I make a lot of great pizzas which easily each feed two hungry adults.  Use the bread dough recipe I posted earlier, which makes 3 pizza crusts and keeps well in the fridge for two weeks (I am sure it freezes for longer, but I have never done that). A plain cheese pizza costs about $1.75 and has about 1060 calories ($0.88 and 530 calories per person).

Dough - $0.45; 533 cal
4 oz Mozzarella, shredded - @ $4/lb = $1, 320 cal
1 tbsp olive oil - @ $10/101floz = $0.05, 100 cal
1 tbsp ketchup (Heinz) -  @ $3/32oz = ~$0.05, 15 cal
3 tbsp corn meal - @ $3/75tbsp tube = $0.12, 90 cal
1/2 tsp garlic powder - ~$0.03
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes - ~$0.03
pinch of black pepper

I don't have a pizza peel, so I just use one of those flexible smooth plastic cutting boards that come in a pack.  I recommend the ones from Bed Bath and Beyond way over Walmart.  The extra thickness and durability is worth the additional couple of dollars per pack.  I have not tried others.  Dust your surface with flour, plop on your dough, flour the top of the dough and roll it out.  I use a wine bottle because I won't pay for a rolling pin.  My pizzas are constrained to the 11" width of my cutting board, but I don't make perfect circles, so they're often longer ovals.  When it's all rolled out, I put the whole thing with the cutting board into my freezer.  I never time it, but about 8 minutes in the freezer is probably good.  Set your oven to the highest non-broiler temperature setting (e.g.: 550 F) with your pizza pan or stone inside.

When you take your crust out of the freezer, it should be a bit stiff.  This helps you lift it up off of the cutting board without deforming it so you can spread corn meal underneath the crust.  The corn meal acts as ball bearings so the pizza will slide easily off of the cutting board.  Spread olive oil over the surface of the crust.  The oil prevents water from the ketchup and topings from making the crust mushy.  Sprinkle the spices on top of the oil.

The ketchup is next.  I am sure some of you may be appalled that I would use ketchup instead of tomato sauce or paste.  I did buy some tomato sauce once when the smallest cans were on sale.  I found, though, that even the smallest can had enough sauce for 4 pizzas, and the sauce would not keep well enough for the amount of time it would take me to put that many pizzas on our menu.  Ketchup is cheaper, keeps nearly forever, and works well enough at the small quantities used.  Spread the ketchup over the crust, but leave the edge bare for a half-inch to an inch.  I firmly state that Heinz is the best brand of ketchup, and is worth the extra pennies over the competition.  Heinz does not pay me.

Put on your toppings.  Sprinkle the mozzarella on top, and avoid the outer edge.  Any cheese on the outer edge will burn, and a clear edge makes a good place to grip slices for eating.

Now your pizza is getting softer.  Shake your cutting board or peel gently to make sure that the pizza slides smoothly on it.  If it sticks anywhere, try to carefully lift that area and put corn meal under it.  When your oven is preheated, slide your pizza on to the pan or stone.  Your pizza will be done when the cheese on top starts to turn brown in a few spots.  This may take 8-10 minutes, depending on what toppings you used.  Keep an eye on your pizza to make sure you don't burn too much cheese, especially if you are just making a cheese pizza.

I recommend letting the pizza cool for a bit, then transferring it to a plate or cutting board to slice.


Beef Stew

I tried something new, and it didn't come out perfectly because of my weak searing and dredging skills, but it is okay.  Roasts were on sale.  Don't stress about exact amounts.  This will take refining.

Serves four people at about 650 calories and $2.00 each, but takes about 6 hours to make (you don't have to do anything for 5 of those hours).

1.7 lbs chuck roast - @ $2.39/lb = $4
1 cup all-purpose flour - @ $3/5lbs = ~$0.17
1/2 lb carrots - @ $1/lb = $0.50
3 stalks celery - @ $1.50/head = ~$0.50
6 red potatoes - @ $3/5lbs bag = ~$1.80
2 onions, regular - @ $1/lb = ~$0.50
1 tbsp garlic, minced - 1/42 of a jar @ $3/jar = $0.07
2 tbsp vegetable oil - @ $4/96tbsp bottle = $0.08
1 tsp oregano - @ $1/bottle = ~$0.05
2 tbsp red wine vinegar - @ $2/25tbsp bottle = $0.08
1/4 cup red wine - @ $15/5L box (Almadine Cabernet Sauvignon) = $0.19
splash of Worcestershire sauce - ?
2 paper towels - @ ~$1.00/roll = ~$0.03

Prep: Cut the beef into chunks 2-3" on each side.  Take this opportunity to cut off the chunks of fat from the beef, and discard them.  Slice up the carrots, celery, and onions.  Dry the beef chunks on paper towels.

