Sunday, February 28, 2010

Food Stamp Challenge Day 7

So yesterday the food stamp challenge concluded.  It was made easier by the access to free food from volunteering over lunch.  It was more difficult because I've been eating apples.  I've had 2 (big) apples (I did get them for a dollar a pound though) and an orange, for a total of about $1.40.  I had a quarter cup of brown rice with just a few spices (chili powder, cumin, oregano, thyme, I believe), for 30 cents, with about 1/3 of a cup black beans for 20 cents plus a sprinkle of cheese, which made the meal about 55 cents.
Finally breakfast was oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon, but I accidently added way too much cinnamon, so to cover it up I sprinkled a few dried cranberries (which I bought by one get on free, so the cost for a bag was about $1.10) and some cocoa powder.  Seeing as i only had 20 cents left for this meal, I probably went over by about 5 cents.  I don't see this as too big of a problem though.

The big problem of the challenge is my fully stocked spice cabinet, and nearly unlimited supply of beans and oatmeal.  I didn't have to buy these things from scratch.  Then again, $21 is what you receive if you have a given amount of income and hence an expected amount you are already spending on food.

But, as I said before, I don't think this was worthwhile.  Can I do it?  Yes, and minus a few corners I cut (like free food and eating a little extra after I ran that I didn't count).  But I felt terrible for a few of those days, and I think a big part of it was from lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.

I did however learn some things that I may translate to lifestyle changes.  For instances, I've recently prided myself on cutting back almost entirely on processed foods.  True, I occasionally eat a Kashi frozen dinner, and I keep pasta on hand like it is going out of style.  But the big thing, the thing I eat every day, and which actually consumes a large part of my food budget, despite the fact that I only buy it when it is half off, is dry cereal.  A box of dry cereal when half off, is about $2-$2.50.  And this is 6-10 (of my) servings.  This is 25-40 cents a serving plus milk.  Oatmeal is a third of the cost (plus toppings).  This adds up quite a bit over the course of a year, or even a month (I really don't want to compute it, but it's a lot).  It also means I can quit buying soymilk (yay!) unless I make cornbread.  So, I'm going to rely a little more on oatmeal.  Also, savory oatmeal is something I've been hearing about for about a while and was apparently on NPR recently.  It definitely sounds worthwhile trying, throwing eggs and cheese or even veggies on oatmeal.  However, I try to limit my carbs with dinner (because they are the staple of my diet all day).  I feel like cottage cheese holds the same duality, but it's a little less portable and more expensive.

So this week I'm really going to try to focus on eating fruits and veggies.  In fact (and one of my readers might laugh at this), I'm giving myself a new challenge, but a fun one.  I've been keeping up with my google reader a little better lately (this might be a result of giving up facebook and twitter for Lent, after all I still need to do something to relax while I eat my dinner or if i have 5 minutes to kill before class), and the majority of what i read is about: surprise, food!  I also read the Psychology Today pretty frequently.  They seem to do little series, there was a good one about girls in math, one themed around the Olympics (the one about short track speed skating helped me fully appreciate the sport), and there was an interesting theme of "eating smarter."  First they discussed why French people eat loads more fat than we do (cheese, butter, croissants).  When you are measuring fat pound for pound you can't say "portion size."  However, they don't snack between meals (as opposed to me, who eats what you could call up to 6 small meals a day), but the main point was that they actually ENJOY their food.  They don't rush around willy-nilly and grab a quick bite on the way.  The actually sit down and savor every bite.  The eat slower (which in general means less) and it means more.  And the food is better, none of the processed junk we eat.

Anyway, not the point (though maybe it should be).  One of my favorite articles was this one  This week (and other weeks, also) have helped me realize how much influence food has on the way we feel and as a result, the way we think.  Wouldn't it be awesome to eat to optimize our ability to learn, problem solve or concentrate?  How can we do this?  Eat blueberries!  (or other berries, but especially blueberries).  And eat them with walnuts or avocados.  So this week's challenge?  Eat a half cup of blueberries every day (thank you Trader Joe's and your cheap frozen fruit!) prepared in 7 different ways.  I will therefore chronicle 7 blueberry recipes.  Today is easy because I don't have much on hand: toasted steel cut oats (yeah, that's right super cool oatmeal), with a little maple syrup, frozen blueberries and walnuts (because this is definitely cheaper than frozen cereal).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Food Stamp Challenge Days 3-6

So I've been eating chili and split pea dahl for lunch and dinner.  I've also eaten a jar of peanut butter since Sunday, not exaggerating.  So I'm going to change the first two days and just subtract the cost of the jar $2.30 from the total.  I had another cup of hot chocolate, 2 cups of oatmeal with about 1/3 c of brown sugar and 2 Tbsp of cinnamon, 2 oranges, 1 banana, 1/4 cup of rice and about 15 cents in spices, plus another 40 cents of cheese for the chili.  Plus I just ate eggs for dinner (with salsa).  I have however cheated slightly and ate a piece of chocolate yesterday that I ate to motivate myself to finish an assignment. I ate a leftover bit of a protein bar also after running.  I feel mentally terrible and physically pretty tired though, I think it's all the peanut butter.  It looks like I'll probably make it, but I'm realizing that it wasn't really worth it.

