Sunday, August 08, 2010

21 Dollar-A-Week Challenge

This week my post (or posts if I have time) are inspired by the "21 Dollar A Week Challenge" going on over at Vegan Hope's blog.

This Blogger's challenge is for fellow vegan Bloggers to: "For one week agree to live on a $21.00 food budget (per person in your household). This is a "food stamp budget" or the weekly grocery allowance for a person living in poverty."

Well, with four people in my household, and a significantly lower income than would be ideal, my food budget is only about 70$ a week, (sometimes much less) - already less than The Challenge's suggested amount (21$ X 4 = 84$).
I do continually have people asking me "How do you do it?" so I thought, in keeping with this challenge, (though maybe not following all their "rules" exactly) I'd post some dollar amounts for my week's cooking:

First of all though, let me explain a few things about my food budget; I have developed a few survival tricks that make my budget stretch even farther than you might think - I realize I'm blessed to live close enough to a major metropolitan area where I can shop ethnic markets and warehouses of super-bargains, PLUS I have a spot to garden, good soil that needs little care, a freezer and large pantry, and an abandoned orchard of wormy apples down the street. There are many summer nights I stay up all night processing fruits and veggies for the pantry or freezer, but the savings are SO very worth it when winter hits:

1. I set aside 12$ from my food budget each week (48$ a month) towards large, (and VERY inexpensive-pr-lb) bulk purchases from Andy's Market, Azure Standard and Bob's Red Mill. I DO realize buying in bulk isn't possible or practical for some people, but look into it, it's the only way I keep a wide variety of interesting food on the table.

2. When I have enough saved to place a bulk order, (usually every other month) I shop the above sites (and sometimes others) for the best price on what I use, as their prices may vary from month to month. Most 25# bags are 12 - 20 dollars, last our family up to a nine months, maybe more = pennies per meal.
Often I have friends who will be passing Bob's Redmill in Portland or Andy's in Eastern Washington, so I save on shipping too (or they sometimes have free shipping specials!)

3. Currently I purchase (on a rotating basis):

  • rice
  • garbanzos
  • lentils
  • pinto beans
  • black beans
  • wheat flour
  • cornmeal
  • oatmeal
  • gluten flour
  • olive oil
  • sugar (10 lb)
in 25# bags, (oil in 2 gallon jugs) which saves me HUGE in the long run. I must spend LESS than the 12$ I set aside because I always have plenty of bulk/dry left when I send in my next order.
I have a freezer and cool pantry to store these items in safely. I guess I should try and break down the per-serving price as close as I can (but I'm also miserable with math and that sounds like way too much work).

4. I also grow my own herbs, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, greens and beans and freeze a great deal for winter. The seed prices I also subtract from my food budget in the spring. (Sorry, my math skills aren't good enough to figure out how much water I use over the growing season and break down that cost per serving...). I also pick wild blackberries and apples (abandoned orchard) in the fall. I make many quarts of applesauce for free - and salsa and tomato sauce for virtually pennies.

5. I shop at alternatives to the standard supermarket and I realize not everyone has these available, or the luxury of a freezer to store extras - International markets, Dollar stores, Day-old-bread outlets, scratch-and-dent canned foods warehouse, Grocery Outlet, Bulk Barn, Asian and Latino markets and farmers markets. So when I list coconut milk at 49 cents a can, or tofu for 89 cents a carton, that's an accurate price - on sale, at the Vietnamese market down the street.

OK, so all that said - here are items I purchased this week (I rounded up sometimes because I canNOT do math, seriously!)
KEEP IN MIND I have two ravenous teenagers and a ten-year-old, these amounts (and meals) will obviously be more than you typically serve just for one person:
  • bulk container fresh-ground peanut butter (less than a cup) = 1.80
  • several ounces bulk spices, just a tiny bit of each (curry, taco spice, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon) = 1.60
  • 2 blocks tofu @79. each = 1.60
  • 1 bunch asparagus = 1.80 (yes, a splurge)
  • 5# bag potatoes = 1.00
  • 1 can coconut milk = .89
  • bag carrots from Farmer's Market = 2.00
  • 2# fresh peaches = 1.80
  • bunch small red onions from Farmer's Market = 1.50
  • 1 bottle soy sauce = 1.70
  • 4 packs Ramen noodles = .50 (yes, so nutritious!! Don't judge. They ARE actually vegan)
  • bulk ww pasta = .99
  • fresh ginger = .69
  • 1 carton soy milk (Asian market) = 1.20
  • bulk nutritional yeast = .89
  • bulk vegan chicken broth powder = 1.29
  • 3 loaves bread at the bread-outlet = 1.00
  • 2 bananas = .69
  • 2 cans corn = .50
  • cantaloupe = 2.00
  • cashews (bulk, just a handful) = 1.20
  • sunflower seeds(bulk) = .80
  • 4 (very small) lemons) = 1.00
  • vinegar = 2.29
  • 2 heads garlic = .50
  • salt = 1.00
TOTAL 32.23 Aprox. (and some of these items I'll have partially left over for next week)

