Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Challenge Day 6 - Strategy

If no one eats the ends of bread, I let them dry out in a pan, grind the up in the food processor, and add them to the bread crumb jar. Or, they could be buttered and put in a gratin dish with apple slices and custard for a small batch of bread pudding.

I have so much to say today, that I am dividing it into two posts. Strategy first, and then a post about Storage, and my actual eating report for yesterday.

So many articles about the various Food Stamp Challenges completely miss the point. Yes, it is challenging to feed a family on $4.50 person per day. And even harder if you are trapped by a lack of transportation and faced with shopping at inadequate and over-prided stores. If you are further handicapped by a lack of cooking skills, fundamental nutrition knowledge, or shopping experience - well, you are screwed until you learn more.

The media articles typically feature someone struggling to eat like they normally eat on that budget. They try to reproduce their normal diet, and end up missing meals or choosing a monotonous diet. They often feature someone with a professional job, often with no kids. The majority of food stamp families are families. There is an economy of scale to cooking for several people.

A week-long Food Stamp Challenge is a fallacy. It's not possible to do it well, if you are starting from zero. Which is certainly not to say that eating on Food Stamps would be easy in any case. Just that you are doomed to be hungry with $31.50 and no other money or food resources. In real life, you would visit a food bank, soup kitchen, or eat with family and friends.

This is the secret: You may eat an average of $4.50 per day, but you do not shop with $4.50 per day. You shop with $135 per month. A family of four shops with $540 per month. Try to reserve 10% of that for a bulk purchase that will last for months.

Let's say you find yourself in a financial pickle, and you realize you need help feeding your family. You feel crappy about having to apply, but you go through the process, produce all that documentation, and eventually come out the other end with a brand new EBT card with a month's worth of food stamps - which will depend on your income and family size.

Whew! But your problems are not over. Now you need to figure out how to make that lump of food money last a month. Did you ever try to plan a month of meals? Almost no one does. Maybe your high school Home Economics teacher did, but most people do not live like that.

Here is how I do it.

This is the beginning of the month, so I am thinking about how November will roll. Many people receive benefits like Social Security or pension payments at the beginning of the month. The Food Stamps themselves will arrive the first or second week of the month. We have Thanksgiving to plan for - a major eating holiday.

What would my normal monthly shopping look like?

First, I take inventory of the fridge and freezers. What needs to be eaten? Do I need to make room for new purchases? What do I need to buy flesh out those meals? I clean out the fridge by concentrating on using leftovers that are hanging around. I check the pantry shelves. What is running low, that I should be looking to stock up? I check "The List." The List is on the fridge door, and everyone in the house is trained to write down when they open the last of something - food, household supplies, toiletries. We want to shop for the best deal, so we don't wait until the thing is all gone and becoming an urgent purchase.

I also think about what is going to be on sale in this season. You can look that up here. In November, the sales will include holiday baking supplies, turkeys, butter, oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts. Citrus fruit will start to come down in price, and clementines will come into season - we love clementines. I will need to make room in the freezer for butter and turkey, so we need to eat down the frozen bread - no buying bread this month. Apples and pears, root vegetables, and things in the cabbage family can be stored in the garage, now that is is colder. I go online and consult all the local store flyers.

I will think about protein first. I want to provide enough protein, iron, and calcium for everyone. This is the protein requirement for our family:
Grandma (Age 84, Sedentary) 55g
Me (Age 50, Active) 90g
SO (Age 37, Moderately Active) 105g
DD15: (Age 15, Moderately Active) 70g
I want to make sure we are hitting that, not just filling up on cheap carbs. We all enjoy dairy, so we don't have trouble getting dietary calcium, and my mother and I take calcium citrate supplements. We also take multi-vitamins.

I plan for protein at the start of the month, when I have the most money. That allows me to shop for large pieces of meat at a good price. I can either break it down into smaller portions and freeze it for meals, or cook it and use it for several meals, possibly also freezing cooked portions so we don't get tired of it. I buy meat, poultry, cheese, beans, nuts. I buy eggs, dairy, and produce throughout the month.

