Eating Healthy Is Tough When You’re Poor

Maybe you’ve been there, I certainly have. For a couple years in my early 20’s I had my credit cards maxed out, a couple bucks in the bank, and a shitty job that was paying me $1000/month base + extra as we did gigs. We were doing well for a while, until the owner decided his affair was more important than the business, and suddenly the “extras” dried up. The $1000/mo was something I’d have to beg him for in the last hours of the 30th of the month so I could pay the minimums on my credit cards. Debt piled up within a few months and suddenly I was poor. I managed to find myself a new job paying $30k/year, but it was a 2.5 hour commute each way by public transit – the only thing I could afford as my car was broken and I literally had nothing left. I was living on little more than ramen and what my mom would leave for me as leftovers.

I hated her at the time for not lending me money just to buy a bus pass promising I’d pay her as soon as I got my first cheque. Instead she made me sell one of the only things I owed that had any value to scrape together literally the last few bucks to get myself to work. That was a really shitty 2 weeks until I had just enough to buy myself some lunch. The thing was – I had it easy compared to most. Oh, the lesson that she taught me. Hated her then, SO grateful for her lessons now.

I had a place to sleep and didn’t need to worry about rent. I’d occasionally get rides to the train and got to save the $1 bus fare (this was huge). I still got the occasional bits of food left in the fridge which I savored. I felt like I was homeless, yet I was only experiencing just a fraction of what a lot of people in this world live with daily, and for years on end – if not their entire lives. The point is, I ate like shit because I was too ignorant to learn how to put the little money I had to good use.

This article is spurred on my something I saw posted to social media, and specifically the comments that got posted to it. Many were in support, however a few people decided this was a “misguiding post that diminishes personal responsibility for ones own health” as well as “misinformed and toxic”. There’s always a few, I suppose.

What I want to highlight is that there is absolutely ways you can stretch your dollar to still eat better than terrible takeout, or the tried-and-tested ramen packets for a buck-a-piece.

I want to make it perfectly clear that this post is by no means something that is meant to shame those who aren’t able to pull off a better diet. There’s ample reasons that one may need to turn to ramen and I’ll try and explain why for those who don’t understand – much like I didn’t until someone took the time to explain it to my ignorant self.

Food Deserts Exist.

I didn’t believe it, but it’s true. You just won’t find one in suburbia. When there’s a grocery store in every neighbourhood, specialty stores, delis, cheese shops, butchers, and so much else. Even the convenience store will have some essentials there. But, have you ever been to downtown Detroit? There’s not a piece of fresh produce to be found for miles. People need to trek north of 8 mile before they’ll find anything resembling a retail chain grocer, and you won’t find anything remotely resembling a cheese shop or butcher. That’s a food desert.

When you’re poor, you can’t afford that $6.00 round trip fare (and hours of your time) spent on a bus just to get real groceries. You’re working 14 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week just to make rent. You don’t have a spouse or partner to rely on, and maybe you’ve got kids. You haven’t had a car for years (if ever), and even if you could get there, you don’t even have a kitchen to cook in – just a hot plate, a sink, and a fridge that barely runs. All that’s in there is a few packets of soy sauce, a nearly empty jar of relish, and a pitcher of super watered down koolaid.

You don’t have time to spend 2 hours in the kitchen meal-prepping for an entire week, and even if you did, you don’t have containers to store that food in. You have little in the way of cutlery, you don’t own a spatula, and the only pot you have is the one with no handle that you use to cook your instant noodles. This is why you rely on the cheapest fast-food you can find, the value menu, and the majority of your groceries are purchased from the dollar store. This is the reality for more families than people care to realize.

Where To Start?

If you’re part of that above demographic, I realize this post is not about, nor for you. This is aimed at the people who have a couple hours a week, and enough of a leg up that they can at least put together a half decent meal – yet can’t afford organic heads of kale each week. People who have some of the basics in the kitchen, yet haven’t the slightest clue how to use them. That’s what I’m trying to focus on here.

