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Beyond Ramen: Can You Eat Well on $4 a Day?

Good and Cheap

Healthy meals aren’t cheap—at least, that’s what I’m gleaning from the recipes I find floating around Pinterest and other corners of the web. That makes Leanne Brown’s cookbook a godsend.

Published in 2014, Good and Cheap garnered a lot of attention online. Culinary student Leanne Brown wrote Good and Cheap as her Culinary Arts MFA thesis. In addition to publishing her book traditionally, she uploaded the complete cookbook to her website as a free PDF download and has donated countless copies to families in need and the organizations that assist them.

If you’d like to read more about Good and Cheap, head over to Brown’s website. You can purchase a hardcopy online or download a copy for free

The Shopping Trip

Good and Cheap is full of recipes that can feed a family for less than ten bucks a meal—many of Brown’s recipes don’t come close to $10. I took a look through the colorful electronic copy of the book and selected six recipes that were too good to pass up. I spent a whopping $34.40 on ingredients. For six recipes.

Now I didn’t tackle these recipes alone; my fiancé lent a helping hand in the kitchen and offered a second opinion on the recipes. Here’s the first thing we cooked, and it was surprisingly simple: peanut butter and jelly granola bars. 

PB&J Granola Bars

(Good and Cheap, pg. 25)

Taking half an hour to make PB&J granola bars on Sunday evening will provide you with portable breakfast throughout the week. Instead of blueberry jam, we used grape jelly that had been sitting in the fridge. Jam could potentially make a better adhesive; our bars were safely in one piece, but they were crumbly pieces and kind of fell apart. The recipe suggested we add honey for a flavor variation, and I did just that.

Although this recipe is categorized as a breakfast item, these yummy granola bars are a versatile treat. Pack ‘em for lunch, grab one before your morning workout, or bring one as an afternoon snack. The recipe yields about twelve, but the definite number will vary on the size of your pan.

Banana Pancakes

(Good and Cheap, pg. 18)

Please pardon my misshapen pancakes. Don’t judge a flapjack by its cover—these banana pancakes are good. Brown’s recipe yields ten to fourteen pancakes; I ended up with seven huge pancakes. I loved how soft and fluffy the hotcakes turned out, and if you decide to make a smaller recipe with bigger cakes, you’ll be full after one or two.

The only drawback, in my opinion, was the overpowering sweetness of the bananas. I can see these being a hit with kids or anyone with a sweet tooth. Serve them as a hot breakfast, or as a fun breakfast-for-dinner meal. 

Avocado Milkshake

(Good and Cheap, pg. 159)           

Go beyond guacamole with your avocados. This avocado milkshake is incredibly easy and takes mere minutes to prep and blend up. While the concept of an avocado-based milkshake may be foreign to you, my mother often made them as a sweet treat. Brown’s recipe wasn’t as sweet as I remember my childhood recipe to be.

Following the recipe to a T—using only one avocado—results in a very mild avocado flavor. The drink tasted like vanilla ice cream with an avocado aftertaste. I’d suggest using two, or even three avocadoes if you enjoy the green super-fruit. The milkshake wasn’t as sweet as I would’ve liked. If I were making it again, I would use sweetened, condensed milk instead of regular milk to appease my sweet tooth. Of course, you could also use vanilla ice cream if you want an ice cold dessert. That said, those options do make it less healthy, so do what you will.

Taco Salad

(Good and Cheap, pg. 52)

This light salad is perfect for summer. I used black beans instead of pork, as Brown suggested, and added a smidge of salsa on top. Usually, I’ve seen taco salad prepared as a meal; it could work as a prelude to dinner or as the main course, depending on your protein. Instead of black beans, feel free to shred some leftover pork or chicken. You can even opt for ground beef, although it was too pricey for me.

Brown’s recipe is supposed to be “for two”. I prepared the taco salad for my fiancé and me, but we were able to go back for seconds. Or, in my case, thirds. I only have one piece of advice for a nearly flawless recipe: if you need the extra crunch, crush some extra tortilla chips once you fix your plate. After tossing the salad in dressing, the ½ cup you added earlier will quickly lose its crisp.

French Onion Soup

(Good and Cheap, pg. 39)

I’m afraid my fingers will smell like onions forever. The final product was delicious, but unlike some of the other dishes, this French onion soup takes a long time to cook. After slicing up four huge onions, I needed two hours—which is the cooktime—to let the tears dry. I followed the recipe to a T, but my soup didn’t look like Leanne Brown’s. I’m guessing it tasted different, too.

It all boils down to the type of onions and vinegar you use. I didn’t have white vinegar, so I used rice vinegar. Vidalia onions are a permanent item on our grocery list; they’re twice the size of white onions and are usually sold at the same price. However, they’re much sweeter. Combined with the sweet, tangy flavor of the rice vinegar, my soup needed some help. Brown suggests some additional ingredients underneath the essentials. While you may choose to skip out on chili flakes and beef stock, I needed some extra flavor to balance my recipe. If I ever decide to have another two hour cry-fest, I’ll be using regular onions and white vinegar. 

Creamy Zucchini Fettuccine

(Good and Cheap, pg. 89)

One of the greatest culinary injustices is the restaurant price of a plate of fettuccine. Once you learn how to make your own alfredo sauce, you’ll never buy a $8 plate of fettuccine alfredo again.

The creamy zucchini fettuccine was my favorite out of every dish we attempted. Think of it as an elevated, funky fettuccine alfredo. It’s not as saucy, but you don’t want to lose the chunks of zucchini in a sea of sauce. Garlic and crushed chili flakes give the pasta a burst of flavor, proving there’s so much more you can do with a basic fettuccine alfredo. You could add diced chicken if you wanted protein. It’s not necessary, in my opinion: the pasta is thoroughly filling. 

Can You Eat Well on $4 a Day?

Absolutely!

Whether you’re cooking for one, two, or five, you’ll find that Good and Cheap can feed everyone at the table for a low price. However, the most difficult obstacle to cooking these delicious, homemade meals is finding the time to cook. Instant meals aren’t healthy, but can be served in less than fifteen minutes. Something like creamy zucchini fettuccine won’t take more than 30 minutes to prep, cook, and serve; comparatively, many people don’t have two-ish hours to prepare French onion soup.

Another difficulty in adhering to your budget is penciling snacks into your grocery list. Junk food is cheap, yet often teeming with sodium and sugars. Thankfully, Brown’s cookbook is full of quick snacks you can whip up between meals. There are smoothies galore, a variety of hearty toppings for toast, quesadillas, and more. If you have time to devote a day to cooking in bulk, try Brown’s recipes for perogies or dumplings; both recipes yield at least sixty, and can provide you with plenty of easy lunches or dinners.