I'm hungry.
April 28, 2012 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Food and friends on food stamps.

I'm on food stamps (recently approved), and just finished my first job application of the day. When I buy food, it's from a mix of food stamps and my dwindling resources.

Right now, I'm eating some plain cooked, boiled chickpeas, and earlier ate some instant soup from a package. I wonder what sorts of things I can do to not have that "I'm starving!" moment at the end of the month, and before the first week of the next month, which is when the new food stamp balance kicks in.

So far, I've been buying flour and making simple drop biscuits with water and oil. Mostly, I feel tired and listless at the end of the month and want the last week of the month to just magically be over so I don't have to go through it worrying about food.

What sorts of things would be good to cook? I don't have a slow cooker, but do have a cooking stove. Also, how do you season food without using a ton of salt? I'm good at eating plain food that's simply baked or boiled, but it's getting monotonous. My staples have been salt, some garlic, or using dried fruit. Basic herb collections cost money, and I'd rather spend it on fresh food and protein. Other suggestions?

Also, I've noticed that being poor makes me very hesitant to be social and meet people. I'm actually at a point where financially it's not a good idea to make unnecessary public transportation trips. How do you maintain socializing habits and motivation when feeling hungry and tired? Stuff that isn't helpful is linking to that YouTube video of an elderly woman making giant bowls of pasta: I think I'll go comatose if I eat more pasta meals. Also, I'm studying for the GREs and it's become hard to focus.

I'm open to suggestions that actually work and are encouraging. I prefer personal stories versus links, and what stuff you ate or cooked when struggling with something similar, and how you stayed buoyant.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (72 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Hot sauce is cheap and can liven up bland, cheap meals
posted by thelonius at 5:22 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Cook pork and beans from scratch.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:30 PM on April 28, 2012

Do you have a freezer? When I was dirt poor and had a freezer, I bought frozen veggies either on sale (or smaller amounts not on sale) and they're pretty cheap that way. They keep forever and are better for you than canned veggies. Also, eggs. Buy eggs, they're relatively cheap if you buy them by the 18 pack and you can cook them any number of ways (fried, boiled, poached, in soup, in pasta, etc...), and peanut butter. Peanut butter is a great source of protein and it's way cheaper than meat, use it as a sauce with noodles or eat it with cheap bread. Powdered milk goes farther than fresh milk, I like the Nido brand because it's full fat and tastes better, and it's great for baking.

Google for thrifty living websites and you can find other hints, but these helped me a lot while scraping the bottom of the barrel (and I've been poor for a long time).
posted by patheral at 5:31 PM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know where you live, but when I was as poor as you are now [actually, I'm only mildly far from it as we speak], I've found that ethnic places are cheaper. You say you take Pub Trans- that's a good sign that you leave in a city. Try shopping there for spices. Especially Mexican groceries or Indian markets. You can buy giant things of curry powder for cheap, they last several months. Personally, I'd rather have all of my food taste like curry than all of my food taste like salty garlic.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Rice and beans. In many different permutations. Two of the cheapest staples known to man, with many different ways to prepare them.

Black beans and rice. Red beans and rice. Any kind of beans and rice. Google will lead you to many, many recipes.

Also, eggs. There are a zillion ways to make delicious egg dishes, and eggs are still relatively cheap. Keep a sharp watch for store sales here and get them even cheaper.

If you're really looking to make your food taste good, you're going to have to spend some money on spices. I'm on a limited food budget myself, and I do my spice shopping at Aldi/Save-A-Lot. I don't know if you have those or similar stores in your area, but if you do, shop there. A lot of the stuff at those stores is identical to many name brand items, because it's made by the same folks who make the name brands. So-called "private label" shopping is essential to keeping it cheap if you can do it.
posted by ronofthedead at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Potatoes are pretty inexpensive and can be cooked in lots of ways.
posted by orange swan at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beans and rice got us through some very difficult times. Add tomatoes and/or corn (canned or frozen). Make a huge batch and you can freeze the leftovers to get you through the month. Dried beans are much less expensive than canned and they're not hard to cook. You can experiment with different kinds to see what you prefer. Garlic and onions are pretty cheap and are a really easy way to add flavor to meals. You can roast the garlic, too. Also, if you buy a pound of butter, you can freeze it and just use small bits when you're cooking.

Also, are there any food pantries near you? Or a church that is known for helping to feed people in need? Go to them. It's what they're there for and you can probably find at least canned vegetables, peanut butter, and bread there.
posted by cooker girl at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

The main thing that I know about not feeling listless when eating meagerly is to make sure it's protein heavy and not carb heavy. Those drop biscuits would leave me feeling starving after not too long. Hard boiled eggs are relatively cheap for the amount of nutrition and keep well. If you find them on Manager's Special (ie. the eggs are about to expire or have just expired and they're selling them for cheap) buy several dozen and boil them all. Chop the boiled eggs into whatever you're eating - beans, rice, vegetables.

Beans in their million dressed up ways have protein so you don't do the bouncing around thing. And bean soup makes you feel fuller with less - the water bulks it out.
posted by stoneweaver at 5:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

General tips, from me and my roommate who has ebt: Buy produce frequently from whatever produce market is around, they usually buy cast off produce from Safeway that looks weirder but tastes the same. Buy grains and beans in bulk, even from the local co-op it's affordable. I can't stress fresh produce enough, there should be an option in your town, and it really makes cooking more fun- you get out of the house, have a walk and a bus ride, etc.

If there is a local asian market around, I've found from experience that their instant noodle soups are cheaper healthier and more varied than the kind available at safeway. Dress up the soup with incredibly cheap basil, bok choy, green onion and tofu. 10 bucks off your EBT card will get you dinner for a week.

Other than that, my suggestion would be cooking your own dry beans. Make a big pot at the beginning of the week of pinto or kidney beans, use it throughout the week with different recipes- tacos (corn tortillas are so cheap), chili, or just 'a bunch of beans and potatoes and mushrooms and peas whatever else'. I don't know about meat options, but brown rice and beans will get your protein and fiber needs met.

As far as social tips go, cook together. Plan fun, cheap meals (tacos, chili, spaghetti night) and cook up large amounts with friends. You buy the ingredients with the ebt, they supply cheap beer/wine/spirit or whatever. It's a win-win situation. Also, depending on your town, Food Not Bombs is a fun, free social event that really isn't as snobby as it sounds. Just some people cooking free food together.

Good Luck.
posted by kittensofthenight at 5:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was in a similar position I was the lucky recipient of a very large amount of ramen packets. It became a challenge to come up with ways to dress the noodles up. My two favorites were veggie stir-fry and egg-foo yung. Between those two meals I was able to keep my belly full of carbs with just enough veggies and protien mixed in.

Add frozen veggies ($3/bag, each bag good for two or three ramen packs) and 1 block ramen noodles to nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Add a couple tablespoons of water, some butter, and whatever seasoning you have to hand. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the noodles are soft and the veggies are hot. Douse with sriracha.
Cook ramen in boiling water and drain. Return to pan over medium heat. Add butter or oil, coating noodles. Add spices of choice. Gather noodles in center of pan and crack an egg into them. Keep folding egg and noodle mixture until puck-like. Douse with sriracha.

Agreeing with patheral about eggs. They're infinitely useful and excellent sources of nutrients. Nthing beans & rice suggestions as well.

As for socializing, make sure you eat before you go out. That way you're not as likely to spend money on expensive prepared food. If you're meeting friends at bars, take a flask. And this really was a thing that helped me, but if possible commute by bike. I was unemployed for quite some time and had some issues with staying cooped up inside, but the freedom of riding a bike (and from my car/gas/etc) did wonders for my mood in general.
posted by carsonb at 5:38 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

More protein is always a good idea if you can possibly afford it. It'll fill you up faster and make you feel better overall. When I was desperately broke I ate a lot of eggs - egg drop soup with ramen was particularly good. (I'd use some garlic and soy sauce in place of the flavor packet - MSG is no one's friend.) Beans are also suuuuuper cheap and have more protein than biscuits or pasta.

Dark meat chicken - thighs in particular - are often really, really cheap. So is liver. Fried with onions it's super tasty, easy, and really, absurdly filling for under $2/lb. I haven't tried other organ meats personally, although there is a beef heart in my freezer that will someday make it on to my plate.

