Mario Batali’s Food Stamp Challenge
"For one week, the acclaimed chef Mario Batali is challenging Americans to “walk in someone else’s shoes” by eating only what they would be able to buy with food stamps. So what does one of America’s top chefs feed his family on $31 per person per week or $1.48 per meal, less than most people spend on a snack? " Read the ABC News article here to find out: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyle/2012/05/mario-batalis-food-stamp-challenge/
Personally, I don't see what the big deal is. Is it easy? No. Can it be done? Yes. How do I know? Because I fed a family of 4 for 8 years using only food stamps. My family is perfectly healthy. My 3 boys are not overweight. (I am, but that's from 3 high-risk pregnancies and the fact that I'm diabetic.) Which means I've fed growing kids and someone with a special diet. And I'm a picky eater! lol It takes some planning, but it can be done.
How did I do it? Let me first start off with what we didn't do. We didn't go out to eat. It was a real rare treat to order pizza. We didn't buy that much premade food. The kids didn't drink soda pop.
What I did do was cook from scratch as much as I could. I have but normally didn't bake my own bread. However, buying it directly from the Old Home Bread Outlet store (at $1/loaf) is cheaper than the grocery store. Even cheaper was a local gas station that got day old bread, buns, etc that they'd put out for 25¢ each. Hard to beat a loaf of bread for that price!
I live in the Midwest in the middle of beef country, but ground beef averages $3/lb, usually higher, but slightly lower if on sale. I stocked up on 30 one pound tubes of ground turkey when it was on sale and put them in my freezer. I didn't make turkey burgers where you'd taste the difference in it being turkey meat. However, meatballs taste great and my family can't tell their taco's have turkey in it. Once it's coated in a sauce and highly spiced, you can't taste the difference between ground beef and ground turkey.
Shop around the edges of the grocery store as much as you can. That's where all the vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy and bread is. Limit what you buy in the middle of the store. For example, I can make my own "Hamburger Helper" type chili mac that's better than the store box, from scratch, that not only tastes better, but serves 2-3 times as many people! And, it's cheaper. Anything that's highly processed, quick to fix, premade, or frozen is expensive. All that time saving for you, costs you. If you open a few cans, or chop something yourself, you save money. You also get fresher food that isn't full of as many preservatives, food coloring, etc. Instead of buying individual packets of taco seasoning, I found a small spice can of it (amongst the taco stuff on the shelf) and can now use as much or as little as I want depending on how much I'm making. And it saves money.
Sometimes you need to buy in bulk to save money. And I don't have a paid membership to a bulk store like SAM'S either. I stock up when items or food is on sale. You need a place to put food (pantry, closet, under the bed storage boxes, etc.) and if possible, a freezer. I discovered my local grocery store was selling bags of pepperoni slices, normally over $2 each, for just 25¢ each because they were nearing the expiration date. That's just the sell by date. They were still perfectly safe to eat. I think I bought 15-20 of them and put them in my freezer.
I almost never use coupons. It's not that I can't use them and occasionally do, but most aren't worth it. Most coupons are for expensive name brand items. Even with the coupon savings, the store brand is probably still cheaper, tastes just as good, and many times is made by the same manufacturer anyway. I rarely find coupons on stuff I'd be buying anyway. What I do do, is follow the store's sales fliers. I do price comparisons. If you don't want to drive to several grocery stores, see which ones in your area will match other store's sales fliers (anymore, most do). If you use coupons, see which stores will take coupons printed online, or if they double coupons up to $1. Today I went shopping, making my shopping list based on their weekly sales flier. I bought 27 items for a total cost of $55.66. However, I saved $32.16 off their regular prices. My biggest savings was on some Kraft Salad Dressings/Marinades that normally sold for $4.88 each, on sale 2/$3. I bought 4 and saved $9.15. I've found most things go on sale about every 3 months, so ideally you need to stock up with a 3 months supply when it's on sale. That's why I said earlier you needed a pantry or some place to store your food, even if it's not in the kitchen. I've heard of folks using a closet, or even under the bed storage containers for canned goods, etc.
Last night we had pork chops, which I'd bought on sale and put in the freezer. We had enough for a large family meal while my husband was home. Normally I don't serve food with a large single piece of meat per person. That's expensive. You also must make excellent use of leftovers. We had just one left over pork chop. I diced it very fine (as small as possible) and it was probably just over a cup of diced pork. I'm using that tonight to make Hungarian goulash. (Just add Italian seasonings to tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce, add the pork and stir in, and mix in a small sized pasta.) Making casseroles isn't popular anymore, but it stretches a little bit of meat to feed more people. Meatloaf is another meat stretcher because it has filler in it, like bread crumbs, oatmeal, or crushed crackers. That adds to the traditional meatloaf taste, but also stretches it. My kids had absolutely no idea that I put oatmeal in meatloaf until they saw me making it one day.