Before we get to the food itself, you’ll need some things to get going. Here’s a basic list to get you off the ground:

  • Cooking Tools : spatula, tongs, ladle, whisk, grater, masher. Almost all of these can be purchased at the dollar store for a $1-3ea. Betty Crocker is usually the brand name. They’re not the highest quality, but they damn well do the job. You’ll also want to get a set of mixing bowls. Try and find a set of ones with various sizes and also lids so you can keep them in the fridge.
  • Pots & Pans : You’ll want a frying pan (ideally 2), a few pots (ideally with lids), a baking/cookie sheet, and at least 1 large roasting pan with higher walls. Go to a thrift store for these. You’ll find them for a couple bucks a piece without issue. The ultimate score is a nice big (and deep) soup pot. Like, a BIG one, with a lid. These are invaluable.
  • Cast Iron Pan & Dutch Oven: I know these are expensive, but search the thrift stores. They pop up from time to time and are usually like $5 or $10 each. They will last literally a lifetime, and are by far the best cooking items you can buy. A dutch oven will be invaluable for cheap and hearty meals.
  • Knives & So-Forth : Buying super cheap knives is an easy mistake to make. Try and spend a bit more on at least ONE decent chefs knife. You can get a Victorinox one for about $60 on Amazon which is what I’ve used for years (it’s still amazing), although Winco makes some around $25 and under. You’ll want to round out your knives with a smaller 5-6″ knife, a pairing knife (super small one), and a bread knife. These should all be able to be obtained on the cheap. Get at least 2-3 cheap cutting boards from the dollar store ($2ea), and if it’s possible a half decent pair of kitchen scissors. Cutting chicken, and opening packages with ease goes a looooong way.
  • If You Can Afford It: Instant read meat thermometer ($20), food processor/blender ($50), and a rice cooker ($20) all go to make things a LOT easier in the end. A vacuum sealer: they run around $100, but they can preserve your food and extend their lives 10 fold. They are worth every penny in my mind. The “big” investment is a deep freezer. Look on classified adds and see if you can snag one on the cheap. It’ll by far be the biggest investment so far, but it’ll pay off really quickly (especially if you rent and don’t pay electricity).

Stocking the basics is also going to help you along the way. Here’s some things that I use on the regular and am constantly buying in bulk when possible:

  • Flour. The bigger the bag, the cheaper.
  • Salt. Get the standard ionized table salt, but also get kosher salt (it’s bigger flakes, and more coarse).
  • Pepper. With a pepper grinder if at all possible.
  • White & brown sugar.
  • Olive Oil. Buy the cheapest bottle you can. It should be about $8-$10. Vegetable oil can be used in a pinch, is a lot cheaper, and comes in 4L jugs.
  • Vinegar. 4L should cost you about $3.00. You’ll want to get some red wine vinegar as well (smaller bottles, still fairly cheap). Balsamic vinegar is a bit of a treat, but can add SO much to a dish if you can afford it.
  • Hot Sauce : You should be able to find cheap hot sauce bottles in various stores. Usually a buck or two a piece. Pickup a variety of types if possible and find the ones you love.
  • Lemon juice : So helpful, and a big bottle should cost a few bucks, yet lasts forever.
  • Soy Sauce : It’s so cheap, but so helpful. You want the “light” not “dark” soy sauce more often than not. If it’s the store brand stuff it’s going to be “light” by default.
  • Dried herbs & spices : Oregano, basil, rosemary. Cumin, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, curry powder. A lot of these can easily be found at the dollar store.

If you have access to a “chinatown” in your area, investigate. Chinese grocery stores are notoriously famous for having ample herbs, spices, and essentials at costs that can be less than half of what you’d pay at even your discount grocery chain. In Toronto, there’s a handful of these places at Spadina & Dundas, or the Lucky Moose on Dundas (where I go often). Try and also find a kitchen supply store. In Toronto, we have Tap Phong and I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, you should go there to at least browse. Searching out such places will save you a TON on your equipment, and also your essentials. Even when it comes to buying your actual groceries weekly, a Chinese market will generally mean considerable savings.

What To Stock Your Fridge & Pantry With.

We’re looking for longevity here, things that are cheap, versatile, and will go a long way. These are going to be your staples.