Cooking: Heat the oil in a skillet or pot.  Brown the dried beef chunks for 3 minutes on each side (this may take 2-3 shifts as all the beef won't fit in the skillet at once).  Dredge the beef in flour to coat, then return to the skillet for a couple more minutes to cook the flour on.  Put the beef in your slow cooker or dutch oven.  Put the sliced carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and oregano in the skillet.  Stir fry the veggies together for a few minutes, then dump them on top of the beef.  Mix your wine, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce together in the skillet to deglaze it, then pour the liquid on top of the veggies.  Add the potatoes, cover, and set to cook at low temperature for 5 hours, 325 F if using an oven.

Notes: I would absolutely use more wine.  That was just all I had.  Almadine boxed wine is surprisingly good for the price, and keeps well. Smaller potatoes will cook through and be soft, but larger potatoes will still be firm.  I inadequately seared and dredged my beef, and some of the chunks were dried out after cooking.  Water will cook out of the vegetables and meat.  You may option to pour out all the liquids after cooking, and mix in a little flour or corn starch to form a gravy, but I do not have good instructions for that.

After some research, I believe that my trouble browning the beef was related to my use of a low quality non-stick skillet. I think this has caused several problems with my cooking over the years, and I am just now finding out about the benefits of aluminum-core stainless steel cookware and cast iron. Unfortunately, great cookware from All Clad or even Cuisinart is expensive beyond the theme of this blog. Perhaps the Salvation Army or similar facilities can provide low-cost decent-quality cookware. Lodge sells a very highly reviewed 12" cast iron skillet for $19, as well as other relatively inexpensive cast iron cookware, but these require careful use and maintenance. I will return to this topic in the future.


The Staff of Life

I've been asked for my bread recipe.  My approach is very minimalist, and I am sorry to say that the quality of the bread I make is not very high.  I welcome your favorite bread recipes for the oven.  I do not have a bread machine.

I got my recipe here: Fresh Baked Bread in Five Minutes.  I use a fraction of the recipe because of the size of my bowls.  I usually use:
2 cups whole wheat flour, ~$0.33 @ $3/5lbs
2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, ~$0.33 @ $3/5lbs
2 cups water
1 tbsp yeast, $0.67 @ $8/jar
1/2 tbsp salt

That's it.  I mix the flour and salt together in a big bowl.  I heat the water in a small bowl to 100 degrees F, then add the yeast and wait a few minutes.  Then I stir the yeast and water into the flour with a big wooden spoon until evenly mixed, but I do not knead the dough.  Let it rise a couple hours and do whatever you want with it.  I usually put the bowl (loosely covered) in the oven, set the dial to "warm" for a couple minutes, then turn it off.

This stuff makes great pizzas.  I'll post about pizzas later.  One batch is good for three pizzas at $0.45 each.  It makes two medium loaves of bread at $0.67 each.  I spray a little oil on the dough before baking bread to help the crust, and bake at 375 for 30 minutes.  The bread tends to be dense and dry compared to store bread.  It makes a really good PB&J, but it is not very good by itself.

Could it use oil?  Sugar?  What makes a light, soft, tasty bread at low cost without filling it with junk?


The Most Important Meal of the Day

Among stereotypical breakfast foods is one that provides a great opportunity to eat healthily at a low cost: oatmeal.  This is a whole grain food that should keep you feeling full through the morning, and it is very inexpensive.  I typically buy the big store-brand canister of quick oats, which is $3 or less for 30 half-cup servings.  That's 10 cents per bowl.  It takes less than two minutes to prepare.