Dunno where you are, but if you live in an area where people might have gardens or backyard chickens, that's a thought. Hippies love to barter :)
posted by restless_nomad at 5:39 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Drop biscuits are simple and cheap, but they're not offering you much in the way of lasting energy because there's no protein involved, just carbs. Carbs are fine and I'm not suggesting you go low carb or anything, but you need more protein. Beans are your friend. Next time you can, get dried (they're probably cheaper) beans and cook them up. You can stretch them with rice, add pork, add cheap seasoning including the aforementioned hot sauce.

If you can manage it, pick up some lentils to break up the bean monotony. Get eggs, peanut butter, canned tuna. All of these things are reasonably inexpensive and can be stretched with carb foods (rice, pasta, potato, bread, etc). Canned tomatoes, garlic and onion, canned vegetables or on-sale frozen are all good ways to add flavor and variety to your 20th bowl of rice and beans.

By the way, this isn't strictly about food (though it includes it), but the "Poor Skills" community on LiveJournal might offer you some more direction. Check the tags.
posted by asciident at 5:40 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you qualify for food stamps, you probably also qualify for one of the USDA Commodities programs. Inquiring at local churches or food pantries is pretty painless.

I think we still have some dried beans and canned stuff in the pantry from when we qualified. It's not just that kind of thing, though. If the place distributing the food has a freezer or fridge, there is sometimes fresh meat, hamburger, cheese, and other perishables. We also got juice, macaroni, oatmeal, and just a wierd variety of foods (pdf here). They tended to vary some by month.

A good friend of mine is running one of these in my area. My daughter volunteers there. It's one of the neighborhood versions and it often turns into a social occasion. Often, the folks volunteering (all local to the neighborhood) bring snacks, make coffee, help out with other stuff like arranging rides or babysitting, etc. Our neighborhood once also had a cookbook, some recipes from the USDA (I can't find the link at the moment) and some from local people, on how make some good, basic, tasty things.

There is usually only a basic income form to fill out and it's the simplest and easiest form I EVER had to deal with when I got assistance. Commodities are generally delivered once a month at our location and distributed two evenings and Saturday afternoons that week to keep it as accessible as possible. My friend also has folks contact her during the month and any extra food is given to people with immediate needs.
posted by lilywing13 at 5:43 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would you be willing to use a food pantry or soup kitchen to supplement your food budget? You could get some staples at the food pantry and use the EBT money you were going to use on the cheap stuff on some produce and protein. A couple dinners or lunches a month at a church kitchen or community center might also give you some breathing room.

I hope you don't feel embarrassed to access those resources; you sound like a hard-working, decent person who is going through a rough patch, and especially in the current economy, everyone's struggles are amplified- things that we all could have weathered three years ago are enough to put us underwater today. You're walking a tightrope without a net. There's nothing wrong with you and you haven't done anything wrong. If my words aren't enough, and I understand they might not be, you could consider volunteering at these places before you share a meal. Sometimes it helps us to be helpful. Keep your head up, kid.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:47 PM on April 28, 2012 [16 favorites]

My husband also wants to add that you can often find a slow cooker or, better yet according to him, a pressure cooker, at a local thrift store. These tools can make cooking a LOT of something much easier. Freezing the results in smaller batches, as mentioned above, is still something we do in our house.
posted by lilywing13 at 5:54 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was living like this in college (down to the flour and water drop biscuits, actually, though I couldn't get food stamps because when I started college I was only 17 and I supposedly had parents who were supposedly supporting me even though I did not live with them and they gave me no money for food) I would often go to a farmer's market within walking distance of my apartment to buy fresh veggies. Produce is often less expensive at the farmer's market than at the grocery store and you can do crazy things that work well for a single person who can't afford to let anything go to waste -- like buying ONE carrot. I also found a little tiny Middle Eastern food shop that sold hummus cheap. I ate a lot of hummus.

A lot of herbs are actually pretty easy to grow on a windowsill -- rosemary and oregano in particular don't mind living inside as long as you can get them at least 6 hours of light. If you can get some seeds (seed packets are cheap, especially at this time of year when they sometimes start to go on clearance) and a pot and some dirt, you can get something edible in a couple of months.

I never really got the social thing down at the time, honestly. I had friends because I was in classes with people but outside of school I had a really hard time finding things I could afford to do, and I was depressed a lot of the time because I was broke and hungry and my friends definitely weren't -- at least, not in the genuinely going hungry sense that I was -- and didn't understand why I couldn't do the same things that they did.

If I could go back in time and do-over my social life at that point, I think I probably would have joined a library book club or some other free activity within walking distance of my apartment. I also would have invited people to things more, so as to avoid being invited -- and then having to turn down an invitation to -- things I couldn't afford. Going for a walk in a park is free. If you live in a city there are often free cultural events, too. I don't think it would be too much of an imposition to ask a friend for a ride now and again (if you live in a place where people tend to drive).

I do agree with others that you should seek more help. Go to a food bank; look for charity help paying your utilities or rent so you have more for food. I know it's hard as hell to ask for help but no one deserves to go hungry.
posted by BlueJae at 5:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

On seasoning- bulk spices are incredibly cheap, like literally 10x less expensive than buying a bottle of something. Maybe you could treat yourself to one new spice each month or something? If you can get to a co-op or some other kind of natural food store, I'm willing to bet you can buy a bottle-sized amount of most bulk spices for <>
Another thing that wasn't clear from your question... are you using whole grains and whole wheat flour when possible? If not, you'll be amazed how much more full you feel on brown rice than white. Your drop biscuits will be completely fine with half (or more, depending on how picky you are) whole wheat flour, too.

Good luck!
posted by juliapangolin at 6:06 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go to a food bank. The food is free and there is often fresh produce. Maybe you can get a mod to comment and tell us where you are located at?
posted by 200burritos at 6:06 PM on April 28, 2012

Oops, Something unfortunate happened to part of my answer. It should read:

I'm willing to bet you can buy a bottle-sized amount of most bulk spices for <<$1. I recommend starting with chile flakes, which, when combined with garlic, can make food astoundingly more interesting. After that, add in cumin and coriander, and you're on your way to some pretty satisfying indian-ish lentil dishes.
posted by juliapangolin at 6:09 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely look into a food bank.

Also, I've gotten pretty large bottles of different spices for $1 each at the dollar store. They may be old & less flavorful, but they still work just fine.
posted by belladonna at 6:11 PM on April 28, 2012

You also asked about being social and for personal stories...

One of the ways that I managed to stay social and happy was that I really enjoyed cooking big quantities of healthy food and having people over for meals. I happened to make good friends with my coworkers, who were in the same financial boat that I was. We were doing tech support for a dial-up ISP, mostly for rural areas, so we had this US VS. THEM teamwork thing that tended to overlap into our personal time.

I had kids at the time, but most of the coworkers didn't yet. Those of us who did were usually the hosts, as that was easiest. The friends without kids were either faking it or tolerated the kids for a free meal, or they were generally fond of the kids. As long as the mood was positive, it never made any difference to me. People willing to put in some Lego time and maybe pick up one thing at the store on the way earned a free meal at my house.

This was a happy time for me where I was learning to be social again after a long while of not. A side-effect of this is that I've now worked in tech support for at least 10 years, but now I do more of it face-to-face with people and solving more difficult problems over time. These changes are clearly reflected in my paychecks.
posted by lilywing13 at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's what I would do: lentils (with skins, i.e. green or brown type), a few small pieces of yam, a bit of frozen peas and corn, optionally some type of cheap fresh vegetable that's on sale, a pinch of freshly ground cardamom (often sold in indian / eastern shops), when it's done, finish off with 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil. This meal is cheap and delicious, and doesn't need much salt. In fact, just a few days ago I forgot to add salt at all and ate all of it and only remembered that salt is missing when it was gone! I think yams have a slightly salty taste and they make salt almost-optional.
posted by rainy at 6:13 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a poor student and while unemployed for several months, in order to get the most nutrition out of meals I practically lived off of lentils (or you can substitute any kind of beans really)

I saute onions, celery, carrots, garlic, any other veggie and then cooked the lentils with that and sometimes add some chopped root vegetables like sweet potatoes. I season that usually with chili flakes, cinnamon, black pepper, etc. Other times I just used salt/pepper and bought a block of parmesan. I like parmesan because you can use just a little and get a lot of flavor and it adds some protein. Also the rind can be used for later dishes - just add while the beans/lentils are cooking and then remove.

