The $5 Meal Challenge

Goodlifer: The $5 Meal Challenge

This past weekend, well over 30,000 people from across the U.S. took Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge, coming together to enjoy a true “value meal” in their communities. So what constitutes a “value meal”? In this case, it’s defined as one made by hand, using fresh ingredients that cost $5 or less. Eating well on a budget is surprisingly easy and, if you follow some basic guidelines, does not mean that you have to resort to processed junk.

Menu from $5 Meal Challenge in Phoenix.

Menu from $5 Meal Challenge in Phoenix.

If you set (and follow) a set of basic guidelines when it comes to shopping for, storing and making food, you will soon discover a liberating surge of creativity in the kitchen as well as a decrease in the amount you spend on food each month.

1. Plan your Meals
This sound very boring, I know, but it doesn’t have to be. Making a food list for the week doesn’t mean you are a slave to it. If you’re more of a spontaneous cook/eater, just set some basic parameters for each day like: “Monday will be brown rice with some kind of vegetables.” When Monday comes, put the rice pot on the stove and start surveying the fridge.

2. Stick to a Few Basic Recipes
Being a home-cook doesn’t mean you have to dazzle everyone in the household every night. Stick to a few basic recipes that you know you can easily make and recycle them week after week, perhaps changing up some the ingredients or the way you season it. Mark Bittman’s three favorite basic recipes are “stir-fry, a chopped salad, and the basic combination of rice and lentils, all of which are easy enough to learn in one lesson.” Try them out or create your own.

Slow Food chapter San Benito Bounty's $5 Challenge dinner.

Slow Food chapter San Benito Bounty’s $5 Challenge dinner.

3. Eat Seasonally & Locally-grown Foods
Shopping at Farmers Markets does not have to be expensive. Find out what is in season where you live and you can almost be sure to find a good deal. Eating food that is fresh, organic and grown close to where you live is not only good for the planet and the local economy, it’s great for you too. Locally grown means that produce can be harvested at the right time, when it’s ripe and ready to eat, whereas something that is grown halfway across the world has to be picked early (unripe) so it doesn’t go bad while being transported. Guess which gives you the most flavor? Eating seasonally may mean that you have to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Don’t be scared, it’s a chance to expand your culinary horizons. Google recipes and cook away.

4. Buy Dry Staples in Bulk
Buying dry staple foods like grains, beans, flour and herbs in bulk can save you lots of money in the long run. I don’t advocate bulk-buying of things that will spoil since it often just leads to more food waste (unless you are very good at planning your meals — see tip #1), but when it comes to dried foods it’s a great way to save money. If you don’t have room to store 1o-pound bags of rice get together with some friends and divide it up.

$5 Challenge potluck spread in Orlando.

$5 Challenge potluck spread in Orlando.

5. Learn to Make It
Yes, you have to actually learn to make the food, which can be challenging but I am talking about learning to make a few different staples. You will not only save money, but save yourself from unnecessary additives as well. If you eat a lot of soup, make your own stock — it’s easy. Save all the veggie and meat parts you don’t eat (peels, bones, stems, skins etc.) — store it in the freezer to maintain freshness — then boil them in a big pot, strain and store in the fridge or freezer. If you drink a lot of nut milk, making it yourself is so much cheaper than buying the cartons in the store. Soak nuts overnight, strain, mix with water in the blender and strain. Get the family together to make granola, snacks and energy bars… the possibilities are endless. You may just have some fun doing it too.

6. Cook for Leftovers
Making extra portions and having them for lunch the next day or freezing them for future enjoyment can save you a lot of time, and money. And there is very little, if any, extra effort involved. People at the office will jealously glance at your plate of healthy home-made goodness as they nuke their heat-and-eat dinners or spend way too much money on mediocre sandwiches from corner delis.

$5 Challenge dinner in the field. Photo by Susan Shields.

$5 Challenge dinner in the field. Photo by Susan Shields.

It was great to see what people who took Slow Food’s $5 Challenge cooked up for the event. Here are some of my favorites.

The $5 Meal Challenge: Hounds in the KitchenThe $5 Meal Challenge: Hounds in the Kitchen

Rachel Tayse of Hounds in the Kitchen made a Julia Child-style three-course meal — consisting of lamb & beans, stuffed pepper, free form apple tart and hard french rolls — for seven people at a cost of $4.44 per serving.

The $5 Meal Challenge: Chronic Cravings

Michelle of Chronic Cravings made a delicious-looking Duck and Gai Choy Vegetable Noodle Soup for six people, at a cost of $3.40 per serving.

The $5 Meal Challenge: Flower City Foodie

The Flower City Foodie made chicken yakitori, vegetable tempura, rice, and applesauce cake for 7 adults and 4 children at a cost of $3.81 per portion.

The $5 Meal Challenge: The Greater Good Life

Michelle Rogerson of the Greater Good Life made an organic Carribean black bean and sweet potato soup that came in at $1.69 per person.

The $5 Meal Challenge: The Cowgirl Gourmet

Heather Hunter, aka The Cowgirl Gourmet, made pasta with homemade tomato sauce, hot cherry peppers, Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella and Pecorino-Romano and a salad for two people, at a cost of $4.85 per serving.

The $5 Meal Challenge: Maui

Ann-Marie Burtell created this beautiful plate of locally sourced veggies, pesto quinoa & goat cheese cakes for the $5 Challenge event in Maui.

The $5 Meal Challenge: James BesserThe $5 Meal Challenge: James BesserThe $5 Meal Challenge: James BesserThe $5 Meal Challenge: James Besser

Document your healthy dining on a budget pursuits and use them to inspire friends to join you! The four beautiful images above are by photographer James Besser. See more on his blog.

Learn to cook slow food for less than the cost of fast food and you will experience what a true “value meal” really is. Get more recipes and tips for healthy eating on a budget on Slow Food USA’s $5 Tips and Tricks and Challenges Tumblr blog.

Images from $5 Challenge/Flickr

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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  1. What a wonderful compilation of stories and recipes from the $5 Slow Food Challenge!

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