The Real Food Guide

Live Below the Line: 5 Tips to Eating Healthy on a Budget of Extreme Poverty


Eating Healthy on an Extreme Poverty Diet - 5 days of food for $1.75 per day

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.

1. Cook from scratch and plan your meals in advance

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.

2. Shop the grocery flyers for loss-leaders and for what’s in season

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.

3. Buy in bulk when possible

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).

4. Buy food for its nutrient density

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. 

5. Squeeze out all the nutrients you can from the food you have

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!

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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.

Vivian is the founder of the Real Food Guide and a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) who believes that each individual needs to go on their own Real Food Journey to find what works. While she herself eats a diet of real food (aka a paleo diet), some people may find that they can flourish on a vegetarian diet instead. However, universal to optimal health and well-being is good quality, nutrient-dense, Real Food.

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April 24 |

25 thoughts on “Live Below the Line: 5 Tips to Eating Healthy on a Budget of Extreme Poverty

  1. Julia says:

    These are great tips, but sadly many people who live below the poverty line weren’t taught how to budget or in many cases even how to cook much and rely on prepackaged food or whatever comes in the food bank hampers which rarely includes fresh veggies. I’ll be watching how your journey goes. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for your comments Julia!

    I would say that there are probably a lot of people in North America and other First World countries who aren’t taught how to budget or how to cook – whether they live in poverty or not – unless they were fortunate enough to have someone like their parents who took the time to teach them, or if they happened to take a home ec class. Both budgeting and cooking are certainly vitally important life skills that as parents, I think we need to pass on.

    From a global perspective though, the basic skill of cooking real food (as opposed to ripping a package open and nuking it) is probably more common than it is here, as it becomes a survival skill, and something that parents would automatically teach their children.

    As for ramen, that is the KD equivalent to what I grew up on. I had way too much in my student days and I can’t say I miss it, or that I would have envied your experience :/

  3. Laura says:

    Thrift stores are an excellent place to equip your kitchen on a budget. There are always several slow cookers on the shelf in my local shop when I visit.

    Love the tip about broth. Do you freeze it? How do you put the eggshells in? Just to soak, and then remove? Or do you grind them up?

    • Laura says:

      I would also add to plan for meal-plan-failure. That’s my weakness. Where it would always fall apart for me. I need an easy back-up plan for when I’m too tired, or a kid gets sick, or, etc. & I don’t want to / can’t cook what I planned. No plan B would always mean, for me, break-the-bank fast food. So now I like to keep 1 or 2 super easy things in the cupboard for just in case.

      • Great tip about having a back up plan! Yes, nothing thwarts a plan like a day like that :/ At our house the fallback is “breakfast” for dinner (bacon and eggs for my husband and son) or something out of the freezer stash for me since I can’t do eggs. Our other fallback is pantry staples of canned salmon or sardines, sweet potato noodles and some broth and frozen veg. Not glamorous but it works in a pinch.

    • Yes! Great tip about the thrift stores. I’ve even seen some heavy duty cast-iron cookware for cheap. Just needed a little seasoning. As for broth, if I make a lot, then freezing works well, but in the winter, my family eats a lot more soup, so it’s used up quickly. The egg shell halves can be addrd to the crock and just remove after with the bones. (Straining the broth with cheesecloth or a strainer gets any fine bitd out.)

  4. Hi! I was wondering what your thoughts are on owning a deep freezer?

    I have one, but I don’t keep it plugged in right now.

    Here are my thoughts: obviously, if you have an extra freezer, you can save money on trips to the store, stock up bulk cheap foods, etc., but do you think that the extra money that is spent in electricity is more than the food savings? I really have no clue.


    • This was a conundrum we had in our house when we debated the decision to get a freezer. In the end, I ended up purchasing an up-right freezer (on sale) because 1) I’m really short, and can’t reach the bottom of a chest freezer ;) and 2) we buy grass-fed organic beef that is much more economical when purchased a half-beef at a time.

      Now, in terms of a very strict budget, it would probably take some calculating to figure out if you can stock up a freezer enough to make it worth your while – I imagine the electricity costs are about the same whether or not it’s full. However, if you can’t keep it stocked, then I imagine filling your regular fridge-freezer would do, compared to paying for the costs of keeping the deep freezer running.

      I know though, that before we got our freezer, it would pain me a little to pass up some really good deals on food that could be frozen, because we had no space.

    • I was thinking about this a bit more, and I’m going to borrow a Kill A Watt electricity usage monitor. (Our local public library lends them out). I’ll measure just how much energy our freezer uses in a week or so, and go from there.

    • Jenna says:

      I keep milk jugs filled with water in my freezer when it is not as stocked. I got lucky and got mine at Habitat for Humanity of $100, it is a large commercial style freezer, older model. I never noticed a big increase in my electric bill with it. I have also been saved a few times when the power went out and the freezer kept everything frozen solid.

  5. M says:

    This article, and its responses, cracked up. I found it by searching for budget recipes and didn’t even know about the pretend we are poverty stricken challenge. I went to visit the official site and it said the challenge was over, thank you, blah blah blah. This isn’t some pretend we are poor field trip. After the week is up, I’m sure everyone had a great meal. Try living on the Mormon Four (wheat, honey, salt, sugar). That’s surviving. Try living on what you find in the forest. Which I have, and thank goodness that was for “fun”. Going to the dollar store is a normal trip for me. Granted, it wasn’t always like this. The days of scallops over puréed sweetpea with pancetta, or confit, are OVER. But this, “let’s pretend we are poor for a week” seems like such a mockery. People are going through this everywhere because they HAVE to. If eating a bone-in cheap piece of meat makes you feel better, good for you. Try having to make “meat” from white flour and water (seitan, and not from the commercial gluten product, from regular white flour) because you can’t afford meat, not because you’re vegan. I’ve had to live like this for quite a while now (not the first time in my life, either) and I miss fresh fruit and vegetables. I miss real, healthful red meats. But I don’t buy boxed processed items. Sorry, but I just had to comment. Young people seriously are SO out of touch with reality these days. Heck, most Americans are. At least there aren’t many killer martini types around. THAT made me sick.