I also eat hard boiled eggs for breakfast, and for lunch I have a can of sardines (I mix them with sriracha which is pretty cheap) on crispbread. I buy the sardines and crispbread in bulk and "subscribe" to on amazon.

For sweet cravings I get bars of dark chocolate to have on hand.

An alternative for the chick peas: roasted chick peas. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, etc, put in 400 degree oven and shake every 20 minutes until crispy.

I had the same issues about being social so I'm not sure what to tell you. I just tried to go out every once in awhile even if it caused me anxiety to spend money. Have coffee/drink instead of going out to eat, etc.
posted by fromageball at 6:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I am really watching the food budget, I eat a lot of the following: dry beans and lentils, eggs, oatmeal (buy the big tubes not the packets for max value), baked sweet potatoes, bananas, and canned tuna. I find that they give me the most nutritional bang for my buck: they're all filling, cheap, don't go bad quickly (with the exception of the bananas obv.), and they're all good nutritionally. I also recently discovered the greatness of frozen veggies-- the store brands are cheap, you can stock up when they're on sale, and they won't go bad before the end of the month. (okay, okay, I also eat a lot of ramen and pasta, but the above list is what I aim for if I don't want to feel terrible.)

I also make a lot of big batches of soup and freeze them so I don't get sick of them trying to eat them all at once. You can make a ridiculous amount of lentil or split pea soup for $3. Eat it over brown rice if you want to stretch it further. Lentil soup is so much more enjoyable if it's seasoned though, which brings me to....

Check out 'ethnic' stores or the ethnic aisle of your supermarket for cheap herbs and spices. I know at my local huge grocery chain, you can get a bottle of spices marketed at the latin american population for 1/3rd of the price of the bottles the next aisle over. Bulk spices can also be super cheap. If I didn't have a good spice collection, I wouldn't be able to make some of my cheapest meals and I would enjoy my food a lot less. I also have a cilantro and a rosemary plant that I started a couple months ago, so I use those for seasoning as well.

Also, look into local farmer's markets-- where I am, your ebt $ are multiplied by 3 or 4x if you use them at a farmer's market. Find out if your city has a similar plan.

Socially, I spend a lot of time going to or hosting potlucks. It helps though that I have similarly poor friends who are into that.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:22 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

My go-to cheap meals are usually burritos ($.89 can of generic refried beans & $1.50 bag w/ a bunch of tortillas. Maybe cheese if I have it. I can make 10-12 burritos from 1 can of beans.) or peanut butter sandwiches. You can also roll the peanut butter up in tortillas.

Or make up a pan of oatmeal (about $2 for a big box of the generic stuff) & stir in a spoonful or two of peanut butter for added protein.
posted by belladonna at 6:30 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you like Indian food? That's my staple. Tin of tomatoes, onion, garlic, curry powder, veggies and/or beans. Makes days worth of food. Or dahl (lentils, onion, spices). Served with either brown rice or chapatis (wholemeal flour, salt, and water). You can probably find lots of recipes online. I've built up a decent spice collection and make my own curry powder, but you could just buy curry powder and use that to flavour pretty much anything.

If you do the tomatoes, onion, garlic triad and then add oregano you get something Italiany. You can add white beans and/or vegetables and serve over pasta, mashed potatoes, or polenta.

Soup is another favourite because the water bulks it out and makes the ingredients go further. If I'm stuck with one portion left of something (e.g. chickpea curry) and I need to make it last 2 days I'll put it in the blender with some water and turn it into soup.

I also like to cook up frozen peas then stick them in the blender with a bit of the (salted) cooking water for instant pea soup.

Refried beans: onion, garlic, chilli powder, cumin, oregano, pinto or kidney beans, tomato paste. Served with brown rice, or potatoes, or steamed cabbage.

Fried rice is a good one for a bit of a change to plain rice. I do garlic, cumin, rice and what ever veggies I have (broccoli stems and about half a carrot the other night).
posted by sarahw at 6:33 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Buy those herbs! They will make all those cheap staples so much more palatable. Around here, my local dollar store has all the basic spices in large containers for (obviously) a dollar. I have no idea where you are located, but there are probably options for cheap food you haven't explored. Go to stores like Aldi, Walmart, and Woodman's if they are around. They are so much cheaper than a regular grocery store. Peanut butter, eggs and tortillas, white bread and cheap lunch meat make good cheap staple foods. Tons of stuff you can do with eggs. Make fried rice with soy sauce, eggs and frozen or canned stir fry veggies. Local greenmarkets also often sell fresh fruits and veggies for much less than stores. They won't take the food stamps, but it can still be worth it. Maybe plant your own vegetables if you expect this to be ongoing. Tomatoes are easy to grow if you have a small bit of dirt, or even in a pot. I see someone above me just mentioned roasted chickpeas, as I was about to. I like mine with a mix of curry, chili powder, garlic, seasoned salt. They are filling and healthy, and taste a hell of a lot better than boiled plain.

And lastly, don't be ashamed to go to a food bank. In any good sized city there are many places you can get food from. Honestly, if you are finding yourself hungry at the end of the month, you aren't trying hard enough. I found myself in a situation where I wasn't eligible for food stamps because I was a full time student, even though my schooling was funded completely through student aid, and I was living on my own. I survived on a lot of Hamburger Helper and other food donation staples. Lots of churches have food donation programs. Ask around, a lot of this stuff isn't really advertised.
posted by catatethebird at 6:42 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was poor I used to buy a giant bag of dried lentils (80c, lasted about 20 meals), and a giant bag of rice. Brown rice tastes more interesting, but is slightly more expensive. And a bottle of soy sauce. Then I used to boil up one or the other (sometimes both!) and drown it in soy sauce. The lentils at least have some protein. You can live this way spending almost no money at all, so if you have any food budget left over, you can spend it on small amounts of meat or vegetables to add on top of the rice or lentils and liven it up. Canned tuna is cheap, too.

I'm sorry. It's not much fun.
posted by lollusc at 6:44 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check this thread for suggestions. One thing that helped me was knowing that lettuce seeds, for like 50 heads of lettuce, cost approx $3. If you're near a communal-style community garden, or if you can contact a CSA, you may be able to volunteer in exchange for free food.

Can you clarify your location? As you point out, travel costs a lot. What is it like where you live?
posted by slidell at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Scrambled eggs with steak sauce is one of my favorite quick meals and might be an easy way to add some extra flavor (and protein) without a ton of cost. It might be useful for you to know, eggs will keep well past the expiration date (certainly a few weeks, probably a month or two).

Also, I second recommendations to check out food pantries. The ones in my area allow visits once or twice per month, which could be exactly what you need.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:59 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have a yard and your city code allows for it, you could get hens. Then you're guaranteed to have eggs, and when they stop laying, you can have meat (if you're not vegetarian). Depending on where you live, you may even be able to get laying hens (as opposed to chicks, where you'd have to wait a few months) from the farm and garden section of craigslist. You can make their coop and fence from dumpstered wood. Laying hens around here are $10, chicks are $3-5. I think I paid $20 for 50 pounds of feed, but I got the organic stuff.

It sounds like you don't have a bike. At my bike collective, we would rather have volunteers than money (even though we need the money to pay the rent, if we don't have volunteers, the place doesn't open!). If you are interested in biking, your local bike collective may have a word-trade program through which you could earn a bike and maintain a bit of a social life.
posted by aniola at 7:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have never been in your situation, but I have had it reasonably hard being a single parent for a few years and reliant on the state (New Zealand does have a decent social welfare system).

I still make a giant pot of soup every autumn and winter weekend which then is used for lunches for our household and a couple of litres goes to my now grown up kids. Chicken thighs, bacon bones or ham hocks make great stock and the boiled up meat adds protein to to at least one meal of the soup. If I don't have something for a stock base then I use stock cubes for a flavour boost. I always use garlic and onions and often add peppers, leeks, celery etc - whatever is cheap at the vege shop.

