Wildly Affordable Organic

Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet -- All on $5 a Day or Less


By Linda Watson

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Buy Green. Eat Green. Save Green.

If you’ve wanted to eat like it matters but felt you couldn’t afford it, Wildly Affordable Organic is for you. It’s easy to think that “organic” is a code word for “expensive,” but it doesn’t have to be. With these ingenious cooking plans and healthy, satisfying recipes, Linda Watson reveals the incredible secret of how you can eat well every day–from blueberry pancakes for breakfast to peach pie for dessert–averaging less than two dollars a meal.

Get ready for wild savings! You’ll discover how to:
Ease your family into a greener lifestyle with the 20-minute starter plan
Go organic on just 5 a day–or go thrifty and spend even less
Take advantage of your freezer and freeze your costs
Find the best deals at your local farmers’ market or grocery store
Cook easy, scrumptious, seasonal dishes from scratch

Packed with tips for streamlining meals, from shopping and cooking to washing dishes, this book shows how sustainable living is within everyone’s reach. Slow global warming with delicious dinners? Lose weight, save money, and save the polar bears at the same time? When you live the Wildly Affordable Organic way, it is possible! Join the movement to change the way you eat–and keep the change.


To my husband Bruce for his unflagging support
and willingness to try anything, and to his mother,
Catherine Watson, who showed me that thrift, great food,
and warm hospitality go hand in hand in hand.

Part I
Discovering the Wildly Affordable Organic Life

Why Cook for Good?
If you've wanted to eat like it matters but felt you couldn't afford it, Wildly Affordable Organic is for you. It's easy to think that "organic" or "sustainable" are code words for "too expensive." More people than ever want to eat organic food, and the cost of energy is shooting up like genetically modified corn, but eating green doesn't have to mean eating up all your money. You just need to know what to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Use this book to save money, eat delicious food, and make a difference—helping yourself, your family and community, and your planet. You're on the right path even if you only use this book like any other cookbook: one recipe at a time. You can gain more value by following the tips for streamlining meals, from shopping and cooking to storing food and washing dishes. You can take big steps toward living the Wildly Affordable Organic life in only twenty minutes a day by following the starter plan, or you can go super-efficient and thrifty on the full seasonal program—cooking in one or two big sessions that take about five hours a week, plus a little bit of warming up and cooking each day. This is probably less time than you would spend going to a restaurant, ordering food, waiting to be served, and paying every night. You can afford organic, sustainable ingredients because you use every scrap.
Slow global warming with easy, scrumptious meals cooked from scratch? Lose weight, save money, and save the polar bears at the same time? Yes! Although Wildly Affordable Organic can't do everything—it won't give you a great singing voice or teach you to tango—it will help you harness the power of the plate to make the world better.

Immediate and Lasting Benefits

You see immediate benefits when you live the Wildly Affordable Organic life.

Save Money

Each seasonal shopping list in WAO shows two sets of prices (page 64). The "green" prices show how much you can save cooking with mostly organic or sustainably and kindly raised ingredients. The "thrifty" prices show how to save even more by picking ingredients with a focus on cost.
Green meals average less than $5 a day per person, $4.97 if you're counting pennies (and who isn't?).1 Thrifty meals average only $3.21 a day. Go all green if you can, all thrifty if you must, or create a mix that suits you. You'll still be using the same wildly good recipes, menus, and cooking sessions. Cooking fresh, seasonal food from scratch saves the average family hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on their grocery bills. Families who currently eat out often will see even bigger savings.
Even when including all the ingredients for three meals a day and a snack, Wildly Affordable Organic meals cost less than the food-stamp allowance in North Carolina, where I track prices. The government will provide up to $5.49 a day per person to help a family of four with no other means to survive.2 This book shows you how to not just survive but thrive on less than $5 using the green prices. For a family of four, that means having an extra $2.08 a day or $760 a year to splurge.
For a national perspective, look at the USDA's meal plans, which track the cost of eating at home at four levels.3 The USDA's low-cost plan costs 25 percent more than the Wildly Affordable Organic green meals. The USDA's "liberal" plan costs a whopping 90 percent more, which I call downright extravagant. A family of four would save $6,500 a year switching from the USDA extravagant plan to the WAO green prices.
Want to go lower? WAO's thrifty prices average only $3.21 a day. Save $2.28 a day compared to the North Carolina food-stamp allowance and $1.57 compared to the UDSA's own thrifty plan, its lowest level. A family of four would save over $9,000 a year switching from the USDA extravagant plan to the WAO's thrifty prices!
What's more, these prices show worst-case scenarios—with no coupons, membership clubs, stocking up on sale items, or homegrown vegetables. The prices even include extra food to supplement the Something from Nothing recipes (page 191). So clip a few coupons, stock up during sales, buy ice cream peaches (page 35), and feed your Stoup (page 198) to rack up even more savings.
What do these numbers mean to you? Although the prices in your community may be a little higher or a little lower, you still save loads of money. That's true even if you already cook most meals at home. See the savings in your grocery bills from week one. Watch for savings in your medical bills too, as eating fresh fruits and vegetables plus plenty of whole grains and beans pays off in improved health. My advisers, readers, and students say that the Wildly Affordably Organic life is healthy, realistic, and kid friendly.

