Cheap and Good Food on $4/Day

Note that this book is available free in PDF format in both English and Spanish.

How to eat on $4 a day, according to the author who wrote the book on SNAP cooking

By Emily HeilMay 5 at 9:00 AM Add to list
(Workman Publishing Company/Jordan Matter)

Many people can’t imagine feeding themselves on $4 a day. But with unemployment spiking, millions more people across the country face the possibility of reduced food budgets, and many will rely on SNAP benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Author Leanne Brown came up with the idea for a cookbook to help people learn to cook — not just frugally, but deliciously — on their public benefits, and what started as a thesis project in graduate school wound up as the James Beard Award-winning 2015 book “Good & Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day.” (Brown offers the book as a free pdf in English and Spanish.)

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With SNAP enrollment rising and many people, even those who aren’t on the program, trying to cut their grocery bills, we thought it was a good time to check in with Brown, who is hunkered down with her family in Brooklyn. We talked to her recently about living without luxuries, finding solace in frugality, and why cheaper isn’t always better.

Your book feels particularly needed at the moment, with SNAP enrollment soaring. Of course, you could never have predicted a pandemic, but how relevant is it right now?

So many more people have been messaging me and sharing the book. I’ve been feeling this very strong desire to create content and try to help these days. So I’ve been trying to meet it by pointing people to the book. And the [SNAP] numbers are so high, and I’m scared about that, that the system won’t be able to meet the demand.

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Benefits are still around the same as when the book came out — $4 a day is the average. It’s not a lot. People often ask about that number, like, ‘Oh, what a cool challenge!’ I don’t think of it like that, it’s just that that’s the reality, and I wanted to create something that addressed it. There are recipes, and there’s also more of a philosophy of cooking that’s not so different from my own, and that’s to find joy, be flexible, and to not waste food. Which is a good, nourishing human feeling.

Being home and cooking three meals a day these days, it’s been a lot. But there’s something about cooking and eating in a way that is frugal that does feel good and right, right now. Like that we’re in tune with the world — that we’re taking what we need and no more.
(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Make the recipe: Potato and Leek Pizza

There’s also a lot of anxiety about food and cooking.

Yes, first off, there’s so much concern getting food. Especially at first, I know a lot of people were scared. ‘Do I need to have food for the next two months? Will I even be able to get it?’ The fear got so intense, it was unimaginable.

But now it’s feeling okay, at least for us — we have a routine and we’re in that groove. We’re all going longer in between shops. Using that last bit of crusty bread, and really, really using things up — that’s new for some people. Maybe not for people who have been food insecure for a long time. And for them, there are new worries on top of the old ones.

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When people have just enough, they have to shop more frequently. Buying in bulk is great advice, but, literally, some people can’t do that. They might not have transportation or storage, or they simply don’t have enough upfront money. All the inequalities that were already there are being exacerbated. All of us are living in a time where our options are more limited — we’re all experiencing that differently.

What lessons or recipes in the book have clicked for people?

My book is different from other approaches, because it’s about being joyful about food and being flexible. A lot of the books I looked at while I was researching — the advice given in them was, like to buy vegetable oil. The emphasis was on having a lot, and the cheapest things. I say if you can, buy butter — sure, it’s a little more expensive, but you can do everything with it, and a small amount of it gives so much flavor. Vegetable oil … well, all it does is keep things from sticking to the pan.

I think the question should be what is going to give you the most rather than what is going to give you the most quantity. Of course there are recipes, but I was hoping to teach through recipes how to be flexible — there are lots of substitutions. What I want is for people to know that they deserve to eat delicious food everyday.

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Infused into the book was permission to be yourself and to know you deserve to get pleasure out of food even when you don’t have money. If you don’t have a lot of money, food might be one of the few good parts of your day — a time when you can sit down and feed yourself — and that can only do good. Food is just so much more than nourishment.

Frugal cooking is entirely new to some people, and it can feel daunting.

This is a shift for many people, a huge change. And big change is scary. What people are experiencing is cooking in a state of fear, which is really tough. Cooking frugally requires flexibility, and that’s hard when you’re scared. What comes along with fear is a sense of hopelessness — you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, it’s going to be bad.’ It’s just such a hard place to be in. I hope “Good and Cheap” and a lot of resources are helpful here.

I think you just need to just be gentle with yourself and tell yourself you can do it, and it will be okay. You really can eat on a limited budget. It will be difficult and it will be more work. But you will have food and you will be okay. You will be okay without lox and bagels or whatever luxury things that you’re used to.

What’s your advice to people suddenly learning to spend less on food and cook a lot more?

Having to build new habits — it’s hard. And it’s hard for me to give specific advice. Many people are having to work at things we didn’t want to work at. I’m thinking about people who chose to focus on their work or who didn’t want to embrace the domestic for whatever reason — maybe because they didn’t want to be like their parents. That’s the lifestyle we chose, and now people might feel incompetent or bad at these things. Now here we are in our homes, and we have to face the domestic sphere.

[If you suddenly need to learn to cook, these resources will help guide you]

I would just say that you should believe in yourself and have hope that is grounded in reality and not something that’s Pollyanna-ish. When we face our fear, we find out about ourselves. You might find that you can do something you thought you couldn’t, and wouldn’t that be a cool thing to find out?

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