Live Below The Line Challenge: $1.50/Day Menu Pictures, Cooking Tips, and Taste Test

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I’m now nearly halfway through the Live Below the Line challenge, and here are some pictures and additional cooking/eating commentary about my $1.50 a day menu. Please also refer back to my menu and ingredient list and my nutritional information breakdown.


These banana crepes/pancakes are pretty big at nearly 8 inches in diameter. At 300 calories each, each one has about the same calories, fat, and (update: half the) protein as an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s but at only 10 cents each they are less than 5% the price and have no added flavors or preservatives. If I added another egg, it’d be 15 cents each and the protein would be equal. (It’d be even better if I used whole grain flour.)

I have to prepare them from scratch daily, but I timed myself and cooking time including prep was only 15 minutes. I know that may still be too much time for some folks, but waiting in a busy drive-thru line can take 5-10 minutes on its own. I simply whisk .75 cup flour, an egg, 1 cup water, and a little salt together to make a thin batter. Then add one sliced banana. While frying the second pancake, I clean up my mixing bowl, whisk, and measuring cups. When done eating, I simply wash my single plate and rinse/wash the nonstick frying pan.

They actually taste good; I would eat them on any given weekend. I don’t really miss the milk found in the original recipe. I do wish I could alternate between apples and bananas, but apples cost too much for this challenge. For a bit more money, the variety would be nice.


There are “simple” lentil soup recipes out there, but mine is probably the simplest. 🙂 Okay, yes, it lacks in the herbs and spices department. I sautéed two onions and four carrots in canola oil with a bit of minced garlic. I was in a hurry, so the chopping quality was horrendous. When the onions were translucent, I added two cups of dried lentils (no soaking required), 8 cups of water, and some salt. I brought everything to a boil and then simmered for 45 minutes. The total prep time was 15 minutes for the chopping and gathering, and while it was simmering I could still do work around the house (or make the chapatis below). So in an hour, I had 5 big bowls of soup (~2.5 cups each) at $0.40 each.

I personally love the taste of lentils, and the garlic, onions, and carrots gave it just enough flavor to avoid an annoying level of blandness. However, I’m sure that better cooks could add some herbs or stock and make the soup taste a lot better.

These chapatis are very similar to the Asian green onion pancakes that my mom used to make, minus the scallions. I just mixed 3 cups flour, 1/4 cup oil, salt, and added boiling water to make a big ball of dough. Add the water slowly so you don’t get it too wet and sticky. Part it out into 10 balls. I flattened the dough with a rolling pin between two sheets of parchment paper, and then dry fried them since they already contain oil. That’s it! Less than a nickel apiece.

These taste fine, but if I could do it over I’d make it with some scallions for added flavor.


My plan was to have lunch be the more interesting meal of the day, and dinner was just to last me until bedtime. Rice and beans! I cooked the rice in my trusty Zojirushi rice cooker instead of bothering with the stove. For the beans, I could have done the “quick soak” which is basically more boiling time, but I’d never done the overnight soak before so I tried that. Nothing really exciting, other than seeing the beans double in size. Boil the soaked beans, drain, mash the cooked beans in the pot with my IKEA potato masher, and portion everything into 5 separate tupperware. At mealtime, reheat in microwave and add 1/5th of can of crushed tomatoes for flavor. You would not believe how big a difference having the tomatoes makes! I admit this meal is pretty bland and not very appealing to look at. It’s too bad I had to cut out the onion when I did my repricing, that would have made it more like salsa.

After eating this food for two days, I feel a bit hungry between meals but not ravenous or overly distracted. Mostly, I have to check myself when thinking about grabbing a snack to munch on or drinking anything else besides water. I also try to drink a lot of water when eating to make me feel fuller. I’ll follow up one last time after the end of the week with my overall impressions and takeaways.

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  1. I guess the challenge only takes into account the cost of the actual food? No accounting for cooking utensils or water delivery? Makes you wonder what the full cost of a meal, including everything used, is in the US compared to the third world.

