Posted on: August 15, 2011 Posted by: Cole Ruth Comments: 4

We leave Chicago tomorrow at noon. It feels like we were barely here. Captain Smiley has decided to plug in an additional stop in Northport, up on the Leelanau Peninsula, before our long last week in Bay Harbor, Michigan. Two more ports to go.

Today I went provisioning and I indulged in ingredients for sushi, and stocked up on some Costco items the new cook might have trouble buying in bulk anytime soon. And this made me think that, with so little time left on this gig, it might be high time to start divulging some secrets. Starting with the answer to the question most people ask: how do you do it on $6 per person per day?

There’s no question that working on a budget has changed the way I think about food and shopping. I used to think: I am in the mood for X. Then I would go and buy ingredients for X. Often X would involve prosciutto, truffle butter, goat cheese and other high-end ingredients.

When I first started on the Marlin, there’s no way I could have afforded to buy such luxuries – but strangely enough, now I do – and here’s how.
1. Bulk purchasing. Where would I be without Costco? I only shop there about once a month, but it enables me to bulk up on meats and items like canned beans or condiments and drink mixes and cheese and nuts. I’m not as impressed by the value of buying produce there. I almost always get better prices and it’s fresher at the regular grocery store. But hurrah for bulk butter and eggs!
2. A well-stocked pantry. This may sound like it doesn’t go hand in hand with bulk purchasing, but I having a variety of items at hand saves you money in the end. Every time I go to the store, I spend money – and usually I spend more than I need to because I’m buying items that aren’t on my list. Sure, we’ll eat those extra items, eventually, but if I don’t go to the store as often, I can get us by on pantry items a lot longer and it forces me to use up things that need using up. A meal can be made out of flour and onions. A good meal. Like caramelized onion pizza. Or the onion gravy I made one morning for Eve to go with her biscuit – it was just as popular as the meat version and cost a fraction as much.
3. Price-watching. When Captain Flash went shopping for me one day, I told her it was hard for me to tell her which vegetables, but that I rarely bought a vegetable over $1.99 a pound. In fact, if possible, I only buy them if they’re around $1 a pound. Meats, too. When I go shopping, I don’t have a set menu. I just know I need enough proteins for one week (or two, if in transit). I look at all the meats, and try to stay around $3/lb. If I get chicken for $1.50/lb., I can buy brisket for $4.50, etc.
Right now, we have in the freezer, a whole chicken, a beef brisket, a gargantuan pork shoulder, two 5 lb. bags of ground beef, chorizo, smoked sausage, two packages of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage, and a ham. Out of this, I will get at least eight dinners, four lunches and four breakfasts.
4. Never buy these things: sandwich meats, bread products, pre-mixed baking items. I never would have thought about it before – if I wanted sandwich turkey, I would’ve bought it. But the per pound cost of sandwich meat is CRAZY. I’m trying to recall, but I think I looked at a family pack at the last grocery store, which had ham and turkey and something else in it, and it was probably only about a .25 pounds of meat. I think the cost was around $7 for the package. That’s $28 a pound. Okay, let’s say my numbers are off. It seems crazy. But let’s say I’m off by half – that it was a half pound of meat. That’s still $14 a pound. You can get prosciutto for $10. And when you consider that it’s been through all that processing, the meat you can put on your sandwich that came from last night’s meal will always be fresher. Even when it’s a week old.
Bread products. I have a whole new perspective on this. I would probably still scrimp in order to get really lovely bread. But when you buy the cheapest bag of hamburger buns, you could be buying a whole 5 lb. bag of flour. You could be getting at least five bags of buns for the same price, and probably yours will have more protein and more flavor. I currently have a standard arsenal of three bread recipes: a honey wheat sandwich loaf, a bun recipe, and the amazing bread in a pot, which works as a great substitute for french bread because of its crusty exterior and soft insides.
Pre-mixed. Let’s just say pre-mixed anything is a bad idea. You are paying for someone to mix something. Do you have 15 minutes? Mix it yourself. It’s just to look at the price tag: At least $1.99 for the average brownie mix. That’s the cost of 5 lb. bag of flour.
5. Drink water. I keep several drink mixes on hand. It would get boring if all we ever drank was water. On the other hand, if you don’t miss it, go without. I’m always shocked at how little I get out of one of those frozen apple juice rounds. Barely enough for everyone to get a cup. Which means I should buy two… which means there goes one person’s entire dietary allowance – $6. Which reminds me, a great flavored water can be made by putting your fruit rinds in the water pitcher – tangerine, orange, lemon, you name it.
6. Buy dried milk. I’m surprised at how I’m able to use dried milk with little or no change to a recipe. I still buy cream – I love to add a few tablespoons to the marinara, or to scrambled eggs. But in general, I don’t miss the milk. You want it on your cereal? Switch to yoghurt – you’ll cut out all those hormones and antibiotics clogging up our milk today and you’ll get all those healthy bacteria instead. Better yet, make your own yoghurt (I keep meaning to do this….).
7. Eliminate waste. I know, this is redundant, but it’s worth noting that I waste very little. On our big transit from Wilmington to Greenport, I filled only one large black trash bag. Granted, I had repackaged things ahead of time, and we were throwing metal and food slops overboard, so the only stuff making it in the trash was plastics. Still, on a regular basis, very little food goes un-eaten. Old bread goes into bread pudding or bread salad or gets ground up for breadcrumbs. Yesterday’s dinner brisket becomes today’s taco meat. Grease from the bacon is a lard substitute in making tortillas. Etc.
8. Go to the cheaper grocery stores when you can. I mean, if you want that lovely Italian cheese that’s been sitting aging in wine dregs, it won’t be cheap – no matter where you go. But today I went out of my way to go to the most amazing Asian market in Chicago. I found it on the Internet. I was able to buy those large cans of coconut milk – which you don’t ever see at regular grocery stores – for less than I would usually pay for the regular size can. I bought a ton of food for $30. I had the same experience at Family Dollar in Ludington: I wouldn’t buy meat there, but I got a few good-looking vegetables, and saved big on canned goods. It was well worth the extra stop.
So here’s an interesting question I was asked: will I live like this when I get back to mainland living? Will I be convinced to live on $6 a day? It’s tough. I love to eat out. Being here in Chicago makes me really miss all the food options a big city has to offer.
On the other hand, think about it. For a single gal, living on $42 a week, if I could just find free rent, I’d hardly have to work at all. But of course, I wouldn’t have time to work either. I’d be baking bread and slow-cooking meat and pickling vegetables. That’s the cost that isn’t reflected in the tips above. Living on $6 requires time. A lot of it. In fact, you should probably think about hiring your own full-time cook. I think I know one who’ll be available soon…

4 People reacted on this

  1. Thanks! This needs to be a national standard for anyone on food stamps or on a food budget. If we could only reteach people how to cook, we would have a much healthier population!
    Now that I am retired I have the time needed to do this but if you were a stay-at-home parent, on one salary, you could live on this budget.

  2. I totally agree. Home-Ec should be taught to everyone. And we’d all be healthier for it. That’s also an interesting side note, though, and the crew would have to chime in here, but I think most of them have lost weight, but they leave every meal full. The only ones who have gained are me and the vegetarian!

  3. Fantastic post Cole! And I gather I’ll be seein you soon, very exciting. C- I was just thinking yesterday on how my year of high school home-ec has been one of the most important educational experiences of my life. I made a white (Bechemel) sauce the other day and I learned that in home ec. We learned the foundational basics which have served me to this day. I don’t even think they offer in the NYC public school. I also took typing and shop class in highschool, which were also priceless.
    – Crystal

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