Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day - Leanne Brown

This book really, really worked for me. I think I read all 200+ pages in one or two sittings - just devouring the information and inspiration.


I had typed and deleted this story about how, the other day, the lady in front of me at the store-that-shall-not-be-named was purchasing food items with her SNAP funds. This story was long and hilarious (my favorite part being when she finagled a Dairy Queen employee to give herself, the cashier and our entire line a sample of ice cream cake). My point to the story was that I had noticed her food choices, specifically how they included zero fresh food, and the fact that she was paying with SNAP (food stamps) (and I know this because she was a bit of an over-sharer), but I just couldn't bring myself to publish it. I think partly because I was afraid, no matter how I tried to explain I wasn't judging her, it could be misconstrued that I was - and partly because it may hit a little too close to home.


You see, my family is what I lovingly call, 'functionally poor'. This status is something that is somewhat new to me, within the last two years due to my hubs job loss and stuff. There have been months where bills were neglected in place of food, and months where bills COULD NOT be neglected and well, those aren't pretty months. I can't say that my kids have ever gone hungry, but we've been creative, dug for change or just flat out asked my parents for groceries. And not every month is a struggle.


I share this to say that  I absolutely know how hard it is to eat on something like $4 a day. And I absolutely do not look down on anyone who is making sure their kids have food, even if it's a bowl of Lipton's instant noodles. It's just that...I don't particularly like Hamburger Helper, or the like. And like it or hate it, eating on a budget that only allows those kinds of foods as the soul basis of your diet is not exactly healthful.


Hence my desire to read a cookbook that is specifically for this crowd - people who are just pretty broke but want to eat good tasting, has-some-real-food-in-it, food. While first priority is that you EAT, second priority should be that you eat well for many reasons, and not the least being that one should ENJOY food.


For the most part, this book really is an excellent tool for that. It was a homerun for me personally. Before I get to some specifics and finally review the book, I should just share where you can find my philosophy on my cookbook reviews, HERE.


One of the best things about this book isn't the recipes, it's the 40 page intro. The intro gives you lots of strategies for eating well on a budget and even though I feel like I'm a very seasoned cheap-eater, there were things that I learned.


For example, I already know to buy seasonally. I already know to go light on proteins because of the expense. One thing I did takeaway was to buy yogurt in bulk. My kids are yogurt fiends. Its the very first grocery purchase that disappears. I usually buy whatever is on sale but even then, there are times when it's a luxury purchase. Leanne Brown tells you to buy and bulk and flavor each serving. This is SO simple, and makes a lot of sense. We now buy a huge tub of yogurt, I flavor mine with almonds and honey, the kids like strawberry jam and banana slices. Leanne Brown offers lots of ideas here. (and btw, did you know that you could strain regular (cheaper) yogurt through a cheese cloth to remove more of the liquid, leaving you with a thicker, more greek-yogurt-like product? Genius!)


Other offerings of the intro include groceries that you won't regret buying, kitchen items that are essential, and how to deal with leftovers. All good stuff - I particularly liked the tip about how to use leftovers in a 'poutine' fashion using a bag of frozen french fries - which are insanely cheap, like $2 a bag. Leftover shredded BBQ pulled pork over french fries? Yum. She suggested actually leftovers from her book, like Black-eyed Peas and Collards, or Filipino Chicken Adobo, but whatever works!


Okay, here are a couple things we tried:


 Crispy Chickpeas and Pumpkin Seeds






Okay, so there are no pumpkin seeds. I don't like pumpkin seeds, so I just skipped it!


These were canned chickpeas, well drained, tossed with melted butter, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper - then roasted on a baking sheet in the oven for 30-40 minutes.


They turned out great! Some of them were completely crunchy like corn nuts, and others were crispy on the outside and kept their creamy texture on the inside. Leanne Brown has these under the heading of 'snacks', but I did this with mine:



With a little vinaigrette - really tasty, like a hearty crouton. My husband thought they were good on a salad too. They lasted about two days in an airtight container on the counter, but by the second day, there were trending toward stale.


Spicy Broiled Tilapia w/ Lime



Leanne Brown is my hero. Tiliapia is very inexpensive and something I've tried incorporating into our lives for awhile, but I've been unable to find a version of it that really suited my husband and I. This spiiiiiiicy and insanely easy version made my dinner rotation. What makes this stand out from other versions I've tried is that it's heavily seasoned and the seasoning kind of forms a crust, so there's a flaky fish with this super flavorful crunchy exterior.


