Friday, July 18, 2008

Forays in American cooking: Two weeks on the USDA thrifty food plan

I have achieved heights of ludicrousness I never dreamed possible. I am feeding my family the USDA way. I'm not the first person to try it. Jeffrey Steingarten, in a hilarious essay published in The Man Who Ate Everything followed the USDA thrift menu too, although his experience was different from mine in that he didn't feed an entire family and the menu seems to have changed since then. What I remember from Steingarten's essay is his description of a “peanut butter snack cake” which he says he ate “not without enjoyment.”

What is this thrifty food plan of which I speak? The USDA publishes a guide to help you feed your family nutritiously on a relatively small amount of money. You can access it here. It includes menu plans for two full weeks, a cookbook, shopping lists for each week, and tips on healthy eating and thrifty shopping.

Day one started with a trip to the grocery store. If you plan to do this yourself, I recommend that you bring both the menu and the shopping list to the store. Both are needed for clarification. But you won't try this experiment yourself. I have suffered so you don't have to.

I'd grabbed the list without looking at it carefully and as we progressed through the aisles of Harris-Teeter I became more and more appalled at the foods we were expected to buy. The thrift plan is designed for a family of two adults and two children. Since I have four children I'd planned to increase what I bought by 50% but this left me buying stupendous amounts of food. Thirty-two oranges, sixteen bananas, nine apples and 1.5 pounds of melon for a single week? Not to mention that I had to bypass the luscious Ranier cherries that were on sale, and also in season. Sixteen pounds of potatoes? Aghast, I decided to scale back to the amounts specified on the list.

We were led to buy foods I had never known to exist. Spinach comes in a can? We could hardly believe it, but it's true, there is such a thing as canned spinach. White bread? Does anyone actually eat white bread anymore? An entire gallon of ready-to-drink lemonade? Eight cans of frozen orange juice concentrate? Three and a half gallons of milk? My cart was a veritable tower of food by the time we got to check out. The total came to a not-so thrifty $197.

By the time we got home, it was time to cook the lunch. Day one's lunch consisted of “Turkey patties, hamburger bun (4) Orange juice (3 c), Coleslaw (2c), 1% lowfat milk (2c).” Yes, a hot, cooked lunch. Every day. I have news for the USDA: most American children are in school at lunch time. How, pray, am I supposed to pack “Potato soup, low salt snack crackers, Tuna pasta salad, orange slices, and oatmeal cookies”--day five's lunch menu—in a lunch box? Don't talk to me about tupperware. There isn't enough tupperware in the world to pack a five-dish hot meal in four lunch boxes every single day, not to mention Jon's lunch—and my own—I'm in school too, usually. And one must question when I am supposed to cook all this stuff. Can you imagine yourself frying up the turkey burgers at 06:00 so they're ready to pack in time for school?

But this was my experiment and if the USDA wants my family to eat a hot cooked lunch every day then my family will get a hot cooked lunch every day. And so it came to pass that on day two I was roasting a farking chicken at 9:00 in the morning.

But back to day one. The turkey patties weren't bad, although by the time I had finished cooking them, my children thought I was clearly off my rocker. They were excited too. I think they liked the idea of a menu set out for them, especially Mr. McP, my nine-year old.

The scheduled snack for day one was a slice of white bread each and “chick pea dip.” Chick pea dip turned out to be an inferior sort of hummus and I thought to eat it with white bread would be disgusting, so I toasted the bread and cut it into dainty triangles and my kids loved it. Loved it! Dinner was a hamburger helper-ish “beef noodle casserole” with lima beans (prepared from scratch) and sliced oranges and bananas for dessert.

Day two I realized that eating from the thrifty food plan was like going back in time to the 1930s. I was cooking almost the entire day. No sooner had I finished serving and cleaning up from breakfast, it was time to think about lunch. The lunch required a stupendous amount of preparation. There was the chicken, plus homemade potato salad, homemade rice pudding and an “orange gelatin salad” which I had to make from unflavored gelatin packets and orange juice. The lunch was tasty, except for the gelatin salad, which was inedible. Why not just buy a box of orange jello? Making it with the unflavored gelatin was actually more expensive and when you consider that nearly 100% of it got thrown away, it was not a thrifty dish. Dinner was a turkey/vegetable stir fry with rice and a homemade peach/apple crisp, which we ate not without enjoyment, to use the words of the inestimable Jeffrey Steingarten. After dinner, Mad Scientist brought his empty plate to the kitchen and said, “Thanks for making dinner, Mom. It was almost decent.” High praise, considering the source.

Today we begin day four.


  1. What an interesting experiment. There's no way I'd try it, but it's entertaining to hear about your endeavors. I'm sure you could modify the menus and spend far less money.

    Oh, and how bad was the canned spinach?

  2. The canned spinach was disgusting. I served it last night with an almost equally disgusting baked cod sprinkled with cheddar cheese, and scalloped potatoes, which were good.

  3. Wow. I am amazed by your fortitude to do this. I'd wimp out in the grocery store--aisle 4.

  4. I am confused: did you buy food for 1 week of meals or 2? If $197 is for one week, that's not very thrifty. But that would be good for 2 weeks.

    Canned spinach makes me gag from here. Yak!

    Do your kids miss junk food?

  5. The $197 was for one week. There's a separate shopping list for week two.

  6. That is interesting. I wonder when was the last time they updated this menu/shopping list. I certainly don't spend $200/week on groceries for my family of 6 and we don't have to eat unflavored gelatin and canned spinach. Good for you for sticking with it. I'm interested to hear your thoughts when you're all done.

  7. Canned spinach is one of my comfort foods. I'd never expect anyone else to eat it, though.