Eating Well on $4 a Day?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Could you eat well on $4 a day? Your immediate reaction is probably, "No way!"

Last week I read about Good and Cheap, a free downloadable cookbook for people on tight budgets. The book is a project that started when Leanne Brown, then a graduate student at NYU's Food Studies master's program, realized that government-sponsored food stamps benefits are just $4 a day. Yes, food stamps are meant to be a supplemental benefit, but it got Brown wondering, "What could you eat for $4 a day? Could you eat well?" Curious, I downloaded the ebook.

While the recipes were very basic, Brown's book got me thinking: Could my husband and I reduce our food bills to just $8 a day for the two of us? Looking at my last credit card statement, the answer would be a resounding "no." I spent $422.60 on groceries last month, which admittedly included household items like paper towels and dish soap, but it also encompassed a week we were out of town, and does not include anything my husband spent on food (I do, do most of the shopping though). On the other hand, it didn't sound totally out of reach, if we were smart about spending.

So, I decided to try it as an experiment. This week, I'm going to try to keep our food costs down to $56 ($4 a day, per person). I'll do my best to calculate the value of items we already have on-hand, but I won't calculate the costs of each tablespoon of olive oil that we use. Here's a rough idea of what I'll shop for and what I'll cook:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit and almond milk (I'm not sure if coffee fits in the budget, but we're not giving it up)

Snacks: Fruit, yogurt, homemade popcorn, hard-boiled eggs

Lunches: Leftovers and my usual packed lunch (a container of cooked grains, veggies and whatever's handy in the fridge).

Dinners: Chicken, potatoes, and greens; chicken and black bean tacos; frittata; eggs, avocado toast and salad; homemade pizza with greens and sausage and salad; black bean soup

Next week, I will report back on what I spent and how it went.

Mason Jar Soap Pump Kit

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

About four and a half years ago, I made a vintage mason jar into a soap pump for Country Living magazine. The image ran as a full-page opener to the Idea Notebook section, and it could not have been more popular with readers.

Since then, I have seen similar mason jar soap dispensers all over the internet, at the Brooklyn Flea, and even in major retailers. I was surely not the only one to come up with the adaptation, but it tickles me that the idea was such a hit. There's nothing wrong with a brand-new version (and avoiding the drilling is a plus!), but the charm of the one I made lay in the patina on the jar.

I just discovered that you can buy a kit that adapts any mason jar into a pump! The Transform Mason Jar Lid Pumps cost just $4 on It give you the best of both worlds: You can use a charming vintage jar, but you have a ready-made top to finish it off. I love it.

There's a whole new world of mason jar toppers that are really quite clever, but I'll save that for another post.

Vegan Recipes for Everyone

Monday, March 09, 2015

I'm not a vegan and I probably never will be, but I did experiment with being vegan before 6pm (Mark Bittman's part-time vegan eating plan). And I do believe that a plant-based diet is better for our health and the earth. A steak-loving friend of mine recently began dating a vegan, and it reminded me how intimidating it can be to find vegan recipes that feel like a real meal to non-vegans. I thought I'd share three recipes for vegan meals that I have tried and liked--they're hearty enough that you won't miss the meat, and they're all fairly easy to make:

Roasted and Charred Broccoli with Peanuts (above) from a recent of Bon Appetit felt new to me, and was pretty easy to make (though nutritional yeast can be hard to find). If you have a cast-iron pan, use it for this dish, as the recipe suggests. I served this with some black rice with diced, sautéed onions and bell peppers mixed into the rice.
Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpeas with Mustard and Parsley (above right) from It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow (yes, I am recommending a recipe from Gwyneth) is a surprisingly delicious dish for such a simple list of ingredients and a quick prep time. Serve it with a nice big green salad for a rounded meal.