This makes for a total of $5.21.

I have $2.15 left.  Tomorrow I'll probably be eating black beans with rice.  The whole meal (with cheese and spices) will be about 75 cents.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Food Stamp Challenge: Day 2

Today was probably a failure.  For one, remember how I said it was okay to eat free food?  Today I acquired 9 steamed Chinese dumplings.  Being a grad student (and a grad student who the secretaries know and like) has definite advantages most people don't have.  I think I ate a ton of salt today too, well at least a teaspoon of sea salt (which has less salt than regular table sodium, but still).  Food from the cupboard I ate: banana 30 cents, apple 40 cents, 2.5 Tbsp peanut butter 20 cents, `1/2 cup oatmeal 8 cents, tsp cinnamon 2 cents, 2 Tbsp sugar 5 cents, 1 Tbsp cocoa (I made hot chocolate, figuring it was probably the cheapest possible dessert I could make assuming I was going to drink a glass of milk anyway) 10 cents (this might be an overestimate, I don't remember what I paid for the cocoa, so I figure it's best to round up), 1 tsp salt 1 cent, 1 cinnamon stick 2 cents.  Total= $.88
Total Left $7.36
I can't keep up at this rate if I want to splurge on peach(es) on Wednesday.  However, there will be free food involved on Saturday also.  Tomorrow I switch to fruit that is covered in what I paid yesterday, which will hopefully make for lower costs.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Food Stamp Challenge: Getting Started

So I'll admit, I cheated a bit today because I wanted to finish my yogurt and because I ran over 5 miles.  Maybe this isn't fair because some people on food stamps may be athletic.

Also, I've decided I'm allowed to eat free food.  I'm not allowed to let people BUY me food, but I can eat samples at the grocery stores (I might be hanging out at Whole Foods for that purpose later this week).  Also, I'm volunteering at the high school math tournament next weekend and they provide lunch (plus it would be awkward to slip away to heat up soup or something).

I've priced out a lot of meals and have the next 4 days, at least, planned.  Split Pea Dahl, for instance, costs 54 cents!  That's 3 solid or 4 small servings, put it with rice (I found some organic brown rice for 25 cents a serving) and you've got a filling, healthy and EXTREMELY cheap lunch.  Also, chili is slightly more than $1 per meal, but I figure if I can manage lunches and breakfasts for under 50 cents, I'm allowed a dinner that costs $1.10.  And maybe I'll get lucky and get an extra serving out of it.

I went to Publix this morning (should I have gone to Kroger?  Possibly, I think I peppers were an extra 50 cents a pound and also Kroger has a pound of apples for a dollar, which might make eating apple plausible this week) and spent $8.75 with the novelty of broccoli.  I figure I could make a light dinner of brown rice and broccoli, which would total to $1.05, plus whatever spices I add.  I think more than anything, this experiment will show where my food priorities lie.  My staples seem to be beans and lentils and oatmeal for breakfast, and above that is veggies.  Then milk and fruit, and then, as much as I love chocolate, comes treats like ice cream.  After ice cream we have more advanced fruits like peaches (which are on sale, if I'm doing well on my budget, I might grab a couple Wednesday afternoon) and things like prepackaged salad (it's always on sale and actually cheaper than heads of lettuce, plus I think it keeps better).  Making meals under a dollar per serving doesn't seem that challenging right now, the trouble is going without all the snacks I eat every day.  My eating plan most days looks something like this: 7am breakfast=oatmeal or cold cereal, 10am apple or banana with peanut butter, noon=sandwich, 1pm=yogurt, 3pm= some other sort of snack such as carrots with hummus and probably more fruit, 5:30pm dinner, including fruit, 7pm salad, 8pm sweet snack such as cereal or ice cream.  Plus there is the chocolate pick me up I inevitably need at least 3 times a week.  I get hungry a lot, and eat small amounts frequently, obviously.  The other thing I do when I'm hungry is drink tea, which isn't really possible on such a restrictive budget either.  But we'll see, today is going well so far.

After having chili for dinner, I really want a nice bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, but I can't.  I think this experiment might teach me discipline in not eating whatever I'm craving.

