The first time I was laid off, I was lucky because it was only for about six weeks. Unemployment compensation helped some, but as my savings became depleted I found myself doing the ramen thing.
At the time, you could occasionally get several packages on sale for 10 cents apiece, and even when they were not on sale they only cost about a quarter. I'd heat one up, add a beaten egg, toss in a handful of frozen peas, and splash in some soy sauce. All told, dinner cost less than 50 cents.
READ MORE: Sample recipes: Dining on a budget
The second time I was laid off, I was without a job for 15 months. But I was lucky because my wife still had a job (at the place that laid me off), and I managed to pick up a little bit of freelance work and to work for the U.S. Census bureau. Unemployment compensation helped a lot and I had more savings to lean on, but dinner was often beans and rice.
I began with a base of onion, carrots, and celery, added lentils, and sprinkled in some spices, and cooked it all in chicken stock. Usually, I threw in sliced sausage as well. Then I served it with rice (basmati rice, when I was feeling flush) that I had cooked separately. Protein, vitamins, fiber, starch, and great flavor, and all for about $1 or $1.50, depending on how much sausage I used.
I was lucky, as I said, so I never had to go on food stamps. But 46.4 million Americans now use them to supplement their purchases of food. Eligibility depends on a wide variety of factors, including income and number of people in the household, and these factors also determine how much assistance they receive.
The amounts fluctuate greatly depending on the circumstances, but the average recipient receives $133.20 per month, or $277.70 per household.
That's not a lot of money, just $31 per week, and it is not easy to eat healthily or well on it. But as a lot of local people learned last month when they took the national Food Stamp Challenge, it can be done.
It takes a lot of planning, said Judith Riley, clinical dietician at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. Anyone on a budget or food stamps -- the official name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- should plan menus in advance and know exactly what to buy at the grocery store. Store brands are usually cheaper than brand names, she said, and shoppers can wait for sales to stock up on pantry items and canned goods.
Advance planning extends to leftovers as well, a practice Ms. Riley referred to as "cooking ahead." A large pot of homemade tomato sauce can be put on pasta one night -- a great deal, because dried pasta can cost as little as 10 cents for a 2-ounce serving (though almost everyone eats more than that, especially for an entree). The next night, you can mix in some ground beef and a little mustard, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and maybe a bit of green pepper for sloppy joes. If you have tomato sauce left over, freeze it for a later use; perhaps with a veggie lasagna or spread on top of pizza dough.
If you buy a 106-ounce can of tomatoes you can make enough tomato sauce to last for months and save a lot of money in the process. But Ms. Riley advises buying in bulk only if you know you can use all the food and you have the room to store it. Wasting food is not a helpful option on a food-stamp budget.
Whole chickens are inexpensive, and so is the dark meat in quarters or when cut into parts. Try roasting a chicken or two on top of a bed of chopped potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. Lemons can be an extravagance, but if it is in your budget you can slice one in half and put it in the chicken's cavity. Serve the chicken and vegetables one night for dinner. The leftover vegetables can be added to eggs the next day for a wonderful frittata, and the leftover chicken can be combined with mayonnaise and fresh chopped celery for a chicken salad.
That's good as it is, but it becomes exponentially better when you add a little spice. Though spices are usually expensive, you can buy a small amount in bulk at health food stores or even the otherwise pricey Fresh Market for a surprisingly small amount of money.
Take curry powder, for instance ($2.99 for 1⅓ ounces at Fresh Market). A pinch or two added to the eggs makes a world of difference with the frittata, and a few dashes added to the mayo turns the ordinary chicken salad extraordinary. And a teaspoon or so stirred into a cup of yogurt makes an earthy, piquant marinade for chicken or lamb.
Restaurants have such a small profit margin that they often find ingenious ways to avoid wasting food. John Kozak of Le Petit Gourmet in Maumee said he often uses vegetable scraps such as the ends of celery to make stocks for their chicken noodle soup. And when they boil a chicken to make their sandwiches, he also saves that flavored water for stock.
"You can get away with using cheaper-priced items and then flavoring them with stocks that you can make," he said.
It takes just a little bit of effort to make a stock: Simmer chicken necks, backs, and wing tips (you can freeze them until you have enough) in water with pieces of carrot, celery, and an onion. This stock adds an enormous amount of flavor to sauces and even rice, in place of water, and it is almost free to make. If you don't want to go to the effort, you can gain much of the same flavor boost by dropping a bouillon cube into the boiling water, and they cost as little as a nickel apiece.
It's all a matter of priorities. When you're on a limited food budget, you need to get as much bang as you can for your 133 bucks per month. Store brands are cheaper than name brands, Ms. Riley said, convenience foods always cost more than making the food from scratch, and day-old bread is a good money-saver.
