$25, 1 week of meals


POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gabrielle Sunheart was at the lowest point in her life when her best idea hit.

“;Last year I had a comfortable life and a decent income, and suddenly I had none — no money. I thought, 'How will I ever feed my kids?'”;

It was August 2008, and the Big Island resident, suddenly a single mom, found herself standing in line for government assistance. Her husband had left her, and her access to income from their family business had been cut off.

“;Within a few minutes I was given food stamps, and I stood there in the office crying. I was so happy to get that money.”;

Sunheart was overwhelmed by the $150 assistance. But the woman on the other side of the counter told her most folks who come through that office don't share her reaction. “;She said people say they can't do anything with $150 — and that's when I had my 'Aha!' moment.”;

Sunheart was determined to figure out how to provide healthy fare for herself and three children on the $150 budget, and she planned to turn that knowledge into income.

So after nine months of brainstorming, researching and experimenting with recipes — “;I wrote and wrote and wrote, and cooked and cooked and cooked”; — Sunheart self-published a 200-page pocket cookbook, “;How to FEED a Family of 4 on $25 a Week.”;

The book is divided into 17 chapters that offer everything from shopping lists and a month's worth of menus to recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as sauces, dips, salads, desserts and teas.

Sunheart's plan is based on a whole-food, vegetarian diet that requires weekly trips to the local farmers' market along with bulk shopping at warehouse outfits, such as Costco, every few months.

The Costco shopping list includes brown rice, pinto beans, whole-wheat pasta, olive oil, vinegar, oatmeal, peanut butter, tortillas, butter, cheese and potatoes.

“;You may be spending a few dollars more for some stuff, like olive oil, or brown rice rather than white, but when there's a chance, pick the healthier version,”; says Sunheart. “;Brown rice is packed with protein.”;

Next, take $15 (yes, that's $15) to the farmers' market each week. Sunheart says it's possible to get enough veggies and fruits if you purchase seasonal produce that farmers are trying to get rid of. One trick: “;I make a whole round at the market before I purchase anything, adding in my head as I go along. Then I go back and pay.”;

The benefits of shopping local are multifold, she says, starting with the fact that the food is fresher and often grown with less reliance on chemical pesticides.

“;It's the most nutritious you can get. It's live, whole and picked from the farm, and many farmers have a no-spray practice even if they're not labeled organic. But even if they're sprayed, it's better to go local. It's good to support and promote local farmers, and it's eco-friendly, too, because it leaves less of a carbon footprint. You're winning on so many levels.”;

;  On a weekend run to a neighborhood open market, we attempted to follow Sunheart's budget, based on her average weekly purchase: a bag of onions, five small tomatoes, two or three medium zucchini, three big eggplants, several papayas and mangoes.

; The produce was all local but conventionally farmed (meaning, they were sprayed). We were successful. Five small onions cost $2; tomatoes, five for $2; two large zucchini, $2; bag of four old-looking but edible eggplants, $1.50; half-pound bag green beans, $2; bunch small apple bananas, $1.50; and four papayas, $4. We could afford the extra green beans with the substitution of bananas for mangoes, which were pricey at $1.50 a pound.

A typical weekly menu would include pizza, tacos or pasta, stir-fry, soup, salads and fruity desserts, plus teas and other drinks. Staples include flat bread, salsa and vinaigrette (there are recipes for each), plus the pinto beans and brown rice.

While Sunheart's diet includes eggs, folks who want to also eat meat should buy in bulk at Costco. “;Add $5 or $10 to the budget and buy cheap cuts on sale, portion them out and freeze.”;

For $25 or $35 a week, it's legitimate to wonder whether people will leave the table hungry. Sunheart says she cooks approximately two cups of brown rice and a cup or so of beans every three or four days. Those portions, along with the amount of fruits and veggies we bought, makes one wonder if her plan is too conservative. But Sunheart says she doesn't waste a grain of rice and claims the portions are generous enough to provide for leftovers. The reason: “;Whole foods packed with fiber are extremely filling.”;

IT'S ALSO REASONABLE to ask whether Sunheart's diet is nutritionally sound.

Joannie Dobbs, a nutritionist in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa, says that's an impossible question to answer because each individual, depending on body size and other factors, has somewhat different requirements.

For one, “;protein requirements are based on body weight, so it's not as simple as applying (a recommendation) across the board,”; Dobbs says.

The protein in Sunheart's diet might be sufficient for a 100-pound woman but not so for someone larger, she says.

Dobbs adds that animal protein can, in fact, have fewer calories than nonmeat sources. Lean meat, for instance, can provide 1 gram of protein at just 8 calories, while dairy provides the same at 16 calories, and beans, 24 calories.

She also says it's not always true that processed foods are less nutritional than whole. A can of tuna or sardines, she says, is low-cost and contributes protein and essential fatty acids to a diet. “;Inexpensive things like that can expand a nutrient base.”;

Dobbs says she credits Sunheart for addressing food insecurity, which she deems a “;definite issue.”;

For her part, Sunheart admits in the book that the cost factor won't be the same for everyone. “;I cannot guarantee that you will be able to live on this budget,”; she writes. Yet she says she often spends less than the allotted $25 weekly.

In the end, though, the broader part of Sunheart's message isn't about the give or take of $10 or $15. It's about honoring the food we have.

“;My great-grandparents who lived during the Great Depression knew all of these things,”; she says. “;Our generation is having to teach ourselves how to do this. A lot of good people have lost their jobs. If this situation teaches us not to waste food, it's been for something. So many people are starving, we've got to respect food, not waste it.”;


”;How to FEED a Family of 4 on $25 a Week”; is available for $20. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Try it yourself


4 medium potatoes, cut into steak fries
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches sea salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread out potatoes on cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss gently by hand. Sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serves 4.


» For garlic fries, sprinkle 5 minced garlic cloves over potatoes.

» For garlic parmesan fries, sprinkle a handful of cheese over potatoes.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (assumes no variations): 520 calories, 27 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 64 g carbohydrate, 8 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 7 g protein



2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 bunches kale, chopped
3 pinches sea salt, or to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion; caramelize 12 to 15 minutes.

Add kale and cook until tender, about 8 minutes (should be fully wilted but still a vibrant green).

Add salt to taste. Serves 4.

Variation: Substitute kale with any seasonal vegetable available.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt to taste): 150 calories, 8 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 18 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 5 g protein



1-1/4 cups water
1 egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine water and egg into a large bowl, beating egg and mixing at same time, with a fork.

Add flour and salt and continue to mix by hand. Dust hands with flour to prevent dough from sticking to hands. Continue to mix until dough becomes elastic.

Oil cookie sheet. Spread out dough on cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 420 calories, 9 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 900 mg sodium, 72 g carbohydrate, three g fiber, 0 g sugar, 11 g protein



3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons oil
Pinch sea salt
1-1/2 cup pizza dough
1/2 cup marinara sauce
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion and caramelize 12 to 15 minutes. Season with sea salt.

Oil cookie sheet with 2 tablespoons oil. Spread dough on sheet. Spread marinara, up to 1/2-inch from sides.

Distribute onions over dough. Sprinkle onions with cheese. Bake about 20 minutes. Serves 4.

Variation: Add other desired toppings.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on 4 servings): 470 calories, 27 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 750 mg sodium, 46 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 10 g protein



Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.