Eating well on $4 a day

by | Nov 23, 2018 | Arts & Life, Featured, Uncategorized

– Celia Nicholls

If you’re anything like me, you tend to reach for high carb convenience foods to keep you going through what is probably one of the busiest times in the school year. You might feel like you just don’t have the time or energy to prepare a wholesome meal for yourself. But while we probably all guiltily acknowledge to ourselves just how bad that is for our health, what you might not know is how hard it can be on your wallet. In fact, while highly processed package foods often seem like budget items, the truth is it’s usually no more expensive to eat well and healthily, in fact, it can often be a lot cheaper.

Edmonton-native Leanne Brown, author of the cookbook Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, said she wants to help everyone “figure out how to become a good and thrifty cook.” It’s a project and a passion that, in part, grew out of her masters’ degree thesis in Food Studies at New York University. In the course of researching food policy, she first discovered the extent of the massive economic inequality in the United States where some families struggle to feed themselves on the restrictive budget of $4 per person, per day imposed by the US government on the beneficiaries of SNAP food stamps.

She said the fact that there’s “not enough to eat here, struck [her] as A) horrific, and B) [She] can actually do something.” While she’s never been interested in becoming a professional chef, saying “it would wreck my joy. It would suck the life out of me”, she has, nevertheless, always been an avid cook and felt that part of the solution might come through “empower[ing] home cooks” to get into the kitchen and teach them to make dishes from cheap staples so that of the “thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes…[m]oney… needn’t be one of them.”

She began work compiling recipes that eventually became Good and Cheap, which she then shared as a free PDF online. There was an immediate and overwhelmingly positive response that went viral across platforms like Reddit and Tumblr in just a few weeks. This inspired a Kickstarter campaign to fund a print run with a “get-one-give-one” scheme, whereby people who bought a copy for themselves funded an initiative that helped to get copies into the hands of those in need who had potentially been unable to access the book online. As of today, 96,000 copies have been distributed in this way.

She remembers going through hard times as a student and if there is one piece of advice she could give to student cooks on low-to-no incomes, it is that “the key to cooking well on a budget is to embrace cooking.” That means enjoying the process and not being too critical if your first meals aren’t composed of complex dishes or things of Instagram-worthy beauty.

“Remember,” she said, “the foods we love to eat on a regular basis are really simple,” and there is a “huge span of happiness and joy” when it comes to food. “You have to build [cooking] skill slowly over time, and the way you do that is by not thinking ‘I’m not a cook unless I’m making something complicated.’ Be gentle and kind with yourself.”


Chana Masala

For two

This Indian chickpea dish is a staple in many homes. If you don’t have cooked chickpeas around, you can use canned, but it will cost about $1 more.


½ tbsp ghee or ½ tbsp butter

plus a splash of olive oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

½ cup onion, diced

1 tsp garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp ginger root, grated

½ jalapeño, finely diced

3 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp turmeric

¼ tsp cayenne powder

½ tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp smoked paprika

½ tsp salt

1 cup canned tomatoes, puréed

2½ cups cooked chickpeas, drained

½ cup water


fresh cilantro



1. Measure out all the spices except the cumin seeds and put them in a small bowl.

2. Let the ghee (clarified butter) melt in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. (Ghee is the traditional Indian choice, but you can substitute butter and a splash of olive oil if you can’t find ghee.) Once the ghee begins to sizzle, add the cumin seeds and stir for about five seconds. Add the onion and sauté for two minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the ginger and jalapeño and cook for 1 more minute. Add the spices and then the puréed tomatoes. Mix, then put a lid on the pan and let everything cook down for 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Once the tomato has reduced and the ghee starts to separate from the sauce, add the chickpeas and water. Mix, then bring it to a boil before reducing to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then squish a few chickpeas with a spoon to thicken the sauce. Garnish with yogurt and cilantro. For a full meal, serve over rice or with roti.

Banana Pancakes

Makes 10–14 pancakes

With the creamy texture and delicious flavour of bananas, these pancakes are stunningly good. You will be seriously popular if you feed these to your family or friends. Another plus: this is a great way to get rid of mushy bananas (that doesn’t involve making banana bread).


2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup brown sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 bananas, mashed

2 eggs

1½ cups milk

1 tsp vanilla

2 bananas, sliced

butter for cooking


1. In a medium bowl, add the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Mix thoroughly with a spoon.

2. In another bowl, add the mashed bananas (or just mash them in the bowl), eggs, milk, and vanilla, then mix. Add the dry mixture from the other bowl into the second bowl. Gently stir it with a spoon until everything just comes together. Tender pancakes come from not over-mixing the batter. If there are still a few pockets of flour, don’t worry about it. Let the mixture sit for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Place a non-stick or cast-iron pan on medium heat. Once it’s hot, melt a small amount of butter, about ½ teaspoon, then ladle some pancake batter into the center of the pan. You can make your pancakes as large or small as you like. A normal amount is about ¼ to ⅓ cup of batter. If it’s your first time making pancakes, make them smaller: they’ll be easier to flip.

4. As soon as the batter is in the pan, place three to four banana slices atop of the uncooked side of the pancake. Once the edges of the pancake start to dry up and you can see the middle start to bubble, flip the pancake over. Cook until it is browned on both sides. Stack the finished pancake on a plate in a warm oven and repeat the above process until you run out of batter.

Serve hot, with butter and syrup.

Recipes reprinted from Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day with permission from the author.


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