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eat on $30 – and it’s a go!

NaBloWriMo day #11.

There is much going on and I will completely understand if you’ve missed the news from the past few days. Just look at the top of the page where I have links to posts on the Good Bite-Quaker Oats competition where my chosen charity Farm to School could win $10,000, and on my giveaway for a $25 gift card to Macy’s.

Today (Sunday) was the first day of the Eat on $30 challenge that Tami of Running with Tweezers is hosting. I’m proud to say that I’m participating in this hunger awareness campaign. Yes! Yet another one! I told Tami if all the leaves in Colorado had fallen or were brown by this week (i.e. no reason to scour the state to shoot fall colors), I’d join. So here I am. I discussed the idea of the campaign earlier and got a lot of reader comments and suggestions. This isn’t just about seeing if I can feed my household on $30/person, it’s about getting a dialogue started about hunger in this country and maybe understanding the predicament that so many Americans find themselves in today. What does it mean to eat on $30?

produce i bought for the week

Eating on $30 is *easy* if you have access to a library of spices, typical staples (I always have butter, flour, rice flour, sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, rice, beans, soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil, vegetable oil, vinegar(s), ten different kinds of Asian noodles, dried cranberries, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, hazelnuts, chocolate(s), chiles, etc.), and a freezer full of homemade broths and meats. It’s *easy* if you have a garden. It’s *easy* if you live in a place where food is cheap and you have access to terrific and affordable farmer’s markets. This is not about the EASY. This is about what struggling Americans have to deal with. Forgive me for having a little (or a lottle) attitude, but people who act indignant that others can’t make ends meet really chap my hide. As if the poor are at fault for being poor or hungry.

meats and most of the dairy

As far as I’m concerned, the hard part of Eat on $30 is over. That would be the menu planning, price comparison, and shopping. Now I get to cook (easy) and eat (easier). Let me describe my situation first. I live in a small mountain town of 1500 people at 8500 feet above sea level. We have snow on the ground from as early as September to as late as May. There is a decent (but small) local grocery store and a local co-op. Both places are on the expensive side for what I deem less than quality produce and it’s hard to find certain ingredients. Boulder is the nearest town of sizable population (~100,000) and it is a 30 minute drive down a steep and windy canyon from my town. I try to shop ONCE a week in Boulder. Food in Boulder is not cheap. We spend approximately 50% more on food per week than we did when we lived in Southern California. The quality of our groceries is lower and the selection is smaller. I shop primarily at Safeway, Costco, Whole Foods, and my local Asian grocer. I prefer organic, local, and sustainable products when I can get them. To be able to make a statement with my dollar is a luxury.

grains, canned foods

My approach to the challenge was to keep our eating habits as normal as possible. That means meat, vegetables, fruit. Tami gave us four gimmes: salt, pepper, oil, and butter. Because I am making a dessert to take to a party on Saturday, I threw butter into my budget since I needed more than just a smear on some toast. I opted out of Costco because I think that’s cheating. The membership is something like $40 (see, I don’t even know anymore) but the cost of volume, as I discussed before, is a large cost up front that people on food assistance likely don’t have available to them. In a few instances, I took down the price of things like flour, sugar, brown sugar and added them to my costs without purchasing them since I have all of those things at home, taking care to note the amount used is less than or equal to the amount I theoretically purchased.

what i bought for the week

This is what happened:

1) I didn’t purchase a single organic product because it was never cheaper than its conventional counterpart.
2) No desserts or sweets except for the dessert that I’m bringing to a party on Saturday.
3) I shopped at three different stores to get everything I needed for the week (Safeway, SuperTarget, and a local spice shop which I’ll talk about this week).
4) Total time to plan, compare prices, and shop took over 8 hours.
5) Most of the foods I am preparing this week are not necessarily fast or easy.
6) Given the choice between crappy coffee and no coffee, Jeremy chose no coffee.
7) We are drinking water and Jeremy got a half gallon of milk. (I really like water, so it’s cool with me).
8) We are not dining out at all except going to a potluck party.