    • Well M, I’m glad you found some amusement in it. I didn’t undergo the challenge as a mockery of poverty, and I have said that I was glad that this challenge was not my reality. I realize just how fortunate I am, but my intention was never to make light of anyone’s situation. My attempt at doing the challenge was to feed myself within a very limited budget – extreme poverty, and still try and get real food, and nutrients, not just simply fill my belly with flour and water, since a) I have a gluten/wheat intolerance and b) as I discovered during the course of this challenge, my autoimmune issues were greatly exacerbated from eating this way. It actually took quite a few weeks to recover from this.

      I am not a martini type and I am hardly wealthy, but I do prioritize buying food that is nutrient-dense over spending my money on killer martinis.

    • kirstin says:

      So, is this where we all share a chuckle about you having internet access and the time to peruse the internet, unlike the third world poor, and thus we judge that your experience isn’t extreme enough?

  6. G’day! Glad I found your blog and series today! I have shared the word via FB and Twitter and think (in my opinion) that people need to focus on what they CAN do with what they have…is not about not have been taught as one can always learn something new every day IF they want to! (again in my opinion)
    Cheers! Joanne
    Look forward to experiencing the rest of the series which I have pinned too!

  7. P. Velden says:

    OMG – you are not even considering the chemicals loading the peels from your “waste” from which you are going to make broth. It is possible to eat organic food even if you’re on a strict budget. Really helps to avoid cancer. EWG will give you a list of the Dirty Dozen as follows: Apples, Celery, Cherry Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Grapes, Nectarines, Peaches, Potatoes, Snap Peas, Spinach, Strawberries and Sweet Bell Peppers. These are all exposed to chemicals before you buy them through spraying, etc. The Clean Fifteen as are follows: Asparagus, Avocados, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Eggplant, Grapefruit, Kiwi, Mangoes, Onions, Papayas, Pineapples, Sweet Corn, frozen sweet peas and Sweet Potatoes. These items are all pretty safe to buy even if they are not organic. In today’s market I think that we need to be aware of the dangers out there in our foods – and thankfully genetically modified foods are not a problem in Canada. But we need to remain vigilant. Cheap does not necessarily mean healthy.

    • This post was specifically written for the Live Below the Line Challenge for eating on an extreme poverty budget of $1.75/day. In Ottawa, Ontario anyway, it was NOT possible to eat enough organic food – as it was, I was quite hungry eating conventionally-grown produce. The bulk of my diet was made from starches – rice and potatoes and organic potatoes were NOT affordable. If you read any of the other posts in the Live Below the Line series, you would have read that there was a fine balance in trying to eat enough food (never mind of the highest quality) to stay sated.

      I’d argue too that GM foods are a problem in Canada, since genetically modified organisms are NOT labelled here, but most of the corn and soy in Canada are from GM sources (

      So please read the series before jumping to conclusions.

  8. MrsCrary says:

    another good way to save is gleaning from local farms and orchards. Some are glad to have help collecting windfalls to keep bugs down, or clearing out misshapen or oversized potatoes or carrots.

  9. LAurie silvia says:

    We were Very poor when I was young . My mom would give me a sliced up banana and milk for breakfast or lunch at home. It was at least nutritious. Sometimes she’d buy a bag of potatoes and a jar of applesauce and with some flour and a couple eggs she made potato pancakes to feed an army. Creativity is key. Letting nothing go to waste. Soups were a constant and every bone got boiled to make a broth. Never went hungry even on very little she found a way to cook.

    • LAurie silvia says:

      Peanut butter and banana sandwiches were a good way to not let a banana go to waste and when we had no coldcuts. I wish I could remember more of them. She was so good at it we never thought we were eating poverty food.

  10. John says:


    I found this site after discussing the struggle of living in first world poverty in the US with a co-worker and an article he was reading about being unable to eat good food. I don’t accept the defeatist and bitter attitude the author of the article had and am looking for additional ideas on how the poor can stay healthy while on their trek out of poverty. This type of challenge is an amazing opportunity for people who aren’t struggling to help come up with ideas for those who are. (Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but well educated folks working on the problem together could certainly be the helpful aunt.) The commenter that dismissed your challenge as “mockery” is probably a little short-sighted on this topic due to the sensitivity of it and it hitting home. Great project. Thanks for taking on the challenge.

    Now, the egg shells in your broth? That’s just gross. :) We raise chickens. I’ll stick to throwing them away or crushing them and feeding them back to the chickens to help replenish their calcium. (I will look that up though. If I find a way that doesn’t gross me out to get the nutrients out of those shells, I’ll use it!)

  11. Danielle says:

    I felt like this article was very interesting and helpful. For those of you who are getting anygry and saying you don’t know what its like to be poor get over yourself. This isn’t a contest. I have grown up in poverty and am making a change that my child doesn’t. Either way this article was very helpful and gives tools to people who don’t have a clue as to save and create healthy hearty meals from what they have. Thank you for the extra tips!!

  12. Sam says:

    Where can I look to read further on how your experience turned out?

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