What's the simplest, cheapest yet most complete diet available?
May 2, 2006 4:57 PM   Subscribe

What's the simplest, cheapest yet most complete diet available?

Being the creative type I tend to exhaust my energies working on projects leaving little time to prepare food, and little money to afford it. I often end up eating junk because it's more convenient, but it adds up. So I wanna break the habit, but I can't be doing with buying masses of ingredients that I might only use once to make one dish.

I read "Passport to Survival", which says you could get by on Wheat, Honey, Salt & Powdered Milk alone. I like the idea of that, but I think I could afford to get a few extra ingredients...

Go hive mind, go!
posted by 6am to Food & Drink (46 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Beans and rice is probably a pretty good start. That gets you all your protein, throw in some fruits and vegetables and some dairy and that would about do it.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:06 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: IANA cook, health nut or otherwise culinary educated. I have been trying to live healthy for the last couple of years though. I've been mostly lurking on a bunch of forums and the concensus seems to be that a reasonably balanced diet of meat/vegies is ok. I've been getting away with rice + chicken + misc vegies (carrots, cauliflower, etc) on a daily basis for the last 8 months. It's cheap, easy to make and reasonably healthy. YMMV, but it seems kinda sketchy to live off wheat and honey. Not to mention boring..
posted by aeighty at 5:07 PM on May 2, 2006

You need water, protiens, and carbs. Just about everything else you can get from vitamin pills, and fat you can synthesize internally from the other three, if you need it. So I'd go with rice, beans, water, and a multivitamin.
posted by ChasFile at 5:37 PM on May 2, 2006

Well, you also need some fats for proper brain function and heart health and organ repair. So add some olive oil or nuts to the above, at the least.
posted by Miko at 5:41 PM on May 2, 2006

Oh, fine, I suppose that leaves out salt. But since you are going for maximum convenience, rather than maximum economy or minimum processing, you'll probably want to get canned beans (rather than soaking raw ones for hours to get them edible) which are generally packed in PLENTY of salt. So I stand by rice, canned beans, water, and a vitamin.
posted by ChasFile at 5:41 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: I second the beans and rice. It stores well, and with spices you can have a slightly different meal each day. Bags of frozen veggies are also cheap and store well. I think I do pretty well with eating cheaply, so here is what I eat daily:

Breakfast: Oatmeal, Glass of Milk (or water)

Snack: Apple

: Salad (a bagged salad will get you 3 days worth of salads if you portion it, and goes on sale oten), PB&J Sandwich on wheat.

Dinner: Rice with Beans and Veggies (I buy canned because I am lazy. One can is about two meals worth of beans for me), Baked Yam

: Bowl of Cheerios

I usually eat bigger portions than normal, since I do a decent bit of running and lifting. I also scale back on days where I don't keep up fitness-wise.
posted by Loto at 5:42 PM on May 2, 2006 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I spend about 15-20 dollars a week on this, depending on sales and such. I also take a multi-vitamin.
posted by Loto at 5:43 PM on May 2, 2006

Well, you also need some fats for proper brain function and heart health and organ repair. So add some olive oil or nuts to the above, at the least.

Most fats can be synthesized internally from carbs and water. Those that can't (amino acids, etc.) can be found in vitamins.
posted by ChasFile at 5:45 PM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: good stuff so far, thanks everyone (not just Loto)!
posted by 6am at 5:56 PM on May 2, 2006

Though I haven't tried it myself, The Shangri La Diet has been getting a lot of positive attention lately from smart people I trust. And it's very simple and cheap.
posted by scottreynen at 6:00 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: If you follow Loto's advice and use packaged salad I'd suggest getting salad with romaine. Iceberg has very little nutritional value, while romaine has lots.

Similarly, use brown rice rather than white. It takes longer to cook, but it's far better for you--more vitamins and more fiber. You can always make a lot of it and re-heat small amounts in the microwave for each meal.

Also, if you're going to be living on beans and want some spice/non-blandness, consider mashing them up and adding tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder (or some of those).

