Living on $1 a Meal

This post at The Moderate Voice, which I’ll quote in full since it’s so short, caught my eye:

A few Congressman are trying to live a week on just $21 of food stamps. Turns out it’s, you know, really hard. One dollar a meal does not lend itself to a healthy diet.

One of the Congressmen involved is Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who, although I disagree with her on a number of issues, is IMO an excellent member of Congress. One of the saddest days of my life was when I was redistricted out of her district.

This is obviously mostly a publicity stunt but the idea of it caught my imagination. Although I have no intention of actually living on it, I began to look at prices and work out menus. I assume you’ve got a refrigerator and a stove and running water.

You’re not going to be able to manage a lot of fresh fruit or vegetables, meat or poultry on $1.00 per meal. Bread is ridiculously expensive and, the way we do it over here, doesn’t really have a great deal of nutritional value (or is so full of additives it scares the dickens out of me) so that’s out, too. Here’s the shopping list I came up with:



Unit Cost



1 dozen



Dry rolled oats

1 lb. Pkg



Whole milk

1 gallon




1 lb.



Fruit cocktail or other canned fruit

2 lb.



“Kit”, mac and cheese

3 pkgs.



Beef liver

1.75 lb.



White cornmeal grits

1 lb. Pkg.



Collard greens

4 lb.



Smoked ham hock





1 med.




$ 19.94

All of these are real prices from the grocery store (Happy Foods in Edgebrook) at which I do most of my shopping. It’s a fairly upscale neighborhood and I’m sure I could save a little more by shopping elsewhere but this should give you the idea.

I hadn’t realized in anticipation how much of a Rorschach test this exercise would be. For example, I love oatmeal. I eat it 7 days a week, 365 days a year for breakfast. So for breakfast, you’ve got oatmeal with a little milk and, perhaps, to liven it up a bit, some of your tinned fruit. 3/4 cup dried oatmeal, a little more than a cup prepared. You can also have an egg or two—fried, scrambled, hardboiled, softboiled, plain omelet.

For lunch, there’s the graduate student’s favorite—macaroni and cheese which can be prepared from the kits by adding a little margarine and milk. Each package produces between two and three servings.

One of the places I could save a little money is by substituting hog’s liver for the beef liver. You should be able to buy hog’s liver for $.99 a lb. But the store I shop at doesn’t routinely carry hog’s liver so beef liver it is.

I like liver, too, so it’s no sacrifice. There’s 1/4 lb. for each dinner. You can saute it as-is or dredge it in a little milk and grits to add a little more interest.

The ham hock and onion are for cooking the collards. Chop the onion, add the cleaned, chopped collards, and simmer them along with the ham hock for an hour or so. Scrape the ham hock. You’ll be wanting the little bit of ham you can get that way. The collards can be frozen so they’ll last the week. You get about a half pound for each dinner.

That means for dinner you’ve got beef liver, grits, and collards. I like all of those, so, once again, it’s no big sacrifice. You can have a little of your tinned fruit for dessert.

There’s plenty of nutrition here. Easily enough protein for an adult, more than enough carbs, and lots of vitamins, particularly A. And you won’t be hungry.

If I could eke it out my first add-on would be some Tabasco sauce. That would make my morning eggs, my luncheon mac and cheese, and my evening grits a little more interesting every once in a while.

That’s the first thing that jumps out at you about this menu: it’s boring and repetitive. But it doesn’t need to be unhealthful. Look closely at what I’m eating. It’s got plenty of protein and all of the vitamins and minerals you need even with all of the repetition. Enough fiber, too. You’ll need it with all the mac and cheese.

The second thing that jumps out at me about this menu is that it’s not for the lactose-intolerant. A very high proportion of African and Asian Americans are. You’d need to eliminate the milk, substitute ramen (another grad student staple—4 pkg. for $1.00), and find another source of additional protein for lunch. Some hotdogs, maybe. I think that would fit into the budget and chopped up and cooked with ramen wouldn’t be half bad.

If I wanted to get really Spartan, I could substitute brown rice for the mac and cheese or ramen ($1.69 for a 1 lb. box). Takes kind of a long time to cook but it’s quite good for you.

