Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gourmet eating on a Top Ramen budget

In the first two weeks Marius was here, I bought bananas no fewer than seven times.  He ate at least 2-3 each day, on top of the other fruits I had on hand.  Our weekly milk intake went from 2 half-gallons, which included my bi-weekly yogurt production, to closer to 5 gallons.  I hate to admit it, but I've had to get a Costco membership and shop at discount grocery stores to stretch our food budget as much as possible.  Since coupons are so often for processed foods we don't use, that hasn't been an avenue to help the old bank account.

After Marius had been living with us for a couple of weeks and we started to realize just how much he really eats, I started asking work colleagues with teen boys what they feed their plague of locusts kids to satisfy them without bankrupting the family budget. 

One coworker's suggestions were full of processed foods: mac-n-cheese from a box, pre-made PBnJ sandwiches, pizza rolls, instant noodles, etc.  That wasn't going to happen (and clearly she doesn't know me very well!).

I started focusing on increasing his share of carbs, and finding things to make him feel satisfied after a single serving: trail mix, pasta, rice, cheese sticks, bread.  That definitely helped.  Introducing him to peanut butter has helped, too.  Instead of eating 3 bananas, he now eats a peanut butter and banana sandwich on wheat bread.  We don't want him to not eat, we just want him to eat smarter.

I'm the sole wager earner in the household right now, and bringing home an educator's income at that, so we've had to very closely monitor our food budget.  We are a cash-only household on principle and things have been tight this month.  After paying bills at the end of September, I knew that October was going to be a lean month.  Feeding two adults, a mobile infant, and an athletic teenager on a tight budget has been a herculean, but not impossible, task.  I refused to eat pasta for a month or to serve crap food.

Thank goodness for a well-stocked pantry, creativity, and kitchen know-how.  In the past three weeks, we've only purchased perishables and bread.  Here are some of the things we've had:
I even made tomato jam and took corn bread to a work potluck.

Kaelen has been gorging himself on home-canned foods, some of which are favorites if wild kicking of feet is any indication.  Peaches, green beans, pears: he's eating food by the fistful and has loved all the quick breads I made.

Thanks to a friend's generosity, I am in possession of a mountain of rainbow chard, kale, cabbage, beets, lettuce, green tomatoes, and a spaghetti squash.

Tonight we're having kale with sausage and white beans for dinner.  Technically the white beans are Peruvian yellow beans I bought out of culinary curiousity a couple of months ago, but who's going to judge me?

Tomorrow we'll have a green tomato and chard gratin.  I'm going to throw in the last of the coppa I found in the freezer.  Tuesday will be spaghetti squash with pasta sauce.  Wednesday we'll have sloppy joes and sweet potato fries.  I think Thursday the last of the pork chops will be brought forth and served with rice pilaf and green beans.

Luckily for us, hosting an exchange student comes with a stipend. The first month's check, received at the beginning of October, paid off the futon we'd purchased for his new room.  That's part of the reason why these past weeks have been exceptionally tight: none of the stipend has been available to go toward the very real living expenses.  October's funds will restock my pantry and allow us a little more wiggle room.  My freezer is nearly empty and just about all of my staples are gone.  I'm literally scraping the bottoms of containers to get sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and similar items.  I still have a nice supply of items I canned: green beans, chili, tomatoes, tomato sauce, peaches, pears, pickles, beans, jams, and more.  That said, there are a lot more empty jars than there were a month ago.

The last few weeks have been very tiring for me.  I love cooking: it's a challenge and a puzzle and is interesting.  But there's been no break: no take-out, no "wanna go grab a sandwich?" moments, no dinner out.  Every single day I've had to figure out what to make that will not only feed the four of us but will also provide enough leftovers for lunch the following day.  There have been days where all I did was plan what I was going to cook, cook it, clean up from cooking, and plan for the next bout.  I went to work each Monday exhausted from having devoted so much of my weekends to finding ways to get healthy food into mouths creatively and economically.

But I did it.  Marius, whose older sisers both studied in the USA and told him that Americans eat mostly fattening fast food and "from powder" (mixes), has said over and over again how happy he is to live with a family who cooks real food.  I used up some odder things in my stockpile and finished up lots of odds and ends.

Payday is Thursday of this week.  I'd planned on going grocery shopping on Thursday night after work but in surveying what's still left in the house, I think I'll go Friday morning instead.


  1. What an absolute inspiration and thanks so much for fending off those pesky stereotypes of Americans and food. Well done, Jenn. Well done indeed.

  2. How depressing. All that sounds delicious. But then I try to pick out what my husband would eat out of this list and here's what I have left->
    Pumpkin bread
    Banana bread
    French toast
    Homemade pizza
    Baked potatoes with chili
    Soft tacos
    Pumpkin pie
    Chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting

    So jealous. And you prob don't have to cook around an onion allergy. :)
    Glad you're enjoying your exchange student!!!