Living on a food budget of $7.50/day is not a real hardship

Monday, March 8, 2010

I read this morning that Ontario university students are complaining that their OSAP loans/grants only allow $7.50/day for food; for the poor dear who will have to give up her $4.50 Starbucks fancy drink, that appears to be a true hurdle in life. Oh, please.

Let’s look, for example, at the dinner that I made last night – note that this was not a dinner made with the purpose of proving a point about low-cost dinners (since I hadn’t yet read this morning’s article), it was a dinner that I chose to make because it’s healthy, delicious and easy to make. In a slow cooker, I put the following (prices are rounded up):

  • Lamb shoulder chops on the bone, 0.5-0.75 lb., $4.50 (price is accurate, not sure about the weight)
  • Large can diced tomatoes, $1.50
  • 2 huge sweet potatoes, about 3 lbs total, $2
  • 4 large carrots, $1
  • 1 cup dried green lentils, $0.50
  • Spices (1 tsp cumin seeds, a whole red chili, 1 cinnamon stick, 3 whole cloves), $0.50 or less

That’s $10 for a lamb and vegetable stew that makes at least six servings, or about $1.70/serving. I served it with a slice of whole-grain bread that I happened to make myself, but adding bread or pasta or rice for a carb would not add more than $.50/serving. The key is to use meat for flavor, not as the main event: the lamb on the bone makes the stew very rich tasting without adding a lot of meat, while the lentils boost the protein. As an added bonus, there’s almost no fat in this except for small amounts in the lamb, so this is pretty healthy. If you’re vegetarian, do it without the lamb and add more lentils, or some other legume; if you don’t like lamb, substitute an inexpensive cut of beef or chicken, but be sure to include the bones in the stew for full flavor. If you don’t want to eat the same thing several days in a row, package some of it up in serving-sized containers and pop it in the freezer, for those days when you come home hungry and didn’t plan ahead.

If you really think that you need more meat than that, check out Amanda Laird’s crock-roasted chicken: a whole chicken, a bit of spices to rub on it, and you have four or more generous portions of chicken for about $7, or $1.75/serving. You can often get whole chickens at a cheaper price than this, so could do it for less. You can eat the chicken as is, add to pasta, or make sandwiches from it; it can last you an entire week if you’re careful. Save the broth that collects in the bottom of the crock to make another soup or stew, it’s very rich-tasting and can be used instead of a cut of meat, which will reduce the cost significantly. The nice thing about a slow cooker is that you can just throw some things in in the morning, turn it on, and head off to class for the day, coming home to a home-cooked meal.

Okay, that’s the main meal for the day. For breakfast, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal will set you back another $2 if you buy the large-size yogurt rather than the individual servings, and a large box of cereal, shopping at regular grocery stores rather than convenience stores. An apple or pear weighs about 1/2 lb so will cost $0.75-$1; a liter of house-brand yogurt will be less than $3 and provide 4 servings for $0.75 each, and a large box of cereal will provide 10+ servings for about $4, or $0.40/serving. Oatmeal, if you buy in a large bag, is even cheaper, and can be made quickly in the microwave. Throw in another piece of fruit for good measure for a breakfast total of less than $3.

That leaves $2.50 for lunch, which means that you’re not eating meat. Load up on veggies: buy salad greens (preferably something like cabbage, spinach or arugula that can double as a cooked veg if you like), carrots (unpeeled, not the overpriced “baby carrots” in little bags), cucumber and other veggies that you can eat raw – it’s better for you, and easier to carry to campus if you need to. If you must have dressing, make it yourself with oil, vinegar and dried herbs. Add some bread if you’re carrying out, or cook some rice or pasta at home. I often make a lunch of whole wheat pasta, a few veggies lightly microwaved or sauteed while I’m cooking the pasta, and a drizzle of olive oil or a spoon of pesto as a sauce. A few capers or sundried tomatoes (which I buy in bulk at Costco) add a lot of flavor without much cost. If you need a protein boost, cook an egg or open a can of chickpeas. Consider $1 for the veggies, $0.50 for the carb, and another $0.50 for olive oil, pesto or whatever you use to dress the pasta or the veggies. If you got your apples on sale, you can even afford to thrown in one of those as well and stay under budget.

I am definitely not on a food budget, and I spend more than $7.50/person/day, but to be honest, I don’t spend that much more unless we eat in a restaurant, or it’s a special occasion with a more expensive cut of meat, such as a rack of lamb or that amazing Berkshire pork roast that we had at Christmas. I also don’t spend a huge amount of time on cooking: the slow cooker is definitely my friend for evening meals, and lunch will be leftovers, salad and whole-grain bread, or a quickly-prepared meal such as pasta. If you don’t have a full kitchen, get yourself a slow cooker and a rice cooker (you can often pick these up at yard sales for a few bucks) and a microwave (which you probably already have), and you can do pretty much everything with these three appliances.

