All posts by BudgetEpicurean

Long-time student turned young adult with varied interests, mostly food and frugality. Pursuing wealth so I can help others pursue health.

Stuffed Bell Peppers – SNAP meal

 

This is the first dinner I cooked during my week of the SNAP Challenge. I love stuffed bell peppers, and I usually make them with ground beef. Though I have had some success with vegetarian stuffed peppers in the past.

Given the already high and rising cost of meat, I knew I’d have to take a vegetarian route to keep these in budget. Swapping in lentils for the beef keeps this recipe high in protein content, and lowers the fat, while keeping the core tastes and hunger-crushing properties of the meal intact.

Ingredients:

  • 2 green bell peppers (use any color)
  • 1/2 cup rice
  • 1/3 cup lentils
  • 1 small can tomato sauce
  • Garlic salt

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Step 1: If you have a rice cooker, you can cook the lentils and rice together in it. If not, simmer the rice and lentils in a sauce pot with 2 1/2 cups water for 20 minutes.

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Step 2: Mix the cooked rice and lentils with the can of tomato sauce.

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Step 3: Cut the top off the pepper and pull out the seeds. Stuff the mixture inside, adding as much garlic salt as you like.

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Step 4: Bake the peppers in an oven at 350 for 20-25 minutes, until soft. Alternatively you could microwave each pepper, covered, for 8-10 minutes to soften. Another option is to put the stuffed peppers in a crock pot on low for 1-2 hours.

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Serve as a meal, or with a baked potato or salad on the side.

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I ended up eating one pepper for dinner, and the other for lunch the next day. They are quite filling, and delicious! Pretty healthy for you as well. Vegan, vegetarian, and you can make it gluten-free if you substitute in quinoa or another gluten-free grain for the rice.

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For approximately $0.84 per serving, you can’t do much better!

 

 

**UPDATE: All SNAP Meal Recipes listed below:

SNAP Challenge Week Lessons

 

So today (Tuesday) marks one week of the SNAP Challenge for me. (If you don’t know what the SNAP Challenge is or why I’m talking about it, take a peek at my earlier post).

The week went very closely according to plan. I ended up having so much leftover from the soup I made that I did not use the can of tuna. I had coffee 6 out of 7 days, but only one cup. And I only needed an extra boost from green tea on three days.

FOOD BREAKDOWN

Here is a breakdown of all the food purchased and consumed throughout the week:

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If I calculated out the exact costs for the week, it would be quite a bit less than my target, as I still had 2 eggs, 1/2 bag broccoli, all but 4 tbsp margerine, plenty of garlic salt, 6 slices turkey bacon, half a jar of peanut butter, a few slices of bread, some rice, potatoes and lentils, and 6 bags of oatmeal left! Even with the full price added in, I had $2.44 left to spend at the end of the week.

There were only a few cooking-intensive meals, then several meals consisting of leftovers. Peanut butter sandwiches were always a go-to in case I didn’t want leftovers for lunch and dinner, or just needed a hearty snack throughout the day.

SNAP MEAL PLAN

Here is a break-down of all the meals I ate this week:

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This ‘diet’ may actually have been for the better, as I was eating less meat and calories in general, and slowly cutting down on caffeine. I actually felt quite healthy throughout the majority of the week, though energy spikes and troughs as well as a growling tummy was more frequent.

LESSONS LEARNED

Overall, this week was not as difficult as I imagined it being, but I recognized some significant advantages:

1. I have a fully functional kitchen. This includes a microwave, stove-top, oven, refrigerator, and freezer. I have ample containers in which to store excess cooked food to be eaten again later. This all helps in stretching the food you do have.

2. I do not mind the process of cooking, eating leftovers, or the same meal multiple times. In fact I enjoy those things. There are tons of people who do not like one or all three. Being able to cook, even simple methods, is limitlessly helpful in stretching your food dollars versus convenience foods. And being willing to cook large batches and re-eat that meal later is also a huge money saver.

3. I have access to fresh, affordable produce and very reasonably priced staple food items. Many, too many, people do not have access to fresh produce, the ability to stop at four different stores to price-compare, or to pick up 2 cucumbers for $1 just because they’re on sale, they look fresh, and you want a snack.