You mention not wanting to buy many ingredients that you'd use for only one dish, but other than that it sounds like you'd essentially like to live on one dish. Which is it?
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:06 PM on May 2, 2006

Most fats can be synthesized internally from carbs and water

Are you using science? Is that right? Link?
posted by Miko at 6:10 PM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry, to clarify: I meant I didn't want to buy many ingredients that I'd only use once. I'm after a small range of items that can go together in lots of different ways. I suppose a better way of putting it is I'd rather live off one shopping list.
posted by 6am at 6:15 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: Most fats can be synthesized internally from carbs and water.

We also synthesize water from carbohydrates and oxygen but that doesn't make a water-free diet a good fucking idea.

Those that can't (amino acids, etc.) can be found in vitamins.
posted by ChasFile at 5:45 PM PST on May 2

I'm not a chemist but I'm fairly certain that this is all kinds of wrong. Folks, this is why you take all AskMe health answers with a raised eyebrow: any radical change to your diet should be accompanied by a visit to an M.D. or licensed nutritionist. Cutting any single macronutrient out of your diet is a horrible idea and I think that ChasFile either needs to bring some evidence to the table or stop posting disinformation.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:22 PM on May 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Carbs do indeed get converted into fat internally. The easiest way to prove it is to eat lots (and lots) of rice and not exercise. You'll end up fat; rice (carbs) -> fat. However, as far as I understand there is a huge variety of "type" of fats, so you do need to eat some "fat", stuff like fish oil for instance. Fish (and other) oil contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which are beneficial for your heart. You want to have a reasonbly varied diet so you get all of the micronutrients that your body requires. Once again, I appologize for this hand waving but all my information is basically off the web and discussions similar to this one.

needs more cowbell, is brown rice actually brown? I've tried hunting for it in the local stores, but the rice is identified by vendor rather than by type. All I see is either really white rice, or not-so-white rice.
posted by aeighty at 6:23 PM on May 2, 2006

Yeah, most fats can be synthesized by humans, but there are essential fats just as there are essential amino acids. If I remember my biochemistry right, the consequence of not getting the proper fats is intense pain.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 6:27 PM on May 2, 2006

I am really enamored with Asian cooking, Thai in particular. Thai food is economical and usually fairly simple to prepare. You can get a big bag of rice from an Asian or ethnic grocery store super cheap. Stir-fry some veggies and some chicken, cook the rice and you have a fairly healthy meal. One of my current favorite recipies is Thai pineapple chicken curry because it makes a lot, reheats well, and is very forgiving if you don't have one of the ingredients (I usually leave out the bamboo shoots). I've been making this at least once a week lately.

My other staple is bagged salad mix, spinach or baby greens, not iceberg lettuce.

Tuna is a cheap source of protein, too, so you could also mix up some tuna salad sandwiches once a week or so.
posted by Ostara at 6:27 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: The Hillbilly Housewife explains how to feed a family for $45 per week (includes menu, shopping list and nutritional information).

You don't have to be quite that extreme, but the basic principle is that simple, raw ingredients are radically cheaper than processed foods.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:30 PM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: brown rice.
posted by 6am at 6:36 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: Well, I basically live off a small, cheap, healthy shopping list. Check out my comment in this thread for my specific pantry-supply plan, and read the whole thread for more ideas.

By the way: Usually I spend about $30-40 week on these groceries, and I eat really, really well. It involves a lot of cooking.
posted by Miko at 6:36 PM on May 2, 2006

aeighty, I'm referring to whole-grain rice. "White" rice has had the bran removed, while whole-grain rice has not. In the US it's called brown rice--perhaps it goes by another name elsewhere?
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:40 PM on May 2, 2006

lots of potatoes + a few eggs.
posted by Pigpen at 6:51 PM on May 2, 2006

Eggs -- egg whites, if you don't mind wasting the yolks -- should definitely be involved. Eggs are relatively cheap, with plenty of protein. They're very versatile, can be prepared quickly, and can be combined with lots of other good stuff.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:07 PM on May 2, 2006

This issue of fats in food or fats synthesized by the body.. I know very little about the field, but my understanding is that it is important to include some small amount of fat along with certain nutrients while eating. The presence of the fat helps the body absorb those nutrients during digestion. Body fat wouldn't necessarily be able to provide this assistance, 'right place and right time' and all that.