Eat Well

Saving money doesn't mean subsisting literally on peanuts. You'll be cooking fresh, seasonal food that's so delicious that you'd want to eat this way even if a budget was the last thing on your mind. From the first time you smell homemade bread baking in the oven or dish up fresh peach ice cream, you'll wonder why you ever ate any other way. Eating with the seasons gives you maximum flavor and built-in variety. Even asparagus, strawberries, and blueberries are affordable when purchased at their peak.
A tasty, satisfying breakfast puts a smile on your face and fuels your day. Wake up to peanut butter on toasted homemade bread, blueberry pancakes with eggs, sweet raisin flatbread, oatmeal, and homemade yogurt.
For maximum family appeal, many lunches and dinners feature healthy versions of dishes familiar from eating out, such as pizza, burritos, spicy Asian noodles, and chili. Enjoy a variety of pasta with homemade sauces, bean stews, and roasted or baked dishes.
Lots of fruit and whole grains make the scrumptious desserts nutritious too. Dig into strawberry shortcake, peach ice cream, blueberry pie, oatmeal-raisin cookies, carrot cake, pudding, and chocolate upside-down cake.

Make a Difference

Cooking efficiently and eating fresh, seasonal food really do let you make the world a better place.
On a personal and family level, you'll create a welcoming home full of the smells and tastes of terrific food—and you'll set the example of healthy eating. Wildly Affordable Organic will reduce your "what's for dinner?" stress with dozens of tips and tools, from the seasonal menus and shopping lists to ways to cook ahead and reduce dishwashing. Serving less sugar and fewer processed foods to your family will make them calmer and more focused. And you'll lose weight and feel better by eliminating trans fats, preservatives, and artificial anything from your diet.
Gain confidence by learning to cook on a very low budget to help you through any tough times. Make your kitchen a family space where kids learn the fascinating transformations of cooking and develop skills they will need when they have their own kitchens. You might learn something from them too: it's easier to have a heart-to-heart talk at home than at McBurger.
You'll also help your community. Buying from local farmers throughout the year encourages them to continue growing good food near you. You support your local economy and make your country safer: it's harder for the weather, terrorists, or just bad luck to take down a rich network of many local farms. It's also easier to trace and fix any problems, which will be smaller in scope than for a huge industrial source.
What's more, the whole world benefits when you cut back on your use of fossil fuels by minimizing the transportation of food grown far away and the storage of food grown long ago. Organic and sustainable farming encourages deep root growth, builds carbon in the soil, prevents erosion, and helps plants survive drought. You'll save energy by avoiding processed food and eating mostly plants. This all saves money, so you can afford to eat better dairy and eggs: those from kindly and sustainably raised animals. You also have the option to eat better meat and fish from animals raised the old-fashioned way. Refuse to support the modern cruelty of factory farming.
Less fossil fuel, less pollution, and less waste shrink your carbon footprint and slow global warming. You can literally help the polar bears and slow the rising of the seas by eating melons in August and apples in October. You make the world a happier, safer, kinder place when you live a Wildly Affordable Organic life.

Making the Plans Work for You and Your Family

The next part of the book streamlines the steps of feeding your family—from navigating a farmers' market to unlocking the power of your freezer. Learn how to buy and store bulk purchases and use a kitchen scale.
The third part covers the super-efficient menus, shopping lists, and cooking plans by the season. Then, finally this book starts to look like a traditional cookbook, with over a hundred delicious, healthy, and easy recipes.
I usually follow a Wildly Affordable Organic seasonal cooking plan, so most weeks I cook a few dishes and get ready on one evening, and then I cook for a few hours the next day. But sometimes it's better to have one big cooking afternoon every week. You can cook in batches throughout the week too. If you keep a few frozen meals on hand, you'll always have something ready if you get sick or need to spend extra time at work or with your family.

