How to Eat Well on $4 a Day: A Q&A with Cookbook Author Leanne Brown

The cookbook author talks with Healthy Eats about creating delicious food on a budget.

Canadian-born Leanne Brown was working on her master's in food studies at New York University when she became interested in finding a way to get people more engaged in food and cooking — especially those who don’t have a lot of money to spend on it. “I wanted to show people that good food can actually be had for very little,” she said. So she created a collection of recipes geared to the $4 a day food budget of those who rely on SNAP (the government food assistance program formerly called food stamps) and posted it on her website as a free PDF. Several hundred thousand downloads later, she produced an expanded, print version of Good and Cheap: Eat well on $4/Day (Workman, 2015). Here she talks with Healthy Eats about creating delicious food on a budget:

Why do you think that many people who are on tight budgets resort to packaged foods, rather than cooking, thinking it will save them money?

Leanne Brown: That is a very predominant myth, but it’s just not true that packaged foods are cheaper. In the short run, it might be less expensive to buy a box of pancake mix than to stock your pantry with flour, baking soda, eggs, etc., but if you are able to buy those ingredients, you’ll end up saving money in the long run.

What food do people buy ready-made that you think is just as easy to make?

LB: Tomato sauce. Literally in the time it takes to open the jar of sauce and heat it up, you could instead create a much more flavorful, healthy and less expensive version using just a can of tomatoes, some olive oil and chopped garlic.

Do you consider Good and Cheap a cookbook in the traditional sense?

LB: It is a cookbook, but it’s more about how to cook. The recipes are very flexible and encourage experimentation and substitutions. I want people to use the recipes as a framework and then use other things they like or have on hand to make them their own. I get really excited when I hear from readers that they modified my recipes!

What’s the biggest misconception about cooking that keeps people out of the kitchen?

LB: That it has to be hard and expensive to make something delicious. But if you use basic, fresh ingredients, you really can’t go wrong. The skills can seem intimidating, but cooking is just like any other activity: Once you try it a few times you start to realize that it’s not that hard. And food definitely does not need to look perfect in order for it to be really good. That’s one of the reasons I include recipes in the book for really basic, unsexy stuff — like oatmeal, popcorn and stuff to spread on toast. I wanted to show that simple food can be meals too.

You began this project targeting a very specific audience — those on the $4-per-day SNAP budget. Who else can benefit from this book?

LB: I hear from a lot of students, kids just out of school and living on their own for the first time, and also seniors; these are all populations who often have less money to spend on food and may struggle to create healthy meals. And for every book that’s sold, another copy will be donated to someone who needs it (through food charities, nonprofits and other organizations).

Savory Summer Cobbler
$2 per serving
Yield: 4 servings

Celebrate summer’s most-ubiquitous vegetables — tomatoes and zucchini — with a crunchy, peppery, Southern biscuit topping. For a variation, swap the zucchini for eggplant. Chop the eggplant into bite-size pieces, salt them, and set them aside for 30 minutes before using them as you would the zucchini.

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the pan

3 or 4 medium-size zucchini or summer squash, chopped into bite-size pieces

3 or 4 large tomatoes, canned or fresh, chopped into bite-size pieces
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 scallions, finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh basil (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup milk
Sprinkling of fresh chopped herbs or scallions

Put the butter for the topping in the freezer for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Lightly oil an 8-by-10-inch baking dish (or any baking dish that will accommodate the vegetables) and pile in the zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, scallions, lemon zest and basil, if using. Pour the olive oil over the top, scatter a generous amount of salt and pepper over everything, and mix it up with your hands. Bake the vegetables for 25 minutes while you prepare the biscuit topping.

Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, pepper, paprika and cheese in a bowl. Once the butter is frozen, use a box grater to flake it into the flour mixture. Gently massage the butter into the flour with your fingers until the mixture is crumbly but still clumpy. Add the milk and quickly bring the dough together. Don’t knead it — lumpiness is fine and results in a flaky topping. Put the dough in the fridge until the vegetables come out of the oven.

Once the vegetable mixture has cooked for 25 minutes, remove it from the oven and quickly top it with small clumps of biscuit dough. The vegetables should still be visible in some areas.

Bake until the vegetables are bubbly and the topping is lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Top with some more cheddar and some chopped herbs or scallions.

Note: If you have very large and juicy tomatoes, you might want to remove some of the seeds and juice so that the final dish is less watery. If a little juice doesn’t bother you, just leave them as is.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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