Now, you might say, "But I don't like the taste of plain oatmeal, and I'll go insane if I have to eat it every day."  Here are some things I often add to my oatmeal to help it taste better, and you can mix and match for variety:

Cinnamon  - zero calories, costs a penny per breakfast
Apple, half, sliced - 40-70 calories,  ~$0.40 (varies by size & price)
Honey, 1 tbsp - 60 calories, ~$0.20 (highly variable)
Walnuts, chopped, 1/8 cup - 50 calories, ~$0.18 (@$4.50/lb)
Grape Nuts, 1/8 cup - 50 calories, ~$0.16 (@$2/box)
Flax Seeds, 1/8 cup - 90 calories, ~$0.15
Banana - 90-130 calories, ~$0.25 (@$0.69/lb)
Sugar Substitute - 0 calories, a few cents per packet or free

So, you can have a variety of pretty healthy and tasty breakfasts for $0.50 or less.  I even splurge sometimes and have a $0.75 bowl of oatmeal with banana, honey, and walnuts.

Even throw in an 8oz glass of delicious Tropicana orange juice (they do not pay me) fortified with calcium and vitamin D for $0.40 or less.  I refuse to pay more than $0.05/oz for juice, and it goes on sale often for less than that.  There's a nutritious breakfast for less than $1 per day per person with only a couple minutes of preparation that even a child can handle.

This is a great option for those of you with kids.  This kind of breakfast will help your children concentrate at school and be healthy.  It doesn't make sense to pay more money for junk cereals that are half sugar, or Pop Tarts, or whatever else, which lead to poor concentration, obesity, and potentially type II Diabetes.


Price Guidelines

I long ago established some hard rules for myself as far as how much I am willing to spend for certain foods.  Despite inflation, I have not changed these limits since setting them about ten years ago.  Though these are strict rules for me, you may find them to be useful guidelines when you are at the grocery store.  If something costs more than my limit, I just don't buy it.  There are many foods that I can only buy when they are on sale, and I have found that foods go on sale often enough that I do not go deprived of the foods I like.  I often find food for less than my limits.  I shop at a regular Albertson's chain store for most products.

Steak (rare occasions)- $5.00/lb (I am still sometimes able to get tenderloin and T-bones)
Chicken breasts, boneless, skinless - $2.00/lb
Cereal - $2.00/lb
Cheese - $4.00/lb
Mushrooms - $3.00/lb
Carrots - $1.00/lb
Onions - $1.00/lb
Tomatoes, canned - $1.00/32oz
Pineapple, canned (Dole) - $1.00/20oz
Yogurt (Danon Light & Fit or Yoplait  only) - $0.085/oz
Granola Bars (Kashi or Nature Valley) - $0.50 ea.
Orange Juice (Tropicana only) - $0.05/oz
Spices - $1.00/1.3oz (buy these at a drug store or hardware store; not McCormick)

I do go to Trader Joe's for a few things, and I am lucky that one is very close to me.  They have very inexpensive all natural peanut butter, honey, tea, tree nuts, fine cheeses, and chocolate. 

Besides those limits, I tend to buy things only when they are on sale, but without strict limits in mind.  Canned vegetables, tuna, potatoes, bagged salad/spinach, fish, bacon (typically buy 1 get 2 free deals).  Once or twice per year I've been able to buy 101 fl oz jugs of extra virgin olive oil for $10-12, which is a steal.  Every once in a while canned veggies are 42-50 cents per can, and I stock up.  A small local market sometimes has grapefruit 6/$2, so that's when I get to eat grapefruit.  I make my own bread, which is fun and cheap; yeast comes in an $8 jar that can make approximately 32 loaves or 48 pizzas.  I love the summer for berries, and the fall for apples and squash.  Local, seasonal foods are better quality and the prices are reasonable even to me.

Some prices are rising and causing me to reconsider my shopping behaviors with regard to them.  Brown rice, which I can only find in 2lb bags, is getting more expensive.  It's up to $2.50 per bag now, and I've been using barley as a replacement in some meals.  Canned tuna is rising, so I bought piles of it the last time it was $0.50/can, and I don't think I'll ever see that price again.  I will gradually adapt to changes in the market, but always strive to optimize my grocery habits.


