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How to Cook a Wolf, 21st Century Version

Two years ago, my husband and I took our young daughter to Paris during an engineering conference. It was our first time there, and in about five days, we spent the equivalent of 10 weeks’ grocery money on food. Just food. We couldn’t cook there, and even modest cafés charged such ridiculously high prices for mediocre food–$14 for a potato omelet or a tuna sandwich? $6 for lemonade or a bottle of water?!–that we had little money to spare for anything else. The next 10 weeks, I told our friends, we were going to be living on beans and rice. I was only joking a little.

Back in 1942, in How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher’s idea of how to cook cheap was to use one’s last few francs to make a pasty, flavorless mixture of ground beef and barley-the cheapest high-nutrient ingredients she could think of at the time-and eat it sparingly throughout the week. It was not her idea of how to eat when you had the choice of anything–anything–better, but it would serve when the wolf was well and truly at your door.

Today, gas prices are double what they were two years ago. The housing market is on the edge of collapse. As a result, the once-insulated and well-educated middle class is closer than ever to the edge of poverty but almost completely unschooled in how to cope. All you have to do is look at the average ratio of credit card debt to savings.

Hence a new trend in food activism-the Food Stamp Challenge. Heartening? Disturbing? You make the call. First taken by a panel of congressmen last spring to “research” the food stamp program monthly allowances for individuals and families, the Food Stamp Challenge tests your ability to stretch $514-the amount currently allotted by the ever-generous federal food aid program–to feed a family of four for a month.

The congressmen couldn’t do it at all. Admittedly, our men and women in Washington tend to live on lunches and dinners out, and their incomes have made them used to a fairly affluent lifestyle compared to the rest of the country. So their shopping skills probably aren’t that sharp.

Still, the current food stamp allowances fall so far short of meeting today’s average supermarket prices that they seem intentionally designed to be inadequate. But a growing number of working families face similar budget limitations without the ability to qualify for federal or state aid.

So the question is, can you feed a family of four on $100 a week healthfully without resorting to MFK Fisher’s flavorless meat gruel? Political and food bloggers have taken up the challenge.

Their overall strategies?

  1. Set a dollar goal for the week–$100–and list everything you’ll buy with it. Don’t forget wraps and toilet paper and so on. Price each thing out before you ever go shopping. If your list goes over the limit, start cutting.
  2. Skip restaurants, coffee shops, and fast food joints. Cook at home and brown bag it at work. Make your coffee at home or cut it out.
  3. Cut down on meat or cut it out altogether.
  4. Cut out sodas, packaged snacks, and frozen single portion meals (like Lean Cuisine and so on).
  5. Buy staple foods–rice, beans, grains–in bulk quantities that you can use realistically, and don’t just assume that bigger is cheaper–price it out.
  6. Buy fresh and frozen (if cheap and salt-free) fruits and vegetables and dairy foods at the best price you can. And do buy them.
  7. Don’t forget to plan for the end of the month–you don’t want to run out of funds and food the last week.

My recommendations:

  • Aim for $1/lb or less for fruits and vegetables. This goes for frozen veggies as well.
  • Skip brand names and go for generics.
  • Eat 3 meals a day and make them count–more nutrition for the calories. Skip snacks–mostly, those are for boredom, not hunger.
  • Drink water, not soda or juice drinks.
  • Avoid single-serving packages of ANYTHING. And steer clear of the vending machines at work.
  • Look at your typical dinner plate. If it’s usually full, cut down on your portions by 1/3.
  • Above all, put your kids’ health first. That means, if you have to cut something, cut treats, snack packs, and other extras, as well as household and cleaning supplies and brand-names. But keep milk, proteins, vegetables and basic starches (bread, pastas) on the list, and make sure they get breakfast.
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