Thoughts so far:

1) In some ways, the challenge isn’t realistic because even those on food assistance don’t need to purchase small amounts of cinnamon or rice (for example) every week. There ARE some items that can be used from one week into the next. However, I think the items you can’t purchase in bulk (because they cost too much) and must therefore buy at higher cost for a smaller quantity balance or outweigh the little staples.
2) Who the hell has the time to track sales and drive all over the place to search for the cheapest x, y, and z? What if they don’t have a car? What if they work two or three jobs? Cost of transportation is neglected in the challenge, but is another concern for those on food assistance.
3) The shopping alone made me very aware of the choices I am fortunate to have. Let’s say the difference in cost for organic potatoes over conventional potatoes is $1 – I normally pay the difference without thinking twice. I’ll plunk down $20 for a sale on good meats and divvy them up at home and freeze them to use over the next few months. That saves me money over the long term, but it would screw me had I done it this week.
4) Thank goodness for the extra $6-$9! The average amount of money an individual receives on food assistance programs is really between $21 and $24, not $30.
5) I hate that Boulder doesn’t have a Trader Joes.
6) I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods. More on that in another post.

This morning, we skipped breakfast because we do that a lot when we go hiking on weekends. We took Kaweah for a walk in the local mountains to scope out the backcountry ski conditions. We always keep emergency fruit leathers and other snacks in our packs, but this time we couldn’t eat them because they weren’t in the budget (plus, they’d send us over budget if we DID eat them). It was 19°F at our house, but at 10,000 feet it was a balmy 37°F! INVERSION! The winds were blowing snow every which way on the mountains, but it was moderately sheltered in the trees.

my best buddies

stormy weather on the high peaks

By the time we got home, we opted for a quick brekkie since everything else on the menu for the week required cooking, which I hadn’t started. We each had a small bowl of instant plain oatmeal which I flavored with some brown sugar, cinnamon, and a tiny bit of butter. Then we split a toasted bagel and each had an egg (one scrambled egg sheet and one sunny side up).

nothing like mountain weather to whet the appetite

I spent the rest of the day cooking a lot of food. That’s how we did it in graduate school – Sunday was the day I cooked several large pot dishes that would feed us during the week. My motivation for cooking up most of the food today was because I didn’t want the meats or produce to spoil and also to give us some variety during the week.

the ingredients for soy sauce chicken

8 hard-boiled eggs for soy sauce eggs

Our dinner tonight was somen noodle soup with soy sauce chicken (1/2 the chicken drums, soy sauce, green onions, ginger, star anise, sugar, water), soy sauce eggs (eggs and broth from the soy sauce chicken), stir-fried broccoli with garlic (broccoli and 3 cloves garlic), and broth from the soy sauce chicken.

sprinkling the green onions

this will supplement several meals nicely

I also made a bunch of scallion pancakes from flour (1 lb. 5 oz.), water, the remaining green onions, oil, and salt. Dessert was a gala apple for each of us. I didn’t finish my dinner because I was full (we ate the first scallion pancake off the pan because we were really hungry) and later when I got peckish, the apple was perfect.

chinese noodle soup and scallion pancakes for dinner

Stay tuned for the rest of the week of Eat on $30 here on urb. Follow or join the discussion on Twitter using hashtag #eaton30. And definitely check out/cheer on the awesome group of bloggers participating:

Our faboo hostess: Tami of Running with Tweezers – Twitter @runwithtweezers
Betty Joan of Trouble With Toast – Twitter @bettyjoan
The Broke Socialite – Twitter @brokesocialite
Carrie Neal of carrienealland – Twitter @carrienealland
Diana of A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa – Twitter @dianabauman
Frugal Hostess – Twitter @frugalhostess
Hailey of Hail’s Kitchen – Twitter @hailskitchen
Jimmy of Eat It Atlanta – Twitter @EatItAtlanta
Kristina of Tennessee Locavore – Twitter @TNLocavore
Mike’s $30 Project Blog – Twitter @boutte
Paula of Bell’alimento – Twitter @bellalimento
Robert of WhizKid Sound – Twitter @rdyson
Susan of Doughmesstic – Twitter @doughmesstic
Zach of Mise en Face – Twitter @drzachary

46 nibbles at “eat on $30 – and it’s a go!”