Breakfast: Malt-O-Meal 13 cents plus a teaspoon of brown sugar 3 cents.  Total=16 cents
Snack: Gala apple=40 cents Total=40 cents
(additional snack only because I ran was plain yogurt with honey and toasted almonds)
Lunch:  Split pea dahl 13 cents, plus a cup of milk 30 cents Total= 43 cents
Snack:  Banana= 30 cents, plus a tablespoon of peanut butter 8 cents Total= 38 cents
Dinner Chili, cost per serving depends on how many servings I can get, but the total for 4-6 servings was about $4.50, exact numbers are in the calculations, based on the grocery bill, plus shredded Colby Jack cheese I bought on sale for 25 cents per serving.
Snack: Carrot salad= shredded carrot with a tsp of red wine vinegar = 3 cents (cost of carrot in the total spent)

Total Spent= $8.75, total from pantry= $4.03
Total Spent= $12.86
Total Left= $8.22 (this might not seem like a lot, but I have lunch and dinner for the next 3-4 days)

Dry Spiced Potatoes with Cauliflower

Since just about every day for the past week I found out someone new who reads my blog (apparently EVERYONE in Germantown does) I figure I need to step it up.  Well, this week is the food stamp challenge so that will be interesting (well, cooking for 1 will be less interesting because I'll probably end up eating about 3 things including some things I've made before).  And on a note for that, I think I have to go lunch Sunday-lunch next Sunday because I have some organic yogurt and organic milk leftover that I don't want to go bad but I obviously can't use in the challenge.  Or maybe I'll just use it instead of the first cup of regular milk and make sure I have at least some milk left.  And the yogurt is such a small amount, I might eat it after running since the food stamp plan does not account for the fact that I'm going to be running 5-6 miles today.  Anyway, that's just housekeeping, let's get on to the recipe.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I had people over for Indian food a few weeks ago, and this side dish was probably the favorite dish (besides the cilantro mint dipping sauce for the samosas), mostly because it had the most flavor.  I had my friends try to guess what was in it, and since there really isn't much in it, they did a pretty good job and turmeric was a given because it ends up pretty yellow (I really need to replace the battery in my camera).  Also, this was a great entertaining recipe because it was so easy: chop and fry; it doesn't get any better than that.  This serves 4 as a side dish:
1 lb potatoes
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
1 green chili, finely chopped (I used thai chili and it gave it a little extra kick, which I liked)
1 lb cauliflower, broken into florets
1 tsp coriander
1/4 chili powder (not the chili powder blend you buy at the supermarket, this is dried ground chilis, if you don't have access to an Indian grocery store or store with bulk spices from India, as some grad students might not, you can probably use ground cayenne or some sort of ground "red pepper")
1/2 ground turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Bring pot to a boil in a medium pot.  Cut peeled and washed potatoes into 1 inch cubes, then boil for about 10 minutes.  Drain the potatoes well and set them aside.
  2. Heat oil in a wok or large pan and fry the cumin seeds for 2 minutes until the begin to sputter.  Add the fresh chili pepper and fry further for 1 minute
  3. Add cauliflower florets to the pan and fry, stirring for 5 minutes
  4. Add potatoes and spices and salt and cook for another 7-10 minutes until both vegetables are tender.  Garnish with chopped coriander.
Note that I slightly overcooked the potatoes, so I added the spice before the potatoes and cooked the cauliflower with spices for about 5 minutes, then added the potatoes and cooked for another 2.  This made the spices slightly unbalanced between the vegetables, but I made it the night before and kept it in the fridge and I think that helped it blend a little bit.

Now I have to make breakfast, probably oatmeal, but I need to figure out how much stuff I am allowed to put in my oatmeal.  Lately I've been putting dried cranberries, frozen blueberries, about a tsp of cinnamon and bit of brown sugar in it, but I think I have to cut back on this $21 budget.  Malt-o-meal might be even cheaper than oatmeal, I need to price it out, but I'll probably switch between the two for this week.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chicken in Green Masala Sauce

So a few weeks ago, I had some people over for (Northern) Indian food.  It was good, but I wouldn't say it was spectacular.  Oh well it was homemade and from a white girl.  But it came from my Curry cookbook, which is probably the single greatest cookbook investment I've made.  I think I've already made a half dozen recipes from it.  I'll periodically include the good ones.  This was good, but I thought a little bland.  Maybe the naan was just bad, I'm not sure.  It says it serves 4, but I doubled it and made another dish plus samosas and it fed 5 with few leftovers.  And I don't think we overindulged.  So it might make a good dinner for 2-3 (or one with leftovers).  Oh, and this is pretty much the easiest dish Indian dish ever, it was great for company because it went together really easily.  I chopped everything but the chicken the night before though.