  • Rice : Basmati is really all you need and a 15lb bag will run you about $10-$12, maybe less.
  • Potatoes : 10lb bags shouldn’t be more than $4.00.
  • Carrots : Buy in bulk is possible. Carrots take forever to go bad if kept in the fridge.
  • Celery : Sometimes it can be $3/head, but if you find it for under $1.50 you’re in luck. It helps a lot of dishes along. Considering the rising prices on this, it could be considered a luxury item.
  • Onions : Red & yellow are your friends. 2L bags should cost $2.00, and 10lb bags about $6.00. They can go a VERY long way.
  • Squashes : Buy them when they’re in season and you’ll get a lot for a little. There’s endless things to do with squash. Store in a cool, dark, dry place. Same with your potatoes, and onions.
  • Green Peppers : the cheapest of the peppers by far. They’ll add a lot to dishes.
  • Garlic & Ginger : both last for a while in the fridge, and will elevate SO much of your cooking.
  • Bok Choy / PakChoy : These leafy vegetables are packed with nutrients and taste wonderful when cooked properly. They’re also pretty damn cheap!
  • Canned Goods : Tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, cream of mushroom soup.
  • Beans : If you buy them dry, they’re cheap as all hell, but canned beans can also be bought on the cheap (there’s many different types, get what you like, but they all have great uses!)
  • Eggs : $3.50 a dozen, but they can be pretty essential to make more interesting meals (and especially baking)

The Meats.

You’re not going to be eating racks of lamb, and most certainly fillet mignon is off the table. But the thing is you can get unbelievable flavour, arguably far better flavour, out of cheap and “scrap” cuts of meat that everyone overlooks. Here’s how you do it.

  • Never buy chicken breasts. They’re what soccer moms in the suburbs eat because “it’s healthier”. They’re also idiots. Buy thighs, drums, and full legs (thigh & drum). Generally they’re about a buck a full leg. Bone in, skin on, whenever possible. I swear on baby cheeses that if anyone buys individually wrapped chicken breasts, I’ll hunt you down and stuff chili powder in your nostrils.
  • If possible, buy a full chicken if it’s on sale. There’s tons you can do with a full bird and the carcass is super valuable.
  • Pork loin can be found on the cheap typically. Pork tenderloin is far better, but pricier. Pork roasts are usually super cheap and can go miles in dishes.
  • Bacon is completely a luxury. Ignore it. Buy pork belly from the butcher / chinatown. It’s way cheaper, and is far less douchy.
  • Legs of lamb go on sale from time to time for around $15-$20 / leg. Buy some when it does. It’s a bit more expensive than the other meats, but when it’s on sale it’s worth it. Bone in if possible.
  • Beef Roasts are invaluable. You’re not buying prime rib, but go with a chuck roast, sirloin roast, inside round roasts. There’s many different types, and they are an excellent source of good calories and good food at a cheap cost.
  • Ground beef is super cheap, and it can be made into wonderful things. It ain’t just for tacos, although you should totally make tacos, too.
  • Fish isn’t a tough one either. Salmon fillets are some of the more expensive stuff you’ll find at your local grocer. If you’re going to buy salmon, buy it fresh NEVER frozen. Frozen stuff is trash and a waste of money. Captain Highliner is an asshole, don’t you dare. If you’re going with frozen fish, go to the chinese markets and look for basa fillets. They’re large, super cheap, and work as an excellent whitefish in your dish. You can also find catfish fillets on the cheap, and they are packed with flavour. Talapia in my opinion is terrible and usually way too tough. Stick to catfish (fresh) & basa (frozen) for your cheapest and best experience. Halibut is out of your price range, bro. We’re eating cheap.

Let Yourself Have A Few Luxuries If Possible!

I know we’re trying to save money here, but if you can manage to put a few more luxury items in your cart, this will considerably enhance your meals at minimal costs.