I add split peas or lentils to my seasoned soup base. Or a mixture of whatever root vegetable is cheap. Today I boiled up a bacon hock with the tail ends of my veges. Now I have pumpkin and kumara (our favourite local sweet potato) simmering away in the stock. Later I will add the bacon meat back along with some green ends of leek for colour. This is a tasty soup which has cost me very little.
posted by chairish at 7:01 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you would like to drop me a memail, I'll happily send you all the spices from a gifted spice rack I got last month. It was going to go to the rummage sale, but I would be happy to ship it to you if you'd like the spices/herbs to cook with.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:20 PM on April 28, 2012 [23 favorites]

If your local grocery stores have buy one get one specials on things, wait until then to buy those things. Mine has a pretty regular rotation on pastas and sauces, so that's the only time I buy those things. Some other suggestions -
  • store brand cheese will be good for protein - you can grate it and mix into your biscuits, add it to pasta, eat it in chunks with crackers (which you can also make).
  • one large can of tomato sauce (not pasta sauce, just plain tomato), one cup of broth, one carrot and a stalk or two of celery plus some beans and spices and a small scoop of pre-boiled pasta gets you to a good sized pot of pasta fagioli
  • canned fish - protein
  • produce that has staying power. Potatoes and oranges and bananas. When your bananas get spotty freeze them to make banana bread
  • The butcher/deli counter of my grocery will sell me one strip of bacon, which can make beans taste so much better. And you need some fat in your diet.
  • frozen veggies are better than canned, but canned are better than none
  • ask your friends/neighbors for their coupons from the newspapers. Get the coupons from your library, use them to make those buy one get one deals even cheaper. You can sometimes use two coupons- one for the buy and one for the "free" thing, making other purchases cheaper!
  • nuts! These may not seem like a bargain, but they are loaded with calories, and also with nutrients. Emerald brand goes on sale often at my local Publix - again, buy one get one.
  • learn to bake real bread, with yeast and patience - search out no knead recipes
  • buy a whole chicken, never breasts or other pre-cut portions. learn to roast the bird and make stock from the bones. You can make chicken salads, chicken casseroles, chicken tacos, and more with the leftovers. If you can buy birds on sale and freeze them, so much the better. Chickens don't keep forever in the freezer, but you don't always have time to roast three birds. Look up "engagement chicken" recipes, it's a pretty good way to do it.
  • another fairly cheap meal I make is "pasta bake" this is a jar of pasta sauce, whatever shape pasta I have - bow ties, penne, whatever. Just, uh. not spaghetti types - some sauteed veggies like zucchini or mushrooms, an onion, and some cheese. If ground turkey or ground beef was cheap enough, I'd throw that in as well. It ended up being not so much pasta that I got a food coma.
  • recipes abound online for ricotta cheese, and it's super quick. You might find you have enough left to share or trade. While the milk to make it is more expensive than beans, it's cheaper than cheese. And I think variety is really important in these situations. Also, drinking milk gives me...distress, but I love cheese.
  • I just tried to visit Hillbilly Housewife, but it won't load. Anyway. Some of her recipes sounded pretty bad, but she did have an emergency menu for super hard times, that was very effective. Here is the 2005 metafilter discussion of the site.
  • Here's her new frugal recipe site, of course there are many other people with cheap recipes online. With practice you'll figure out what you like.
As for my experience, a daily multivitamin made me feel better. For foods, I used the crock pot to make big cheap cuts of meat delicious - follow real actual recipes for this, using the size of your crock pot if you get one. I cooked in an iron skilled for the, well, iron. I tried to garden, but nature and neighbors and animals and other forces interfered, which made me really sad. A lot. And then folks with money were always telling me I should garden. That sucked, and I cried. I ate a lot of potatoes and sweet potatoes. To roast potatoes, chunk up two of them into two inch bits, coat with olive oil and then be generous with the salt and pepper (and I like dried herbs on these), put them in one layer on a baking sheet, shake the pan every now and then. Smaller pieces will obviously cook faster, and potatoes are notoriously slow. So you might want to make smaller pieces. For sweet potatoes, I slice them and coat with olive oil and then just lay the slices on the baking sheet. They take 15 or 20 minutes at 350, but check yours at 10 minutes, because ovens vary and burned food is sad. You can roast just about any vegetable. Cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, carrots. I avoided lettuce because it's so much empty calories, and hard to transport without a car. Sturdier veggies got my vote. I like to add an onion to things, even jarred pasta sauce. It adds something, ya know?

Oatmeal raisin cookies were actually pretty inexpensive to make, if I bought the biggest canister of oatmeal. Toss in some nuts and they're a pretty well rounded snack - whole grain, dried fruit, protein. And they taste good. I can't eat 3 dozen cookies before they go stale, so I would bake 6 (that's how many fit on my baking sheet), then freeze the dough balls on the baking sheet and stored them in a generic brand Ziploc freezer bag. So the next time I wanted cookies, I just had to bake them. Less mess!

Finally, please let me mail you some spices and recipes. You can email me, it's in my profile, if you'd rather remain more anonymous. I totally understand where you are. I've been very very poor very very recently. Knowing that people out here in the world can and would help improved so many of my days. I grew up incredibly poor, so I'm kind of familiar with these scraping by techniques. I make my own taco seasoning, so instead of paying $1 for a packet (or getting them on sale for 50 cents), I mix up a few packets worth for much less money, so I can send some your way if you like taco flavor.
posted by bilabial at 7:39 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

A trick I learned not too long ago: cook paprika in oil for a few minutes (AKA blooming) and it turns into a completely different flavor - rich, complex and savory. It goes well with lots of things, especially legumes and vegetables and even scrambled eggs. If you get only one spice, get paprika and bloom it in everything.

Also seconding shopping in the bulk section, especially if there's a hippie food store nearby. Grains, lentils, beans, oatmeal and spices are all a lot cheaper there. Quinoa is a good option if you like grains - it's relatively high in protein and has a nice nutty flavor.

Socialization: plan stuff around being outdoors. Walks, sitting in a nearby park and reading together, try to walk every street in your neighborhood. When I was in college and very financially strained, planning social events around food just caused stress, so suggesting outdoor activities became my go-to. Also, if you have a good playground nearby I highly recommend using the swings during off hours when there are no kids wanting to use them. YMMV, but swinging was seriously therapeutic for me when I lived near a playground.
posted by SakuraK at 7:42 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, you can grow potatoes, actually, pretty easily in a bucket with some holes in the bottom. But it takes a little bit of time (months) to actually get potatoes back. But! Free-ish potatoes is good.
posted by bilabial at 7:43 PM on April 28, 2012

I like everyone above's suggestions - those are all things I've done/cooked while really broke. I really want to second the suggestions to find an Asian/Indian style supermarket - spices, lentils, rice will be WAY cheaper there than anywhere else - also green veg and tofu, if you can carry that as well. Don't forget to keep your eyes peeled in your local store, too - whatever is super cheap is what's for dinner. There will always be a vegetable that's very cheap, and there will usually be some kind of meaty thing cheap too (especially late at night), or eggs are always good value. I used to walk everywhere, and got buses for the shopping.

Breakfast should be oatmeal or leftovers. Ditto on the peanut butter in the oats (so tasty!), and a little nutmeg or cinnamon makes it a little more lively. A little salt improves the flavour of any porridge.

Other meals should be built around whatever was cheap at the supermarket, augmented with your giant sack of rice (much cheaper than pasta, and more calories by weight, and better for you); or lentils/beans. One of my favourite cheap dinners is cheap minced meat (turkey is extremely cheap here, but pork is nicer) stir fried with some ginger and garlic, with finely shredded cabbage. Served over rice, and with a splash of soy added while cooking, it is delicious, and doesn't taste like poor food, but if you bought everything as cheap as possible, it is very cheap.

As far as spices etc are concerned, I recommend "mixed herbs" (goes in almost anything, is usually available very cheaply), "curry powder" (ditto), soy sauce (so, so cheap from an Asian store, and even ordinary supermarkets might have weird looking Asian brands that will be way cheaper than more mainstream ones), some kind of chili sauce, fresh garlic and ginger (both very cheap, and cheaper again from an Asian market).