1 crisp green eating apple, peeled cored and cubed
4 Tbsp cilantro
2 Tbsp fresh mint
2/3 c plain yogurt
3 Tbsp fromage frais or ricotta cheese
2 fresh green chilis (this might not be enough...)
1 bunch spring onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp grated fresh root ginger
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
8 oz chicken breasts skinned and cubed
1 oz sultanas (golden raisins)

  1. Place apple, 2 tbsp cilantro, mint, yogurt, fromage frais/ricotta, chilis, spring onion, salt, sugar, garlic, and ginger in a food processor and process for one minute.  Scrape outside of bowl and process for a few more seconds.
  2. Heat oil in wok or large pan and  pour yogurt mixture and cook gently for 2 minutes.  
  3. Add chicken pieces and stir well to blend everything together.  Cook over medium low heat for 12-15 minutes or until chicken is fully cooked.  I cooked longer because I thought the sauce was a little runny, so I cooked it until it was the consistency of curries I've had in restaurants.  Was this too much?  I don't know, but it made it easier to eat with naan.
  4. Sprinkle sultanas and remaining coriander over for serving.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Experimental Brownies Take 2

So about a year ago, I made experimental brownies with cherry juice instead of sugar.  And they turned out well, but had room for improvement.   One change I made was trying to make a smaller batch, used a 9x9 pan rather than a 13x9.  I also modified a recipe for cocoa brownies from smittenkitchen, which as some of you may know, is my favorite food blog.  Their texture was again, not typical of brownies, almost like chewy fudge, but was less weird (maybe because they were thicker brownies?).  They were (or are, as there are still 2 left by some miracle) very dark with fruity undertones.  I think they are delicious, a nice substitute for a 72% cocoa bar and I would call them a success for dark chocolate lovers out there.  Also they are very easy, you really can do them in one bowl, no separate beating eggs or tempering chocolate.  Plus if you line the pan with foil as recommended, cleaning up the pan is easy too.

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks, 5 ounces or 141 grams) unsalted butter
4 cups cherry juice
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt (or a heaping 1/4 teaspoon flaky salt, as I used)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
3/4-1 cup (66 grams, 2 3/8 ounces) all-purpose flour (enough to help the batter stick together)
2/3 cup dried cherries

Boil cherry juice until it reduced to about 1 cup.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.
Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the 1/2 cup flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, add enough slowly until the batter is not runny, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the cherries, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, I found this was about half an hour, but you should watch them carefully after 20 minutes.  Allow to cool (or don't, I didn't and they seemed fine).
Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Food Stamp Challenge

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but I've decided I need to quit "thinking about doing something" and start actually doing it.  The food stamp challenge is living a week off what the average person on food stamps has, on average this is $21 (though from what I've read this misrepresents the program because it is designed to supplement food not be the primary source of food, hence the amount one family receives is on a sliding scale).  So February 21-28 I will take the food stamp challenge.  And the big point is that I will donate the difference between my usual weekly bill (which I should probably compute, but I'm going to say is $44, on average) to a local food pantry.

What this means (and this is something I should maybe think about doing anyway) is that I have to actually compute the cost per meal of everything I eat.  I'm cheating a little by using my what's in my pantry (though I will include the cost of everything of course) because in reality, lower income families must often buy based on what's available and on sale and I've kind of already done that (I know that my box of elbow macaroni only cost $0.80 because I stocked up a few months ago, but that isn't always an option with a limited income).  But also, I don't have a car so I can't go to the specialty lower cost supermarkets like Aldi or Mayfield foods (which I've seen ads for on the train).

And if it's not already obvious, I will be eating strictly vegetarian for this week.  Part of the reason I'm putting it off for a few weeks is to give me time to come up with a detailed budget, which again, is kind of cheating.  I get 2 weeks to plan for this, in reality this doesn't happen, families are consistently living off food stamps, they don't have the option to plan two weeks in advance.  But I still have farmer's market food I need to use up and potentially some dinners out or at least weird eating patterns when the Case swim team comes to Atlanta (yay!) so instead of making exceptions, I'll start after I know these things are occurring.  Again, this is clearly not realistic, but I don't think it defeats the purpose of the experiment.  Pardon the double negative.  So thoughts, at least at this point include split pea dahl (the spices are super cheap when bought in bulk as I do), eggs, some sort of cheap lentil soup (bouillon cubes are cheap).  I'll have to look into what the least expensive breakfast food is, oatmeal, maybe?

Please leave comments on this post, either suggestions for meals I can make for under a dollar per serving or, I would love this, if you are interested in joining me.  I think it would be really cool to make this an actual event to raise money for food banks, but I don't know how other people would feel about that.