This is what I might buy at the beginning of the month. Aldi and Redner's are close enough for me to walk, pulling a wagon, if I did not have a car. Obviously, your list will look different. Ours is tailored to our taste, allergies, cooking skills, and general weirdness.

I will not spend all my money at once. I need a turkey, and I would probably buy it at the farmer's market, where there is a local poultry vendor who takes Food Stamps. He will also have turkey backs and necks for .10-.20/lb, cheaper than any other time of year. I will freeze them for stockmaking. I also need to reserve money for fresh produce and dairy all month.

Aldi discount (2x month)
check clearance bin
check for manager specials on expiring meat
1.99 bag of 6 bagels
1.99 loaf raisin bread
1.99 loaf of whole grain bread
0.99 pkg flour tortillas
oranges, melon in season
bagged spinach
Bottom Dollar discount (weekly for produce and dairy)
check loss leaders
check for manager specials on expiring meat
2 large chunks of protein for the month, beyond turkey
2.77 kielbasi 1-lb
2.49 bacon 1-lb
pork neckbones for soup stock
6.76 4 qts yogurt @ 1.68
3.69 gal milk
2.27 qt half&half
1.19 pt sour cream
2.98 3 doz eggs @ .99
5.44 shredded cheddar (2lb.)
5.44 shredded mozzarella (2lb.)
3.00 2 bunch bananas @ .44/lb
2.39 pound butter
1.39 pkg cream cheese
1.49 8-pk of PB/cheese cracker snacks
1.49 8-pk of cheese-on-cheese cracker snacks
1.96 4 cans chicken noodle soup
3# onions
1# carrots
10# potatoes
sweet potatoes
garlic, ginger root
broccoli, cabbage
apples, pears, pineapple or other seasonal fruit
2 cantaloupes or a watermelon if in season
Giant/Redner's conventional supermarket (once a month)
check loss leaders
box of Giant decaf tea bags
bottle ceasar dressing (unless I went to Walmart) box whole grain cream of wheat bagged frozen pasta on sale (tortellini, ravioli, etc)
check for bread on sale (to freeze)
Walmart Superstore (every few months)
Zillions of food stamp families shop at Walmart, but I find most can be had elsewhere for less. The selection is limited and pedestrian. The produce does not impress. But some walmart-brand items are hard to beat. It is my go-to source for incontinence disposables for my mother.
herbal tea bags, family-size tea bags
hot sauce
smoked Goudam cheese
bags of bulk raw popcorn
refrigerated Caesar dressing
Grocery liquidators - BB's or BRL (monthly)
I don't get all this every month. I look at these kinds of things to find bargains to build my pantry. Liquidator stores have constantly-changing stock. I may find a $1 jar of organic tahini that costs $8 in a regular store. Or quarts of gourmet yogurt that expire in a day for .50 instead of $5. It's a shopping adventure with no list. You just have to know your price-to-beat.
hot cocoa
peanut butter
boxed cereal and granola
salad croutons
gingerbread and bread machine mixes
flour, sugar, raw sugar
spices and seasoning
oatmeal and cream of wheat
olive, sesame, and canola oils
canned tomatoes and beans
mustard, mayo, horseradish sauce
condiments, sauces and dressings
paper and plastic disposables
laundry detergent and dish soap
snack crackers an saltines
rice, beans, split peas, bulk popcorn
sometimes cheese and yogurt
protein shakes/mix
protein and granola bars
discount Pepperidge Farm bread
Trader Joe's (every 2-3 months)
(Is an hour away and I carpool with a Prius-driving friend.)
olive oil
grated parmesan
pine nuts honey 0.99 pizza dough balls 1lb
fluoride-free toothpaste
Dr Bronner's soap
"Shopping" from my own pantry storage (all month)
frozen bread
frozen sausage and chicken - make freezer space
home-canned jam and chutney
Home-canned pizza and pasta sauce
frozen pesto, fruit sauce
frozen homemade chicken, pork, and vegetable stock
frozen homemade soup and refried beans
oatmeal and other cereal
raisins and other dried fruit
sugar, flour, yeast spices, condiments
peanut butter and tahini
crackers and saltines
canned tomatoes dry and canned beans olive and canola oil, vinegar
boxed pasta
basmati, brown, arborio rice

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