I could get really wild and crazy and make some fish soup on Friday evenings. Every fish counter I know of will give you fish heads, bones, and fins for free. Ask in advance first thing in the morning and they may even set them aside for you. Add water and onion to make a little court bouillon and chop up and cook a potato in it. That shouldn’t break the budget.

21 comments… add one
  • Now shop for multiple people, and you get economies of scale. Twice as much oats, say, may not cost twice as much.

    Good work here!

  • Ruth H Link

    One very good cheap meal is beans and rice. The combination makes a very complete protein package. Add some ham hocks for flavor and it costs a little more but not enough to make much difference. Both Mexicans and Cajun menus are big on beans and rice, not prepared exactly the same but both very good. There are a lot of people in this country who manage to live on a cheap budget for food and they are not necessarily poor. Just us folks who are old enough to remember WWII and how we ate then.

  • Jesse Link

    Why does no one mention gardens in this debate? Even if you live in an apartment you can grown a small container garden to supplement your food supply in a very inexpensive way. If you own or rent a home, its possible to greatly reduce your monthly grocery bill and eat healthy at the same time.

    Forget food stamps- give the people seeds and fertilizer.

  • Actually, I thought about it, Jesse, but it was outside the context of this particular post. You can’t grow much in a week.

    That was how I lived on less than $20 one summer. At the beginning of the summer I bought a bag of rice and some seeds. I lived all summer on the rice, what I grew in my garden, and the fish that I caught.

  • Laja Link

    I like the food stamp experiment, but a week is not really much of a hardship. It might be educational for each member of congress to experience living only on a minimum wage income for a year.

    Folks who live frugally for long periods of time (not just for a week) have to be fairly resourceful in order to create a healthy and diverse diet on 21.00 a week per individual. Shopping frugally includes using coupons, bulk items (sometimes), sale items, store brands (often) and discount stores – and over time one can become quite adept at buying items on sale to stockpile for later use (5-25 lb. bags of rice or beans, for example).

    One way to cut grocery costs and to add variety to one’s diet is to make your own soups (stews and chilis) and breads. Where I live, a pound of dried lentils or split green peas costs less than a dollar and will make a large kettle of soup with the addition of only a few extra veggies (onion, garlic, carrot) and spices. I get about 8-10 servings of a rich and hearty soup (or chili or stew) per pound of dried beans.

    By making huge pots of soup and freezing large portions for later use, you can create a stockpile in the freezer – and over time you will have a diversity of food stuffs for fast and easy consumption, and more dollars to spend on fresh items or items to vary the diet (like your Tabasco sauce or hot dogs).

    For me, 5 pounds of whole wheat flour produces about 6 loaves of bread and the cost of the flour and other ingredients is less than half as expensive as the cost of 6 loaves of the commercial bread I would buy. (Not that there aren’t cheaper breads, but given my preferences it works out to be much cheaper to bake at home.)

    Some folks might object, thinking that making soup and bread takes too much time. Well, I got into a system where all it took was one morning each month (about a 4-6 hour period) to cook soups and bake breads (and muffins and cookies) that would replenish the stockpile in my freezer for the subsequent month. For home cooked meals I imagine that over the course of a month most people would spend at least 4-6 hours total in preparation time for their 30 dinners – so time is not really the deciding factor. Dinner preparation for me was as simple as microwaving my thawed homemade frozen dinners – and minimal preparation time for whatever side dish would be appropriate.

  • I use a lot of rice, and can do a lot with various pastas. Like orzo with onion, green pepper, garlic and a few bits of bacon; then mixed with crushed tomatoes. A very small garden can also be a big help in complimenting a small income.

    I’m used to budgeting my meals because I live on a fixed social security income of $1166 a month, and that is with a mortgage.

    Admittedly half of the mortgage is paid by an upstairs renter, but it still took a lot of belt tightening to go from $3300 a month down to $1166.

  • Folks who live frugally for long periods of time (not just for a week) have to be fairly resourceful in order to create a healthy and diverse diet on 21.00 a week per individual. Shopping frugally includes using coupons, bulk items (sometimes), sale items, store brands (often) and discount stores – and over time one can become quite adept at buying items on sale to stockpile for later use (5-25 lb. bags of rice or beans, for example).