  2. Great post, Jonathan. You make it look easy!

  3. This is an interesting challenge, and it looks like you’re doing pretty well with it. This post dovetails a bit with a fun little article about Michael Pollan and Michael Moss cooking a simple meal with easy-to-find grocery store ingredients (no price limit, but simple home cooking):

  4. The overall objective of living below the standard of living allowed by your salary is to accumulate wealth. My recommendation is to read the 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door or Possum Living (1970s)…both classics.

  5. @Scott – For water, it is incredibly cheap throughout most of the US. Doing a quick google search, it looks like water prices are around $2/1000 gallons? Even if you consume 10 gallons per day in drinking and cooking, that’s only $0.02

    Also for the cooking utensils, gas/electricity, etc – they definitely do add a non-zero amount, but I think that it would be difficult to quantify. For utensils, you can get most of what you would need at goodwill and pay very little if you use those utensils every day over a year or more.

  6. @Scott – You would be surprised to find out that food is cheaper in the US than the third world. If you can combine coupons etc. then it is even more cheaper.

    I agree with Andrew – great post. I love the way you did the chapati best. How well did you flatten the dough? It doesn’t look that flat…could you give us some measurements of thickness? I’m asking because that will determine the moistness of the cooked bread.

    Finally, regarding lentils – if you have a pressurized cooker the process is much faster and easier. All you do is add the lentils, water depending on how thick of a soup you want and some spices (I only add cumin) and salt. It’s amazing how good it tastes with this simple recipe. Again, cost of a pressure cooker could be a dollar or less if bought at goodwill/salvation army etc.

  7. Thank you for doing this. Most enlightening.

  8. Great posts J! Are you stepping on a scale? Notice any weight loss, change in energy, or ancillary results (besides the savings of course!). I’m going to try this too! Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Looks pretty tasty. I’m afraid you may be exceeding at this challenge too well. The idea with the challenge is to help people see how hard it is to live on such little money for food but you’re making it seem easy. 😉

  10. Interesting, I’ve tried the banana pancakes and I must admit they’re pretty good. Seems like a nice cheap breakfast.

    Small correction though, while the calories and fat content are the same, each pancake has only half the protein (Egg mcmuffin 18 g per Mcmuffin). You’d have to eat both pancakes to get the same protein value.

    Anyway nice job on your budgeting and meals, very interesting excercise.

  11. @Scott – Yes it’s just the cost of the food. I think they wanted to keep it simple.

    @Andrew – Thanks, I tried to get the most nutrition out of the budget.

    @Adam – Thanks for the link, added to Instapaper. I also remember a NYT article about how you can just cook spaghetti in a tiny bit of water instead of the huge amount that is normally required. Less water used, less energy wasted, and less time to boil all that water. 🙂

    @Steve – I’d move your comment, but I’m not sure what post to move it to? Never heard of Possum Living!

  12. @Jaroos – Yes, it’s not that thin. I’d say about 1/8 in? For one I’m not that skilled and also I had to fit it into my 10″ frying pan. 🙂 Thumbs up for pressure cooker. I don’t have one… was going to buy one for baby food but we’ve just been steaming and blending.

    @Trudy – Thanks for reading!

    @Teague – I noted my beginning weight, but haven’t stepping on a scale since. I’ll note my ending weight… finger crossed! I don’t expect anything drastic, I’m a little hungry and a little more tired but it may just be psychological as I’m not running that much of a calorie deficit.

    @Jim – Thanks! Well, I think it teaches a lot of things and extreme poverty includes a lot of other factors, but I’ll save those insights for a blog post. 🙂

    @Rob – You are correct, not sure how I missed that… but it makes sense as I’m actually splitting one egg between two pancakes. If I added another egg that would bring the protein close to equal and would add $0.10 to the total cost, or 5 cents per pancake. Thanks for the feedback.

  13. I second the pressure cooker recommendation; I meant to mention it earlier. They save a lot of time and also energy. I recently heard about how in India whether a family owns a pressure cooker is one of the determinants of if they are above or below the poverty line.

  14. In addition to weight, I would be curious to see your tracking blood sugar (HbA1C) before and after the challenge. This diet is risky for anyone with a family history of type 2 diabetes. Hopefully you’re not affected!

  15. Jonathan and Adam – this is the NYT article you reference and this is a Food Labs article that says you can cook it at a simmer – and here is a Lifehacker article about even more ways to cook pasta –

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