For years, I’ve been saying that we could cut the chaos in our lives in half just by planning and cooking meals ahead of time. The first day of United Way’s Hunger Challenge proved me right in the worst way. Let me just confess up front that my kids had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, even though the adults did — well past the children’s bedtime — get a nice vegetarian stew. No one went hungry, but the diet could have been far better balanced.

(I know this isn’t a contest, but, sheesh, Gastrognome — you made mayonnaise?!) And Lara, you’re roasting your own espresso? Clearly I need to take some notes here.)

I had a vague idea of what to cook for the $7/day challenge ($22/day in my case, for a family of four) but decided to food shop before making firm plans, under the theory of cooking whatever was on sale. I visited Fred Meyer, PCC, and Trader Joe’s for supplies, and later this week I’ll probably restock at Ranch 99. This is actually no more insane than my usual weekly shopping routine, but I realize it’s a luxury in itself — the time to visit multiple stores, for one thing, and a reliable car to get to them. When doing the actual cooking, though, time is a substitute for money in a lot of ways: Soaking beans, braising meats, baking bread… oh, the bread, which I put it out of my mind until Sunday night.

I had planned on making a 3-loaf batch of Robin’s Bread to get through the week on budget. That was a problem. The bread needs to rise overnight before a second rise and bake. No way could I get it done in time for lunch sandwiches on Monday. My faster standby, the Buttermilk Honey Bread, called for, well, buttermilk and honey, and I didn’t want to incur the extra cost. So I went searching on the King Arthur Flour site Sunday night for a basic, reasonably fast recipe, and wound up with this “Classic Sandwich Bread,” then stayed up until 1 a.m. for it to come out of the oven. I briefly panicked when it barely changed shape on its first rise — it’s never a good idea to test a new recipe when you really need something to work — but it did fine on the second rise, and came out of the oven lovely and toasty and tasting great. I’ll be making it again (note that I used vegetable oil instead of butter, and substituted whole wheat flour for half the white flour). Total cost: About $1.50 per loaf, including 65 cents worth of flour from the bulk bins at Fred Meyer and 40 cents worth of organic milk I feel good about. Throughout the day, as expected, the fresh and organic ingredients wound up costing the most.

While the challenge technically calls for participants not to eat any food they already own, the organizers are also OK with us simply accounting for the price of whatever food we use, which seems more in the spirit (and more connected to reality) to me. So, in brief, here’s what we ate:

Luckily, our breakfasts are already inexpensive. My husband skips it (not healthy, but cheap), and I eat oatmeal along with the two children. I discovered, though, that the Bob’s Red Mill we usually buy in the package is available in bulk bins at Fred Meyer at a much-reduced price, just 89 cents/pound. This morning’s batch cost 33 cents for the whole family. I usually cool it down with milk, but today I used a little leftover tapioca pudding, which I’m somewhat arbitrarily estimating at 50 cents, because I know it wasn’t any more than that. Our total would have been an astonishing 83 cents for three, but my older son asked for scrambled eggs. I normally nag him to eat a heartier breakfast, and didn’t want to discourage the idea. Two eggs (34 cents) went into the pan, from a cut-rate brand I don’t normally buy and shouldn’t have bought here. The second egg was oddly slack, yolk and white already mixed in the shell. I emptied out the pan and cleaned it, and tossed in two replacements (34 cents). Total breakfast cost: $1.51.

