What We Spent and What We Ate: Cheap Dinners and Cheap Shots

This week was awesome, mostly due to the Republican backlash to the National School Lunch Program changes, which went into effect at the beginning of this school year.  Chef Ann Cooper was on Talk of the Nation discussing school lunch reform and Jon Stewart did a great bit on kids protesting the changes.

I was even able to get into the fray myself.  I got a Google Alert about a post on the conservative blog, Seeing Red Arizona.  The post, entitled (with unnervingly confusing and incorrect punctuation) Hunger games? Hypocrite Obama’s mandate food choices, blasted the new school lunch requirements.

It didn’t say anything especially interesting, but then I scrolled down to the comments and holy shit, these people are crazy.  I felt compelled to use my most condescending tone to insert some reason into the “discussions” (read: litany of attacks on the first lady).  This was met with a retort (among several) that Michelle Obama has no right to tell us how to eat because she has a big ass.  Really?  What makes it disturbing is that I’ve heard criticisms of the first lady’s body serve as the basis of political arguments before.  Apparently it’s all fair game in the blogosphere.

The irony is that the changes to the lunch program are minimal.  I know we need to celebrate every small victory, but this change represents a very, very small victory for school lunch reform.  Here’s an example of how the new requirements translate to one day’s lunch:


Hot dog on bun (3 oz) with ketchup (4 T)

Canned Pears (1/4 cup)

Raw Celery and Carrots (1/8 cup each) with ranch dressing (1.75 T)

Low-fat (1%) Chocolate Milk (8 oz)


Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Meat Sauce (1/2 cup)

Whole Wheat Roll

Green Beans, cooked (1/2 cup)

Broccoli (1/2 cup)

Cauliflower (1/2 cup)

Kiwi Halves (1/2 cup)

Low-fat (1%) Milk (8 oz)

Low Fat Ranch Dip (1 oz)

Soft Margarine (5 g)

There is mounting evidence that low-fat diets aren’t healthy and may even contribute to obesity, so I have serious issues with things like low-fat ranch dip, low-fat milk (especially when it’s not organic and not grass-fed) and margarine.  All are highly processed foods that would be better left out of a child’s diet.  And I don’t even want to get into the meat that’s used for the spaghetti sauce.

See more examples of menu changes on the pdf: beforeafternutritionact


What We Spent and What We Ate:

We spent $218.57 this week.  $75 of that was at the Downtown and Town and Country farmers’ markets.  I’ve been trying to ask for receipts at the farmers’ markets, but I usually forget.  This week, I asked, but then I lost them.

On the Cheap Without Chicken

My first issue of Cooking Light (which I love) came this week and I was very excited because the cover touted lots of budget-friendly recipes.  I flipped through them and immediately noticed that, like every f-ing budget meal feature, most of the dinners include chicken.  There are a lot of reasons not to eat chicken, but one of the main reasons is precisely because it is cheap.

Cheap chicken is factory farmed chicken.  Factory farmed chicken is bad for workers, bad for the birds, bad for the environment, bad for public health and bad for personal health.  If I’m going to eat chicken, I’m going to spend a lot of money for a real chicken from the farmers’ market.  It’s just not worth saving a few bucks–the price of cheap chicken is passed on to all of us down the road in health, environmental, and human costs.

So I decided to plan a few meals this week that were budget friendly without relying on cheap chicken.  I also tried to avoid beans.  Cooking beans on the cheap makes me feel poor–especially after Sean Hannity’s “let them eat beans” comment last year.  Likewise, I only made one dinner featuring pasta.  Pasta is the cheap diner I fall back on, not something I put thought and effort into.  When I get around to making my own pasta, I’ll be whistling a different tune, I’m sure.

Here are this weeks cheap dinners–all well under 15 dollars:

Saturday:  tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread

I used another of my Mark Bittman favorites–“Almost No Work Whole Wheat Bread.”  Adding fresh baked bread to this time honored cheap dinner turns it into nostalgic comfort food.

Whole Wheat Bread

3 cups whole wheat flour

½ tsp instant yeast (I use a tiny, tiny bit more)

2 tsp salt

2 tbsp olive oil to grease the pan and brush the top of the loaf

1.  Combine ingredients in large bowl.  Add 1 ½ cups water and stir until blended;  the dogh should be wet—add water if it doesn’t look kind of like batter.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for at least 12-24 hours.

The dough will be a little bubbly when it’s done rising the first time.

