I have previously done a five-day $1.50-a-day challenge, to demonstrate how to eat healthfully on an extremely restricted budget. It was difficult, but doable. Now I want to show you how to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet on a more reasonable, but still thrifty budget of $5 a day. Below I have chronicled my experience of creating a ten-day menu of varied healthy meals, using limited resources and ingredients.
According to the USDA, the monthly food budget for a single person on the “thrifty plan” is approximately $209, which is about $6.90 per day. I took it down to $5 a day, which is closer to the budget of people who live on food stamps.
In order to simulate the shopping experience of the average American, I shopped in big chain supermarkets, small mom-and-pop stores, specialty grocery stores, and at my local farmer’s market.
For my first day, I shopped at the local Mexican market.
Day 1 Notes:
1 lb. (2 cups) of dry black beans makes 6 cups when cooked (4 servings)
1 lb. (2 cups) of uncooked rice makes 7 cups when cooked (4 to 5 servings)
I cooked the whole package of beans all at once and froze about half of it (two servings) to save time and money. With the remaining three cups of cooked beans, I made the bean stew, which I ate today and will eat again tomorrow.
Living on a strict budget is not easy; it requires creativity and advance planning. When food is scarce, it’s important to focus on the basics like grains and starches, which will sustain you for a long time. On the morning of my second day, I had two servings of leftover cooked beans, and plenty of leftover rice, potato salad, and celery from the day before. I also had a half pound of uncooked rice. To add some spices, greens, fruits, and other fresh vegetables to my diet, I visited a local Indian grocery store and a local health-food store.
DAY 2 MENU:
Lunch: Burger wraps with celery chutney, leftover brown rice, leftover black bean stew
Dinner: Opo squash soup with brown rice, celery chutney, and leftover black bean stew
Today I bought some whole-wheat pasta and a can of chickpeas at the local Albertson’s. Pasta is comfort food, and it is filling and cheap. With the remaining $3.58 (including the 43 cents left over from yesterday), I went to the local Mexican market.
Today turned out to be a day of rest, as I had plenty of leftovers for breakfast and lunch. This made it possible to add some of the more pricey ingredients to my food stock, as most of my budget for today will be carried forward to tomorrow. With $10 to shop for tonight’s dinner plus tomorrow’s food, I went to the supermarket to buy grains and nuts sold by weight, and I also stopped at the health-food store to buy some spices.
Eating a solid meal for breakfast is a good way to start the day, so think beyond oatmeal, toast, muffins, or cereal. Often, I like to eat grains, lentils, and vegetables for my first meal of the day.
Today I had a lot of ingredients to play with, as I had used extra grocery money from yesterday to purchase spices, nuts, and dried fruit. One of the pleasures of cooking is sharing the food with others, whether it’s with loved ones, friends, or wider community. I was happy to be able to share today’s meal with my boyfriend, as I had plenty.
DAY 5 MENU:
Breakfast: Corn grits
Lunch: Roasted sweet potato and cabbage with cilantro cashew sauce
Dinner: Yellow rice, leftover brown lentil soup
Today, I felt that it was time for a visit to the local farmer’s market and a quick stop at my tiny local Mexican market. Farmer’s markets are the best place to find seasonal, locally grown, and freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. With just $5, you have to be creative.
DAY 6 MENU:
Breakfast: Leftover corn grits with bananas
Lunch: Leftover lentil soup with rice
Dinner: Salad with peanuts and leftover cilantro cashew dressing, mixed lentil and bean dal with white rice, baked Delicata squash
Today was another day of rest, as I had plenty of cooked food. I was also able to combine the budget for today and tomorrow and purchase kale and broccoli, which I had been craving. I shopped at both my local grocery store and at Whole Foods today.
Cooking takes some time, and there are certain days when food preparation has to take a backseat to other tasks. Today was one of those days, so I am glad that I had enough leftovers to last the whole day. I also used today’s food budget yesterday, so I didn’t need to shop for anything either.
DAY 8 MENU:
Lunch: Leftover rice with beans, fresh spinach and cucumber, roasted peanuts
Dinner: Leftover kale tacos
I wanted to make some fresh food today since I had been eating leftovers for two days. I wanted to use buy some new ingredients to supplement the food I already had left in my kitchen. I had cabbage and potatoes, for instance, and could make borscht with some beets and onions. I also had pasta, tomatoes, broccoli, and kale; I just needed some onion to make a tomato sauce.
On the last day of the challenge, I had $7.46 left from the $50 I started out with. Even with the tight budget, I have leftover food and some pantry foods that I will continue to eat in the next couple days.
DAY 10 MENU:
Breakfast: Oats and dates
Lunch: Leftover borscht, curried quinoa and cabbage
Snack: Leftover bananas and peaches
Dinner: Lentil and spinach shepherd’s pie (I had enough of the pie to share with my boyfriend).
WHAT I LEARNED
This challenge was difficult on one level and easy on another. I was not starving — that is for sure! I had plenty of food at all times. The difficult part was the limited variety of ingredients, due to my $5-per-day budget. Certain items were just too expensive to buy on such a restricted budget. For example, organic greens range $2.49–$2.99 per bunch. When I found a store that sold items by weight, however, it was a real boon. I was happy to be able to buy spices, nuts, seeds, dehydrated fruit, grains, and beans this way, as you can buy as little or as much as you want.
It takes some time to stock and build your pantry, but then it gets easier and easier to eat healthy, fresh (and even some organic foods) on a budget. Even though my challenge only lasted for 10 days, I was sometimes able to afford organic ingredients, fresh fruits and vegetables, and spices. Overall, I was also able to make quite a lot of meals with tons of variety.
Editor’s Note: Darshana ate approximately 1,600 calories per day during this process, which is her normal daily caloric intake (she is naturally petite).