The suggestion I heard along with the above was that a tablespoon of olive oil in your spaghetti sauce is a really good idea.

Which brings me to spaghetti sauce - 1 can diced or ground tomatoes, a pack of frozen chopped spinach, a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and season to taste (normally dry parsley and oregano leaves, and garlic grated with the fine side of a cheese grater). The trick is, defrost the spinach in the microwave and squeeze the water out into the sauce (captures nutrient, but also keeps the water content a little lower as the sauce will reduce on the stove) and add the spinach at the last minute (if you cook the spinach more than the minimum it will get a little messy).
posted by Chuckles at 7:14 PM on May 2, 2006

Best answer: Cheap sources of protein:

Eggs (one of the cheapest per calorie and quality -- but lose at least half the yolks as you cook 'em)
Canned Tuna (yuck. but probably okay sometimes. mercury.)
Beans (canned or in bulk)
Tofu (can be pricey if you buy prepared stuff - big blocks = cheap)

Cheap sources of grains:

Noodles (not as cheap)
NOT bread -- it's very expensive for the payoff. And it's not as high in fiber and nutrients

Cheap sources of vegetables:

Farmers Market
Buy a head of lettuce and hack it up into a bag sized portion. This will make two "bag-sized' bags of lettuce for about $2.00 (as compared to around $6).
Buy what's in season (Mangos in January and Tomatoes in March are going to hurt, money-wise. Plus they're bad).

Buy some cheap tupperware (or keep store packaging that can be reused). The way to be cheap and eat well is to cook yourself. You're trading time for money. That's just how it is.
posted by zpousman at 7:59 PM on May 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I hate wasting egg yolks. You can buy little cartons if pure egg white (not those fake-egg substitutes) reasonably cheaply. Anyway, most people can eat 1-2 eggs, with yolk, every day without a problem.
posted by rosemere at 10:25 PM on May 2, 2006

Eat nothing pre-cooked or manufactured, as close to nothing in a package (other than rice and pasta and so on) as you can get, and you'll be fine. Drink water more than anything else you might drink. It's utterly simple. No 'diets' are necessary unless you have a medical condition of some kind.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:28 PM on May 2, 2006

The Hillbilly Housewife emergency menu is not a bad one at all, but her prices seem to be based on the grocery prices of the late 1970s. An equivalent shopping list with modern prices is probably closer to $90 than the quoted $45.

It's also, I should add, a bit labor intensive. Few of the meals planned under that system are likely to be quite as low-effort as you seem to want.
posted by majick at 11:46 PM on May 2, 2006

How do you "waste" the yolks in eggs. Just cook 'em and eat 'em, right? Given the parsimonious nature of these suggested diets, I hardly consider them unhealthy (I'm assuming an active cardio/weight lifestyle).

Have I missed something?
posted by sourwookie at 12:33 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: 1 can Black Beans
1 cup brown rice
Cheddar cheese to taste

Cook the brown rice in the normal way.
Warm the beans in a sauce pan. Add sliced or grated cheddar to the beans until you like the blend (you can use tons of cheese, or only a bit, or even none at all).

Serve the beans and cheese over the rice. This dish contains a full spectrum of amino acids, is easy, and delicious.
posted by Goofyy at 1:32 AM on May 3, 2006

For convenience...

Boiled eggs. Granola. Yoghurt. Dried fruits. Nuts. Oatmeal. Pastas. Fresh and cooked vegetables. Fruits. Occasional meats and seafood. Cheeses.

These are nutritionally and calorically dense and most require little prep. Except for the meats, they keep really well, too....

Avoid processed foods and meats - most are evil!