  1. Tartelette says:

    I don’t know…my eyes stopped reading at 1 pound of butter for less than than $2.00. Here, even after 5 stores the cheapest I found was still $3.69. Good for you! (don’t know why that made me happy :)) Butter is (no surprise) the biggest chunk of my budget and not used in anything else than baking (if you see my beurre-blanc anywhere, tell him I’m sorry for this year’s break up – ahah!).
    Yep, driving all over town is not always feasible on a budget and nearly impossible on food stamps. On friday I scout the sales, on saturday we map out all our errands and shopping and go together. Gives us an extra opportunity to catch up and stay involved the other’s activities. On Sunday I make the condiments and breads (mayo – pickles -sandwich bread).

    Cheering you on from the sidelines! But honestly, with a scrumptious bowl of soup such as this one…I don’t think flavor and nutrition will be the missing ingredients this week!


  2. Paula - bell'alimento says:

    Great Observations Jen! Amazing & your meal looked incredibly delicious. I found myself galivanting all over town as well to get the “best” deal I could knowing full well how much extra gas I was using. Looking forward to participating along with you this week & of course reading your posts!

  3. Laura says:

    I am excited to see how this week goes for you!

    You’re pictures of products from Super Target make me a little bit sad….. I moved half way across the US this past summer and my new location doesn’t have a Super Target… I miss it!

  4. barbara says:

    Looking good so far Jen. I like the look of those scallion pancakes. I make a David Lebovitz recipe for Korean pancakes which are similar but not as thick as yours.

  5. Kim says:

    I live alone but love to eat. And to bake, not necessarily in that order. Like you, I don’t usually think about having the choice to select the good meat or the extra fancy ingredient. I’ll be watching your project this week and thinking about my own options.

  6. Kristin says:

    Keep your lottle attitude! I’ve got an acquaintance who thinks that everyone can help themselves if they really want to & that the government is just enabling them when they help, and…uh oh, my bp is rising just thinking about her…better go start the cookies I’m making for my daughter’s marching band buds. I’m enjoying your project.

  7. tami says:

    WOW! What an amazing first post! I love all of your observations – the time and the ability to actually source out cheaper ingredients is a luxury that most don’t have. You’re awesome, as usual :) xoxo – t*

  8. kellypea says:

    I’m paying attention big time. Especially on having to go to 3 stores which is what I find. Then “saving” starts to be about fuel consumption, too. I find cheap staples at a big box market (Food for Less) once a week when I take my son to music lessons. Buttah for about $1.89/lb. Less expensive cuts of meat (beef shanks for 50 cents less/lb. than my regular market), eggs, and milk, too. Great idea you’ve got here. Loving the scallion pancakes and the soy sauce chicken. Mmmm…

  9. Fiona says:

    That looks really good. And full of nutrition.

    Your point about shopping is well-taken. Families where everyone works really cannot easily do that kind of shopping, and if they have children the need to shop for bargains so intensively cuts into their ability to do other things with their kids.

    Like you, I seldom think twice about the extra dollar for organic. But it’s amazing what you bought for $60. Very impressive.

  10. Chelc says:

    That’s really impressive for $60. I’m wowed by the challenge and the issues it addresses. Good job taking this up, and i hope this motivates your readers (including myself), to be more aware of the less fortunate and the difficulties they face.

  11. Carrie Neal Walden says:

    Super great post!! Totally agree with your comments/observations/etc notes….look forward to reading your site, this week and beyond!

  12. TheKitchenWitch says:

    I’m cheering for you Jen! I mentioned the challenge and linked to you and Tami today–I want everyone to read about this challenge, because it’s difficult and very timely.

    I, too, have a love/hate relationship with Whole Foods…sigh.

    Your first day looked like a total success–gorgeous, nutritious food and a bonus photo of Kaweah, my favorite dog!

