Peasant-fare fit for a king


High-Energy, High-Nutrition, Low-Cost Diet

by Dorothy Ainsworth

My beautiful sunshiny Mom

I was raised on beans and I still love 'em. My mom figured out how to feed her impoverished family of eight on almost no money. She cooked a pot of beans every day. She bought bread, milk, margarine, potatoes, and occasionally some meat, but that was about it. We had a garden for greens and kept a few chickens for eggs. Her idea of variety was deciding which type of beans to cook each day: pinks, pintos, or limas.

We lived in southern California off and on from 1942 to 1960. Back then, oranges, tomatoes, and avocados were abundant and free, and we ate our fill daily. In fact we were so healthy and robust there were never any doctor bills. Some people would call it luck, but I attribute it to our peasant diet...and all that vitamin C.

Colorful array

Mom let us dip into the simmering vat of beans whenever we were hungry, night or day. It wouldn't spoil our dinner...it was our dinner.

To supplement the beans, especially in winter, she would fry up huge skillets of raw grated potatoes with celery and onions and we would each wait our turn to get a big sizzling slab (browned and crispy around the edges) on our plate as fast as she could cook each batch. We could feel the heat rising to our flushed faces as we re-fueled.

Talk about energy-packed...we were jet-propelled!

Note: Beans are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, and cholesterol-reducing fiber. One cup of dried pinto beans contains 7g protein, 60% of your daily requirement of fiber, B-vitamins, and 8 essentials minerals, including lots of calcium and iron, and much more. All this for only 25 cents and 100 calories. Mom was smart!

Beans keep well. I stored 25 lbs. of pinto beans in a bucket with a tight lid for 27 years (forgot I had them!), but when I finally cooked them in 2002, the soup was perfect. Nobody would have guessed they were vintage 1975.

How to Eat Well on $6.50/Day

In this article I'm going to share with you how, to this day, one person can live on about $200/month in food...good, nutritionally dense food that, to me and anyone I cook for, is downright delicious.

A typical day for me starts with hot cereal I call cruel gruel: 7-grain cereal mixed with thick-rolled oats (neigh) from the bulk-food dept. of a local grocery store that consistently has the lowest prices in town. With milk and a little butter on it, my breakfast costs about $1.00 and is very filling. I would be just as happy with 2 scrambled eggs and a piece of toast, totaling only 50 cents.

Lunch may be a can of tuna (58 cents on sale) on one slice of dense wheat-berry bread, wrapped in lots of dark green romaine lettuce, burrito style. Along with it I sip or guzzle a glass of V-8 juice, depending on how much time I have. A 5 oz. can of tuna supplies about half of the average person's daily protein requirement. Lunch total: $2.00

Homemade for a dollar

Dinner is a big tossed-green salad, and I mean big! And extremely green...and red and purple and orange, replete with all the nastiest members of the cruciferous family: shredded cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. (I don't waste money on pale iceberg lettuce.) I use a low-cost homemade dressing that is really tastier than it sounds: oil, vinegar, tomato sauce, a pinch of sugar, and a few spices. After first gorging on salad to assuage my appetite (moooo), I cook a little piece of chicken or fish or some form of beef (usually 10%-fat hamburger), or I have soup or beans. Dinner total: $3.00.

If I feel like a snack before bed, I eat a small bowl of raisin bran cereal or a tablespoon of peanut butter and honey.

Note: Dinners are a breeze if you plan ahead on the labor-intensive necessities such as salads. I make a bus-tray full every Sunday and dip into it all week.

Hearty feast

I know, I know, it doesn't sound like the all-American diet, but it illustrates how a person can actually flourish on good, unrefined food for a few dollars a day. I'm single now, so I can eat as I please, but if you have a family, I know very well that you have to provide bigger and more diversified meals.

However, the experts now say too many choices is what is making Americans fat, so a person or a family can actually get used to and even come to enjoy fewer choices and still have a well-balanced diet. I happen to know that's true, and when you're really hungry, even beans taste like steak!

One other thing I know for sure: We should not waste money on empty calories, especially since we're in a recession that may turn into a depression. If you're not vigilant and discriminating in your choices, the cost of food for your family can be a huge percentage of your income. It's imperative during this recession that you strive to get more nutrition for your dollar.

Everything you put in your mouth should be densely nutritious, with few exceptions...such as when you have an occasional sweet-tooth you cannot deny. I understand this...I'm no angel...but even my choices of desserts have redeeming value health-wise.