Are your utilities included in your rent? Because if you don't have to pay extra for electricity, you can save a lot of money, and have a heap of fun making your own bread (extremely cheap white sliced bread will always cheaper, but it is only nominally "food", imo). Seconding suggestions to join libraries, go for walks (depending on your location, exploring is excellent), admire other people's gardens or dogs, can you pick up a little casual work, doing something like walking dogs? Dog walking is an activity that gets you out of the house, interacting with other humans and animals that brings in a few dollars.

Good luck - and remember it won't last forever. And there are a lot of hidden pleasures in being very poor, once you work out how to make it workable for you.
posted by thylacinthine at 7:45 PM on April 28, 2012

My best recommendation to you is to go to your library and get out the book "The Complete Tightwad Gazette" by Amy Dacyczyn. She's got tons of great tips for frugal cooking and other parts of life, although since the book was written pre-internet, a bunch of the advice is dated.

I think one of her suggestions is to have cooking parties with your friends where you all get together and swap parts of large batches of food you've made. That way you only have to buy ingredients for and cook one large batch of food, but you swap with your friends for a bunch of different dishes, then freeze them and you can eat them for a long time afterwards.

Here is a post from Get Rich Slowly about Ways To Eat Healthy While Keeping it Cheap. You can find a lot of other useful tips on frugal living on this blog (it's where I found out about the Tightwad Gazette).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:09 PM on April 28, 2012

On the off chance that you (or someone else reading this) are in Seattle, let me know and I can hook you up with small amounts of fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, rosemary, mint, and chives year-round; more variety in summer) relatively regularly. Or I can get you set up with some herb starts in large pots if you have a sunny windowsill to put them in. I know it can go a long way towards livening up a bland meal, and for me it always felt like a tiny bit of luxury when I didn't have very many other sources of that feeling.

Best of luck.
posted by librarina at 8:28 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you hit up the dollar stores you can quiet often pick up things like garlic powder or cheap herbs and spices. While the quality isn't great it can go a long way toward livening up a boring meal. Between that and the Asian supermarkets I've survived many a broke period with my tastebuds in tact.
posted by wwax at 8:38 PM on April 28, 2012

Add powdered milk to biscuits or oatmeal to up the protein levels and add to the sense of fullness. If you have a choice, get full fat or 2% milk, not skim since the fat will add to sense fullness.
posted by metahawk at 8:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with kittensofthenight: "Other than that, my suggestion would be cooking your own dry beans. Make a big pot at the beginning of the week of pinto or kidney beans"

I do this not so much because of the money, but because I'm vegetarian and like having a lot of easy protein available---that might help with the tiredness. I also much prefer the taste over canned. (pinto or kidney... or chickpeas or blackeyed or favas or anything else really)

I also very often simmer up a big batch of brown rice with lentils (usually green, but anything works, and I usually do a 1:1/2 ratio, sometimes 1:1) as another staple to have around during the week.

It might take some luck, but I've been finding large quantities of some fresh vegetables pretty cheap right now at my farmers market as well (like a huge basket of green beans, more than I can get through in a week, for $3). I'll sometimes ask for, say $1 worth of spinach to go with it, and wind up feeling like I stole too much.

For more flavor if your palate is bored, I think bay leaves are great. (People use those slowly. Maybe a friend can spare a handful.) Also consider buying big bags of those or other spices with friends at international markets.
posted by spbmp at 9:25 PM on April 28, 2012

If you can scrounge up the dough, spend the ten bucks on The Pauper's Cookbook. Or make someone give it to you. It helped me immensely when I was in your shoes. In fact, MeMail me or have the mods MeMail me or something and I will send it to you.

Hang in there. Being on food stamps actually made me a better cook, because I had to figure out how to make the best use of everything. This book helped.
posted by trip and a half at 9:32 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might try going to the farmers' market right at closing time. Sometimes they don't want to pack up the already-ripe produce and will give it to you for half off or more.

Nobody has mentioned dumpster diving here, but it was mentioned two or three times in response to my similar question. It may or may not be a good way to go, depending on whether you feel victorious to get something free, or just grossed out. What surprised me when a local expert showed me how he did it, was that some dumpsters are actually fairly clean. Not all, of course. Over my life, the people who have recommended it with a sense of glee and joy were ones who tended to go with a group, say with a couple of people from their coop. (You were asking about social activities!)

You might look into volunteering at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food bank. If anyone knows all the social assistance programs and has access to large quantities of food, food designed to be given away for free, it is the people who run those programs. And of course, if you get a part-time job at a restaurant, a grocery store, or anything similar, food becomes a lot more accessible.
posted by slidell at 9:42 PM on April 28, 2012

I forgot to mention that, depending on your location, you may be able to scavenge both spices and fruit. In the Bay Area, rosemary and bay are easy to find, and we're coming up on blackberry season.
posted by slidell at 9:44 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

A window box with a bunch of herbs in it is a good thing to have -- not free to set up, but probably something for which you could freecycle the needed what-not fairly easily.

One thing I enjoyed when I was poor was going for a walk in adjacent posh neighbourhoods on trash night -- lovely end tables and lamps and so on are yours for the taking -- and I could usually find somebody to do this with me. I walked a great deal in general then. I have happy memories of late-night walks with (other) impoverished eccentrics.

I also learned to make a good pie crust and ate that with maple syrup because for a little while after moving x-country and moving into a new place that was all I had available, and that slab of cooked dough, dipped, became a staple. Not terribly nutritious, but. Lemon juice and sugar top things nicely too.

Big sacks of onions are very cheap and if you like onions -- yay! Baked onions are very good. Onion soup ditto. Cream of onion too.

On preview, +1 "The Pauper's Cookbook."

I could not abide by cheeselessness, and instead of big blocks of cheap cheese, I bought small pieces of very strong cheese, and used them up a tiny bit at a time. Any cheesemonger will be fine with cutting a $1 or $2 chunk of something.

In the time and place that I was poor the people at the farmer's market were happy to bargain at the end of the day, even moreso (1) when something was at the peak of the season, (2) when the market season itself was coming close to an end. Do you want to make a deal on a big thing of too-soft tomatoes instead of having to bring them back here or throw them away? And I'd cart away almost more than I could carry for very little, and make things and freeze them.

Nowadays I am a thrift store junkie and I notice that some, not all, but some, sell personal care products -- there is a wide variety in how they will do this. A tiny % try to turn a good profit on them -- ick. Some give them away for free, bless 'em. Some only do unused, some will put out a 3/4 full bottle of shampoo. But, yeah, somewhere out there is hopefully the one selling unopened shampoo for a quarter. Worth tracking down if poverty is going to be a longer-term concern.
posted by kmennie at 9:46 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
~ Philip Levine

also sweet potatoes, beans, lentils...some onion, garlic, ginger

if you can somehow swing it a crockpot is amazing, whole chicken, celery, carrots, an onion...and a side of some cheap green, frozen spinach or turnip greens are good...
posted by dawson at 11:52 PM on April 28, 2012

Obviously just dumpster dive. I get 90% of my food from natural food dumpsters, and have done so for years. Also check your regular grocery store dumpsters. You could only take fully packaged, clean, un-expired food, and have more than enough to eat.
posted by crawltopslow at 3:01 AM on April 29, 2012

Beans, beans, beans, yes! Beans are your friend. Dried beans cooked slowly are a dietary staple throughout the world. Pair them with that brown rice, and you have a complete protein. Experiment with varieties so you don't burn out. I grew up in rural WV, and I assure you that beans in a culture that loves and appreciate beans are full of savory beauty.

So lovely that people are offering you dried spices! Please say yes, and learn to use them. Recipes abound online to show you how to cook effectively with spices. Food that tastes good feeds your emotional state, not just your body!

And yes yes yes on the frozen veggies. It's not just your current survival, but your long-term health that is at stake here. Plus, the variety will keep you from burning out.

I cook a big batch of rice at once and refrigerate for the week (or freeze in individual portions). Fried rice with a handful of warmed-separately frozen veggies thrown in toward the end with a sprinkling of soy sauce? Endless variations depending on what you have in the freezer. Stir up a raw egg in a cup, push the rice to the side of the skillet, and pour the egg into the middle. Stir quickly, then stir through the rice until the egg finishes cooking. It'll be fast, because the hot rice will help the egg set. Now you've got carbs, veggies, and protein in a single dish. Eat the whole thing.