  13. marianne says:

    I really admire you, Jen, and I really admire the challenge you’re involved with. The issues you’ve raised and shared are so important and not very well understood by those of us who can afford to spend a little (or a lot!) more at the grocery store. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this week’s posts.

    Also….. I really admire Jeremy for opting out of coffee.

  14. Diana says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have snow for so many months during the year. I gripe about our winter, lol! For me, I rely so much on home gardening and our deep freeze! Looking forward to following you!

  15. Robert Dyson says:

    *drool* Those scallion pancakes look delicious! I think it’s safe to say I’m at the other end of the #eaton30 spectrum with spaghetti and peanut butter sandwiches. Good luck!

  16. Jenn says:

    Great first post, I have been looking forward to this week. It is certainly making me think about how I spend my dollar at the grocery store. I am SO with you about missing Trader Joes, just left SoCal when we moved out here, and without a doubt Trader Joes is the thing I miss the very most!! Thanks for raising awareness of this issue, it is an important one!

  17. Manisha says:

    Yay to a fantastic start! I could live on those scallion pancakes forever.

    I wish there was a TJ’s nearby, too – but please not in Boulder! Too many people.

  18. Eesh says:

    There are people who’re indignant about others not being able to make ends meet? Jeez. My research is on the shockingly high levels of child malnutrition in India. It drives me NUTS that many middle class Indians think that the high growth rate has meant something substantial for the poor. It hasn’t and such ignorance on part of the well-off is dangerous. Sorry, but I had to rant because your post resonated very strongly with me. (PS: the scallion pancakes look lovely.)

  19. El says:

    We tried this last spring for a few weeks and managed to do ok. That said, we are healthy, good planners, vegetarians, have cooking and baking skills and have easy access to great local food sources. Like you said these things make it “EASY”. Everyone should be so lucky. We count our blessings every day.

    Great post. Thanks for shedding light on this important issue.

  20. Dawn says:

    wow, I thought we had a lot of snow…apparently, just a dusting, compared to you! Thanks for your posts re: hunger, especially timely now around Thanksgiving (for me; I’m in Canada). Am so glad I’ve found your blog; I really enjoy it!

  21. Beth says:

    This is such an amazing challenge on a number of levels. Your first day seems fortifying and satisfying. Good luck to you – I’ll be reading along!

  22. Lindsay says:

    Great post. Its makes me too think about how fortunate I am. It also makes me think about how I also miss Trader Joes. No TJs in Louisiana. Blah.

  23. Patti Davis says:

    I am so excited to join in the next $30 a week experiment. Everything you made sounded and looked so good. Way to go!!

  24. Becky from MN says:

    Great Post – Great project :)

  25. Avanika (Yumsilicious Bakes) says:

    This $30 a week experiments looks real interesting! I cant imagine living on $30 a week! A humbling experience, isnt it?

  26. Kristi says:

    This is a very worthwhile endeavor. I find it very educational even as I am in the habit of feeding my family of five on a not so restricted budget. I try to teach my children to be thankful for all that we have and that so many people have so very much less. It IS our job to help.
    BTW, your scallion pancakes are so pretty and perfect. Mine never look that nice – thankfully they taste good even if I can’t make them look good!

  27. Eat on 30 | Eat It, Atlanta says:

    […] other bloggers participating. I won’t list them all here as Tami already does that, but I read one post from Use Real Butter today that is fantastic and I suggest you take a look at the amazing food she is creating on this […]

  28. nicole says:

    geez – no coffee? jeremy is taking this one *seriously*!!!

    this is really interesting though – your dinner looks amazing and I’ll be interested to see how the week goes!

  29. Whitney says:

    Great first post! I also agree with you and Kristen about getting frustrated with some people’s views on poverty and the causes.

    I am going to enjoy with what you do with this week.

  30. Dragana says:

    I love that you included an exotic spice like star anise on your shopping list! I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.

