How to eat on $4/day

I spend a lot of money on food. (More than I spend on my mortgage.)

Part of it is need, of course. But much of it is want, because I'm both an enthusiastic cook and a health nut. I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I'm fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms. I know that not everyone has that option. For some people, food is about survival. They have to stretch their food budget as far as they possibly can. Sometimes they go to bed hungry.

Being Realistic

From time to time, I read GRS comments asking for advice for people who are struggling just to make ends meet. They can barely afford to eat, let alone save a six-month emergency fund or open a Roth IRA.

Comments like those always stay with me, but I've shied away from writing about those topics because I feel awkward doling out advice on something I know nothing about. I don't know what it's like to struggle to put food on the table. I'm not a teacher or a social worker who witnesses struggles like that.

And I certainly didn't want to repeat McDonald's blunder, when it created an unrealistic sample budget for its minimum-wage workers, inadvertently proving that its workers couldn't live on a McDonald's salary. The budget estimate didn't include line items for heating or child care, so you know it was just a little out of touch and completely unhelpful to its minimum-wage workers.

But last weekend I came across an article about Leanne Brown, and I immediately knew I would share her story on GRS.

Eating on $4/Day

Brown moved from Canada to New York to pursue a master's degree in food studies. While volunteering with food access programs, she noticed that people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were eating a lot of processed and unhealthy foods.

“It really bothered me,” she told NPR. “The 47 million people on food stamps — and that's a big chunk of the population — don't have the same choices everyone else does.”

Part of the reason why they don't have the same food choices is that the average SNAP benefit per person is $133 per month for food. That works out to roughly $4.30 per day.

Another problem is that to feed a family on $4 a day, you have to cook. And you have to cook in a way that most of our grandmas used to cook, knowledge that many people didn't inherit. For instance, cooking an entire chicken is more cost-effective than buying individual cuts, especially if you use every bit of the bird, even making stock from the bones. But when I started cooking, I had no idea how to cook and carve an entire chicken let alone how to make stock. My education came from copies of Cook's Illustrated and lots of trial and error. And before I taught myself how to cook, I didn't know how to really use up all of my groceries. For instance, I used to throw away stale bread. Now I know how to make like an Italian grandma and throw it in some pappa al pomodoro. But of course, I have leisure time to cook, and food is my hobby. Some people don't have time for hobbies. Instead, they have two jobs and kids to raise.

Finally, another big problem Brown noticed is that the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn't look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.”

So Brown set out to create a solution to these problems, writing Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook for people on a tight budget.

Eating Well, on the Cheap

Brown's book features recipes and ideas for eating well on $4 a day, with each meal priced by the serving.

It also offers advice about how to stock a pantry with meal-building basics like garlic and dried beans, how to use leftovers, and options for substitutions, especially when it comes to produce. “I've gotten so many emails — heartwarming, heartbreaking emails — from people who tell me what this would have meant for them, growing up, to have guidance like this,” she told National Geographic's The Plate.

And, it's a nice-looking book, with recipes like vegetable jambalaya and savory summer cobbler. You know, stuff that real humans would actually want to eat.

But how do you get this resource out to the people who need it most?

Crowd-Funding For a Great Cause

Brown first made her book available as a free PDF. “I created this book at the capstone project for my MA in Food Studies…” writes Brown in her book. “After I posted a free PDF on my website, it went viral on Reddit, Tumblr, and elsewhere — almost 100,000 downloads in the first few weeks!”

Realizing she was solving a real pain point for a lot of people, Brown started thinking about how to reach more of the people she was writing for. For instance, someone without a computer or Internet access can't download and cook from a PDF.

So Brown created a Kickstarter campaign to help fund printed copies. “The expensive part of printing books is the initial setup; the cost of each additional copy is fairly low,” she wrote on her campaign page. The more books people bought, the more she could donate or sell at a huge discount to organizations that support low-income families on SNAP.

The result? Her $10,000 campaign ended with $144,681. That translates to more than 26,000 copies for nonprofits at $4 per book, plus more than 6,000 additional copies donated by her Kickstarter backers. The books will ship in September, according to Brown's site.

So in conclusion, Leanne Brown is my newest food hero. And although the Kickstarter campaign is over, you can still download her free PDF, donate money, buy a print copy, or buy a copy and donate a copy at www.leannebrown.ca/cookbooks.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said the average SNAP benefit per family was $113 per month. The correct figure is $133 per month per person.