4. I have been in the practice of planning, shopping, and cooking for myself on a very tight budget for a very long time. Many people who end up on SNAP due to unfortunate circumstances have no practice with coupons, budgeting, or meal planning. They may not know how to stretch a dollar because they never had to before. This just adds to the overall burden.

Over the next few posts I will be posting the recipes of meals I cooked during the challenge, so stay tuned!

 

Final Thoughts

I decided I am going to buy a duplicate of all the foods I had this week, and donate them to a local food pantry so others in my community can be fed. I am also hosting a food drive at my work place until the end of the month.

I hope you took something away from this, and if you’re not inspired to take on the challenge yourself, at least you’re more aware of the daily struggles millions of your fellow Americans face, and know more about how you can help.

 

 

 

**UPDATE: All SNAP Meal Recipes listed below:

Better than take-out Beef & Broccoli

 

Ever want the addictive taste of Chinese take-out, but not want the MSG, additives, preservatives, sugar, salt, and calories??

The answer of course is, duh! Yes!

Good news! Making your own Beef & Broccoli at home is super simple, cheap, and nearly as fast as dialing and waiting for delivery. Try this easy weeknight favorite for yourself, and save the tip for a treat for yourself.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound beef cubes (can use chicken or tofu too)
  • 1 bag frozen broccoli cuts (or 1 head fresh broccoli chopped)
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • Dash garlic
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, or 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp sriracha, or to taste

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Step 1: Mix all but first three ingredients in a small bowl. If you have time, marinate the meat for 1-6 hours in refrigerator.

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Step 2: Cook the beef in a frying pan 5-10 minutes until browned but not completely chewy. Meanwhile, use a sauce pot to boil rice, or a rice cooker.

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Step 3: Add the sauce to the meat. Microwave the broccoli 3 minutes, or cook in the frying pan, covered, for 5-7 minutes.

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Step 4: Mix beef and broccoli, serve over rice with extra sauce.

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You can add cornstarch or a little flour if you like a thicker sauce, or add more water/fish sauce/vinegar for a thinner sauce. I added a little extra sriracha with servings because I like a little kick! Enjoy never having to stop for take-out again.

 

SNAP Challenge – Tracking Week

 

If you don’t know what SNAP is, or why I’m talking about the SNAP Challenge, check out my earlier post about SNAP.

Wednesday ended my week of tracking for meal costs. I calculated every thing I ate each day, and used receipts and records to add up how much each day’s food and drink cost. You can see on the graph below that I averaged just over $5 per day.

SNAP track week

This does not include costs of food given to me by other sources, such as shared snacks at my work place, cupcakes a new neighbor baked for me (so sweet), or food and drinks at a party. I also cook and eat the majority of my meals at home.

Days 2 & 3 included half a Chipotle burrito and that is why the cost is significantly higher. Eating out is (almost always) more expensive than a home-cooked meal.

For the upcoming week, my challenge is to live off only $28.70 worth of food and drinks.

My strategy is always to make cost effective foods the center piece of the meal plan, supplemented by as much fresh and frozen produce as possible. I know I have a significant privilege and advantage over the average SNAP recipients in that I have access to no fewer than five different grocery stores, each offering rotating sales.

Sprouts Farmers Market is always my first stop for extremely reasonably priced fresh produce. I got a 5 pound bag of potatoes, and a few small amounts of fruits & veggies. With a rough idea of a meal plan, I headed to King Sooper with the change and rounded out the week. What you see below is what I will be eating.

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And to prove that I am still within budget, in fact with $4.31 to spare, here is the spread sheet where I figured out exactly how much each item cost and how much I had left to spend:

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I also calculated the cost of a cup of coffee (16oz is a cup for me…) with cream as $0.17, including the filter, so depending on how often I need coffee I will add that in at the end.

Wish me luck! (To participate in the challenge yourself, check out Feeding America).