Mark Bittman's own recipe for black bean tacos (above) is another dish that transforms humdrum ingredients into something really yummy. I deviated slightly from Bittman's original recipe, which you can find on Outside magazine's website, using red cabbage instead of green, and letting the cabbage macerate a bit. You can also just skip the tortillas and turn this into a dinner salad: throw the black beans into the cabbage mixture.

Black Bean Tacos
Servings: 4


3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Black pepper to taste
4 cups shredded green cabbage
1 chopped red bell pepper
1 fresh hot green chile (like jalapeño or serrano), minced
1/4 cup chopped scallions
Juice of two limes
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro


1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with one tablespoon of the oil. Stack the tortillas and wrap them in aluminum foil. Combine the beans, garlic, chili powder, cumin, half the salt, and some pepper in a bowl. Mash the mixture with a fork or potato masher; it should still be chunky.

2. Spread the bean mixture out on the prepared pan, drizzle with another tablespoon of oil, and roast, stirring a few times, until the beans are crumbly and crisp in places, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the tortillas to the oven with the beans for their last five minutes of cooking.

3. Meanwhile, put the cabbage, bell pepper, chile, scallions, lime juice, cilantro, remaining oil and salt, and some pepper in a large bowl and toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Divide the beans among the warm tortillas; top with the cabbage mixture and serve.

Last but not least, Heidi Swanson's White Beans and Cabbage recipe has been in constant rotation at my house since I first cooked it three years ago. You can leave out the Parmesan for a vegan friend, but it does add a richness to the dish that I miss when I subtract the cheese.

Make Your Small Space Better: Make Your Bed

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Here's a tip that will make any small space better in an instant: Make your bed.

Five years ago, I read about Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project in the New York Times, and I was astounded that readers were inspired by her tip to make the bed every day. I wondered, "Who doesn't make their beds?" Since then, I've seen several products come to market that consist of a sheet with a comforter zipped to it, aimed at busy people, who apparently don't have time to make their beds. An informal poll of my co-workers revealed that my peers are just as likely not to make their beds as to make them. It seems I am in the minority with my daily bed making habit.

So, let me echo Rubin. Make your bed. Every single day. 

Rubin argues that we should make our beds to make ourselves happier, and I agree with her that it will make you more content to see a made bed in your home, but let's explore the why, shall we? A double bed takes up 25 square feet, a queen occupies 33, and while I hope you don't have a king in your small space, the biggest mattresses take up 42 square feet or more. In a small home, that is a HUGE percentage of your living space, and in most cases, the bed is a focal point of the room, if not the whole space. A messy bed is automatically going to make your whole home feel like a mess.

Making your bed takes just a few minutes, and it's absolutely worth the effort. If you're not a bed maker, give it a try. Commit to making your bed for one week, and see how you feel. Once you start, I bet you'll wonder why you didn't do it all along.

Need further convincing? Good Housekeeping reports that a National Sleep Foundation poll found that survey participants who reported regularly making their bed were also more likely to say that they got a good night's sleep most nights.

A better looking home, increased happiness, and better sleep? You'd be crazy not to make your bed.

On a side note, I read and enjoyed Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project very much; if you haven't read it, it's worth checking out, and the Kindle edition is just $7.99 on Amazon (it was such a good seller, that I can almost gaurentee your local library has a copy to borrow). 

Digest 3.6.15

Friday, March 06, 2015

Happy Friday, everyone. I am looking forward to the weekend and springing forward on Saturday night, aren't you? It'll be a real treat to leave work while it's still light out. My anticipation of spring has me thinking about decluttering and organizing, and of course, how to do so in a small space. Here's what caught my attention this week:

I featured Carmella's kitchen in my last digest; since then, I have fallen in love with her blog.

600sqftandababy is another great blog about a family living in tight quarters (their space above).

Ending food waste is in the news these days, including on NPR and in the New York Times.

And Dan Barber is turning his restaurant Blue Hill into a food-waste laboratory for a month.

Our grandparents spent more of their money on food than we do.