More about...Food, Frugality, Planning

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Clara
Clara
5 years ago

The first time I heard of this book, I clicked through to read it. I don’t need to spend $4 a day on food, but my budget isn’t all that far away from that. I love to eat great, healthy food but I don’t make much money and I really don’t have a lot of time. This book had some great suggestions. I am a good cook so I tend to look at cookbooks for ideas more than very specific recipes. I found some great ideas here. Knowing how to cook does seem to be a real barrier for people… Read more »

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
5 years ago
Reply to  Clara

Apartment Therapy had a discussion a while ago about eating healthy on low-income. I can’t find the post, but one thing I learned from it was what you just said – knowing how to cook is a big deal. Also, having a kitchen in working condition is also a big deal, and something many take for granted. One of the commenters mentioned how in one apartment she couldn’t buy in bulk and save leftovers because her refrigerator was too unreliable.

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
5 years ago

Yeah, when I was still in grad school my oven was old (like, several decades old) and gas and scary. I would use the stovetop because I felt ok lighting those pilot lights, but not the oven. I had a toaster oven, but no microwave. My fridge died once, too, and ruined all the food in fridge and freezer, plus a bottle of insulin. Insulin is CRAZY expensive (it was for my cat, so no insurance!). I deducted the cost of the spoiled food and medicine from my rent, but yeah, not everyone has a working kitchen.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Totally agree. At my last place, I lost three fridges worth of food, then my supers finally replaced the appliance with some kind of factory second that didn’t work properly either, but hey, it was brand new! They didn’t left me deduct the cost of the food either.

Having a reliable fridge with a decent sized freezer compartment has made a huge difference!

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

What a great resource! Thanks for sharing. I’m really impressed by the author’s efforts to get the guide into the hands of people who need it. I also thought that’s a pretty great use of crowd funding.

AMW
AMW
5 years ago

Kudos for spreading the word on such a great endeavor!

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

Great blog about eating well and frugally:

http://www.budgetbytes.com

Jana
Jana
5 years ago
Reply to  Adam

Hello! New favorite website – thanks so much for the link!

Babs
Babs
5 years ago

Excellent post, April! I spend a lot on food, too. These recipes look great & different from my usual fare (spicier!). I think I will order 1 for me & 1 for each of my kids.
I love problem solvers & I agree with Beth, this is an ideal kickstarter project.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
5 years ago

What a great project and resources. Thanks for sharing!

Alicia
Alicia
5 years ago

This is really inspiring to see. I am not limited to $113/month for food, but I know it’s somewhere we could trim the fat, so I will definitely be looking at the recipes. I am a fairly good cook, and make a lot of stuff that’s throw-backs to the 50’s era (full chicken example vs. just breasts), but I can’t wait to get a few new ideas.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
5 years ago

Not to take away from the story, but the link provided shows that $113 a month is the average monthly benefit per person, not per family.

Ellen Cannon
5 years ago
Reply to  Ramblin' Ma'am

Thanks for that, Ramblin’ Ma’am. We’ve edited the article so that the figure is accurate — $133 per person per month is the national average SNAP benefit.

Millionaires Giving Money
Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

Surviving on $4 a day is tough however it can be done. With a little know how, frugal cooking and leftover management you can live a healthier and cost effective life. Excellent post, thanks for sharing.

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
5 years ago

This post reminded me a post from Apartment Therapy last month. It was asking people who live on minimum wage how they manage (or don’t). It was really enlightening, and hearbreaking, but included tips that people here would find helpful.

http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/living-on-minimum-wage-206197

sarah
sarah
5 years ago

I will definitely be printing some copies of this. I’m a community psychiatric social worker and most of my clients really struggle with food. Many are overweight and diabetic as well as mentally ill, and here in Texas $113 of food stamps is just a dream. Someone homeless with zero income might get that much but most people get a lot less. People don’t realize that for the truly poor, even a microwave is a luxury – many of my clients don’t have a way to cook and some end up making packet soups in a coffee maker, but most… Read more »

Prudence Debtfree
Prudence Debtfree
5 years ago

Wonderful! Thank you Leanne Brown for addressing a tragic problem so directly and constructively. Thank you April Dykman and GRS for spreading the word! I will do the same.

JenB
JenB
5 years ago

This is one of the best articles I have read in awhile. What an inspiring story of one person making an impact to help others. I love hearing about grassroots efforts like this that take off. Hope to find my own small way to help someday too. Thanks for sharing!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago

First thing– for those who want so save money, learning to cook is A MUST. Even if you buy the most generic corn flakes for breakfast, cooking oatmeal is going to be cheaper.

