1. Let me first say that I believe that most of us North Americans are incredibly unhappy because of the way our society demands time. Eating well and cheaply requires time to not only prepare whole foods, but often to grow them. I consider myself fairly time affluent as I do not have children, or a full time job. However, I still wonder if I will ever find the time to grow a tomato plant, or make homemade cheese.
2. I am struck with a moral/ethical quandary. I believe that buying local and seasonal food is a positive action for myself, my community and the environment. However - these items (because of the disgusting and perverted way of our world) are often MORE expensive then those that are raised millions of miles away. Clearly, I am concerned by this and yet regularly cave to the low and convenient prices of 18 cent Raman. Please know that I do not do so lightly, and indeed lose sleep over it.
3. In the grand scheme of the world, I am not poor. I get to travel, I have 20 pairs of shoes and a dish washer. I think we often feel poor because of the consumption that surrounds us - so I try to take every opportunity to remind myself that although I eat 25 cent boxes of Macaroni and Cheese, I am by no means, poor.
Now that I have laid out the parameters, here are a few suggestions that I am enacting to feed two on a budget of $200 (or less) a month.
HAVE NO SHAME IN FREEBIES
It used to be that if someone was offering free food, I would only eat it if I really wanted it. No more folks. The boss wants to through a pizza party? I'll take three pieces please. No matter what it is, or what I've already eaten that day - I will eat what is offered to me. Most often these are fatty calorific fantastics (which we will soon determine is what you eat when you don't make much money). This may be doing a number on my heart. We'll have to revisit this one in a few years. I do take the precaution of exercising (most of the time).
MAKE YOUR OWN BREAD
Making a loaf of sandwich bread costs around 50 cents, at most. Buying a loaf of sandwich bread costs around $3.00. Making bread is one of the most frustrating, and rewarding endeavors one can under take. The best way to improve is practice. And practice and practice. I have found luck in doing like the Finn's do and keeping a starter (a bit of bread dough stored from batch to batch to use as a starting point).
I would love to tell you that I always make whole wheat or really fiberific healthy breads - but I don't. I can't afford expensive flour. If I am lucky we will have some whole wheat flour, corn meal or oats that can be incorporated. Regardless, I believe the bread that I make, even when it turns out to be a brick, to be better for me and less costly then what I could buy in the store.
DECIDE WHERE YOU WANT TO SPEND
There are certain things Matt and I won't make concessions about: lunch meat, juice and honey. We buy deli lunch meat, usually beef (because it is cheapest in lunch meat form and I am anemic, yo). We cannot bring ourselves to buy the nasty super processed lunch meat, thus we are willing to spend a bit more. Juice that is made with water and corn syrup is not juice in my opinion, thus we shell out for 100% juice, and honey, well, we're just picky. We want a local honey, and so we pay for it, and it is one place where the price differentials are not so great as to make that desire ridiculous. It is important to be honest with yourself about what things you can and cannot live without. Then you can count on those expenses, be appeased in them, and plan accordingly.
We have also discovered the finest in off-brand peanut butter and ice cream. There are moderate levels of junk/gum lengthener/etc. in these items - but no high fructose corn syrup, which I consider to be truly evil and deadly to just about all that is good in the world (yes, I am dramatic, how nice of you to notice).
TWO WORDS: DISCOUNT GROCERY
Thanks to the local German, socialist inspired grocery, Aldi, Matt and I regularly have bacon in our diet. A package of thick cut smoked bacon at aldi is $4.oo, everywhere else, it is closer to $6.00. I am sure the reasons for this are terrifying, but at this juncture in my life, I am choosing not to explore them.
Truly, Aldi makes a difference in our food purchasing. We save quite a bit shopping there and that allows us to indulge in real lunch meat, juice, etc. elsewhere.
For truly amusing forays into the world of discount groceries read W. Hooding Carters' Extreme Frugality blog for Gourmet.
WHAT WE DO EAT
The following are the staples of our diet because they are a) affordable and b) versatile.
I don't think this requires much explanation. 1 package of bacon lasts us a month. I chop it up and freeze it in chunks. Then I will pull out a chunk for a quick pasta dish, or to go along biscuits, or into a sandwich. We eat bacon A LOT, and I have absolutely no shame in that; it is a one time investment that stretches out, and it always satisfies.
We do not eat natural peanut butter, even though I would like to. It simply requires to much coin. However, Peanut Butter is an absolute necessity because, like bacon, it is excellent for any meal and in a variety of forms. Matt eats a Peanut Butter and Jelly tortilla about three times a week. I eat it with a spoon almost every day. (Don't judge, it's a great protein/sugar hit for the late in the day blues).
One of our favorite dishes has been a Peanut Butter pasta (Thank you Mark Bittman). We buy rice noodles for 79 cents a pack, and then I whip up a quick peanut butter suace, which is really just peanut butter, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and red pepper flakes thinned out with a little hot water. This is likely the cheapest, fastest, dinner we make and it is delicious. I even think it is a little gourmet. (No we do not add bacon to this one, although sometimes, we do add chicken).
I am a notorious snacker, and thus we have had to find snacks that don't break the bank (can you BELIEVE how expensive Goldfish are? BIG BUMMER). Snacks of choice are Oyster Crackers (which go nicely with beans for a quick din din) and popcorn. Popcorn costs less than $2.00 a bag, and always last at least a month. I've taken to upping the ante and adding a few tablespoons of sugar after I've dropped the popcorn into the pan. This creates a nice kettle corn, which not only satisfies the snacking crave, but the sweet tooth too.
Yes, I get anxious about our food, and look forward to a day when I don't feel guilty about paying a dollar extra for whole wheat pasta, but creativity has and does allow us some excellent dinners. We must practice restraint, but that doesn't mean our eating is joyless, it's just a little green-less and fiber-less, but hey friends, we make do.