Why I'm Not Giving Up My Conventional Cleaning Products

Monday, February 16, 2015

In my ongoing quest to have a lighter impact on the earth, I have mostly given up my conventional household cleaning product in favor of eco-friendly alternatives. In almost every case, I don't notice a reduction in cleaning power between the environmentally-sound product and its conventional counterpart. I also believe that many cleaning product are much more powerful than they need to be. However, I haven't give up my conventional cleansers completely because in some instances I believe they are actually a more sustainable choice.

How can a product like chlorine bleach be an earth-friendly choice? Bleach is admittedly bad for the health of our waterways and aquatic life. However, a little bit of bleach can go a long way, and if using a small amount of bleach helps me to preserve an item and keep it out of the landfill, then I consider that a significant argument for using it.

For example, I have had the same plastic shower curtain liner for 5+ years. I believe most people replace theirs far more often, but I've been able to keep mine looking new by occasionally spritzing it with a solution of one part chlorine bleach and five parts water, which immediately eliminates any mildew. Likewise, I occasionally bleach my cutting boards to combat hard-to-remove stains. Using this small amount of bleach to reduce my consumption of plastic is worthwhile.

I also keep a stash of specialty cleaners and home care products that I use a few times a year, and will continue to use. Metal polish, wood polish/conditioner and leather conditioner are not always gentle, chemical-free formulations, but when I use them, they are helping to preserve the life of objects I hope to own for decades to come. So, from now on, I won't feel guilty about the jug of bleach lurking amongst all my more virtuous cleansers; it has its place in my sustainable lifestyle.

What about you? Are there a few non-eco products you won't give up? I'd love to hear what products you have decided are worth their negative environmental impact.

Digest 2.6.15

Friday, February 06, 2015

A small-space, budget kitchen on Remodelista.

Plus, more of the same house on

Butter consumption hits a 40-year high.

IKEA + Ilse Crawford + cork = furniture design heaven.

The environmental absurdity of K-cups.

Attractive and affordable solar shades on Manhattan Nest.

A fascinating read by Michael Pollan.

I'm loving the new Instagram feed for Martha Stewart Living's test kitchen.

A piece I wrote for Annie Coggan's Chairs & Buildings.

Re-Thinking Bath Towels

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Let's talk about towels. I'd had the same white towels for close to a decade (thank you, OxiClean) when I began to rethink my bath towels this past summer. With visiting guests and beach towels, our laundry burden was suddenly immense. Around that time, I discovered the Life Edited blog, and read a post about how waffle towels save space (both in your apartment and in your wash), which got me thinking.

After another bout of epic laundry over the holidays, I decided we should try an alternative to the usual terry towel to save time, resources and to avoid the musty-smelling bath towel once and for all. Before I tell you about my experiment, let me fill you in on some of what went into my decision to make the switch.

In her book Flanagan's Smart Home, Barbara Flanagan traces the huge, fluffy towel craze to the excessive 1980s, when she believes people fell in love with the enormous towels they would find in hotels. Retailers fulfilled their desires by offering "hotel towels." Soon, washing machine and dryer manufacturers responded with larger capacity machines to tackle these terry behemoths. The trend has continued, washing machines get larger every year; according to Consumer Reports, the larger machines today can tackle 25 pounds or more of laundry (a whopping 12 to 15 pairs of men’s jeans!). Today, a 35" x 66" bath "sheet" is considered a standard towel size in most households.

The towels most Americans have come to love are an environmental nightmare. Writes Flanagan, "It would be difficult to calculate the amount of natural resources consumed and abused in the process of  [washing and] poofing a single bath sheet to hotel-quality fluffiness… in addition to the sheer volume of cotton, a crop that demands plenty of water and pesticides.” Plus, terry towels just don't get dry after you've used them, which means they need to be washed all the more often.

