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rice and beans

How to Eat on Five Dollars a Day

During lockdown I set out to lose some 20 pounds I gained. Working all day in front of a computer in my day job, and not being able to get to the gym, it didn't take much for the weight to pile on. It was a blessing in disguise because it gave me a chance to examine not only my eating habits, but more so my whole relationship with food.

rice and beans lentils
Rice and beans dish - source - Unsplash

Like most Americans, I was eating far too much prepared foods, too many take-out and fast foods and was also drinking on too many calories from beverages. My whole lifestyle around eating needed a systemic change. In taking stock of my daily calorie requirements, things I like to eat, foods that agree with me,e etc, I found that my monthly food costs were way down - somewhere around $5 a day!


General Rules

  • Alcohol. Those extra beers after dinner add up, I found if I really wanted to drink I stuck to plain vodka which has little carbs and few overall calories unlike most other liquors.
  • Sugar. Its in everything, even McDonald's french fries! One thing I found, is that if you have a sweet tooth as I do, there will be some cravings as you start to withdraw initially, but they will go away after around 3-4 weeks.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is also in everything being more ubiquitous than sugar as its cheaper for the industry. To consume it makes no sense as its linked to diabetes, high blood pressure and many other health issues. Plus HFCS is a multi-billion dollar industry. Why make them rich while making yourself unhealthy at the same time? This shit should be banned. Enough said.
  • Watch the calories in your beverages. The amount of calories in most commercial juices and sodas are insidious.
  • Do not eat processed food. Anything that comes in a box cannot be good for you.
  • Avoid Processed meats. Nitrates, high levels of sodium, and cost are the main reasons to stay away.
  • Avoid Simple carbs and starches. So-called high glycemic carbohydrates are the main cause of diabetes as they spike your blood sugar fooling your body to release more insulin. Over time this leads to a deadening in the sensitivity of the receptors ("insulin resistance") and obesity.
  • Avoid Hydrogenated fats. Simply put, these are the fats that are solid at room temperature. Replace them with poly and monosaturates like Omega-3 oil, extra virgin olive oil and especially flax seed oil.
  • Learn to cook. or find some cookbooks or online resources to suit your palate. There is really no getting around this one - to Oeat cheaply and healthy, you will have to prepare your own food. I'd be lying to your if I told you different. Prepared food = added cost of the labor. Find some types of cuisine that you love to eat and accumulate some recipes. For bang-for-the-buck you can't beat the low cost of Indian, Creole, Cajun and Middle Eastern food, as most of it contains rice, beans and legumes.
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates. Again, some of them like pasta and white rice are cheap enough, but they are high glyecmic - meaning that they will spike your blood sugar and cause you to crash quickly afterwards.
  • Use the same base ingredients for most meals. The way to go is lentils, beans, legumes, chick peas, whole grains.
  • Have one "cheat day" per week. This is vital, not only for the psychological deviation from the routine, but is good for your progress physiologically as well. Increasing your caloric intake one day per week increases your basal metabolism and actually ensures that it doesn't slow down as your overall daily caloric intake decreases. This is caused by a process known as metabolic down regulation. So, ordering a take-out Chinese food meal or pizza once a week with some beers won't derail your progress, if you also intend to lose weight.
  • Get lots of your food in a bulk store. Dried beans, brown rice, lentils, spices, soup base, etc. You can live out of a bulk store.


