Last year I wrote Part One of my Great Recession Cooking series. It included helpful hints on how to live on a shoestring budget, including how to shop, some pointers on what to buy and cooking it all. I wrote it because one of the hardest things to do when hardship strikes is to learn how to manage on what one has. At least it was for me.

Recently, Gwenneth Paltrow took the Food Stamp challenge for a week and failed because of two problems: 1) she bought the wrong things, not enough calories or nutrition; and 2) the stuff she bought spoiled after 4 days.

Kathleen Elkins from Business Insider also took the Food Stamp challenge. She made it through the week on $29.19 worth of food, but barely. She has a synopsis of what each day of her week was like here, where she mostly complained of being incredibly hungry. And here’s a list of the food she bought with her $29.19:

  • Red split lentils ($1.69)
  • Bowtie pasta ($0.99) 
  • Can of garbanzo beans ($0.89)
  • Can of black beans ($0.89)
  • Butternut squash soup ($2.79)
  • Chunky peanut butter ($2.49)
  • 8 corn tortillas ($1.99)
  • Half-gallon of almond milk ($2.99)
  • Dozen organic eggs, since the only remaining non-organic eggs were cracked ($3.99)
  • 8-pack of maple and brown sugar oatmeal ($2.99) 
  • 7 bananas ($1.33)
  • Bag of spinach ($1.99)
  • 1 yellow onion ($0.79)
  • 3 sweet potatoes ($1.47)
  • Sea salt ($0.99)

At least half of her list consists of items someone living off roughly $30 per week simply cannot afford to buy. A half-gallon of almond milk for $3 and organic eggs for $4. Instant oatmeal, prepared soup and canned beans. Sea salt? It’s really no wonder she was hungry after what she did to herself with the $29 she had to spend.

Granted, I fed a family of three, including a teenage boy, on $110 per week, which works out to $36.50 per person per week. But I don’t think Ms. Elkins would have been much better off with the extra six dollars considering what she bought.

The first and foremost tip for living on the cheap is to learn how to cook. For the money she spent on the 8-pack of instant oatmeal, she could have instead bought a family sized can of generic, uncooked oats and something else. Besides being healthier since they haven’t been over processed, it only takes a few minutes in the microwave or five on the stove to cook oatmeal from raw oats. The result tastes a lot better, you can have as much as you want for breakfast, and it stretches farther – because for most people living that way, it’s about survival, not just making it through one week.

The same is true for the canned beans and the prepared soup. For the $.89 spent on one can of beans, she could have bought a small bag of dry beans and had at least 4x more. And the money spent on the soup, she could have bought a whole squash, at least one to have as a side dish for more than one night. Just from the savings on the beans, soup and oats, she could have bought some flour and yeast and made three loaves of bread to go with the peanut butter. Or with the flour and yeast, she could have made a pizza crust, squash pizza! That’s a really good idea if she doesn’t like milk; instead of almond milk, she could have bought mozzarella cheese and some spaghetti sauce for that squash pizza. Oatmeal from raw oats with cinnamon doesn’t need milk.

And really, I can’t imagine who would want three sweet potatoes each week unless they want to end up as big as house.

The second tip is to worship leftovers. Buying things in bulk saves a lot of money, and it saves time in the kitchen too. You can find ways to switch up the same basic ingredients that you cook with minimal specialty flavorings and spices so that you don’t get bored of eating the same thing every day. But you have to be smart about it. Don’t buy the huge can of beans or the huge box of dehydrated potatoes or the huge bag of cereal. Always follow the rule not to buy prepared food if it is cheaper to make it yourself.

Being lazy in the kitchen is a luxury that you can’t afford on $29 a week.

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