Good & Cheap: Talking to Leanne Brown

July  9, 2014

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Gabriella Paiella shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: We're chatting with Leanne Brown, author of Good and Cheap.


At its heart, this column isn't really about saving money. It's about taking pleasure in beautiful, delicious food regardless of your circumstances. I may be broke, but that hasn't stopped me from being a total hedonist.

When I discovered Leanne Brown's Good and Cheap, it immediately captivated me. It's a much-needed public service, of course -- an accessible cookbook for the 47 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits, who must make do with a $4 food budget each day. My pre-writing background is in food politics; while our food system is undoubtedly broken and several people are working tirelessly to fix it, I've often found too heavy of an emphasis on healthy eating, which can very quickly turn paternalistic. 

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Inexpensive Meals on Food52

Brown manages to subvert all that in Good and Cheap. Her recipes are simple, yet entirely appetizing, complete with appealing photographs. It's free to download online, and she's currently raising money on Kickstarter to fund a print run for those who don't have access to a computer. I chatted with her last week, and asked her to share some of her favorite recipes and tips for saving money, and eating well.

Leanne Brown's Top 5 Kitchen Tips For A Frugal Cook

1. I have a couple of open shelves in my living area where I keep glass jars full of dried beans, lentils, and grains. I do the same with my spice collection. People always comment on them when they come over, but they are more than just pretty: With cheap staples at the ready, I can just stop by the market, grab some vegetables that look good, and know I will be able to make something tasty. Having a well-stocked pantry means that you can be flexible, and won't be stuck on long, annoying shopping trips to track down 30 different ingredients.

More: Turn your dried chickpeas into Chana Masala.

2. Make sure your kitchen is organized: Think about the way you work, and place your most-used kitchen equipment in easy-to-access areas. I’m not a professional cook, but because I'm experienced and comfortable in my kitchen, I can zip around and produce a meal in 15 minutes that might take my partner, who spends less time in the kitchen, 30 or 40 minutes. 

3. Vegetables are great for flavor. People often think of meat as their main source of flavor, but vegetables have a strong flavor, too, and there is such variety and color to explore. Seasonal vegetables are particularly great because they’re less expensive and have a fuller, riper flavor.

More: Use Brussels sprouts as a flavorful base for a breakfast hash.

4. Other than my knives, cutting board, and pots and pans, my favorite piece of kitchen equipment is my microplane. I use it almost every time I cook. I zest lemons and limes, grate hard cheeses and garlic, and even shred soft vegetables like tomatoes if I want to release their juices into a sauce or salad dressing. A microplane never goes dull and is remarkably inexpensive -- they're about $12 online.

5. Always buy eggs. Eggs are one of the most versatile foods, and when you divide the cost of a carton by 12, you realize they cost very little (even if you buy good, free-range eggs, which are both more ethical than cheap eggs and considerably tastier). You can prepare eggs in a dozen different ways: in baking, in salad dressing, or in more complex dishes, like quiche. They’re amazing little miracles!

Tell us: What are your favorite cookbooks for cooks on a budget?  

Produce photo by James Ransom; recipe photos by Leanne Brown

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Alice
  • bookjunky
  • cmpollard
  • gustadora
  • Marsha Gainey
    Marsha Gainey
Yes, my name rhymes.


Alice November 24, 2015
I had to do this when hard times hit in 08. It changed how I saw food. But, when I worked, still below or right at poverty level I had a 15.00 food budget. Raw spinach, eggs, yogurt and homemade bread and pasta and fresh herbs were it. I gained 60 pounds on food stamps and learned to cook. Once you have that, a list of viable substitutes, and a computer to google recipes, you're good. Food .command all recipes, you just adjust to your taste. If you have a struggling friend or relative, spices, kitchen tools, graters, peelers, storage containers, help. I lived in a small pad with a tiny fridge so you do have to go out often, if a mate is ill, a veggie delivery can be helpful, but ask, if there's no storage it'll go to waste. Cabbage goes far, I use it instead of kale. I am not so tight with food these days, but I look to middle eastern recipes and Asian when I tighten my budget. And beans, rice and flour, corn flour and eggs are a staple. Who knew it was so easy.
bookjunky July 11, 2014
Great tips and great project!

My #1 tip would be learn to make your own baked goods. Artisan bread in 5 minutes a day recipe is a great place to start because you don't have to do any kneading or anything; all you need is a big bowl and a spoon. From that you also have pizza or calzone or buns or breadsticks...and you can make it healthier by using all or part whole wheat flour. Buying a comparable loaf in the store is going to be $2-$5, depending on the store and where you live.

#2 I would say is buy staples. Whole grains and beans but also vegetables. And then on the weekend or whenever you have time, cook a big batch of whatever grains and beans appeal to you for the week, and store it in the fridge. Boil some potatoes and stick them in there, too. With those staples ready and on hand, you can have a meal on the table within 30 minutes. Stir fried rice, chana masala, fritters, curry, fried potatoes, etc.

I think Americans also need to get over the idea that a meal = a large portion of meat plus a tiny side of veg. It's unhealthy as well as expensive and bad for the planet. Also the apparently modern idea that frozen prepared foods are somehow necessary. It's so sad to go into the grocery story and see women who obviously are not that well off and who are also obviously full time homemakers with a cart full of frozen "convenience" foods.
cmpollard July 9, 2014
Wonderful collection of recipes, Leanne. My wish has been that more people could learn to cook good food from scratch, and you have put together a splendid guide.
gustadora July 9, 2014
This is great! I work with low-income people living with HIV/AIDS, many of whom rely on the I credible kindness and work of Project Open Hand in Oakland and San Francisco, CA. How can I get copies for their clients?
gustadora July 9, 2014
*incredible kindness (sorry!)
Leanne B. July 9, 2014
Hi Gustadora!
You can apply here for donated copies (in limited quantity) or discounted $4 copies for non-profits like Project Open Hand here:
Thanks for your kind words!
gustadora July 9, 2014
Hi Leanne!

Thanks so much for responding so quickly! I perused your online book earlier and it's full of lovely recipes. I'll certainly be using it myself, too!

Thanks for sharing your work!

Marsha G. July 9, 2014
Over the years, I have turned time and again to "More-with-Less" by Doris Janzen Longacre and "Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook" for crock pots by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good.
jane.coombs88 July 9, 2014
In CA, food stamps can be redeemed at the farmers markets. Great chana masala is unforgettable.
healthierkitchen July 9, 2014
I'm really impressed with Leanne's project. What a great service! I've supported her kickstarter and hope others will too!

Gabriella, I hear your concerns on paternalism, and love how Leanne's recipes are generally healthy without being heavy handed. There is much middle ground there