Making Something Out of Nothing: Low-Income Cooking as a Form of Self-Care

I am one of those people. You know, those people who constantly post what they’re eating or what they’ve made for breakfast, lunch, dinner and every meal in between on their Facebook (…and tumblr). My poor followers have come to know that I love, have always loved to cook, and love to try new recipes. Last night, as I began a piece about the intersections of class, race and mental illness, I realized that one of the ways they have intersected has been my love for cooking.

As children, my younger brother and I didn’t have a lot of food options and certainly my parents didn’t either. Both my mother’s and father’s mental illnesses interfered with their ability to find and keep steady jobs, and they collected a form of disability. Disability payments, if you don’t know, aren’t quite enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table for four people. That aid didn’t stretch far when we went to the grocery store. Moreover, we lived in a food desert with no car and where the nearest grocery store was a long bus ride through the city. So, my parents tried to do all of their grocery shopping at the beginning of the month.

That meant very little in the way of fresh fruit, fresh veggies, or anything else that wouldn’t keep in the fridge or freezer for a month. That meant not buying in bulk because even though buying in bulk is cheaper in the long run, we couldn’t afford to think about the long run. Because my parents’ respective mental health issues, taking odd jobs and just trying to survive as poor people of color and how that affected their energy levels, it also meant that we ended up buying a lot of processed foods that you can make out of a box in twenty minutes.

Later on, we started collecting “commods,” a box of foods from a government food distribution center on the rez and operated by the tribe. At the time, it contained such nutritious and delectable selections as lard, canned lunchmeat, a giant block of cheese, canned chicken and canned vegetables. More often than not, our supper consisted of a fried, canned meat, a starchy side made out of a box and, if we had any left, vegetables out of a can.


Still, I certainly enjoyed delicious meals as a child. My mom was pretty damn good at creating something out of nothing. Watching her, and later emulating her, began my love affair with cooking meals. We often had our best conversations when we cooked and when we ate together, and the same was true of my extended family. I remember the adults sitting in the kitchen laughing and cooking while my brothers, cousins, and I would sit in the living room peeling vegetables. My uncle fancies himself a great cook, with good reason, and he also taught me a lot about making the best with my limited amount of ingredients, and he still makes spectacular meals for the holidays.  My grandmother taught me a little about how to make frybread and traditional Oneida hoyan (New Year) donuts, both of which use mainly ingredients from the standard commod box. In those moments, despite the tumultuousness of my childhood, I felt happy and safe, and that feeling has stuck with me when I cook.

Hoyan Donuts
Hoyan Donuts

When I began graduate school a year ago, I suddenly found myself in a position where I could afford to purchase foods that I hadn’t previously and in a position where I had the energy to cook large meals regularly. Cooking for one meant I could cook one or two large meals a week and eat leftovers the rest of the time. Shopping for one meant that, while I still try to buy the cheapest stuff possible, that my food stretched a lot farther than it ever had before. So, I immediately began trying as many new recipes as I could. I have my own mental health issues, and I found that cooking delicious and nutritious meals made me feel accomplished and also made me feel better physically and often mentally. I have been able to incorporate more fresh foods into my meals more often and have reaped the benefits of that.

Spinach Feta Pizza
Spinach Feta Pizza

But I am still keen on making delicious food as inexpensively as possible. Swapping recipes with friends and scouring the internet for low-income recipes has been a bit of a passion of mine including the triumph of standing over a great but cheaply made meal. Low-income cooking has been and remains a means of self-care and a means of bonding with friends and family. I regularly swap recipes and cooking tips with friends who are also doing low-income cooking and trying to make their few dollars stretch. And, I’m always on the lookout, still, for ways to make something out of nothing or very little.

Ramen Noodle Stir Fry - Delicious and inexpensive
Ramen Noodle Stir Fry – Delicious and inexpensive

How about you, readers? Do you have any inexpensive meal ideas or recipes to share?

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

10 replies on “Making Something Out of Nothing: Low-Income Cooking as a Form of Self-Care”

Fry bread! I LOVE fry bread. Is your version made with fried biscuit dough?

We ate a lot of croquettes when I was growing up. It’s been years since I’ve had one, but I hated them when I was a kid.

We’ve run a lot of inexpensive recipes around here, I think your delicious looking stir fry needs to join them.

It’s delish! I make mine with flour, milk, baking powder, and a pinch of salt that is then kneaded and fried in vegetable shortening.

I’ve never heard of croquettes before and just googled them. They look like they could be tasty but also like they could become really old really fast which I think happens when you eat the same food a lot. When I was a kid we ate a lot of goulash which my Grandma made all of the time because it was cheap and lasted a long time. But, OH, did I hate it.

I can definitely make up a post about the stir-fry recipe for anyone that’s interested. :)

Frybread looks A LOT like Dutch oliebollen or Afrikaanse vetkoek. I love to discover slightly familiar food.

My easiest way of making a meal cheaper is to cut out the meat or meat-replacement. Buy season-veggies (at the market or the store) and make your own sauce/dressing/dip/whatever.

During undergrad I took a class called “Ethnic Influences on Nutrition”. One of the things I found most interesting was the similarity of some foods around the globe. I realized that many cultures and locales have a fried bread and fried donut of some sort. I’ll have to look up oliebollen and vetkoek and see what goes into them!

Good tip for those who can go without meat. At the beginning of this semester there was a meat sale at my local grocery store, and I stocked up. I’ve been somewhat surprised at just how much money having done that has cut out of my weekly grocery bill.

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