How to Eat off of $25 a week
January 13, 2009 5:50 PM   Subscribe

Eating on $25 a week, suggestions?

I'm doing an experiment after a food studies class this past semester, and eating off of $25 for a week. I would like to look at multiple options for this trial, such as fast food vs. grocery store, food stamps vs. no food stamps, vegitarian vs. omnivore, etc. Has anyone in the Hive done this before? Do any of you have suggestions?

Much Thanks!
posted by oviedo to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Are you trying to see how healthy you can eat, or if you can feed yourself on fast food? Perhaps we need more details.

If you are trying to eat healthfully on the cheap, dried beans and oatmeal will become your best friends for the next week, and possibly continue to be so after that. Apples and carrots are also quite cheap, as are basic salad ingredients.
posted by orange swan at 5:57 PM on January 13, 2009

This previous thread looks at eating on a $100/month budget. So I figure your $25/week experiment is the equivalent.
posted by crossoverman at 5:57 PM on January 13, 2009

Oh, potatoes and rice are also cheap.
posted by orange swan at 5:59 PM on January 13, 2009

30 bucks a week does it with a co-op, seitan, and a lot of creativity.
posted by moonlet at 6:03 PM on January 13, 2009

I survived college weekly on a bag beans (kidney or black eye peas), a bag of rice (or noodles), a bottle of hot sauce and a bag of apples (or whatever fruit was on sale). Find some meat (if you're into that sort of thing) that's on sale and you're good to go.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:05 PM on January 13, 2009

Bananas hover at around 50 cents a pound, and can make a nice filling addition to a breakfast of plain oatmeal. Apples are, at least in my region, decidedly not cheap.

Beans, beans, beans. Pasta. Tuna if you can find it on sale. Spam if you can eat it. Potatoes. Peanut butter. Eggs- hardboiled for snacks, scrambled.

Clip coupons and use them; there are often good ones for frozen vegetables and fruits, which will be a godsend. Look for the remainders section of your grocery store, where you can often find canned foods and cereal for reduced prices.

You basically won't be able to afford anything in a box- processed food is, among other evils, expensive. If you drink coffee, buy just enough to last the week, from the bulk machines. Otherwise it's way too expensive.

I would advise doing all of your shopping in one go, to avoid temptation purchases. Also, look for blogs that reference the "food stamp diet" for accounts of similar experiments attempted by others. Lots of good advice out there.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:06 PM on January 13, 2009

You'll be cooking for yourself exclusively.

• The bulk section of most stores will be your carb trough. Brown rice is fibrous and filling. Bread is a money pit - either make your own or go for rice/potatoes/other starch to fill the hole.
• Eggs! Eggs are amazingly versatile.
• Frozen vegetables are often picked at the peak of freshness and can often be found on special.
• The 99-cent store has heaps and heaps of good stuff.
posted by mdonley at 6:14 PM on January 13, 2009

Apples & peanut butter make a filling, crunchy meal.

Sweet potatoes & (regular) potatoes are both very nutritious; keep the skins on.

Sweet potatoes (aka yams) have a very low Glycemic Index (GI, the rate at which the food is connverted to blood sugar - IOW, a high GI = junk food). Regular potatoes can have GI > table sugar. This is important knowledge if you're high-risk for diabetes, hypoglycemic, weight-watching, or just want to stay feeling full for more than an hour.

As previously mentioned, avoid prepared foods. And bananas are not a good bargain in my part of the country, so go in open-eyed to the prices. If your grocery has an overripe fruits & veggies stand (typically back of the produce section), that is your new best friend. Also, carefully shop the crushed-box stand, if available - sometimes even budget foods get price-cut there.

Shop via sales catalogs, and change your shopping habits from "everything at once" to "only what's on sale here". It will make a huge difference.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:18 PM on January 13, 2009

Where do you live? In a lot of the sun belt, one person can eat pretty well on $25 a week.

Beans, rice, pasta, safflower oil is often cheaper than olive oil, those big bags of not-so-great fruit which are actually perfectly okay from a body-needs standpoint.

Brown bananas are insane cheap, just eat 'em quick or feeze them to mash on cereal. Bag cereal.

