Eat Like a Poor Person

The book Born to Run that I just read and enjoyed so much doesn’t go really go into diet advice.  It mentions some of the foods eaten by the Tarahumara tribe (the central characters), like chia seeds and pinole, but doesn’t go into much detail.  But one offhand remark about a running coach’s simple philosophy stuck in my mind.

Eat like a poor person.

It’s not a perfect rule of thumb, since nowadays, fast food and refined flour products are among the cheapest foods you’ll find, in terms of cost-per-calorie.  And organic fruits and vegetables aren’t exactly penny-pinchers.  Really, I think we could do a little better with something like “Eat like a peasant,” since to me, that evokes the image of a pre-McDonald’s, pre-refined grains, pre-pesticides guy who’s down on his luck.

But even with this shortcoming, I like the rule.  For someone short on dough, meat is out, except on rare occasions.  Lentils and other beans are in.  And processed breads and sweets are out too, replaced by unrefined grains and seeds purchased dry, in bulk, and sprouted or soaked at home.

Over the past few weeks, Erin and I have been traveling a lot and eating on the road.  This means lots of take-out, airport food, and eating out.  Definitely not poor-person food; next time we’ll plan better and bring more stuff along to avoid shelling out so many lootcakes and feeling like crap afterward.  When we got back on Sunday, we were really in the mood to party like it was 1899.

So yesterday, we cooked up a nice bean stew, adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Vegetarian book that I turn to so often these days.  (And I realized that this book has lots of peasant foods that I used to skim right past before I was seeking them out!)

[bean stew photo]

It was very easy (peasants don’t have much time, of course), and hearty-good in the stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.  Certainly not gourmet, and nothing I’d make for company.  But it was fun to make and eat “just for the health of it.” (I stole this catchy pun from a bathroom automatic paper towel dispenser at school.)

Bean Stew Recipe

Ingredients (for 4 servings):

  • 2 cups dry brown rice, cooked
  • 2 mixed cans of beans, like black, pinto, or kidney, rinsed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 leek, white and light green part, halved, well-rinsed, and chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • large handful green beans, ends snapped off, chopped into 1-inch lengths
  • 3 Tbsp olive or canola oil
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper

Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a Dutch oven or heavy pan over medium-high heat and add the onion, saute until it’s soft, 5-7 minutes.  Add the rest of the oil and the carrot and leek, saute for another 5 minutes or until the leek is tender.  Season with a little salt, then add the paprika and garlic, stirring constantly for a minute to toast the spice.  Add the vegetable stock, along with the canned beans and green beans.  Let it reduce for another 10 minutes or so, then season with salt and pepper and serve over brown rice.

Completely coincidentally, my dad sent me this link to a list of the 20 Healthiest Foods Under $1 the other day.  It’s a great list to review before you head to the store.  And you won’t hear me complain that coffee made the list (#20 baby!), though I can’t say I really agree that it’s healthy.

And finally, I know that this diet rule is kind of a funny way to eat healthily, but real poverty and hunger is really not all that funny.  This week is the first week of Project Feed Me, and there’s still time to get involved!  I commited to getting three other people to do it, so check out Natalie’s page and think about it.  This week’s item is two cans of chili!  See how easy it is?  Get over there and sign up to help out!  And then let me know you’re one of my three. 🙂



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  1. I love the idea of ‘eat like a peasant’. Potatoes + Beans definitely come to mind!
    .-= Allison (Eat Clean Live Green)´s last blog ..Live Green Friendly =-.

  2. That stew looks so good. I think I have a recipe for next week! Just looking at those beans is making me hungry. Perfect for the weather here too; comfort food all the way.
    .-= Bronwyn´s last blog ..Tuesday Blues =-.

  3. I love that list, especially since oats and eggs are 1 and 2 and that made my breakfast this morning. They do need to add all-natural peanut butter though. With the 365 brand, that stuff is less than a dime a tablespoon
    .-= Evan Thomas´s last blog ..R & R =-.