 

**UPDATE: Challenge complete, with many lessons learned! All SNAP Meal Recipes listed below:

Vegan vegetable stew

 

This is a recipe born of necessity while house-sitting for a friend. I was feeding and playing with the puppy, and got hungry. She had said I can use anything in the house, so I took stock of the pantry and fridge and came up with this.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup orange lentils
  • 1/2 purple cabbage, shredded
  •  2 leaves kale, shredded
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp mustard
  • 1 cup rice

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Step 1:Dice all the veggies. Put into a pot with 2 cups of water and the coconut milk. Stir in mustard.

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Step 2: Simmer, covered, for 60-90 minutes. Meanwhile, cook rice in a separate pot.

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Step 3: When lentils are fully cooked, season as you like. Serve over rice.

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This curry is crazy healthy for you and you wouldn’t know by how delicious it is! There are infinite additions you could make too, such as using broth with the coconut milk, adding in shredded chicken or sausage, or varying the type of vegetable or bean. You could also make this in a small crock pot on low for 2-3 hours. Enjoy!

The SNAP Challenge

 

September is Hunger Awareness Month, I’ve recently become aware of a social movement being dubbed “The SNAP Challenge“.

SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and is how millions of low-income Americans obtain the necessary food to survive. The benefits, lowered in November of 2013, now equate to on average $28.70 per individual per week, or $4.10 per day, roughly $1.36 per meal.

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The premise of the challenge is that you will only spend the equivalent amount of SNAP benefits on all food and drink for one straight week. No eating out, no bulk buys, no food sharing or freebies. This gives the challenge-e a peek into the lives of those who live on this budget not by choice but out of necessity.

THE CHALLENGE

I decided to take on this challenge in two parts. As touted on this blog, I already cook and eat in a frugal manner. Years of school-life budget have forced me to find shortcuts and substitutions to keep my bank account out of the red while still enjoying my meals.

So, the first part of this challenge will be to track every food expense for one week. Then I can see just how much more than SNAP I spend daily in my usual routine.

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The second, likely more difficult part of the challenge, would be to take $28.70 to the store to get all the food and drinks I would have the following week. Then I will track every item and post every recipe.

I am going to allow myself one “cheat” rule here.

I am always looking for deals, and keep a detailed record of each food purchase. Therefore I will allow myself to use some previously purchased, but unopened, food items which I have a receipt record of for this challenge (such as oatmeal).

This is because people on such a budget likely do not spend it all in one day (though the majority of those households on SNAP have run out of benefits by the third week of the month) and have some non-perishable items they use throughout the month or beyond.

THE PLAN

As of now, I am planning my week’s meals around staples which I know from experience give the most “bang-for-the-buck”, nutrition for the price. I intend to build in a $5 “cushion” if I can manage it, for food emergencies. I am also going to try to get as much fresh fruits and/or vegetables into my budget for the week, and build in snacks. Because I am human, you know.

This week of tracking will end Tuesday, and my week of SNAP meals will begin on Wednesday. I will post an update on the tracking on Thursday, and check in on the lessons I learned soon after the week is over.

CALL TO ACTION FOR READERS

If you are intrigued and want to learn more, or if you are interested in taking the challenge yourself, check out Feeding America, the USDA website, or FoodShare.

It is estimated that one in six Americans go hungry every day. Your colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors may be quietly struggling. You can do small things to make a big difference.

Host a food donation drive in your church, work, school, or community and donate the food to a local food bank. Volunteer your time to sort and distribute donations, or drive meals to home-bound people in your neighborhood.

Donate money, because in the right hands a dollar still has a lot of buying power to feed a kid who otherwise couldn’t have more than one meal today. And just start conversations about hunger and food insecurity, learn about it and share.

orangeHere are some suggested questions to ask yourself during your SNAP Challenge week from Feeding America:

DAY

PROMPT

1

How did your shopping cart look compared to a normal week? What choices did you have to make about the types of food you could afford, where you shopped, or the nutritional quality and variety of food?

2

What have you cut out of your routine to stay on budget (e.g. COFFEE)?

3

How would this experience be different if your spouse and children were also eating off a limited food budget for the week?

4

How has eating on a limited budget impacted your mood? Your concentration? How has that impacted your interaction with family and coworkers?

5

Are you worried about your groceries running out before the end of the Challenge? Do you feel you are you eating a healthy, balanced diet? What nutrition decisions did you have to make?

