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Here's How to Host a Feast for $5 a Head

Sasha Stashwick

Posted March 18, 2013 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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$5 doesn’t sound like much. In fact, I have trouble thinking of many things you can buy for just $5. But turns out $5 can buy you a feast. Here’s how.

Two years ago, some friends and I began gathering for monthly home-cooked dinners. The challenge? Dinners had to be tasty, well-balanced, and sustainably sourced. And cost no more than $5 a person. 

Our aim was to test a simple idea: that being on a budget doesn’t mean having to eat fast or processed food. On the contrary, we wanted to show that eating real food—that is, buying fresh ingredients, cooking at home and eating a meal in good company—is not only a better alternative for eaters, producers and the environment, but also a more affordable one. 

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17 “Frugal Feasts” later, many of which have come in under budget, here’s what we’ve learned: 

First, it turns out that by not putting meat at the center of the plate, you free up funds to buy higher quality fruits, vegetables, and grains—many organically grown and therefore free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in their production cycle. 

Second, despite what seems like a major budgetary constraint, when you bring 10 or so people together to eat as a community, economies of scale kick in. $5 a person turns into a $50 budget—more than enough to create a satisfying meal.

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Here’s how you can start Frugal Feasting in your community: 

Gather a group of your food-loving friends. Each month, someone volunteers to host the Feast, sets a date, and gets a headcount of committed attendees. We’ve noticed that 10 guests is the “sweet spot”: you raise enough of a kitty (at $5 a head) to create a delicious, multi-course meal but also keep stress levels manageable for your host.  

Hosts plan the menu (meals should consist of a protein, whole grain, and leafy green), shop for ingredients (striving to buy organic and from local farmers), and, of course, cook the meal. Putting together a resource kit, with maps of local farmers markets and tips on where to buy things like bulk grains is a great way to get started.

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While Feasts don’t have to be meatless, staying within budget means selecting ingredients lower on the food chain, and the goal of sourcing sustainably encourages purchasing alternatives to conventional meat and dairy. Of all the foods we eat, livestock products are some of the most resource-intensive to produce, so eating meat-free meals can make a real difference for the environment. And by buying less meat, you free up dollars to buy better meat, voting with your wallet to support farmers working hard to raise animals more sustainably. The budget also naturally nudges you towards the most abundant ingredients in your region at any time, connecting menus to the seasons in a beautiful way. 

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The night of the dinner, guests drop $5 in a pot and everyone feasts.  

So why does all this matter? 

Many of us are awakening to the fact that our industrialized food system is broken and seeking foods that are healthier for our families and planet. Even small changes in what we eat can add up to real benefits to our health and the health of our communities—fewer toxic pesticides, less climate pollution, healthier waterways, greater welfare for food workers and less animal cruelty. It’s my hope that in some small way, Frugal Feasts can spark a conversation and help us embrace the notion that healthy food should be accessible to all Americans.  

For inspiration, check out pictures, recipes, and even receipts from our Frugal Feasts. Happy Feasting!

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This post orginally appeared in GOOD

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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