It's easier than you think to eat well on $4 a day

Oct 30, 2015 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Image: JMichl/E+/Getty Images

$4 a day for all your meals — think you could do it? Leanne Brown knows you can do it. And she even wrote a book about it.

Brown, a food studies scholar and avid home cook, set out to examine whether or not is was possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget. Her book, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, proves that it's not only doable — it's easy.

Learn more about Brown's inspiring project, including some tips on how to eat well on a tight budget, and catch her at #BlogHerFood15, where she's speaking on Local Food Advocacy keynote.

Good and Cheap

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SheKnows: How did the Good and Cheap project begin? What inspired it?

Leanne Brown: I originally wrote Good and Cheap as the capstone project for my master's in food studies at New York University. We were encouraged to do any project that we felt passionately about, and I was passionate about the transformative effect that cooking can have on people's lives. That never went away, of course. But what I gained during the degree was a greater understanding of the challenges that make it so tough for many people to eat well, be healthy and take pleasure in food. I wanted to do something that brought awareness to issues of hunger while also creating a resource that would be useful outside of academia. One day, as I was walking down the street in Chinatown with a classmate, I said, "You know, something like a food stamps cookbook." And she said, "Well, why not just that?"

SK: What was most surprising in your research for the project?

LB: The biggest surprise came afterwards. I had hoped that a few people would enjoy the book and get something out of it. A new approach or recipe. The level of interest from people all over the country — and even the world — has left me flabbergasted.

SK: Were you surprised at how well you could eat on $4 a day?

LB: Not really. I knew going in that cooking makes meals you might otherwise never get the chance to eat much more affordable. There are so many items, like jarred pasta sauce or bottled salad dressing, that are such a rip-off but so commonplace. If you replace those with a can of tomatoes and some garlic and olive oil, you haven’t really had to sacrifice much. It takes a tiny bit more effort but no more time, since you have to wait for your pasta to boil. Then you can use the olive oil along with some lemon and mustard for a dressing! It’s all about having the foods around that you can use in a lot of ways. So it’s about building that pantry and that knowledge.

The truth is that while it’s possible to eat delicious food every day, it may require change. Shopping habits and planning will be required, but as you develop your go-to meals, the planning becomes less time-consuming. It’s a matter of shifting habits. And I don’t ever want to sound like it’s no big deal. $4 a day is not a challenge. It’s a reality. I would love for no one to have to live on so little, but right now, it’s a fact for over 46 million Americans, so I want everyone to be armed with as much ammunition in the kitchen as possible to be able to eat in a way that brings them joy.

SK: Your cookbook demonstrates why skill, not budget, is the key to great food. Can you expand on that? What skills should every home cook master to be able to eat healthy meals on $4 a day?

LB: There are so many messages everywhere, from our televisions to our grocery stores, that tell us cooking is hard. But cooking is not innately difficult; it’s just a basic skill that requires practice, and the benefits of that practice are a joyful and delicious life! Compare that with packaged foods, which offer immediate pleasure yet cause your health and wallet to suffer in the long term, not to mention your sense of self-worth. If we can change our national attitude about cooking, we can all be a lot more satisfied with the way we eat — oh, and healthier too.

And like I said above, you may need to change some shopping habits. Start building up a pantry of go-to basics, like dried beans, grains, canned and frozen staple vegetables, dried spices, and then build meals around seasonal fruits and vegetables rather than meat. No need to cut meat out, but be sure to look beyond it for more variety, and since it’s so expensive, use just a little for flavor rather than making it the center of the meal.

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SK: What other tips do you have, aside from cooking skills, that will help people be successful in eating on $4 a day?

LB: Have courage, and go for it! Cooking is not that hard, I swear! Banish your skepticism for a night, and just try it. You might think that simple, home-cooked meals don’t hold as much pleasure as something you buy in a restaurant or from a box, but [they do]. You are a better cook than you know.

Don’t worry too much about making it perfectly healthy. Just try making a few things you love, and you can slowly build towards other health goals. Just eating more vegetables and fruits, whole grains and a little less meat will improve your diet.

Cooking and food shopping should be mandatory classes in every public school. They have traditionally been taught in the home, but many grow up without that knowledge, and they’re daunting to learn once you’re on your own. How are you supposed to eat well when you can’t cook, or begin to cook if you don’t know how to shop?

SK: What do you hope to inspire in those that read Good and Cheap?

LB: I most want everyone to believe that they deserve to eat good food every day and that they can have some control over that through cooking. I also want readers to be comforted that giving a new dish a try doesn’t have to be a big, scary risk, just a little experiment to learn from — very likely with pleasing results. I want everyone to believe that their taste matters and that pleasure and health are not opposites. They are the best of friends!

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Head over to BlogHer to get all the information you need for #BlogHerFood15. Register here, see the agenda and speakers, and sign up for the newsletter for announcements and opportunities.