THAT DONE, let's move on to the meals for the next few days - I've tried to break down costs for items I didn't purchase this week (marked with an *).
If an item isn't listed in the cost breakdown, it came out of the week's groceries (^^above) or it's come out of the "bulk items" stash (which I've already paid for so with my 12$ set-aside so don't see the sense in listing again.) This website, The Hillbilly Housewife (though NOT vegan, has been a life-saver in the past when my budget's been even tighter, outlining exactly what to buy and how to make it work - easy to veganize too!!)
My other estimates I got from Home Economics websites and the County Extension Worksheets that list how much your garden produce "costs". I sometimes estimate slightly lower as I don't use fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides like they use in their estimates:

Oatmeal Waffles with Applesauce (using approximately this recipe, without their fruit topping or vanilla)
Pasta with tomato sauce*, greens, apricots
Roasted potatoes, with herbs*, onions, garbanzos and carrots (pictured above). Salad from garden lettuce with lemon-olive-oil dressing.
  • 3/4 jar homemade tomato sauce = .60 (the extension office estimates homemade tomatoes cost about .20 a cup)
  • applesauce - free!
  • greens from the garden (a few cents? They keep growing and growing from a 1.00 pack of seeds, so I have no idea? I'm going to wildly estimate .75?)
Toast, peanut-butter and applesauce
(try this, it's so good to cut your peanutbutter toast in strips and dunk in the applesauce, my kids' FAVE!)
Ramen Noodle soup with fresh ginger, greens* and carrots shredded in; melon, cherry tomatoes and lettuce from the garden

Tofu Breaded* "Fish sticks" and oven fried potato wedges, garlic roasted asparagus

  • chard and lettuce from the garden = .75
  • breading for "fish-sticks" = flour, cracker-crumbs*, nutritional yeast, spices, pinch of nori* seaweed, salt and pepper, plus soymilk and vinegar for dipping before breading. Ingredients from my cupboard that I didn't purchase this week equal at the most = 1.00
Oatmeal with brown sugar* and peanut butter (yes, I know :P... this is my kids' choice)
Homemade crackers (this recipe) made with flour, oil, nutritional yeast, and sunflower seeds*.
Hummus (made with home-cooked garbanzos, olive oil, lemon, garlic and peanut-butter instead of tahini), carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes

Cornbread (with a can of corn, cornmeal, flour, baking powder*, soymilk, vinegar, sugar) Black-Bean soup (beans, tomato sauce from Sunday, broth, onions, garlic, herbs), oven-roasted green beans
  • Aprox. 2 Tbsp. brown sugar = .30
  • baking powder = .40
  • green beans from garden = .80 (@.20 per person according to Extension Office garden estimates)
Cornmeal waffles (using extra batter from cornbread yesterday)

Salsa-scrambled tofu (tofu, nutritional yeast, homemade salsa*, onions, a few leftover black beans, tomatoes* and herbs* from garden)

Refried beans (homecooked) and homemade tortillas (flour, water, oil) with chopped tomatoes, lettuce and little bit of onion (and leftover tofu, if there is any).
Zucchini-garbanzo fritters (veganize
this recipe using leftover mashed garbanzos for egg and adding carrots).
Kale* and shredded carrot salad.
Peach cobbler (
this recipe using peaches instead of berries and flour instead of cornstarch if I don't have it).
  • jar homemade salsa = 1.00
  • 1 cup garden tomatoes = .20
  • baking soda/powder = .45
  • kale = .50
Pancakes from
this recipe with applesauce to top (unless there are ripe blackberries)
Creamy potato soup (potatoes, onions, broth, cashews, onions, herbs*) and toast

Curry gravy (carrots, fresh ginger, garbanzos, onions, green beans*, curry powder, coconut milk, just a small handful of each stretches a LONG ways with the curry sauce) over rice

  • handful chopped herbs = .50
  • garden green beans = .80
Biscuits and a cheaper, stripped down version of Punk Rock Chickpea gravy
(from the fabulous Isa and her Vegan With A Vengeance, though this particular recipe is all over the Internets too).
LEFTOVERS! (This is a Friday lunch tradition around our house during the summer because it seems to be the one meal no one's ever home for. So I don't bother to plan - everyone packs leftovers for their work/school lunches anyway!!)

Cashew-Cream Garlic Alfredo (pasta, cashews, garlic, soymilk, lemon juice, herbs) green salad-tomato-carrot thingy from garden (in the winter I have lots of coleslaw instead - cabbage is super-cheap!) and garlic-pesto toast with basil, nutritional yeast and garlic
  • baking soda/powder = .45
  • garden herbs = .50
  • garden tomatoes = .20

Are you bored yet? So far, less than 10$ on weekly incidentals not part of my bulk or grocery purchases.