Here's My Short List of Nay's If Your Budget Is Tight

* No eating out (one large pizza can cost $30, the same price as a 25 lb. bag of beans that will feed 100 people!

* No take-out (Chinese food can cost $25 for two, plus the tip!)

* No white (bleached) refined flour or white bread

* No sugary boxed cereals (puffed nothings: air, fluff, and sugar)

* No prepared frozen dinners (not even!)

* No packages of cookies and puddings...make 'em from scratch (No chemicals)

* No junk food...period! (I know, that's harsh, but you can make your own healthful and delicious sweets)

* No soft drinks (ever!) and no sugary, watered-down juice drinks, including lemonade. Sodas are dangerously full of sugar and chemicals and have no redeeming value whatsoever, and they are expensive. The latest research says diet soft drinks in particular are toxic, esp. to small children.

* No expensive snacks such as potato chips, corn chips, and crackers with labels that show high calories, high fat, and high salt.

* No hotdogs, lunchmeat, or anything else containing killer nitrites and high levels of saturated fat. Read labels!

Here's My List of a Few Yay's:
Nutritious & delicious

* Always splurge whatever extra money you might have on fresh fruits and veggies in season. They aren't a luxury; they are a necessity.

* If fresh is not in season, buy (or produce for yourself) canned or frozen fruits and veggies (See Jackie Clay's BWH articles on canning, freezing, and drying food.)

* Buy in bulk (dry grains, beans, brown rice, nuts) and save about half the price. Store in sealed containers.

* Stock up on canned goods on sale (WalMart, Cosco, Winco, etc.).

* If you have no time or inclination to make your own bread, buy the densest whole grain you can find. My favorite is Oroweat's Honey Wheatberry.

* If your family likes bread at every meal, buy a compact, portable bread-making machine ($50 to $100) and get as creative as you want with flour, grains, nuts, brans, and seeds. You simply put the ingredients in and the machine does the work (including the baking), and you have fresh bread in 1-2 hours. You'll save lots of money; nutritious store bought bread is $3-$5 a loaf. If you'd rather make bread from scratch, read all about the process (plus some excellent recipes) in past and present BWH articles by Richard Blunt.

Dorothy's garden

* A deer in the freezer is like money in the bank. I'm not a hunter, but during a recession getting a deer is a great idea. You'll have a freezer full of meat, and venison is lean, clean protein.

* I'm not a farmer, but I believe in planting edible landscaping. Even if you live in town, plant fruit and nut trees in your yard and enjoy the free harvest every season. My one almond tree produces a year's supply of almonds...every year!

Dixie the Octumom!
Meal in a shell

* Keeping a few chickens (3 or 4) is easy to manage and will probably provide more eggs than you need for a small family. Eggs contain the highest quality protein there is besides mother's milk, which means all the essential amino acids. They also contain 13 essential nutrients, including vitamins A,B,D,E as well as the minerals calcium, iodine, and iron. One large egg is 6 1/2 grams protein, contains only 75 calories, and costs about 15 cents. Do your family and your budget a favor by serving lots of eggs. Some studies now say the lecithin in the yolk emulsifies and counteracts the fat and can even reduce cholesterol absorption in the bloodstream. But no matter what the controversy is, there's no doubt that eggs are the cheapest super-food there is for growing kids!

Tip: Without a noisy rooster, even if you live in town, keeping a few hens in a backyard pen or letting them free-range in a fenced yard won't disturb anybody. I find them delightful.

Cooking For a Family When Short on Time and Money

I've always been in a recession financially (single mom/waitress raising 2 kids), so cooking healthfully on a shoestring budget is my area of expertise. Here are some suggestions for a few good quick and easy meals and desserts:

1. Bake a plain chicken in the oven along with some baked potatoes. It takes 5 minutes preparation and an hour to bake. Serve with something green or yellow. Meal for four: $8.00

Assorted graters
Garden-fare: Stewed tomatoes
Dorothy's kitchen & her vats

2. Make a vat of spaghetti sauce, but not ordinary spaghetti sauce. Add every vegetable you can get away with into the hamburger-laden tomato sauce: chopped celery, bell peppers, onions, finely grated carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, finely chopped broccoli, garlic if you like, sliced olives, even finely chopped kale and parsley. Use lots of Italian seasonings, and a combination of stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and even mild salsa. Start out with a big pot! The more veggies you add the higher the level rises, but keep in mind that they will cook down in an hour and are deceptively camouflaged in the sauce (if you have picky eaters).

