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Tips for saving money on food

Published Nov 9, 2015


Washington - In spring 2014, a masters student at New York University was trying to find a nonprofit that would make use of her project: a cookbook of cheap, easy-to-follow recipes benefiting low-income families or anyone looking to trim the grocery bill.

When no groups took her on, Leanne Brown posted a PDF of the book online so that anyone could download it for free. A few weeks later, the book landed on a popular thread on the social network Reddit, which led to so many downloads it crashed her website (

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After seeing the wide interest, Brown, who had moved to New York City from Canada, launched a Kickstarter campaign so that she could distribute hard copies of the book. She established a buy-one-give-one model, where each purchase leads to another copy of the book being sent to a family on a tight budget.

She asked for $10 000 (about R100 000) and raised $144 000, allowing her to publish more than 40 000 copies of the book - the bulk of which were donated or sold for $4 each to nonprofits. People can still download the book from her website for free - it has been downloaded more than 900 000 times - but Brown is also partnering with Workman Publishing to distribute the latest version of the book, called Good And Cheap: Eat Well On $4/Day, on a wider scale.

She recently met with The Washington Post to demonstrate one of her recipes and to talk about which items people should put in their grocery carts if they want to save money.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


QUESTION: Have you always enjoyed cooking?

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ANSWER So I've always been into social justice, but the thing I enjoyed personally the most was to cook. But I never wanted to be a chef. Part of that is because I love to put food in front of people, but I find it 10 times more satisfying to show them here's how you make it and have them re-create it themselves.



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Q: How did you come to the number of eating for under $4 a day?

A: That is the average amount that a person living on food stamps has to work with per day.


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Q: What are the key changes that people can make to cut down how much they spend on food?

A: The first thing is to embrace cooking. Get into it. It will absolutely save you money even if you do it without a thought. The granddaddy of all tips is to buy food you can use in multiple ways. You know when you get a recipe and think “Oh gosh, I don't have any of these things.” If you go to a store and are buying 30 things and only using like a teaspoon of each thing, that is not an efficient way to shop and to cook.


Q: Are there certain recipes that can help people reduce waste?

A: One of my favourite dishes to talk about is the crustless quiche. We skip the crust because it's a little bit of extra cost and it's got a lot of butter in it, which can get expensive. You look in your fridge and you go “what do I have in here?” It can be whatever is left over from all the other stuff you've done. Eggs go with everything. It can be leftover chicken, it can be the wilted, kind of sad looking vegetables you wouldn't want to put in a salad - you can put it in there. Then the egg custard is just eggs, some type of dairy, a little bit of cheese. Mix it all together and pour it over the top and bake it. And it's a fancy, sort of special feeling dish. It's great hot, it's great cold.


Q: What items should people always have in their pantry?

A: Don't think of everything in terms of absolute cheapness, but in how much value it gives you.

Butter has more innate value than things like margarine and vegetable oils can. You don't need as much of it and it adds flavour. Eggs are such a great thing to have around. They're one of the great sources of protein for your dollar.

I really like to have some type of a dried grain, whatever your favourite is. At least a couple. Oats are so tremendously inexpensive. Rice is fantastic if you like that. But then, maybe, bread if that's what you prefer. I like dried beans over can beans, depending on the cost. Dried tends to be much cheaper, and it's just a new habit you need to set up.

Then some of your favourite dried spices, start to slowly build that up. I also have a few other key things. I like keeping garlic around. Lemons and herbs as well. And then seasonal fruits and vegetables. Just go with what's in season. In general, that is what's going to bring you great variety to your diet.


Q: When is it smart to buy food in bulk?

A: Generally anything that isn't going to go bad. If you like rice, then get the giant bag of rice because it's so much cheaper.

Spices are something that are great to buy in bulk. The price per pound is usually going to be much more affordable than what you would get in the little plastic containers.

Then potatoes and onions, certain types of vegetables that will last pretty well. Or even apples. You can buy a bag of those, but unless you have a plan for everything, don't go super nuts.


Q: How has this experience with the book changed your grocery habits?

A: I have become a lot more conscious of what really is the best value. All these simple changes add up: buying the bunch of spinach rather than the beautiful washed bag, which is double the price. Buying thecarrots rather than aby carrots. Getting cans of tomatoes and garlic instead of jars of pasta sauce. All of those things will add up. And they're not difficult things to do, they're just new habits to get into.