If you can cook your own stock, use that, but if not, find canned stock on sale, and use it to cook your rice now and then instead of water. Yay! Pilaf! Eat that with your beans.

Buy a pound of real butter. Keep one stick in the refrigerator, and freeze the rest. A tiny bit of butter added at the right time can make your food much better because it gives you the famous "full mouth feel". A sliver stirred into your rice, or any non-red sauce, as it's finished, is really a good punch for your money. (And it's easy) An egg scrambled or fried with a little butter is more flavorful too. Remember as mentioned by others that you do need some fat in your diet.

Social stuff: look into your local library system. Full of free programs that are enriching to your mind and spirit. Book discussion, puppet shows (fun for grownups too!), music. I know how poverty in our society can grind you down into depression. Look for those uplifting and expansive opportunities. Just yesterday, the local music appreciation group presented a harp teacher and her students performing some really lovely music for totally free in the library. It was really uplifting. (I was one of the performers, and frankly I didn't do so well, but people still loved it because it's the FREAKING HARP, right?) So beauty, and conversation, and lots of people chatting. AND... cake! Free cake! And punch! I was smiling dazedly afterward and thinking how much broke college-aged me would have loved to have heard that cool music, and how much a piece of that cake would have meant to me back then. But the main thing is that you can do these lovely things that can help you transcend that bleakness that poverty can bring to your emotions. You might make friends there, you might not, but you're being social and learning stuff. And these events are good to attend with the friends you already have, because they're not built around the idea that money will be spent (on food or otherwise).

And please go to your local food pantry. That's what it's there for. :-)
posted by theplotchickens at 5:28 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest eggs, dried beans, and the local food pantry.

For produce, apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and root vegetables like turnips will keep FOREVER in your produce drawer, so if you can stock up, do.

To make stock:

If you buy meat, save the scraps and bones in the freezer and make stock. Simmer bones and scraps, salt and pepper, leftover bits of onions, celery, carrots (or skip the onions, celery, and carrots if you don't have them) and water for several hours until you get a good broth. Strain it, ditch the scraps, and you have a base for soup, stew, whatever.

To preserve vegetables:

You can roast them and freeze them so you have produce throughout the month. Or you can blanch (cook them for 60 seconds in salted boiling water) and then spread them out on a freezer pan to freeze (so they don't freeze into a gigantic block). Then you can use them throughout the month. Perhaps psychologically being able to have green things at the end of the month will make it feel less desperate?
posted by elizeh at 8:25 AM on April 29, 2012

I don't have much to add that hasn't already been said, but wanted to point out that where i live, the grocery stores in chinatown are approaximately 1/4 the price of the regular grocery store. I get a bag of produce there for $7 that would cost over $20 at the conventional grocery store.

Also, think about what global poor people eat, day in and day out their whole lives. I mean in countries where pretty much everyone is poor. It's stuff like rice and beans, lentils, potatoes. Organ meats. Tough cuts of meat simmered for a long time.
posted by Kololo at 8:56 AM on April 29, 2012

Tons of good advice here, I just wanted to chime in and say I would recommend buying a couple herb plants from the grocery store. Maybe basil and oregano? Herbs regrow very quickly in a sunny window and for just a few dollars you will have something to season with indefinitely.

I also just discovered that you can

I think that this kind of stuff will help you to save money and still be able to add some interest to your foods.

I also want to reiterate that you should save all vegetable scraps for soup.
posted by trishthedish at 9:58 AM on April 29, 2012


That sentence was supposed to say.. can regrow onions every week like this.
posted by trishthedish at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2012

Note that when people talk about making beans, they mean dry beans, which are very affordable. It's better to buy in bulk using your dwindling cash, and then make food from scratch. Potatoes, pasta, rice and ramen are affordable. Tuna and eggs offer lots of protein affordably. Buy garlic powder, rosemary, Italian herb mix, chili powder and other spices in big jars on sale, and use them in various combinations. Check the dented can/on sale section of the market; they often have veggies that are fully ripe and ready to be used right away. Freeze what you don't use immediately. There have been a lot of threads on eating cheap.

Make friends locally. Volunteer at the food pantry, check to see what the library or local schools have for free lectures, slide shows, etc.
posted by theora55 at 10:04 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The farmer's markets where I live take food stamps, and if you are careful you will find things cheaper there. People are often willing to make deals at the end of the day because they don't want to cart things back. Whole Foods also takes food stamps, and sells bulk spices, so if you're near one you can spend a very small amount and have many options for making food taste better. Local food co-ops or health food stores may also do this.

Instant soup is not really a good deal for what you get. If you start cooking vegetables, you can use the scraps to make amazing vegetable broth in about 45 minutes, then add whatever you'd like to eat to that. Buy things in bulk. Usually things like coarse corn meal, rye flakes, and split peas are cheaper than flour while being healthier. A bunch of fresh herbs that costs a dollar can be cleaned and hung to dry for flavoring variations. Check out cookbooks from libraries or just copy recipes. I good one to look at for simple combinations and interesting flavoring ideas would be Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. There are some complex curries, but many simple things as well.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:08 AM on April 29, 2012

Beans, pasta, rice, bread, oatmeal. Buy in bulk and make from scratch. The good news is that they'll taste so much better made this way.

I've often found the food that is the cheapest to make is takeout food. Put two cups of flour and water in a bowl with a little yeast and the next day you'll have no-knead dough from which you can make pizza. It's similarly easy to make your own corn tortillas. Fresh pasta is a real treat. You can make a bunch of lasagna noodles, freeze what you don't use, and have a loose lasagna dish anytime you want.

If I were in your boat, I might consider learning how to cook with Tofu. Or, you could limit yourself to a hot dog a day or something. Meat is usually my biggest expense. Dried, powdered milk can be substituted for the real thing in most dishes. Also, I'll nth the shopping at an ethnic supermarket, especially for spices.
posted by xammerboy at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2012

You can make tasty tortilla chips by frying cut up corn tortillas in oil. Sprinkle with salt while they cool.
posted by luckynerd at 11:46 AM on April 29, 2012

From the OP:
RE: dried beans.
I boiled my chickpeas from scratch, and always cook beans from scratch. I am aware that lentils take less time to cook (and require no soaking). I soak my brown rice before cooking to lessen cooking time. White rice is cool. Also, I am familiar with quinoa and know how to make stock. I know about rice and beans. I am seeking ideas for other than R&B because it tends to make me feel sluggish.

RE: food, general.
I am allergic to dairy and its related food products. Due to health issues, I cannot eat nightshade family foods (including paprika, tomatoes, etc.). I am gluten intolerant. I do not eat meat. I eat fish. Tinned sardines make me ill. Even smothered with mustard. I am aware of the bulk food section, and that is where I buy flours for said biscuits. I do not have access to a garden. Please do not suggest urban homesteading (e.g. raise my own hens). That requires start-up capital, resources, community, and patience. I would rather find a full-time job or go to grad school. Please, no commentary about what I prefer to eat. I am not asking for people to tell me that I shouldn't be eating instant soup (miso, easily and quickly prepared, added to quinoa adds instant flavor, etc.). Hot sauce is my condiment of choice, but not on everything. I liked the idea of eggs with steak sauce. Soy sauce is in my pantry.

RE: Asian grocery stores.
The stores near me do not accept EBT, and are all inaccessible without using public transportation, based on where I live. I’m trying to conserve my energy.

RE: freezer.
There is a mini-fridge where I live, and the fridge’s capacity is small. There is no normal-sized freezer unit, unlike most full-sized refrigerators. I also do not live in the most accessible location, so cannot buy large quantities of things (I do not own a car) since I must carry them. Based on location and carrying capacity, I buy things in smaller quantities. I do not have a real kitchen, which poses several limitations. I live very frugally in general. I can't "swing" a crockpot right now.

RE: location.

Specifically, I seek your personal suggestions for how you stretch food at the end of the month into the next month, whether you're on food stamps or not. Food stamps are really helping me at this point in my life. I know it takes creativity to figure out how to make food taste good, be filling, and healthful on a budget. I'm a good cook and decent (but currently repressed) baker, and can always learn from other people's ideas and tricks.