  4. My wallet seems to be very light lately (uhh…new laptop, new reading glasses, Manhattan rent), so I’m totally down with eating like I’m a peasant. My favs: dried beans, rice, onions, oatmeal, peanut butter, apples, bananas, and whole carrots! You can make so many yummy combos with those simple ingredients 🙂
    .-= Megan (The Runner’s Kitchen)´s last blog ..Cozy Cheese =-.

  5. I’ve never tried that cookbook, but the stew looks great. I’d love it if you let us know about other veggie cookbooks that you enjoy.
    Off to eat oatmeal like a peasant!

  6. A little caffeine can improve athletic performance. Of course large sugar and whipped cream filled coffees aren’t going to do much but jack you up, but a good cup of quality coffee without added sweetener can be a health boost!

    Party like its 1899…funniest thing I have heard today!!!!

    That stew looks great…filling and cheap, what more can you ask for!
    Adventures in Tri-ing
    .-= Courtney´s last blog ..Today is a good day for some cross-training! =-.

  7. Love the “eat like a poor person” idea! That dinner sounds yummy 🙂
    .-= Paige (Running Around Normal)´s last blog ..Chocolate Pumpkin Bread from Libby’s Farm =-.

  8. meatlessmama says:

    Simple, healthy and yummy, a perfect meal. Party like it was 1899- too funny!
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Maple Ginger Baked Beans =-.

  9. Thanks. This post really hits home and it fits in with my goal of becoming a lighter runner.

  10. Matt,

    I’ve long been fond of the “eat like a peasant” idea, too — and I have no doubt that it is vastly superior to the unfortunate contemporary Western diet of highly processed, sweetened, refined vegetable oil- and dairy-laden “food.” But man’s evolutionary history prompts me to question whether the peasant diet is actually *best.* It’s undeniable that even the whole forms of the key peasant foods (cereals and legumes) were only very recently introduced into the human diet, on the order of 10,000+ years ago in the context of several million years of hominin evolution. As Cordain et al wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

    “Until recently, human diets consisted of combinations of wild animal carcasses (including brains, bone marrow, and organs), shellfish, fish, fruits, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, insects, larvae, nuts, and seasonal honey and eggs. These diets provided balance in critical metabolic processes, favored health, and allowed our ancestors to thrive, reproduce, and pass their genes to subsequent generations. Modern humans are physiologically adapted to the diets of our ancestors, which shaped our genetic makeup.”

    I’m not interested in casting the paleo critique as purely or even overwhelmingly anti-vegetarian, as the divergence between today’s diet and man’s ancestral diet is obviously about something very different than whether to eat meat or not. Still, they paleo recipe for dietary success does include eating lean meats and fish: Here’s what O’Keefe and Cordain recommend (this from their article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings):

    Fundamentals of the Hunter-Gatherer Diet and Lifestyle

    Eat whole, natural, fresh foods; avoid highly processed and high-glycemic-load food

    Consume a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries and low in refined grains and sugars. Nutrient-dense, low-glycemic-load fruits and vegetables such as berries, plums, citrus, apples, cantaloupe, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and avocados are best

    Increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, fish oil, and plant sources

    Avoid trans-fats entirely, and limit intake of saturated fats. This means eliminating fried foods, hard margarine, commercial baked goods, and most packaged and processed snack foods.

    Substitute monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats

    Increase consumption of lean protein, such as skinless poultry, fish, and game meats and lean cuts of red meat. Cuts with the words round or loin in the name usually are lean. Avoid high-fat dairy and fatty, salty processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats

    Incorporate olive oil and/or non–trans-fatty acid canola oil into the diet

    Drink water

    Participate in daily exercise from various activities (incorporating aerobic and strength training and stretching exercises). Outdoor activities are ideal

    What do you think? For those interested in exploring these concepts further, there’s tons of interesting published research available here:

    .-= Pete´s last blog ..Spirit of Spiridon Lives in Centenarian Shot-Put Champ =-.