Q: A lot of times the excuse people give for not cooking more is that they don't have the time. How much did you think about time when coming up with your recipes?

A: I prioritise cost and enjoyment, and I try to just provide a good variety of recipes. Some of them take longer, like making your own tortillas from scratch. But you can do it on a weekend and then have them. And others are incredibly quick. I think that once you make a habit of it, you'll actually want to spend a little more time on it. I think the bigger time barrier, from talking to so many people, is almost more to do with the shopping and getting the food in your house and setting up your pantry and having the stuff ready to go. Because once you're in the kitchen, you can have really great food in 20 minutes.


Q. Where do you point people who are trying to jump in?

A. If I have access to the person, I ask, what are your favourite things to eat? Just start there. And think about how to master just three to four things that you can put on the table fairly quickly. Start with something that you really love, and try to have success with something, because I think we're all motivated by success. You need to let yourself have a good time.


Q: Are some of these strategies better for families versus single people?

A: I think it's harder for single people. A family can buy larger amounts of certain things so that you can have more variation from day to day. The problem there is the intensity of needing to feed such a large number of people. And then it's making sure everyone has a job. It shouldn't be one person's job to put dinner on the table for everyone. Maybe one person's job is to cook, and someone else does the cleaning, and someone else can pick up the stuff. It just makes it a lot more reasonable and healthy.


Q: Meat is generally more expensive, so how did you balance that factor when including it in your book?

A: There's just much less of it. A lot of recipes use it as the main component, but for most of them it's kind of a flavouring. For most cooking in the world, meat is really kind of a flavouring. Like in a pasta carbonara, you have bacon and it adds tremendous flavour. It's wonderful, but it's not the steak and potatoes, which is pretty unsustainable, and it's not very good for us.


Q: And you say that meat is not the only form of protein.

A: No! Of course there are eggs and tofu and all these other things. If you want meat you can certainly pay, you just need to make sure it's not the centre of your meal or you're not going to have very much left over. So if you get a chicken, get the whole chicken. Roast it. Make sure to keep some of it and use it for stir fry, have it in your rice and beans. And make stock out of it. Just make sure to use it wisely and use every last bit of it.





Deconstructed Cabbage Rolls

8 to 10 servings

This play on Eastern European cabbage rolls turns them into an easy casserole of rice, lentils, cabbage and tomato sauce. The original recipe includes a little fresh sausage for flavour; this adaptation uses vegan sausage - which you can omit, as you like.

Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend available from good spice shops.

MAKE AHEAD: The rice and lentils can be cooked and refrigerated for up to 1 week before assembling the casserole. The casserole can be refrigerated for up to 3 days before baking.



1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the casserole dish and for drizzling

One 3-to-4-ounce (85 to 120g) link spicy vegan sausage

1 medium onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

1 small or 1/2 large green cabbage (about 1 1/4 pounds, or 670g), cored and chopped (about 6 cups)

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

3 cups cooked white rice

4 cups cooked green or brown lentils, drained

1 tablespoon za'atar (may substitute your favourite savoury spice blend)

3 1/2 cups canned no-salt-added tomatoes, pureed (from a 28-ounce (about 800g) can; may substitute your favourite homemade tomato sauce)

1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs (optional)

Parsley or microgreens, for garnish (optional)



Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180degC). Lightly grease a large, deep-sided casserole dish with oil.

Pour the tablespoon of oil into a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the vegan sausage, if using, and cook for a minute or two, stirring, until browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the sausage to a large bowl. Add the onion and the garlic to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the paprika, if using, and cook for another minute.

Add the cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork, 5 minutes. Add the 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and remove from the heat.

While the cabbage cooks, mix the rice and lentils with the sausage, if using, and the za'atar, plus a pinch each of salt and pepper. Make sure to taste as you go; if the cabbage and the rice-lentil mixture are tasty, the combination will be, too.

Spread half of the lentil-rice mixture in an even layer in the casserole dish. Spread half of the cabbage mixture on top. As evenly as possible, spoon half of the pureed tomatoes over everything. Repeat the layers and sprinkle with more salt, pepper and/or za'atar, if desired. Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top, if using, and drizzle with a little oil.

Bake until the casserole is hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Garnish each portion with parsley or microgreens, if desired. Serve warm.

Nutrition Per serving (based on 10): 220 calories, 11 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 10 g dietary fibre, 8 g sugar

Washington Post

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