Eating on $1.50 a Day, Are You Kidding? The Problem of Self-Denial in an Affluent Society

04/09/2013 06:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

A dollar-fifty; that's how much it would cost, to eat in America on the poverty level. 'Impossible,' you say? 'Why should we, anyway?' Well, we should try it for several reasons:

When we focus on decreasing the amount we spend for food, it might make us aware of other ways we can save money, thereby moving us back toward the debt-free society we used to be. We can put some of the responsibility for improving our economic situation on ourselves as well as the government.

We'll have more disposable income for paying down our debt and then increasing our savings while buying the occasional (more appreciated) treat -- and, of course, we'll have something to contribute to people less fortunate than us, right here at home.

By raising our awareness of poverty, we might become more compassionate toward those who are struggling before we just label them, 'losers.'

More subtly, perhaps, we'd be taking one step forward to recapturing the basic values that once made America great. Those values drove us to achieving the 'No. 1' position in the world, from which we've now moved on. Maybe it's time we started moving back to those values.

When I was a freshman at Dunbarton College of Holy Cross (now defunct, unfortunately) in Washington, D.C., the theme of our Sunday sermons for the year was "The Problem of Self-Denial in an Affluent Society." The priest explored a variety of aspects on this, no details of which I remember, but it must have impressed me because I'm talking about it now, decades later.

Then, after graduation, I moved to Miami, FL and began working as a secretary at Jackson Memorial Hospital, earning a meager entry-level salary. To save on transportation costs, I rented an apartment across the parking lot from the hospital where a number of interns and nurses were also living.

None of us was out of the 'peanuts-earning' stage, so we combined forces on our meals. At the end of each day, we'd all meet in one apartment or another and share a meal together -- often a casserole, stew or hearty salad. We'd discuss the day, recounting tales that varied from hilarious to tragic, and we'd share our problems and insecurities. Those days were rich in quality for us all; one intern and nurse even eventually got married!

From April 29 to May 3rd, Live Below the Line USA will participate in a global project to increase awareness of how to live nutritionally on the poverty level while enjoying a more satisfying quality of life.

Where to start on figuring out how to eat on $1.50 a day? (Needless to say, Starbucks and restaurants -- even fast-food -- are out.) We could look at various ethnic groups and how they eat, taking cues from them. Shop in ethnic groceries and ethnic departments of discount stores. (My Nescafe instant coffee is considerably cheaper in the Hispanic department of Wal-Mart, than in the regular department).

Buy the house brands, have a general plan for your week's meals before you begin shopping, and remember that you don't have to have meat, poultry or fish at every meal; complete proteins come from a variety of other sources as well. (scroll down to the end on this one)

First of all, though, as your guideline on how much to buy, figure out what size your portions should be, by looking at your palm size. For me, 1/2 cup is just right for a portion size. OMG, you say!! Half a cup? It sure is, and after I add my salad, dessert and a cup of coffee, I'm plenty full; not bloated or sleepy, just satisfied.

Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

Meal Suggestions:

  • Breakfast: Grits & egg; lunch: rice and beans; dinner: burrito w/leftover rice and beans and a little bit of beef. (This came from a HuffPost Live Discussion on Living Below the Line.)
  • Ramen noodles, ground beef, chopped bell pepper, Bay's seasoning;
  • Cream of mushroom soup w/1 small can tuna over toast (variations for tuna: 1 hard-boiled egg or a few squares of tofu)
  • Stir-fry: Shredded cabbage, tofu, bell pepper, whatever other veggies you have, and a lightly beaten egg mixed in at the end.
  • Homemade hummus on toasted pita wedges (a complete protein)
  • Salsa and whole-grain taco chips
  • Ramen noodles cooked in chicken or beef bouillon, chopped onion and topped with a lightly beaten egg.
The key is to keep the portions within the range of your palm size if you're cooking for yourself only. Of course, if the meal you cook ends up being more than that, for heaven's sake don't just finish it then; save it for another meal.

For more suggestions, brainstorm with your friends, use your imagination or -- best idea yet -- ask your Mom or Grandma what they used to do when they were starting out. Your bonus to the latter will be some wonderful stories of their 'good old days'!

Suggested Ingredients:
TSP (textured soy protein (reconstitute it and substitute for ground beef)
Cream of mushroom soup
Canned chick peas (dried are cheaper, but more time-intensive for busy working folks)
Canned diced tomatoes
Pulses (legumes), cook them sweet and savory (they cook faster than dried beans)
Oat flakes (whole grains); you can pulverize them to make oat flour for pancakes, etc.
Hot sauce/hot pepper
V-8 Juice
Ginger snaps (two cookies might be good)
Graham crackers
Package of Dove chocolates to dole out one-at-a-time.

Last Words:
Plan ahead before shopping
Cook ahead when possible
Eat in
Stick to basics
Watch portion control

That'll do it!