How to Eat Healthy on $5.00 a Day


People generally think that eating healthy has to be expensive. Bill and I decided to demonstrate that it’s not.

This post begins a series of blog posts inspired by an article I read last fall in The Grand Rapids Press. It documented the diary  of two writers who were taking the Grand Rapids Hunger Challenge as part of Hunger Action Week. Challenged with spending only $30.59 per week—about what a person on food stamps would have to spend—or $4.37 per day, Jacqueline Prins and Samantha Dine shared their experience in a series of daily articles.

On Day 5 the headline read, “Today, fast food tastes ‘lovely, glorious.’” Really? I don’t ever remember using those words to describe fast food. But I suppose these girls were pretty hungry by then, choosing Taco Bell and McDonald’s foods for lunch and dinner. Understanding that fast food is cheap and convenient, I realize how people with limited income head to those establishments first. But in my mind, I threw down the gauntlet. I wanted to figure out how someone could eat healthy–and inexpensively–on minimal income.

No matter what, eating well (as in good food and healthy food) takes time, planning, and organization. If you have a passion for food like Bill and I do, or if you have dietary restrictions that prevent you from eating out or buying processed food, you probably already spend a lot of time thinking about, shopping for, and preparing your food. We even like spending money on our food to get what we want.

To me, this is normal. I grew up cooking because it interested me and I had family members that nurtured my passion. But I’ve met numerous people who either don’t know how to cook, claim they don’t have the time, or don’t care about what they–or their kids–eat. And I think this is a problem in our society. Many people haven’t taken the time to teach family members the culinary techniques from their own heritage. We’ve resorted to accepting processed and fast food as the norm for our diet. And we watch the obesity statistics rise, especially among children.

If you go back to the first article about the writers’ challenge, it explains their approach. The participants certainly did plan and shop but they were so focused on their budget, they didn’t seem very creative in making foods that could stretch their dollars. Sure, Prins consulted a cookbook. Dine states she wished she “would have had a better plan.” While Dine’s groceries look pretty healthy, she still resorted to fast food toward the end of the week.

Photo via The Rapidian

What’s disappointing is that the participants  didn’t seem to think twice about picking up a McDonald’s meal and how it would affect their well-being or long-term health. And that’s what I think is another major concern in the U.S.: Our need to eat is constrained by our food budgets. When it comes to basic needs, the cheapest food often wins. But cheap doesn’t necessarily mean healthy and our industrialized food system isn’t supporting those needs very well.

I wanted to write this blog series to show that one can not only eat on a shoestring, but also eat healthy on a shoestring. Bill’s and my approach is not the same as the participants in Hunger Week. While we appreciate the experience of understanding what it’s like to live on a food stamp budget (and being constrained by the limitations of that program) we want to help people by sharing some cooking ideas with those who didn’t grow up cooking. We’d like our fellow citizens to know that they don’t have to resort to processed and fast food, which aren’t as satisfying in the long-term. (Plus, if you look at the food stamp–or SNAP program’s–list of eligible foods, it puts “hot food” in the ineligible group, which would mean that McDonald’s and Taco Bell meals are not even options for people on this program.) It’s not too time consuming to cook and it doesn’t have to be expensive to eat well. It just takes some thoughtful planning and organizing.

Now, a few disclaimers:

1) We are doing this experiment for five days, not seven, and aim to spend $5.00 per person, per day. Since there are two of us in our household, technically we get to work with $10.00 a day.

2) Bill has allergies to wheat, corn, and cow dairy, so our groceries will reflect these dietary adjustments. We also, by choice, eat a lot of organic foods, which often cost more. Comparable foods in our menu (e.g., wheat bread instead of millet & flax bread or conventionally grown carrots versus organic) will likely cost less.

3) We already have a freezer full of local grassfed and pastured meats that we bought from our local farmers at Lubbers Farm. This is where planning comes into play. So even though we didn’t shop for the meat as part of this experiment, we will reveal its cost as part of our daily budget. By all means, if you feel that your body’s not worth it to spend the money on happy meat, you can still find factory farmed meat at the grocery store.

4) I’m a writer, not a math major. I’ll do my best to figure out prices per portion, serving, etc. I’m keeping track with an Excel spreadsheet that automatically adds up our prices per portion so I can keep a running total each day.

5) I’m not a nutritionist either. What I claim to be “healthy” is what I know works well for Bill and me, taking into account the body’s basic needs of protein, grains, and vegetables. Your needs are likely different but I’m offering the building blocks for recipes you can try.

6) Many of us have dried herbs, spices, and seasonings on hand so I’m going to assume that people have some of the basics already. When I checked the price of salt, for example, it costs us one cent per 1/4 teaspoon. Because it’s very tedious to measure these items, I decided to throw in five cents for every meal that includes seasonings, unless they’re significant (e.g., a teaspoon of cumin). It may not be totally fair, but it’s a way to stay sane.

7) This is an experiment. We may screw up. We’re just trying to figure this out as we go and we welcome your feedback along the way!

For a quick jump to each day’s post this week, you can link from here:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

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11 responses to “How to Eat Healthy on $5.00 a Day

  1. I look forward to reading your posts! This is a great experiment! I’m making potato veggie soup, salad and blueberry bran muffins tonight. I’ve been ramping up my cooking at home again, and it’s quite fun. Even though I cut the potato soup recipe in half, I’ll probably be eating it for a good three days …

    Thanks for this! Love your blog.

    • That sounds like a great plan, Vickie! I often use the weekend to do some cooking ahead, although freelance writing does have its benefits! You might want to freeze some of that soup. Then you won’t get tired of it this week and it’ll be a nice surprise for lunch or dinner a few weeks from now! Happy cooking, and thanks for stopping by!

  2. Can’t wait to see how it goes! Great idea.

  3. I’m looking forward to comparing your ideas with my own efforts in inexpensive meal planning. I am always pleased when my husband comments on one of my meals, “You won’t find a meal this good in a restaurant!” :)

    • It’s possible we may be on the same page, Judith. I look forward to your feedback as we experiment this week! Thanks for your commetn!

  4. I’m looking forward to the results. I have been shifting more toward vegetarian dishes these days and a friend of mine, currently unemployed is on the same page. We are both looking for healthy inexpensive good food ideas. Lori

    • Lori, I think the key to healthy and inexpensive is plant-based foods. Even as a meat eater, I don’t have meat in my diet every day. But I have to find good protein sources. I hope my ideas help with your own endeavors. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Economical home cooking is a dying art. And throwing in allergies takes it to a new level. Looking forward to your creative cooking. Go Marcia!

    I whole chicken=3 meals. 1) baked chicken 2) chicken pot pie 3) chicken soup (from bones and meat scraps)

    • We are totally into the chicken thing, Kate! However, our pastured chickens are pretty pricey. And I cannot stomach a conventionally raised chicken anymore so I don’t feel like I can tell my audience to go out and by one of those. So I opted out of the chicken roasting/three-meal idea for this week, but it’s definitely the way we approach using a chicken at our house, too. We usually enjoy it fresh from the oven the first day, make chicken salad or a special “melange” (we like to call it) of brown rice, chopped carrots, celery, and onions, plus the chicken–sort of like the pot pie idea without the crust. And, of course, the stock for soup! Thanks for your suggestion and support!

  6. Pingback: What Can You Do to Fight Hunger? | Life Is Fare

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