The one thing that is not expensive at the fancy store is the ready-ground pure-peanut peanut butter. Get a big tub and keep it in the fridge.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:19 PM on January 13, 2009

MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf is essential reading for projects like this. Her chapter on "How to Keep Alive" has directions for a loaf (mmm, loaf) that would let you survive on 50 cents for a week (six bucks, adjusted for inflation).
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:30 PM on January 13, 2009

There was a blog post about surviving on $25 a week on a cooking blog, and many people responded with their ideas.

The responses varied in their helpfulness but some themes that emerged included getting some basic items in bulk, taking advantage of local farmers markets, and cooking from scratch. There was no real consensus about vegetarian vs. non vegetarian.

Given that you are only doing this for a week, some of the advice won't really be applicable (such as storing up on spices or signing up for a CSA) but I think some of the suggestions/anecdotes may be quite helpful. Of course, given that it is a cooking blog the fast food option was not really explored much. :)
posted by pie_seven at 6:31 PM on January 13, 2009

I don't do it daily, but some brown rice from the Asian market and some sardines with some hot sauce and maybe some tomatoes, onions, and garlic can make a solid meal for two for around a buck. That same pot of rice can also be a fifty cent lunch with some furikake sprinkled on top and a pear on the side for desert. Have some bulk oatmeal with frozen fruit cooked in and a cup of coffee for breakfast and you're looking at a full day for around two bucks.
posted by piedmont at 6:34 PM on January 13, 2009

Hillbilly Housewife came up with some incredibly cheap meals, and weekly menus that will feed 4-6 for $45.
posted by Sufi at 6:38 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you have Food Not Bombs in your location? They give out free meals. So do lots of churches and homeless missions and whatnot. And check out the dumpsters behind the fancy bakery and the co-op. Not Whole Foods, though--lots of 'em make special efforts to ensure that the food they throw away is inedible. (Note: I'm not making any moral judgment about any of this--just trying to cover all the bases.)
posted by box at 6:39 PM on January 13, 2009

You gotta check out Hillbilly Housewife, particularly their $45 Emergency Menu. That second link is designed to feed 4-6 people, so a good freezer could easily stretch that into $15 a week for one person.

One thing to be aware of though: there's a difference between spending less than $25/week on food and consuming less than $25/week on food. I'm not talking about free stuff, I'm talking about the fact that an item bought in week 1 may well be used for a month or two before it's gone, but all of the cost of that item is paid in the first week. If you've got enough liquidity to spend $50 on food one week and $5 the next, it's actually much easier to eat cheaply than if one simply has $25 to spend every week. This is because buying in bulk is cheaper per unit than buying smaller portions, but it requires a bigger outlay, e.g. a 10lb bag of boneless, skinless, chicken breasts that goes for $10 is a great buy, but if you have a strict cap on your spending, that's almost half of your budget.

Relatedly, the question of inventory should be raised. Spending $25/week on food is great, but there's a big difference between eating yourself out of house and home every week and having a well-stocked larder. The latter enables one to eat more cheaply over the long term but requires significant investment. For example, though I'm hoping to get away with less than $40/week on food for the next few months, I've got almost $200 of food on hand right now. Buying the $25 bag of rice is a lot cheaper than buying the 1lb bag over time, but that means I've got $20 of rice sitting around. I've probably got another $40 of frozen meat, $40 in various staples, $20 in canned goods, etc. It adds up quickly, and if you really are incapable of laying in supplies like this, as many of the poor are, feeding yourself becomes very expensive, very quickly. A $3 microwave dinner is actually pretty expensive by most thrift standards, but eating a meal for $1.50 will probably cost you a good $10 up front. If you don't have $10 but do have $3, it's an easy choice.

If you really are doing this as a learning experiment, you need to take that into account. One reason the poor eat so badly is because eating cheaply over the course of a month or a year often requires spending a lot of money on certain weeks, and the truly poor cannot afford to do this.
posted by valkyryn at 6:40 PM on January 13, 2009 [19 favorites]

(As long as I'm at not making any moral judgments, it's also possible to steal food. Or you could take up hunting/fishing/foraging.)
posted by box at 6:40 PM on January 13, 2009

Oh, and never, ever, eat out. It's way more expensive than cooking for yourself. As in at least twice as much.