  • Sour Cream: It can go a long way for sauces. Remember, full fat.
  • Cheese. Not the fancy shit, get the cracker barrel block of cheddar when it’s on sale for $5.
  • Heavy cream : 18% or 35% will turn some regular dishes into heaven.
  • Butter. It lasts forever in the fridge and is critical for great cooking. Salted is what you want 90% of the time, but unsalted is OK too if it’s all you can find. Free range, organic, artesian butter has no place here. Find the cheapest deal possible and stock up with a few blocks when it’s on sale.
  • Balsamic Glaze : This stuff will turn a meal into a superstar. It’s not that expensive, you use VERY little at a time, and it lasts FOREVER. Nonna Pia‘s is the brand I get, but it may be different for you.
  • Red Wine : It will flavour SO much of your dishes. Get one of the cheapest bottles you can, and it’ll also allow you a glass with your meal! Red wine will keep in the fridge for up to 3-5 days, but a week would be stretching it. Keep it air tight with a cork/stopper.

Money Saving Tips:

Here’s a few additional things that will help you in the long run, especially when it comes to storing your food, and leftovers.

  • Ziplocks are a luxury. Wash and re-use the plastic bags you put your produce in. Heck, grab a handful of fresh ones each time you go to the store and just stuff them in your cart. Save the twist ties & elastics as well.
  • Every plastic container that has a lid should be kept. Yogurt, sour cream, the little round one your hummus came in. Every takeout container ever just became a meal-prep container. Wash them and re-use them for months or years on end.
  • When buying creams / butters / milk products, NEVER buy the “half the fat” junk. 0% fat sour cream? That’s trash. It costs the same as the regular one, and the regular one will not only taste a lot better, but also contain more calories (and when eating on a budget, wholesome calories are important!)
  • Buy as much food as you can when it’s in season. Obviously summer is prime here, but you’re going to pay through the nose for strawberries in February. When produce is cheap, buy what you can. Buy those Strawberries in bulk when they’re in season in July and freeze as much as you can.
  • Freeze things! Find a great deal on green beans? Buy TONS. Wash, dry, and then freeze portions. Same thing goes with any fruit or vegetable really. This will help you eat “fresh” in the winter months for cheap. Lettuce & cheese do NOT freeze. Don’t try.
  • Veggie scraps. The cut off ends, the peelings, the stems, whatever. Always save this stuff in a bag in the freezer for later. The skin from the onion, the bits you cut off the squash, everything! Potato peelings / scraps should be set aside in their own bag (this is important).
  • Meat Scraps. Try and keep a separate bag for each type of meat. Chicken, beef, pork, lamb, fish. Save scraps of meat, the fat, the bones (especially!), skin, whatever.
  • Bread : Oh, it’s so hard, yet so easy. If you can master the art of making a good sourdough loaf, you’ll never be wanting for anything else ever again. Bread is incredibly cheap – just flour, water, and time. Technique goes a long way – but… seriously, bread goes with damn near everything and makes something great into something unbelievable.

Speaking Of Scraps

Like I said, you should be saving nearly everything. Meats go in their own bags, veggies in another, potato skins in another. We’re making stock, baby – except for the potato peels. They actually turn stock into shit for some reason. Take your potato peels, coarse chop them, fry them up in a skillet with some oil until golden brown, crack an egg or two on top and you’ve got a greasy, wonderful breakfast that’ll cure any hangover.

However for the rest, we’re making stock This is a pretty simple process, but a long one. For each stock the (general) process is essentially the same. Toss all your scraps onto a baking sheet, put them in the oven at 450 degrees (you can also use the broiler on high) and brown them. You’re looking for a bit of a char, so if you have some black burnt spots, that’s totally OK – in fact, it’s what we want! This differs a bit with the veg, as they’ll burn a lot quicker. For those, you want to only char the carrots and large pieces of onion. All other scraps should basically be tossed into the pot without being roasted.

When it comes to the meats, try and separate the bones entirely. You’ll want to roast the hell of out these things until the little bits of flesh left on the bones is essentially burnt. Immediately put these bones in your stock pot. The meat portions / fats / etc can also be roasted a bit, but not to the burnt stage. Just enough to get some browning on it. Again, into the stock pot.

Fill your pot with water, bring to a boil, then let simmer for no less than 2 hours. Some of my stocks have simmered for 4, 6, even 12 hours. All you’re doing is extracting every last drop of flavour those items in there have to give you and infusing it into tap water for the most amazing and luxurious stock. What you buy in the store is shit, make your own. It’s WAY, WAY, WAY better.