    That’s just exactly my point, Laja, and why I’m skeptical about its value as an experiment to members of Congress. A week isn’t long enough. They don’t know how to be poor.

  • Pianoman Link

    I agree completely with Laja on the soup. The biggest expense is the equipment, but once you’ve got that really big crock pot that you like, soup becomes incredibly cheap. My favorites come from places like Cost Plus World Market, but I’m sure Trader Joe’s and Gelson’s carries them too.

    Generally all you need to add is some cooked vegetables and protein, which is usually optional. One of my favorites is split pea soup made with a hamhock; places like Honeybaked Hams will sell used hamhocks real cheap, although most of the time I get mine from my relatives after a holiday meal. I’ll cook up all the ingredients in the morning, which usually takes about 30m, and then let it simmer in the crock pot all day. By the time I get home from work, the hamhock has been reduced to three bones and a wad of gristle. I dig out all of that junk, and we’re good to go. Since most soup mixes call for 8-10 cups of water, this usually results in several servings of soup that will last my wife and I for days.

    Yes, you could get tired of eating soup. But if I was destitute, and living on a $20/week food budget, soups would be the way I’d go.

    If you combined this with growing your own herbs and vegetables, clipping coupons, etc., I’m confident that you could reduce your weekly food budget even further. And if you don’t want to go to all that trouble, then stock up on frozen veggies, frozen chicken breasts, and a case of Ramen — the poor college student’s diet.

  • Wow, milk is cheap where you are! Looks like the Northeast Dairy Compact adds at least half a buck per gallon.

    This reminds me of when I lived on $10 a week in groceries for a while in the early nineties. In retrospect, I’ve learned ways to do even better, including making even more from scratch.

    At the time, it was the cheapest spaghetti and sauce I could find, store brand cheese, rice but not as much as I’d use now doing it better, eggs, milk, cheapest bread available, cheapest tuna, Jiffy for pancakes, sometimes the cheapest burger I could get, disgusting cheap hot dogs, Campbell’s pork & beans on sale, that kind of thing. Oh, and popcorn. Non-microwave, traditional popcorn, a giant bowl of which cost pennies and made a filling meal. Plus peanut butter and cheap jelly.

    I’d use cheese in place of meat in spaghetti. I’d make a lot of French toast or pancakes. I’d make faux chili with the beans and cheap burger.

    It wasn’t the most nutritious diet, but generally one isn’t that hard up long enough to hurt in the longer run.

    That experience still leaves me sometimes computing how much a given meal costs and cringing if it seems too high.

    If I were doing it now, I’d stock a wider array of spices – initially costly but long-lasting. I’d buy a lot of rice, dried beans, barley, oatmeal (which IIRC I did eat then too), and carefully selected cheap meat and veggies. Groceries have seemed, for some things, to have become a better value now. I’d still eat a lot of pasta. I’d make more things from scratch, like chili, soup and stew. The cheese thing hasn’t changed; it’s a big staple, and I’ve gone back to eating mainly store brands to save money. I’ve learned to make great fried rice, and it can be stretched to have less meat. Homemade refried beans, homemade flour tortillas, cheap cheese, and you’ve got the basis for burritos, tacos or quesedillas.

    It’s an interesting exercise, which will vary from person to person, but if you’re willing to be creative and flexible, it can be done. All the better if you plan longer than a week at a time and can stretch for adding longer lasting items. I’ve actually thought sometimes I could write a cookbook oriented toward singles on how to eat inexpensively and well mainly from raw ingredients rather than even cheap convenience foods. Never quite convinced myself it could fly, enough to really research and put it together.

  • disconnect Link

    If you have a freezer, things get even better. I still scour the meat section for deals; chicken thighs at $0.59/lb are great to have sitting around. Debone them, chop the meat into a coarse dice, put the meat on a cookie tray, spray lightly with water, and freeze. Then store in a plastic bag, adding a little bit to your ramen noodles with some other green vegetables. You can also get decent fresh produce on the discount shelves. It may be overripe and/or not pretty, but that’s why you can get a pound of apples for $0.29. Cut out the bad spots and make applesauce.