Second, I checked out the book and it looks FUN. The recipes are so simple anyone can do them.

So, I just made their savory oatmeal for breakfast and it was AWESOME. I had green onions frozen and I used pepper jack instead of cheddar. DAMN!

Everyone here download that PDF.

Thanks April!

Priswell
Priswell
5 years ago

Cooking is an absolutely necessary skill, but it seems like the up and coming generation doesn’t know how to cook. In our area, the local SNAP allows for $6 per day, a $2 difference, and at this level, it’s a huge amount. We know that because recently, a young friend found himself almost homeless, which made him eligible for it. He had never cooked, so for several weeks, we taught him how to cook certain basic things such as pancakes, beans and chicken. He got really good at making chicken several ways, but his favorite was with salsa to go… Read more »

olga
olga
5 years ago

Having come from former Soviet Union, times when the Euro and American pre-packaged food in grocery stores did not exist, and going out was set ONLY for a very special occasion once a year, not knowing how to cook always blows my mind. I don’t mean all complicated recipe with various steps and spices…I mean cook. Like, put any kind of meat either on a skillet or in the oven, boil water and throw potatoes or pasta or rice…and chop some salad? Just today I ran by a few Starbucks and McD’s on the way to work (sometimes I run… Read more »

olga
olga
5 years ago
Reply to  olga

p.s. the donating part is the one that makes most sense, and is very admirable. Thanks for that. But it is also up to us, adults, to teach our children how to do simple cooking.

Alea
Alea
5 years ago
Reply to  olga

Word! Also from that part of the world, and after 30 years of living in this country, it too blows my mind that some people can’t brew their own coffee, toast a piece of bread with some jam and it will cost them .50 cents instead of the $4-$5 for breakfast or whatever is costs, and then wonder why they can’t get ahead. We have a running joke at our house, about how much our home cooked meals cost, vs. a pizza or Panda Express or any other convenient meals. Like when they brag on the KFC commercial that dinner… Read more »

Mrs PoP
Mrs PoP
5 years ago
Reply to  olga

Would you believe my mom was a home ec teacher and the only “cooking” I could do was following the directions printed on the side of a box? I learned how to bake cookies and treats, but that was about it until the past few years. Now we eat so much healthier and for so much less after learning to cook rather than “cook”. Actually when you strip out the indulgences of our grocery spending (beer and other items that don’t really give us much nutritional value), we’re not too far off the $4/day per person and I think most… Read more »

imelda
imelda
5 years ago
Reply to  olga

It also seems to be a regional thing within the US. Practically every Southern woman I’ve met knows how to throw a yummy meal together like it’s no big thing. Those of us from the north(east)…not so much. I honestly don’t know how or why it happened this way. We just never learned, and now it seems like such a big deal, you only cook if you’re a foodie who really enjoys the process.

Stephanie
Stephanie
5 years ago
Reply to  imelda

Throw in a stick of butter and some sour cream, top it with cheese and bake.

OR

Soak it overnight, turn on your crockpot and throw in the leftover hambone. Add cornbread.

That is how I was taught to cook down here. It’s always good but not so healthy. It wasn’t until I hit my 30’s did I start experimenting with roasted veggies, herbs and some of the other goodies in the book.

Tina
Tina
5 years ago

She mentions in the book that some ingredients can be expensive at first like olive oil and spices but it pays off because it lasts a long time. If you have the option to buy in bulk at one of the warehouse clubs, see if someone will split the products with you to save money. The olive oil I purchase is about $11.00 but it is a super big jug so my mom and I split it. I keep an empty jug from when it runs out I add more into the jug and Mom takes the new jug home.… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
5 years ago
Reply to  Tina

Excellent! Many people, especially victims of helicopter parents, have no clue how to plan for anything.

Thank you!

2annabelle
2annabelle
5 years ago
Reply to  Tina

I shop for my spices at a bulk food store (where the food is in big bins and you scoop out what you want). I can buy enough spice to fill up a spice bottle for about 50 cents….MUCH cheaper than the grocery store, and if the store is well kept and clean, I don’t worry about bugs.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

I am fortunate that I grew up wanting to cook as a hobby due to my love of food. Learning to cook was not only my extracurricular activity at home, it was my mother’s requirement that I learn at least the basics: how to cut a chicken, how to make broth, how to prepare vegetables, food safety, etc. When I had to change my diet from the SAD to what I partake in now, I realized I do spend less on healthy foods than processed foods, even on a ~50% organic, omnivore diet. I believe one piece of kitchen equipment… Read more »