Pineapple Pork Stir Fry

4 Pork chops, center cut, boneless, thick; about 6oz each @ $3/lb = $4.50
1 can of pineapple chunks (Dole is best); 20oz @ $1
1 cup of rice, brown, dry; 1/5 of a 2lb bag @ $2.20/bag = $0.44
2 tbsp vegetable oil; should be @ <$0.05/tbsp = $0.10
1 lb bell peppers, sliced, frozen @ $1.69/lb
1/2 tsp thyme (avoid McCormick); should be @ <$0.10/tsp = $0.05
1/2 tsp ginger, fresh, shaved (store root in freezer); should be ~$0.05
1 tsp soy sauce; $?, I'm guessing ~$0.05
1 tbsp garlic, minced; 1/42 of a jar @ $3/jar = $0.07
2 paper towels @ ~$1.00/roll = ~$0.03

This recipe serves four at about $2 and 600 calories per person. Cooking time is about an hour.  The spice amounts are estimated, and salt and pepper can be added to the thyme at a negligible cost.

Prep: In the morning, sprinkle the thyme on the pork chops, and marinate them in a sealed nonreactive dish or plastic bag with the juice from the canned pineapple.  Let marinate in a refrigerator throughout the day.  Store the pineapple chunks in a nonreactive container in the fridge, also.

Cooking: Boil 2 cups of water in a small pot, add the rice, and reduce heat to a simmer.  The rice will take 45 minutes to cook.  Put the oil in a skillet or large pot that has a cover.  Put that pot on the stove top at a little less than medium heat.  Remove the pork from the marinade, and pat them dry with paper towels.  Discard the marinade.  Set your oven to preheat to 325.  When the oil in the skillet starts to smoke a little, put the pork in to brown 2-3 minutes on each side (may have to do two at a time), and be careful of oil splatter (use the cover).  Put the browned pork in a covered cassarole (or keep in the pot, if you used a pot), and put in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (advised internal temperature is 160 F).  While the pork is baking, put the peppers, pineapple, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic in a skillet (the original skillet if you used one) at low heat (one quarter turn of the knob).  The peppers and pineapple can be set to simmer when they're hot, since they will probably get hot before the pork is done.  When the pork is done, there will be juices in the bottom of the pot.  Put the pork aside, then skim the fat off the top of the juices (or soak it off with a paper towel).

Serving: Each plate will have a pork chop, and some peppers and pineapple on a bed of rice.  Drizzle the degreased pork juice over the chop and rice for moisture and flavor.  I made this last night, and it was delicious.  I am looking forward to the leftovers tonight.


I love food.  I also love optimization.  I have been applying my love of optimization on my grocery trips over the years, and have enjoyed discovering how inexpensively I can feed myself satisfying and nutritious meals.  Buying groceries is a game.  When you buy groceries, you can set goals and parameters for yourself, then figure out the best way to reach those goals within the parameters.  You get some instant feedback on your progress (monetary), and can use your ongoing feedback (gastronomical) to refine your strategies over time.

I lived for many years on a self-imposed food budget of $3 per day.  My income was below the poverty line, I received no entitlements, and I gradually saved enough money for a month long trip to Europe.  As my financial situation changed, I eventually gave myself a budget of $7 per day.  I got to eat out, and even drink beer, on this luxurious amount of money.  Now, I shop and cook for two.  I have found that economies of scale have enabled me to provide us with many delicious and healthy meals for substantially less than $7 per day per person.

One day I decided to challenge myself to a harder game.  I wanted to see if I could feed the two of us for $1 per day per person for a month.  I figured that peanut butter, home made bread, oatmeal, and beans would carry us through.  I started calculating calories and costs, and I just couldn't see how to reach my goal.  Then a friend sent me a link to http://onedollardietproject.wordpress.com/ .  A couple of people had already tried this game (with access to bulk foods at lower prices than I've ever seen), and they suffered from hunger and other problems as a result of inadequate nourishment.  So, I abandoned that game.

I poked around the internet for other grocery game experiments, and found a wave of $3/day challenges in 2007 in reaction to proposed reauthorization of a farm bill in Congress.  I was amused at people's struggles to live for a week the way that I lived for years.  The $3 challenge became a popular way to raise awareness and empathy for people receiving food stamps.  As I continued to read sites, I found some interesting misunderstandings of food stamps, and I plan to address those more specifically in later posts.

This blog will include recipes and helpful advice for eating nutritiously and inexpensively.  It will also contain discussion of the politics, economics, ethics, implementation and effectiveness of food stamps and related social entitlements.  The focus is optimization.  The mood is as though we are playing a game.