That's as far as I'm going with menus until later in the week. I usually have to change things up if we eat more or less than planned.
All the above, while quite disjointed and full of numbers and rambling from my head along with too many details is the start of my 21 Dollar-A-Week (per person) Challenge. Hopefully it makes a LITTLE sense, or helps give you some ideas?


Jen said...

Thanks so much for sharing your meal plans. I'm a "new" vegan (only 7 months) and having the hardest time keeping costs down.

amymylove said...

wow thanks for all the ideas and inspiration! i love that you home-cook almost everything that is way awesome! i am looking to spend less so this post was very helpful

mamavegana said...

I love your ideas, frankness and attitude!
Thank you for the help!
Obviously, though we are told that we Germans use less money than anyone else in the world on food, the prices do differ so much, - a bunch of asparagus at $1.80, - UNREAL! over here you'd pay $5,30 for white asparagus a bunch and even more for green asparagus!!! , plus they are out of season....- I really have to come up with some substitutes or drop some favourites along the way, - which might become a good topic for my kitchen blog lol
What really bugs me is that there is no bulk shopping tradition over here, that would help so many people!
Actually we can buy bulk at certain places and in Asian markets, which are far spread and few, unfortunately, - but for the first you need to own a business, which we don't and for both you can only buy IN bulk, - which means, I can get a kilo of cashews at €7.99 when I get lucky ... but I have to buy that kilo and when you're stripped bare for money, there just isn't the 8 Euros, when you only need cashews for like 35 cents...
well, I will find my way through this challenge :)
Thanx a lot for your ideas!!

Tofu Hunter said...

Great post, I love it. Thank you!

Jenny said...

That is amazing. Thanks so much for going to the trouble of typing this out. Our food spending is OUT OF CONTROL. We quadruple your spending. I need to buckle down and try out your ideas. Thanks again.

Claudia said...

Wow, that's so interesting! I'm also trying to cut down a little bit on our food spending, not because I exactly need to, but because I have the feeling it's quite decadent to spend so much on food as we do! Also, I hope it will let us appreciate simple meals more - your meal plan gives me some great ideas. So, if you have any more meal ideas / plans, I would be happy to read them! :-)

Karyn said...

I don't know if I ever thanked you, but about a year ago you "chatted" with me about buying in bulk. Since then I have been doing it with the products that are available here...not as many as where you live, sigh, but I can still get a few. THANK YOU! Big hugs!

It has really helped me the past six months since I am so busy with my mom. I didn't even get my garden planted this year! I can cook a huge pot of beans, rice, whatever and I then have a place to start when I come home and I need a "hurry up" meal during the week. Hubby is sometimes upset when he sees giant bags or dry beans coming into the house, but he never complains about his meals....of course he knows better, but that's not the point. LOL

Anyway, thank you and I love your recipes and your blog! I always come away with something.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am impressed! I briefly considered participating in the $21 challenge, but then I realized I spend $20 alone in my produce for the week at the farmer's market. I buy all my grains, beans, flours, etc in bulk but I still don't even come close to being able to do a $21/week budget, and I am just one person!!! This is a very inspiring post. I am going to try my hand at having a container garden to at least save some money on herbs. Baby steps right?

Anonymous said...

Great post! Enjoyed hearing your weekly menu plan, costs and links to recipes! Great ideas for a new vegan.

Sonia said...

I love this idea! I'm totally participating- just did $21 worth of groceries UNINTENTIONALLY- if that's not a sign to join in, I don't know what is!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is amazing. Thanks for sharing how you do this. There are some great ideas here. I will try those simple pancakes soon!

Carrie™ said...

That is amazing! I'm shaking my head here in disbelief that you can stretch your food dollar so far. Well done!!

Susan said...

I love the menu plan, but I gotta ask, don't your kids snack? Mine are always wanting something to eat, even after eating a good lunch or dinner. That is what is really killing my budget. I should bake a bit more, I know that would help with the snacking, but it is still expensive.

Tofu Mom (AKA Tofu-n-Sprouts) said...

@Karyn, I totally remember talking to you about the whole "buying-in-bulk" idea. SO EXCITED that it's working for you!!!
@Susan, I'm probably one of the few people out there who isn't a fan of snacking and I try to keep it to a minimum now that my kids are older. I never buy commercially prepared "snack" foods and honestly, I don't LIKE to bake all that much - plus, I haven't found REALLY reliable, convincing scientific research that says we "need" to snack. Even so, my kids DO snack sometimes... I always have bread and peanutbutter, carrots (and usually apples) available, as well as leftovers - this week it's crackers and hummus, tortillas and refried beans.