I know the government's food program guidelines have changed so many times over the last few years, it's hard to keep track, but I remember the four basic food groups that I grew up with: Meat and Poultry, Grains and Bread, Milk and Cheese, and Fruit & Vegetables. I try to make sure I have one of each with every home cooked meal. Nothing says you have to have a lot of each, but it makes it more a well balanced meal if you do.
Fresh fruit and vegetables is obviously best, but it can be very expensive. If possible, buy what's in season as that's freshest and usually on sale. Better yet, grow your own. Frozen is very good as it's frozen when fresh, but I couldn't afford that unless I could find frozen bags of vegetables on sale. So that left canned vegetables. It's what we'd occasionally get from food banks or Christmas gift boxes, and it's what they put on sale during tent sales and other large promotions when you can get boxes of canned vegetables at deep discounted prices.
For breads you have alot of options besides basic bread. Try cornbread, tortilla's, muffins, rolls, biscuits, bread sticks, garlic bread, popovers, etc. And no need to stick with straight white bread either, branch out and try wheat bread, english muffin bread, potato bread, etc. Easiest way to make your own bread is to find yourself a (new or used) bread machine. I don't like the hard crust and odd shape most bread machines make, so I use mine mostly on the DOUGH cycle. You can then just put it in a bread pan to rise and bake later. Or divide it up and make your own dinner rolls, hamburger buns or even pizza dough.
Rice, pasta and beans are a poor man's best friend. Potatoes are probably high on that list too. I'll admit to not being a fan of beans. I put them in chili and that's about it. Pasta is cheap and filling. You can do so much with rice and pasta. There are cookbooks devoted to either ingredient. If you buy Ore-Ida potatoes, a bag will cost you near to $4 and will barely feed a family of 4 as a side dish. I just bought (on sale) a 10lb bag of russet potatoes for $2.79. Wash em up, (peeling is optional), cut lengthwise into steak fries, drizzle with vegetable oil and bake in the oven. Easy, it feeds alot and oh so much cheaper!
I set a personal goal for myself to never buy a box (or bag) of cereal unless it's $2/each or less. I refuse to pay $3-$4.50 for a box of cereal. Every few months it'll drop below $2 a box on sale. If you have any coupons, it's even better. I've gotten cereal as low as 89¢ a box. When that happened, I bought a dozen boxes of cereal and stacked them on top of a shelving unit down in my pantry (a room in the basement), stacking them on their flat fronts so you can see by the ends what cereal you have. Yes, it takes some space to store when you stock up, but the alternative is to buy it for 2 or 3 times the price. If you can't find boxed or name brand cereal on sale, then opt for the cheaper store brand cereal sold in bags. If your kid only eats Cheerio's, then refill the box when they aren't looking with Toastee-O's. Same cereal, just without the box.
Look for various places to buy food that isn't necessarily a grocery store. Not all will take food stamps, but some will. The Old Home Bread Outlet Store sells the same bread cheaper than the grocery store. Easy to get bread at $1/loaf or 2/$3. I bought a package of dinner rolls for tonight's dinner for $1.50. Dollar Tree sells everything for $1, even food. They don't take food stamps. Be careful that to sell it for $1, the package sizes are pretty small. Generally I don't like buying food there, but it's an option for some folks. Dollar General accepts food stamps and has decent prices on some food staples. Walgreen's Pharmacies have food. Watch their sales fliers. I generally don't like shopping at Walmart's Foodmart except for a few items my regular stores don't carry, but they will match other stores advertisements. In my case, they are the only local store that will match the sales flyer for the next (larger) town over, 25 miles away. So I can go there to get the large chain food store (Hy-Vee) sales prices without driving the 50 mile round trip. Even Kmart is selling food now. Mostly dry goods, but I did see a couple coolers with some prepackaged ground beef and gallons of milk in them. Walmart and Kmart can be good places to stock on non-edibles like facial tissue or toilet paper. (Stuff food stamps never covered).