With all stock, you want to remove the fat from it. Here’s 3 easy ways to do it, although you can also do this as it’s simmering via the skimming method too. It’s just more tedious. You can store stock in those plastic yogurt containers & so-forth that I told you to save. It’ll keep in the fridge for a week or two, and the freezer for years (although, use it within 6 months, ideally). As time goes on, keep making more from your new scraps, and rotate through your inventory, naturally labeling your containers with what it is, and the date you made it with permanent marker.

Wait.. don’t you dare throw that fat you skimmed off out. Put it in a jar / container, and mark accordingly “beef fat, chicken fat, etc..”. It’ll congeal, and you should store it in the fridge. It won’t last forever as it’s not pure, but it should keep for at least a few weeks if not months. This just because a super tasty starter to fry or brown things with.

The Holy Trinities

At least, that’s what they should be called. Chop up a green pepper, tomato, and red onion. Toss with a tad of olive oil, some salt, and pepper. You’ve just made a great base for a greek salad (just add feta & iceberg lettuce), an omlette if you fry it up for a few minutes then crack a few eggs ontop, or even the base for a stirfy.

Of course, there’s also the classic mirepoix which is a fancy french way of saying “carrot, onion, celery”. You want to toss these into a scorching hot pot/dutch oven with some oil and sautee for a few minutes until you’ve got some caramelization going on them. You’ve now got the most unreal base for nearly every dish ever. Naturally, you’re going to have some garlic in there as well with a good shot of salt & pepper. Remember, browning these a bit is exactly what you want – that’s where flavour lives.

Stupid Tricks That Elevate Like Michael Jordan

This is just a few off the top of my head. Things that you go “why doesn’t mine taste like that”, yet it’s so easy and effective.

  • Season your food. Salt & pepper. Always. What? You’re not doing this pre-cooking? If you were any more white you’d be invisible. Biggest #1 mistake everyone ever in the history of forever has made.
  • Fats carry flavour. That’s why we cook with butter, oil, and creams. Yes, it’s less “healthy” but you are also adding GOOD fats to your diet. Also, we’re using them in moderation. Further, if a food is richer in taste, you’ll eat less, yet it’ll taste far better, and you’ll be more satisfied.
  • Brown your damn meats. Any time you’re making any sort of meat, you brown that thing. Super high heated skillet with a nice dollop of fat (oil, butter, your reserved fats from previous dishes). You want every surface browned nicely. Little tiny burnt pieces are TOTALLY OK here. You’re searing the surface. This differs for how you’re using the meat in the end. Big roasts go just as mentioned. If you’re making smaller cuts (especially chicken) you can also coat the raw breast in flour, then sear to give it a bit of a crust.
  • Fish should be either stewed (ie: Fish curry) or seared on high with a little bit of fat (olive oil) to create a bit of a crust (if skin on, skin side down first ALWAYS), flip once (unless skin on, then use discretion) and finish cooking. Serve IMMEDIATELY. Sure, there’s exceptions here, but with the cuts we’re talking about, this is your wheelhouse in the ocean of seafood.
  • DO NOT STEAM YOUR VEGETABLES. I sob for the people who’s parents steamed brussel sprouts, broccoli, carrots and god-only-knows-what-else and made them eat that sorry excuse for properly cooked food. No wonder kids hated vegetables, if they were cooked like that, they had every right. If you’re not eating them raw, you damn well roast your vegetables. Steaming veggies makes them bland, bitter, and mushy pieces of trash even the dog will turn it’s nose at. Roasting gives them texture, sweetness, and brings out their proper flavours. Salt & pepper them pre, and post cooking.
  • Not Boring Rice : It’s cheap as hell and plentiful. Toss 1.5 cups of water to 1 cup of rice in a rice cooker and hit go and it’s perfect. Want to make this suck less? Add some rice seasoning (available in almost every chinese grocer). Better yet, cook it with 50/50 water & your favorite stock you just made. Squirt a shot of olive oil in when done and mix thoroughly.
  • Homemade pasta is 500x better : And, it’s cheap. Literally egg, flour, and some elbow grease. If you haven’t eaten fresh made pasta, it’s like basing your opinion of cheese on Kraft Singles. There’s a million videos on how to do this.