It's just tiliapia, a little oil and a seasoning mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, cumin, cayenne and oregano and a hot oven. Squeeze a little lime over the top after before you eat. I had mine with a cheap box of couscous, leftovers went into a container and was still great mixed up and nuked the next day for lunch.


Roasted Chicken



If you've never roasted a chicken, you should. The feeling of accomplishment alone is totally worth it. And it's very, very easy. My husband was a complete skeptic - and as he has a visceral repulsion to raw meat of any kind, he was completely eeked out by the carcass of bird sitting on the kitchen counter. But EVEN HE loved dinner when it was done, as did my whole gang.


So this was a roaring success and something we will be doing really often, and here's why:


1.) It's VERY inexpensive. This was a huge bird, 6lbs, and at a $1 a pound, cost me $6. There was enough chicken on here for two meals for my family (2 adults, 2 kids).


2.) It's VERY easy. The recipe calls for salt, pepper, 1 tbls butter, 2 cloves of garlic and a lemon.


I know that it would be fine with just those ingredients, but I cheated JUST a little bit and used a little extra. The garlic and lemon are stuffed inside the bird, I used a whole head of garlic cut in half and stuffed inside. I also used the butter AND a little olive oil.  So, a few more ingredients but not really that much more cost. She estimates $8-$15 total for this, and with my additions AND the carrots and potatoes in the pan, I barely broke $8.


3.) I made about $8 worth of homemade chicken stock for NOTHING.  After dinner, and after I removed the meat to use for another meal, I took the entire chicken and put it in a stock pot. That night I just had a green pepper in the fridge that was quite wilted - cut out the bad parts and threw the remains in the pot. I also had one onion that was a little too onion-y. I cut that in half, skin and all and threw it in the pot. The chicken still had the head of garlic and lemon in it. Covered the entire thing with water - got it boiling and then reduced for simmer and just let it go for 3ish hours. 


Voila. Chicken stock.


After straining, I ended up freezing 12 cups of stock for later use. Leanne Brown says that buying chicken stock is a waste of money, and now I agree.


One $6 chicken and 30 minutes of my time basically made two meals and saved me $8 in boxed chicken stock. GAME CHANGER.



And while this review is already insanely long, there's so much more to say. I would try most of the recipes in Leanne's book. I would call most cookbooks a success if I wanted to try, say, half of the recipes. She has SIMPLE recipes for things like empanada dough, roti and fresh pasta, 20 different ways to make eggs, a huge emphasis on using a TON of veggies and beans in meals - which is both healthier and cheaper than most proteins.


But every up has it's down and I can see why this book wouldn't be for everyone. Firstly, you have to have a desire to put some effort into a meal. Even though there is a section for hot dog toppings, most things are going to require more effort than most convenience foods - popcorn for example - Leanne provides a whole section on how to make variations of popcorn for snacking, but you have to be WILLING to pop your own :)  (DO! and use coconut oil. It's sooooo good)


So I think back to the intent of the book - $4 a day, how people on SNAP can eat well, and I can't help but wonder about that demographic. Are they newly broke like myself, or have they always been stuck and perhaps been raised stuck? And if that is the case, is popping your own popcorn overwhelming? And if that is - would they even attempt roasting a chicken or *gasp* make their own pasta?? Maybe a single mom with two minimum wage jobs would skip sleep to let her own pizza dough rise.


I don't know the answer to that, but I assume the answer to that is no. And in that same vein, even I, someone who can confidently say I know my way around the kitchen, had to really think about which way to put the chicken in the pan (which side down). I eventually was able to logic it out, but it's not specifically stated in the recipe.


And because of those things, there are problems with this book. I love it, and I love the purpose behind it - but I really think it's suited towards the newly broke people (I say tongue and cheek), a single person, college person or the like. This feels like a 'next step' book after one has had some successes in the kitchen as well as some food experiences (I'm not sure who would blindly try something like Chana Masala without some context) rather than a tool to really pull someone into the kitchen in the first place. It's asking a lot of someone to really jump off the cliff here, especially with something as precious as food dollars. 



In review of my rating:


Yummy?   YES!


Simple?   YES


Instructions?  Between YES and NO, eeks very, very close to YES. Close enough that I'm not docking any stars.


Ingredients?  CHEAP and easy to find. A lot of pantry stuff. A lot fresh veggies that are easily attained from even a small market. And nearly every recipe is versatile enough to just use what you have.