Saturday, April 18, 2015

Shopping for Live Below the Line, 2015

I've decided to take the Live Below the Line challenge for a third year: Spend no more than $1.50 per day for food and drink for 5 days.

I'm starting my challenge a week earlier than the rest of the crowd. I'll be traveling for work during the designated time, which means it would be impossible for me to do it. I won't have access to a kitchen, and I'm certain homeland security won't let me get on the plane with jars of soup in my bag. So, I'm starting April 19th! It's a good reminder of lessons I've learned in the past when taking this challenge: poverty means few choices. What a privilege to choose when I will eat meals that cost only pennies...

Select your beans carefully. Those pretty yellow ones only
have 4 grams of protein per 1/4 cup. Lentils have 13. 
I've been scoping out my trusty 99 cent Only store for a few weeks to get a sense of what I might be able to buy this year. Last year, a 5lb bag of potatoes really saved me from hunger. Can I find that again? They frequently have bags of dried beans and legumes: 1lb bag for $1. But selection fluctuates, sometimes dramatically. Every once in a while, I'll find 2lb bags of pinto beans for $1.

I've figured out a good system for this challenge in the past, I think. Buy 6 staples at $1 each, and leave $1.50 for seasoning (oil and salt). The staples need to be easily mixed and matched, with qualities that allow them to be prepared in many different ways - lack of variety is one thing that makes this challenge so tough. So after a few laps around the 99 cent Only store, looking for items with the most weight, and some careful analysis of the fat and protein content in the bean options, here's what I found in my basket:

  • Potatoes: 10lbs for a $1. Obvious. 10lbs!! I may get board, but I won't be hungry. No way I'll eat all of these.
  • There was a 2lb bag of carrots. Can't pass that up. Great for cooking and for a raw snack. 
  • 2lb of onions? Essential flavor ingredient. Sold! 
  • A big head of cabbage for something green. Great in soup, roasted, or as a salad. 
  • And look at those plump grape tomatoes on the vine! Lots of flavor in only 3/4lb.
  • A bag of lentils, good for protein. Toss with tomatoes and onions for a salad, or add to soup.
  • And a bag of chickpeas! Good protein and high fat (for a bean). I made some great meals with chickpeas last year.

But that's seven items. $7. That would leave me with only $0.50 for salt and oil. And that's not enough. Salt is really important to making food palatable. And oil? Aside from the added flavor and the practicality of preventing food from sticking to the pan, this is pretty much the only source of fat! There is no way you can stay full without it.

I snapped this photo on my scouting trip last
week. There were only a few bags left today.
I thought long and hard about what to cut from my basket, and how that would change my meals... "Can I buy the potatoes and just act as if they were $0.10/lb, and I only bought 4lbs? I could free up $0.60 that way. But that would be cheating." Seasonings (like salt and oil) are the only things you are allowed to buy in bulk and count only the portion you use during the 5 days. "Maybe I should nix the tomatoes. They are the least amount of food for the price. But I want the flavor! And besides, I'm not going to get hungry with 10lbs of potatoes at my disposal!" I was so grateful for the tomatoes I had last year... On and on I went, considering each item in the basket again and again. Until finally, I left the store with all seven. I couldn't decide. "I'll choose when I get home" I thought, and went to pay with a little wave of guilt. "I have the privilege of deciding later. I have more than $6 in my pocket..."

In the check out line, the woman in front of me looked back and sized up my basket. "Your head of cabbage is only one pound. Mine is it two pounds!" she chided. She held hers up in one hand and grabbed mine with the other to prove her point. I looked at them side by side. The cabbages had the same label, which did not indicate weight. But hers was obviously bigger than mine. "See!? They charge by the head! If you're going to shop here you need to be smart about it!" she admonished. I thought I had been...


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