You Don't Have to Do It All or All at Once

The beauty of cooking from scratch is that you can go as organic and as local as your budget allows. Start with a big pot of beans every week. Have high-protein pasta with quick homemade tomato sauce instead of going out for fast food. Even if you stop there, you are still way ahead.
Better yet, learn something new every week or so. Try the easy core recipes to make yeast bread, pudding, tomato sauce, and more. Then add variety by trying related recipes that build on your new skills. Even yogurt, blueberry pie, and pizza are simple to make once you learn a few tricks.
Learn how to squeeze the most out of your money at the grocery store or farmers' market. Take a minute to start a Stoup container (page 198) or broth jar (page 191) and you'll quit throwing your food dollars down the drain. Save frustration and money with a simple five-minute check every night.
With Wildly Affordable Organic, you can choose how you want to save and then use the extra energy and money to save more. Let's get started!

The Experiment
A Summer on a Very Low Budget

Inspiration: Michael Pollan and the Food Stamp Challenge

I began my experiment in thrifty, delicious eating when the philosophy of food ran smack into the politics of food in the summer of 2007. On the philosophical side, Michael Pollan linked the supermarket's middle aisles to the obesity epidemic, citing research that showed that "the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly—and get fat."1 On the political side, several politicians and antihunger activists showed what eating badly looked like when they took the "Food Stamp Challenge," living on the average national food-stamp allowance of a dollar a meal. I was particularly irritated by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan's slap-dash approach, with his aides throwing two-ounce bags of coffee into his cart and the Congressman skipping meals. When airport security seized his stash of peanut butter and jelly, he was looking at thirty-six hours with nothing but cornmeal. He wound up cheating with Dunkin' Donuts, peanuts, and a pork chop, blogging "It is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to make [do] on this amount of money."2
Nonsense, I thought. These men must not be cooks. A dollar a meal is tight, but it doesn't mean we have to pick Cheetos over carrots. The goal should not be maximum calories but maximum nutrition. The maximum-calories idea had been around for years: that poor people are often fat because they don't have the money to eat food that would allow them to be thin. But we get fat by eating too many calories. Surely buying better food to move closer to the ideal number of calories and nutrients is both possible and desirable.
I found myself chuffing in the grocery store: "Look, this whole bag of dried beans is only seventy-nine cents a pound . . . and it's not even on sale. That's about eight cents a serving." I was garumphing at the farmers' market too: "Here's a flat of delicious local strawberries for fifteen dollars. That's about fifty cents a serving. Why do people insist that people who don't have much money can only drink soda and eat potato chips?"
After nearly a week of these mental calculations, I got bored with the limited answers my growling produced. Sure, some foods were both cheap and nutritious. But could I really get by on a dollar a meal? Could I enjoy it?
That night at dinner, I broached the idea to my husband, Bruce. What if I tried the food-stamp diet for three weeks, eating on $1 a meal like Congressman Ryan? But what if I moved the source of our food around to show the options? We are within walking distance of a Whole Foods and a Food Lion, a regional chain grocery. And we can reach the farmers' market where we usually buy our fruits and vegetables by bus, even if somewhat awkwardly. What if we did week one at the Food Lion, week two at the Whole Foods, and week three at the farmers' market? At the end of that time, we'd know a good deal more about eating on the budget our government allows.
My husband looked only mildly horrified. "You can eat extra if you want," I said. "I'll just cook for both of us to that budget and you can have extras if you want."
"No, I'll do it with you. Might as well see just how hungry we get."
You can see why I love him.
"Well," he added, "At least we'll lose some weight."

Baseline: Where Did We Start?

Bruce and I were already flexitarians. I don't buy or cook meat, but I do eat it socially when the choices are "ribs" or "rude." Bruce eats more meat than I do, sometimes buying organic turkey for sandwiches and eating more meat when we travel or visit.
I bought mostly organic and local food at the North Carolina Farmers' Market, Whole Foods, and local grocery chains. We grew a few vegetables, plus blueberries and figs. A typical menu for a day would be peanut butter on toast for breakfast with juice and then beans for one meal and high-protein pasta for the other meal. This may sound tedious, but with a variety of beans, starches, sauces, and lots of fruits and vegetables, we really had a parade of international dishes. We enjoyed lots of vegetables and fruit as well as ice cream and other sweets. Pizza and egg dishes added variety.
So we started with a pretty thrifty and healthy diet. But significant chunks of it couldn't be supported on a food-stamp diet. I wrote in my journal before we started that "The balsamic vinegar, organic butter, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream are out. And I'll have to stop supporting our excellent local brewers for the duration. I will be losing some weight indeed."