  31. Kim says:

    You have done a fabulous job posting about this experience. Looks like you put together some wonderful and healthy meals. I think you are right to say that you will be busy cooking everything. I notice that when I try to cut back at the grocery it usually means much more work in the kitchen. Things like making my own bread or making pasta from scratch. It can be overwhelming at times. And, I’m sure it is very overwhelming for large families trying to live on a limited budget. You are also right about buying in bulk. It’s a luxury that most do not have. I’ll be following you along. Great job:D

  32. Margie says:

    Kudos to you and to those accepting this challenge. I am forever amazed at the rising cost of food and often wonder how many folks can absorb the increases.

    I’ll be watching and cheering from the sidelines, I’ll also be learning (and remembering) that there are ways to curb the excesses. Thanks, Jenzie, to you and to all that inspire.

  33. Hsin says:

    So glad you are tackling this topic. As always, I love reading (and looking at your pix) of your outings. What a beautiful place you live in. I’m just a teensy bit envious.

    Back to food. I also miss Trader Joe’s. But thank goodness I have a pretty decent supermarket (and several mediocre grocers too) all within a 15 minute drive. The result is that competition keeps prices reasonable.
    Your first meal on a budget looks great. I love soy sauce chicken, and everyone likes it better than my mother’s (including my mother).

    Like you, I spent a day (yesterday, in my case) cooking a bunch of stuff. Part of the reason is that one way to stretch my dollars is to buy things that the store has marked down because they are on the verge of the sell by date. The caveat is that you have to either freeze or cook all that stuff right away so that it doesn’t go bad before the week is out.

    I think you and I are both fortunate in a non-economic way also. We both know how to cook (you more skillfully than I), although I know of plenty of people who can’t. And not knowing how to cook or not knowing how to cook too many things makes it harder to simply buy what’s cheap and figure out what to do with it on the fly.
    I can’t wait to see what else you put together.

  34. Mrs Ergül says:

    I am totally in awe of your school of thoughts. Jen, you are always so brilliant! I did you did a fantastic job there! And I’m digging the soy sauce chicken on this chilly day! I had made it once before but it was too salty. I will have to give it another go soon!

  35. Mrs Ergül says:

    Oh! And I love those eggs! Over here, those eggs with the white shells cost almost double and are half the size of large eggs. The big white ones which are just slightly cheaper comes from neighbouring Malaysia. I can’t believe you got 18 of them for just over a dollar.

  36. Hsin says:

    I almost forgot. There are certain expenses that I don’t feel I can avoid. When the twins were babies (especially W, who was fed via g-tube until he was about a year and a half old), we had to “splurge” on preemie formula, then regular infant formula.
    Now that the twins are older, they, along with their older brother, drink milk. I’m grateful that I can budget for organic milk, but their milk alone still costs us about $23 a week. Milk for my individual consumption costs about $6 a week because I buy store-brand lactose-free milk. I’m painfully lactose intolerant, and the tablets (which also aren’t free) don’t seem to help me.

    Beyond my family, I recently met a woman who works for a local supermarket for something like almost $9/hour, which seems hardly worth showing up for. (It’s less than the wages I made while in college in the ’80s.) And she is so allergic to wheat that most shampoos give her rashes. She has to eat expensive wheat free products, pay for extra doctor visits for those pesky reactions she periodically experiences, and spend something like $9 for a small bottle of the one shampoo that doesn’t give her a rash.

    What I’m trying to say is that for families who have special dietary needs or allergies, the weekly costs for their special items at the supermarket can leave them even less money to buy those chicken legs or pork shoulder.

    Sorry to go on so much. I just feel so bad for people who have to worry about what they spend on food.

  37. Tartelette says:

    Hsin: awesome point about people who not only are on budget but also suffer from dietary allregies. I spent a little more than planned on gf flours recently and have been VERY careful about how much I am using and for what. I guess I had extra $ from selling a kidney that week…Kidding. But you see the point, fsome people work their health off to be able to afford what their bodies need and for some it is probably an added source of stress.

