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by SixFigureStart | February 25, 2009


Maybe this has been said before: ?Cheapness is the mother of invention.?

My lessons about eating on the cheap began when I was 11. My single mother was dating and before she went out, she would leave a five-dollar bill on the kitchen counter for me to feed myself. I had two options: one block uptown to Zabar?s, where I could blow my bank on a container of prepared tortellini with pesto ? or three blocks south to Fairway, the fresh produce emporium, with the Korean market and fish store on the way.

Since cash dollars were a novelty at that age, I aimed to keep as many as I could. So I took the downtown route and learned to cook for myself, pocketing a couple of bucks each night. I bought myself a camera and a bit of pre-teen freedom.

The key to stretching my dollars was a one-pound sack of Japanese rice that would last weeks. At the fish store I?d ask for a small piece of ?what?s good?? and then ?how do I cook it?? At some point I discovered lentils. And spices. And cookbooks. And, ultimately, cooking.

Eating on the cheap as a challenge to myself, but it turned into easy practice, and cooking became my career. I never thought of the cash issue again. Until now.

It?s been years since the five-dollar budget, and so has its practice. I like lingering over a long meal with friends. Sometimes, I get super lazy and pick up something prepared and eat it out of the plastic compartment. And even as finances have grown tight, I?ve been more likely to treat myself to evenings out to lift my low spirits and pick up cheap indulgences as if stuffing myself with a rich dinner would magically fill my bank account.

It hasn?t.

I?ve gained weight. I feel worse. And my ?Eat Your Way to Wealth? plan is not gonna sell. I?m going back to where I started: Feeding myself.

Let?s call it the ?Feed Yourself Challenge,? and let?s do it together. Give yourself a set number of dollars and see how much you can not-spend. It doesn?t have to be every day, or every meal in a day. We?ll save money, eat healthier, and learn how to take care of ourselves.

Here?s how it goes:

1) Focus on savings not spending. According to the USDA, even the most liberal spenders only need to fork out about $300 for a month?s worth of at-home meals. Figure out how much you normally spend and look for places to cut back or replace with lower-cost options: Can you make yourself a week?s worth of breakfasts instead of Starbucks? It doesn?t really matter how much you start with, as long as each time you begin the day or meal with the same amount. Soon enough, you?ll get a really good handle on what you spend and where you can save. Keep the saved cash separate from the rest in your wallet.

2) Buy what you need. Use what you buy. Cooking at home gets costly if you shop on inspiration alone and fill your fridge with ingredients for which you have no specific plan to eat them. Buy perishable fresh food?vegetables and meats?only for the day you plan to use it. Then go to the cabinets and get the grains and nuts and beans. The bag of rice will already be there for you. Kinda like it?s free.

3) Cook. Making meals at home won?t just save you money, they give you control over what you eat. While the rest of the world is free-falling, having your say over little things like how much salt or spice you use can feel mighty comforting. Use recipes that are reliable, you?ll do well with highly-rated ones online from responsible offline sources such as Gourmet and Good Housekeeping. Their recipes are usually triple-tested so you won?t waste your money and dinner on a disaster experiment. Or get these solid go-to cookbooks: Mark Bittman?s How to Cook Everything and Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins classic The New Basics.

Begin there, and come back here for tips on how to make feeding yourself in the new economy easier, better and healthier.

--Posted by Tamara Holt,

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