6

We know that low-income Americans have to make choices between groceries, prescriptions, gas for the car, utilities, and other household necessities. After living on a limited food budget this week, how has your perspective changed about the decisions families facing hunger must make?

7

In November 2013, the government will cut SNAP benefits for all recipients. These cuts will be $36 for a family of four – dropping the average benefit per person per meal to under $1.40.  How would this week have been different for you if you had even less money to spend on food?

One-dish Enchilada Casserole

 

This recipe inspiration came from one of the several food magazines I regularly read. I absolutely love easy, one-dish recipes, especially if they look like you took hours to plan and create this masterpiece, but in reality all you had to do was creatively layer several ingredients and give it some time.

Mexican food is a great place to start for simple yet flavor-packed recipes. Pretty much anything involving beans, rice, and veggies will end up becoming a hit, and there are literally thousands of ways to get creative and make dishes your own. You can customize everything from the spices to the meat or lack thereof to the type and amount of vegetable and carb.

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For this recipe, I had chicken breast in the freezer, as well as some corn, and canned necessities (beans and diced tomatoes) coupled with a few fresh ingredients like avocado and shredded cheese, and we got ourselves a multi-layered chicken enchilada casserole!

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Ingredients:

  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced
  • 1 can black beans, drained
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with chilies or 1/2 cup salsa
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • 1/2 cup guacamole or 1 mashed avocado
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp butter or margerine
  • 2 tortillas (flour or corn, 10 or 12 inch)

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Step 1: In a skillet, cook the onion, corn, peppers, and cumin in butter until all vegetables are soft and corn is lightly charred, about 5 minutes.

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Step 2: In the same or a different skillet, cook the diced chicken until completely white and hot throughout.

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Step 3: In a large round pie pan, cover with aluminum foil and place a tortilla on the bottom of the pan. Spoon on half of the cooked chicken, and then half of the veggie mixture. It is super easy to make this vegetarian by leaving out the chicken, or you can switch it up with flank steak or chorizo.

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Step 4: Spread on half of the drained diced tomatoes with chili and/or salsa.

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Step 5: Sprinkle on half the can of drained beans.

 

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Step 6: Spread on half of the guacamole, or sprinkle around slices or chunks of avocado.

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Step 7: Put down another tortilla, and repeat the layers. Top it all off with a hearty sprinkle of shredded cheese.

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Step 8: Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and browned on top.

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Then simply slice up your casserole into as big a slice as you want, and enjoy!

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This is an amazing flavor combination, and the tortilla layers hold it together mostly well. You can add a third, top layer of tortilla, or just do one layer of filling like a pot pie. Feel free to layer it in whatever order you want, and change around the ingredients to suit your tastes. Hope you like it!

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It’s fragrant, delicious, brightly colored, and has SO many vegetables packed into one serving, yet even kids and picky eaters will likely go back for seconds!

Fresh Herb Salt

 

This idea came from an old “Midwest Living” magazine article I read while on vacation. In it they had several tips for making fancy kitchen condiments at home. Why buy expensive infused olive oil when you can make it yourself? Don’t let excess herbs go to waste, make your own seasoned salt to use long after summer is set!

A friend of mine has an herb garden that includes basil, so I asked for a handful of leaves and she kindly complied. A few cloves of garlic and some pink Himalayan sea salt, and I had myself the makings of a tasty seasoning! Adjust the type of herb and amounts to suit your own tastes.

Ingredients:

  • About 1/2 cup basil leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup sea salt, coarse

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Step 1: Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Pulse until leaves and garlic is finely ground.

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Step 2: Spread flat to dry for 1-3 days. The leaves and garlic have moisture which will cause clumps if you don’t do this step.

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Step 3: You can use as is, or grind the spices together one more time. Use a funnel to pour into a seal-able container.

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And that’s it! Now you have a unique, fresh herb salt to sprinkle on chicken or fish, mix into rice dishes, or use a dash on garden-fresh tomatoes. Change up the type of herb and other ingredients you use for endless possible combinations.

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Other ideas and recipes from the same magazine clipping. Can’t wait to try them all! They would all make a darling gift for someone if put into a cute little re-useable glass or plastic container with a bow.