I am also seeking suggestions for social activities. Maybe that's just not possible right now. (I'm a bit shy and as you can see am asking people on the internet for socializing ideas, but do you really think I live under a rock and don't know about public libraries and how to take a walk outside? I'm blown away by some of the assumptions in the responses. For example, the personal care products suggestion: that was not my question.) At the end of the month, things always look worse (rent due; dwindling food resources). I read a lot of books from the library. Currently, it's hard to justify volunteering, which I would love to do (commuting costs being the main barrier). It is profoundly unhelpful to write, "You're not trying hard enough." That's really not what I'm asking ("Am I trying hard enough?"). Advice or commentary about the "Third World" and "what people do" "there" is not what I’m looking for; rather, I’m seeking tasty food recipes for things that helped you stretch your budget, for food that is healthful, fresh(-like), and filling at the end of the month. Meetup membership: check. I do not have a large home wherein I can host potlucks—think Apartment Therapy tiny. Also, I am trying to meet people as a human being who is otherwise x, y, and z but living through a stressful moment in my life.

How to deal with fatigue of poverty? (No bootstrap lectures.) How did you keep your sense of humor? What made things interesting? How to keep motivated? How to keep survival goals (food; shelter) in their place with larger, long-view goals (career, grad school, etc.)? These are the questions I’m asking.

Thanks to responses from stoneweaver, sarahw, Meg_Murry, Nickel Pickle, and bilabial.
posted by jessamyn at 1:28 PM on April 29, 2012

For more social stuff:
* Volunteer at any food program! If they serve a hot meal you will get to eat too, and if they give out food you can pick some up.
* Host a pot luck (our standard dish was chilli - v. cheap to make and v. filling) or chilli or BBQ (this will get you a lot of meat) contest - we used to do this especially when we had no money for the week and were left with lots of leftovers that would take us through the week. In our, "Hey anyone is invited" email we were v. clear about what we were providing and sometimes that was just bowls and spoons and our judging expertise. I am reading your update right now! Just make your potluck at a local park. You can pull this off about every two months.
* Do work at a CSA or at the farmers market - if you are physically able (you would go early in the morning or at the end and ask if folks need help - you may get paid in food or money). I could never make this work with my schedule but I had plenty of clients that did.

I used to work at a non-profit where both the clients and us staff were eligible for all sorts of assistance. Part of the deal is that you have to walk (or get a bike or take the bus) and stand around/in line and then smile or at least speak openly to keep finding out about the free stuff in your area. Did I meet some awesome moms waiting for my WIC - yes, that is who told me about where and when I could get big blocks of government cheese.

And currently I live in a very temporary place, so I walk down the street and "find" food I don't have space or "a season" to plant. There are lots of books about this (I particularly like Stalking the Wild Asparagus). Dandelions are out (in the northern hemisphere) and if you get them before they flower are delicious in salad and really good for you. People love to landscape with rosemary. Walking around railroad tracks you can often find berry bushes. We used to pick fruit from around the local college - thank you pawpaw, crabapple and sour cherry trees.

And finally - what makes any unpleasant situation better: 1. community 2. a sense of adventure 3. gratitude (and I am talking about something as simple as being thankful before you eat your beans)
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 1:54 PM on April 29, 2012

At least in my part of New England, it's very possible to eat very well, for free, every Friday and Saturday night by attending free community/church suppers. I understand that doesn't work anywhere, but this would both give you a couple of free meals a week and at least sort of help you be a little more social. My personal experience is also that if you're willing to volunteer to clean up then you get to take a lot of leftovers home. Also, check and see if there is a "food not bombs" or similar group in your area that serves free meals. I understand you are trying to conserve resources and energy by not going out, but if you can go out and eat for free, you'll end up with more energy afterwards.

re: stretching your food dollar: it's gotten a lot of bad publicity, but I find that learning to use coupons has really helped me to stock up my pantry with basics for almost no money. In the past month I have gotten the following, in quantity, for free, by using coupons: carrots, white rice, McCormick spices, a number of varieties of pasta, toilet paper, and frozen veggies. If you have a computer and internet, you can print many coupons at home for free. I also get a lot of coupons simply by picking them out of the trash at the recycling center. Websites like weusecoupons.com and afullcup.com will have forums for the grocery stores and supermarkets near you, with "match ups" telling you what coupons match with what deals. Also, if you're willing to tell a bit of your story on those forums ("I'm new to couponing, I'm on EBT") I have no doubt that people will be willing to share coupons with you for free. If you are able to match coupons with sales in your area (and especially if you live near a chain that doubles coupons) you can easily stock up your cupboards with basics, leaving a little more room at the end of the month.
posted by anastasiav at 2:13 PM on April 29, 2012

Yes, I was on food stamps for a while, I also had to feed three teenagers on 100 bucks a month (about five years ago). I know of what I speak. Since you don't eat meat, I'll say again, peanut butter and eggs for protein. More protein = more energy and adding eggs to your carbs will also help fight fatigue. Since you don't have a freezer, buy canned veggies. You don't have to buy them all at once, but buy a can or two every time you shop and use them as you like. I'd suggest buying the single serve cans since you don't have a fridge to keep the left overs in -- not as economical but better than throwing the leftovers out. Trust me, eating more veggies will help with the fatigue. Add them to your noodles, biscuits, rice, or whatever and that will also help stretch your food because it adds bulk to your meal and keeps you fuller longer.

I can't offer you much about socializing. I'm not good at it. That said, anastasiav has a good point. Going to the free meals offered by the churches or community centers is a great way to meet people and get at least one free meal a week. I had a friend who did this, and she was very social. I was too shy (and worked too much) to take advantage of the dinners.
posted by patheral at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My family eats very very cheaply. I usually plan out my menu relying heavily on http://www.5dollardinners.com/ - a great resource. About five bucks a day is quite manageable, and although its meant to feed an entire family, my other half and I just use the leftovers for lunches.
posted by Syllables at 4:38 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking of chickpeas -- which I typically enjoy baked with (previously frozen, cheap) chicken breasts, garlic, and paprika, with maybe a potato or two thrown in to stretch it out -- a person can sort of simmer them in the oven without worrying about them getting too mushy if you're just going to turn around and make hummus with them.

Also, although I've never done it, it's my understanding that some people in the Mediterranean region use a little peanut butter instead of tahini to flavor said hummus. Browsing around on a site like eGullet can present many such tweaks that stand to save you some scratch.

And also, speaking of peanut butter, if you thin it out, spice it up, and add shredded chicken and brown rice it makes a hearty "African peanut chicken" soup. Well, really, you start by sauteeing some garlic in oil, add the peanut butter and brown it, add a bunch of water, and go from there. It is, by it's nature, a very thick and hearty soup.
posted by mr. digits at 5:54 PM on April 29, 2012

Regarding turkey, if you don't mind eating it in quantity then I would recommend buying frozen turkey breasts on the bone... once a month or so I purchase an eight-pound frozen breast for $20 to create a solid week's worth of automatic leftover meat for my wife and I.

We generally consume it as "cold turkey and whatever vegetable is around"-type meals, but of course the meat is suitable for addition to whatever one's heart desires. Quesadillas with a little cheese and some beans are quick and tasty and high in protein, or by combining turkey with brown rice and (stomach-filling) steamed greens you can make a very filling dish.

The cooking process is very simple and takes a couple hours, and removing the flesh from the bones basically comes down to peeling four major muscles apart, which one can accomplish by slicing the breast lengthwise down the center and using one's fingers.

And regarding dried beans, if you live somewhere where they don't necessarily sell well (as do I), then dropping by a co-op to buy them in bulk is a good play. Those pound bags that you can buy at the grocery store frequently include a lot of beans that need to be sorted out before cooking.
posted by mr. digits at 6:33 PM on April 29, 2012

This question asks how to stay kind and not stop caring about the outside world during a sickness in the family and related budget woes. It's not a perfect fit, but you may find a few useful tidbits there that speak to your questions: "How to deal with fatigue of poverty? ...How did you keep your sense of humor? What made things interesting? How to keep motivated? How to keep survival goals (food; shelter) in their place with larger, long-view goals (career, grad school, etc.)?"
posted by slidell at 10:35 PM on April 29, 2012

We don't have food stamps here, so I'm not 100% sure how you redeem them - but hwne I was unemployed, I bought things at the end of the day from the supermarket that were reduced, and managed to buy things like meat that way. You can do the same for whatever you prefer. This might be a really obvious tip!