Getting Ready: The Rules

In the last few days before we started the dollar-a-meal experiment, we ate or froze the perishables we had on hand. I studied the supermarket's flyer and drafted a menu for week one. I couldn't know what we could afford until I checked prices at the store, so I set priorities: core nutrition came first—enough protein and carbs to keep us going. Add vegetables and fruit to balance the meals and then bring in nutritious desserts to keep everyone happy.
I studied news reports about the national Food Stamp Challenge and the rules for shopping with food stamps. My goal was to make these weeks a realistic test of what a couple on food stamps might be willing and able to do. Here are the rules that came out of all that thinking:
• Budget is king. Nothing can make us spend more than $1 a meal per person.
• Nutrition is essential. The menus must provide balanced nutrition, including enough protein and five fruits and vegetables each day.
• No cheating with staples. Participants in the national challenge could use unlimited staples from their cupboards. I'll use limited staples plus buy all my oil and one long-term staple every week.
• No crazy cooking. I'll cook from scratch but not go overboard. Homemade ravioli may be inexpensive, but it fails the reality test.
• Get some satisfaction. Meals must be tasty and satisfying enough to let us resist the siren call of chips and packaged cookies.
• Be ourselves. I would only buy food we would ordinarily eat—no trans-fat–filled sausages, no matter what the savings.
• Be honest. Report our actual experiences, good or bad.

Adding a Job to the Mix

Two days before we stared the experiment I got a call from the new boss where I used to work. Doris said the person who had my old job was suddenly gone and no one else knew the computer system. Could I help?
"Let me think about it and talk with Bruce." I didn't want to go back to the job permanently, but this would ward off criticism that my experiment wasn't realistic. I could hear Larry King now: "So, Linda, you say you were able to eat well on a buck a meal. But what about someone with a real job?"
If I took my old job back, I would not only be working irregular hours with overtime, but I'd have to squeeze in my regular website-design work. Doing this wouldn't compare to some of the multijob nightmares people on food stamps live with, but it was better than working at home.
I called Doris back. "When do I start?"

First Shopping Trip on a Tight Budget

Our dollar-a-meal experiment would start on my first day at work. I had trouble sleeping the night before, being both excited and worried about the experiment. Would I be able to put together enough food to keep us healthy and satisfied? Would it be good enough that we'd stick with it? I also thought about families who couldn't shrug and say, "Give me the extra-virgin olive oil and a wedge of Parm, please—and a pork chop for my friend."

The Price of Small Quantities

I worked a full eight-hour day, then went grocery shopping on the way home with $42 in an envelope and a sketch of the week's menus.
I started in the center aisles, getting essential beans, rice, and flour. My first surprise came right away. Even the cheapest white rice was 79 cents a pound. I was used to spending ten bucks for fifteen pounds of top-notch Basmati rice at a buying club. Mediocre rice, bought one pound at a time, cost 18 percent more than excellent rice bought in bulk.
I put bread flour and whole wheat flour into the cart along with the least expensive yeast available. Usually I buy a pound of yeast a year, spending $6 to make sixty-four bowls of dough, about 9 cents for a loaf of bread. The three-pack I bought was $1.47, costing 40 cents more for every loaf.
Sugar gave me the bulk shock again. I bought the smallest bag available: two pounds for $1.19. Four pounds cost only $1.97. The smaller bag cost 10 cents more a pound.
And on the surprises went, through beans, pasta, and condiments. I tallied my buys and saw that it was looking good. This is a snap, I thought. I might be able to afford the tea and ice cream at the bottom of the list.
But the dairy department slapped the smugness right out of me. The smallest amount of butter I could buy was a half-pound, or two sticks. Those sticks cost $1.99, compared to $3.79 for a whole pound. Store-brand large eggs were $1.79 a dozen.
Clang! I was over my limit and hadn't even hit the produce section yet. I was tired and hungry after an hour of shopping. I returned food I couldn't afford, reworked the menus, and headed for produce.

Budget Rage

While returning a box of rotini, I heard a young couple having a flirty argument about which type of sauce to buy. "One is enough, Honey," simpered the girl. "Baby, get them both. You know it will make you happy." Happy! Feh. I restrained myself from hurling a garlic press and marveled that I'd become so humorless and bitter in only . . . could it be? . . . an hour and a half of shopping.
I slogged on to produce, stopping to get a smaller, cheaper jar of peanut butter. I'd reclaimed nearly six dollars of my budget, enough for a pound of carrots, cabbage, garlic, and five onions. Again, I felt the pang of not buying in bulk. The pound of carrots cost a dollar, but ten pounds cost only six dollars. Even my usual choice, a five-pound bag of organic carrots, cost only 80 cents a pound. It takes money to save money.