Jambalaya

 

Jambalaya is a Creole dish originally from Louisiana. It’s creation was a combination of French and Spanish influences in the deep South of America, and is closely related to the Spanish paella.

The basis of any Jambalaya is meat(s), vegetables, and rice simmered in some sort of stock. Some versions of Jambalaya add tomatoes for “red Jambalaya”, while others do not and rely on meat drippings for a brownish color. The accepted classic version cooks meat, typically chicken, sausage, and/or shrimp with celery, onions, and bell peppers. Then tomatoes and possibly other vegetables are added, and finally equal parts rice and chicken stock, and simmered until cooked.

According to Wikipedia, “Jambalaya is differentiated from gumbo and étouffée by the way in which the rice is included. In these dishes, the rice is cooked separately and is served as a bed on which the main dish is served. In the usual method of preparing jambalaya, a rich stock is created from vegetables, meat, and seafood; raw rice is then added to the broth and the flavor is absorbed by the grains as the rice cooks.”

This dish is absurdly simple to cook, you just need to have the right ingredients and the patience to let them cook slowly so the flavors can develop and meld. I had bought some chicken breast and shrimp on sale, and had two sausages in the freezer, so of course Jambalaya was just begging to be made. It is possible to make a vegetarian Jambalaya, and you can include only one or two of the meats, or any other kind you prefer; the basic recipe and method is the same.

Ingredients:

  • 2 sausages, sliced
  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced
  • 1 cup shrimp, deveined
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1/2 large white onion, diced
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup white or brown rice
  • 2 tbsp Cajun/creole spices if you have it
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with green chilies

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Step 1: Dice up the celery, peppers, and onion and put in a pot with a few tbsp butter. Saute until soft.

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Step 2: Add in the meats, cover and let cook until the shrimp is fully pink, the sausage is browned, and the chicken is completely white.

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Step 3: Add in spices and canned tomatoes, simmer covered for 5-10 minutes.

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Step 4: Add 1 cup raw rice and 1 cup chicken stock, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for 30-40 minutes. When the rice is cooked, it’s ready.

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Jambalaya is a filling, delicious meal with complex flavors from all the various vegetables and meats cooking together.

You can shorten cook time by cooking the rice separately and pouring the red jambalaya over the rice. This dish can also be made in a slow cooker to save you time. Just add all the ingredients, and cook on low for 4-6 hours. The end result should be similar.

Lean Green Guacamole

 

Not going to lie, I absolutely LOVE avocados. I think they make just about anything better, including all kinds of Mexican food, smoothies, sandwiches, salads, and dips. Never would I turn down guacamole. Especially Chipotle’s… there’s magic in there, and maybe some crack.

So when I read a recipe on Sparkpeople for guacamole involving extra healthy green stuff, I had to try it out!

This recipe adds in the goodness of greens and cucumber to add extra vitamins and bulk. It also decreases how much fat you eat per serving.

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cucumber
  • 1 cup spinach
  • 2 avocados
  • 1/4 red onion
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • Garlic salt

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Step 1: Dice up your veggies, peel and pit the avocado. Use a knife to cut all the way around it, then twist to separate halves. Pull out the pit by running a spoon along it and then pop it out.

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Step 2: Combine in a blender all ingredients. Save 1/2 of one avocado if you like extra chunks, and wait to add diced onion if you like the crunch bites. I just blended all of it together into one creamy mess.

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Step 3: Try really hard to keep yourself from eating the whole bowl!

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This stuff is so delicious. I found it a little bit watery, probably because the cucumber I used was getting old. The cucumber does give it a bit of a fresher taste, so don’t be alarmed. Add as much lemon or lime juice as you like. You could use fresh garlic cloves in place of garlic salt if you have it.

If you follow the recipe from Sparkpeople exactly, here’s the Nutrition Info breakdown:

  • Servings Per Recipe: 8
  • Amount Per Serving
  • Calories: 76.4
  • Total Fat: 6.7 g
  • Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
  • Sodium: 143.8 mg
  • Total Carbs: 4.7 g
  • Dietary Fiber: 3.1 g
  • Protein: 1.0 g