I also went to a stall which sold vegetables for a pound per bowl (plastic bowl with fresh veg in) and bought sweet potatoes, mushrooms, onions, aubergines and courgettes, sliced them, put a little oil on (and gruyere if it was cheap) ánd roasted them. One visit would last me for a week or so.

I can't drive and at the time I couldn't afford bus fares, so I'd invite people over. My room was more than likely smaller than yours (we're talking about 40 sq ft) but you can host one friend at a time at least. A friend of mine sometimes came over to cook something for us and we would watch a film or chat.
posted by mippy at 5:22 AM on April 30, 2012

OP, to clarify I wasn't intending to suggest that you just take a walk outside. I was suggesting that you invite friends to walks in the park because that is a free activity that many people enjoy doing, and is easy to frame as a "Let's get some fresh air and exercise!" sort of suggestion rather than an "I can't afford the movies" sort of suggestion. And in my personal experience, when I took the initiative to invite friends to free things like that, it prevented me from having to turn down invitations to events I could not afford. It was intended as a social suggestion.

I was also not suggesting that you visit a library out of any sort of assumption that you did not know they existed. I was saying that I wish I myself, when I was in your position, had specifically joined one of the free book clubs that libraries offer as a social outlet.

I suggested growing herbs indoors on a windowsill because I literally did that when I was poor. I was living in a crumbling illegal studio apartment where the windows overlooked an alley, and the little rosemary plants I had growing in repurposed take-out trays and yogurt tubs that I'd retrieved from the dumpster outside were quite a comfort to me, not only because they were tasty, but also because they were living green things that cheered up my ugly, lonely living space. But YMMV.

I apologize for having upset you. Apparently I did not do enough to make intent behind my suggestions clear. You asked for food and social suggestions from people who had been in your situation, and the things I suggested were all quite honestly things that I did myself or wish now that I had done.

I lost 20 pounds I did not need to lose during the first six months of freshman year of college, from walking everywhere and never having enough to eat. It was depressing and I was very lonely and frustrated. I have nothing but empathy for your situation, and I do not think it is your fault, nor do I think in any way that you are not trying hard enough. I think most of the people who are commenting feel the same way.
posted by BlueJae at 8:10 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Depending on where you live (basically, any city in America over 100k) you can shop at an ethnic market.

Mexican food is cheap and delicious and full of variety. Meat from the Carniceria is much cheaper and per-marinated. The produce will be as expected, but learn to make salsas and you can really add flavor to everything.

Huevos Ahogados En Salsa Verde, as easy as it gets combining the cheapest ingredients: Eggs + Tomatillos. Recipe: Boil Tomatillos until soft, drain, put in blender with a jalapeno, garlic, salt, cilantro, blend until smooth. Add to pan (put the rest in the fridge if you made a lot for later), bring to boil, put in eggs, poach. Serve eggs with sauce + beans + spanish rice + tortillas.

Chinese markets are also a bargain too, here in Portland we have Fu-bon which has the cheapest shiitake mushrooms I've ever encountered along with a massive meat market. If you don't mind odd pig parts, then they make excellent and cheap bases to soups and flavoring.
posted by wcfields at 9:53 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

$ stores can have a surprising amount of food. I wish I had known that when I was struggling. Spices, too!
posted by agregoli at 10:49 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Additional specific things to eat, now that I've been thinking about this for a bit.
  • Baked eggs (sometimes called shirred eggs) crack an egg into a small oiled ramekin top with whatever herbs you like. Bake at 350 (or whatever) until the egg is a little gooier than you want it. The heat from the ceramic dish will keep cooking the egg, so it's easy to overcook this if you're not watching. So good with toast or biscuits. Even just one egg cooked this way feel so...civilized or something.
  • thickening soups with cornstarch gives them a more filling mouth feel. Just a half tea spoon stirred into a serving of soup and brought to a boil for a minute or so. This is true of gravies also, if you wanted to make vegetable stock gravy for your biscuits. Stir well from the beginning so it doesn't get lumpy.
  • Homemade Salad dressings can be wonderful on roasted veggies or beans- a little olive oil, some vinegar, and whatever herbs you like, add some mustard if you're feeling frisky. Tons of recipes online for "salad dressing vinegar and oil," if you're not interested in mayo or cheese centric options.
  • After potatoes and sweet potatoes, carrots are one of my favorites to roast, and they can be unbelievably cheap if you buy a bigger bag. If you have a grater you can shred carrots (and any other veggies) up to make a quiche-y thing with eggs. I bet roasted veggies in a quiche would be great, but I'm not usually up for a two step cooking process.
  • If you can get your hands on a can of crisco you can make pie crust cheaper than buying. Apple pie filling is very easy to make with cinnamon, and you can make one apple's worth. That filling goes great in oatmeal too, if you find yourself with leftovers. Any fruit, really, can be heated with a bit of sugar and some spice or another to make a filling or a topping.
  • You can use your ramekin to make individual crumbles or crisps with your oatmeal and some brown sugar. Find recipes for regular sized ones and play around with a smaller serving size. Since it doesn't have to rise you could even make a full sized one if you luck into a bounty of fruit.
  • If you buy nuts in the bulk section, you can toast them for a change of flavor. Peanut stew can be very tasty. Find a recipe that seems to match a flavor profile you like.
  • You can make refrigerator pickles cheaper than buying, if you have vinegar and dill or other spices around. This may take up more fridge space than you can give up. Unless you really love pickles. Some are ready in a few days (half sours) and some take a week or more to be pickled. A small mason jar with a lid will let you pickle some carrot slices and a cut cucumber (which speeds pickling!). You can pickle almost anything. Radishes, cabbage. Etc. See what you find at a Farmer's market if any of your job interviews take you near one.
  • You can make your own "dried soup mixes" with quinoa, beans, rice, whatever you like.
  • Do you have any vegetable stock cubes? They make soup ok (just watch the sodium), and it's a nice change from miso. You can make small batches of your own homemade veg stock with the ends of an onion, the heel of celery and ends of carrots. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 1/2 hour or longer. Toss in sauteed onions, carrots, whatever. Soup! To go with your biscuits. For just the cost of one carrot, one onion (reserve half or 3/4 for later) and some celery. Add pasta that you previously boiled.
This site has an active forum community. Probably a few people who would offer dollar stretching advice specific to your neighborhood. You might be comfortable giving more detailed geographic information with the extra padding of anonymity there. Or maybe there's already a thread with your geographic area!
posted by bilabial at 1:47 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go to the nearest place where you can buy produce and see what you can get for cheap. You WILL find something for cheap and it will make you happy when you eat it. For example, I just saw watermelon on sale for under a dollar per pound. Biting into a huge slice of watermelon bigger than your face always feels luxurious to me. I see bananas around for like 35 cents each. You should be able to find cheap apples too. Get a gigantic tub of peanut butter at the start of the month when you have your resources, and then have slices up apples with PB throughout the month. So good.
posted by cairdeas at 6:30 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's another thing I suggest doing. If you can, hit up your local bakery or donut shop at closing. (This might be a reasonable hour or it might be 2 am.) That's when they throw out all the day's goods to make room for the next day's fresh ones.

Please don't take this as a condescending or demeaning suggestions. Let me give you my bona fides - lived on under $1000 per month (total) in Manhattan, in a 5th floor walkup (no elevator), in a cockroach infested building where many of them were 4+ inches long, in a "bedroom" (converted living room) that my other roommates had to walk through all day and night to get to their rooms (along with their boyfriends, friends, one night stand hookups, etc.). In that period of time I spent $10 per week on food and the only reason I'm not making more suggestions is I did NOT eat healthfully.

But I did get a lot of delicious free bread and donuts that were about to be thrown out, and I still do that to this day even though I now have reached a middle-class lifestyle.
posted by cairdeas at 6:47 PM on April 30, 2012

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