2.  Scoop the dough into a greased loaf pan and use a spatula to gently settle it in evenly.

3.  Brush the top with olive oil.  Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, an hour or 2 (It won’t quite reach the top of the pan).

4.  Heat oven to 350 and bake until the bread is a deep brown and hollow-sounding when tapped—about 45 minutes.

5.  Immediately turn the loaf on a wire rack to cool.


Sunday: Himalayan Curry and Tibetan noodles

I got the Gila Farms cookbook last week and tried a few recipes.  There’s nothing earth shatteringly inspiring about the recipes, but the photographs and stories of the farmers are beautiful.  The book offers a few dozen ideas for what to do with your farmers’ market produce.

Himalayan Curry:


1 pound Tibetan noodles or spaghetti

3 cups assorted vegetables, chopped into bit size pieces (cauliflower, carrots, green beans, collard greens, potatoes)

½ pound spinach, washed and torn into bite-size pieces–this is a great job to keep the kids busy!

1 onion, chopped

4 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon turmeric

3 fresh chilies, julienned

1 bay leaf

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 cups vegetable broth

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro


Cook noodles according to package directions.  Remove while still slightly undercooked; drain and rinse.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the onions; fry until brown, about 10 minutes.

Add turmeric, garlic, ginger, and chilies; stir for 1 minute.  Add assorted vegetables; stir-fry for 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes, soy sauce, broth, bay leaf, salt and pepper; cook until vegetables are tender.

Add noodles; cook 5 minutes or until sauce is consistent and begins to thicken.  Fold in spinach for 1-2, until wilted.  Garnish with cilantro.

I used Einkorn pasta for the boys’ dinner:

and buckwheat noodles for Pat’s dinner:


Monday: low carb pizza and flatbread pizza

Pat had to go the first Montessori parents’ night at Walter’s preschool.  This was an awkward affair at which my husband did the hokey pokey with several unenthusiastic East Indian couples.  I had to feed the kids, so I tried making pizza crust using the flatbread recipe from last week.  It was pretty good and they were nuts about it–done and done.

little low carb Hawaiian Pizzas

Pat and I are trying to lose two pounds (each) to get back down to fighting weight.  So, it’s easy on the carbs for us this week.  I made little low carb pizzas for us.  They were good, too.


Tuesday: kale and quinoa salad

This was my very, very favorite thing this weeks.  The kids were decidedly unimpressed and Pat said, “It’s really good” when I inquired, but I could tell he was sad not to have meat.

I got this idea from the MOJO food truck at the Downtown Farmers’ Market.  The boys always go there for smoothies (very good, I might add) while I shop.  I’ve been wanting to try their quinoa salad, but I never have time.  I finally decided to just try it at home.  I bet they make it better, but mine was absolutely delicious.  I could seriously eat it every day until I die–and that would be a very long time because it’s healthy.

Kale and Quinoa Salad stolen from MOJO


one bunch of kale

one cup raw walnuts

1/3 cup cranberries

1 cup uncooked quinoa

For the dressing, whisk 1-2 tbsp. tahini and 1/2 cup olive oil into 1/4 cup lemon juice.


Cook 1 cup of quinoa according to these directions and allow to cool.

1.  Preheat oven to 350-375 degrees.

2.  Tear the kale leaves off the stems and then chop with a knife–I made my pieces on the small side

3.  In a frying pan, toss the walnuts in a couple of tablespoons of melted butter to coat.

4.  Put the walnuts on a tray, sprinkle with a little salt (more if you used unsalted butter) and toast them until they brown very slightly–five minutes or so.

5.  In a heavy bottomed frying pan, saute some minced shallots in olive oil for a minute or two.

6.  Add the kale to the pan and saute for a minute or so–just until the kale turns bright green and is a little more tender.

7.  Remove the kale and walnuts to separate dishes and allow to cool.

8.  When it’s time to eat, toss the kale in the dressing and mix in quinoa, walnuts and dried cranberries.


Wednesday: a mountain of dolma

I inquired of my students how to make dolma.  Most of them are Iraqi, so they should know.  I got lots of advice in broken English, and it was fun hearing all the different ways to do it.  On Wednesday morning, when I walked in, I was greeted with a ginourmous plate of dolma.  There were stuffed tomatoes, onions, grape leaves, potatoes, and summer squash.  Pat and the boys loved them–we ate them for dinner and then snacked on them the next day.  The boys’ favorite were the stuffed potatoes and Pat and I liked the stuffed tomatoes, grape leaves and onions the best.  Now the prospect of making dolma is even more daunting because my family has tasted the real thing.