We’ve Cooked Like This For Centuries

This crazy food art, super elegant dishes, and celebrity chefs have only really come in the past 20 years. Humans have been around for thousands of years. How do you think we ate, survived, and made things better over the years? That’s what I like to think about when I cook.

My favorite memories of eating as a kid were the most rustic dishes, almost all exclusively cooked by my Grandmother; a woman born in the early 1920’s in England, who immigrated to Canada in her teens, and proceeded to crank out 6 kids in the 40’s and 50’s. What a hussy. I can vividly remember always loving her dinners of a roast, yorkshire pudding, gravy from scratch, and there always being from scratch lemon meringue pie. I wasn’t as much of fan of this pie at the time, but I’d kill to have one more taste today. That’s me, coming from an English background. My dad’s side were eastern European and the only thing I ever ate from that side of the family was marzipan from my grandmother.

But what about other cultures? I can’t comment all that well on the food traditions of other cultures in any real detail as I’m still leaning and reading about them, but I can say that all the people who descend from England, Ireland, and parts of eastern Europe – well… sorry – your food kinda sucked. That’s not to say that there aren’t amazing things that have come, but quite literally the rest of the world has us beat. The Indians, South Americans (Mexico included), and Asians all have insanely diverse styles. Then there’s all the intricacies of Spanish, Portugese, French, German, Greek, and Italian food.

If we just go back just 100 years, think about what those people ate and how they prepared their meals. They didn’t have refrigeration, most food was eaten raw, or cooked over an open flame. Rudimentary methods were used, but it’s the meals that they made that have become the staples of what the greatest food in the world is today.

You can look at dishes with foams & microgreens all you want, but if I was to put a plate of the heartiest, slow cooked, simmered, and rich stew in front of you, which would you pick? If I’m hungry, I’m choosing the stew every-single-time.

The Greatest Came From The Poor, Remember That

When you think about American food, what comes to mind? Burgers, fries, hot dogs, massive steaks the size of your head? Probably. You know what should come to mind? Instead it should be gumbos, cornbread, ribs, pulled pork, and sweet-potato pie. That’s all food that came from what America really is: slavery. When given the absolute least, they made the absolute best because they didn’t have the privilege to eat whatever they wanted. There’s a very large part of me that sincerely wishes that while Reginald Whitmore ate steamed cabbage & well done sirloin steak thinking this was the pinnacle of sustenance, the slaves he kept were perfecting their perfect crust on a cornbread, and enjoying pork cracklings. Is it any sort of irony that today you could ask any white man in Texas where to get the best cornbread or pork cracklings and they’d give you a VERY detailed list of their top 10, meanwhile the slaves of today (read: all those minorities put in prison for bullshit crimes) are eating overcooked meat and steamed shitty vegetables. Just another thing appropriated by the rich from the poor I suppose.

This story isn’t unique, and there dozens of examples I could name. The people with the least, barely able to survive, they’re the ones who are behind the origins of everything we consider the best foods today. The thing is, when you’re rich – you’re given every option. Caviar – sure, it’s creamy and wonderful, but it’s not worth the money by a long shot when that same money could buy an entire dutch oven of the most miraculous lamb shank in herbs with vegetables and a hearty loaf of bread.

Many people call this soul food. I see these staples and origins as something of an amazing start, a place where you can take a method and some ingredients and turn them into something that is wonderful and packed with nutrient and flavour. With the cooking methods, and knowledge that we’ve gained since the times when these dishes were conceived, we can do so much more.

Food is not about the cost, it’s about what you make of it. Frankly, I’d much rather share a meal that’s been meticulously refined over generations rather than pretentiously critique the latest food fad that some asshole contrived by taking a grilled cheese, deep frying it, and added bacon strips ontop only to charge $19, sans frites.

Cheap food can be good, and it can be some of the best. It just takes a little time and effort. I know this isn’t in the reaches of some people, but for those who are pulling up their UberEats app a few times a week, or stopping in at Subway for processed meat & chemically infused cheese on a bun that’s closer to a piece of cake than bread, this is something you really should be reading.

I’m going to post a series of excellent dishes you can make, with recipes, for ultra cheap in the coming weeks. After all, that’s really most of what I make. And I’d really encourage you to make it too.

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