On to lunch: My husband usually takes a turkey sandwich. I tend to spend extra money on meat — I’ll pay more for some measure of traceability, for a smaller producer, and for some assurance the animals were humanely treated. Today, though, he got about 90 cents worth of Fred Meyer turkey from a 1-pound package on sale for $3.49, on two slices of the homemade bread, with mustard — total cost of about $1.15. I didn’t feel good about his meal on terms of either ethics or taste. For the rest of the week, I think he’ll be better off with leftovers. For my older child’s lunch, I cheated. He’s allowed to buy hot lunch at school once every week or two, at $2.50, and this was the day. But I won’t have that “get out of lunch card” the rest of the week, and it’s hard to pack food that’s affordable as well as nutritious and tempting. My 2-year-old gets lunch at his daycare, and I’m — again, somewhat arbitrarily — assigning that a $2 value. For myself, I made hummus from the instant mix from the PCC bulk bins. Just 2.6 ounces, 78 cents worth, mixed with water, made enough for a week’s worth of lunches. (Making my own would taste a lot better, but the instant was at least acceptable.) I spread about 15 cents worth on bread, and splurged on slices from an organic PCC tomato, which, at $1, cost more than double the rest of the sandwich fixings. Total lunch costs: About $7.

After-school snacks: Trader Joe’s saved us here, with bananas at 19 cents apiece and cinnamon cat-shaped cookies (about a quarter’s worth per child, from a $2.49 tub). Total cost: 88 cents.

Dinner: I settled on a modified stew of collards, rice, and beans that’s a perennial favorite in our house. A bowl of it, topped with Tabasco or Cholula, hits all the satisfying food points in my book: Warm, filling, nutritious, spicy, and a little sweet from the collards. The only sticking point is that the recipe calls for leeks, and that wasn’t going to work at $3/pound. I substituted yellow onions (49 cents/pound at Fred Meyer) and hoped it wouldn’t affect the flavor too much. I also used a Trader Joe’s bag of cleaned, cut collards mixed with turnip and mustard greens, as it was cheaper (and more time-saving) at $2.29/pound than plain collards, especially after accounting for the heavy discarded stems. Then, life intervened: It was a beautiful day, and a friend called to ask if the kids wanted to play at the beach. We dug in the sand and climbed on logs during the hour I’d meant to use to get dinner ready. I started putting together the stew at 6:30 p.m. — a stew that starts out with uncooked rice, remember — and gave the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I estimated at about 70 cents each, using Trader Joe’s pb&j, to get them settled by their 7:30 p.m. bedtime. Small cups of milk: About 40 cents apiece. They also nibbled on toast while they were waiting, and got more bananas and little apples (about 30 cents each) from a bag of Pink Ladies that had seemed a great deal at Trader Joe’s ($2.99 for three pounds) until I discovered several of them were bruised. The adults enjoyed their late-night stew, and I made a double batch, with a ton of leftovers, so the kids will hopefully catch up on nutrition tomorrow.

Lesson for the week: Plan ahead. Cook ahead. Cook faster dishes. The same things I’ve been telling myself for years, even when money was not the prime factor.

Here’s the recipe for our evening dish — it’s a middle ground between casserole and stew, sort of a thick stew or soupy casserole — which cost us about $2 per large serving. Total dinner cost, About $7.50.

Collards and Rice

Serves 4

1 small bunch collard greens (I used a 1-pound bag of mixed cleaned, cut “Southern Greens” from Trader Joe’s. It’s sweeter with plain collards, if they’re cheap.)
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 large leeks, well rinsed and chopped (I subbed a large yellow onion)
1 garlic clove, sliced (I omitted, but it’s better with one)
1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
1 14.5 ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 14.5 ounce can vegetable broth
1 14.5 ounce can black-eyed peas (I used a can of organic pinto beans, $1.09 at Trader Joe’s)
hot pepper sauce

Stem, rinse, and chop the collards.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with oil over medium heat. Add the leeks (onion, in my case) and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks begin to brown.
Add collard greens and toss until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the stewed tomatoes, broth, and 1/2 cup water. Bring to boil; then reduce the heat to low. Cover with waxed paper to seal well and then with the pan lid. (Note: I used a Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, and skipped the wax paper.) Cook, stirring once, until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes (Note: Mine took more like 45.) Serve in warm bowls. Pass the hot sauce, so everyone can season it to their own taste.

– Adapted from “One-Pot Vegetarian Dishes” by Amy Cotler (It’s an amazingly good little cookbook from 1996, if you ever find a used copy.)

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