I started my morning with two eggs and a piece of toast, a fitting and frugal start for my test “nomad cheap eats” day. Perhaps I should say frugal, as that sounds a bit more noble that the baggage laden “cheap”. I complicate the record keeping right off as I incorporate a slab of garlic Naan I made the other day. Given the price of flour I’d say the Naan set me back no more than 25 cents. The eggs were even cheaper. I throw in a pint of orange juice on sale and end up with a filling and complete breakfast, at least relative to my usual McDonald’s fare, for a modest $1.66.
I think of my father, a Scotsman wanna be, who developed his Scot skills well enough to learn bagpipes and unashamedly speak of the suit he was wearing setting him back $4 at the church thrift shop, Emmy’s Attic. He told all who would listen, even some who wouldn’t. There are those who would rather be dead than admit such a thing, especially my 18 year old daughter. I could just hear her… “When my friends come over, don’t mention how little breakfast cost this time, Dad.”
I ponder the requirements for my frugal cooking experiment. First off, any plan will be off the grid, in a boat most likely, perhaps in a vardo or, as a last resort, a travel trailer. This means refrigeration will be unlikely, as the hassle, expense and dubious reliability record of these things recommends against inclusion. There will be oils, not butter… powdered, condensed or coconut milk, not fresh dairy. Fresh food won’t stay that way for more than a few hours in most cases, a few days in others, so any fruits or vegetables will either come from a can, be grown on board, or come from a shoreside trip to the grocery.
Health will factor in as well. I was born into this life with all my fingers, toes, and, as best I can tell, my DNA all as it should be, but with every day since I’ve brought myself one step closer to an early grave. 53 years later I wake up to find myself stunningly heavy, pre-diabetic, with borderline blood pressure, and in poor enough a condition that I’m not sure I can physically do what my dreams require. Cook though your life depends on it, which it does. I’d say little to no meat. Grains will be whole and in moderate quantity. Include multiple servings of fruit and veggies, probably the biggest challenge of all as a nomad off the grid.
Space is limited and spoilage is waste. Ten pounds of dried beans can fit anywhere, as can a few cans of tuna, canned meat, after all, being one of few ways to keep animal flesh in your diet. That particular turn of phrase gives you a hint as to my leanings toward vegetarianism. I’m not too good at it yet, as I eat it often while out and about, but when faced with cutting into flesh while cooking at home, I choose tofu or replacement meats most often. Speaking of which, those sorts of replacements can be a challenge to store, though this is a refrigeration-free tofu that can be mailed to your house for about $2 a package, inclusive.
Variety. While buying a 50 pound bag of beans may be smart from a economic perspective you have to be sure to leave room in the pantry for some variety. On a boat the size these smaller shantyboats you may not want to have 200 pounds of rice, beans, and flour. You may want to have five or ten pounds bags of different kinds of beans, quinoah, varities of rice, and perhaps three kinds of flour. Variety… which also calls for multiple spices and dried herbs, which is where a small herb garden would come in handy.
Finally, I’ll make only what I can eat right away, as most prepared foods will get you sick if left lying about outside a fridge.
For lunch, it”s peanut butter, which at $1.49 a pound certainly fits into the frugal category. My $2.50 package promises 25 servings, which makes for a handy 10 cents per serving. I couldn’t make it for that. I use that left over bread again, as homemade bread doesn’t last too long, bringing my sandwich total to 35 cents. Then there is an apple at 76 cents. Remember that fruit requirement? A man my size doesn’t feel full very often, but by lunch I was still doing OK, in spite of my penny pinching ways for the day.
Tonight it’s pizza. Flour gives you about 4.5 cups per pound, meaning the ten pound bag gives you 45 cups. At $3.89 a for a ten pound bag, once again on sale, that’s something along the lines of 9 cents a cup. Amazing. I bought Roma tomatoes for the sauce, $1.49 a pound, with enough for the sauce coming to $1.45. I could of gotten a can of pasta sauce for $1, but it’s too sugary. More fun to cook this way, as well. Mushrooms weren’t on sale, and came to $2.99 a pound, with enough for the pizza coming to 75 cents. Asparagus, an expensive but healthy addition, $2.99, though I’ll bet half will be left over. I’m going to also use a can of Spicy Thai flavored tuna that was on sale for $2 a can. Total? 27 cents for flour, included, $7.46, though that could feed two or three people, so let’s cut it in half. $3.73. If I were on my own I’d have the rest tomorrow. If I get hungry tonight I’ll make popcorn on the stove using a spray oil and some spices. Certainly less than 15 cents.
Ok, so shantyboaters can live cheaply and yet still eat good food that is healthy. Nobody would ever keep track of prices in this way, as you’d develop a pretty good sense rather quickly. The goal here isn’t to be scrooge when it comes to food, or any money for that matter, the goal is to make the life you want to live possible. Eat what you can afford, and most of us, it turns out, can afford enough to eat well.