Eat well on $50 a week: Challenge, or no duh?

The headlines for various projects and challenges to eat on a small food budget always slurp me in with their titillation, the gauntlet-throwing, and immediately I ask myself: could I do it? The answer always disappoints, because I'm either doing it already or find the challenge so impossible it's meaningless. Eating on $1 a day per person?

Ridiculous, really, and it requires sacrifices far too ethically objectionable (I won't, for instance, eat commodity food such as dried beans grown in China and beef raised most of its life squeezed into a feedlot). Eating for $50 per adult, per week, plus $25 per child? Sigh.

That's what three bloggers are doing for a year; they've been at it for about four months now, and they spend their blogging nights evaluating the difference between an $8 grocery store chicken and a $13 chicken from Hoosick River Farm ("I feel better from buying from what I believe to be a small family farm"), discovering the awesomeness of leftover brown rice ("for an allegedly creative person, I have a hard time re-imagining leftover food as anything other than itself"), contemplating the attractiveness of frozen shredded zucchini after blowing the budget on fast food.

It's problematic and oft-pointed out (as in this CNN post from July) that $50 per adult, per week, is not a huge gamble. For my family of five, that would come out to just over $750 a month; yes, it's about what we spend, but that's when we're really not paying attention to our budget and includes splurges on fruit to preserve and at least $100 a month in what I consider unnecessary convenience foods and beverages purchased by our husband (in my world, no one needs to drink juice, for instance -- vitamins are much better coming from actual fruit).

It's interesting to watch these experiments, but the truly frugal already have most of it figured out; and those who care more about buying meat raised thoughtfully at a small family farm than their budget aren't going to drive their spending down to the extreme lows. All these capers say is, either, "it's really hard to focus on anything but food when your budget is tiny," or, "yes! planning your week's meals and budgeting your expenses makes sense!"

Without boring you with the nitty-gritty of the dollars and cents of my spending and recipes, here are a few reminders on how to eat well for a budget that's sensible for you:
  • Learn to preserve "free" food. If your backyard plum tree or your neighbor's walnut tree is dropping more fruit than anyone can pick up, you're missing out on a great source of healthful food that doesn't affect your budget at all. Make plum jam or plum sauce for your poultry; pick up walnuts and dry them; yes, freeze that zucchini your mom gives you. That will help in December and January when you'd rather spend your cash on other things.
  • Never buy single-serving food. It's wasteful of money and packaging, and in all likelihood it's packed with preservatives and sugar.
  • Eat all of what you have. Don't let leftovers languish past their good-bye date; don't go out to eat when you have veggies or meat in the fridge that's about to spoil; if you can't eat everything you've cooked, invite someone over (maybe they'll return the favor when you're broke). Preserve what's left. See above.
  • Buy staples in bulk (sensibly). I only buy a few items in large quantities now that I've learned I just can't eat 25 pounds of brown rice in any conceivable time frame: fruit, whole wheat flour, thick-cut oatmeal, maple syrup, honey, butter and meat (for the freezer). I buy these through food co-ops or buying clubs for very good deals, and if I'm strapped for cash before payday, I can always bake something delicious.
  • Shop often for perishables, preferably at a farmer's market. I go almost every week in the winter and a few times a week during the summer to the local farmer's markets, picking up just what I can eat that week, or know I'll have time to preserve in the next few days. It's difficult to find the right balance, but leaving $20 in organic veggies to rot in the back of your crisper hurts (at least I compost the remains).
  • Grow something. I now grow all my own greens, herbs, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, peas and fresh-for-eating tomatoes. Once I master a category in the garden, I refuse to allow myself to buy it at the market, saving me money and maximizing the usefulness of my harvest. Next year, I hope to master garlic, hot peppers, broccoli and onions. Start with something easy (lettuce and peas are my suggestions) and start getting in tune with the seasonal rhythms; soon, you'll be wanting to eat that way.
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