing how far superior your cooking is compared to most restaurant food available these days, even in the larger cities, and for a fraction of the cost. I've been cooking for over fifty years (my dad started teaching me at 14 when I moved in with him after my parents divorced), and my love for good cooking shows at the beltline, but that's all right.

    1. Thanks Reg - you sound like you have a great set up and I envy you the mountain living (unfortunately we are both in very specialized careers that require us to be in a big city). I know about Penzy's and used to visit their store in Indy all the time. This is a great cookie recipe using some of their items. http://mausersandmuffins.blogspot.com/2015/12/come-to-dark-side-we-do-have-cookies.html

  15. Where do you live !? My stamps were cut from $81.00 to $65.00 .. Try living on that when you've got diabetes - no potatoes/pasta/rice/cornbread - Swiss Chard $2.00 BUNCH! No,no sodas/candy/cookies/chips.. The ends just keep getting further and further apart.

    1. I live in Chicago - a very expensive city to live in. I agree, not being able to do beans and grains on a budget is REALLY hard. My brother was diabetic and I found some $2 to 2.50 per serving diabetic friendly recipes here . http://www.diabetes.org/mfa-recipes/recipes/budget-friendly.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/


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