Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Review: Eat Vegan on $4 a Day

Image stolen from Amazon
I'll start this review with a confession:  I don't know how much money I spend on food.  I shop carefully, and most of what I buy is unprocessed or minimally processed:  bulk dry beans and whole grains, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.  When I do buy processed stuff, like canned tomatoes, or the almond milk (for smoothies) and coconut milk (for Indian food) that are on this week's shopping list, I tend to buy store brand, and I compare prices.  But if I want, say, organically grown pears, I don't worry about the fact that they are $2.50 a pound.  I buy the more expensive balsamic vinegar because it's better quality.  I often choose organic, even if it costs a lot more than the conventional item.  Then there are the days I say, "Screw organic, I'm buying this 10-pound bag of conventional potatoes for $5."  I also enjoy cooking and have the time to devote to it, so I don't have to weigh price against convenience (if I go for convenience, it's because I'm lazy, not because I really need to).    So I have the luxury of not having to struggle with a tight food budget, and I have the time to do things that save money, like use dry beans instead of canned.

Still, I was curious about this book.  I care a lot about making sure healthy food is accessible for everyone, and I hate how our government subsidizes things like meat, dairy, and highly processed grains so they are cheaper (until you factor in the medical bills) than the good stuff.  And I know there are plenty of people who could benefit from advice about how to eat healthy on a tight budget.  So I wanted to see if this book was any good.

There is some good stuff in here.  I was appalled, though not really surprised, by the chart comparing how much the USDA spends promoting animal products ($107.8 million for fluid milk alone) versus plant foods ($10.7 million for potatoes).  There are the usual tips, which are excellent if you've never heard them before: keep a running grocery list and don't shop without it, shop the periphery of the store, compare unit prices, avoid processed food, do food prep on the weekends to save time during the week.  The author includes one of my favorite time-and-money-savers, which is to cook dry beans in the slow cooker rather than use canned.  There are cooking time and yield charts for beans and grains, and a sidebar explaining the vegan four food groups (whole grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies).

I haven't tried any of the recipes, so I will have to make a few and report back.  Reading through them, they sound pretty basic, but tasty.  There's a quinoa-and-chickpea loaf (with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, yum!) that I would definitely like to try.  There's a "chocolate surprise cake"  containing beets, carrots, and zucchini, that I'd be very curious about if I ate cake.

But the big question, of course, is can you actually use this book to feed yourself for $4 a day?  The author gives estimated costs per serving (rounded to the nearest $0.25) for every recipe,  and in the front of the book there are sample menus for a week, with the cost of each item and the total cost calculated.  The costs range from $2.25 to $4.00 for three meals and a dessert or snack.

But here's the thing:  the portions are TINY.  For example, the recipe for "Hot Whole-Grain Cereal" calls for one cup of raw rolled oats to serve 4 people, and that's the entire breakfast.  That's half a cup of cooked oatmeal.  Period.  When  I eat oatmeal for breakfast, my food plan calls for me to eat a full cup of cooked oatmeal (1/2 cup raw),  plus a protein like beans or tofu, plus a fruit.  There's no way 1/2 a cup of oatmeal is going to keep someone going until lunch.  And then lunch that day is hummus with lettuce on a whole wheat pita.  How much hummus?  Well, 3 1/2 cups of chick peas are supposed to serve eight people.  That's a little less than half a cup of chick peas per person.  It just isn't enough food.

This kind of deception really pisses me off.  It's like processed food labels that try to convince you the food is lower in sodium, fat, or calories than it really is by making the serving sizes ridiculously small.  And this is clearly supposed to be a book for people who are not experienced with plant-based diets.  I'm really afraid someone would try these menus, feel hungry for a week, and decide going vegan is not for them.

What's really sad is that these menus do not meet the basic needs described in the very chapter of the book in which they appear!  For example, the sidebar on the vegan four food groups says a person should eat at least 5 servings of whole grains per day.  The menu I was just describing contains three servings (in addition to the oatmeal and pita, there's a half-cup of brown rice included with dinner).  So on page 26, there's a menu that the nutrition advice on page 18 says is nutritionally inadequate.

The recommended daily food plan on page 18 is as follows:

3 or more servings of fruit (one piece, or 1/2 cup cooked)
4 or more servings of vegetables (1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked)
2 or more servings of legumes (1/2 cup cooked beans, 4 oz tofu, or 8 oz soy milk)
5 or more servings of whole grains (1/2 cup cooked grain, 1 oz dry cereal, or 1 slice bread)

According to my dietitian, that's not nearly enough beans, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

The menu I referenced above costs only $2.25.  So maybe in theory, we could add another $1.50 worth of food and make it nutritionally adequate.  Let's look at a menu that costs a full $4.00:

Breakfast is "multigrain cereal combo".  That's 1/2 cup puffed grain, 1/2 cup soy or other plant milk, a banana or 1/4 cup berries, and 1/2 cup chopped nuts.  That's one serving of grain, maybe one serving of fruit (1/4 cup berries seems small), and actually quite a bit of protein from the 1/2 cup chopped nuts.

Lunch is a Portobello Poor Boy Sandwich.  You get a mushroom, a roasted red pepper, an ounce of spinach leaves, and half of a "small loaf whole wheat french bread."  I have no idea how big that small loaf is, but let's say we're getting 2 slices of bread.  So I've got 2 grain servings and what, 2 servings of vegetables?  Maybe?

Dinner is "penny pincher pitas."  Each person gets a little less than half a cup of beans, 1/2 a whole wheat pita, a little bit of corn, and some raw veggies.  Call it one bean serving, one grain, and not even one vegetable (Half a cup of lettuce for four people?  Really?)

Dessert is a mango smoothie.  Each serving contains 1/4 cup mango, 1/4 a banana, and (not making this up) 1/8 cup soy milk.  So we've got . . . . about a half serving of fruit and a 1/8 serving of beans?

Daily total:  4 grains, 1 1/2 fruit, 2 veggies, and one serving of beans, plus all those nuts.  1/2 cup of chopped nuts actually contains about as much protein as a cup of beans, so in terms of protein we're not doing badly at all, but that's a lot of nuts to eat in one day.  Still, according to the vegan four food groups as described in this book, the menu is inadequate.

To sum up:  this is not a bad book for a beginning vegan cook, or someone who is just starting to live on his or her own and doesn't know how to grocery shop or plan menus. I've seen better books for that, but this one isn't bad.  But when it comes to proving that a person can eat well on $4 a day, forget it.

An interesting exercise, and maybe a subject for a future post, would be to figure out how much a day's worth of my own meal plan (which I'm assuming is nutritionally adequate, since it was prepared by a registered dietitian) would cost.  I'm guessing it's more than $4 a day, but I'm kind of curious, now, to know how much more.  Since I buy so much of my food in bulk, it's going to involve a lot of weighing and calculating cooking yields and prices.  We'll see if I find the energy.


  1. We have to take on this project. It'll be fun and interesting if we work on it together!

    1. Since you've agreed to be Spreadsheet Lady, I'm into it!