So, what to do? There are several alternatives to enormous terrycloth towels, among them, smaller terry towels, linen towels, Turkish-style cotton towels, waffle-weave towels, and micro-fiber towels. I first bought a pair of Fog Linen Work's Chambray Towels made from linen (center above and below). The towels are attractive and very fast-drying. However, the feel against your skin when you dry yourself after a shower is a little rough and they took some getting used to. The towels did get softer with each wash, but they still left something to be desired--and at $52/towel, I was hoping for perfection.

Next, I purchased two Classic StyleWaffle Weave Bath Towels (below) made from 100% cotton from Gilden Tree. At $24/towel, they were more economical than the linen towels, and my husband and I have found that we like the feel of these towels much better. These towels will still take a little getting used to; to quote Flanagan again, "You;ll miss the security blanket-like fluffiness of your former towel. Grow up. Persist. There will be lighter loads of laundry filling fewer baskets and straining fewer appliances." And she's right, we should all grow up and ditch our wasteful terrycloth towels. I love these towels, and would highly recommend them to anyone looking for an eco-friendly towel or a way to lessen their laundry burden.

One last thought on eco-friendly towels: For women with thick or long hair, I also recommend a small, microfiber hair towel, like this 19" x 39" version from Aquis ($13, below). I bought mine twelve years ago for many-weeks-long trip to Europe, and used it as my only towel in some of the hostels I stayed in. I think the texture of microfiber would be off-putting for a full-size bath towel, but it is an excellent solution for drying hair. Like the other towels, it is very absorbent, so it will dry your hair and itself quickly.

Finally, if you make the switch, don't send your old towels to the landfill. If they are in good condition, a homeless shelter will likely be happy to take your towels. If they are more worn, your local Humane Society or animal shelter would probably be thrilled to get a donation of your old terry towels.

Storage Beds For Small Homes

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My bed frame is a hand-me-down from my parents, more specifically from my mom, who had it back in her single days in New York City in the 70s. First, I'd like to say that any bed frame that lasts nearly 40 years and multiple moves (at least 10 by my count) was a fine investment--so thanks, Mom!

The bed is a wooden captain's bed (a combination of solid wood and plywood) with three large storage drawers embedded in one side. The platform is split into two pieces, making it easier to move. Those three drawers give us almost as much storage as an extra bureau, without taking up any additional storage space, and because they are built into the bed, they're much easier to use than some makeshift under-the-bed storage.

I think anyone living in a small house should seriously consider either a Murphy bed or a storage bed--if you don't, you're underutilizing a serious amount of floorspace, people! Storage beds are also great for guest rooms because you can store the bed's linens in the drawers and leave your guests the bureau drawers to use. In kids' rooms these handy beds can store toys.

The only drawback of my bed is that its a double, and I'm considering an upgrade to a queen, so I thought I'd investigate the world of storage beds on the market today.

Gothic Cabinet Craft still makes a model very similar to my mom's old bed: the Queen Captains Bed with 6 Drawers, $589. Yes, you can opt for drawers on two sides, doubling your drawer space. I'm tempted to go this route because I know I like it.

I've also long been drawn to IKEA's Malm storage bed (I've even blogged about a similar model before here). My sister's roommate had one of these, and while it doesn't give you the dresser-like storage, it gives you a ton of space to store unwieldy things you don't use everyday, like out-of-season clothes, luggage, Christmas ornaments, and the like. It also features IKEA's slat-platform, which I have discovered I like very much. At $449, this is definitely a contender, though I fear it would be a bear to move, and I also hesitate to invest in any more particleboard furniture from Big Blue.

Pottery Barn's Stratton Bed with Drawers is another handsome model, and it's made from hardwood, which I like, and the option to add a headboard is nice. Harder to like is the $1,699 price tag--gulp!

CB2 offers a sleeker, more contemporary storage bed that is also made from real wood and plywood with hi-gloss white lacquer finish. At $799, The Stowaway is also pretty competitive price-wise.