Bonus: Now you'll have it on hand for spaghetti and/or lasagne whenever you want to cook the noodles or your choice of pasta. Grate a little cheese on top and you'll have a tasty, substantial meal and some left over to freeze. It's so loaded with goodies that the only side dish you might complement it with is tender frozen peas. If you buy a large 5 lb. value-pak of hamburger, this meal will serve 8-10 people. Cost: About $20.

3. Tuna gravy is quick, easy, cheap, and very tasty, and can be served on toast or fried potatoes. You simply brown oil and flour in a frying pan, add milk (canned milk diluted with water is good too), stir like crazy so lumps don't form, generously add a few cans of tuna (one per person), and stir some more. Side dish: salad, peas, corn, or green beans. It's satisfying to the core. Meal for four: $6.

4. Another hearty meal that requires almost no time but baking time is an inexpensive cut of beef or pork (such as a chuck roast). Put the meat in a baking pan and cook for about an hour, then add veggies cut in large pieces: first unpeeled potatoes and carrots sliced lengthwise, then celery and onions. Bake it all another hour and it's ready. The veggies simmer in the roast juices. What could be easier and better than that? Meal for six: $10.

5. There's always turkey and it's always comparatively cheap. Why not bake a turkey without the trimmings as often as you please? It makes its own gravy (with a little flour added). Serve with mashed potatoes (real ones) and veggies. Turkey sandwiches for lunches are the best, and your sliced turkey won't contain preservatives such as nitrites (known carcinogen) as do the expensive packages of sliced turkey. You can find turkey on sale during the holidays for about $1.00/lb. Buy 2 or 3 if you can and freeze them for the off-season.

6. Same with ham. Cook a whole ham (on sale), use it for sandwiches, or to flavor the beans (bone and all), or cut it into small pieces to add along with sauteed vegetables to breakfast omelettes.

7. If you and the kids like waffles or pancakes, I recommend Krusteaz Wholewheat & Honey Complete Pancake Mix. I add extra eggs and milk for protein. It's really a superior product and a superior alternative to white biscuit mixes. (Note: Cornbread also has more nutritional value than white biscuits.) Breakfast for four: $4.00.

8. I'm a big soup-maker. Beef (or pork) barley soup and chicken soup are the ones I'm most famous for. I start with simmering the cut-up pieces of chicken (usually breasts or thighs), beef, or pork (cheap cuts), for at least an hour to make them tender and create flavorful broth. Then, as you might imagine, I load the soup with finely chopped veggies and add the cooked noodles, rice, or barley last (so they don't end up overcooked). Soup for several days: $10.


9. If you're gone during the day, buy a large slow-cooker for $20 to cook beans in and let them simmer on low all day. Dried beans or dried peas are $1/lb. and one pound will feed a small family. Bean soup or pea soup for four: $1.00.

For a change of pace, you can make chili beans by adding hamburger sauteed with onions, celery, bell peppers, and chili powder. Chili beans for four: $5.00.

10. Any kind of meat (or tofu) and veggie stir-fry, served over brown rice, is excellent for lunch or dinner. Plan ahead and cook the rice in advance and you can whip up this meal in 15 minutes. Stir-fry for four: $8.00.

Sweet Stuff

The desserts I choose to make are as healthful as possible but at the same time wonderfully delicious. If you're in the mood for dessert, you don't want sweet-tasting particle board.

Which is the carrot?
Carrot birthday cake

1. My favorite is carrot cake, and I'll venture to say my recipe is really a good one! (See recipe.) I add more finely grated carrots than the law allows, chopped walnuts, and golden raisins. I top it off with cream-cheese frosting whipped with powered sugar and a few drops of vanilla. It gets rave reviews for moistness and flavor, as does my apple cake (similar ingredients). Large carrot cake: $10. (Not cheap, but worth it)

Perfectly imperfect
Peach pie in the making
Deep-skillet apple pie

2. When making an apple pie (or any kind of pie), I don't mess around. Why go to the work to make pie dough and make enough for only a small pie? I make fruit pies in a deep skillet with a long handle that I bought years ago for camping trips, and it barely fits in my oven. It's 16" in diameter and 3" deep, which means more fruit and less crust (healthier).