BTW, eat breakfast. Skip either of the other two meals, but do not skip breakfast. Super important.
posted by FauxScot at 3:14 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Lentils cook faster and are more digestible than beans. If you soak them overnight, they'll develop a little vitamin c, cook quicker and be even more digestible(i.e., less gas, more protein). Collards or Kale are a dollar a bunch in most places. Canola oil is the cheapest source of the two essential fatty acids that people like to talk about nowadays. Check your supermarket for cheap meat. You can meat that's still good, but nearing its pull date. You can cook it all one day and keep it in the refrigerator for convenience's sake. Look in the ethnic section. Goya sardines are 1.29$ for about 10 little fishies compared to 1-2$ for 3-4 fishies. Beans may be cheaper, too.

Most importantly, watch the grocery clerk's hands when they're weighing your produce so they don't press down on the scale. Bastards.
posted by stavrogin at 6:07 AM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster:
BTW, eat breakfast. Skip either of the other two meals, but do not skip breakfast. Super important.

Yeah...breakfast is the one meal I always skip...

Whats with the hatred of egg yolks? That's some good eatin.
posted by 6am at 8:12 AM on May 3, 2006

People who skip breakfast tend to eat more volume later in the day. So if you're trying to save money or lose weight, it doesn't work well.
posted by Miko at 8:18 AM on May 3, 2006

One of my old high school math textbooks cited a 1950s US Army study in the section on solving linear programming problems. The dimensions were levels of nutrients and vitamins, and the constraints were that minimum levels of all nutrients and vitamins be met.

They put this through their ENIAC or whatever, and it emerged that the cheapest fully nutritious diet was comprised of hog livers, cabbage, and water. I only remember it because it sounds so nasty.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:30 AM on May 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

hog livers, cabbage, and water

Huh. Welcome to Northern Europe in the 19th century!
posted by Miko at 10:38 AM on May 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

That bastard Live Preview better not break my heart again.

This is why some people would rather just eat the white. It's not a big deal if you have an egg a day, but if you have five or six eggs, all those yolks may not work out for you.

Nutrient (unit)Whole EggEgg WhiteEgg YolkCalories (kcal)751759Protein (g)6.253.522.78Total lipid (g)5.0105.12Total carbohydrate (g) acids (g)4.3304.33Saturated fat (g)1.5501.55Monounsaturated fat (g)1.9101.91Polyunsaturated fat (g)0.6800.68Cholesterol (mg)2130213
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:07 PM on May 3, 2006

...it did. Oh well. Here you go.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:08 PM on May 3, 2006

For pure cheapness:
large boxes of generic pastas

Cheap cuts of Beef or Pork, extremely cheap frozen (turkey) burgers.
Canned Tuna

Frozen Spinach, Green Beans, Squash, mixed veggie bags

Bananas, Frozen Strawberries, large cans of processed tomato sauce


If you want to pinpoint the cost of major items on your bill, look at cheese, dairy, lunch meats/expensive cuts of meat, sweets, cereals, snacks, alcohol
posted by mhuckaba at 11:17 AM on May 4, 2006

Oh yeah, I'd just like to mention that beans aren't as great of a source of protein as everyone says, and if you're lifting or trying to build muscle without any kind of additional major protein sources you will have a hard time. If you're trying to build muscle it would be good to include chicken, tuna, egg whites, and maybe even tofu.
posted by mhuckaba at 11:27 AM on May 4, 2006

It is certainly possible to get all the protein you need from a vegetarian diet. This also applies to those who are bodybuilding . Check out Mike Mahler for example (actually he's vegan).

But perhaps that's derailing slightly.

I'd recommend you get as much fresh and organic food as possible. Wash everything (even the organic stuff, which may have been sprayed). Don't settle for concentrates, pastes, powders, canned foods (apart from tomatoes perhaps). It's really not difficult to find fresh garlic, chillies, etc or even to make your own curry paste etc.

Other than that, use fitday.com to mock-up a decent balanced diet before trying it. And yes, get medical or reliable dietary advice beforehand.
posted by ajp at 4:55 PM on May 4, 2006

I'd recommend you get as much fresh and organic food as possible.