The Cheapest Foods to Eat for Under $5 a Day

  • Oatmeal. Buy the large flake, steel cut one and not the instant ones which are usually loaded with sugar. Its a great and easy breakfast too. Take three tablespoons in a bowl with a pinch of salt and around an equal amount of water, cover and put in the microwave for three minutes. It'll be ready to eat when you get out of the shower. Flavor it with some natural honey.
  • Cream of Wheat. Again, like oatmeal, do not buy the instant kind. Its just as good and very good for you.
  • Brown rice. Excellent whole grain, filling, versatile and cheap.
  • Basmati rice. Unlike other white rice, basmati is not high glycemic.
  • Bulghur and buckwheat. The best source for nutritious pancakes.
  • Couscous. Couscous is made by rolling and shaping semolina wheat and then coating it with finely ground wheat flour and breaking it up into small pieces similar to the size of a grain of rice.
  • Quinoa. This whole grain is similar in appearance to couscous and easy to prepare. You have to soak it for around 6-8 hours before cooking and then rinse it to get the saponins off.
  • Lentils. Mahatma Ghandi once called lentils the most perfect food. He wasn't far off the mark either; lentils contain high amounts of iron (more critical to a woman's diet), low glyemic carbs, fibre, and good fats. You can throw some curry sauce over them and serve them over some brown or basmati rice. Add some spinach and a piece of bread and you have a substantial meal for under a buck. To save on the cost, buy the dried ones from a bulk store. Red lentils cover well with water and simmer for 25=35 minutes until tender.
  • Chick peas. One of the cheapest things and versatile too. Use lentils to make your own falafel sandwich wrapped in a pita. Or combine them with some olive and flax seed oil and add some fresh vegetables. Also, chick peas are the main ingredient in hummus.
  • Black beans. Just like any other bean, buy them in bulk and soak them. Cook them out with some chili seasoning, crushed tomatos, bell peppers, onions, celery for cheap burrito filling. They are also excellent in a salad too.
  • Pinto beans. Make your own refried beans and use them for burrito filling.
  • Red beans. One of my favorite meals is the New Orleans staple: Red beans and Rice!
  • Split pea. Not only great for soup but use cooked, thoroughly mashed split peas for roti shells.
  • Pita bread. Cheap and nutritious for sandwiches.
  • Yams. Sweet potatoes are a great, filling side.
  • Cheap bulk whey protein. Unlike soy protein, whey protein is not estrogenic and has a better protein efficiency ratio. You can usually find it pretty cheap in bulk.
  • In-season fruits and vegetables. For fruits: in winter its apples, oranges, and bananas, in summer berries, plums, and peaches. Vegetables: in winter cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. In summer leafy greens like spinach and collard greens. Onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, kale, corn, green beans, sprouts, carrots, are all great raw.
  • Frozen vegetables in bulk. Often the quality of frozen vegetables can be better than you get in fresh, as they are flash-frozen when optimally ripe.
  • Dried fruits. Raisins, dried apricots etc.
  • Tuna. High protein and cheap. Top it off with some olive or flax seed oil instead of mayo!
  • Sardines. High in protein and as cheap as tuna. Crush them up and put on some whole grain or rye bread.
  • Mackerel. Same as tuna or sardines.
  • Chicken legs. Brown meat usually absorbs more flavor than white meat (as in curries and stews, like chicken cacciatore) and is a lot cheaper.
  • Eggs. Contrary to "conventional wisdom" there is no evidence that eggs can increase cholesterol. For men, cholesterol is the main building block of testosterone! The average egg has about 7 grams of protein, divided roughly between the yolk and the white.
  • Nuts. Peanuts in the shell, almonds and walnuts are not only good for you, but cheap!
  • Tea. This is another thing that is a lot healthier and cheaper than coffee and you can get just about any tea from a bulk store.
  • Water. Most abundant, cheapest and most vital to our diet! The best $20 I ever spent was on a Brita water pitcher. With a stainless steel water bottle, goodbye to bottled water.

Sample Day's Menu

  • Breakfast: Black tea, orange, banana, two hard-boiled eggs, and one cup of Cream of Wheat topped with honey. One scoop of whey protein in 8 oz of filtered water.
  • Lunch: Black tea, basmati rice, curried lentils topped with flax seed oil, steamed spinach, one piece pita bread with hummus and raw carrots.
  • Dinner: Chicken cacciatore (made with legs and thighs), sweet potatoes, steamed broccoli and one scoop of whey protein in 8 oz of filtered water.
  • Snacks: Carrot sticks, walnuts and dried apricots.

Good, filling and cheap for around $5 a day! Eating healthier and cheaper and lose weight!