There are a couple of keys to success in low-price eating:

  • Don’t buy processed foods. They’re not good for you anyway, and that processing costs money.
  • Eat less meat. There are many other sources of protein that cost less, have less fat, and are easier to learn to cook if you’re intimidated by the raw meat aisle in the grocery store.
  • Skip the junk food.
  • Buy larger-sized packages of items that you know that you will eat, since they are cheaper per serving. This includes non-perishables such as rice and pasta, but also meat and vegetables if you can consume them before the best-before date, or if you can freeze them for later use.
  • Shop at a regular grocery store rather than a convenience store. If possible, shop at a discount chain, such as No Frills or Costco. For example, I buy a case of canned tomatoes and a case of chickpeas at Costco, bringing the cost to around $1/can (half the price of grocery stores), since I use the tomatoes in stews and soups, and have the canned chickpeas on hand to add to a salad for lunch. Costco requires a membership and a car, of course, but that’s what parents are for. If you go to your local No Frills and buy the No Name house brand, it’s not much more expensive.
  • Plan your menus a couple of days in advance, so that you can shop for what you need, think about cooking a meat dish that can be reused in another dish later in the week, and do any preparation needed in advance. For example, buying dried chickpeas then soaking and cooking them yourself is way less expensive than canned, but you need a day of lead time.

You don’t have to eat poorly when you’re on a budget, even one as tight as $7.50/day. And if you want to eat more meat, you can always get a job to pay for it – that’s what the rest of us do.

8 Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Hi. I stopped being a student three years ago; which is hard to believe. I was working a part time job at 25 hours a week and doing school full time and starting a publishing company and I lived off of $11 of groceries a week! Ground beef, coffee, milk, can of diced tomatoes, leeks and spaghetti. Get to know your local market sellers, buy day olds, almost expired produce baskets, FOODSHARE! It’s not ideal but, definitely workable.

    As per “you can always get a job to pay for it – that’s what the rest of us do.” Really!? Is that what we want? Students working part time while in school full time just so they can enjoy something most people take for granted every day, more than $7? Nope. Cause having starving, distracted, overworked, underwhelmed students in this province is really going to get us where we want to be 🙁 STUDENT LOAN FOR STARBUCKS! I’m all over it. RESPECT.

  2. sandy says:

    Ryan, thanks for your comment. My “getting a job” comment is obviously conditional: if the student has a full workload at school such that their schoolwork would suffer, that’s not a good idea. However, many students carry less than a full course load, or could take on a job during the summer and save some of what they made to top up their food budget the following year. A couple of hours work per week during the school year, even at minimum wage, could add greatly to the food budget and could provide some valuable real-world experience. Again, I don’t condone doing this if it impacts the student’s grades.

    I don’t want this to sound like “I walked to school in the snow in bare feet”, but I went to University of Waterloo, and using the money saved from my co-op work terms, I was able to pay both tuition and all of my living expenses for the full 8-month period (4 at school, 4 at work) on what I made in 4 months of work. I didn’t see my first OSAP loan until 4th year, when I had a double school term that eventually tapped out my cash. Needless to say, I didn’t have a car, a stereo, Starbucks coffee or vacations anywhere.

  3. Touchy subject, obviously. Like Sandy, I also worked through school, while doing a full course load. You juggle it. Even knowing that this will make me sound like the old fart I used to swear I’d never become: my sense is that it does actually contribute something to your education other than finances. It teaches you to juggle pressure, income sources, different priorities. “Starving, distracted, overworked, underwhelmed” sounds sort of like the overall human condition. Being a student on a limited budget with big aspirations and pressures is our traditional introduction to it.

  4. pat Anderson says:

    I worked part time years when my summer income (for 2A term) or work-term income didn’t stretch far enough. My parents helped with first year: I paid tuition & books and incidentals, they paid residence. I carried a full load of courses. And I’m very glad to have had the co-op program to finance my way through school. I didn’t have OSAP. Like Sandy, no car, a cheap stereo that my parents bought me, no March Break vacations. I was lucky that my 8 month school term was preceded by an 8 month work term. Coffee was purchased at the local Engineering/English/Math Society coffee desk in whatever building. I think it was $0.25/cup.
    Didn’t eat out much, and when I think about it, I don’t recall buying a whole lot of prepared foods. That was when I started making my own paté, because I couldn’t afford to buy it.

  5. sandy says:

    Pat, you should publish your “paté on a budget” recipe, it’s divine!

  6. pat Anderson says:

    Done. I’ve added my paté recipes to http://epiglutton.blogspot.com !

  7. sandy says:

    Tons of great fast and cheap breakfast ideas on Cheap, Healthy, Good’s post on Fast Breakfast for Students. Check the comments for ideas too, such as making your own breakfast burritos ahead and freezing them – much more imaginative than my fruit, yogurt and cereal combo.

Leave a Reply