Good food on a low budget

Every now and then one hears of news items from the developed world as to how persons on a low income or welfare are trying to manage their food on a low budget and the difficulties they are facing. I have seen this at first hand with some of my students in Canada who were facing similar difficulties. Often I had to step in with a bit of friendly advice as to how to go about dealing with the situation based on my experience of South Asia where very many families have managed to get by on very little for centuries. In North Western India for example, these are the five things that bring down food costs when a household is facing financial difficulties:

  1. Meat is not consumed but when a vegetarian meal is balanced people are just as healthy or healthier. There are earlier posts in this blog describing how some of the healthiest, strongest and longest lived persons are in fact vegetarians or near vegetarians.
  2. All food items are prepared starting from basic ingredients rather than factory prepared or processed ones.
  3. Bread, usually unleavened flat bread, called roti or chapati, mostly from wheat is prepared fresh at home at every meal. Once one is experienced at preparing these, it does not take more than a few minutes a piece and it is something that can be prepared even on a small camp fire on just a flat plate of iron..
  4. The vegetables and lentil beans etc. if at all with a meal are seasonal ones, the cheapest in any season when one is poor.
  5. Use of low cost herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilies to improve the taste of a dish.

When these five rules are followed, food costs come down dramatically. Those who are better off add eggs and milk products to their daily diet to make it better and healthier but the poorest rural persons consume that only if they have a cow at home that is yielding milk.

Aside from carbohydrates and proteins a human needs a variety of other micro nutrients for robust health and these can be obtained from leafy green edible foliage, some that come from trees and some from the wild such as Dandeloin and Goosefoot and others that can be grown easily around a home even in containers such as celery and spinach. There are older posts in this blog that describes some of the healthiest of edible tree foliage such as white mulberry and drumstick. Most of such leafy greens can be dried in shade whenever available in abundance and stored in tight containers for adding later to soups and other dishes in order to enrich them. Persons living near forests have a great opportunity to collect these once they learn to recognize the different edible leaves that may grow in their area. Such crushed leaves can also be added to wheat flour for bread for better health and variety from time to time. Dehydration of vegetables was much used in Asia in older times to put a variety of vegetables on the table even when times or the season was harsh.

The difference between diet of rich and poor in South Asia is how many dishes of what accompany bread at a meal. The poorest might just manage with a pickle or an onion or a cheap seasonal vegetable such as goosefoot that comes up as a weed on farmlands in winters. The rich on the other hand have several dishes and side dishes to accompany every meal and use expensive ingredients such as cardamom, saffron and gold or silver leaf.

Understandably when there are several side dishes, the bread becomes smaller and thinner whereas for the poor it is thick and large, since most nutrition has to come out of that alone. It is easy to make out the financial background of a household in India by the thickness and size of the roti i.e. bread consumed regularly at home.

Just for a bit of diversion in to family trivia, My mother who belonged to an aristocratic family of north India moved to my father’s parental home that was less well off after marriage at a young age and was shocked to see the large size of rotis and talked of that till her last days. She would hold a hand to her mouth in a gesture of embarrassment and say, “ My God the size of those rotis --” However things changed when my father set up his own independent home and started a family. He had one of the best paid jobs of the times - an officer in the British India Army. Till years later my father’s sister who visited often would remark that she remained hungry at first because it took her time to get used to the vanishingly thin pieces of bread that were served with meals at our home. It takes a little time to adjust whenever food patterns change even for the better. In later years there were times in my father's life as well as mine when we went through difficult financial times for a few years at a time. The first was when my father had to get his sister married, the second when he incurred debt to build his own family home. In my own adult life, hard times were witnessed first when I had to set aside almost all of my assets for the future life of my daughters at the age of 41 in one go and again some years later when I had to spend my last penny to build a home for my own living.  However, through all these periods of difficulty the family has managed to survive with low cost food that did not lead to any serious malnutrition and no severe health problems except for some weight loss, and all this was with the help of wisdom by the grace of the Lord..

Bread being central to diet and prepared at home brings down food costs drastically. The lord has made this humble grass food abundant on the planet. Wheat flour in India costs about four dollars for ten kilograms and perhaps would be around the same in other countries too. It is even less when wheat is ground at home. The hungriest of adults depending primarily on that can consume no more than 25 kilograms of wheat a month and that means around ten dollars is the base cost per person per month to mitigate hunger although bread alone does not mitigate malnutrition. Nevertheless it helps a person to buy time. The amount of wheat consumed comes down when other items are added to meals to accompany the bread and that is what South Asians do when they have more money available for food.

The closest analogy of the diet of a poor South Asian to food in the west is what is served in free soup kitchens, a loaf of bread and some soup or stew. However, it must be noted that even this costs significantly more if bread is bought from the market rather than prepared at home. Use of herbs and spices that do not cost much such as garlic, turmeric, coriander, cumin and chilies fried in a bit of cooking oil are used routinely in South Asian dishes to improve the taste of a soup (called tari or tarkari) that may not have much else besides water in it. There are chemicals available now that would do the trick but being chemicals are not good for health. When food tastes, looks and smells good and is cooked and served with love one digests it better and fares better. On the other hand an unpleasantly prepared meal that does not taste good may not do much for a human even when prepared with rich ingredients.

Food that is fresh and clean, prepared and served with love and care does far more good to a human than another that is otherwise even if prepared with richer ingredients
"Eat not the dainty meats and rich foods of the evil one; eat, eat he says to you but his heart is not with you and you shall vomit out what you have eaten and lose your good words" Old Testament
Home Made Pasta

For those who like pasta , home made pasta or pasta fresco is much healthier and much cheaper than the dried variety from the market. Kids love it. See an older post on how to make it easily at home along with recipes for a variety of sauces to go with it here:

This blogger wishes all humans everywhere may be able to procure the best of food at all times, but at the same time he also wishes that they know how to manage with less, when God forbid, times are hard. It is essential knowledge for all humans. One may find in history of how even some rich kings managed to bide their times in forests for extended periods based on this knowledge.


Well researched and articulated. Yes I definitely can see a time in the not too distant future when severe food shortages can occur even in developed countries.And then people will be compelled to resort to good healthy but simple low cost food
Ashok said…
Thanks Ramakrishnan. What I noticed in the west is that because of their years of prosperity the westerners have got used to expensive ways and have forgotten how to go about with reduced expenses in the kitchen

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