Since organic food has zero additional nutritional value, and adds significantly to the expense, I'd say that's a pretty bad answer to the question.
posted by grouse at 7:05 AM on May 5, 2006

Best answer: organic food has zero additional nutritional value, and adds significantly to the expense

Not necessarily. Quoting and paraphrasing from "A Good Life" by Leo Hickman:

1. No additional nutritional value.

There's a lot of controversy around this, and UK labelling laws forbid any kinds of claim that organic food is healthier. However, some studies suggest certain advantages. For example, a comparison of organic and non-organic vegetable soups found the organic versions contained significantly higher levels of compounds that are known to prevent bowel cancer and heart disease. (pp. 27-28)

Both organic and non-organic foods can be chemically treated. In the UK, DEFRA has passed over 450 pesticides for use on conventional farms. In contrast, the Internation Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements has passed only soft soap and sulphur for use without prior permission (p. 27). This is again a controversial issue, but personally I'd prefer to eat my veg without a side of pesticide cocktail.

A good example of chemical treatment in the food industry would be intensively reared salmon vs organic or wild salmon. Ronald Hites of Indiana University and Steven Schwager at Cornell declared that Atlantic salmon farmed in Scotland contained such high concentrations of carcinogens that people should eat it no more than once ever 4 months. (The Food Standards Authority said the benefits outweighed the risks). Friends of the Earth Scotland say that a typical salmon farm uses 25 different antibiotics, disinfectants, and antimicrobial drugs, as well as dyes that cause the flesh to turn a favourable shade of pink. (p. 41).

There is an associated issue, which I hinted at by suggesting fresh foods; I should also have said seasonal. With the constant availability of any fruit, veg and meat all year round, we lack seasonality in our produce. This is not only part of the intensive farming cycle, but it encourages us to eat a smaller variety of food. How many types of apples can you name, or have you seen in the supermarket? A diverse diet is associated with lower rate of diseases such as cancer.

Remember also there are plenty of other reasons to eat organic, beyond the nutritional value. Better land and animal welfare are two obvious ones, as well as reducing the risk of bacterial resistance through use of antibiotics. It's worth looking into.

2. Buying organic food adds significantly to the expense.

This can be minimised or reduced altogether by shopping around. Price-test your typical shopping basket, and hunt around your supermarket or local shops. If you're looking at a minimal-complexity diet (as the questioner is) then you should be able to find products of similar price, especially things like rice and beans. This is the sort of thing that all canny consumers do, whether buying organic or not.

There is another way of looking at the price of organic food. Prices offered by supermarkets are artificially low, as a result of farming subsidies, massive purchasing from contract-bound providers, intensive farming practices, indescriminate use of fertilisers and pesticides, and so on. Perhaps it might be educational to look at the "true" cost of the food?

Also, I'm vegetarian so I've not even touched on topics such as meat raised on small-holdings, etc.

You may also want to look into joining a box scheme. This would be far more inconvenient in terms of recipe planning, but possibly more convenient in terms of shopping.
posted by ajp at 8:15 AM on May 5, 2006

there are plenty of other reasons to eat organic, beyond the nutritional value

All of this has nothing to do with the question of how to get the "simplest, cheapest yet most complete diet available" nor does the discussion regarding the "true" cost of food. Please take the soapbox elsewhere.
posted by grouse at 8:42 AM on May 5, 2006

Apologies grouse if you think I'm soapboxing, it's not intentional. I think my responses have been justified on the grounds that the questioner did ask for the "cheapest and most complete" diet, and how to break the junk-food habit. Also since my initial response was challenged, I provided documentary evidence to back it up - I don't think that's inappropriate.
posted by ajp at 6:10 AM on May 6, 2006

Response by poster: All of this has nothing to do with the question of how to get the "simplest, cheapest yet most complete diet available" nor does the discussion regarding the "true" cost of food. Please take the soapbox elsewhere.

Well I don't mind exploring further into dietary choices. A lot of other questions have already explored the core question, so theres no reason we can't expand a bit now. Is your time really that precious?
posted by 6am at 6:33 PM on May 15, 2006

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