I don't bother to peel such a large number of apples; I just slice 'em thin...at least a dozen. I add sugar (white and brown), flour or cornstarch for thickening the juice, a few squirts of lemon juice, some apple cider, cinnamon, sometimes raisins and/or walnuts, and always a few drops of vanilla (the secret ingredient). I bake it 'till it's bubbling out the top crust and all over the bottom of the oven! When I smell smoke I know it's done! (In truth, I line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil.) Large deep-dish pies using fruit from my own trees: $6.00/pie.

Apples keep very well in a cool, dry place, and are versatile. It's so easy to make applesauce, a child can do it, and baked apples make themselves!


Anywhere in the country where fruit trees and vines grow well, there are farms where you can pick fruit, veggies, berries, grapes, and nuts yourself. You are charged by the pound or the bushel, and prices are very reasonable compared to grocery stores. If you plan on canning, it's the only affordable way to go. if you have friends with fruit trees or your own trees, there is no reason to pay for summer fruit at all. Waste is a terrible thing...something to seriously consider in a recession...so use all the free fruit you can. My four apple trees bear so heavily every year, I end up taking bushels and bushels of the smaller apples to ranches and stables for their horses.

Cynthia, "Blue," & Zane picking blackberries
Zane & Cynthia picking apricots from G-ma's tree
Enough for a vat of stewed apricots & a pie

We have blackberries growing everywhere here in Oregon, just for the pickin' in late summer and early fall. Needless to say, everybody gorges until they're purple in the face (literally). The berries are free and can be picked in excess...and canned, frozen, or jammed for wintertime.

3. Pumpkin pie is particularly healthful. It consists of just pumpkin (squash), eggs, canned milk, moderate sugar, and a little cinnamon. It's almost like eating your vegetables as a dessert. Two standard-sized pies from a large can of pumpkin: $7.00.

4. Another quick dessert is pudding: lemon, chocolate, or banana. It takes about 10 minutes to make from scratch with cornstarch and sugar. You can pour the bubbling lava on a plate to cool faster if you just can't wait! I never made my kids wait, and we even licked the plates when our spoons failed to scrape up the last of it. Oink oink. It costs less than $2.00 to make a medium saucepan full.

5. Granola is also one of my specialties, and I make it when the kids visit or for any good excuse. I mix a multitude of ingredients from oats, sunflower seeds, and nuts to coconut, raisins, and everything else imaginable into a sweetened-with-honey batter, which glues it all together. Then I spread it out on a large cookie sheet and bake it to golden brown. Even before it cools the stampede begins. It's so much cheaper to make and so much more nutrient-dense than store-bought granola that there's no comparison. You can almost consider it a meal! Large sheet of granola: $10.

6. Homemade oatmeal/raisin and peanut-butter cookies are also energy-packed healthful treats. I use lots more oats, and much more peanut butter, than any recipe would dare to call for. When I cook and bake, I pay no attention to rules.

Zane, 6, makes strawberry smoothies & popsicles

7. Make real-fruit popsicles for the kids. They're full of natural vitamin C and are much more nutritious and delicious than store-bought.

German tank
Fresh squeezed

8. Buy an electric orange-juice and lemon-juice juice-maker. They are unbelievably cheap ($10-15), and the motor is so strong it's virtually impossible to overheat it. Believe me, I've put it to the test making quarts at a time of orange juice for years. There's just nothing like fresh-squeezed orange juice, and this easy squeezer is my favorite kitchen appliance.

9. Invest in a regular-type juicer and/or blender (Goodwill or on sale) and make fruity smoothies, especially in the summer with free or U-pick orchard fruit...instead of buying soft drinks or Koolaid (sugar-water).

Save Money on Certain Food Items From Walmart and Costco:

Whenever I go to Walmart, I stock up food they carry that is consistently priced much lower than in the grocery store.

Here's My List:
Almost more raisins than bran!

* Raisin Bran: $1.92/box, compared to $4.98/box at the grocery store. It's very good raisin bran and has enough raisins to choke a pig. As expensive as raisins are, I don't know how they sell it for less than $2.00!

* Tuna: Every grade of tuna you would want ( dolphin-safe albacore to various chunk-lights) and name brands are sold at about half the price of regular market price.

* Macaroni and cheese (the original fast-food for emergencies) is only 50 cents a box.

* Condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and catsup are cheap, as are jars of pickles.

* Sugar and flour are sold at substantially reduced prices.

