The recent trend for $4 a day budget meal planning was popularized by Leanne Brown in her free online book Good and Cheap (PDF), developed primarily for those using SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Earlier this year, I decided to try the $4 a day food budget on a trial basis.
Spending only $4 a day was a big change from my previous budget, averaging nearly $12 per day. After the first couple grocery shopping trips, I found there seemed to be several strategies or rules to adopt to achieve this goal:
- Eliminate bottled water. It’s simply an impossible expense in low-budget meal planning. Drink tap water if you have confidence in your municipal source. If you prefer not to use tap water, then buy bulk filtered water; the cheapest source is usually at a station where you fill and haul a container yourself. Drink water only when you are thirsty, rather some set daily amount.
- Eliminate or greatly reduce your consumption of fruit juice. If you think of fruit juice as a sugary, high-calorie beverage, you’ll have an easier time eliminating it from your grocery shopping list. But, if starting your day without a glass of O.J. is too traumatic, then try reducing the size of your glass, or drinking it only on weekends.
- Eliminate or greatly reduce your consumption of coffee or tea. If you think about it, these beverages are luxuries. But going without a morning “cuppa joe” is a tough habit to break for some (it was for me). The cheapest source for your favorite brew is to buy bulk coffee beans or tea leaves, and then limit yourself to one great brewed cup per day. I sometimes re-brew coffee grounds twice, like they do in Ethiopia, the inventors of coffee, so why not try it?
- Eliminate or greatly reduce your consumption of beer, wine, and alcohol. We used to have a cocktail before dinner, followed by a glass of wine or two with the meal. First, we eliminated one, then both except for weekends or special occasions. Eventually, I liked the cost savings so much, I stopped routinely purchasing any alcohol at all, except for planned special occasions such holiday dinners or entertaining.
- Sodas or other sugary beverages are also out. There’s just no room in $4 a day budget meal planning for empty calories—foods that provide no nutritive value. Instead, add the (well washed) trimmings from fruits and vegetables to plain water or club soda, with sweetener if you prefer. Try water infused with zest peeled from citrus fruits (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit), cucumber peels, tropical fruit rinds (pineapple, mango, papaya, kiwi), melon rinds, celery leaves, tomato seeds, gingerroot ends, and easy-to-grow herbs you can plant in your yard for an endless supply, including mint, rosemary, and lavender. Of course you can use slices of fruits and vegetables, but I like finding a use for things that I might throw away to replace something else I might buy (such infused water to replace soda, tea, or juice).
- Eat whole fresh fruit only when in season locally. When fresh fruits are out of season, eat frozen, canned or dried fruits—whatever is the most economical purchase at the time.
- Re-think snacks and sweets. Crackers, chips, cookies, candy and other treats are costly. Look for other budget-conscious options. Here are a few that I found possible in a $4 a day budget: Popcorn (purchased in bulk) and popped in a saucepan using oil or an air popper; fresh fruit and a few (5-10) nuts; toast with peanut butter (with or without jam, honey or raisins); roasted potatoes with ketchup or ranch dressing; and chopped fruit or raisins stirred into plain yogurt. Easy homemade desserts such as bar cookies and sheet cakes are another possibility..
- Bulk foods are your friend. Purchasing bulk foods are very helpful for $4 a day grocery shopping. If you can shop at a store with bulk food bins, they are usually the most economical price per pound—but not always, so compare prices. The real advantage of bulk buying is you can afford some relatively expensive foods that might be out of reach in a pre-packaged amount, such as a bottle of oil and or jar of spices. Bulk bins are also economical sources for many basic foods such as dry beans, whole grains, flours, and dried fruits. Alternatively, if you have access to purchase large packages (for example 25 pound bags of beans or rice, vegetables or fruits by the case, or whole meat cuts such as beef chuck or pork shoulder), then you can realize substantial savings. Just make sure you aren’t buying more than you can use before the food goes bad, or you will be wasting rather than saving dollars.
- How to afford “extras”. On such a limited budget, it was challenging to afford many common items including herbs and spices, cooking oil and butter, sugar, jam or honey, and condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise. The first month I couldn’t afford most of these items—they seemed like “extras” that were out of reach on $4 a day. I started with a couple of items available in the bulk aisle. For example, just few tablespoons of salt and oregano, and just 2 ounces of olive oil. To avoid the need to use very much oil, I adjusted some of my preparation techniques, by preparing simmered soups, braised or roasted meats, and poached instead of fried eggs or omelets. I spread only peanut butter or honey on toast and skipped the butter altogether. After a few shopping trips, my stockpile of extra meals in the freezer started to grow, and I could start to purchase a few more “extras” beyond the most basic foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy.
- Reduce your purchase of packaged and prepared foods. I’ve always been a scratch cook and packaged products have never been a big part of my meal preparation routine. If you are used to convenience or don’t like to cook, this can be a tough change to make. Any food in a can, jar, box, or other package will usually cost more that the raw ingredients. Canned beans cost more than dry. Cut-up fresh carrots cost more than those in a bag or bulk display. Boneless or cut-up chicken costs more than whole. And the list goes on. The cost increases astronomically the more convenience you buy; foods such as sauce mixes, canned soups, frozen pizza and prepared dinners are simply unaffordable when limiting your food budget to $4 a day. A few basic recipes for soup, stew, stir-fry, and pasta sauce are easy to learn and can greatly reduce your food expenditure.