If you must eat out, the dollar menu at fast food restaurants isn't a bad way to go. Granted, it isn't very good food, but $2 at McDonalds or Burger King will get you two of their smallest "chicken" sandwiches, which is a pretty cheap way of getting over 800 calories in a single meal.

Beggars can't be choosers.
posted by valkyryn at 6:44 PM on January 13, 2009

For opinions outside of MeFi, there was the One Dollar Diet Project and the Living on $2 a Day project at Duke.

When I had to do this (not by choice) I found that grocery store/vegetarian was best for me; I could get three 99¢ burgers a day or make a gallon of bean soup. This presupposes that you have access to a suitable kitchen and don't mind cooking. Personally, I really like bean soup, and don't really care for fast food, so my suggestion with a grain of prejudice.
posted by lekvar at 6:52 PM on January 13, 2009

I would start with the Thrifty Plan Calculator, followed by visits to the aforementioned Hillbilly Housewife and Angel Food Ministries' $30/month box of food.

Don't forget about cooking in bulk and visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation (for all your canning, drying and pickling needs). Here's a bunch of good advice on smart grocery shopping (read the main story as well as the comments; link at end of story).

Do you have access to stores with discount food sections? Big Lots usually has some decent deals. Salvage groceries may (or may not) be an option for you.

Survivalist websites often have forums devoted to cooking/preserving/eating for less.

Or you could live on a foodstmap budget like these lawmakers did. For a few days, anyhow.

P.S. Concerned about how long things will keep? Worry no more with the amazing Foodkeeper chart.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:10 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's been a while now, but I recall that one of Jeffrey Steingarten's books took a stab at the USDA's "thrift" menu for home cooks based upon the food stamp allotment of whatever it was at that point in time. I think it was in the Man Who Ate Everything. Yep, it was.

His writing is absolutely riveting and frequently as hilarious as it is detailed - which is extremely.
posted by webhund at 7:15 PM on January 13, 2009

posted by zouhair at 7:41 PM on January 13, 2009

Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse
posted by ezekieldas at 7:43 PM on January 13, 2009

It depends largely on how long your are doing it for and most importantly, wether or not you get 5$ a day, 25$ a week, or more upfront. If you have upfront money, you can can buy in greater quantities and save a great deal of money.
posted by Megafly at 7:45 PM on January 13, 2009

I ate on about $60 a month one summer for one person using only a mini fridge and a microwave for storage and cooking. Bowl of cereal for breakfast. 2 ramen noodle packets for lunch. and ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner. I think I switched it up with PB&J sandwiches for variety.

Needless to say after a month or so I had trouble walking to work from lack of what I believe to be energy. I'm sure if you're smart and are willing to actually cook you can eat far better than I did.
posted by Green With You at 9:29 PM on January 13, 2009

My food budget was $AU20/week for a couple of years. My staples were brown rice, tahini, sprouted mung beans and home grown veggies. Tomatoes and zucchini are both dead easy to grow and delicious when picked fresh.
posted by flabdablet at 10:32 PM on January 13, 2009

beans and rice, rice and beans, lentils, and some more beans. You will also be wanting chili powder, curry powder, onions, and if there's any more money left get a couple other vegetables.
I'm also going to 2nd the dumpstering option. Be careful.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:46 PM on January 13, 2009

A sack of rice and a big bag of beans costs nearly nothing. Add to that whatever cheap vegetables and fruit you can find (no more than $1/lb) and chicken on sale (freeze the extra). A little hot sauce is always good. Also go to whatever passes for a "health food store" or co-op in your area and stock up on falafel mix. Falafel may be the tastiest and cheapest meat substitute on the planet. Add some potatoes, and you have a great meal.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:43 AM on January 14, 2009

Vegetable curries; shop at local fruit and veg markets whenever possible.
posted by rhymer at 1:32 AM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's basically 2 important questions here: 1. do you want this to be nutritionally sustainable in the long run and 2. how much do you care about taste and variety of food and actually there's a third, do you care about how long it takes to cook meals?