* Coffee is not cheap anywhere, but is a little cheaper at WalMart. Again, I'm no angel...I like coffee with lots of cream and sugar in it!

I recently bought a case (12) of Wilderness and Comstock cherry pie filling (another weakness) for only $2.00/can...half the regular price at the grocery store.

* Spanish peanuts are a real bargain at $2.00/can.

Perfect marriage
Bargain brand

* The food that gets my vote for the biggest bang for your buck (certainly containing the most energy) is Adams Peanut Butter (crunchy or smooth), which consists of peanuts and salt and that's all. It's definitely a survival food and can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for a long, long time. It's basically protein and fat (the good kind) and the best pick-me-up I can think of...and longer-lasting and healthier than a cup of coffee. Mix it with a little honey on a slice of wheat berry bread and it'll tide you over for hours.

Tip: Stock up on several large jars when they're on sale. The regular price is less than $5.00/jar. That might sound expensive, but when you consider that you need only a tablespoon at a time to do the trick, it's cheap. What you don't ever want to do is buy hydrogenated peanut butter (the common kind). It'll clog your arteries with saturated fat.

Excellent quality & low sugar

* I buy all my paper goods...and other everyday kitchen, bathroom, and office supplies...from Walmart or Costco. Walmart carries the Great Value brand, and it really is great. Their GV plastic food wrap is only $1.47 for 200 feet. It's good quality for an unbeatable price. I'll never go back to paying $4.00 at the grocery store.

Cheap labor = liquid gold

* If you're feeding a large family or having a houseful of hungry relatives come to visit, the best bargains I've ever seen are in the institutional canned-goods aisle of any supermarket or grocery outlet. Gallon cans of beans, fruit, and vegetables are unbelievably cheap. I recently bought a gallon of pineapple chunks for $4.00, and a gallon of pear halves and apricot halves for $6.50 each. The fruit is minimally processed and has no sugar added. I was impressed with the high quality of everything I stocked up on!

* Here's a great way to get free honey: If you have the type of land and a location that bees might like (south-facing), allow a local beekeeper to place his hives in a small area on it, in trade for a nice supply of honey each year. I recently received my six annual quarts of beautiful liquid gold from the professional beekeeper who does all the work while I sit around eating bread and honey! Honey value: About $100.

Closing Thoughts


Eating a healthful diet is like an inexpensive insurance policy called preventive medicine. Health is wealth. Even if you have a few bad habits, it is possible to re-train your palate to prefer "real" food. Nutrient-dense food leaves you feeling so satisfied and stabilized you just won't have the cravings for junk food.

The trick is to plan your schedule so you don't get so hungry you'll devour anything in sight, such as greasy fast-food. I recommend carrying a can of Spanish peanuts in the car as a ready snack for you and the kids...so you aren't tempted to screech into McDonalds. Spanish are the least expensive peanut you can buy. They are tender and moist, and stabilize blood sugar instantly.

My big-three survival-food winners are beans, eggs, and peanut butter (or just nuts). They all keep well (except eggs), so stock up on them...just in case. And don't forget to store some water...just in case.

You can save a lot of money going green and going natural. Most Backwoods Home readers are enlightened and already have a good diet, but it wouldn't hurt to spend even fewer precious dollars on food during this recession, and without compromising health. You can have a balanced diet and a balanced checkbook!

McDorothy's "Happy Meal"
Friend Mariah Moser partakes

Dorothy's Carrot Cake

original recipe card

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar (1c. DARK BROWN, 1c. white)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder (optional)
1 tsp. salt (or less)
1 T. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger or pumpkin pie spice (optional)
4 large eggs
1 3/4 cups of vegetable oil (important measurement)
1 T. vanilla extract
4 cups finely grated carrots (don't skimp)
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins (dark &/or golden)

Beat eggs and oil together until frothy. Gradually blend in dry ingredients (flour last). Add carrots, nuts, raisins, and vanilla. Blend well with mixer on low speed.

Pour into large oiled rectangular baking pan 9"x14" (easy way) and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. OR use three oiled 8-inch round pans for a layer cake and bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour.

Do not over-bake, or it won't be as moist.

Cool for an hour. Then frost with cream-cheese frosting made with 1/2 cube butter (softened) mixed with two 8-oz. pkgs. cream cheese. Beat in 2 cups of powdered sugar and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract.

All I can say now is "YUM!"