    Re: the “I don’t have time” mentality, yeah, too many people WON’T make time for this. Which is bogus and sad, since there’s still time for TV/internet.

  • disconnect Link

    (wrote the guy on some website somewhere)

  • I lived on nothing but bread and lunchmeat from Aldi for a while when I was 18. Also, was liviing out of my car. $10/week.

    Eggs? Beef? Ham hock? Are you kidding me? How would I even cook those?

    I don’t think you’ve ever been really poor.

  • Oh, and incidentally now I have a six-figure income, Peapod delivers my groceries, and I don’t even pay attention to what any food I buy costs. Go figure.

    I never considered myself unfortunate before. I was just as happy then as I am now.

  • James Link

    Some of the dollar stores now have freezers which often contain (imagine that!) $1 TV dinners. Twenty one of those and you have 1200 calories a day with three servings each of veggies, meat and starch, not ideal but in the ballpark for most people. Of course that presupposes that you have a microwave or toaster oven or something of that nature…wouldn’t do for someone living in his car or trying to bring a lunch to work when he’s working in the field…

    Traditional food for poor people would have to include beans (around $.06/oz.) and potatoes (sometimes as low as $.12/pound) and, of course homemade bread and pasta. Bread runs around $.15/oz where the flour runs around $.03/oz and, realistically that’s the only ingredient that counts.

    Palatability is a big issue, of course. Oatmeal works for me and liver is OK now and then (but I don’t hink the kids would eat it if they had a choice). I’ve had grits but it’s not something that would instantly spring to mind if I were asked to name a staple food…collard greens, on the other hand, is a dish I’ve frequently heard of but I’m quite sure I’ve never tasted it. Sounds like you’ve found a menu that works for you and I’m sure I could find one that works for me. Living here in California I think I’d get my white corn from tortillas ( $.03/oz.) rather than grits. Produce is generally cheap, especially if you hit the dollar stores so I don’t think I’d be reduced to trying to get my vitamin A from jalapeños like my Mexican neighbors.

  • chicken is often very cheap (.19 a pound for leg quarters around here sometimes). So is cabbage.
    A very frugal fresh vegetable is to buy dried lentils and then sprout them. We’ve also sprouted wheat berries, alfalfa, and fenugreek, which, since you buy these by the ounce, you could purchase a few cents worth from a natural foods store (not *everything* there is expensive).
    And we’ve done the sprouts while traveling long distances in a car, so it could be done living out of a car. Just takes a jar with a bit of screen, cloth, or clean nylon stocking for the ‘sieve’ and a source of water to rinse three times a day.

    I’ve had to do this before by necessity, and I’ve blogged about how to manage it here:

  • It might be interesting to add up the calorie and nutrient counts for that food buy. Is it adequate to sustain an adult human in good health?

  • I’m glad you reminded me of that, Karl. I’d planned on including those things in the post but I somehow forgot to do so in the heat of writing the post.

    The calorie count should be around 2,000 calories–more than enough. My selections were rather carefully chosen to maximize nutrients. I’m quite certain there’s plenty of vitamin A. Liver is a great source of B vitamins–no problem there. The vitamin C is a little scanty for my tastes but I think it’s sufficient.

  • Ramen at 4 for a dollar? Extravagence. Since Jewel left Milwaukee we are stuck buying 8 for a dollar, instead of the ten we used to get.

  • phydeaux Link

    I’d like to know where they only get $21/week on food stamps. I was on food stamps once during a 10 month period due to multiple surgeries and we couldn’t spend them all. We ate much better than we do now that I’m back to working for a living.

  • Ala Link

    Hillbilly Housewife has some good recipes and strategies for a very frugal family. With the addition of veggie gardens, a family could have a good diet and not spend too much.

  • Ginny Lavender Link

    I love Hillbilly Housewife. Her 40 dollar a week menu is very well thought out.
    I can easily make 6 meals from a $4 rotisserie chicken. It’s a lot better than liver for 7 days and I don’t even have to cook the chicken, which saves money. 2 meals of roast chicken breast, at least 2 meals of chicken enchiladas, and at least 2 meals of tortilla/chicken soup. And what you need extra is corn tortillas, Pace salsa, and a can of hominy.

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