Granted, the USDA had a tough task: Coming up with sample menus, shopping lists and recipes that met its own nutritional recommendations, tasted good and were dirt cheap.
That last factor was the determining one. The average food-stamp recipient gets about $73 a month ($173 per household), which works out to about $2.35 a day. So the shopping plans rely heavily on potatoes, onions and more potatoes — nearly 12 pounds a week for a family of four. A suggested list of daily menus — breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner — incorporates 8 servings of potatoes a week: scalloped, baked, cakes, salad, hash browns and potato soup.
The other way the USDA keeps costs down is through portion control. Each family member gets three-quarters of a cup of orange juice per day. On the days you eat cereal, you get three-quarters of a cup of that. A family of four may consume 6 cups of milk per day — but if there's pudding for lunch, there's no milk to drink.
When you splurge on beef pot roast, each family member wolfs down 3 ounces.
The USDA's recipes read like something from the ’50s, but with ground turkey instead of beef and with less fat and salt. Few fresh vegetables appear — frozen are cheaper.
Families are instructed to use a pound of salad dressing (the mayo substitute) a week, as well as a pound of sugar. All the breads are specified as white — hamburger buns, bagels, English muffins and "French, enriched."
Main dishes include pizza meat loaf (ground turkey, baked with spaghetti sauce, mozzarella and green peppers on top), beef-noodle casserole (with tomato soup) and chicken and vegetables (with garlic powder and frozen green beans).
These dishes at least have the advantage of familiarity for many people. (In my youth, the dish I proudly served to company was hamburger Stroganoff, with canned mushrooms, sour cream and cream of mushroom soup.)
When the authors try to update to the '80s, the results are disastrous: A stir-fry of ground pork, frozen broccoli and those same canned mushrooms. Southwestern salad is a ground beef-and-canned bean mixture atop lettuce and cheese (serving size: one cup). There are three other "salads" in this recipe book: Potato, macaroni, and orange gelatin. The latter is made from gelatin, frozen orange juice and water. If that's a salad, then ketchup is a vegetable.
Perhaps most out of touch is the menu plan's assumption that the family sits down together to a hot meal at noon. Lunch menus include the aforementioned pizza meat loaf, oven-baked french fries, macaroni with margarine and scalloped potatoes. Even June Cleaver didn't cook dinner twice a day.
I'll admit right here that I wouldn't turn up my nose at the USDA's dessert recipes. Oatmeal cookies, rice pudding, even peach-apple crisp with canned peaches sound like my kind of winter evening entertainment. Which may just go to show that a pound of sugar will go a long way toward pleasing anybody.
You can download Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals at www.usda.gov/cnpp or pay $4.25 for a copy from the Government Printing Office, 202-512-1800, stock number 001-000-04680-2. But I'd spend my $4.25 on olive oil. —Jane Slaughter
Meet chef Greg Upshur and artist Sharon Wysocki at a book signing reception for their book of recipes and art, this Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 6-8 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Art Center (117 W. Liberty, 734-994-8004, ext. 111). … Taste some of New York’s finest dishes at Morels, A Michigan Bistro (30100 Telegraph, Bingham Farms) this Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. The event, "The Great Chefs of Manhattan," features a five-course meal. Tickets are $85 per person, call 248-642-1094, ext. 3 for reservations. Got a food tip? Write to Eaters Digest care of the MT, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.