- Reduce your consumption of meat and poultry to the world average meat consumption of 79 pounds per year (an average of just 3.5 ounces per day). This compares to the current U.S. average of 200 pounds per year (8.75 ounces per day, or slightly more than a half pound). This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Well, maybe it is, depending on your lifestyle. Basically, it means having a small portion of meat at one meal each day and using other low-cost protein foods or vegetarian dishes for other meals. Here again, soups, stews, and many other simple meals and “one pot” dishes are your friend: stir-fry, pastas and casseroles, tacos, hearty soups, and entrée salads…to name a few. If you can’t part with eggs and bacon for breakfast, then by all means have it, but make lunch and dinner vegetarian meals that day. So mix it up any way that suits your lifestyle.
- Use more low-cost protein foods besides meat and poultry. Good sources of cheap protein include peanuts or almonds and their nut butters, eggs, Greek-style (thick) yogurt, cottage cheese, lentils, beans (especially soybeans, white beans, adzuki, pinto, kidney, black, navy, and garbanzo), canned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies), and whey protein (especially useful if you drink smoothies regularly).
- Buy the most nutritious food per dollar. Compare cost, as well as nutrition. Specifically, check the protein and fiber grams. Get as much protein and fiber for your dollar as you can. Use high protein grains whenever possible, including amaranth, bulgur, hulled barley, buckwheat, kamut, oats, quinoa, spelt, and wild rice. Choose whole grains over refined grains; for example, choose brown over white rice and whole wheat flour over white.
- Prepare bone-in whole cuts of meats and make bone broth. Bone-in whole cuts of meat are usually the most economical per pound. So buy these cuts, prepare a braised or roasted dish, and then reserve the bones to make a bone broth. Bone broth helps maximizes the nutrition in every food dollar you spend; it’s nutritional benefits include calories, protein, and minerals. Bone broth is made the same way you would meat or poultry stock, simmered with onion, celery, carrot and an herb bouquet for 4-6 hours. However, for true bone broth, you can eliminate the vegetables, but simmer for 24 to 48 hours to extract the most nutrition.
- Control fresh milk consumption. If you have children in the household, milk can become a significant item in the food budget. There are several ways to deal with this expense. Some families dilute fresh milk with water. We prefer portion control—after one glass, have the kiddos switch to water (not juice or soda). If you prefer non-dairy milk, consider making homemade nut (almond or cashew) or rice milk. If you make homemade milk, be sure to reclaim any strained solids and add them to hot cereal before cooking for breakfast, or use in some other way such recipes for muffins or a pilaf. Additionally, use fresh milk for drinking only; for cooking and baking, use canned (unsweetened condensed) or reconstituted dry milk.
- Keep an eye on portion size. If a serving is a half cup, then measure out a half cup. If you have teenagers, this is less practical. But do teach them which foods are more economical (grains and vegetables) and have them fill up on those, while limiting their helping of expensive proteins.
- Keep an eye on what’s in your stockpiles. If you were to “snoop” in the refrigerator and cupboards in the average home kitchen you are likely to find shelves full of half empty condiments and pickles, plus packages of pasta, crackers, cereals, soda pop, and so on. I have found times when I thought there was “nothing to eat”, only to pull seemingly out of thin air a dinner of rice, lentil stew, and freshly made apple-raisin chutney. So don’t allow your cupboards to swell with unused products. Make sure you rotate through everything every few months.
- Use ingredient variety, not recipe variety. Rather than making 30 different recipes every month (does anyone do that?), develop a few “go to” items, and rotate the ingredients and flavors weekly. For example, hearty vegetable-bean soup is one of my go-to recipes, but I prepare it several ways: black beans with greens and curry, white beans with tomatoes and oregano, red beans with carrots and cumin, and Chilean (yellow or pinto) beans with squash and corn. So “bean soup” in our house is one of several comfort-food-favorites. Likewise, vegetable mixes for soups, stews, stir-fry’s or skillet pasta dishes can range from carrots and cabbage to kale and mushrooms, and broccoli and onions or tomatoes and corn—whatever your family prefers that is economical. Fresh vegetable “slaws” can also be made on a weekly basis for use in tacos, salads and sandwiches. Toss shredded fresh vegetables with lemon juice or vinegar and salt and they’ll easily keep for a week in the refrigerator.
The first month on a $4 a day budget was difficult. It was all I could do to buy basic ingredients (meat, vegetables, beans, potatoes, fruit, milk, cheese). There was nothing left for fairly common needs such as oil and butter, herbs, coffee, and snacks, not to mention more luxurious items such as dessert, wine or beer, and the like. But over time, I made double-batches of some dishes, and froze one for the next month, freeing up some budget for “extras”.
You may also become, like me, much more attentive to wasteful habits. Preparing a stock with vegetables I would throw away after simmering, and tossing out the heal from the loaf of bread got my attention. In another extreme moment, I absent-mindedly stopped into a coffee shop and ordered a latte without a second thought—until the cashier said “that’ll be $4.11”. I was stunned. I just spent an entire day’s food budget on a beverage that prior to my experiment I never gave a second—or first—thought.
Now that it’s been a few months, I’ve decided to adopt the $4 lifestyle on a permanent basis. While I can afford more, and will certainly splurge occasionally, I’ve greatly enjoyed the changes required by this new mindset. Eating on a reduced food budget has turned into a boon. We are eating healthier, more well-intentioned and balanced meals. Every morsel counts, nothing is wasted. It’s definitely become a case of less is more.
If you like good food and like to cook, if you enjoy the Zen of preparing fresh vegetables and cooking from scratch, you might embrace the concept more easily. But if the changes required to adopt a $4 a day food budget seem too great a challenge, then peruse these ideas and change just a few habits that will most easily help you reduce your grocery shopping dollars, by putting a little more focus on budget meal planning.
- 26 adaptable recipes and menu ideas for $4-a-day budget meal planning
- Customizable grocery shopping list for $4-a-day food budget