Ray
Ray
5 years ago

This is really cool, and even better for being so vegetarian. I spend a lot on organic produce for health reasons but have no idea how to cook (eh, or motivation to) so I just steam or boil everything and put hot sauce on it (cringe, I know). One thing that is a SERIOUS deterrent for me is a long list of ingredients, even if it’s just spices. I think, if the spices were put in a separate visual location in the recipe, I might try more recipes (isn’t that stupid?). I love her “Things on Toast” section! Thanks for… Read more »

Alea
Alea
5 years ago
Reply to  Ray

We are also working towards more and more greens and less and less meat, (not quite vegetarians) but even with a cart full of only fresh ingredients, it is very expensive, it blows our $80 weekly budget out of the water. Fresh is more expensive, which is insane frankly.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Alea

I always go for the frozen veggies– they’re as nutritions as fresh and they don’t rot in the crisper. Broccoli & spinach freeze & defrost well and are very cheap to buy. I’m not too fond of broccoli but it can be decent if you grill it in the same pan where you cooked your meat, right after. Sometimes I’ll buy fresh vegs on sale and freeze them on purpose (green onions, chiles, kale from costco, etc). If you’re on an $80/week budget, try the frozen spinach from the supermarket. Spinach = superfood. Here’s a full meal CHEEP: rice, lentils,… Read more »

Alea
Alea
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Yes to everything, we do about 90% of what you suggested. Mom is now into veggie and fruit smoothies, and freezes just about everything now. Homemade ice cream with frozen fruit is beyond yummy. :o)

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Oh here’s a good one, if you have a food processor: if you have too many bananas, slice & freeze them. (You can also buy bananas like this on purpose from Costco where a huge bag is like $1.50.) When you want “ice cream”, plunk the slices into the food processor and they will turn creamy. I add roasted almonds (bought in bulk raw, roasted at home) and they powder into the mix, amazing. Can also add rum-soaked raisins (bulk raisins + cheap dark rum), vanilla, cinnamon, whatever– experiment! (Rum raisins obscure the taste of almonds though so I do… Read more »

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I second El Nerdo’s faux ice cream, I make it all the time since I can’t eat real ice cream. I add chocolate soymilk, fresh mint, peanut butter, honey, whatever you want really!

Komrad
Komrad
5 years ago

Since I don’t have much free time, a dinky kitchen space, and storage can barely hold a week’s worth of food, I’ve found batch cooking to be the best solution to eat healthy on the cheap. I wind up eating the same thing over and over, but it gets the job done and it much better than eating out. The exception is coffee, I grew up on espresso and anything else just doesn’t work for me. So starbucks is my go to place during the week when I rush to work. In weekends I can take the time to use… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Komrad

I know what you mean, Komrad. I too love espresso and can’t duplicate it at home, not without a $$$$ machine.

For drinking coffee strictly at home (except for social occasions), I compromise by buying the best coffee bean I can. Locally roasted, organic, whole bean so that I can at least enjoy my cup of coffee. I may pay more for the beans but it will still be less than buying coffee out.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Komrad

Coffee fiends on a budget! You’re doing it wrong! If you’re out of time to deal with your fresh beans and french press in the morning (best way to do coffee without pricey paraphernalia is a french press), here’s how: Heat up 3oz water (takes seconds), add 1 tsp of medaglia d’oro instant espresso, add some sugar (instant coffee needs a touch of sweet), and it’s a pretty great substitute for your favorite legal drug while remaining *ultracheap* vs. the alternative, w/ added benefit that unlike fresh beans it doesn’t go rancid in a week. I’ve also tried the Taster’s… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I don’t do the artificial stuff, and definitely not sweetened. Nothing beats real coffee beans, especially quality beans. 🙂 I just buy enough to last us a week, and I use the pour over method.

I don’t need a Costco sized bag at home.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

That’s the thing though– it’s not artificial! It’s just freeze-dried. Cheaper instant coffees will have more robusta bean, and pricier ones will have more arabica. But if you read the label, it’s just *coffee and nothing else*. At least the good ones– don’t know about the ratty ones. I used to have a similar attitude until I woke up to this fact. And yes, nothing beats fresh roasted beans (they’re all real beans), but when in a rush (or away from home), you can avoid going to Fivebucks with the right powder in your pack. Just make sure you use… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Ah, I see, I though I read differently. I still never liked freeze dried coffee. I’ve tried it many times and it always fell flat to me. I don’t like adding sweeteners to my coffee (or anything I eat or drink) so that may be it.