Even though I didn’t make them, I’ll share the recipe from the Gila Farm Cookbook that I had planned to use.

Iraqi Dolma


1 medium onion, diced

4 cups uncooked rice

2 pounds ground meat (beef, lamb or mixture)

1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon allspice

¼ teaspoon curry powder

6 medium cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup fresh lemon juice


In a medium bowl, add onion, garlic, meat, rice, parsley, half the allspice, half the curry powder, and half the lemon juice; mix thoroughly.  Using a spoon, carve out insides of eggplants, squash, tomatoes, and green peppers and add to the bowl; mix thoroughly.  It may be helpful to open the top of the tomatoes and green peppers with a knife, then use a spoon to remove the insides.  Set aside emptied vegetables.


3 medium onions

3 medium eggplants

2 medium tomatoes

4 medium green peppers

4 medium zucchini

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons tomato paste

1 jar grape leaves, drained and rinsed


Peel skin from onions and discard, then peel off the large outer layers and set aside.  Add vegetable oil to a large pot.  Fill the outer onion layers with stuffing and arrange along the bottom of the pot.  Fill emptied vegetables with stuffing and arrange in a layer on top of the onions.  Lay grape leaves on a flat surface.  Spoon 1 tablespoon stuffing into the center of each leaf, fold sides toward the center, then roll.  Stack in a layer on top of the vegetables.  In a small bowl, whisk together ½ cup water, tomato paste, allspice, curry powder, and lemon juice.  Pour over dolma in pot.  Place a heavy dinner plate on top of dolma to prevent vegetables from separating.  There should still be a little room ont e sides fo the pot.  Add enough water to the pot to cover all the vegetables.  Bring to a boil, cover, then reduce heat; cook for 1 hour, until all liquid has been absorbed and rice is tender.


Thursday: spicy sesame shiratake noodles, brown beech mushrooms and roasted eggplant

This was sooooo good.  I used a different sauce and it was perfect with the shirataki noodles.  The mushrooms and eggplant are ideal with this dish.  The bonus is it’s very low carb, so I could enjoy the fork twirling fun of a bowl of noodles and not have to worry about feeling too full and sleepy or falling off the diet wagon.  I got the noodles, mushrooms and Japanese eggplant at Le Le Asian Market.  You can get all three at Whole Foods, but it’s more expensive and not as good.



Spicy Sesame Noodles with Vegetables adapted from 1001 Low Carb Recipes by Dana Carpender

For the sauce:

¼ cup water

4 tbsp soy sauce

1.5 tbs tahini

1 tbs peanut butter

1 tbs rice vinegar

1 tbs mirin

½ tsp red pepper flakes or sambal

a little grated ginger


1.  Make 1-2 tbs toasted sesame seeds

Place the seasame seeds in a small, heavy skillet over high heat and shake the skillet constantly until the seeds start to make little popping sounds and jump in the skillet.  When that happens, immediately turn off the heat and shake the seeds out onto a small plate to cool.  Set aside.

2. Saute about 1 cup brown beech mushrooms in butter over medium heat, just until they start to brown

3.  Roast about 2 cups sliced eggplant, coated in olive oil, at 350 degrees.  When they’re soft and starting to brown, they’re done (about 15 minutes)

4.  Drain the shirataki noodles and put them in hot water until they’re warm.  Then mix the noodles and sauce.

5.  Add the mushrooms and eggplant and top with sesame seeds (a little Thai basil or cilantro would be good on top, too).


Friday: roasted beet salad with goat cheese

I saw this recipe in this week’s New York Times and the picture made me want to eat it.  So I made it.  By Friday, I was a little tired of the oven, but it roasting the beets was worth it.  I only had a nibble (lots of carbs), but the sweetness of the beets was delightful with the cheese.

Roasted Beet Salad

For the dressing:

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

For the salad:

1 6-ounce bag baby spinach

4 medium beets, roasted

2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, chives, parsley or a combination

1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted


1. Make the dressing. In a small bowl or measuring cup combine the vinegars and salt to taste. Whisk in the mustard and the olive oil. Set aside.

2. Toss the spinach with 3 tablespoons of the dressing. Line a platter or individual plates.

3. Skin the beets and cut in half lengthwise (stem to root), then slice into thin half moons. Place the sliced halves on top of the spinach and fan them out.

4.  Drizzle on the remaining dressing and sprinkle on the herbs. Top each fan of beets with crumbled goat cheese and pine nuts, and serve.

This week’s receipts:

Related: I love infographics!!!