For example.. beans and cabbage are very filling, cheap and tasty, but you have to soak beans beforehand and they take a long time to cook. If you don't care about taste or nutrition, any cheap food will do, white rice, noodles, etc. If you do care about nutrition but don't want to spend a long time cooking, lentils are dirt cheap, have protein, any kind of vegies that are on sale can be added to provide minerals and vitamins; eggs have a lot of protein and are quick to cook but are a heavy food, getting all your protein from them is kind of nasty imho. Brown rice is very filling and nutritious but takes a long time to cook.

Basically it's all a tradeoff (in practical circumstances) between nutrition, taste, complexity and time of preparation and price. Also a matter of tools. If you have a bread maker, you can make a yeast starter and make loaves of delicious whole wheat bread on the cheap.

In terms of nutrition and convenience I've read somewhere that you can live on milk and bananas and that will give you everything you need and there's no preparation at all. But milk has to be reasonably warm to digest easily and non-organic milk tastes like shit when warm; organic milk on the other hand is expensive.

Poor people in third world essentially live on lentils, beans, brown rice and any cheap vegetables available, and over thousands of years this diet turned out to be the most practical for them, so that should tell us something..
posted by rainy at 2:03 AM on January 14, 2009

You are talking $1.20 a meal. In theory, a double cheeseburger, a side salad, and a chicken sandwich from the dollar menu a day fits this bill. (And is probably the most protein-dense.)

Otherwise, budget time and money. Budget to get the best protein you can afford. Eat your budgeted protein (an egg costs a quarter, for example), then your budgeted vegetables, and then fill up as necessary with the cheap rice and beans.

Easy to do in theory. Hard to do in practice, because if you forget to soak the beans or bake the bread or are sick of eggs, you start searching for other things.
posted by gjc at 8:10 AM on January 14, 2009

Nthing the beans and rice. When I'm having a poor week, I buy a few different kinds of dried beans, a bag of barley, a bag of rice, and some frozen veggies. Many meals in all that.
posted by at 9:01 AM on January 14, 2009

Good suggestions, here. I would add that to eat healthily on very cheap, the best way to go is to cook large meals with cheap ingredients (rice and beans, etc.) and keep leftovers for the next three or four days. Can get a little repetitive, but it'll keep your costs down, as well as your food prep time.
posted by lunit at 9:25 AM on January 14, 2009

My food budget is usually around £15 a week (approx $21 at current exchange rates) for breakfast and the main meal (actually &pound and I have lived off a budget half that size for all three meals. In both cases this was/is as half of a couple spending twice that.

I eat well off of the current budget, it normally allows for some (cheaper, seasonal) organic veg and fish once a week. The smaller budget was more restrictive (little or no organics) though it still allowed for fish occasionally.

My diet is the basic peasant one —a bulk carbohydrate (rice, pasta, couscous, potatoes etc) and some veg. The veg varies by season, so at the moment there is a lot of cabbage and root , but we also keep tinned/creamed tomatoes in stock, and some fresh salad things. Every other meal or so we supplement this with some additional protein: beans, eggs, cheese, veggie sausage, or oily fish, sometimes tinned, otherwise fresh. I always have olive oil in stock along with a large stock of spices and other basic flavourings: vinegar, soy sauce stock, maple syrup, lemon juice etc, things that might be fairly pricey by themselves but can go a long way. We get variety by use of these flavourings and by mixing food combinations and cooking techniques. Breakfast is generally bulk brought muesli or porridge, we might have a cooked breakfast at weekends. There is generally fruit around as well.

Doing well on this comes down to two things:

Knowing how to cook. Pretty much everything is prepared from scratch and I don't follow recipes so it's easy to adapt to what's available. I do know lots of quasi/meta recipes; flavour/spice combinations and techniques that can be adapted to circumstance.

