Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In a perfect world, healthy and delicious food would be all around us. It would be easy to choose and easy to enjoy. But of course it’s not a perfect world. There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes. Money just needn’t be one of them.
Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food. This cookbook is a celebration of the many delicious meals available to those on even the most strict of budgets.
Eating on a limited budget is not easy, and there are times when a tough week can turn mealtime into a chore. As one woman told me, “I’m weary of the ‘what’s for dinner?’ game.” I hope the recipes and techniques in this book can help make those times rare and the tough choices a little more bearable.
At the same time, this book is not a meal plan—those are much too individual to share on a wide scale. Every person and every family has specific needs and unique tastes. We live in different regions, different neighborhoods, and with varying means. One book cannot account for all of that, but I hope it can be a spark, a general strategy, a flexible set of approachable and cheap recipes. The rest is up to you.
I think you’ll find (or perhaps have already found) that learning to cook has a powerfully positive effect. If you can become a more skilled, more conscious cook, you’ll be able to conjure deliciousness in any kitchen, anytime. Good cooking alone can’t solve hunger in America, but it can make life happier—and that is worth every effort.
Just as a good meal is best shared with others, so is a good recipe. I may not be able to share a meal with you, but I’d love to offer a few ideas. What’s for dinner? Here’s my answer.
I designed these recipes to fit the budgets of people living on SNAP, the US program that used to be called food stamps. If you’re on SNAP, you already know that the benefit formulas are complicated, but the rule of thumb is that you end up with $4 per person, per day to spend on food.
This book isn’t challenging you to live on so little; it’s a resource in case that’s your reality. In May 2014, there were 46 million Americans on food stamps. Untold millions more—in particular, retirees and students—live under similar constraints.
The costs for each recipe are based on two sources. For the pantry items on the following pages, I collected prices from four grocery stores in Inwood, a relatively low-income neighborhood on the north tip of Manhattan. For specific spices and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, I looked at online grocery stores or nationwide averages collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The prices for fruits and vegetables assume that they’re roughly in season, when you can get the best deals. This means, unfortunately, that you’ll pay a lot more if you want to make peach coffee cake in February. I talk more about shopping in season on the following pages.
The estimates are, by necessity, a snapshot of place and time. Costs will vary in other cities, other neighborhoods, even just other stores. Please think of the numbers as a guideline, not a guarantee.
More than in most cookbooks, my recipes are flexible and encourage substitution based on availability, price, and personal tastes. A strict budget requires flexibility and a willingness to say, “that’s a good deal this week, so it’s what I’ll be cooking!” Don’t worry, you’ll pick up the tricks quickly.
A few recipes call for fancy kitchen equipment, but in my work with low-income families in New York, I’ve found that items like blenders, food processors, and electric mixers are fairly common. I did not, however, attempt to tackle the very real situation of people who have no kitchen, no equipment, and no space to prepare food. I simply cannot hope to do those issues justice within the bounds of one cookbook. Let’s all agree that we need to keep striving to address those other issues that make it difficult for so many people to eat well.