Thursday, September 25, 2008

What the Hunger Challenge Means to Me and Menus for Lunch and Dinner and More

“I’m hungry.”

When one of my kids whines that he needs to eat, maybe I grumble about having to deal with it, but I can turn to my stocked fridge, overflowing fruit bowl, full extra freezer or packed pantry and get him something to snack on or make him a meal. My only thought is what to serve and if it will spoil his dinner.

When a family is on food stamps it’s just not that easy. Very often the cupboard may be bare; whatever food is available needs to portioned out to make it through the month and to be honest, you hope there’s enough for dinner. And based on my experience this week, I bet there aren’t a whole lot of snacks, treats or even fruit in the house when all you can count on for food is $21 a person a week in food stamps. And portions will be smaller than you are probably use to.

I decided to join the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge because I feel those of us that are food obsessed need to use our talents for good, not evil. And helping to spread awareness and educate others about the issues and realities felt right. To be honest, while many of the meals I ate met the guidelines this week and all my planning did I did not stay on the program continuously, but even so my part-time experience made quite an impact. (The rules, such as they are, of the challenge allow for such “fudging.”)

Since I have two sons, I kept them in mind when I designed the week’s menu. Hearty breakfasts to fill them up and to keep their energy up in school and a variety of dinners and foods I know they would like, soup, stew, chili, meatballs and an Asian sauté. We aren’t much of a sandwich family, so only one lunch features sandwiches. We tend to eat leftovers from dinner at lunch when we are home, so I just planned 56 servings for a family of 4 for a weeks worth of lunches and dinners and figured they could be divided up any way you liked. I aimed for accessible variety -- flavor profiles I knew they liked and enough variety to keep it from getting boring. I simplified the recipes wherever possible to keep the KP duty down to a minimum.

My new best friend is green cabbage. It truly was a magic vegetable. The 2.36 pound cabbage I bought seemed to always be there when I wanted to add nutrition, fiber and bulk to any dish I was making. It made its first appearance in the chicken stew, appeared in a walk-on part in a salad, helped bulk up my Asian entrée and played a commanding role in its final performance in vegetable soup. From week start to end it stayed fresh, crisp and tasty. When I put the last scrap in the soup I couldn’t believe it was all gone.

I was also thrilled when I was able to work in a four-pound bag of rice, which meant I could add lots of rice to my meals and make them more filling.

For more about the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge, check out the food bank’s website and the Hunger Challenge blog. Click on one of the links below to read what other bloggers are writing about their experience planning, shopping, cooking and eating on $1 a meal a person.

Cooking with Amy
The Inadvertent Gardener
Vanessa Barrington
Been There Ate That
Petit Appetit Newsletter

See what else I’ve written about on the challenge here (including how to donate).

FYI – I spent $83.98 for the week’s food, just two cents below the cap. You can view my shopping list here. From what I thought I would be able to offer to what I ended up being able to buy was a huge gap. Vegetable after vegetable was crossed off my list, fruit after fruit. Whole grains went next; I just couldn’t afford them without literally taking food out of my family’s mouth. Plans and recipes changed and changed and changed as my shopping list shrunk and morphed depending on the realities of the marketplace and my ability to find sales and values. In a future post I’ll do something about the philosophy I tried to keep in mind for cooking for the week.

For my breakfast menus and recipes (well more of assembly instructions), click here.

Below is my menu with serving suggestions for 56 lunches and dinners (14 meals for 4 people). Watch Blog Appétit. I will be posting the different recipes in the next few days.

Chicken Vegetable Stew: 8 servings, 1 cup each – featuring two pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, carrots, celery, cabbage, potatoes, onions and garlic.
Serve over rice. (Recipe to come, I’m still working on a dumpling option.)

Turkey Meatballs, Tomato Sauce and Spaghetti – 12 servings. (Reserve 8 meatballs and 1/3rd cup of sauce for Meatball Sandwiches) Eight servings of two meatballs each, 1/8 sauce, 1/8 pasta. Served with green salad made with a few ounces of shredded cabbage, fresh tomato, ½ sliced carrot and ½ sliced celery stalk. Dressed with oil, vinegar and salt and pepper. (Reserve 2 large lettuce leaves 4 slices of tomato for sandwiches.) Four servings Meatball Sandwiches. Toast 8 slices of bread. Slice meatballs in half. Spread sauce on top of a bread slice, layer 1/4th of sliced meatballs on top, add lettuce and tomato, top with more sauce and second piece of bread.

This was one of my only “convenience” meals. I had planned on making the meatballs, but the price of the frozen ones was great – 2 pounds for $5. I was glad to work in a meal that didn’t require as much time in the kitchen.