Checking Out an Extra Fee

I checked the last item off my list and went to check out. I asked the cashier if food-stamp recipients had to pay taxes on food.
"Oh, yeah," she said, giving me the suspicious glance that I would get with any inquiries about food stamps. "And we charge a fifty-cent processing fee too."
"A fee? For taking food stamps?"
"That's right. You got your card?"
"No, just cash today," I said. Was charging a fee even legal? (It's not, I learned later. Was this clerk mistaken, trying to discourage customers from food stamps, or pocketing the fees? I'll never know.)
I found I'd been holding my breath while the cashier rang up the last dozen items. Phew! My total was only $41.92 including tax. My stomach rumbled as I rolled the cart out to the car, two hours after I'd entered. Clearly, shopping on a budget was harder than it seemed.

Home at Last

"Where have you been? I was getting worried," said Bruce when I got home. "I already fed the cat."
"All this time?"
"You have no idea."
"Well, what's for dinner? It's time to feed me."
"It's our last big splash tonight." I put water on to boil and then went upstairs to change while he brought in the groceries. No need to rush any ice cream into the freezer. Then I put the groceries away, organized so that it was clear what could be used in the coming week.
I made our standard low-energy work-night dinner: rotini with bottled sauce and fresh-grated parmesan, frozen peas with vinaigrette, and garlic toast. I had the last two glasses in the last bottle of wine in the house. We split an apple and then polished off the last of a pint of yuppie ice cream—altogether a typical meal, but enriched by a certain nostalgic air. Ah, the last wine! The last ice cream!
While Bruce washed the dishes, I made split pea soup to cook overnight in the slow cooker. Then I set up the bread machine to make French bread, which doesn't use milk. After setting the timer so the bread would be ready when we got up, I staggered upstairs to bed.

The First Day Is the Worst

I had trouble sleeping again. Had I added enough water to the pea soup? Did the timer for the bread machine indicate when the machine would start or stop?
Finally, at about 2:30 in the morning, I crept down to the kitchen. Delicious smells wafted up the stairs to meet me. The soup looked fine and the bread was rising nicely, so it would be ready in just an hour or so. Still, better cold bread for breakfast than raw dough.
When the alarm went off at seven, I trotted happily back to the kitchen, looking forward to toast made with homemade bread. First thing: coffee. The store-brand grounds were chunkier than the drip-filter grind I was used to, but it smelled okay. While the coffee perked, I went to check on the bread.
Where was it? I looked across the kitchen through the domed glass lid of the machine, expecting to see a crusty dome of bread underneath. I lifted the lid and looked inside. Quelle horreur! The bread—she was flat! I twisted the cylindrical bread pan to release it and then tamped out the bread. Just at that moment, Bruce came in the kitchen.
"What's that?" he asked, seeing me hold a cylinder of bread that was eight inches wide but only two inches tall, not the good foot-long loaf that I'd expected.
"Our bread."
"We're already doomed!"

No Extra Food to Make Up for Cooking Mistakes

"Have some orange juice and I'll make toast."
I poured myself a cup of coffee. Thin and bitter, it had an oily sheen on top. Cheap office coffee—the stuff I'd avoided for years.
I went to work on the dense, hard-crusted bread. Using a serrated knife, I sliced two pieces of bread for toast. There was no way the half-loaf that remained would provide three days of toast and a sandwich meal.
When the toaster went off, I poured another cup of coffee and spread peanut butter on the toast. The peanut butter began to melt and ooze off the bread. We are already doomed, I thought, bringing the plates into the dining room.
The toast and bread tasted good, though, even if it was messier than with name-brand peanut butter. But I rediscovered why I always had orange juice with peanut butter toast: coffee and peanut butter taste terrible together. Because Bruce barely had enough OJ for the week, trading coffee for juice wasn't an option. I washed down the toast with water. Better, but not the Breakfast of Champions.
And how was the juice? "Drinkable," Bruce said. It was not tropical like the pineapple-orange-banana mix he usually had, but it would do. I smiled, glad he was being such a trooper about the experiment.


On Sale
May 31, 2011
Page Count
272 pages

Linda Watson

About the Author

Linda Watson, the founder of CookforGood.com, created her wildly affordable cooking plans after being inspired by a national challenge to eat on a food-stamp budget. She credits her background in project management helping her to not just survive but thrive on just a dollar a meal per person. Her 2013 SNAPcut Challenge used WAO recipes to cook organic and local even on the newly reduced food-stamp budget.

Linda has a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation. She’s had a wildly varied career so far, including developing a top-secret expert system, working with Tom Clancy and Douglas Adams on computer games, and riding the dot-com wave with eGarden.com. Today she teaches cooking through classes, books, and videos. Watson lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband.

Learn more about this author