  38. LizzieBee says:

    Congrats Jen, and best of luck with your endevour! I’m truly really interested in watching your food choices over the next week :) :)

    I am STUNNED at the amount of food that you were able to buy for $58.31. I couldn’t get over buying 18 eggs for $1.39. Even our cage eggs here are around $2.30 for a dozen, which is as CHEAP as you can buy in the store. The cheapest chicken I can get is (on special) $8.99/kg. When we eat for $30/per person/week, we eat vegetarian, generally with very few eggs. In saying how stunned I am at the prices you were able to purchase your food at, I have to admit to picking up 5kgs of potatoes on the side of the road, outside a local growers, for $5. And they are amazing potatoes. And I’m so pleased. (Our cobs of corn at the moment are 98c/each. I would love to get cheap corn!)

  39. Pauline says:

    Sunflower and Sprouts market
    They are the new take on Whole Foods
    Google there sites for weekly food adds.

  40. Hsin says:

    Hi, Tartelette and Jen.
    I also forgot to mention that the woman with the wheat allergy is also diabetic, which is another burden for her. I’m racking my brains trying to figure out something to make for her because she has been so nice to me. I thought macarons would be nice, but I’m worried that non-sugar sweeteners won’t work. (I have terrible luck when I substitute ingredients that way.) I’ve been trying to search online for sugar-free macarons recipe and not having much success at this point. I’ll have to find out if she is okay with chocolate. If so, maybe I can make her some truffles or flourless chocolate cake.

  41. win says:

    That’s a droolariffic first meal! I’m eagerly anticipating what you’ll unveil next :)~

  42. Sam says:

    This is a really thoughtful and interesting post. Glad you’re doing this challenge and glad I get to read along.

  43. karen b. says:

    my husband works for Trader Joe’s and we wish they had one in Boulder too so we could move there! I’m sure there are more reasons than this but one of the issues is that they can’t sell wine and liquor int he grocery stores there and wine is a big part of their business so it bring their profit margin way down. Which is too bad because otherwise it (Boulder) seems to fit the TJ’s model to a Tee.

  44. Karen B says:

    I am really impressed with what you bought with your $60 – that took some skillful shopping to get those prices! I am surprised not to see any dried beans on the list – beans and rice seem like a budget-friendly staple.

    What is leaving the biggest impression on me is the time this takes. I’m also interested to see if that is really enough food to keep your tummies full, it doesn’t really look like a lot of food. I’m used to shopping for four, but it sure seems like we eat a lot more than that.

    Can’t wait for the rest of the week!

  45. jenyu says:

    Thanks to all for your input and for following along. I do appreciate it.

    Paula – yeah, the driving all over town bit was really getting on my nerves such that I nixed checking out ONE LAST STORE for deals… it was an appalling amount of time spent gathering information.

    Larua – our SuperTarget was a 45 minute drive from my house. Ugh :(

    marianne – Jeremy, the unsuspecting counterpart in my experiment, is a very good sport :)

    nicole – well, Jeremy is a coffee snob :) he would rather forgo than drink crap. *spoiled*

    Hsin – you make an EXCELLENT point and yes, for people with allergies, it is even more work.

    LizzieBee – you are in Oz, right? Food there is so expensive compared to the US. One of my fears is that food is unnaturally cheap in the US (subsidized). That has environmental/economic implications in the long term…

    Pauline – yes, Sunflower was on my list, but I really really didn’t want to check a fifth or sixth store for bargains. I probably should have gone there instead of Whole Foods (which was next to useless).

    karen b – yes, this is a HUGE problem with Colorado (Boulder). We are wanting TJs very very very badly. Very. I used to live within spitting distance of SIX TJs in So Cal. Now… the nearest one is in Santa Fe, New Mexico. *sob*

    Karen B – there is rice, but no dried beans. Up here at elevation the beans never really get to the right texture b/c I don’t have a pressure cooker (I’m at 8500 feet). So I didn’t want to fight with beans that week.

  46. A soup for fall « Outside Oslo says:

    […] across recently, though, have inspired me to put some good practices in place once again. Jen of use real butter took part in a one-week hunger awareness challenge in October: eating on $30 for the entire week. I […]

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