Asian-Flavor Sauté – 4 servings, 1 cup each. Not really a stir fry but almost a one-pot dinner with chicken, tofu, vegetables and Asian flavors. Serve over rice. Make extra rice, because leftovers will be turned into the next meal. (Recipe to come.)

Food Bank Fried Rice -- 4 servings, 1 ½ cups each (or more depending on the amount of leftover rice you use). This dish (recipe to come) combines the leftover sauté with additional veggies, eggs and leftover rice.

Vegetable Soup – 12 servings, 1 ½ cups each. A hearty, tasty soup featuring potatoes, cabbage, carrots, celery, tomatoes, onion, garlic and more. If needed, make it a heartier meal by serving with a slice of bread and/or a poached or fried egg on top (optional, note that will affect your egg count for other uses). Or put some leftover rice in a bowl before ladling in the soup. (Recipe to come)

Beef and Bean Chili – 12 servings. I’m still working out this recipe, so more detail when I’m done. Serve with a bit of grated cheese over rice (for 8 servings) and over baked potatoes (4 servings).

Stuffed Potatoes – 4 servings. The innards of four baked potatoes get mixed with chopped broccoli, cheese and a white sauce and get stuffed back into their shells. (Recipe to come.)

A word about beverages – Drink tap water. It’s healthy, it’s there and it’s cheap. (It’s even trendy now.) Gussy it up with ice or maybe a bit of juice for flavor. My budget did allow for two cans of frozen orange juice. I mostly worked it into breakfasts, but leftovers could certainly be drunk anytime. I also had two gallons of low-fat milk. While some is used in cooking, the rest is available to drink. One of my early shopping list revisions was getting rid of coffee, herbal or black tea, cocoa or chocolate syrup. With my emphasis on “real” food I just couldn’t afford it.

Speaking of snacks, I thought it might be good to save the milk for snack time instead of drinking it with meals. Also, I was able to provide 16 pieces of fresh fruit in my budget that are available for snacks or as meal add-ons (12 apples and 4 nectarines) enough for four servings for four people. There are also about 20 slices of bread unaccounted for. Even if some slices might be used to accompany the soup, there should still be some available for use with butter, left over peanut butter, and left over jam. Also there is a celery stalk or two extra and a carrot or two extra. They could be cut into sticks and eaten with a meal or as a snack. Any leftover eggs can be hardboiled and eaten as a snack. Or set aside two and turn into rice pudding with leftover rice, some sugar, some milk and a dot or two of butter. Some of the orange juice could be made into homemade juice pops. Pour into ice cube tray, stick in toothpicks and freeze. There are also two whole grain waffles left from breakfast. Toast, sandwich with peanut butter and jam, and cut into sticks or cubes for a snack.
About the photo: My cutting board right after I used the last scrap of my magic green cabbage.


San Francisco Food Bank said...

Faith, I don't know how you did it! Did your husband stay on the challenge for every meal? (There's no way mine would do it.) I am so impressed with your menus, recipes and snack ideas! This will be incredibly valuable for Food Bank clients!

Thanks so much!

FJKramer said...

My husband thought the food I made was great -- he thought the dishes helped get us back to basics in terms of value (monetary and philosophical) and taste.

My family participated by only eating the "official portion" size at dinners and sometimes lunches (if they were around) but the rest of the time their participation was variable. Their support for what I was trying to do never waivered, however.

I look forward to working with the food bank and learning from its clients what works best and helping to disseminate that info to others.

Carly said...

Given that many of the people who use food banks are homeless or have a place to stay but not a kitchen, I would be interested to try a challenge like this with not just a reduced budget, but with limited options for food storage and cooking facilities. (In my privileged circles, I have heard people say that they don't understand why poor people eat at fast food places when there are produce options and things like lentils and beans that are so cheap! - and of course now that many staple foods are getting more and more expensive, that doesn't even account for the fact that there are many, many people who are lucky to have so much as a hot plate at their disposal when planning meals...)

FJKramer said...

Very good points.
In fact, my menu assumed a small and large fry pan, a med pot and a larger pot, no more than two burners and a microwave (although an oven could have been used to bake the potatoes instead.) I also assumed a knife and a cutting board. That's about it.

I also tried to pick foods that were too "foodie" that would be seen as approachable. My biggest concern was food storage -- was there a refrigerator and was there access to plastic tubs or other storage wear.

FJKramer said...

forgive the typo -- I meant not too foodie, obviously.

I also should add, I think it would be a great idea to develop community kitchens much like we have community gardens were people without regular access to kitchens can make meals to reheat in their rooms.