A spendy-but-sophisticated option is Room & Board's Wyatt Bed ($1,799), which has an upholstered frame and headboard and one massive drawer that pulls out from the footboard. It's not for me, but if you wanted an upholstered look, this, or West Elm's Pivot Bed ($1,399, below) would be your best bets.

Cookbook Review: A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This past holiday season my family had a no-gift Christmas (which, by the way, worked out splendidly), but I will confess to having purchased myself a little gift just days after the holiday. I had read about Renee Erickson's new book A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, and when I saw its lovely cover at my local bookstore, I couldn't resist--and I wasn't sorry I didn't. Bon Appetit described the book as having, "an Ina Garten–like blend of effortlessness and luxuriousness that makes you believe that king salmon with walnut tarator will practically cook itself." A big fan of Garten, I was intrigued, but that's not quite an accurate description of the book. Many of the recipes do walk the line between effortless and luxurious, but the comparison between the two ends there. 

Erickson was a new-to-me chef when I bought her book. She owns four beloved restaurants in Seattle, and the book is a collection of recipes from the restaurants and her personal life (though it sounds like there is very little distinction between her personal and professional lives--her parents even works for her restaurants!). The book includes inviting glimpses of the restaurants (above), what appears to be Erickson's home and the surrounding area. Even before I'd started cooking from this book, photographer Jim Henken's photos make me want to book a flight to Seattle. 

Erickson's cooking style is distinctly French-influenced, and as such it is not for those afraid of fat (there's a LOT of butter in this book). She's also much more serious (and at times almost-but-forgivably snobby) than a cookbook author like Ina Garten. Garten makes me feel like it's okay to pick up a leg of lamb at Costco, but here's Erickson on buying meat, "On a very basic level, finding a butcher you trust—someone you feel comfortable interrogating and who only buys well-raised meat—is a crucial part of cooking." Yes, yes, yes, she's right, I know that, but I will confess we hear all of this so much in our food-obsessed culture, that I don't necessarily want to be preached to in every cookbook I buy. Erickson is also very exacting about the ingredients she calls for, and even provides resources for some of her favorites in the back of the book, which I loved. 

The book is broken into four seasons and a section of "staples" recipes. Within each season there are individual menus for everything from a lamb and rosé dinner (with harrissa-rubbed roasted lamb) to a pickling put-up party (a clever way for her to get in all her favorite pickle recipes, which apparently are a highlight at her restaurants). I wished that I'd had the book before the holidays because I would have made her entire holiday menu for my family, but will save it for next year instead. However, picking it up after the holidays, I found I had a week off when it was awfully cold outside, so I cooked a lot of recipes from this book.

Most of Erickson's recipes are excellent. Roasted chicken with capers and preserved lemon was a triumph, though I admit I hesitated to add both a 1/2 cup of olive oil and a 1/2 cup of butter to the pan when my usual Zuni roast chicken uses no fat at all. Grilled rib eye with anchovy butter was exactly the kind of effortless luxury that Bon Appetit described (we cooked that for New Year's Eve). The zucchini bread was probably the best recipe I tried (I confess, I made it with quite-out-of-season squash), and it was so tasty my husband accused me of putting drugs in it because he couldn't stop eating it.

There were very recipes that I wouldn't make again, though a celery root salad was a total miss. I'd also advise against trying to make Erickson's recipes more healthy--just accept them for what they are: treats. After plowing through a bunch of rich dishes, I thought I might lighten up the kale gratin by using some whole milk instead of a full three cups of heavy cream, but the results were a little watery, and in hindsight I should have just enjoyed it as Erickson prescribed.

Overall, I'd say this book is an excellent addition to my cookbook library. It's the kind of book from which I can imagine cooking almost every recipe--not just a handful. (I also recently bought the Prune cookbook, and while I love it as a book, there aren't a ton of recipes that jumped out as make-me-now meals.) It's also filled my head with dreams of a food-filled trip to the Pacific Northwest.

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