Monday, July 18, 2011

Cooking challenge on a Food Stamp budget

Hi all,

I have a rather unusual request for you... I'm a teacher in the Bronx and my kids are suffering from really bad diet choices. Parents are overworked and have little time to put together a healthy, nutritious meal for breakfast and dinner. I recently revamped my diet based on how little time I have to spend on cooking and found myself healthier and happier in just a few months. Turns out it was also cheaper than what I used to pay. I ultimately want to slate these into a calendar to be a resource for the parent coordinator at our school. Not only will recipes be readily available, but also a hassle free schedule of great food so time (such a precious commodity for parents holding down 2-3 jobs and raising kids) is even less an issue.

What I'm looking for:
Simple, healthy meals that provide tons of nutrients, are filling, and can feed a family for a few days. I'm thinking if a parent only needs to cook once or twice a week they will be more likely to cook healthy (I certainly am!). Further, simple meals might be able to be made by high schoolers getting a feel for the kitchen, which can boost self esteem!

The challenge: a family of four on food stamps in NYC gets $668 a month to eat. Let's call this $620 for the family after incidentals. Break that down into four weeks and you get $155 to provide breakfast and dinner.

Based on this, can you cooking gurus out there with families or expertise cooking big come up with some meals so I can create a recipe master list? The more the better. Some can last a week, others can last a few days. The idea is to cook cheap, nutritious, yummy food that lasts a few days. Let's keep it simple and say there are two adults and two kids (both late elementary-high school age: 10-18 yrs) and there are no dietary restrictions. 

So, get to cooking and any feedback/recipes would be greatly appreciated.

Cook on,


  1. Here are the frugal nutritious meals we regularly consume:

    Whole chickens can really stretch. I never buy meat without bone. I bake it then take off the meat (which can be used for a million things) and then make a few gallons of broth (being sure not to skim the fat since there are so many nutrients in there). Same with cheap bone-in cuts of beef. I am all about the cheap slow cooking cut of meat that leaves me with bones to broth.

    Beans are a huge part of our diet. One package of dry beans costs me 50 cents or so and makes a huge pot... which I then turn into soup (with the aforementioned broth), burritos (especially burritos with cabbage slaw... what a cheap vegetable!), drain for salad, and add to a casserole. Completing the protein with rice or frozen/canned corn isn't expensive.

    Learning to make basic stuff... like making an actual white sauce instead of using a can of "cream of..." soup in a casserole can help make things cheaper too (flour and fat are pennies, cans of soup are not).

    We eat a lot of cornbread because it's so fast to make but the trick is we buy whole corn, not de-germinated stuff (which is the corn equivalent of white flour). That might be hard to find, especially in poor areas. But if you can get it and then eat the result with greens (I loooove greens and they're full of nutrients) or a simple salad of beans or black eyed peas, plus corn, and tomatoes it's really great.

    And back to the broth... soups, extended with bone broths are an incredible way to make large quantities of food with cheap and lower quality ingredients. I prefer fresh greens wilted in some olive oil but if I have frozen, soups and casseroles are the way to go (otherwise you've got limp wet greens). And when the grocery puts on sale bags of almost dead produce, with careful trimming a huge pot of soup results.

    And eggs. Relatively cheap, fast, and ridiculously good for you.

    Everything above takes minimal prep. I set them up and then walk away to do other stuff for a while as they slowly cook.

    And now I'm starving.

  2. Although not terribly diverse as a diet, there are three foods that contain much of the nutrition the body needs: potatoes, whole milk, and oats. Add in butter, olive oil or peanut oil for a lipid, and three meals of that give enough calories with a good amino acid profile and enough of the essential vitamins and minerals. Also, this combination is low in sugar, but the basics can be prepared by just about anyone who can boil water.

  3. Saaaay, you two aren't married, are you? These are great - what I'm going to be looking in the coming weeks are definitive cooking and shopping instructions from folks - I've noticed a lot of cooks on the forums talk vaguely and with a narrative when discussing food(meals can be a story!) which is great because it shows the comfort with the food - the next step is to formalize it and break it down into translatable steps. It's going to be good. I'm working on the framework for the wiki right now and will then start hitting the forums in big scale.

  4. What are food prices like in New York? I know that a pound of potatoes is $0.99 here, but what's it like there? If we have prices for a variety of foods, we could tailor a weekly diet and shopping list to a $155 budget. Otherwise, we're shooting in the dark a bit.

  5. That sounds about right - might be like 1.29 for a pound... bodega prices are a little nuts, but shoot for supermarkets - those prices shouldn't fluctuate too wildly. I put the weekly budget a little low at 155... per month, families on full food stamp benefits get something around 668... so there's a little leeway in budgets when it comes to incidentals and location.