One place to really watch your budget is drinks. Milk adds up fast. Yes, kids with growing bones need milk, but they don't necessarily need it for every meal. I only buy soda pop for the adults. My kids drink lemonade, juice, milk or water. Lemonade they make from a large 5lb Country Time Lemonade mix. Juice can be watered down a bit to stretch it a little farther. Freeze it and make homemade Popsicles. (Molds to make 8 can be found at Dollar Tree for $1). If you drink coffee look for sales on the cans of coffee. Helps if you aren't picky about which brand you buy, as most brands have a generic blend. Fancy flavors and/or brand name coffees are expensive. Coffee beans themselves even more so. Making iced tea is inexpensive. Kool-aid is inexpensive too but I don't buy it for my kids since it's just flavored sugar water and isn't very healthy. So I save it to feed a crowd at a birthday party.
Don't forget that eggs are protein and can be used to make alot of different foods. Right now I got a dozen large eggs on sale for 99¢. Going to hard boil them and turn half into deviled eggs and put some of the rest in either tuna salad or egg salad for sandwiches. Even tried Spaghetti Carbonera once. That's where you put lightly beaten raw eggs onto hot cooked spaghetti and the heat of the pasta cooks the eggs. It was edible, but only the kids seemed to really like it.
A key to saving money on a tight food budget is to make sure that no food gets wasted. I freeze alot of meat whenever I find it on sale. To make sure I don't have a problem with freezer burn, I always rewrap the package in white freezer paper and then label what it is, how much (weight) and the date. It lasts a really long time that way with no freezer burn. Making sure not to waste food comes down to two basic things: making sure it's used up before it spoils, and making sure after it's cooked none is thrown away. My lunches are generally leftovers from the night before. My boys have turned leftover meatloaf into both sandwiches and taco filling. I save the large bones from poultry (chicken or turkey) like leg bones and together with the carcass make my own stock. I freeze it in roughly 1.5 cup containers, and make wonderful homemade chicken/turkey noodle soup. My boys don't know what Campbells soup's taste like as I only bake with them. I've heard of folks who kept a "garbage" or leftover container in the freezer. The idea being you fill it with the leftover vegetables from dinner and when the container is full, thaw it and make vegetable soup. Same thing can be done for a container for all the large poultry bones or carcasses. It's amazing how much you can get outta one 3-4lb chicken. I roast it for one meal (remember, this generally serves 4), pull all the leftover meat off the carcass (don't forget the bottom which has alot of dark meat) to make another meal with, and all the bones go to making stock. So I can get three meals outta one full yet small bird. I can feed my family for a week on a large turkey. In fact, when they are on sale before or just after Thanksgiving, put a couple in your freezer. I can buy whole turkey's cheaper than I can buy whole fryer chickens!. And watch for turkey or chicken parts, like hindquarters to go on sale. Yes, you have to butcher and separate the thighs and legs off the backs, but you save almost half off by doing the work yourself.
Tonight's dinner was Hungarian goulash and dinner rolls. I used one left over pork chop from last night's dinner. (Probably less than $1, since I bought them on sale). Small bag of pasta (from the grocery store's Mexican section, where small bags of miniature pasta is cheap) was around $1 and the spaghetti sauce was a large can that I can get for 99¢ (or less) on sale. The dinner rolls were a dozen for $1.50 (four of us ate 11 of them). Add to all that various spices, bit of shaved Parmesan cheese and butter from the fridge, and fresh chives from my herb garden. So I fed my family of 4 (husband was on the road) for $4.50. Everyone was full and the meal tasted great, and it cost $1.13 per person to feed everyone. (That's under the 1.48/per person allowed by food stamps.)
I'm sure I could think of alot more to add to this, on how to save money on your food budget. Like not wasting bananas once they start spotting and turning black. Just bake banana bread. Turn lemons into lemonade. That kinda thing. We eat healthy, but not everything is quick. Some planning has to be done not only to stretch the food stamps to last the whole month, or to stock up when stuff is on sale, but little things like remembering to make the tuna salad the night before you want to eat it (it needs time to chill and the flavors to blend together). Tuna is another inexpensive way to get protein. I broiled talapia fish the other night in lemon pepper butter that I made that was so good! Talapia is a rather plain inexpensive fish but cooked right, can taste great. Also remember that not every meal has to contain meat. Have a vegetarian meal once a week. (Sir Paul McCartney and his family have a cookbook out pushing for Meatless Mondays.) Don't forget to serve salads and soups. You can make a meal out of either, or serve it as a first course.
You don't need to eat poorly, or eat bland food to stick within a food stamp budget. My family is now off food stamps, and now that I'm remarried, I've got another mouth to feed, yet I'm doing my best to stick within what was my old food stamp budget (for 4), feeding 5 people for the month on $500. So far, I'm doing just fine. My husband is well fed and my eldest son says he's spoiled because mom's home cooking tastes better than the school food or McDonald's. Can't do better than that. :)