Smart shopping. We have an excellent local green grocer and fish monger as well as lots of of local ethnic groceries so we don't need to visit the regular supermarket much, except for stuff that is actually cheaper there. The greengrocer consistently beats supermarket for veg by quite a margin, the groceries cheap bulk rice etc. as well as spices, and the fishmonger, based in a local street market, is a great guide to cheap, seasonal and less well known fish. For instance we recently go some Sprats 75p (approx $1.10) brought as much as two of us could eat. Oily fish in general are cheap and good for you.
posted by tallus at 9:54 AM on January 14, 2009

Nothing saves money like a bread maker. If you can find a cheap source of yeast (Costco, et al, usually have a pound or two of yeast for around 3 or 4 dollars; keep it in the freezer and you're fine) you'll have more bread and other goodies than you know what to do with. Decent breadmakers can be found at thrift stores for 5 or 10 dollars. The motor might be shot, but probably not, because most people buy bread makers and then never use them. Splurge for a new one at Target or something, it might be $50 or $75, and the think might even be able to make fudge or cakes and have a more sophisticated timing mechanism (put the ingredients in before you go to bed, piping hot fresh cinnamon raising bread for the morning; or a quick bake mode that gets you a loaf of simple breads in under an hour). I can't wait to be back in the US to use my bread maker every day, and it'll cost me less to have daily fancy bread than buying a loaf of bad white bread every few week here in China.

Just make sure you use the bread maker; if you don't (and most people don't), you'll have lost money and space in your kitchen. But, if you use the machine to make every piece of bread you'd ever eat, you'll never look back.
posted by msbrauer at 11:45 PM on January 14, 2009

Reposting from a previous thread; this was based around $100/month (and, yes, when my unemployment benefits had run out, I was living on this):

$100 will buy you (if you shop around):

5 pounds of dry pasta ($8)
10 pounds of apples ($5)
5 pounds of bananas ($3)
10 pounds of chicken drumsticks ($10; yes, you can buy meat for $1/lb if you shop around)
2 heads of iceberg lettuce ($3)
1 pound of tomatoes ($1)
5 large cans of tomato sauce ($5)
a gallon of milk ($4)
a pound of butter ($3)
5 pounds of flour ($5)
5 pounds of rice ($8)
10 pounds of potatoes ($3)
2 pounds of 'meat ends' from the deli counter ($2)
1 pound of inexpensive cheese ($4)
1 box of quick-rising yeast ($2)
5 pounds of regular ground beef ($7)
2 cans of tuna ($3)
2 pounds of frozen vegetables ($2)
5 pounds of vegetables, depending on where you live and what you like ($5 or less)
5 pounds of dried beans (as little as $1, depending where you go)
1 pound of white sugar ($1)
Two dozen eggs ($4)
A bottle of salad dressing. Or, two bucks into your oil and vinegar fund. ($2)
Two bucks into your salt, pepper, and spices fund, since you don't buy them every month

And you'll still have $7 left to fill out your grocery plan with things you like that aren't on the list. That's enough for a respectable steak or a couple of litres of decent ice cream. Coffee.

The above list supposes that you're going to make your own bread, eat a lot of staple foods, and so forth. You can make mac-and-cheese. You can do oven french fries any time you like. You can make scalloped potatoes. You can pack a deli meat sandwich to go to school. Seriously -- two pounds of meat ends. You never know what you'll get, but that's 900g in lunchmeat, which is more than enough to last one guy for a month.

You can make homemade pizza. You can fake a pretty decent chicken cacciatore. You can have green salad. You can have toast and scrambled eggs in the morning.

Your variety is really limited only to the effort you will put into shopping around.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 8:13 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I was on the dole, I had, after paying my rent only, £30 per week to cover *everything*. I went to the local market which had a £1 per bowl fruit and veg stall, and basically ate roasted vegetables every day. The best day was when the supermarket next-door knocked down their gruyere to 20p per piece at closing time. I grated it over the veg slices and got some tasty tasty protein.
posted by mippy at 8:49 AM on May 12, 2009

Nothing saves money like a bread maker.

A bread-maker? If you're short on money, you'd be better off getting a loaf tin and pre-made breadmix - near me, a loaf tin is £4, a bag of breadmix about 75p. I'm sure yeast and flour is much nicer, but this is the easy way to do it.

That reminds me - I need to start baking me some bread.
posted by mippy at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2009

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