One low-budget trap that she cautions against is eating too many starches (potatoes, pasta, rice, and the like) because they tend to be inexpensive. Fruits and vegetables are harder to find at low prices. Farmers markets and produce markets are good places to start, she said, and they accept food stamps.
Peanut butter is always good to have on hand because it offers so much protein at such a low cost, plus it tastes great -- and can even be used in sauces. Beans are just as beneficial for the same reasons and make a naturally delicious pairing with rice. Green beans and frozen peas are always affordable, cabbage is cheap and an excellent source of fiber, and apples and bananas are healthful and plentiful.
Once the basic ingredients have been purchased, you need inexpensive ways to massage their flavors. Fresh garlic and ginger are both cheap and make a huge difference in taste. Soy sauce (a little goes a long way) and a squeeze of lemon go particularly well with them. Onions, celery, and carrots are more than reasonably priced, and no kitchen should be without them.
If all else fails, think outside the box. The cereal box.
Ms. Riley said that breakfast is typically the cheapest meal of the day, and that there is nothing wrong with having breakfast for dinner. "Oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, whole-grain toast, fruit, waffles, yogurt -- all those things are relatively inexpensive, and they're nutritious and delicious."
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Simple Chicken Stock
3 pounds chicken bones (necks, backs, etc.)
1 carrot, peeled and cut in 2-inch pieces
1 celery stalk (with leaves if it has them), cut in 2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, unpeeled, sliced in half
1 tablespoon salt
½ tablespoon peppercorns OR ground pepper
Place bones, carrot, celery, and onion in a large pot and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a bare simmer. Add salt and pepper. With a large spoon or strainer, skim off the scum that floats to the top. Lightly simmer 1½ hours, skimming frequently. Strain before using. Can be frozen in plastic containers or even recloseable freezer bags.
Yield: About 12 cups
Roast Chicken With Leftovers
1 roasting chicken, 5-6 pounds
Salt and pepper
1 lemon, cut in half, optional
3 large potatoes
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into quarters
Preheat oven to 425°. Spray bottom of large roasting pan with nonstick spray.
Rinse chicken and pat dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Season well with salt and pepper, including the cavity. Insert optional lemon into cavity.
Scatter potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions on bottom of roasting pan and place chicken on top of the vegetables, breast-side up. Bake until legs move easily in their sockets and juices run clear when cut at the leg joint, about 1¼-1½ hours.
Unless serving a crowd, save some of the chicken and vegetables for leftovers.
Yield: 8 servings
Leftover Veggie Frittata
? tablespoon butter (1 teaspoon) OR nonstick cooking spray
1 cup leftover vegetables (as from Roast Chicken With Leftovers)
Salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon curry powder (see cook's note)
Cook's note: This version is fairly mild. For more curry taste, use more curry powder.
Over medium heat, melt butter in nonstick sauté pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Add vegetables and cook until hot. Meanwhile, beat eggs well with salt, pepper, and curry powder.
Lower temperature to medium-low and add eggs. Stir briefly with spatula and cover. Cook until eggs set, about 4-5 minutes. If you can, flip the eggs in the pan and cook for 1 additional minute. If you cannot flip the eggs, cover and cook for 1 more minute.
If you flipped the eggs, slide frittata onto a serving plate. If you did not, place a large plate over the pan and turn the pan upside down, allowing the egg gently to fall upside-down onto the plate.
Yield: 2 servings
Curried Chicken Salad
2 cups leftover chicken, as from Roast Chicken With Leftovers
1/2 cup mayonnaise (see cook's note)
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tablespoon raisins
1/2 cup apples, chopped
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (see cook's note)
Cook's note: This version has relatively little mayonnaise; use more if you like your chicken salad with a creamier taste. Similarly, this version has a mild curry flavor; use more curry powder if you want a stronger taste.
Mix together all ingredients.
Yield: 2-3 servings
Easy Tomato Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes OR whole tomatoes with their juice
Pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Cook's note: This recipe is easily doubled, tripled, or more to provide leftovers.
If using whole tomatoes, remove the hard stem ends with a knife, discard them, and crush tomatoes with your hands into a large bowl, adding the juice.
Add olive oil to a large pan or pot over medium heat, and sauté onions for 3 minutes or until translucent. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and season with pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and immediately lower heat to a low simmer. Cook uncovered for 1 hour. Stir in salt to taste. Serve over pasta.
Can easily be frozen in plastic containers.
Yield: About 3 cups
Source: Adapted from Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound ground beef
1/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups leftover Easy Tomato Sauce
4 hamburger buns
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add ground beef, green pepper, and brown sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally to break up lumps of meat, until browned. Drain off excess oil.
Stir in vinegar, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Add leftover Easy Tomato Sauce. Mix together and cook 5 minutes. Serve on hamburger buns.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from Food Network recipe by Rachael Ray