I do like your idea of bringing something with you if you’re in a run. Thankfully I’m never that desperate for coffee though if I was leaving town super early, it may be an option.

I don’t go to Starbucks, I live in a city with so many good, local coffee places.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Hi again Carla,

A bit late to reply here, sorry about that.

In principle, yes to all you say– but a food-stamp budget has no room for nice coffee shops. To think of those things when broke and unable to afford them is just torment.

Food-stamp budgets can get a much better value from a $5 jar of Nescafé that yields, oh… 100 cups? And it doesn’t take up space, or go stale (maybe in a year), or require you to brew a whole pot, etc. etc.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Oh definitely! I didn’t say I go to those places (except for special occasions) I would just prefer it over Starbucks, and Starbucks is often cheaper for plain coffee. Yes, a food stamp budget doesn’t really allow for any extras (and not sure if SNAP would pay for coffee anyway). When I was unemployed and paying up to $800/month in out-of-pocket in medical expenses and no SNAP, there was no room in the budget for anything to drink other than tap water, let alone luxuries such as home brewed coffee. I know powered coffee is cheap but I’m an all… Read more »

Chrissy
Chrissy
5 years ago

We went through a period of job loss combined with a serious illness, and our family of five ended up on food stamps for a few months. Very eye-opening. I already had become very frugal with our grocery budget ($125/week for a family of five) by making everything from scratch, limiting processed foods, making tea instead of soda, etc., but when I went back to work full time, I quickly realized that, like a lot of things in the frugal life, it is a time vs money choice. If I walk in from a 12 hour day, I don’t have… Read more »

cathy
cathy
5 years ago
Reply to  Chrissy

I have to say I’m a bit envious of people for whom cooking from scratch is a luxury. We all have food allergies (the anaphylactic kind) or other limitations so cooking from scratch every day is required. There just aren’t packages I can open when I’m feeling too beat to cook. “Fast food” for us is something involving packaged brown rice tortillas rather than homemade or cooking a bag of pasta. Either way, sauces and toppings have to be made from scratch (though I try to batch cook some each week). On the plus side, we eat good, whole foods–almost… Read more »

Amy
Amy
5 years ago

“She described them as ‘photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.'”

Those are my favorite kinds of recipes! 🙂

Stephanie
Stephanie
5 years ago
Reply to  Amy

Mine too! I actually look for old church cookbooks at thrift stores frequently.

James Salmons
James Salmons
5 years ago

Your comment, “From time to time, I read GRS comments asking for advice for people who are struggling just to make ends meet. They can barely afford to eat, let alone save a six-month emergency fund or open a Roth IRA,” jumped out at me. It identifies the exact reason I started many years ago to teach people about money. I had opportunities through my work to do a lot of counseling and money often played a role in their concerns. But at that time almost all resources dealt with such topics as you mention. The problem is that while… Read more »

Kyle
Kyle
5 years ago

Budget, budget, budget! Whether it is limiting your spending on food or paying off debt. Has been the key to my success for years. My favorite budgeting software is YNAB.

Karin
Karin
5 years ago

Great article – thank you! I’m a big fan of cooking from scratch, for both the savings and the health benefits. Even now that we’re not so broke, a lot of my household’s meals feature legumes. They’re delicious, nutritious, and oh so cheap!

http://karinscuisine.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/luscious-legumes.html

Marie
Marie
5 years ago

This is a fantastic effort. I think an excellent follow-up would be finding a way to provide low-income households with cooking classes.

Sheena
Sheena
5 years ago

I’ve been trying out a bunch of recipes from that book and I love it. They’re pretty simple and tend to use the same basic ingredients which is great for me because one of the things that put me off cooking in the past was realizing I’d bought a large quantity of something that I would never use again. I never learned much cooking–I just wasn’t interested as a child, plus my mother’s cooking is fine, but we tended to eat pretty simple stuff. I give myself a generous food budget because as a grad student I don’t always have… Read more »

Jeff Bronson
Jeff Bronson
5 years ago

While I haven’t attempted a $4/day budget for food, I definitely try to do it frugally. Buying in bulk, cooking ahead of time and freezing, farmer’s market… these all help!

Mike
Mike
5 years ago

Old post, I know, but I’m a little surprised no one is talking about this: Try making $4 worth of food from this book. Do you feel this will feed a person of normal size and activity level?

By my estimation these recipes seem to average something slightly over a dollar per serving, yielding (generously) 4 servings a day…but the serving sizes seem so small as to make this unsustainable.

Has anyone from this book’s target audience actually tried this?

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