    • Hey Pete. I used to follow the Peleo Diet principles, before I was a vegetarian. Like you, I think an evolutionary approach is the best way to figure out what’s good for us now (and not just about diet). My choice to not eat meat is partially about health, partially about just not wanting to eat animals. But ethical issues aside, I’m still not convinced that meat in the diet is better for performance in endurance sports. Theoretically, our bodies evolved to thrive off a diet that included meat, as you cite in your comment. But from an empirical standpoint, there seems to be a preponderance of elite endurance athletes who are/were vegetarian or even vegan, compared to the proportion of non-athletes who don’t eat meat. I haven’t done any formal comparison of the numbers so I could be wrong; it also could be a case of the vegetarian and vegan endurance athletes becoming famous simply because people think it’s interesting that they eat this way, so when I think of the relatively few endurance athletes whose names I’ve heard, many of them happen to be vegetarian or vegan.

      You seem to follow endurance sports (even historically) far more than I do. Does it seem to you like a lot of them don’t eat meat?

  11. Thank you for the Eat Like A Poor Person tips…….I need them as I am POOR! One income family as my hubby has been laid off over a year now. =(

    Laura @ Finding A Healthy Balance (after a 100+ POUND weight loss)
    .-= Laura@FindingAHealthyBalance´s last blog ..Finding A Healthy Balance…… =-.

  12. That recipe sounds really good!
    .-= Marissa´s last blog ..Spicy Pizza =-.

  13. I usually eat like a peasant and have been for years. Its great! Dr. John McDougall has been spreading the health message of such a diet for 30+ years, check him out at The 1000’s of recipes his wife Mary has been compiling over the years show the amazing possibilities of eating the way that humans have been for 10,000 years with much less chronic disease. But why don’t you take it to the next level and join the oil embargo? Lose the 3T of oil and lose 360 calories of artery damaging junk food. Any dish that calls for starting with a saute of aromatics can be just as easily, and far more healthfully, be done in water, wine or broth. Try it, you’ll like it!

    • vegpedlr, I’ve thought about this a little, even while reading Brendan Brazier’s stuff. Mostly that oil doesn’t really fit in the “whole food” category. Still, from personal experience, I noticed a drastic fitness improvement when I added oil to my diet, mainly in my ability to gain muscle and strength from working out. Do you have other ways of getting enough fat in your diet without meat or oil?

      • Oil is definitely not a whole food, it is highly processed and does not occur naturally in nature. It is also a relatively new addition to human food. Our needs for fat are like protein, small amounts of essential fatty acids and amino acids are needed, the rest the body makes itself. Since oil has no nutritional value beyond calories, I suspect that you felt better because your energy balance was better. Consequently, if you eliminated the oil you would need to compensate by eating more carbohydrate. For myself, oil was the missing link. Once I eliminated it, I felt better and I got to eat MORE! How cool is that? For better explanation, check out Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and his son Rip Esselstyn (former pro triathlete). Especially check out their oil-free recipes, once I got used to the lack of grease, which meant increasing the seasoning, the food tasted better.
        BTW I found the Paleo diet coversation interesting, but I’ll save my comments and questions on that till later. Congrats on Boston! If you haven’t yet, check out the movie Saint Ralph.

  14. Hi, Matt!
    Thanks for the great recipe!
    You have a great blog!
    I checked out Project Feed Me because of your recommendation and joined – so you can count me among your peeps!
    🙂 Kate

  15. Ooh that stew looks a lot like my sister’s chili! Yumyumyum.

    Thanks for the link to the 20 healthiest foods under $1. Am all about the bargains 😉
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Product Review: POMx Tea =-.

  16. I so agree – simplify, simplify, simplify! We are much happier eating simple, wholesome foods. The bean stew looks delicious!

  17. 2 cups shouldn’t mean 2 huge cups of stock, like I used. This meal now hardly differs from hearty vegetable soup with rice. I’ll use smaller cups next time. But it’s still great. Thanks Matt, you rock!

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