How to Eat When You’re Poor

I’ve been poor for a long time. We’re doing fairly well for ourselves right now, despite having a mountain of debt, but about seven years ago I literally had about $200 in savings and a car and some personal belongings. After my first season on the farm where I interned, I couldn’t find a better job, so I was a substitute teacher in Massachusetts. This lasted about 6 months, while I was fighting my ex with custody and financial issues at the same time. Nik had a job making $9/hour at a warehouse, and I would drive him to work in the morning, then drop the kids off at school (if I had them that day,) then book it to whichever school in town had hired me for that day. Our combined income for the month was about $2500 IF we were lucky and I had been subbing the full week. Our shitty little apartment had a barely-working heating system, so we were paying over $300/month for heat that barely kept the apartment hovering around 60 degrees at best (this was winter time in the Berkshires)

I only tell you all this to assure you: I know how to live on very little. It isn’t glamorous, but we did it.

The FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT thing you HAVE to do if you are in poverty is learn how to cook for yourself! Even if you manage to get on Food Stamps (we never did, because the system was overburdened and they kept screwing us over on appointments) you will be frequently handed things you may not know how to cook or reheat. There is always an inexpensive grocery mart somewhere not too far away, so if you keep some pantry staples on hand you can make it through.

Always have: Potatoes (whether a bag of white, sweet potatoes if you can get them, or whatever you find on sale.) Onions and garlic (Almost everything I cook has these.) Butter and/or a package of bacon (save the bacon fat to cook in)! Just use an old glass jar.) Rice is up to you–I found a huge 8 lb bag of black rice (which has a nutty flavor and more nutrition) at the Asian market for $7, so worth it! Apple cider vinegar is great to have on hand to help flavor things. Eggs– cheap protein! Apples and peanut butter—best snack ever! Just opt for the peanut butter that’s made with only peanuts and salt. Cheese! Any cheap bag of shredded cheese or super cheap brick of cheese will do. Salt, pepper, and any herbs you can afford. HERBS can add all kinds of benefits to your food, and can contribute to keeping your body healthy when you’re on a limited diet.

You can live on soup, or make broth with just about anything. Of course, any time you have the money, buy alternate vegetables or fruits. Celery is good to have on hand, as well as carrots or beets, and definitely buy collard greens if you can afford to.

For broth, buy a pack or even JUST ONE of these:

chicken leg

That one chicken leg can be thrown into a big pot of water with whatever vegetable scraps you have on hand, salt, pepper, herbs, chunks of celery or onion, and BOOM you have broth, and after you pull the meat off you have a soup!

“Baked potato night” is easy– bake each person a potato, sauté some frozen broccoli in bacon fat, add cheese and sour cream if you can atop the broccoli on top of the potato. YUM! And filling.

Nik actually lived several months (before he met me) buying a bag of frozen chicken, a bag of potatoes, a bag of whatever frozen veggie he could afford, and a pound of butter every week. He ate these things in variations for nearly 6 months, with barely anything different. It’s survival food, but it works.

Anything can be made into a stir fry as long as you have rice. Cook rice, then add some fat to a pan, vegetables you have on hand (always onions and garlic), and whatever leftover chunks of meat you have. Don’t be afraid to go to the meat counter at the grocery store and ask for JUST ONE drumstick, pork chop, etc. They don’t care as much as you think they do.

You can cook ANYTHING in a single cast iron pan. Trust me.

Cook bacon every day and your pan will season itself!

Even now, with our tiny farm and house and an income more than $1000 higher than we had back then, we still do not let anything go to waste. We had lamb short ribs the other night– I bought a pack of them at Walmart for $10 and roasted them. Delicious! We saved all the bones after eating the meat on them as well as the drippings from the pan. Add this to a little water in a pot and simmer several hours. BAM, lamb broth! It’s so concentrated and fatty we froze some in ice cubes to use in soups or whatever we need later.

What little leftovers we don’t eat go to the chickens and ducks, who repay us by laying beautiful eggs!

Sorry if this post was a bit rambling… it’s January, we haven’t had sales of anything in over a month, and are barely hanging on to the bills with what we make from our day jobs. Winter sucks for everyone. Anyway, if this rant can help just one person in need to hope or advice, it’s done its job.

Thanks for reading!