Live Below the Line: 5 Tips to Eating Healthy on a Budget of Extreme Poverty28
If you’re eating on a tight budget – especially a budget of extreme poverty, as I’m limited to in the Live Below the Line Challenge –there are certainly a few things that have to happen to stay on budget and to eat as healthfully as possible.
This almost goes without saying. Cooking from scratch takes more time, but if you haven’t got the money, you’ve got to make up for it by putting in some work. On a mere $1.75 per day to feed yourself, you’ve really got to think about what you’ll be eating, since the luxury of picking up something fast would blow the week’s budget in a single meal.
This challenge is a bit of a cheat because while I have $1.75 per day to feed myself, I already have things like working appliances and kitchen tools at the ready. With such a tight budget, I know my slow cooker will be used for making broth, and it’s also good for cooking cheaper (and tougher) cuts of meat at low temperatures for a long time.
For this challenge, I’m buying the least expensive cut of bone-in meat I can find, so that I can make it do double- or even triple-duty. Bone-in meat is usually cheaper per pound than boneless, skinless meat and it’ll give me meat for some meals, and the bones can be slow-cooked to make mineral-dense bone broth. The fat that renders off the top of the broth can be used for cooking and adding flavor to my veggies.
Menu-planning takes a different turn when you’ve got a tight budget. You don’t ask, “What would I like to eat this week?”. You say, “What can I afford to eat this week?”. Even though my family normally has a lot more than $1.75 per person per day to plan with, I still start our week’s menu-planning by seeing what’s on sale at the grocery stores for the week. The bonus is that what’s on sale is often what’s local and in-season, in terms of produce.
We’re fortunate enough to live in an area where there are 3 major grocery store chains within a block of each other, and I get grocery flyers for at least 7 different stores. With this large number of stores at my disposal, I’m usually able to get good prices on fresh fruits, vegetables and meat, particularly if I’m willing to visit a number of different stores. If you’re not as lucky to be geographically close to a number of stores, check to see if your favorite store will price-match the specials found in their competitors’ flyers – it’ll save you money, time and gas to get the best deals.
Buying bulk is definitely tricky with a tight budget. You’ll certainly save on a per-unit cost, but you’ll have to be able to pay up-front for a large bulk purchase. Keep in mind too, that while 10 lbs of potatoes at $1.99 is a great deal, they do have a finite lifespan before going bad. If your family would only eat 5 potatoes out of the bag before they go bad (though admittedly, this is a first world luxury to let food go bad), then you haven’t really saved any money. One way to make sure bulk purchases last as long as possible is to make sure you store them properly – potatoes for example, are best kept in a dark, cool place.
Another way to take advantage of bulk savings is to get together with other families or groups in the neighborhood to make larger purchases worthwhile. Your 10 lb potato purchase and your friend’s 10 lb carrot purchase can be split between you, and you get some more variety in your diet. Joining a CSA or a Good Food Box-type program in your area is a good way to get a variety of local produce at a reasonable price. (However, for the Live Below the Line challenge and having an extreme poverty budget means that these programs are still too expensive).
With such an extremely tight budget, you really begin to realize that junk food really is junk. If you’re eating to maintain your health, you want as many nutrients as you can get, and junk food won’t cut it. Cheap superfoods, packed with nutrients are essential when you can’t afford supplements. Eggs, leafy greens, sardines and butter are certainly on my wishlist for this challenge and here’s why:
Eggs contain all the nutrients (protein, riboflavin, B12, choline and zinc to name a few) to grow a whole chicken, so they’re energy in a shell. Protein-rich foods can be particularly expensive, but thankfully I’m able to find eggs at my local grocery store for $2.00 per dozen or 17 cents per egg.
Leafy greens probably seem like a bit of a splurge, until you consider the amount of nutrients they deliver. They’re a good source of minerals (iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium), and vitamins such as K, C, E and some B-vitamins, as well as phytonutrients like betacarotene and lutein. I’m in luck because spinach is on sale at my local produce market for 99 cents a bunch! But, you can often find frozen spinach for about the same price.
Sardines are usually packed whole, bones and all in a tin. Well, not completely whole as the head is usually removed. But by having bones and occasionally some organs intact, you get nutrition from the whole animal. Fish unfortunately, is not very budget-friendly if you’re too far from the sea. However, I am able to get tins of sardines at $0.89 each on sale, and though it breaks the $0.58 per meal budget I’m working with, I think they’re important enough to work them into my daily budget somehow. Sardines are full of protein along with nutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, potassium and selenium.
Butter is my fat of choice during this challenge, aside from any fat that I can render from my bone-in cuts of meat. While grass-fed, organic pastured butter is ideal, it’s certainly not going to be possible for this challenge. Despite that, butter is still a healthy choice since it is stable at high heat (unlike vegetable oils), and is a natural, saturated fat that is rich in short and medium fatty acid chains, as well as linoleic acid that’s thought to have cancer-protection properties.
My last tip has to do with waste. In thinking about this challenge, I realize how wasteful we can be with our food. The apple that looks less than perfect goes uneaten, or has the bruise cut off – but it’s still food, even if it doesn’t look pretty. (As an aside, I’m going to miss apples next week because they don’t fit in my tight budget!) As I mentioned above, I plan on squeezing out as many nutrients as possible by making broth with the bones from the meat I buy. The bones are full of minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, and as a bonus, they’re even available in the right ratios that support health! While ideally, the bones would come from well-raised, pastured animals, alas, this won’t be possible on such a tight budget.
In addition I’ll be saving my vegetable peels and trimmings. These too will go into my slow-cooker for my broth. They’ll add their own nutrients to the broth. I’ll also be keeping my egg shells and adding those to the broth. Egg shells are full of calcium and other minerals, and the membrane has nutrients such as glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, chondroitin and collagen that are beneficial to joints.
Thankfully water is considered ‘free’ in this challenge, so a day’s simmer in the crockpot and I’ll be getting a nutrient-dense soup base from food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
Have you got any budget-stretching tips for eating Real Food? Leave them in the comments – I’d love to hear them as I suspect I’ll need all the help I can get!
This is the second post in the Live Below the Line series, where I’ll be attempting to feed myself Real Food for $1.75 per day, for five days. You can also support me in the challenge and donate to the cause; I’ll be raising money for Raising the Village.