BLOG: Can you feed a family for less than $5?

By Assunta Ng

The vegetable course: corn, soy beans, or sweet potato (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

Can you feed a family of four with a budget of $400 a month? A Seattle Times article said a mother was able to do so by shopping for items on sale, using coupons, and budgeting everything mindfully.

She did it to save money, but I do it just to have fun.

I did an experiment to see if I could do that with my family of three.

The result? I succeeded for lunch and breakfast with flying colors. I don’t even need sales or coupons.

However, I didn’t dare to try this with dinner. What if my family revolts at the idea of not having enough to eat! They are mighty big eaters.

Also, we’ve garnered an expensive dinner taste. We can never give up fresh and live lobster, crab, and prawns.

Frankly, I never want to restrict myself with a dinner budget. We bond through food, with hilarious conversations at dinner. Sometimes, we choose to eat out, and that would break the $400 budget easily.

Miso and other soups (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

What’s for lunch?

The merits of having a $5 budget for lunch makes my life much easier. I don’t even have to waste time thinking.

I spent under $5 a day for lunch for the three of us by eating the best of East and West. I would prepare a three-item lunch, featuring soup, a main dish, and a veggie dish.

I would buy instant miso soup from Uwajimaya and other canned Campbell soups, such as cream of broccoli. Look for miso soup package, which consists of seaweed. Add tofu to make the soup heartier and more flavorful.

The main dish is usually noodles or sandwiches. To speed up the cooking, I use leftovers for stir-fry with ramen noodles or udon. You can also boil the noodles with soup. If I cook the noodles with soup, I won’t prepare the soup dish.

The main course: leftover sweet potato, mushrooms, meat, and shallots stir fry with instant noodles. (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

If you don’t have leftovers, then you can use different sauces for your noodles. Here is a tip: always cook your food so you have leftover sauce. You will find them handy for a family with a tight budget. Mix your noodles with tomato sauce or any type of gravy you have in your fridge. Asian grocery stores sell tons of sauces for you to choose from.

For sandwiches, I buy French bread from Lam’s Seafood, which costs 55 cents a bun. You can fill the sandwiches with leftover meats, such as chicken or beef, or make garlic French bread.

For the veggie dish, I would boil soybeans, sweet potatoes, or corn. You can also microwave the potatoes and corn if you like.

The $5 experiment teaches me not only about saving money, but how to maximize everything that exists in my kitchen.

The life of a waitress

The other day, I saw a few Chinese waitresses hovering around a plate of leftover chicken at the back of a Chinese restaurant, while a Chinese banquet was going on in full swing.

Instantly, it reminded me of my waitress days when I first came to Seattle.

Working in a restaurant is hard work. You can’t eat when your customers are eating. You have to eat at odd hours. If you are working the lunch shift, you either grab some food at 10:30 a.m. or 3 p.m.

My feet were usually swollen from standing and running around for too long. After working as a waitress during summers, my shoe size increased by one size — not to mention that they were completely worn out.

Then, there were mean bosses who would charge every meal I ate in the restaurant. There were generous bosses, too, who would give me a piece of steak, even though I never asked for it.

My schoolmate, who also worked as a waitress, would confess to me how she stole fortune cookies to quench her empty, growling stomach during work. No, the owner wouldn’t let her take a bite of food.

“Why don’t you quit?” I asked.

“Oh, no! The tips are too good,” she said.

Ah tips, it is the only motivation why many servers stay in the profession. That was my consolation prize when I was a waitress — every night, my pocket was full, and I counted the money, nickels, dimes, and dollar bills — they made a poor girl feel rich and content. I would forget how tough the job was, how demanding some customers were, and every undesirable aspect about the job, and I would smile that I had a summer job to pay for school.

“She owns two houses simply by working as a waitress,” said my friend, pointing to someone across the street the other day. Little do people know that’s how the American dream is constructed — by working seven days a week, more than 10 hours a day, over a decade, and never could affording a single sick day. (end)

To read the publisher’s blog in Chinese, visit

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